What can you get a man for his birthday who already has everything he needs? This was the dilemma I was faced with when Mel Evans turned seventy something earlier this month.
Perhaps he needed some more climbing gear, a new chalk bag? Sleepless nights passed until I was reminded of a saying that an old climbing partner used to tell me: “you’re not a proper climber until you’ve run the Dovedale Dash and climbed on Cloggy”. In Mel’s case I thought his pedigree and CV in athletics would qualify for prior accredited learning and we could dispense with the run, but a route on Cloggy would certainly go towards his NVQ / apprenticeship in climbing. Has there ever been an older student?
Clogwyn d’Arddu is the mecca of the climbing world – well, North Wales – and has held a formidable reputation for decades. It lies on the side of Snowdon to the right of the Llanberis path and usually takes a couple of hours to walk into. A history of the Black Cliff, as it is known, can be found in a book of the same name and tells the story of the who’s who in climbing from the early days of the Abrahams, Longland, Kirkus, Linell, through to more familiar names such as Brown, Whillans and Boysen.
I have a copy on my shelf and it is one of three books that I treasure and often re read. In short, it is an awe inspiring cliff of almost Alpine feel and can be very imposing as it poses all the challenges of a big mountain in route finding and weather watching.
When I mentioned the idea to Mel he bit my hand off over the phone (if that’s possible) and the weather watching commenced, as the routes do need a period of dry weather.
The route I had in mind was Great Slab a Colin Kirkus VS route of 600ft which winds its way up and across a steep slab. It was first climbed in 1930 with Graham Macphee who pioneered many routes on Ben Nevis. The day was chosen and we set off from the Midlands around 9am, with the plan to walk in about 1 pm and commence climbing at 3, hoping if all went well topping out before 9 to walk out before it got too dark.
Using his charm Mel managed to get a parking space at the café at the bottom of the hill and the walk went to plan and we actually started climbing at 3:15.
The first pitch can be the crux, with an awkward traverse before getting established in a crack once called the caterpillar due to the amount of grass. This pitch went well and the next pitch should have been straightforward except for me taking too high a line traversing into a corner below a damp pitch which often provides the crux. By now we were conscious of keeping to our schedule and had to keep an eye on the weather which was increasingly becoming threatening, with heavy clouds and the occasional drop of drizzle. This was a real worry as retreat down this route is very difficult.
The damp corner proved challenging but once we had done this the difficulties eased: two long pitches traversing back left up to the final arête. We continued to make steady progress and Mel wasn’t fazed by the big mountain feel and the exposure.
Finally by 7:40 we had reached the top after 5 long, testing pitches. It had started to blow heavy, driving rain and as we had travelled very light we did a quick handshake, rammed our pockets with energy bars, drank the remains of our bottles and were grateful that the weather eased off as we began our descent.
Going downhill has never been my forte and the path seemed to go on forever but eventually at around 9:45 we made it back to the car, tired, satisfied, but very hungry. Fish and chips, food or beer? As it was technically a birthday trip we drove swiftly into LLanberis and celebrated in a fitting manner and promptly drank two pints! After a quick visit to the Pen y Gwryd and a disappointing pint, we reached the hut at 11pm, showered, put the kettle on, feasted on beans on toast and slept like babies.
Well done Mel on a memorable climb and magnificent achievement; he really does set the benchmark! Just wondering what I can plan for Pete Poultney’s birthday? P.s. I’m hoping to do the Dovedale dash in November, so Mel and I can submit our portfolios together.