Soloing - by Ron Fawcett
“I just had this unquenchable appetite to be moving up rock.”
I loved Tremadog. In those days it wasn't just an excellent place to climb when the weather in the mountains was bad. It was a crucible for some of the hardest routes being done in the country. The first new route I did there was Cream, done with Pete [Livesey] during the international climbing festival in 1976 when I turned twenty-one.
Pete played his trick of snookering me into falling as I followed him up the second pitch. The following year I'd got rid of the aid point on Void, an excellent new climb on the edge of the powerful looming buttress most famous for Joe Brown's route done in 1960 – Vector. But what I loved most about Tremadog was soloing there. The routes seemed to be made for me, long, flowing sequences on routes up to 250ft in length. The first ascent of Lord of the Flies is how people remember my contribution to the Rock Athlete series, but the opening credits of each programme showed me soloing a route called Tensor, on Craig Y Castell, just above the village of Tremadog itself. Sid used the footage in slow motion, and in doing so caught something of the strange mixture of feelings you get while soloing high above the ground, of being calm but utterly focussed. I see myself totally absorbed and living intensely; it's what I love about the sport.
My own soloing had started from the early days at Haw Bank and Crookrise, more out of necessity than any addiction to danger. I worked out colossal circuits of routes on all the crags near my home, and would run up onto the moors to get to them. When I moved to Ilkley, I brought that habit with me, and over the years developed a sequence of routes I felt comfortable soloing, like North-west Girdle, Western Front and Wall of Horrors at Almscliff, and something similar at Ilkley and Caley too. Long days at Tremadog were just an extension of this process.
Ron Fawcett stuck 150ft up soloing Positron, E5, Gogarth
Soloing was a big part of the climbing scene in the 1970s, especially in Wales. Eric Jones was just one of several guys doing it regularly, along with his friend Cliff Phillips and other stars like Pete Minks, Richard McHardy and Alan Rouse. It was seen as the deepest, scariest game in town and was undoubtedly addictive. For those routinely using psychoactive drugs, as some in the Welsh scene were, naturally manufacturing your own high through extreme physical experiences was obviously appealing. I can't claim that's what inspired me. I got a buzz from the danger of it, I can't deny that, but most of the time I was in control.
Not always though. I remember trying to solo Positron around this time, one of the best-known routes on the steep main wall at Gogarth. It was a crag where I felt completely at home. Gogarth isn't like the limestone climbing I was used to in Yorkshire; it's more open handed, like gritstone, and with my big hands I felt very comfortable on it. I did major free ascents on the main cliff wall around then, Citadel and Mammoth among them, and in the summer of 1980 the first ascent of an E6 called The Big Sleep.
Still, soloing Positron was a sobering challenge. Al Rouse had taken a huge fall from it on the aided first ascent, getting into the meat of the third pitch, on the steepest part of the wall, after trying every piece of gear he had behind the flake he was hanging from. Next day he went back with the right size of Moac nut clenched between his teeth, managed to get it placed and then clipped in for a rest. This was the point I reached, only without the Moac and without a rope to clip it into either. Launching out onto that huge, leaning white wall is imposing enough tied on, but with just a chalk bag at your waist it takes a lot of self-control.
I'd done Positron before and knew I could climb it, but suddenly I was assailed by doubt. I felt my momentum crumble. I knew at once I had to be anywhere but hanging off that flake in the middle of an overhanging wall a hundred feet above the sea. There was just one clear thought looping round my head: 'How the fuck do I get off this?' Could I possibly survive a fall from here? I looked at the sea, sucking in and drawing back from the base of the cliff. If I landed in the sea would I have a chance? Two or three times I bunched up on my footholds, preparing to jump into the great void below me, but each time couldn't commit. Eventually, I scuttled back down, fingers weakening and a rising tide of panic in my chest, to a large spike just above the belay and wrapped both arms around it. And there I stayed, clinging to the spike like a drowning man hugs the spar of a wrecked ship. Slowly the adrenalin subsided and my arms relaxed. I reached the belay and traversed into Rat Race, an easier route, and climbed this instead to its junction with Cordon Bleu, which at VS was easy enough for me to down-climb to the bottom of the main cliff. Positron was soloed, four years later, by Stevie Haston.
I don't remember anything quite so close to the edge at Tremadog. Once I'd left the café and put my boots on, I would work my way through the card, doing twenty or so routes in the day, racking up as much mileage as I could fit in before wearily climbing back on the Yamaha and riding back to Bangor. I suppose the upper limit was around E2, routes like Vector and its slippery crux, thin slab moves on Silly Arête and Pincushion, and then coming down something easier to do the next one. I just had this unquenchable appetite to be moving up rock.
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Edited excerpt from Rock Athlete, by Ron Fawcett (with Ed Douglas).
© Ron Fawcett and Ed Douglas/Vertebrate Publishing 2010. No reproduction without the express permission of the publisher.