The Llanberis slate quarries are home to some of the boldest, finest, hardest and weirdest climbs in Wales. The routes' considerable reputations are well matched by the despoiled mountainsides geology, history and the climbing culture of the area. In this article local instructor, photographer, writer and all-round good guy Mark Reeves explains all.
The story of the Llanberis slate starts around 500 million years ago, when layer upon layer of mudstone - deposited over millennia in a shallow sea - eventually became overlain and intruded by volcanic rock, lava and ash. The heat and pressure that these applied to the shale type rock, transformed it over aeons into what is now considered the best slate in the world.
"The routes considerable reputations are well matched by the despoiled mountainsides geology, history and the climbing culture"
Slate is virtually impervious to water, and is easily split into tiles making it excellent for roofing and of course in its raw form climbing upon. Post formation the slate lay dormant for another age waiting for the next event in its long history - the collision of what is now the UK with Nova Scotia caused the mountains to rise above sea level and the Snowdonia mountain range was born.
And there it would have ended for the slate, buried under a mountain of rock, but the earth had different ideas and around 100,000 years ago the earth was plunged into a glacial period - glaciers shaped the landscape of North Wales into the dramatic mountainscape that we see today. Jump forwards to 10,000 years ago and the globe started to heat up, the ice retreated and the world we know today started to emerge.
"the owners not only kept the welsh workforce in poverty, but used the ships that transported the slate all over the world to engage in the slave triangle"
Whilst limited mining occurred in early times - the most notable a Roman fort who's remains on the outskirts of Caernarfon was roofed in slate - it wasn't until much later during the industrial revolution that slate mining expanded rapidly. Factory building and rapid urban growth led to the need for an effective roofing material, and that's where slate and the Welsh quarries associated with it came into being.
In 1890 the industry peaked, with over 17,000 men being employed in the mines and quarries of North Wales. The subsequent decline in the industry was to have a major effect on the locals and workers alike. When, in an effort to employ its workers with disregard for new Health and Safety Laws the owners of the quarries essentially locked the workers out for nearly a year with no pay, times became very hard and when the mine owners eventually opened the gates to the capitulating workers, they only took on half the original workforce.
Similarly it is only just coming to light after the Penrhyn family finally released historic papers from the time - after the last living relative of those times passed away - that the owners not only kept the welsh workforce in poverty, but used the ships that transported the slate all over the world to engage in the slave triangle. It was this transportation to global destinations that gave birth to some of the names of the areas in the quarries, however it has been suggested that some of these have been misnamed by climbers, although the general theme is still there.
After the Second World War new technology in roofing, which was cheaper and easier to manufacture than slate was born - the ceramic tile. So despite more mechanization the quarries went through a steady decline until in 1969 when the Dinorwig quarries finally closed. By the end of the mining in Dinorwig, 362 quarrymen had lost their lives extracting the grey gold.
The history of climbing in the quarries started, in 1969, with Joe Brown who seemed to have been waiting for the workers to leave so he could step in. Joe was of course a pioneer of steep and intimidating lines up big cliffs throughout the UK and abroad. So it seems fitting that he set his sights on the biggest cliff of all, the back wall of Twll Mawr (Big Hole), putting up the compelling and rarely ascended Opening Gambit. This route has been greatly altered over the years through rockfalls that have been both small and colossal. The route also exacted a high price on two students who fell to their death when attempting the line, a route that should never be underestimated, and despite the lowly grade of HVS, is probably more of an XS - standing for extremely stupid.
Another local Al Harris - whose house on Fachwen overlooked Gideon Quarry - was to make an early exploration of this slab producing Gideon. This is a smart little HVS although somewhat bold as gear is both sparse and at times imaginative, and generally involves exploring the limits of friction on what feels like Teflon.
Whilst other routes were climbed, the quarries were something of a backwater that failed to spark the imagination of those that explored the myriad of levels, holes and workings.
• Emerald Dyke - F3 - Dali's Hole
• Deceptive Dyke - F5 - Looning the Tube
• 362 - Never Neverland - F5
• Tomb Raider - Never Neverland - F5
• Freshair Crack - Nuremburg Area - F5c
• Overtaken by Department 'C' - Cig-Arete Level, Rainbow Walls - F5c
• Grandpiere & Grandmiere - Dalis Hole F5
• Gwion's Groove - Cig-Arete Level, Rainbow Walls - F6a
• Horse Latitudes & Alive and Kicking – Bella Lugosi Area F6a+
• Toy Soldiers - Skyline Buttress - F6a
• Bella Lugosi is Dead – A cracking pitch up a thin crack, avoid passing any gear as it does run out for a while.
• Gnat attack – Awesome runout slab, two bolts. Requires a steady head with a tricky but well protected crux.
• Fools Gold – A hard move to gain the ledge leads to a nice sustained crack.
• Seams The Same – A thin stepped line.
• Monster Kitten – Do you hand or foot traverse this thin crack? Maybe a bit of both?
• Last Tango in Paris – The poor mans Comes the Dervish
• Looning the Tube – Used to be total lunacy, still a great slab
• Launching Pad – A brave lead to the first bolt, then a steady head will get you to the top.
• Californian Arete – A serious - death from the top floor in a high rise kind of way. Easy but essentially a solo
• The Madness – A scooped slab with just enough bolts
Twelve years after Joe Brown's epic route it was the rising climbing legend Stevie Haston who was to take up the baton and redefine climbing on the slate with Comes the Dervish; famously cleaned with a 'borrowed knife' from Pete's Eats. Comes the Dervish is a route that any wannabe Slatehead needs to put at the top of their ticklist, originally graded E5, the line has cleaned up considerably, and is now one of the best E3's in the UK. If you have not climbed this route then you are not a slate climber, just a climber who's climbed on slate.
"It was now climbing legend Stevie Haston who was to take the baton and redefine climbing on the medium; When he famously 'borrowed a knife' from Pete's Eats to clean what is now the iconic route of the quarries"
For a trend to really take a hold you need more than just a route, you need a context into which that trend can explode, and whilst it is widely written that this route sparked the revolution, there is more to it than simply the ascent of Comes the Dervish, and that something had as much to do with the socio-economic situation of the times as it did that clean fresh line on a slate blackboard.
• Massambula - Rippled Slab – Bus Stop Quarry - E2 – Another runout slab which will get the blood pumping.
• Scarlet runner - Rippled Slab – Bus Stop Quarry - E4 – A scary proposition to reach the first bolt, leads to a sustain well protected slab above.
• Short Stories – Never Never Land - E4 – Thin, run-out and bold, big falls, tall stories and a must for the slab junky.
• Kubla Khan - Never Never Land – E3 – Technically harder than its E4 neighbour Short Stories, but easier overall.
• Pull My Daisy – Rainbow Slab – E2 – A fine and technical crack leads to an insitu pipe above which there nothing in the way of gear for 12 metres.
• Colossus – Colossus Wall – E3 – A long, steep pump fest up a massive wall.
• The Mau Mau – Rainbow Walls Upper - E4 - A steep and pumpy crack.
• German School Girl - Rainbow Walls Upper – E2 – A excellent technical corner - if you can get off the ground you're laughing.
• Soap on a Rope – Bathtime Wall, Vivian Quarry - E4 – Another steep route, which has been Deep Water Soloed by many, it does sport two bolts.
• Off the beaten Track – Railtrack Slab, Australia – E3 – A great sustain slab with an interesting finish onto hanging railway tracks.
• Is it a Crime?! – Conscience Slab – E3.
• Is It a Crime, Never as Good as the First time/Sweetest Taboo link – Conscience Slab – E3 – Fine and sustain slab climbs with just enough gear.
• Ride the Wild Surf – Colossus Wall - E4 – Even pumpier than Colossus, if you can navigate past the 'chipadeedodah' hold.
• Jack of Shadows - Colossus Wall – E4 – A technical groove that will only yield to some wide bridging.
• Psychotherapy – E2 – A steep slab with a mix of bolts and gear.
• Poetry Pink/Released from treatment - Rainbow Slab - This is a stella combo and possible the easiest of the E5 on this Slab.
• Cystitis By Proxy - Rainbow Slab - A very bold start up a crack, may well be getting harder as the crack now takes less gear, the top crux move from a letterbox hold is desperate.
• Splitstream - Rainbow Slab - Less cruxy but more sustained than Cystitis, the initial slab is hard to read from below, and you aren't going to cheat by abseiling down it? Are you!
• Waves of Inspiration - California Area - Another good first E5, well protected and reasonably steady for the grade.
• Central Sadness - California Area - The best E5 on slate – One pitch for the hero and another for the married man.
• Flashdance – the Dervish slab – Vivian - Seriously run out above marginal gear.
• Never Never land – A long pitch with a worrying spike that you are straddling as you perform the crux! Enough to make you eyes water just think of the consequences.
• Heading the Shot – Serengeti - Although often seen as a sports route, it is still E5!
• The Wonderful World of Walt Disney – Twll Mawr - This is reportedly another of the best routes on slate, and is a four pitch monster. You'll need at least 5 to 6 hours to get up it!
What acted as a springboard was the rise of unemployment in the early 1980s - Maggie's Millions was the name for this army of unemployed, and from these battalions of jobseekers rose a new boom in the quarries, although this time it wasn't from quarryman's soft explosives. The rock and dole generation where spawned.
What this meant was that if you were a climber, and you wanted to live off of benefits and climb, the world was your oyster. You could sign on by post, and spend all your available time climbing and engaging in all manner of socially irresponsible activities. The year was 1983, the BBC started their first ever breakfast show, The Austin Metro was the most popular selling car in the UK, two new MP's were voted into the House of Commons - a Mr Tony Blair and Mr Gordon Brown, the British Thrust II set a new world land speed record, the first cruise missiles arrived at Greenham Common amid mass protests, the Brink-MAT gold robbery took place, the Compact Disc arrived, Maggie Thatcher won a landslide victory after a short and bloody campaign to regain the Falkland Islands and ..... the major boom in slate climbing started.
"The year was 1983, the BBC started their first ever breakfast show, The Austin Metro was the most popular selling car in the UK, The first cruise missiles arrive at Greenham Common amid mass protests, the Compact Disc arrived, Thatcher wins a landslide victory ........ and major boom in slate climbing starts."
As acres of virgin rock became known to the ballooning population of dole-men, climbers started to migrated to Llanberis to get involved with this new almost punk like movement. The stage was set for slate to make a big impact on UK climbing, along with mullets, bad moustaches and even worse - lycra tights.
The routes of the early years were to revolve around the exact type of ground that Stevie had stumbled upon when he climbed perhaps the most conspicuous slab in the quarries. Elsewhere the slabs were devoid of such luxurious cracks, and meant that the ethos turned to bolting. Whether or not you believe that the likes of Redhead and his cohorts applied Joe Brown's rule of two bolts a pitch to the immaculate Rainbow Slab or that the hard economic times led to the minimalistic approach to fixed gear, who cares. What the quarries got was some serious routes with almost astronomical runouts. This was a time of hard men in garish tights - The Slatehead was born - a person whose antics off the rock were just as important as on it. It was a time of hard partying climbers having ample time to not only push the boundaries of climbing but also hedonistic behaviour. Perhaps the best account is given in Paul Pritchard's book Deep Play which chronicles the antics of the time - a highly recommended read.
"... the Slatehead was born, a person whose antics off the rock were just as important as on it."
Similarly in the forthcoming new guidebook to the slate Martin Crook's previously unpublished Slatehead Dairy's will throw even more light into the murky world of Llanberis in the 1980's. In the years that followed the 1983 explosion, the Rainbow Slab, Never Neverland, Vivian Quarry and Australia all got their major lines ascended. Around 80 routes were climbed between 1983 and 1985 of which 30 are still considered starred classics. Development picked up more speed and in 1986 over 100 new routes were added, around 80 the following year, and over seventy the year after that. Then almost as quickly as it started the new routes dwindled.
If you can turn your brain off, and just climb, then the slabs of the quarries are invariably easier than routes of similar grades, it does however take a long time to train you mind in the ways of the runout slab. There came a point though when the climbers started to look away from the slabs, and turn to steeper and blanker rock.
This corresponded with the development of sport climbing in the UK, many climbers were enjoying the luxury of sport climbing in Europe, whilst collecting their dole money via the post and upon their return many realised the full potential of the quarries.
Three routes stood out that ushered in this new era, the first two by John Redhead in Vivian Quarry where he sculpted two utterly horrendous routes that suited his height and finger strength. The first, Manic Strain is still considered F7c+ or 8a, whereas Misogynist Discharge is no push over at 8a+, and features more of a scrape than a chip on its crucial foothold.
Later that year came a four pitch masterpiece from Johnny Dawes in the form of The Quarryman. Its third pitch has been made famous by his Stone Monkey video, where Johnny climbs the gymnastic and powerful groove. A little later Dawes went on to add the classic Bobby's Groove and the ultra technical Untouchables Arête.
Another of the main sport climbing activists on the scene was Nick Harms. In 1986 he made the first ascent of one of the more amusingly named routes; Watch Me Wallaby Wank Frank and added among others Cwms The Dogfish, Tru Clip, and The Dark Half - all of which are fantastic high end sport climbs. None of his routes have diminished in reputation over the years, and just a sighting of Nick in the book 'The Power of Climbing", will make you realise that even in those days the ability to be totally ripped despite rampant hedonism was still possible.
What set many of these routes apart from say European or limestone sport routes in the UK, is the moves. Often a scene of much frustration for the climber, the technical on/off nature of the slate cruxes, that have more to do with feet sticking to a hold than the ability to pull hard. This gives slate sport its very own style, where relentless body tension is needed to keep in contact with the tiny holds.
Slate climbing is like flairs - if you live long enough then it is going to come back into fashion at some point, and four years ago saw the return of the slate. The resurgence started the activity of re-equipping many of the slate's classics, a necessary act as many of the bolts were passed their sell by date.
Along with the re-equipping was some controversial retro bolting in several hitherto forgotten areas that had routes of reasonable quality but a dearth of gear. These areas were brought 'Kicking and Screaming' as some people put it into the real world of the Naughties. The ultra classic routes were rightly left as they were, whilst some routes that had maybe seen a couple of ascents in a decade were seeing many ascents a week, just days after they were equipped. The quarries almost felt alive with climbers again.
At this time the author of this piece carried out an act which sparked a new revolution, a monster that at times seemed out of control. The act was to bolt three routes, one in particular a F3 in Dali's Hole up a clean, thin and beautiful dolerite band. Before you could blink there were easy routes popping up all over the place. Some climbers were literally excavating routes from nothing, cleaning back until they reach something solid, as quite literally tonnes of slate came down.
Whilst on the one hand low end sports routes were exactly what the quarries needed for their popularity. The flip side of this was that some venues now look grid bolted, and the latest boom in the quarries almost did more damage to us climbers than anything the quarrymen managed.
With not unusually over 40 people climbing in Dali's Hole, the owners of the land, the electricity generating company First Hydro or their Japanese multinational owners started to get nervous. Conflict and confrontation flared and it resulted in First Hydro threatening to ban access to the quarry for climbers. I say threaten, as a site this big with so many access points means that policing such a ban would be near impossible. However to reduce the risk to members of the public being encouraged off the path at Dali's Hole they erected a high barbed wire fence - which was subsequently chopped, then re-erected, and re-chopped.
In recent months the BMC has been negotiating an access agreement with First Hydro.
Alongside this 'everyman' revolution a small number of climbers took advantage of easy access to a drill, bolt and develop a new set of modern test pieces. None captures the cutting edge of slate climbing more than The Serpent Vein, which was actually a project from the 1990's that was left uncompleted by that generation of locals, it was James McHaffie who eventually climbed this at F8b. Steep, intimidating and exposed, the route has yet to have a second ascent, and after Johnny Dawes Meltdown project in Twll Mawr, is possibly the hardest route on slate.
Slate's best sport testpieces
• The Quarryman Groove F7c+/8a – Relive the Stone Monkey video, well worth the abseil in and jumar out for a top rope!
• Gin Palace F7c - Like a light version of The Quarryman groove with a extremely tricky crack at the top
• Spong F7c - A great route, that in the main part is very reasonable climbing on well spaced positive holds. The crux is either a desperate rock over or a very long dyno!
• Tru Clip F7b+ - A thin and desperate wall.
• The Dark Half F8a - Possibly the most popular F8a in the quarries
• Manic Strain F7c+/8a - Chipped for someone of a 6ft plus stature, it is possible but much harder for the short!
• Wish You Were Here F7b - An amazing layback flake high up in the quarries
• Serpent Vein F8b - Given F8b by the first ascensionist, it is probably harder, and is no doubt the hardest route in the quarries
• Geordie Warcry F7a+ - A great stamina test for early season.
• Forsinain Motspur F7c - A very technical wall with and excruciatingly thin finish.
• Bungles Arete F8b - A stunning route, up the obvious tower that emerges from Rainbow Slab. Dynamic and photogenic.
• The Very Big and The Very Small F8b+ - A hideously thin, and desperate series of 6c and 7a moves will allow only the best climbers to ascend this slab, yes an 8b+ slab! You'll be lucky if you get more than two attempts a session before you finger split. Most people will need to pour chalk down the slab to try and find the holds.
Bold and Difficult Slabs
Whilst may of these routes have been on-sighted, they often have only seen one ascent in this style by some of the best climbers of our generation. In particular Leo Houlding's onsight of My Halo and Patch Hammond's Beta On-sight of Raped By Affection stand as two of the most impressive on-sight ascents the quarries have seen.
• Rainbow of Recalcitrance – E6 - An incredible line that takes the obvious challenge
• Raped By Affection – E7 - A serious lead with the first gear that will hold you a bolt that is invariably out of reach at 22m!
• Sweetest Taboo E4 - A long lonely slab leads up to the first gear at around 10m, where after it gets easier until the final crux slab past a bolt at the top
• My Halo E6 or it is 7 - This debate will rage, it is more E6 to headpoint, but probably E7 to onsight. The crux at 6/7m is protected by a poor skyhook, a even worse RP and a prayer!
• Dawes of Perception E7 - Another of Johnny's hard slabs, this time a hard and bold E5/6 leads up to a hideous 7a sequence past a bolt.
• Windows of Perception E6 - 'Possibly the hardest rock over in the world', flexibility is a must.
• For Whom the Bell Tolls E6 - A lonely lead with only joke protection to reach the overlap on the Dervish Slab
• Any of the other numerous E6's on the Rainbow Slab – all thin bold and difficult
When do I go? Climbing on the slate is possible throughout the year and sun and shade are easily tracked down. Many of the routes dry rapidly after rainfall and climbing is often possible when the mountain routes are out of condition.
Getting to the slate? From the south - follow the A5 from Birmingham to Capel Curig, and turn left. Drive for 4.5 miles until at a pub on the right (Pen y Gwryd). Turn right to Llanberis. Alternatively from the north take the A55 coast road to Bangor and take signs to Llanberis. The quarries are very easily viewed from Llanberis itself and accessed from a large carpark (fee) at the mine centre next to Vivian Quarry.
Where do I stay? There is an excellent but basic campsite opposite the Vaynol Arms Nant Peris (just up the pass from Llanberis), an OK pub and a favourite with many locals. It costs around £4.50 a night (per person), and has hot and cold showers (according to their sign!) and toilets. It is also possible to walk to the upper quarries from here. There are several climbing club huts in the valley the Climbers' Club, Ceunant and Vagabonds all have great huts. As you leave Nant Peris towards Llanberis Ben's Bunkhouse is situated above the large lay-by on the left. This is only 6 minutes walk from the Vaynol, and very well appointed for a bunkhouse has a campsite and a host of B&B's, Hotels, Youth Hostel, and Bunkhouses most are climber and walker friendly, however I should give special mention to Pete's Eats Bunkhouse and the Gally y Glyn Hotel (home of Pizza and a Pint), two places that have become popular with the locals over the years. The infamous climbers pub The Heights Hotel has just reopened and first reports are very encouraging.
|Where to get food and beer There are two shops in Llanberis, a Spar and Costcutter, both stock a reasonable but slightly overpriced selection of food. If you need some specialist food then supermarkets are available in Bangor and Caernarfon. The Vaynol Arms in Nant Peris is the nearest good pub with food to The Pass. Llanberis has several pubs, I have recently been drinking in all of them, and each has its unique charm, although I am not sure what that is in a few of them. The Gwynedd has nice food and beer, The Dolbadarn is fairly basic, the Padarn Lake is often vibrant at the weekend with local youths, The Prince of Wales is my local and is where many of the older villagers drink, it hasn't seen much in the way of decoration recently, is basic but I love it. Wednesday and Thursday nights is definitely Gallt Y Glyn Night – Pizza and Pint. If your on holiday to party hard as well as climb hard then The Fricsan is often a good venue, with live bands or dance nights at weekends.|
What gear and which guidebook do I need? A standard rack for trad or sport climbing and boots with a good edge on them. There are two gear shops in Llanberis, Joe Browns and V12 Outdoor. Both stock camping and climbing equipment, and the staff are very knowledgeable about the local climbing. There is no current definitive guidebook available at the present time but the Ground-up North Wales Rock gives good coverage of the slate and the online pages of www.slate.wetpaint.com gives up-to-date info on new lines and equipping. .
What else is there apart from the climbing? What else do you need, the climbing should be enough, if it isn't then walking and scrambling abounds in the Snowdonia National Park, as does some amazing mountain biking. Other attractions are the Electric Mountain Underground Tour, The Slate Museum (free entry) and The Ropes and Ladders High Ropes Course. Other than that try a pub crawl (see drinking section).
You can read more about Mark Reeves on his blog: Life in the Vertical
Mark is also a professional Mountaineering Instructor. You can find out more on his other site:
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