John Colton describes his ascent of the Dinas Cromlech classic, Cemetery Gates, E1 5b, in a thunderstorm! They made 'em out of sterner stuff back in the day...
I had to climb The Gates; you climbers will understand. They weren’t even locked, these gates. I wasn’t trying to get in, or over, neither would I describe it so, but an astute person might challenge my denial, saying. “Yes, The Gates were definitely a portal and you were trying to get in; to join the chosen few.” Enough of that.
I think the name came off a bus destination board like some of the Beatles song titles. This one was spotted in Chester by Joe Brown and Don Whillans, returning home to Manchester after their first ascent in 1951.
There are other climbs up there with that sort of name; Cenotaph Corner, Epitaph, The Crucifix. The crag is called Dinas Cromlech, roughly translated as 'Castle of the Burial Chamber'. Anyway, The Gates or Cemetery Gates, Extremely Severe, 200ft, to be correct, was my goal on that aptly chosen Sunday morning of a summer in the late sixties. No significance there either, it was just a Sunday. On Saturday, I’d been practising on something a bit less intimidating and getting in a suitable frame of mind. The crags were dry and the weather was good, if a bit hazy and we were at the Cromlech lay-by early. I didn’t want an audience.
We started to climb at about 8.30 am. Dennis Kemp was holding my rope. About our age in enthusiasm but almost twice in years, he was a sociable and affable free spirit who worked for Kodak, in what capacity we never found out. They didn’t seem to keep much of an eye on him.
You can see from my drawing that the crag is steep and columnar; to keep the tone of the piece, like a lot of giant gravestones stacked together. The Gates goes up just left of the sunlit nose in the middle of the crag, right of the clean cut 120ft Cenotaph Corner. I’d just begun the crux, second pitch when a peal of thunder reverberated round the mountains.
The haze was hiding a monster cumulonimbus...
From 40ft above Dennis, on his perch by a tree, I had a brief conversation maintaining that I thought I could get up the hard pitch before it got wet. Maybe the cloud was not yet overhead?
It was steep, almost overhanging but had good sharp holds, if a little small and brittle, but plenty of them. The rain started and the next crash was close to the flash but I flew up there, resting only where the indeterminate crack widens enough to slot a knee in and shake both arms out at the same time. When I got to the little sloping belay ledge it was catching the now torrential, but still vertically falling, rain. I had put three points of protection in on the whole pitch; urgency and fear dictating my style.
The lightning was so frequent that you couldn’t work out which noise belonged to which flash, as if that mattered. By now the water was in my climbing shoes, the last dry item, but I had other things and 270 degrees of space in front to keep me occupied. Dennis started up, unseen as my perch overhung the bottom of the pitch. The tension in the rope guided my taking it in. Then the carabiners started singing to me. Dennis shouted something up and a hot, violent draught lifted me up against my belay fastenings and the crag lit up in a blinding, incandescent purple and white flash. However, the smell was not unpleasant and I still had hold of the ropes but couldn’t see or hear for a while as the after image and blast burned through my head.
When he got to me he was quite excited, reckoning that the strike had gone up or down The Corner, about 60ft away. Again I said that I thought I could get up the last slightly easier pitch and it doesn’t strike twice in the same place, does it? Off I went, up 60ft to the sodden jungle above.
The hardest bit was fortunately on the arête and out of the torrents on either side. There was still no wind and this powerful, malevolent cloud just sat over the crag and hillside, trying to spear Dennis and I with thousands of volts as we made our haste to get away. This involved passing close to the tip of our own giant conductor. Lightning was hitting other pinnacles of rock quite close by. Haloes appeared round the summit of the Cromlech itself as we started running down the rocky slope. Cascades of water were loosening the boulders and they went bounding past us. The whole scree slope crashed down towards the road.
"From 40ft above Dennis, on his perch by a tree, I had a brief conversation maintaining that I thought I could get up the hard pitch before it got wet. Maybe the cloud was not yet overhead?"
We got into Wendy’s just as it opened. A yawning, laconic Harris made some comment about us coming into his cafe in such a state and, “Had we been in the Padarn, er, Lake?”
A delta of water meandered across the floor from where Dennis and I sat with our large hot mugs of tea, not saying much. Thunder muttered distantly.