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It was 1970 I think, Welsh aficionado Ron James - a local climbing guide of 30 years standing - distilled his considerable knowledge and published Rock Climbing in Wales, a slightly idiosyncratic guide book to 200 of the best climbs in Snowdonia. Idiosyncratic? Well it was a bit of an odd shape, tall and thin with a thick card cover, it might fit in the hammer pocket of your breeches (it was 35 years ago) but certainly not in the back pocket of your tight jeans. It also featured odd grades, they were generally regarded as stiff and included + and - in an attempt to further refine (or confuse) the issue. Some of the HVS+ were tough undertakings and the ES- routes (no E grades back then) were only for the hard core! Despite its 'oddness' the detailed descriptions, photo-topos and smart action shots meant it was a winner - and for the casual visitor it removed the need to buy a slew of the Climbers' Club 'pocket' guides.
The late lamented Paul Williams took up the torch with his Constable guides - Snowdonia Rock Climbs, first published in 1984 with 350 routes and then expanded in 1990 (as Rock Climbs in Snowdonia) - with 500 routes and still available to this day I believe. This guide spread its net far and wide, covering Mid Wales and the coastal limestone too, a mammoth undertaking and only costing £9.95 - I never really never knew how they managed that! It used photo-topos with lines drawn on them and despite being in black and white was a very user-friendly book. Again Paul's intimate knowledge and love of the area shone through and the book has always been very highly regarded.
So almost 20 years on and it is time for the next generation to have a tilt at producing a North Wales Select - this time it fell to the newly created Ground Up crew to take up the baton. With rumours that others might be in the hunt (can't imagine who!!) the Climbers' Club gave a tacit nod to the locals to get on with the job. This time it isn't the work of one man but of team - half a dozen contributors, an overseeing author and even a dedicated designer for the volume. One would hope and expect that having a sizeable team working on the guide would speed its production and improve its accuracy - so how have they done?
On opening the package my first surprise was the size of the book, I have been used to the latest generation of guides being chunky boys, but this harks back to the days of 'proper' guide books, or it would if is wasn't over 540 pages thick, its not a guide to be carried up long mountain routes, except maybe in the rucksack! Other initial thoughts were very favourable, they have embraced the 'modern approach' - full colour throughout, silky paper, an inspiring selection of action images, superb crag shots, a stunning front cover (check out page 203 for the original choice - personally I think using that one would have been a mistake), a new set of maps, a graded list - its all in there in a neat and accessible package.
There are a smattering of errors, an almost inevitable consequence of increasingly sophisticated and complex guide books - typical examples being Grond or The Grond, Ynys Ettws or Ynys Etws, Creeping Lemma E2 or E3, Quartz Icicle 5b or 5c, etc. but these do not detract from the overall authoritative feel that the book has. It will sell well, of that there is no doubt - and it might even win awards, time will tell.
Right now down to the nitty-gritty - I REALLY like the crag shots, the double page spreads of Tryfan, Lliwedd, Cloggy and Mousetrap Zawn for example are works of art, slightly soft and with muted colours but so attractive. Also I love the array of action shots, though perhaps there are a few too may 'up the bum' pictures - almost an inevitability with so many multi-pitch climbs. Despite this, the selection amply illustrates the gamut of climbing available in North Wales. The full grade spectrum is covered and rock types from fingery coastal limestone, to the dark smoothness of the slate quarries (hats of to Ray Wood, his slate shots are magnificent), through the coarse knobbliness of the Llanberis volcanics, and onto the soaring multi-coloured contorted architecture of Gogarth and the Lleyn. The topos, action photos and detailed descriptions all combine to give the feeling that the team has done all that was hoped and expected of them with this volume.
Welsh guidebooks over the years including Paul Williams original Snowdonia Rock Climbs (1982)
Another plus are the proper approach descriptions for the Tremadog cliffs, great to see this perennial bugbear being tackled in a serious fashion, hopefully it will put an end to the daily charade of people wandering round in the shrubbery at the foot of the cliff shouting up to folks high above, "excuse me, what are you on?"
Right enough of the plaudits, it wouldn't be a proper review with out a few brickbats - the bits of a review people really want to read! I'm not going to get embroiled in grade debates - it such a personal thing, this guide includes up and down grades a-plenty, some I agree with, some are bizarre - but hey ho, that's life! However, I must take exception to the new guide's description of Left Wall - I really can't imagine what the team were thinking of, taking possibly the most sought-after E2 in the UK, and describing it with its rarely climbed and tough Direct Finish - an act of near criminality and really rather strange!
I also have a small issue with the maps; these have been produced especially for the guide, many are okay but many, especially in the mountain areas, are simply too small for a first-timer to work out where he is or needs to be, and imagine trying to use them to navigate if the clag was down. The tiny thumbnail locator maps are especially tricky to use, they are supposed to help you pin down the area the cliff is in, but the glaring omission of OS Grid Refs means you have to go back to the map at the front to try to figure out where you chosen cliff is, I suggest that without an OS map this will be tricky at best and without grid refs where do you start?
I have already praised the crag photos, but printing some across a double page is often a bad idea because of the possibility detail lost in the fold. Generally this has been avoided but just try to get a look at the line of November on Cloggy, the worst casualty of this approach.
Next and real bug bear - stars! I got the impression that the 'experiment' with the Tremadog guide had proved once and for all that that climbers like the star system and that used sensibly it can both inform and help spread the load. It will be argued that every route in the book is worth doing, and doubtless they are, but that extra layer of information is a real help. Having done away with stars the team have gone into 'superlative overload' - routes from just one crag are; fantastic, tremendous, tremendous (again), classic, excellent, one of the best, brilliant, fantastic, tremendous (again), wonderful, excellent, splendid, classic, stunning - well I think you get my drift!
Since I started this review, (a week's a long time in climbing politics) Ground Up has suddenly announced that they are going to produce a definitive Gogarth guide next. The current guide is decades old and the Climbers' Club have been labouring with the new volume for years and years. The CC might be wondering what they have let themselves in for with this bunch of upstarts!
A final gripe, Ground Up announced a competition on the launch of the guide - a free night's ale for the first climber and his buddy that completes all the routes in the book (having led all the single pitch routes) - come on lads? Get real! Over 670 routes up to E7 for a night on the pop, isn't that just a bit parsimonious!
I don't want to sign off this review on a negative note; this is a guide of considerable significance, both in the context of the North Wales Scene - (it's good to see that the torch has been safely passed on to the next generation) and to wider UK guidebook developments. With more players in the field the quality and availability of guidebooks has got to keep improving and in the end the winners will be the great British guidebook buying public. So is North Wales Rock worth its £25 price tag, well maybe it is - there is a lifetime of adventures packed between its sleek covers, go get a copy, I doubt you will be disappointed.
UKC Articles and Gear Reviews by Chris Craggs: