Aidan Roberts shares some words about his recent first ascent of Isles of Wonder SDS (f8C+) in Ogwen Valley, the first of the grade in the UK and one of only two in the country following Will Bosi's recent ascent of Honey Badger.
Each year, for as long as I've been alive, I've made the annual summer journey to a remote island off the western tip of the Llyn Peninsula named Ynys Enlli. A holiday holiday. Nothing but chossy slabs among an intensely beautiful, tranquil island, isolated from the distractions of mainland life. It's always felt like a good time for relaxation and reflection (alongside plenty of fingerboarding and TRX training…) and came at a good time for me this year. Just a matter of days after completing this project.
For years I'd sail on past the historical climbing Snowdonia has to offer. In previous years I'd travelled to the Southern Hemisphere or to the mountainous Rockies to seek out the opportunity to climb hard during the hottest summer months. But I feel we don't always give the UK the credit that it deserves as somewhere to climb all year round. And despite the undoubtedly rising temperatures of the summer months, this season has oddly continued to house my best spells of form on rock.
So last year, I ventured, en-route, to explore the bouldering of North Wales, unscratched for myself (with the exception of a day climbing around Llanberis with James McHaffie about 8 years ago as the prize for winning a competition). The quantity of high quality climbing impressed me but it was Ogwen Valley which stood out far above the rest in terms of lines and rock quality. The most obvious climb to try was of course the very classic Isles of Wonder, graded 8B, an amazing short compression prow first climbed by Pete Robbins. This dynamic, slappy style of climbing rarely suits me well, but I fitted nicely in the high heels and slotted crimps was able to complete the stand start in a few tries.
Now I've always been one to enjoy a sit start, and admit that there are a few I've put up which are pretty awful. However, the bottom section of this climb is utterly unique. The rock is good (really good), the holds are obvious and comfortable, and the moves are like little else I've tried. The novelty, I think, comes from the positivity of the holds.
Upon first glance it seems it surely can't be too hard. Though it doesn't take long for you to exhaust your bag of tricks and realise you're left with an unavoidable and incredibly intense shoulder-dependent sequence. I don't think I've tried many climbs where you ask so much of your shoulders. Indeed, last year I recall that I could only really have five or so proper attempts through this section before the shoulder would back in and I'd walk away with a week of DOMS.
So my original sequence utilised a vague right heel hook which feels promising. With this method, I could rather comfortably transition through the shouldery move, but found I was quickly left with my feet too low to be able to progress and was unable to pick up the slack with the heel hook. So in the end I concluded that it was a bit of a red herring in this case and discovered just a left smear felt possible, despite never quite doing all the moves in that method (just a crucial transition between moves eluded me). But this method felt trainable and eventually I built a replica of it on my home board.
I have no doubt that this will have been helpful, especially for the number of attempts I could have each session. Though I only really had three or four sessions of training on it and so I anticipate it was also more general progression which made this climb so possible.
Regardless, going back for the first time this year, I tried another foot sequence change and this time placed my left foot just above my left hand. This was a sequence I'd tried in the previous year but I was unable to get the feet into that position at the time, but this new sequence front-loaded the start of the move with more difficulty before easing the transition I was unable to do last year. So I soon settled on my sequence and from there my progression was relatively linear.
Between heatwaves and rain showers, my good friend Hamish Potokar and I took to the familiar stroll up the hillside, excited in anticipation that today we would make progress or learn new intricacies. Hamish was working the stand start and in fact, until the very last day, our projecting journeys aligned perfectly.
We were joined by Sam Lawson for an evening session after a few days of rain, all chomping at the bit to get climbing after a few days off. Relatively quickly, Hamish stood atop the boulder and concluded the first of our projecting processes. I remember a strange mix of excitement at his achievement; I think understandably we'd been rather invested in each other's journeys, while also trying to manage my own ability to focus properly. I didn't quite manage to master it this day, but it was an encouraging session regardless and thankfully I had energy to go back fresh the following evening, accompanied by my friends Tim Blake and Jack Palmieri, who kindly came and supported after a day of climbing in the area.
For the first time, I broke into the stand start from the beginning and, though I could climb this section reliably, the powerful slap for the last hold was a good bit more unlikely from the sit start. I fell going for this last hold first try that session. This was the first time I'd managed to link all of the sit moves together and I was amazed by how drained I felt from just that one effort.
After a half-hour rest, I felt recovered to muster up another attempt and quickly found myself scrambling over the top out. Hamish and I had discussed intense euphoria during one of the long walk-ins just a few days before and I hadn't, until that moment, discovered such a sensation in my climbing.