Eight years after Johnny Dawes made his ground-breaking first ascent of Indian Face, the infamous E9 6c at Clogwyn Du'r Arddu, in North Wales, it received a second and third ascent just days apart. These two climbers were Nick Dixon and Neil Gresham. Nick, an experienced trad-master, and Neil a young sport climber, they had very different strengths, but both clawed their way up Indian Face.
In this interview, Nick Dixon tells regular UKC contributor Sam Schofield more about his second ascent of the UK's most sought after tick, and why he thinks that the reputation of this bold climb does more to entice people to try it, than to put them off...
INTERVIEW: Nick Dixon on making the second ascent of Indian Face
Indian Face has had only a handful of repeats, here Nick starts off by explaining why he thinks that is, and also why the route is also uniquely appealing:
"Without stating the obvious, Cloggy is one of those crags that only has so many climbable days a year. And with a route like Indian Face, you have to invest some time into it. That means it pretty much has to be the focus of what someone wants to do for a while and then they have to be in the right place at the right time.
"Indian Face has such a big aura I think it's quite an attractive proposition for people to get on. If you're going to get an E9 in North Wales, this is one that people will notice, and that is appealing. There's never been a year since I've been going to Cloggy – I've been going pretty much every year since 1979 – that there's not been at least a single day it's been dry. But even people as strong as Caff need more than a day – I think many may need to try it a lot [NB. Caff did actually climb IF in a single day]. But actually, out of the ones that I know, it's the best E9. While it isn't immediately striking from a distance, it's really compelling and follows an obvious scoop of features. Lots of people are capable of it. Climbers are much fitter these days."
Johnny Dawes' first ascent in 1986 was revered for its audacious defiance of the danger posed by climbing what some perceived as an almost certain death fall should you come off the crux at the top of the wall, high above poor protection. It gained notoriety due to clashes over the ethics of how it was climbed – not ground up – which only served to bolster its reputation among the climbing community. While all of this kept the route free of a second ascent until mid-way through the following decade, Nick had had his eye on the prize for a while.
"I had known about the route for a long time but I had assumed it was too hard for me. I had already tried it before about four years earlier on top rope, at the end of a long day, and that lead me to think it was harder than it is. I was intimidated by how hard I thought it was, with Johnny Dawes and John Redhead trying it. I probably couldn't have done it in '86, but Face Mecca next to it is probably as hard, which I did in '89."
However, it wasn't until 1994 that Nick returned to Indian Face, bringing along the then relatively inexperienced Neil Gresham, who by his own admission was "a young sport climber with such a limp trad CV".
"What took me back to Indian Face?" Nick questioned, "I was chatting with Neil in Cotswold, where he was working at the time, and I was saying it was totally feasible. That was the start. I was working at The Towers Outdoor Education Centre half my time and the other half at Plas y Brenin, as an outdoor education instructor, so I had a lot of time for climbing. I was climbing a lot of routes, and Indian Face wasn't the hardest of those, but it has this massive reputation.
"It's not a powerful route. It's about standing up on poor smears and finding ways through leftwards facing sidepulls. It's hard to reverse moves on it so it's committing. And there's a ledge about two thirds up the route, where I stood for five minutes before I did the top section. Because of that ledge, you can stop briefly and you become aware of where you are, which adds another element. The next bit is really committing, because it's a long way down to the gear and it's poor – a few small wires behind a flake. I had managed to place about 12 pieces but not many would have withstood any weight – this is about half way up the route – and you kind of convince yourself that it's bomber.
"Before the lead, I had rapped in and done the individual moves on abseil. Then I had done it twice on top rope, so I was already familiar with the route. I had it quite dialled.
"However, there's one move where I got a left hand sidepull and my right hand was on some nobbles and I came out of my head space because I realised that I couldn't move from that position as freely as planned and pre-practiced as I hadn't accounted for the rope drag. I had to snatch for the next hold, some pebbles. There were about three seconds where I lost my calm a little bit and I had to collect myself. I think Neil had far more of a worry on it.
"Indian Face is a very honest route. It gives you what it says it's going to give. It's exactly what it says on the tin."
Indian Face's reputation as dangerous – life-threatening even – could unjustifiably prejudice those who climb it as reckless, fearless, taking risks with their own neck. But the amount of practice, research and exploration each ascensionist has afforded the route, or just their years of rock climbing experience, giving them a deep understanding of their own ability, contradicts this assumption.
Asked whether he would take the same risk and climb Indian Face now, Nick responds: "When I did Indian Face it was only three weeks before my daughter was born – so I had that on my mind. I'm 50 now and still climb reasonably hard and on committing routes. I did an E8 last year called Self Harmer, at Harmer Hill, which is pretty dangerous. Practically speaking, though, I wouldn't do Indian Face now because I don't live in North Wales – you need to have time to try it lots, so being local would help. Ignoring the practicalities, purely from a climbing perspective, I think I would climb it now because it's such a good route."