It’s early morning in Llanberis, tipped with autumn cool. Staccato jackdaws rule the High Street, chacking and swaggering, cocky as youth chucking stones at windows to wake people. Mist patches hang in vaporous mezzanines, and framed by the bright-fronted buildings, the Llechog spur erupts, massive and blue.
In the spring I went to see a man about a van in Penmaenmawr. The first thing he said was that he admired my guts coming here, which made me wonder if I was missing something. He was sitting in his dressing gown at 11am, chain smoking and watching Sister Act on TV.
“Irish eh? An Irishman living in Llanberis, who’d have thought it?”
“Yeah. I think there’s a few of us.”
“Tell you something son, I would hate to live there.”
He hated his van, too. He wanted rid of it.
“I like you, son. I trust you. Keys are over there. Just take them.”
When I reached under the bumper, a dry confetti of rust flaked off the subframe.
I didn’t buy his van.
From its worst angle, Llanberis is a gloomy and damp ex-mining village in long strained transition to a tourist hub, muddling to keep up with its throughput of visitors to the National Park and walkers queuing up ‘Mount’ Snowdon. But that’s OK. We’ve got lake, forest, mountain, crag, and the wacky danger playground of the Dinorwig slate quarries. Even on bank holiday weekends, you can find a quiet corner of Llyn Padarn to commune with the ducks, or some obscure haunt in the Pass well removed from the train and the cars and the crowds.
Ferdia caused a small stir when she tried to join the village community group on Facebook. The page asked her why she wanted to join, and she wrote because she was living in ‘beris. The moderator got uppity, although he didn’t refuse her request, because ‘beris is what people without due respect for the Welsh language call it, apparently. No one told us this when we arrived, that we would be required to parse the voiceless alveolar lateral fricative of the double-L in our home as a daily shibboleth. Who knew the Welsh don’t do abbreviations? Perhaps they need to hang some explanatory signs on Offa’s Dyke and in Holyhead, drive on the left and no nicknames cont, and for consistency we can have the road signs for Llanfairpwllgwyngyll restored to its rightful Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantsiliogogogoch.
The climbing world has its own shibboleths, in which the distinguishing expression of their names is in the act of climbing them. In this regard, the routes on Dinas Cromlech, jewel of Llanberis Pass, are as iconic as any on these islands. Cemetery Gates, Cenotaph Corner, Left Wall, Resurrection, Right Wall, Lord… all stand as common reference points, emblems, rites of passage to respective degrees of mastery. I am as sceptical as anyone of such piety, and widely enough travelled to know there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in a narrow and backward-looking strain of British climbing, whose horizons haven’t widened since the publication of Extreme Rock. Even so, the customs of the tribe run deep and cannot be ignored, and to be fair, the routes on the Cromlech continue to merit their status by being exceptionally good.
Some years ago, I decided it was time I climbed Right Wall.
That damn sloping ledge at the base of the corner, I had forgotten how precarious it feels. You don't just want a belay in, you want to clip all your stuff to it, especially with four or five teams shuffling about. Ferdia hasn't done the Corner, and grudgingly accepts it for a warm-up, with most of the other routes occupied or climbed before. I assure her it's quite hard for E1 and essential, so she might as well get it done. I watch her from the corner of my eye, trying not to pay attention to Calum Muskett and partners whizzing up Right Wall next door. It's not that I'm precious about the on-sight as such, more that I want full-value experience of a route that's been near the top of an unwritten wishlist for years. For some reason I was quite confident I could do Right Wall long before I'd thought about trying any other E5s - bold wall climbing with good rests, and it seemed like nearly everyone thought it was easy. I'd set the first part of a trap for myself years ago.
I couldn't really avoid chatting about the route with Calum's partners while I geared up. I'd noticed in glances they'd gone quite far left, further left than I'd imagined the line went. From below, it's hard to see exactly where it goes, and I wondered how hard it would be to read. "It's pretty well chalked," they told me. I felt assured. It would be fine...it would be fine. If I had been looking for excuses, I was quite tired from seven routes on the Grochan the previous day, including a wholesome fight with Stroll On, and my fingertips felt thin. But they always do. I wasn't looking for excuses. You can always find an excuse if you want one. I didn't like the feeling of so many people so close on the crag, of the interest people would inevitably take in someone climbing Right Wall, but what sort of excuse is that? You have to try these things...
All goes well to the first ledge and gear. An excuse to fiddle around and rest. Calum throws me nuggets of advice as he swings around checking moves on the upper wall of Nightmayer. I shush him, too unaccustomed to external involvement when I'm leading. I haven't spent much time as a climber in the convivial cauldron of North Wales, but rather a lot on lonely Scottish hillsides and coasts. This particular leading headspace is an odd one. I'm a little self-conscious but quite relaxed, almost daydreaming when I set off from the ledge, following the chalk up and left.
Sharp pockets. A good nut. A shallow spike. More sharp pockets. Left and left again. Shit. Suddenly I am pumped, short on footholds. The next hold is poor. It's a little lichenous, and fingers scribble feverishly to clean it. It shouldn't be. I'm in the black streak, though this hardly registers - I'm too far left, this is the hard section between the holes on Lord. I have to go now, before my arms give up...but no, I can't pull through on the hold. I shake out desperately. I'm getting nothing back, quickly going terminal. I'm run-out on that shallow spike. God, I'm run out a long way. Getting desperate. It must be obvious - I sense the crag gone silent, and I'm sure all eyes are on me. Too tired now to think of reversal, I take the easy way out.
And the grand tour of the Cromlech's right wall rewinds at high speed, a look of surprise on the face of the man seconding Cemetery Gates, my foot catches some protuberance and a flash of pain registers and I pendulum to a stop. Sprained ankle. A humbled hobble back to the road, the rest of the week on ice. I have to cancel the following weekend’s work.
That fall put a real dent in my confidence, a bigger dent than perhaps it should have done. The fall and the failure. I had recently climbed London Wall, which is generally reckoned to be a lot harder than Right Wall, and was telling myself that I was going well. That is not a bad story, because confidence is important, but it has to be carried through in actions. I could go well, but pieces were missing. Consistency, for one thing, and maybe more importantly, objectivity, and kindness to myself. I would take too much from a glittering success and too much from an abject failure, my self-narrative railroaded to every peak and trough, as though each newly defined me. Perhaps I felt that going well had been achieved, and forgot that each time I stepped on the rock I needed to try every bit as hard as before.
Each time I’ve been back on that sloping ledge at the base of the corner, I’ve wondered what the hell I was thinking, climbing all the way left into the black streak. It should be obvious, even to a novice, that the route does not traverse that far. Each time I’ve been back, I climbed other routes; Resurrection, Memory Lane, Ivy Sepulchre, the direct finish to Left Wall. I knew a rematch with Right Wall was due at some point, but I was in no hurry. I needed to be feeling confident.
Ferdia has been telling me for years that I’m better than I think I am. When you’re confident, there’s no stopping you. It’s not that I don’t believe her, but the mind and body connive to be stubborn. Bad habits overgrip. I need to present tangible evidence to myself, something more than positive self-talk. See, you can climb E5…
The sun burns off the morning’s mist, and we foray out into our playground.
Someone should construct a patio on that bloody sloping ledge. It’s barely even a ledge, more of a slip’n’slide with other climbers as obstacles, and death at the bottom. Maybe pinch some building materials when they build the new car park by the Cromlech boulders, local residents only, which I’m so looking forward to. Access by voice recognition, password LLANBERIS, and spoken with full voiceless alveolar lateral fricative gusto. Yes, a proper landscaping job, and a ladder up to it too.
Today is a busy one on the slip’n’slide, a day for leaving packs behind at the bottom. There are echoes of the past. Someone else is climbing Right Wall, complaining of rope drag and sore feet in the sun. I wait for the shade. Someone is having a hard time on Memory Lane, and everyone is getting to hear about it. “Cunt!” he declares, to the route or to himself. Others are just hanging out and chatting. Maybe I’m getting used to the convivial cauldron; I’m not distracted.
The rock feels good today. My fingers don’t object in the crozzly pockets. Everything is as simple as it should be. If not resting or placing gear, move up. Good holds come. Standing on the Girdle Ledge at two-thirds height, I tell Ferdia to watch me on the crux passing the porthole above. Here the chalk runs out, the previous leader having escaped off right. I suggest a soft catch, aiming to clear the ledge should I fall, but in truth I am now confident that I won’t.
Sat on the belay at the top, warm in the last slip of sunshine, I’m a little elated and a little relieved, but mostly just content. If that’s sounds like a diminution of the experience, it isn’t - climbing has always been less about the buzz and more about the slow release. I pass this test, whatever it may mean, and sit among the elders for a while.
As Ferdia comes swiftly up on second and shadows swell to fill the pass, there is a ripple in my calmed mind. I look across the wall, where the sun’s retreat has allowed the black drips to advance, serpent-like, back down the line of Lord of the Flies. There is no chalk to show the way.