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Memories of the Mountains

Heather Dawe delves into her memories of climbing, mountains, moorland and boulders and how through the process of sketching and writing, the urge to climb came back.

It was a trip to North Wales that really started it. 'It' is the urge, the one I used to listen to above pretty much everything else, to go climbing.

Now, approaching my mid-forties, it felt like it was beginning to happen again. Maybe a mid-life crisis? The realisation that age is slowing me down, the desire to get back to, maybe finish off, a few things I had left behind the best part of 20 years ago.

Cloggy  © Heather Dawe
© Heather Dawe

That particular area of North Wales has a feel to it that I never really noticed before. Maybe that's because, when I was there all those times previously, thoughts of painting and writing were never running through my mind. The land on west side of the Snowdon massif is bounded by mountain and sea. Often grey, hanging cloud on the higher hills, silhouettes of the scooped, sharp lower hills of the Llyn Peninsula and a wind, more often than not a wind. Here there are slate quarries you can wander through, mountains you can travel over and across, pools you can swim in, crags where you can smell and meet the mountain goats. Maybe you will encounter one of those eccentric and brilliant older time climbers – Johnny Dawes, John Redhead, Jim Perrin and more, plenty of them still lurk around here.

I cycled into Leeds on my folding bike, caught a train through to Manchester and then on to Bangor. Claire was going to meet my train and we'd drive south towards Porthmadog. Early December and I was in between jobs, in the unusual situation of having time on my hands on weekdays, normally I work full-time. I spent some of this time travelling to meet with people I had wanted to catch up with for a while. Claire was one of them. A friend I had worked with creatively before, someone I wanted to work with again. I had a project in mind I wanted to talk to her about and also really just wanted to see how she was doing, we hadn't had a proper catch-up for years.

Wen Zawn  © Heather Dawe
Wen Zawn
© Heather Dawe

The previous year, in November, I had cycled close by on my way from Bangor to Harlech. When I later found out where Claire lived it fitted perfectly. I understood the attraction, the pull of the place. I remember thinking as I cycled along that this was a place I could leave behind the day-to-day normalities and challenges of life back in Yorkshire, I could stay a while, find inspiration to paint and write. Escapism perhaps? Even if it is it's the best kind. Up there on a wild Welsh mountainside, my mind would wander and so would my body.

As we drove south we talked, catching up with the past few years of each of our lives. In a café in Porthmadog, I outlined my ideas, somewhat unclear, as outlandish as ever. Claire listened and encouraged me. Afterwards, we headed to Tremadog and walked Claire's dog underneath the cliffs. Eric Jones' café was still there, as was the climbing wall come bunk barn I had spent a fair few nights in, getting pissed with the crowd from the Leeds University climbing club after a day climbing on the crags above. Christmas Curry, One Step in the Clouds, Strapiombo. Hazy memories of many days of climbing merged into one elongated trip to these cliffs. When Claire and I later walked up a little hill above the village of Tremadog there were more memories still; running when training for a mountain marathon, continually getting lost when trying to learn how to read a map. I had not been back here for so long it felt like my younger self haunted the place. I could remember the feelings, getting my feet soaking wet in a bog, the scratches I got running through the dead, ochre bracken.

Is this how it feels to age?

These memories getting dredged up from areas of my mind I had not thought about for some time. Had we headed north from Tremadog, towards Snowdon and the Llanberis Pass, many more of them would have come back to me. More recently I have spent time there running: the Peris Horseshoe and Welsh 3000s fell races, recceing the Paddy Buckley Round. Earlier than that it was climbing. Always climbing. Days in the Pass, on Dinas Mot, the Cromlech, the Grochan, Cyrn Las and others. My memories of these times are so fuzzy now, how I used to live my weekends cragging in the Welsh mountains and occasionally the cliffs of Anglesey. Gogarth.

So, Wales started me remembering. Soon after my trip to visit Claire, I started to read about climbing again. Mark Goodwin's Rock as Gloss, a wonderful blend of poetry and prose inspired by climbing and the mountains. In the second-hand bookshop in Keswick just after Christmas, I picked up a copy of David Craig's Native Stones. Published in the '90s it is a beautifully written memoir of Craig's climbing lives.

I started writing about climbing.

Huntsman's Leap  © Heather Dawe
Huntsman's Leap
© Heather Dawe

In my painting, my mind started to wander back to rock. When I first became a mum, during my maternity leave, I would walk for an hour or two most days on the Chevin. With my daughter strapped to my front in a sling and later in a rucksack on my back, the walking was a tonic in many ways, helping to get my fitness back after pregnancy and the early days of motherhood, and giving me the fresh air and sense of freedom I craved. In walking, I was travelling slower around the forest than I did usually. More time to look and think. I began to look at the gritstone crags and boulders in different ways, noticing their different colours and the ways light fell on them for the first time. I always used to think of gritstone as a uniform dark brown. It has so much more colour than that. I began to paint the rocks and their colours.

On Christmas Day my partner and I took a walk to Little Almscliffe with our two daughters. A bright blue sky day, the light on the rock was fierce but clear, the winter sun yields different colours than summer. Strong shadows contrasted with the creamy coloured grit, highlighting scoops and veins in the rock. The day after Boxing Day I took out my watercolours and began to paint what I saw.

In early January I walked up to the Caley boulders with my elder daughter. These days we live about a mile's walk away – something that would have made me incredibly happy those two decades or so ago when I spent as much time as I could climbing them and other rock.

Angel's Wall  © Heather Dawe
Angel's Wall
© Heather Dawe

Overhanging Groove  © Heather Dawe
Overhanging Groove
© Heather Dawe

I had a cold and chest infection of the kind so generously given to me by my children at least once around Christmas and New Year. To be fair this one was mostly my fault, it had come on worse because I had insisted on a longish run over Grizedale Pike in the north-western Lakes on New Year's Eve. The day had been incredible, perfect sunshine and a blue-bell sky. I started running in the late afternoon and ran into the darkness, watching the last of the year's light glow pinky-orange across the Lakeland fells. With the early inklings of a cold, I should not have run for that length of time or climbed a mountain, experience telling me I would only make it worse, but did so anyway because of the light. I was now paying the price – feeling grotty, coughing up crap. Not fit to run but I could gently walk, I enticed Alanna to walk up into Danefield with me, saying we could explore some of the boulders and crags we'd climb on once we'd got her a harness and some shoes.

Danefield is a forest, part of the Chevin, the forest park that sits above the Yorkshire town of Otley, where I live. On the town's southern side, the hillside is formed by the gritstone escarpment that rises up from the lower Wharfe valley. It's all gritstone around here – the large plug of Almscliffe rises up around seven miles down the valley, the Cow and Calf many other outcrops found all over Ilkley Moor, the strange boulders and formations over at Brimham Rocks above Nidderdale.

Amongst the trees of the Chevin sit two distinct crags – the eponymous Chevin Buttress and Caley Crag. Close to the crag at Caley are two separate tumbles of large boulders the roadside and crag side. Just along from the buttress is also an old quarry with recorded routes and throughout the forest park are occasional outcrops and boulders that gain chalk marks from time to time.

Both the Buttress and Caley Crag have some noted classic routes – Gronff, The Waster, Chevin Buttress and, harder, High Noon, Strangeness. The boulders are well known, more popular on a relative scale than the routes on the higher faces. In my late teens and early twenties, University years and just after I was often on these boulders, climbing lines well-known and easy to me and pushing myself on some of the trickier problems. Otley Wall became a problem I could either do easily or not at all, entirely dependent on where my head was at.

Chevin Buttress  © Heather Dawe
Chevin Buttress
© Heather Dawe

In walking to the boulders with Alanna I wanted some fresh air and to go and explore the forest in a way different to how I had been doing for the best part of the previous twenty years, the length of time I have been living in Otley. I am forever running, biking and walking around the Chevin, often taking for granted this beautiful playground that is literally on my door-step. While I spend so much of my time on it, the place still often wows me. The greens of the moss and trees, dappled sunlight through the new canopy in the early spring, the flit of a little tree-creeper scratching its way up bark, poking into it occasionally with its sharp curved beak for grubs, and so much more. The best time to see deer is early in the morning or last thing in the evening, and I always know it is the beginning of spring when I hear the woodpecker drumming at the top of Johnny Lane. Around this time you can also sometimes hear the laughing of a green woodpecker or two just along the way, closer to the orchard on the west side of the forest.

Alanna and I walked up the Leeds Road towards the lower gate into the forest, taking the diagonal track that made a beeline for the boulders. After a while we left the track, following a faint trod up towards a group of moss-covered boulders. In the dull light of a warm mid-winter day, the moss was the most vibrant thing around, almost glowing its lime green against the duller sleeping colours of the forest.

Some of the boulders were familiar in shape. I could remember the holds and edges of a traverse, along with a delicate climb up a slabby scoop. Memories of late spring evenings on the grit came at me, early enough in the season for the bracken and Himalayan balsam not to have grown so much you can't see the boulders anymore, late enough in the Spring that we got the daylight to come to the rocks after work.

One thing that struck me was the moss. On some of the boulders it was inches thick, fully grown in places where previously there was none, the traffic of hands and feet either climbing or in descent through the year was enough to keep the rock clean. In the winter if the forest you can expect some of the rocks to ooze water and turn green. Caley crag itself gets a winter coat of green furry wetness, facing north on a steep fellside means during midwinter it gets minimal light. However, the thick, well-developed moss told a different story. The previous year I had paid a rare visit to the Depot climbing wall in Pudsey and bumped into one of my old climbing friends Bob. Bob had mentioned just how little traffic some of the boulders at Caley were getting these days. That surprised me given how well used they were 20 years ago. It was clear that this was the case, for some of the boulders at least. The harder more central problems looked to be clean but the more spread out, easier boulders were laden with moss. At the time Bob and I discussed how interesting it was, that more people than ever are climbing and bouldering, but that one of the best places in Yorkshire (and arguably the UK) to go bouldering was seeing less people climbing than back in the late '90s.

I was one of those people. I pass these boulders at least five times a week most of the year, giving them little more than a second glance as I breezed past, either running or on my bike. On reflection, it seemed strange that things that so absorbed me previously had for so long afterwards been just a part of the landscape. That was true others in addition to me, given that they really had sunk back into the land, returning to their earlier state of green, unclean for climbing. As we walked along I tried to decide whether this was such a bad thing.

Alanna and I continued our wander through the boulders, heading to the largest and probably most well-known, the Sugar Loaf immediately below the main track that runs beneath Caley Crag. I suggested that a little later in the year we could get her sorted with a harness and throw a rope down the slabbiest side of the boulder for her to try climbing. She was enthusiastic. We sat down and chatted on a rock by the track for a while.

Later we shuffled off home, that short walk was enough for me for the day. I don't really make New Year's resolutions but one thing I did hope to do in the coming year was more bouldering and climbing. I'd had a short visit to Almscliffe late the previous November and surprised myself at how weak I have become. While I am fit to run or cycle all day (nothing particularly fast these days but I can just keep going), I had little to none residual strength for pulling myself up, failing all of what used to be my warm-up problems at Almscliffe. While I was not really all that surprised by this, I did think it was a bit rubbish. Combined with some trips to the Depot in Pudsey with Alanna and time spent traversing the Henry Price wall at Leeds University, I began to get stronger, my enthusiasm for climbing was beginning to take root again.

Over the next couple of months, I wrote about and sketched memories. Summers spent in Pembroke and the Alps, Great Slab on Cloggy, a muggy August day at Gogarth climbing A Dream of White Horses, cragging in the Peak and on the Yorkshire Grit.

Wellington Crack  © Heather Dawe
Wellington Crack
© Heather Dawe

The memories became stronger as I wrote, the act of writing forcing me to remember more detail. Climbs that had been locked away in some corner of my mind came back to me. I could remember the feelings I had as I climbed through a crux, the smell of the place, hear the crash of the sea beneath me, the clink of metal on metal as my hexes clanged together.

Sketching the crags I wrote about enhanced these memories further. Scenes from climbs past kept appearing in my mind's eye, encouraging me to try to capture their shape, character and light on paper.

Now it's late March. Spring has finally begun after an autumn and winter of persistent rain. This is when, in my mind, I was going to return to the Caley boulders with my mat, chalk-bag and shoes. I would touch this rock, begin to climb again, through the summer go and do routes on the grit, relearning leading and growing my confidence on familiar routes at Brimham, Ilkley, Crookrise and beyond. I want to go and climb in the mountains again. Langdale, Napes Needle, the Cromlech, Cryn Las.

Perversely I feel healthier now than I have in months. As the pathogen sweeps the world we stay home, waiting and hoping for the better days. The days we took for granted, the days that will return, hopefully that we will see. The rock and the mountains will always be there. So will the memories.

Aiguille du Midi  © Heather Dawe
Aiguille du Midi
© Heather Dawe

Heather lives in West Yorkshire with her young family. She currently works full-time in Data Science, alongside her job she squeezes in time to write and paint.

Over the last twenty years, Heather has spent as much time as possible running, cycling and climbing in wild and mountainous places. For the last eight years or so she has been writing and painting about these places too. These days she finds the writing and painting as important to her as racing around the mountains.

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Lovely piece of writing and nice art. Thank you for sharing Heather. I remember Valet from my one visit many years ago with Alan Gilchrist. A wonderful bouldering ground.

One small question: isn't the final image the Aiguille de l'M and the Petit Charmoz, not the Midi?

2 May

Lovely writing, I loved away from Yorkshire this year so brought back some memories of the grit. Otley Wall is a pig at the grade.

2 May

A nice read and a fair reflection on the current state of Caley, I was surprised how overgrown the area around the main crag had become when I last went.

I like the rock paintings but isn't that Central Climb, one of my favourite routes, rather than Overhanging Groove?

Apologies for the pedantry but I need to get out more.

2 May

Local Hero! Otley - The centre of the universe!

8 May

Thank you very much and, yes, it's the Aiguille l'M, scene of my first alpine climb. The caption in the article is incorrect (I did supply the correct name). Nevermind :)

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