Franco Cookson has ticked The Meltdown (9a) in Twll Mawr in the Llanberis slate quarries, North Wales. The line eluded the technique and trickery of Johnny Dawes, receiving its first ascent in 2012 (UKC News) by James McHaffie to become the hardest slab route in the UK.
The route climbs the wall beside the famous Quarryman groove, taking a line to the right of the first pitch of The Quarryman.
The climbing on The Meltdown starts off at at around 7c to a rest by a small roof, and then is continuously desperate to just below the chains.
Fresh from a recent trad/highball spree (UKC article), Franco turned his attention to slabby sport climbing, skipping the eight-grade completely and ticking his first 9a.
We sent Franco some questions about his time on The Meltdown...
You've put another multi-year project to bed! How does it feel and talk me through the whole shabang…
Haha! Yeah, pretty good! I got close to redpointing the route just before the pandemic after a few trips living in my car for a week at a time. This style of living wasn't really conducive to climbing well. I then wasn't able to get back on it until just now, so it's been on my mind quite a lot since then. I haven't actually been on it that much this year, so I kind of surprised myself when I got up to the chains. It's definitely a very nice feeling, but I'm mostly just psyched to try some more stuff on the slate.
Unusually, you've skipped all grade 8 climbs and gone straight to 9a – which is almost certainly a first for anyone. How did this come about?
I suppose this is largely because I almost exclusively climb self-belaying, so get a lot of practice in on new routes with hard sequences, but spend relatively little time actually sport climbing. I have actually been on some sport climbing trips in the past and have climbed on Yorkshire limestone a few times, but basically I've either been just onsighting (and failing to onsight 8a), getting shut down on Yorkshire limestone, or getting very close to harder projects that I never finished off.
The last time I did any decent amount of sport climbing in 2019 I got quite close to doing Chicane in Siurana, but then went back with my friends Dave Warburton and Sam Marks, and Sam basically turned it into a red wine-drinking holiday where hard climbing became very difficult. I then got the idea that it would be quite funny to skip out the 8s, so more recently have been deliberately avoiding really trying any – much to the annoyance of Dave.
Tell me about the climbing on the route – it looks like it suits you…
It's SO good! It's not just because it's hard or that I've got it really dialled that it's good, either. The moves are just out of this world. The first five bolts are fairly steady up to an overlap and then this little traverse. Even though this bit is relatively easy, it's still a fabulous piece of climbing in its own right, with loads of lateral movement, high reaches to gastons, teetering up on the tips of your toes. That style of climbing, where you're almost front pointing into the wall is my favourite. When you have it dialled, you just float over this, with this magical connection between your left toe on a small edge and your right hand elevating to a gaston. You just stand up and believe, truly in a state of floating. I just can't explain how utterly divine those moments are. I can't explain why that prescribed dance routine feels like something of such value either, but it just does. They're some of the most powerful and profound moments in life, I think.
And then you're in this place. Sound in Twll Mawr is amplified by the high sides and hard walls. On a still day you can hear everything people are saying on the path, which is quite funny. In the day it is mostly silent, but as you get towards evening (when the good conditions arrive) the under-mountain powerplant is switched on and this maddening hum begins. The big hole becomes a huge tuning fork and it feels as if it's only slightly off the frequency that would make your incisors shatter. So as you go for the redpoint burns, you have this crisp sense of being really on the edge of something. When you then combine that with the climbing, it's a magical thing.
Below is a short clip of Franco on the route in 2019:
I think my best ever moment of climbing was a couple of years ago when I came close to climbing the route. There was this corvid-style bird somewhere in the quarry letting out this sporadic piercing shrill every five seconds or so. Everyone in the quarry was silent, so all you could hear was my amplified breathing and the bird accompaniment. I was executing the routine with perfection and just felt light and euphoric in the presence of this bird, in this place. The moves felt totally easy and like I didn't have to pull at all. I just floated. A really wild experience. I got close to the end of the hard climbing, but then somehow fell off. That's kind of the magic of the route – "easy, easy, easy, oh wait, this is impossible". It feels like the route's kind of joking with you.
Check out more of Glyn Davies' photos here.
After the first bit, you make this brilliant sideways move, when you get a right hand undercut to the left of your body, step through with your right foot outside edge, also way out to the left and at about waist height, and then power through, up and then down, to kick into a groove. You then reach down leftwards with your left hand, as if you're trying to pick up a right-opening fridge by just gastoning the door, down by your left knee. You then do a kind of inverted crucifix for a split second just to lift the weight off your right foot for a second, turning this from outside edge to inside edge, which then allows a huge leg span leftwards and then onto a pinch. That's just one move – it's a very complicated climb! I won't go into every move, but there are so many decisions, like inside edge or outside edge? What angle of outside edge? If you have it more towards the outside, your rubber stays harder, but it's less precise, if you toe on, this feels great for that one move, but then you're expending your battery of shoe stiffness. There's an awful lot to think about.
It definitely suits me. On this angle, with positive holds, I kind of feel like I can just climb anything. Talk about liberation! I'm really made for this style of climbing. Hopefully, people don't think it's too arrogant to say this, as it's not like I've done anything to get the genes I have, but at over 6 foot, with a plus 5" ape index, madly flexible, really good eyesight and really light, I've got no excuses. I think it's good to be really open about strengths and weaknesses. Compression, steep climbing, powerful moves, slopers, locking off – I'm truly appalling at those. The only advantage I have that is maybe a result of my own hard work, rather than just inherited fluke, is footwork. If you spend a lot of time on an ab rope, you get way better at properly dissecting moves and really experimenting with toe angles. This helps massively with something like The Meltdown.
You've been criticised in the past for not repeating many climbs and therefore not having a basis to grade hard routes – would you say this answers your critics?
Yes, I suppose so. This is all very uninteresting though. I'd much rather talk about the birth of E13. The lines are there, the training and tactics are there. All we need now is more people who are getting a bit bored of the same old routes at the same old crags and gyms to get psyched for hard trad! Having more people trying these things really helps push up standards and there are so many really good climbers about now, many of whom also have that edge about them that is so important for trad.
Watch a video of James McHaffie climbing The Meltdown: