On visiting Welsh slate for the first time, many climbers will find themselves at Australia’s Sidings with its comfortable ledge and wide selection of amenable sport routes. Or perhaps Plateau Slab, where a slab of easy to moderate well-bolted sport routes provides ideal ticking ground for the F5-6a climber.
The Dinorwic slate quarries were one of the first places I visited as a climber, about two years ago now. I was enthralled; camera in hand I trailed far behind the others, stopping to marvel at the unearthly turquoise of Dali’s pool and its twisted fairy-tale trees, fascinated by the piles of rusting abandoned iron-ware and in awe of the immense tottering piles of dark slate. A place humans had once carved out, but now slim white birch saplings fringed the blue of the reservoir and grass covered abandoned heaps of shingle; a sense of natural and unnatural in juxtaposition.
The colours too, slate is like no other rock I know. Sometimes its blue, green, grey, or even a purple deepening into black. It’s dappled, streaked or spotted with whorls of pale green. It glistens, gleams, reflective almost. The light affects it, you never know what to expect and it may not be the same next time.
I couldn’t believe it that first time, we seemed to have stepped into some fantastic ‘other’ world.
Since then I’ve returned many times, unable to resist the enchantment of the place; and over the course of these visits I’ve learnt about its rich climbing history and begun to discover some of the routes for myself.
Slate has its share of famous, classic extreme routes. In the Vivian Quarry there is the iconic Comes the Dervish E3 visible from Pete’s Eats from where Stevie Haston famously ‘borrowed’ a knife and fork to clean the route, and Soap on a Rope E4 on Bathtime Wall which is often deep water soloed. There is the famous The Rainbow of Recalcitrance E6 arcing across the impossibly smooth Rainbow Walls and Dawes eponymous Dawes of Perception E7, right up to, of course, the iconic The Quarryman E8, most recently brought into attention again by McClure’s first single-day ascent of the whole route in 2011.
However, don’t imagine that the quarries are all about desperate hard trad routes with holds you can barely see, on gear that is barely there and deck-out potentials that don’t bear thinking about, mostly put up by the legendary spandex legging-clad Johnny Dawes in the 80’s. Far from it, there are some brilliant low-mid grade trad routes that are well worth seeking out, especially when they’re at your limit.
Slate is an excellent place to push your limit and it’s where I did all my ‘firsts’ of a grade. The routes I list are (almost all) well protected with good gear and/or bolts, which is standard practice in the quarries and an ethics argument I won’t go into now.
The grading is fairly moderate, and the style of climbing means you can take your time figuring out hard moves. It’s also well suited to someone who’s not been climbing long; you won’t get pumped as there are a lot of slabs! You can also make excellent use of the sport routes to warm up on and get used to the rock. Meanwhile, many of the trad routes are similar in style, making getting on that harder lead a little less daunting.
If you’re a lover of indoor overhangs and are therefore swiftly going off the idea at the very mention of slabs, why not look at it as a useful challenge. Slate is very different from indoor climbing, but it will build technique in a way that indoors never will. You’ll learn a lot about footwork, flexibility, rock-overs and very small crimps – all my favourite things!
Below is a selection of some of the best routes to get into Welsh slate trad climbing. Unless stated otherwise, they are fully on trad gear.
This list starts at VS because there is very little in the way of quality below the grade. There are a couple of HS’s but mostly everything is loose, green and sometimes dangerously snappy. However, if you’re currently a HS climber, get on the VS’s they make brilliant first leads!
A little scary on the traverse, but anchor your belayer to make it safe up to the first bolt and you won’t ever hurt yourself seriously. Once past this, just keep eying up the chain and savour the relief as you sling them and step into the crack, in realisation that you won’t take the whipper after all! A very popular route.
This is the grade it's really at on the slate! My top three would have to be the classics Bella Lugosi is Dead, Seams the Same, Fools Gold, quality routes and also probably the best-known at the grade.
-Note: A set of micro-wires will make life a whole lot pleasanter from E1 and up on the slate.
- Tip: If you can do the nearby Horse Latitudes 6a+ you know you’re capable of the moves on the technically easier E1.
One very iconic E1 that I don’t recommend is Californian Arete, E1 4c, California. It looks incredible but it’s undoubtedly a very serious undertaking. Personally, despite its 4c climbing being within me, I wouldn’t be considering it until I’ve gained more soloing experience.
Make sure you’re comfortable with run-outs though, as this is scariest route in this list (you still won’t deck out from above the ledge, but will the pipe hold a long fall?) However, if you enjoy being a bit scared, it’s totally brilliant!
Heading to the Vivian Quarry, there are three great slab routes protected only by spaced bolts:
These three were my first E2’s as part of The East Face of the Vivian linkup (see below) Technical and enjoyable slab climbs, they’re not easy, but the hard moves are usually protected by bolts, so they’re well suited for first E2’s especially if you’re good at slabs. The bolts are spaced though, so you do get the trad experience! I found The Turkey Chant the hardest but also the best; this and Too Bald to be Bold work well run together.
Snakes And Ladders (and Tunnels), HVS, Dinorwic Quarry. A real adventure, right into the bowels of the slate quarries: down into deep pits, along dripping tunnels, over tottering piles of chossy shingle and up rusting, rickety ladders. It takes you up to the old, abandoned miners huts and down into the depths of ‘Never Never Land’ and ‘Mordor’…who wouldn’t be psyched!?
Warning: Parts of this excursion are now seriously precarious – the ladders in Australia are now in a really perilous state (unseen when on them) and there have been some substantial rockfalls in Lost World. Wear a helmet at all times and proceed with caution. Not advisable for complete beginners!
Harness up, wear a head-torch for the tunnels and a helmet too – slate is loose! Take a rope, belay plate and prussic for abseiling, and some slings to protect the chain pitch, as well as for clipping on for the scary sections of the ladders.
Rock shoes can be useful for ascending the chain, but the rest is best in approach shoes. It can be a bit epic though, so I would leave the whole day and take lunch. No actual HVS climbing, but experience and care are essential as this is very adventurous. It’s fantastic for an active rest day, or even a wet or snowy day.
Find a good guide here.
The East Face of Vivian E2 5c, Vivian Quarry. There are a few variants to this route described in the Ground-Up guide. The easiest ones are an excellent way of sampling some of the routes I’ve already recommended. An excellent fun day out for climbers of similar ability, the pitches range between HVS and E2.
This is where my recommendations along with my experience ends. However, once you’ve climbed all these routes, you probably have a pretty good idea of the slate quarries and what they can offer next.
This is my own ‘Psyche List’ of things I’m keen to try next. Make your own too, ticklists are the best!
Slate is awesome; it’s one of my favourite rock-types to climb on. I love its technical slabs with tiny crimps, its sketchy, frictionless smears and crazy rockovers.
It’s not only ideal for for pushing your limit, but it both improves your footwork and ups your mental game with the occasional run-out above bolts and mostly good gear.
What’s more, you get incredible views over the Llyn Padarn and into Llanberis Pass, you can see right across to Indian Face on Cloggy and the quarries themselves have a kind of special otherworldly atmosphere to them. They’re just an amazing place to be in and to explore!
If you needed one more incentive, slate also dries super quick, within an hour of rainfall, so it’s perfect for dodgy weather. The quarries are always the best bet when the Pass is soaking.
Go and climb some slate trad!
Access: Although climbing appears to be tolerated in the Dinorwig slate quarries, there is no public access (including for climbing) on the land owned by First Hydro away from the public rights of way. Refer to the BMC Regional Access Database for the most current advice and information. Bus Stop Quarry and Vivian Quarry are owned by Gwynedd Council and climbing is tolerated at these venues but climbers are fully responsible for their own safety.
Photos reproduced with kind permission of various ukc users and friends. The majority are by Charlie Low, if you’d like to see more of her photography visit her Facebook page: Charlie Low Photography.
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