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In this UKC Exclusive, legendary climber Johnny Dawes gives us his unique take on Indian Face, how he did it, how it fits with modern climbs, and loads of other stuff we didn't fully understand. But it sounds pretty cool.
First of all let's clear up some misinformation. Indian Face was the name the much loved local drug dealer Gabwt gave to Cloggy. Gab insists Excalibur lies in the lake! You might catch sight of the Indian one day. He's not a hippy hallucination. He'll smack you in the eye. When I've seen him from down in the quarryman's village he’s evoked the atmosphere of the cwm.
The Indian is the whole of the East Buttress, his head the Pinnacle, the ledges of the Eastern Gully his headdress, his body the East Buttress. He looks best after heavy snow and a swift thaw viewed from Lleigau road above Cwm y Glo. I called my climb Indian Face not The Indian Face as it is a tribute to all natural people's spirit. I first tried it in April 1985 shortly after success on the nasty Dawes of Perception (a rock band I found recently incidentally...) and Windows of Perception. With these routes, E7 and 7a respectively, I finally felt like I had the weapon to launch a campaign.
I gave Indian Face E9, the only one then... but for an on sight ascent.
In August 2013 when three climbers in four days left their marks, it was wonderful to see Indian Face chalked up. A sinuous line, it takes longer to climb than its height would suggest while the style of climbing, all footswappy and angle specific makes it more involved too. It's a long time since Flock of Seagulls and Depeche Mode were around but even longer since Led Zepp. I wonder if it would have gone in the 70s or early 80s to Whillance if he'd had stickies not EBs like old cricket bats on his feet. I doubt whether anyone since my ascent has got pumped on it like I did. Gresham, Dixon, MacLeod, McHaffie, Muskett, and Ullrich, we all climbed that mad route but only I have climbed that crux on lead twice! Anyway enough self pattery, what sticks out is the superb feel of the black crag of the black height.
Up there again, but with too much time passed keen air still raises my chin. The distinct hollowing sound, the dry smell of the rock, and today the sharp but shy sun makes me tingle with anticipation as I arrange my rack. I note there are some sizes missing. The steam train doesn't beat up the mountain anymore but I can still remember it. I recall I drank water out of the stream that year Chernobyl had a meltdown, perhaps that is what did for my thyroid.
I am heavy and sluggish but Brian from Joe Brown's and I manage a new route, a straight up start to Stomach Traverse, a rare Ray Evans E2 5a! The Naughty Step finishes into a mossy scoop with carefully hidden gear placements. E3/4ish, a great challenge with boney flakes, crusty lichen to clean off allowing a deep lockout to a false trail of crimps. All that makes a climb draw you in is here. Some gear needed opposition, other pieces careful extension and all of it not kicking out. Everything that DFS, "Deep Foam Soloing" doesn't bother with. The finish looks E7.
In a perfect climbing world where nobody got jealous and greedy we could try the routes out before inspecting or practicing them by going up and down. Ground up, even leaving gear in seems fair enough to me. Even yo-yoing seems alright if the rock is all that you have. Bolts placed on lead I'm not sure about impressive as the climbs can be. I was always going to go to Yosemite and do climbs in the mode of Leo Houlding's The Prophet but somehow it never happened. It would have been truly amazing trying the scoop up the right of Great Wall with Johnny Redhead. I was intimidated by him so we never did. The type of climb Indian Face is, gaining in familiarity, making progress in increments would have been possible. It would have been bloody fantastic. I maintain I could have done it that way. What a shame I didn't get to, maybe I would have died.
The line has had more than its fair share of attention. It is the focus of the Great Wall, that wall the focus of the buttress. At the centre of the cliff, North Wales' and Britain's most lauded remaining challenge it is easy to miss other fabulous neighbouring routes. Face Mecca to the left has 7c+ climbing with a 120ft fall on the cards. It is a steeper route, rushing at you much more quickly. Nick Dixon, its first ascensionist, who has done a new E9 every year since Indian Face should be remembered too. We were all a bit gung ho. JR's: "just one finger lifts... And you're gone!" route - Margins of the Mind I cannot gush enough about. What routes they are! You look up and blankness fit for eagles washes over you. Things have changed a bit. I like Dixon's observation: "people don't seem to be into death as much as they used to be".
There are still lines in the UK to stretch the margins of the mind. Cilan Head has a line right of the E7 Birdy where there looks to be gear at fifty feet in a flared groove... In Cornwall I know of a cliff 200ft high with E10 lines of various types along a one mile stretch. Those insanely impressive sport climbs that have amazed us all of Sharma, Ondra, and McClure's have yet to feed down to the nutkins. Are there fools wild enough to give the next generation of lines a genuine go?
After Indian Face I wanted to clear the air ethically by sieging the wall right of T-Rex in Wen Zawn, Gogarth. A rare line sporting visible oases of gear I could blend my new limestone bred conditioning with cragsman bravery. After 6 days the result was my greatest feat, a pumpy fragile sustained E8 pioneered ground up without bolts or pegs. I was climbing top end 8b at this stage, too easy for modern hones to warm up on but enough for me to prevail on Hardback Thesaurus. Climbing 9b+ likely translates to E11 or more on sight. The ability to down climb, read conditions and perhaps reintroduce yo-yoing, leaving gear clipped would give pairs of climbers a chance to combine forces. Sky hooks are something the superb James McHaffie uses a lot. The ability to lower off these rather than use pegs that will rot has got to be a good thing. Boots have come on perhaps a grade since October 1986, ropes have lost a kilo, gear a bit too, I am sure technology too will come up with something to help a new generation of climbers to breach the unlikely.
Pete Whillance was the man who took these head games to their greatest expression. He was so crazy he had to set an alarm to get up in the night to have a fag! He wore old sweaters, a waist belt, had a Moac that isn't going to go in. An empty fridge. His monumental climbs Edge of Extinction and Take it to the Limit put the fear of God in to me as I painted them with my inner palette of fear. No gear, perhaps the vague decoration of a peg, tat waving un-encouragingly. The lines were not so steep you had to rush, but you couldn’t, where did they go? The horror crept toward you, petrified. On a BBC trip to Foula, a 4 by 8 mile island of massive sandstone, Peter insisted Indian Face could not be E9. Although six people seem now to disagree, and it probably was the least repeatable climb on the globe in 1986 but in a way it still isn't a rock climb as Pete I think, or I would dream it ... Lost on the wall venturing into the unknown... IF is prepracticed ("prepare ticked" according to spell check)... a necessarily tight waltz with Cloggy; the void we'll all join later softly blowing the hairs on your neck.
There was something special about that shallow scoop on Clog. It was just the right angle to grill your resolve slowly, had rests to allow doubt to seep into a mind that hangs on too hard. The line is a feint groove with side holds that don't allow strength to have its head. Pull hard and your feet are more likely to scud off. It's too long to have sticky boots all the way. Tie them too tight and your feet will stop telling your brain what is going on down there at the business end. Above all the parameters is its sheer quality. It has the essence of the great materials. Oak, whales, the layout of stars. Hang on tight and stay awake, and alive, and like passing through the metre thick rings of Saturn the scale runs through you, sieving off remnants of the mundane and leaving a new colour that has no physical counterpoint.