Earlier this summer, when the golden sun warmed the rock of North Wales, alpinist and trad climber Nick Bullock seized the opportunity of dry crags and strong arms to tick three of his dream routes. Here he recounts his adventures...
The Jubjub Bird – Big Chris.
Vinnie Jones intimidation punched from the quartzite cracks. The undercut cutters were scalpels, the snappies, razor blades and the crisp sea horns greenly covering the top arête were broken bottle. The smell of its stale breath mingled with the sea salt and turned the rock beneath the overhang dark slippery slimy where it is at it's most unprotected steepest. I always wanted to tussle. I wanted more than any to ruffle but those Jubjub feathers, but those talons and sharp orange teeth intimidated me almost like no other.
'If you hold back anything, I'll kill ya. If you bend the truth or I think you're bending the truth, I'll kill ya. If you forget anything, I'll kill ya. In fact, you're gonna have to work very hard to stay alive, Nick. Now, do you understand everything I've just said? 'Cause if you don't, I'll kill ya!'
"Tim Emmett fell from high on the arête, fell a mile – fell below the fin and bounced back up and whacked his head on the bottom of the fin … pissing blood everywhere." Tim Neill told me years ago.
"I had climbed all of the E6's in the Gogarth Guidebook by 2002 except The Jubjub Bird, it’s a tough one. Still haven’t done it. Tried it twice, backed off twice." James McHaffie.
"I backed off it the first time, its knowing that once you go, that’s it. One of the best in Wales." Steve Mayers.
I had stood beneath the down pointing dagger on two separate occasions and watched Dan McManus and Caff step out and back, out and back, out and back … on each occasion both had escaped along the tottering undercuts of Godzilla. Alex Mason told me he also had put it in reverse and is yet to have a re-match.
Tackling The Jubjub Bird was like entering into a knife fight and as we all know, 'Guns for show, knifes for a pro.'
I dreaded and in the same time desired. I wanted to become blooded but I had always bowed to intimidation.
Standing in the sun on top of Fallen Block Zawn, Rhoscolyn, Anglesey, Rich Kirby, tall, wiry – a dry northern monkey, puffed on his piccolo – that’s what I had christened his electronic cigarette which was never far from his mouth. Sea, cams, quickdraws, slings, gulls, grass and ropes – gear was strewn. Rich was the pied piper of Rhoscolyn and I was drawn – a rat to a bird. The sea shimmered, mirror balling the rock beneath the fin with shadows – the sea was on its way out. Countdown.
I recounted the story to Rich of my friends that had backed away from The Jubjub Bird. "Nick, you should at least check the peg, they are all a lot better climbers than you, let's face it, you don’t really stand a chance of the on-sight." Rich's Jason Statham eyes fixed me and twinkled; he chewed his piccolo that bobbed in the corner of his mouth. The peg that Rich referred was out on the arête after the unprotected and overhanging traverse.
And so I did, I threw the rope down into the space beneath the overhanging arête and after placing a few bits of gear to hold me close to that foul breath, I checked the peg and the peg was fine. The peg was fine – in fact it was more than fine – gear placements were all around, well as long as the arms and the head could control the tremors should I actually get out there – out there on the edge – out there wafting like a piece of black bin-bag caught on a barb. The rock flakes boomed, in fact the whole fin boomed, it was the cry of The Jubjub Bird but as I finished abseiling – abseiling down onto the big round boulders, down into the depths of my personality, I knew I wanted to experience, I craved that feeling of out on the edge, wafting in the wind like a piece of black bin-bag.
I stepped from the ground on what was possibly the hottest day of the summer. The orange rock glowed with heat-haze but this was not the cause of the blur that made the intricate crack and face and arête disappear. Too soon, too soon… I clung to those in-cut holds on the junction with Godzilla and for the first time in the many times I had clung to these holds, I contemplated turning left – left into a world of overhanging and commitment. Too soon.
Small cams above, a sling wrapped around a boss of suspect rock, below – the same boss I would have to stand and dance, it looked friable. The gear was hard won and strenuous to place. Out in, out in, out in, out in… there has to come a point?
"I'll give it a go in a minute Rich."
"Well…" Dulcet northern monkey drones floated along with piccolo steam… "When you go, you won't be coming back."
I felt like shouting 'You're not funny, Rich. You're fat, and look as though you should be, but you're not!' But I didn’t because we both knew Rich was not fat and I was shitting myself.
And then I went. And immediately the force of gravity wrestled and shoulders strained. A line of grey undercut flakes were my hands and my feet skipped in an attempt to position my body in a line of least resistance. The large flakes flashed, they are out there – out on the arête – I looked up at another undercut directly above but it looked rubbish and difficult to reach…
"Go low." The Pied Piper shouted.
But low proved too powerful and power is not my thing.
The rope ran through the belay plate. Blurred orange. The cry of gulls. Vapour trails. Salt. Sun. And as I fell I heard the jerky staccato of Peter and the Wolf being played on a piccolo… but there was no snapping of rock, no exploding of cams or crunching of body parts. It's a deal, it's a steal. It's the sale of the fucking century.'
The myth was tamed, those orange teeth were capped. Eventually I made it through the crux having proven, without any doubt whatsoever, that man cannot fly and the beta supplied by a Pied Piper and his piccolo is not always the best tune to follow. And there I was, out onto that arête, out into the imagined position, with the wind and air catching at my body and it was all I ever imagined.
I wanted to say, 'Fuck it, the battle is over and the war is won.'
But all I thought was 'Tim Emmett fell from high…'
And struggling and straining in the bright sun, I could see how falling from high was possible but at last, at long bloody last, I stood with the cooling grass soothing my feet and I knew I would be back and next time, yes, most definitely next time, The Jubjub Bird would look at me in sympathy.
Psychic Threshold – Barry the Baptist
Fifteen years ago, and the end of a long day on Castell y Gwynt, that shady limestone bastion jutting overhangingly into the Irish Channel below the Marine Drive at The Orme near Llandudno, Steve Long pointed me at Psychic Threshold, "Get us out on that" That what The Longman said, it slipped from his mouth with no effort, "Get us out on that.". Looking back, Steve either wanted an easy ride, a laugh at my expense or he was just sick and vindictive. I threw myself at the initial overhang and it laughed at my flailing and shrugged me off. Maybe Steve just wanted to real in my brashness, I'm sure I thought I was good at the time and I'm sure I wanted the world to know.
My second Psychic Threshold journey was in the summer of 2006, I had just returned from Peru and it was a dish served cold by James McHaffie.
Caff and I had climbed all day. I had successfully reached the top of New Dimensions, while Caff had successfully reached the top of New Dimensions, Cruella Deville, Hidden Sign and Blast Peru. I had also attempted to plant a flag on all of these climbs but failed.
"Right let's get out on Psychic Threshold."
I wanted to say, 'no, let's walk up the steep grassy gully', my legs were strong and the grassy gully was something I knew I could successfully summit but the wrong word came out of my mouth.
"OK."Caff and I had climbed together a lot, I enjoy his dark sense of humour and his black streak of competitiveness, although being the best on-sight traditional climber in the world, he certainly had no reason to feel challenged by my inept thrashing but Caff loved the sandbag. Bloody hell, does Caff love the sandbag and since coming back from Peru he had already caught me off-guard by pointing me at the crux pitch of Long Kesh on Cyrn Las. The ropes spiralled around my legs, the overhang was unprotected. Pumped and scared, I fought to hold on, it was touch and throw… an inverted fall onto the slab below would be crunching. I wedged myself and turned and screamed profanities. Caff lay on the belay smoking a roll-up and laughing. "BASTARD." I didn’t realise it at the time – pumped and scared, hardly able to hold-on – Caff was readdressing the balance after climbing together in February earlier that year. This was the first winter ascent of Cracking Up on Clogwyn Du and I was the one stood at the top of the pitch laughing and he was the one swinging around struggling and repeatedly resting. When Caff reached me he admitted that only levitation would have got him up the pitch. I should have known this would come back with interest.
Needless to say, Caff waltzed his way up Psychic Threshold. On second, I thrashed and tried exceptionally hard but still managed to turn this single forty metre E5 6b it into an aid climb, possibly using more points of aid than Warren Harding on El Cap. The sun beat and by the time I reached the steep grassy slope I was a demented escapee grabbing handfuls of grass. Caff sat laughing and I resembled a bright red Puffa Fish about to burst.
"You still haven’t forgiven me for Cracking Up have you?"
"Nick, I haven’t even started!"
My third attempt to successfully plant the Psychic flag on second was with Murdoch Jamieson. Murdo was another very talented climber and he on-sighted Psychic, while yet again I turned it into A2. It was after this kicking I wrote in the guidebook, 'I will never lead this climb.' Some climbs are not meant to happen – the rock that was too solid, it was too well protected and technical – it needed skill and sport fitness, trusty footwork and at times, power and I don’t have any of these prerequisites. And in accepting, I relaxed and the world grew fluffy.
Last week I returned to The Gwynt with Will Sim and of course Will wanted to try Psychic, but that was OK, I knew it was not for me and it would slap me and that really was OK, it happens and this is to be accepted, it is a lesson hard won but once you master this lesson, climbing becomes a whole lot more enjoyable.
Will gave the climb a good go but fluffed the on-sight falling at the crux, which proved how hard this climb is, which by now, I didn’t need convincing. So on second, it came as a shock to find myself beneath the crux not even warm – usually I was gasping out of my arse at this point. I fell from the crux move but it wasn’t because it felt impossible, it was due to not being warmed up. Shock. I had dismissed this climb, it was never going to happen but in one second, my mind grabbed a slither of possibility and I sucked in that hope, it was like being flashed a smile from a beautiful woman, a woman who you knew there was no chance but all of a sudden, for the first time ever, she had acknowledged you.
The next day I returned with Tim Neill who was just back for a week away from guiding in the Alps and along with the fat shimmering seals down on their boulder at the Sea's edge, basking and singing their sirens song, everything must have aligned – the tides, the moon, the sun … everything. I warmed up on Psychic and didn’t let go until the top.
Miracles obviously do happen – old dogs learn new tricks and on occasion a beautiful woman fancies a bit of rough.
Mr Softy – Hatchet Harry.
It was a Sunday evening in May, 2009 and I was one of a number of hosts on a BMC International Meet in North Wales. The Plas y Brenin bar was rammed and it was here I was introduced to Nico Favresse, my climbing partner for the week. Nico, a short, bouncy Belgian with a big smile, a silly hat and a great sense of fun was, and still is, one of the best climbers in the world, but in my mind and much more to his credit, he is one of the most engaging, and down to earth guys I have met.
After five days of climbing with Nico, I had pointed him at increasingly challenging climbs and it was obvious he could cope with technical and powerful and physically demanding but it was also obvious he could embrace 'The Loose.' Cenotaph Corner, Left Wall, JR, Lord of the Flies, an attempt at Nightmayer, The Axe, Authentic Desire, Purspire, ME on Yellow Wall and Strawberries at Tremadog – Day five arrived and Mr softy in Wen Zawn was going to be the highlight of my week, I always wanted to snuggle to Mr Softy and here I was with an unstoppable silly hat wearing Belgian weapon.
May is not the best for me and rock and as usual, not long out of a full winter season in the Alps, I was playing catch up. Day five – arms and mind were feeling the pace but this was too good an opportunity to miss. Nico and I swung leads. I climbed the first easy pitch hanging from the large flakes that felt like they could rip and bring the whole of the back wall crashing down. Nico led the forty metre crux pitch, an intimidating step into wildly overhanging pinch and sidepull. 'Treading where angels fear' is how George Smith, one of the first ascentionists described it, although the little Belgian didn’t appear to be fearing at all, he whooped and joked and swung and gave a running commentary. I managed somehow to follow without falling but while leading the butch, final pitch, my arms hit meltdown, my butch had deserted.
James McHaffie and Nico's regular climbing partner, Sean Villanueva O’Driscoll were also in the zawn climbing Conan the Librarian and the banter was good, in fact the banter was so good Nico failed to realise the state of my pump. And as I snatched the rope towards me in an attempt to clip the first piece of gear I had placed in a long time, it stopped – it stopped with a resounding snag – Nico had short roped me. "NOOOOOO!" I exploded from the rock. Caff looked worried as I flew through the air heading in his direction but Nico and Sean just whooped and laughed. I hung, way out and above the sea ready to throw up.
Since my rapid rejection by Mr Softy I have always wanted to complete the climb without a fall. I pulled back on in 2009 and finished the route but this was not good enough, the line was impressive, adventure, bold, intimidating – Mr Softy deserved better.
Big Tim Neill had flown home to Wales from a summer of guiding in The Alps. His legs had grown big while his shoulders withered or that’s what he would have liked us to believe. He had a week before returning to the mountains and in an attempt to rectify his guide's affliction he had thrown himself at every rock route available. The weather was hot and dry and on day five Tim resembled a sunflower that needed watering. I advised him to rest for a single day, "We have a date with Mr Softy." But as per usual, Tim and his enthusiasm disregarded this advice.
Day seven dawned dry and bright, I drove from The Llanberis Pass to the old school house in Nant Peris and collected The Big Guy. Haggard, a six foot seven picket, he had pounded himself repeatedly into dry rock. Tim may have hinted at trying something easier but my little van was a red hot tomato of enthusiasm aimed at Gogarth and it landed on my stubborn earth which was as hard as the hayfields bordering the A55.
Standing, looking into Wen Zawn, it was water to the parched, light grey rock, a late, low tide.
"They said rain was coming at four, got that wrong didn’t they." I said with the confidence of the, about to be shot down at approximately four o clock.
Wearing a green t-shirt with Sesame St written across the chest, Tim sat eating an Eccles Cake. Big Bird meets Mr Softy. I bounced around; The Cookie Monster eats Mr Softy. Nom. I was still on a high from The Jubjub Bird and Psychic Threshold – how could we fail?
Clumps, lumps, cobbles, fins, flakes – dough balls hard baked and some not so. The cobbled back wall madness of The Mad Brown. The ready mix of Rubble – I stand on my own belaying and feel almost at piece in this quartzite cathedral. People, voices, images, flood my mind. Paul Pritchard stretches thin lycra legs across the rotting corner, but just as quick he is lying broken amongst boulders with the sea on the turn. Jonny Dawes repeatedly throws himself at Hardback Thesaurus. Adam Wainwright and Big George Smith wrestle with craziness. Jimmy Jewel solos the greasy off-width of T-Rex.
Tim climbs the initial pillar in the centre of the wall at the back of the Zawn, his first soiree into the soft, but it is not really soft, it is more unpredictable. I thought Mr Rippy would be a more suitable name for the climb.
"Does the rock improve the higher we get?" Tim asked as I pulled into the cramped and hanging stance in-front of his large protecting frame.
"Oh yes." I lied knowing we still could easily escape by using the gear left in place from my last attempt a week or so ago but not wanting to scare The Big Bird away with such an easy get out clause.
The rain hit bang on time. Belaying, a fly in the middle of a web glued to the back wall of my desire, I had watched the cloud tracking the surface of the sea. Fortunately Wen is so steep; the rain was not hitting, but as Big Bird grew large I could see his feathers were slightly ruffled and a waterfall cascaded from the overhanging at the top of the third pitch. I looked around; the rock was crying and inside, so was I. And as the intensity of the rain increased – in the cavernous gloom – even the rock hidden from the downpour began to take on a dark attitude.
"Guessed that’s pissed on our bonfire." Big Bird chirped as he constructed a new belay to my right – his arms were too fried to lead the final pitch.
"It's getting brighter out to sea, by the time you have built that belay and we've sorted the gear it'll be fine." I had obviously truly mastered the art of lying but every time I looked up, I was there, swimming in that waterfall and taking a similar trajectory.
The south Stack lighthouse behind me pulsed and as I clung to those very holds I had battled and finally let go on my previous encounter with Nico, I wished my heartbeat was as regular. The rock was weeping and even in my fit state, the pump was threatening to block rational thinking. 'Just control it Bullhorn' my internal voice spoke and unlike the previous time, I managed to hang in beneath the roof while working wet pinches and fathoming the way ahead. Pulling the roof, into the crack, it was not desperation, I could crimp and lock – my body and mind were with me. I threw handfuls of chalk to control the wet and actually revelled and the South Stack lighthouse lit my way and as I pulled into the rain and onto the slab with only easy climbing left to the top, I yelled and embraced the warm rain and laughed.
Sitting on the steep grass above the top of the zawn, big reviving slaps of rain hit both Tim and me. Our arms and faces were covered in chalk. We sat and laughed and recounted moves and as we did the rain washed the chalk from our skin but the memory of the last few weeks, The Jubjub Bird, Psychic Threshold and Mr Softy, they are deeply engrained, these memories would withstand the most heavy of storms.
'Its been emotional.'
Huge thank you to all the photographers who contributed to this article including Ray Wood, Tim Neill, Rich Kirkby and Lukasz Warzecha.
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