John Proctor recounts a day of racing against both light and restaurant closing times, where nothing was quite as 'easy' as claimed.
I have always been fascinated by Y Lliwedd. With routes up to 285m it offers the longest rock routes of any mountain crag in England and Wales. A small number of routes on Y Lliwedd are featured in modern selective guidebooks and do get climbed occasionally, but as for the rest of this massive crag - no-one ever goes there!
There is a comprehensive 1998 Climber's Club guidebook, and it describes how to get to a grassy ledge called the 'bowling green' around a third of the way up. The guidebook describes a 3-pitch VDiff leading there. The description goes:
There is no easy way to the bowling green. This is probably the easiest, although it will prove to be significantly harder than the given grade in anything other than perfect conditions. Technically straightforward, it warrants its grade through a mixture of poor rock and insecure belays. Cannot be recommended as a descent from the bowling green, although it is the shortest and easiest way down.
I don't climb on Y Lliwedd as often as I'd like to, but over the recent bank holiday weekend the stars seemed to be aligned as I found myself in Capel Curig for an OutdoorLads climbing meet, following a spell of dry weather (essential for climbing on Y Lliwedd). With a good forecast and, in my friend Dan, a suitable victim – sorry, climbing partner – we began our expedition to the 'bowling green' and onwards to the summit of Y Lliwedd.
The 'easy way to the bowling green' is accessed from the top of the sword, and our day got off to a flying start - pun intended - when I managed to fall off leading the traverse on the sword and got flipped upside down by the weight of the rucksack on my back. I tried again without the rucksack and did the move easily, to be rejoined at the 'Quartz Babe' belay by Dan and my rucksack after a laborious 55m sack haul.
Next, I set off for the first pitch of the 'easy way to the bowling green'. I crossed the rib as instructed, and came to the foot of the grassy corner. 'The best belay is 15 feet higher on the left', the guidebook says. But who on earth would want to belay in such a ludicrous position? And where on earth is the belay in the corner anyway? I can't see it. Generally, I think that if you can't see the features that a guidebook claims are present it is because you lack the imagination, but belays are the exception. I can't use my imagination to find a belay where there is none.
Anyway, onwards to the foot traverse, and a search for a 'flake lying on a ledge'. What flake? 'Poor belays', the guidebook says. What belays? Best to continue as Dan is reassuring me that there is plenty of rope left, so I think I'll make it to the bowling green in one pitch.
Sure enough, I'm there, after a pull up the steep grass slope leading to the ledge, keeping my fingers separate and plunging them into the tufts of grass for maximum adhesion. I've landed on the moon! Eventually I found decent belay anchors several metres above the bowling green, and linked them together with the rope, as I didn't have enough slings to link anchors such a distance apart back to the ledge. Dan had to wiggle about a bit on the previous belay to free up enough rope for me to slip the last clove hitch on.
'How did you climb that?' Asked Dan as he scrabbled up the steep grass to join me on the bowling green. I was glad that he was happy to take over the lead for the next pitch, as rearranging the belay to enable me to lead would be a massive faff, and I was conscious that the clock was ticking. I'd promised to meet friends in Capel Curig for tea and cake at around 5pm, but that was looking unlikely now. We examined the guidebook's description of the way on. Needless to say:
A poor route. No technical difficulty, but there are belaying problems and a great deal of loose rock.
We climbed a few pitches – I lose track – to the foot of the Ochre Slab (VS 4a). We had to perfect the technique of plunging our fingers – again, separated for maximum adhesion – into the luxuriant grass, and avoiding the weird gunge that seemed to lurk in the foliage. But at the foot of the slab the plot thickened. Here's what the guidebook says:
There is a quartz block on the edge of the rib [the rib that forms the left-hand side of Ochre slab] to the left. About 10 feet down the rib from this block is a short, steep groove leading down into the gully. Go down the groove to the gully bed…
It was my lead again, and I could not for the life of me see how to do this move (supposedly on a mod!), so I carried on up the slab without much gear until I found an acceptable belay on a grassy ledge underneath a small overhang. Inspection of the guidebook revealed that we were now on 'Ochre Slab' instead:
The main pitch up the slab is still rather friable, with very poor protection, and is graded accordingly. A steady leader [haha] is essential.
We'd just climbed that bit, and were ready for pitch 5:
With dry feet, pull over the little roof and climb into the centre of the slab to its top. If the ledge proves to be too wet, the alternative is to move back to the left arete and foot-cleaning possibilities. From the top of the slab, cross the shallow grassy gully to belays on a ledge up on the left.
The guidebook doesn't mention the layback up a slightly wobbly flake, probably the crux of Ochre Slab. I surmounted that, then plunged my fingers into the thick grass of the steep gully. New technique for grassy gully climbing in rock shoes: I found it easier to kneel and shuffle across the gully using my knees rather than feet. That gave better purchase on the steep grass than my rock shoes.
With relief I arrived on dry land on the far side of the gully, to find that only a barely adequate belay was available. Dan launched himself up the overhang followed by the layback. I didn't have the nerve to tell him that I was concerned about the belay, but refrained from giving him the reassurance I'd provided that some earlier belays were good.
It seems I passed the guidebook test of being a 'steady leader', and I was sure glad that I had a steady second on the other end of the rope. On arrival at the belay, Dan stoically accepted my request not to lean back on it, and suggested that - whilst a 5pm tea in Capel Curig was clearly impossible - a pub dinner should still be feasible.
A safe abseil retreat from here would be very hard, so continuing to the top was the only option. In recognition of this, I started singing The Only Way Is Up, the 1988 pop hit by Yazz. Dan didn't appreciate this. At least we agreed that our friends who were currently sport climbing in Spain would probably be jealous when they heard about our day on Y Lliwedd.
We continued for more pitches – I lost track again – and, as we trended left towards the great terrace, came within earshot of our friends on Paradise (HS 4a). We agreed that a pub dinner was probably not feasible any more, but a Chinese or Indian would be a good idea later. Our climbs both finished up Terminal Arete (M), but myself and Dan climbed on into the night, keeping as far right as possible to avoid getting in the other party's way until the very last pitch.
We sped up as the rock subtly changed. Aficionados of Y Lliwedd will know that it is a curious place; the plentiful handholds that should appear on such a slabby cliff just don't. Nor does the gear - a god with a sense of humour has made 99% of the cracks too flared for that. But for those last few pitches the rock did genuinely seem to change, and both holds and gear suddenly appeared. At times we even rejected placements as we were spoilt for choice!
We topped out in the darkness just after our friends, following 10.5 hours of glorious climbing! I've been on some summits in my lifetime – the Dent du Geant, the Weisshorn, the Lyskamm, virgin summits in the Pamirs and Tien Shan – but none of these can hold a candle to the summit of Y Lliwedd, conquered via a sporting route!
It seems appropriate that we lost count of how many pitches we climbed. The guidebook describes these routes as 10 pitches, plus 75m or so of scrambling up Terminal Arete (M) to finish. By now it was about 9pm and, well, we might just about make it for an Indian takeaway if we got a move on with the descent.
The five of us had to sprint down to Pen-y-pass, two of us had to run down to Pen-y-Gwryd to fetch the cars, then it was an all-out dash to the Indian! We ran down the street to arrive on the dot of 11pm just as the last guests were finishing their meal. Our arrival and desperate pleas caused a disagreement between the waiters; one wanted to take pity on us and let us in for a sit-down meal, one wanted to turn us away. The kind waiter won the argument and we sat down at the table, sipping cold beer to the sound of some disagreement coming from the kitchen.