Tom Livingstone finally found peace after the best three weeks of trad climbing in his life, climbing a few notorious routes in North Wales: onsighting the ultra classic E6 Skinhead Moonstomp on Gogarth, onsighting Surgical Lust E7 in the Pass and headpointing Rare Lichen E9 in Ogwen.
The sky ripped apart. Thunder rippled down the Pass and strobes of lightening lit up the mountains as the summer storm finally broke. It felt like a fitting crescendo to the previous few weeks of climbing...
Gogarth’s Main Cliff has lodged itself firmly in my heart, like a quartzite arrow into my chest. I love to sit on the grass and look over the cliff, watching and waiting for the sun to come round. From a dark, inky sea, one hundred metres of glowing yellow quartzite rises to reach brown heather and the top. Adam, a visiting Scotsman, takes the mick out of our routes as we lounge. ‘It’s had an ascent already this year? That’s “well-traveled” in Scotland!’
When the sun finally spills onto the faces and the rock glows orange and yellow, we start the approach, giddy with excitement: ‘come on, lad!’ Cool, damp earth squeezes between toes and ferns brush at our legs, pilgrims on a downward path. White waves crash, foaming and bubbling. We traverse along the base, route after route, taking our fill.
Adam and I return to Main Cliff again and again. It’s a delight to introduce a friend to these climbs, showing off what I treasure. We exchange a knowing grin after each route and we’re firmly acquainted with the terrifying ‘Gogarth grip.’ We’ve fumbled through the ‘beard’ lichen and finished up the heather scramble many times. 'Bloody death-heather,' says Adam. Blood and chalk and sweat on our hands. Pain and blisters and cramp in our feet. But every time the sun sinks into the horizon and clouds burn deep orange, we pause… sit… and stare. We find peace.
I had saved one route on Main Cliff - the route - for years, waiting until the time was right. When Adam and I felt content with Gogarth, felt we knew these walls, we slipped down the path one more time for Skinhead Moonstomp - one of the best E6s in the country. But was I ready? I remembered the Skinhead’s tune: ‘Before we reach the moon, we got to make sure everything is spic and span, alright?’
Uncoiling the ropes into piles of spaghetti, my heartbeat matched the quick throb of the Irish ferry out to sea; nerves rose like the tide. The sky was a single sheet of blue, pierced by the burning sun, and we began to fry. I looked up at corners and grooves and roofs, tracing an intricate path to freedom. The route snaked its way to the very base of the Positron headwall before blasting straight up to the famous ‘bucket seat belay’ and I was filled with doubt. Adam showed no concern and racked up for the first pitch, so we began.
I started climbing the second pitch, salty space beneath my feet, until I reached the base of the headwall. Leaning out from a big pinch, I could see the smooth rock stretch above like a giant pane of glass, and I ducked back under the bulge, scared. The excuses came alive. I could see a thuggy and committing start, then laybacks, but then…? Was I ready? I had been waiting for so long for this route - but had I waited enough? The Skinhead sang louder now: ‘Remember, I’m the boss.’
But there could be no bailing now: I had to find the answers. I put my faith in Gogarth, filled my lungs with the smell of the sea and launched onto the headwall. Adam’s distant shouts of 'come on' faded as I slapped up sidepulls, pasting my feet on the red and orange. I bounced to the tune of Skinhead, moving to the beat, just as I imagined Andy Pollitt had first done. Pinch, sidepull, flatty. 'Come on!'
Sitting on the bucket seat belay ledge, facing out to sea, I wiggled my toes in the updraft and laughed. The Skinhead’s tune came back, full volume now: ‘I want all you fellas to gather round me, and start stompin,’ yeah!’ I sang along, punching out the ‘yeahs!’ I was giddy, floating, tranquil. Although I’d nearly blown it high on the headwall - I kicked out a wire and had a sudden moment of terror, throwing for the next hold in desperation and pulling with everything I had - I managed to find my calm again. I shook my head as I looked down at the run-out: I would’ve fallen for miles… And although I’d finished with arms on fire, screaming heels and sweat stinging my eyes, it had been enough. Relief flowed sweetly, and I was content to know what came after the laybacks, to know I had waited until the right time.
A week later my Gogarth fix had worn off and, like an addict, I felt eager for more. I hoped I would find it at the end of a long run-out in the Pass.
Walking up the steep grass and scree to Scimitar Ridge felt like greeting an old friend again. A compact and shattered wall, hidden and quiet; tucked away in the Llanberis Pass, but always waiting to be re-introduced. I stood beneath Scimitar and tilted my head up and up in welcome, until I almost toppled over backwards, down the slope. Black sidepulls and undercuts matched the skies above.
Nick talked about the routes like pointing out friends in a pub. ‘There’s 39 Slaps, and here…’ he paused to spot the line, ‘is Surgical Lust.’ I followed his finger through a broken arch, into overhanging daggers and fangs; all angry bared teeth. I began to think that these were not so much welcoming old friends, but rather darker, shadier characters, bristling with intent. The pub was replaced by a dingy street at night, and the blind climbing style suddenly made me shiver. I looked at the dark clouds ripping overhead and the crag went into the shade.
I studied Surgical Lust from below, daring myself to believe I could onsight this E7. Surely it was a Redhead route, with a name like that? ‘No,’ replied Nick. ‘It’s Pritch's, and he punched in two pegs as well. One marks the first crux, and the other marks the end of the run-out.’ I wondered if I was about to start the fight of my life, and added a skyhook to my harness.
Just before stepping off the ground, I took in the quiet sounds of the Pass. Rivers churned on the opposite hillside, white lines cutting the green. Toy cars rolled down the road and sheep grazed the valley floor, far below. ‘Climbing’ was all it took for this to drop away. I pulled on and it all became nothing. Silence.
The first peg marked the physical crux. I held knife-blade undercuts and they sliced my palms, but I wasn’t ready for the fight, not yet. The wall felt steeper than it already looked, and I climbed up and down, round and round, searching for hidden edges, testing the defences. The wall had changed from friend to foe. This was going to be a brawl, all teeth and nails. ‘Look’s like there’s no footholds,’ I shouted to Nick. Thankfully, he didn’t reply, ‘No shit! You didn’t think it was going to be easy, did you?’ I attacked, and the fight began.
I inched closer to the second peg, tap-tap-tapping my left foot up the wall. The end of the psychological crux was nearly in reach, but I was a metre short of clipping the metal eye of that solid chunk of brown. I grappled undercuts and gastons, their edges sharp and dark, inching closer to the killer blow. Heart thumping. Breathing rushed. Legs shaking. The poor gear below just waved and mocked.
Nick’s voice echoed in my head: ‘When I first got to here, I down-climbed and then jumped off!’ If I fell here I might be hitting the ground before the rope hit good gear. I shook out, repeatedly ramming my fingers into a stone vice; the hold seemed to be lined with shark’s teeth. Another few moves, another tap-tap-tap and I’d have the peg; or I’d have a broken leg. This was a full-on fight now, a bloody bare-knuckle tussle, and I felt I was dangerously close to losing. ‘Go on!’ shouted Nick from below. So I pulled out the metaphorical knife in my shoe, as all tall people do: I lanked with all my lank, reaching up high to more razor edges, and clipped that bloody peg before I could think about what I’d done.
After Surgical Lust, I felt calm. Calm in my now-quiet mind; calm in my body. Calm when Nick shook my hand at the top of the crag. But I knew, deep down, there was one more route waiting for me.
Rare Lichen carried the weight of my desires, ego, mortality… it was my childhood dream to climb E9. I knew, one day, it had to be done, and I was pulled to the soaring arete. The route follows such a striking feature, it’s like being slapped in the face in Bethesda, the small Welsh village five miles down the Ogwen valley. You can see the line from there, a perfect right-angle cut from the mountain. ‘It’s a proud pitch,’ they’d said. I couldn’t take my eyes from it as I swerved up the road.
I approached this route from above, on the safety of a top rope, with Oli Grounsell, but all I felt was fear. I saw it as an opportunity to learn, to develop, to fall off without dying. I certainly did fall off on that first visit in April; I punted off virtually every move. Oli is light and strong and described locking each hold, moving between them as though they were jugs. In bitter winds, high on the arête I couldn’t feel my hands, but that wasn’t why I couldn’t do the moves: I was weak from winter, fingers soft after months of gloves and ice axe jugs. The ratty crimps were horrible, skin-shredding, tip-trashing little edges. Headpointing was a painful, new experience, and there was no peace for me here.
The summer slipped away, passing all too briefly, and monsoon season arrived in North Wales: winter. I’d been on non-stop climbing trips but they all involved ice axes and big hills, which are only good for getting weak fingers and heavy legs. Mates had described the top arête as ‘safe,’ but I wanted to say Benno-the-German’s immortal line: ‘for you!’ I wanted proof: ‘Has anyone actually fallen onto the gear, though? How can you be sure when it’s just an IMP 3?’ But I knew my weakness and hung on those little Beastmaker edges throughout the dark months, huffing and puffing as the rain poured.
Returning as summer 2016 started in North Wales again (last year it was a Tuesday, I believe), Calum and Angus gave encouragement from their neighbouring top rope. ‘It’s too hard for you, lad!’ I was jealous of those who’d felt strong on the initial moves, flowing through the no-fall zone. I was impressed by those who’d made the transition, moving from left side to right. And I was in awe of those who’d slapped their hands up the top arete, compressing and squeezing and smearing.
‘I get butterflies every time I think of just being up there!’ I confessed to my friend James. Thoughts of the top arete snowballed: ‘I won’t fall… but if I do, the gear might rip; and if that happens, I’ll crater from 20 metres.’ I found a ‘tall-man’s’ way to climb the middle section which felt a bit like cheating, but now I could climb the route cleanly on top-rope and the proposition of leading became a reality. But the devil on my shoulder chanted ‘you’re off!’ and an angel said ‘crimp harder!’
The next day I stood beneath the route with only a pair of half ropes tied to my harness - the top rope lay in a crumpled heap by my feet. I hoped the few brass wires might stop me from the same fate as the top rope if I fell. The sunshine in the Ogwen valley was a bright contrast to our shady cliff, and I wanted to be swimming in the lake below. Instead, I waited for the internal chatter to quiet and then I stepped off the grass.
The route hadn’t changed - only my perception of danger. Where I’d previously slumped onto the top rope, now I’d risk clattering into the ground as I danced dangerously above the ground, getting higher and higher. I tried to kid myself as I wedged in tiny wires - ‘they’ll definitely hold me' -and I moved from left to right on the arete, still on autopilot.
I placed the highest runners - the infamous IMP 3 and an Offset 0 - in the slashed crack near the top and returned to the rest. The top arete, a fat bottomless wedge jutting into space, was the only thing between me and my finishing jug. I closed my eyes, debating whether to commit or bail; to fly or flail. I tried to imagine myself on top-rope again: just nine quick hand and four subtle foot moves was all it took, but I couldn’t decide. Why am I here? Do I really want to take this risk? Peace was nowhere to be found up here. It didn’t belong. But the breeze grew stronger and my mind spoke louder, and when I opened my eyes I knew what to do.
The arete was mine, I just had to switch off my brain and execute. Committing, I bumped my left foot higher, again and again, squeezing the arete with everything I had. Tick-tacking, slapping my hands, my brain came back to life: I had this, I have this, and I have the finishing jug in my hands and I’m not dreaming!
As I pulled onto the quartz slab at the top my senses returned, overwhelming but numb. I should feel elation! I should feel amazing! The sunshine should feel warm; instead my mind was raw and shouting and couldn’t comprehend. I felt the effects of a heady cocktail kick in slowly as I sat, a dull mix of satisfaction, boldness, pleasure. I found my voice and it bubbled, growing, so I let out a long ‘whoop!’ of joy, rippling round the valley. I sat for a long time at the top of the crag, finally at peace with myself. The routes had tested, challenged, but now I sat in contentment after the best three weeks of climbing in my life.