You may call it an incessant nature; some less favourable may say OCD. The more sympathetic would call it driven and the cruel would say 'on the spectrum', but there have been certain climbs with certain small shallow pockets and sharp dark edges on certain pieces of rock that have held my attention for years, so I would call it longevity!
I first took a serious look at Nightmayer (E8 6c), an E8 6c on Dinas Cromlech, in 1999. When I say serious, what I mean is I attempted to see if I could climb it on a top rope. I failed quite conclusively, unable to fathom the direction I should climb or the moves I should make, and even after loads of hangs, I couldn't plant a flag on the grassy summit ledge.
Dr Jon Read, my climbing partner on this warm and sunny day also took a look. At the time I held Dr Jon and his intuitive and springy, Johnny Dawes-like skill in very high regard, and still do. Dr Jon had climbed 8a in France earlier that summer; he was an exceptionally gifted climber, but even he could not fathom the moves on this Steve Mayers test piece.
A few years down the line, in 2008 I decided to take a look at Nightmayer once more, this time in the company of a talented Norwegian climber called Øystein, and once again neither of us managed to plant a top-rope flag. Knowing about UKC logbooks, but not having one, I imagined how I would enter my effort and the acronym. I decided: TR DNF NGE TH.
In the same summer, only a few weeks later I was part of the BMC International Meet.
The BMC International Meet has become one of my favourite times of every other year (it is a biennial event). The meet is held in May and more often than not, it takes place in North Wales. Being someone who participates in the cold stuff, May is not the best time for my rock climbing. The winter cobwebs are still (usually) clinging.
This was the second BMC meet I had attended, and a few weeks before I gave organiser and friend Becky Garside strict instructions not to sign me up with a Slovenian superstar who wanted gnarl (as she had on the first meet I had attended two years before): "I'm unfit, it's only just summer, a nice E3, or E4 leader will be great. Under no circumstances do I want a Slovenian wad again!"
So, in the Plas y Brenin bar, the evening before the start of the meet, the throng milled. The weather was set fair, and I was reasonably content to spend the week ticking classics with my international E3 leader.
Becky approached with her large eyes and in that Lancashire twang – something akin to Lisa Stansfield, the singer from a few years ago who had the number one song, All Around the World – she warbled the beautiful words. "Don't worry Nick, I've found you a nice Belgian to play with". I couldn't believe my luck! A Belgian, how cool was that? Belgium, land of chocolate and beer. Flat Belgium, rockless Belgium. I was happy.
I followed Becky until she stood before a small, scruffy, unshaven, and non-threatening individual with a massive smile. "Nick, meet Nico Favresse, your climbing partner."
Nico Favresse, the name sounded vaguely familiar but I couldn't for the life remember how I recognised it. We shook hands and chatted. I asked Nico what routes he wanted to climb? Crucially, I asked him what grades he wanted to climb. "Grades, do not matuuure, just the line is important." He said in that really annoying Euro accent – kind of like Poirot – the sort of accent that makes British women turn to jelly and British men hate their counterparts from across the Channel. Brilliant, game on, although I sensed my week of E3s was rapidly disappearing.
I was staying at my friends, Tim and Lou Neill's house that is next to the chapel and across the road from The Vaynol Pub in Nant Peris and later that evening, when I returned from Plas y Brenin, I flicked the pages of a magazine. The magazine was UP and it listed most of the new routes or significant repeats of climbs in Europe throughout the previous year. Something was niggling. Nico Favresse…Nico Favresse…I knew I had seen his name amongst the pages of this magazine. I turned another glossy page and there he was, a picture of my little inoffensive Belgian strapped to some desperate looking climb – the picture description read, 'Nico Favresse makes the first free ascent of…' I turned the page, feeling a little nauseous, 'Inshallah, 8c+.'
Oh shit. That Nico Favresse?
I turned the computer on and tapped the name Nico Favresse into google.
The first Belgian to climb 9a, the second ascent of Greenspit, an 8b+ roof crack led on gear, new big wall climbs in Pakistan, and on, and on, and on…
I dived for the cupboard and opened a bottle of wine. I wept. Damn that Becky.
Dinas Cromlech, home to Cenotaph Corner and Right Wall, is very much at the heart of British trad climbing. Brown, Fawcett, Redhead, Crew, Livesey, Whillans. The Cromlech is one of my favourite crags, and so it was on the first day of the meet that a bunch of folk, including Pat Littlejohn, was ensconced beneath the towering walls.
Nico was suffering. A debilitating migraine had knocked him for six, and as others were strapping it on, I sat and sunbathed, and felt reasonably relaxed with my get out of gaol card.
"I'm sooo sorry Neeeck, you moost think me one of those type of climbares whooom talks more than he does."
Which of course I didn't as I had seen the numbers on the internet the night before!
"No worries Nico, you take it easy."
Which he did by falling asleep in the sun. On waking, Nico thought he might try Cenotaph Corner. Brilliant. After climbing the corner we both abseiled back to the sunny ledge where Nico, virtually blind from migraine, almost threw up. Another hour passed before once again Nico thought he would test his headache, this time by climbing Left Wall.
"Ah, I am feeling zee luuuv a bit moor now. I shall go right."
I started to grow concerned, as going right was the sustained and strenuous finish to Resurrection.
"You don't need to, that's another route."
"Ah, but it iz ze line no?"
No, no it wasn't the line, not in my mind, but it was looking like it would have to be the line today. Nico skipped up the crack and even for a short arse, breezed the long reach at the top. He was obviously starting to feel better, and with each fluent move my concern grew.
"Now we shall try zis yes?"
"Zis" was a route called JR, a sustained and technical E5 6b squeezed in to the right of Resurrection and the left of Cenotaph Corner.
And feeling better, he ran up it. I was in trouble. As soon as we returned to the ledge he was off on a vertical sprint up Lord of the Flies.
As I slapped for the top of the crag seconding Lord, I knew I had to do something to get myself out of this upward spiralling frenzy of Bullock destruction. It was day one, Nico was ill and already we had climbed four routes - I was not going to last till Wednesday never mind Saturday. Earlier in the day I had mentioned the climb that goes up the nearly blank wall to the left of Lord, Nightmayer. I had mentioned that it had only received two ascents and that both of these were after quite a lot of practice. I may have mentioned that is was only meant to be a sport grade of 8a. I may not have mentioned that on several top rope attempts, I had failed to reach the top of the crag. I did mention it was run out and I certainly mentioned there was a crucial number one wire placement that the first ascensionist, Steve Mayers, had told me about.
I stood on the ledge alongside Pat Littlejohn as Nico abseiled, closely inspecting the mossy holds and checking for nearly non-existent gear placements.
"What's he doing?" Pat was looking up, his bright eyes and the deep creases at the side shaded by a large and well-worn in hand.
"He's going to work Nightmayer."
Pat looked at me.
"But isn't he meant to be good? The route has gear doesn't it, it is safe?"
I looked at Pat waiting to see a smile and the wink that would confirm this was a joke, but no, he was serious, he really was serious.
"Well, yes, it does have some gear Pat, but not a lot!"
"Poor effort then don't you think?" Pat said in a laidback Southwest drawl making me think of Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry, "Do you feel lucky punk, well, do ya?"
I nearly choked before spluttering to Nico, who had returned now to the ledge,
"Pat reckons you should go for the ground up, Nico. He thinks it's a poor effort if you top rope it first."
I looked at Pat, Pat looked at me…and Nico said,
"OK Neeeck, but I will first watch Sean work it on ze rope."
(The Sean was of course Sean Villanueva O'Driscoll, regular climbing partner of Nico and on first meeting he came across more off-kilter than Nico and after getting to know Sean you realise that yes, yes he is! )
Pat appeared to think this was ok, so everyone was happy now apart from me. Was I the only sane person on this ledge? I was the one now starting to feel nauseous.
After watching Sean and listening to the beta he relayed, Nico went for it. I had climbed Left Wall with Dave "Noddy" Noddings, to get a grand stand view, and with every move Nico made, fear increased. Not Nico's fear. No, the little Belgian whooped and joked and continued with something like a suicidal abandon. No, my fear was increasing and it was about to hit overload. I knew Nico was a great climber, I had witnessed and read, but bloody hell, this climb had never had a ground up ascent. It was really serious and the two climbers, Steve Mayers and Tim Emmett, who had climbed the route were so talented and fit, but neither had romped this climb. In fact, by all accounts, Tim had been an almost permanent feature hanging from a rope working the climb before he eventually led it.
Nico continued to climb. He was now at the finger traverse, at about one-third height, and I knew there were some bold hard moves to come, which were actually the crux moves of a climb called The House of God, a direct on Lord of the Flies. Nico twisted and turned and didn't really slow. I was impressed, but this was a warm up in comparison to what was above. Hanging from the small ledge at about half height I shouted down,
"There's gear to your right and the left, make sure you get it."
"Thank yoooo." He sang back toward me, dwarfed in the middle of a vertical pocketed sea of rhyolite.
Oh, I thought to myself, what a nice person. And then to Noddy: "He's about to die."
When Nico continued, he had placed one wire in the half way ledge behind a creaking flake and another, a little higher on the left. Somewhere above him I knew was the Mayer's fabled number one keyhole, which accepted the crucial piece to protect the very hard crux and the run-out to the top. The little Belgian moved up and then up some more. He placed another wire on the left, before reversing and shaking-out.
"How's it looking?"
"It loooookz quite difficult."
Laying on my chest on the top of the left wall, once again I turned to Noddy, "No Shit."
Fishing for edges, pockets, the correct sequence, the correct body position, Nico headed up and then right. He placed no more gear. Twisting, contorting. "Go on, you can do it!" He suddenly looked fallible, almost human. "Come on…" It was at this point I thought, nope, he can't, it was clear to see and with one move in reverse, he let go. The closest nut was so far away it would have taken a pair of binoculars to see, and as the rope came tight, it ripped. The little Belgian became even smaller as he shot down the wall. Five, ten, fifteen, twenty, still he fell. Whizzing and tumbling, he plunged past the half way ledge where the gear that was hopefully going to hold his fall was placed. As he fell and fell, the speed of the flying Belgian increased. He fell past the finger traverse a third of the way up the face, or maybe it was two thirds of the way down the face.
"He's about to die." I thought while still using my camera to film, but I didn't want a snuff movie!
At last he slowed and stopped. He had fallen half the length of the fifty-metre face.
"Are you alright?" I yelled.
"Whooooooooo," was all he said before both he and Sean screamed and laughed…
It was then I knew the week was going to be brilliant, and under the pale innocent exterior of the little Belgian was a certifiable fucking nutter, and life had suddenly become more carefree and crazy and uncertain than ever.
Seven years down the line in the summer of 2015, I sat once again on the grassy ledge above Will Sim. Will was in Llanberis for the summer working towards becoming a mountain guide. Will was getting very close, soon he would be on lead and this had once again piqued my interest. Like most of the folk I had shared time with on this climb, Will was gifted and driven and in possession of fingers strong enough to peel the shell from a Brazil nut. I sat above, fascinated, able, after all these years, to see how to do the moves and where the climb actually went. But while climbing the sequency moves, just before the crux, Will's Brazil nut peeling fingers ripped a hold, making the moves even more difficult and with this he gave up and so did I. Phew, at last, after sixteen years of dreaming I could move on…
A year later, last year, just twelve months of freedom, that very annoyingly nice and quietly talented Alex Mason - a North Wales climber akin to the lovable Winnie the Pooh - with his modesty and understatement went and pissed on my party by not only making the third, successful ascent of Nightmayer, with the now more sustained section since Will had vandalised it, he even did it in the rain! Some people don't know how to be happy climbing a climb that is exceptionally difficult in perfect conditions and have to up the ante.
So that was that. May, 2017 and Nightmayer was once again on the radar and after my return to Llanberis from a successful trip to Spain… What could stop me? Well, the worst finger injury I have had in my life possibly. But no, I was still on the hunt, still believing I could climb this bloody climb even though 18 years have passed since the first time I had looked at it and 18 years since the first time I wasn't good enough to climb it, but this time, yes, this time I was older, wiser, better, fitter and in the company of the all-time coiffured and suntanned master of technicality: Mick Lovatt, The Perfect Man, TPM, master of the crimp, Lancashire's answer to Julio Iglesias.
Reaching the crag, TPM and I found it was quite busy. But in for a penny...I jumped on Resurrection not knowing if I would be able to climb it with my injured finger, but a while later I stood on the ledge above the climb, belaying, happy I hadn't hurt the injury too much. Obviously, some things had not changed in the last 18 years: my enthusiasm was still blind, as anyone with half a brain would appreciate, because climbing Resurrection with an injured finger does not mean Nightmayer is suddenly going to be a breeze.
TPM and I set up a top rope from the tree at the top of Cenotaph Corner and as we did a very frustrated Angus Kille, all forearms and schoolboy charm and dark good looks and dark intense eyes appeared from above having down-climbed to the grassy ledge. TPM and I were shocked with this young energy-filled apparition barging into the OAP outing. I had heard people talk about Angus and his ability and I had heard he had been on Nightmayer, but not knowing him at all I was reserved in my introduction, "Are you Angus? Are you here to get on Nightmayer then? Who are you with? Are you going to lead it? Oh, by the way, I'm Nick."
In all of my time I don't think I have seen a person so worked up and psyched and frustrated and driven all in one young bundle, or at least not since looking into an 18 year old reflection in a mirror. "I'm just here to collect my rope, my climbing partner rang me last night saying he was going climbing with someone else, even though we had arranged to try Nightmayer. Bought new shoes, saved myself by not climbing yesterday, last day off work for a while, it's going to rain tomorrow, it's all over, last chance, last chance…"
This tightly skinned, pent-up bundle once again began striding and shaking his head, obviously lost in a dream of him successfully pulling the final moves and standing here where we now stood but with this dream realised.
"Well, after we have had a go you can jump aboard and if you want someone to hold your ropes I'm happy to stay."
It was at this point I thought Angus was about to throw himself from the crag: his frustration and confusion and inner conflict was about to redline.
"I don't have my gear, it's cold, it'll be late, I was only here to collect my rope, I just wanted to collect my rope, that's all, that's all..."
The torture and torment I could understand. Jump on an exceptionally difficult and bold E8 with someone else's gear while some old duffer you have never spoken to holds your ropes, I'm pretty sure I know which side my bread would be buttered.
"Look, go down to the ledge at the start of the climb, chill out and see how you feel after I have a toppy."
Angus climbed away, but he was so worked up I was concerned he would jitter himself from the holds of the V Diff.
I turned to TPM, "Let's do what we can to accommodate him." TPM nodded his coiffured bouffant, "Aye." Sung in deepest Lancashire Spanish. His suntanned face looked serious.
I threw a toppy on the climb. Low and behold, for the first time in 18 years of trying, I managed to plant a flag on the summit having done all of the moves. It could have been because I had improved, but it could also have been the amount of chalk and tick marks showing me the way.
I lowered TPM, but at the base he handed the rope to Angus whom I had been watching and stalking along the sloping and polished ledge while sending text messages, no doubt in a last ditch effort attempting to snag someone to hold his ropes. At one point, I thought he was going to headbutt the rock beneath Left Wall.
To say Angus ran up Nightmayer on a toprope would be understatement, because he sprinted. As he pulled himself over the dirty polished edge I could hold back no more, "You have to give it a go, I'll stay as long as you want."
After TPM had a play I shouted to Angus, who was back to headbutting Left Wall,
"What you going to do?"
"I wouldn't mind starting it and seeing how I feel, but that would mean you forgoing another chance to work it."
"We're heading down."
I would have followed this by telling Angus to psyche himself, but this was not necessary.
Angus sorted out a make-do rack. "I need sky hooks." "I have two." I said. TPM rifled his bag, "I have one." I'm not sure Angus was relieved, but he clipped them to his harness and climbed the easy ground until stood beneath the worn cracks and crozzles of Lord of the Flies. After a short way and after placing a few pieces of gear he reversed to the ledge composing himself.
"You going to give it a go then?" I shouted.
"Yes, I think so, although I'm not sure I have the correct gear."
"OK, well, just be confident and you'll be fine." I said, while attempting to push the image of Nico falling half the length of the cliff from my mind.
A short or it may have been a long time later, with only a brief and terrifying wobble low down, and a herculean effort of holding-on through the crux, Angus topped out. A triumphant and relieved scream echoed across the Llanberis Pass both from the small crowd below and the individual at the top of this; one of the most mesmerising and appealing sheets of rock anywhere. Fantastic. Inspiring. I decided I may have a few more goes than normal this summer before I decide Nightmayer too difficult and give up again for several more years...
The Nico section of this article is lifted from Nick's second book Tides, due to be published in October.