Under The Black Cliff

© Sean Kelly

Writing Competition Information is at the base of this page.

Cloggy in sureal light
© Sean Kelly, Jun 2006

This article originally appeared in Climb Magazine - Issue 36, Feb 08.

Under The Black Cliff

Pushing the old body harder than it was used to, he suffered. Every step, his lungs bursting, legs screaming, up, up, harder, faster. He wanted to suffer.

Cresting the marshy brow, his head fell forward. He longed to look up, but he fixed his eyes on the damp ground. Wrenching his gaze forwards he stopped and steadied himself against the nausea. The shadow of the black cliff encased him and he retreated in to its darkness. A group of twenty, maybe thirty people were gathered at the cliff base. Flowers, poems, sullen faces, falsely cheerful tales: the shambolic grief of those close to the young climber. He turned around.

The walk back to Llanberis gave Graham little time for reflection. All too soon he was back in the land of roads, of houses, of people. The mountains pained him, but this village pained him more. The events of the past week would stay with him for the rest of his life. For the last forty years he had lived and breathed climbing. Living in Llanberis, he'd seen them all come and go. The bold, the strong, the talented. And the lost.

As he strode quickly down in to the village, ageing feet suddenly sore from hitting the solid tarmac, his thoughts wandered. A woman flung open a door, bursting on to the pavement, language and clothing equally colourful. It was a scene he had relived many times, his face flushed with shame. He thought of her, tall and colourful, and of how he'd left in a brown Austin Maxi, with her screaming on the step. But climbing was everything to him then. Almost running out of the house, leaving his Simond twelve point crampons on the kitchen table, not daring to look her in the eye. He'd not sobered up until Dover. That winter in the Alps had been his crowning glory.

The forgotten corners of North Wales have been a fitting background for troubled times in many a young climber's life. He'd encouraged them, advised them, slowly brought them back to dry land. “Climbing is key”, he'd told them, “Keep climbing”. Who was he trying to convince, if not himself. It sickened him now. Who was he to advise, to educate? Back to the village, back to the bottle.

New to the scene, a young man exploded in to Llanberis this summer. Chris was an exceptional climber, he had a natural litheness about him, moving gracefully despite his long limbs. Tall and striking, flamboyant and confident, he'd made quite an impact on the local climbing scene. He ticked off test-pieces with a machine-like regularity. A modern day Fawcett, his appetite for rock was so insatiable that he could chew through partners, sometimes up to four in a day, leaving them worn out, raw handed and falling asleep after the first pint of the evening. The old man held his rope on Lord of the Flies and, watching him pull effortlessly on those tiny pockets, was young and fit all over again.

Chris was lost, as they always were. He was smart, as they always were. The old man gave him hope, gave him a light to follow, gave him purpose. Slowly, and for the first time in his life, Chris began to feel at home.

The Indian Face tackles a featureless shield of rock, high on the barren flanks of Snowdon. Facing North, plagued by rain and mountain vegetation, it lies in the most inhospitable nook of Wales. But when the late summer sun sweeps around Moel Elio, glinting gold on the perfect lines of the Great Wall, it gets under your skin. And for those that are good enough, of whom there are few, one route strikes a hidden chord. The Indian Face.

Heralded as a breakthrough in climbing and immortalised by the almost suicidal early attempts of John Redhead, The Indian Face is held in the highest esteem by climbers in Britain and throughout the world. If a man wanted to make his name in the world of climbing, then surely there was no greater route than this? And what if he were to die trying? Would his name be yet greater? A fearless and talented protégé, robbed from the climbing world by the simple snap of a flake? Or a lonely, lost soul, willing to risk everything to appease the baying crowds?

It was a dry summer, all sunshine and ice cream. It was a summer for swimming in Llyn Padarn, for cold drinks outside the Vaynol in Nant Peris and for climbing on Cloggy. It was a summer for The Indian Face.

Chris understood the seriousness of the game. His usual methodical approach to routes, working moves, learning the gear, saw him at the cliff many times over the summer months. He spoke at length about the route, to Graham and to everyone. Who didn't want to hear about those holds? Creaking, sloping, pushing you in all the wrong directions. His progress was watched intently, a throw back to the days of the Eiger North Face. This time the binoculars had been replaced with internet blogs and there were no crowds gawping up from the valley floor. Instead, just hits on a website, silently following the dreams and nightmares of a man they'd never know.

He top-roped, shunted, abseiled. It was so complex, so many moves, so many holds. More used to the shortness of gritstone – which has few holds and even fewer runners, this was to prove a very different challenge. “You can't learn this route Graham” he'd said one night in the Heights pub. “It's a real climbers route. You just have to be able to climb. There might be a big sloper over there, or a crimp on the right, but it's like a maze. I climb it differently every time. It's just not in control ....”

“Climbing's all about adventure Chris. Uncertainty, fear. If you knew you'd succeed then the challenge would be lost. It's a magical thing and you need to learn to trust that magic. You can do it”.

Trust that magic. It had sounded good. Chris had smiled, picked up his pint from the bar and wandered off to chat to others in the pub, young men with bouldering mats and jobs and girlfriends. Chris was friends with some of them, but he always felt apart from them. Graham had put down his glass and continued arguing with Tony, seventy two, about the Kosovo genocide. His heart wasn't in it tonight. Tony stood tall now, holding forth on air-strikes and politics, his voice full of passion.

Graham thought of his son. Where was he? How was he? He'd be the same age as Chris now. He hoped he climbed.

His hey days were now long behind him, but Graham had had his share of scrapes; greasy rock, no protection, heart in the mouth stuff. Stuck on the Brenva Face for thirty six hours, he'd lost a toe. He was convinced the lad knew what he was letting himself in for. They were both very wrong.

Stuck high on that slab, like a child swept out to sea, Chris had screamed for fifteen minutes. He couldn't move up, he couldn't reverse. Legs cramping, toes sliding, he swore. Then he'd gone quiet, resting his forehead against the rock. His rapid, loud breathing dimmed to a faint rasp. Young Martin held the useless ropes like rosary beads, his fingers twisting across them. It was too late, but Chris plunged upwards, no choice but to do battle with the cold, grey enemy. Shaking beyond control now, his foot stabbed the rock, eyes wide, fingers grasping, searching, crawling and, finally, slipping.

But what if he hadn't have fallen? What if he had succeeded? The rock would still be there. The Black Cliff was filled with a strange quietness that evening. The wind made alien patterns on the surface of Llyn D'ur Arddu. As the cloud lifted slightly, the unrelenting shadow of the wall fell across the lake.

Later, as night was falling, the tall parabola of East Buttress leered back at Graham through the thin rain. The profile of the wall was now hardly discernable against the gathering gloom. He stooped against the wind to re-light his cigarette. Just visible between the boulders, eyebright flashed, hidden amongst the cotton grass. He remembered her twenty years ago, tall and colourful. Her figure was clearer now, her movements sharper. He remembered how she swam at the edge of Llyn D'ur Arddu, her dark curls making long ripples through the darker water.

Before he made a final turn across the northern edge of the lake, Graham took one last look towards The Black Cliff. He thought again of his son. Where was he? How was he? He'd be the same age as Chris now. He hoped he climbed.

UKC Writing Competition
The 21st International Festival of Mountaineering Literature is to be held at the Shakespeare Centre in Kendal on the 21st of November 2008. The festival will draw big names in the climbing world - Steph Davies, Andy Cave, Andy Kirkpatrick and others will all be there, discussing the festival theme of 'Partners - Who Needs Them?'. are pleased to host the annual writing competition in conjunction with the festival. Entries must be on the festival theme of 'Partners - Who Needs Them?' and must be under 1500 words. UKC will be judging the entries and will publish the top three.

The winning entry will be announced at the festival and will be read by writer and photographer Ian Smith. The prize is £150 and will be presented at the festival by last year's winner Jack Geldard.

Entries must not have been previously published. Deadline is 31st October 2008. Entries should be sent to via the Submit Article Function. Please include a name, address, phone number and email address with your entry and mark the title 'Writing Comp'.

For more info on the Festival:

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3 Sep, 2008
oooo! a new writing competition tucked away in there!
3 Sep, 2008
Cash Prize!
Suprised you didn't give up work and live the life of luxury with the winnings. Did you get my mail this morning?
3 Sep, 2008
It's very visible Clare. News page: Forum thread: And will be in this week's newsletter. Mick
3 Sep, 2008
Brilliant, looks like something worthwhile to get my teeth stuck into!
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