Of all the people I climbed with whilst at Bangor University, I didn’t expect Alex to grow up so fast. We spent countless hours in nightclubs with sticky floors and low ceilings, drunkenly traversing the University walls when we were kicked out. We tried to leg it when the fuzz arrived as we were rope-swinging off the Menai Bridge, and climbed hundreds of routes together, eagerly driving out to the crags around North Wales. Alex was always the stronger climber, suggesting the bigger, harder routes. Although I didn’t recognise it at the time, I think this type of climbing partnership is invaluable - it’s important to be pushed in a proactive manner.
Now, six years after I graduated, Alex and I are climbing in North Wales again. Alex, father of two, home-owner, and manager of the Beacon climbing wall, pulled up in his new Dad-mobile, a Citroen ‘passion-wagon.’ A lot had changed, and he also had a new understanding of ‘free time.’
Mid-week partners are hard to come by, so I immediately replied when Alex suggested Cloggy. In recent years, Alex’s unearthed several hard new lines in North Wales. Each route name came with Alex’s usual sly, cheeky humour. I’d just climbed a first ascent on Cloggy, so perhaps I’d made it back onto his list of partners.
We trudged up the Llanberis path towards Cloggy, our heartbeats matching the steady rhythm of the Railway as it chugged towards Snowdon. The rain had cleared a few hours earlier, but light grey clouds still scudded over the summits, dragging their wet fingers over the mountains like our heels on the walk-in. Cloggy danced in and out view as we approached its fortress walls, a ‘mountain crag’ until you climb in Scotland. Alex described another new line he’d spotted, giving only brief details: ‘the next pitch looks like E5 or 6 and 6b. Hopefully.’ I looked anxiously at the ground, still damp with dew.
I wondered what to try. There were a few lines I’d been saving for the onsight. I massaged my injured finger, unsure of how strong it was, or how bold I was willing to feel. ‘Maybe…?’ I puzzled. Cloggy has a fierce reputation: the cliffs are dark and foreboding, attracting bad weather. The rock seems deceptive, inviting you to climb and acting like it’ll hold your weight… until an edge snaps, throwing you off. And the gear is often in disappointing, with bigger run-outs than you’d like. But the lines are proud, either following soaring arêtes or questing up blank slabs. Generally, I’ve gravitated towards Gogarth, which is the antithesis: sunny, big holds, and lots of gear. Still, nothing like working your weaknesses, I thought as we slogged uphill.
As we contoured towards Cloggy, we ran our hands over rocks, trying to gauge how wet the routes might be. ‘Maybe… it’ll be ok?’ we ventured to each other. ‘Maybe the conditions will improve?’ Alex had mentioned Authentic Desire, an E7 6b arête he’d climbed in 2013. I remember reading his blog, and the route’s commitment stuck with me:
“George [Ullrich] said it was pretty airy and there wasn’t really any gear after the crux but the climbing was steady. The reality was that after a decent RP at about 7m, there was no more gear I would’ve really wanted to even slump onto until a thin break at 25m.
I had such mental turmoil getting up the route, three hours of the male witch in hot gloat took its toll. A repetitive cycle went through my mind; I don’t want to be in this position anymore, I’ll equalise this RP and skyhook and bail. If I’m gonna do that I might as well get the abb rope flicked over. I can’t use the abb rope that’s cheating.”
With a name like Authentic Desire and the E7 grade, I knew it’d be journey to climb this route. A lead would take hours, exploring the mind, my desire fully tested: how badly did I want to climb high above shit gear?
But I’d climbed a lot since Alex had written those words, and hoped my experience would keep me calm. But what if it didn’t? What if I bumbled upwards, half asleep, climbing into a lethal situation? Maybe I’d realise? I couldn’t be sure. I’d heard the gear was small, just slithers of brass RPs. You don’t hear many stories about big falls onto RPs… in fact, the only one I could recall was Steve Long’s monster, stripping all his gear (and the pegs) in a ‘sure fire 60-footer’ on Conan the Librarian… but then again, that was at Gogarth!
'Maybe you’ll be fine,’ Alex said. ‘Maybe not!’ I replied.
I nervously racked up beneath Authentic, the knife-edge arête hanging above me like a guillotine. Alex had settled into ‘belayer mode,’ happy to gently goad and commentate. We were both aware the pressure was firmly on me, and the more relaxed Alex looked, the more anxious I became. The crag was still dark and clouds passed just overhead, but at least the rock now felt dry. Maybe I’ll be fine, I thought.
Doubt played the devil on my shoulder. Maybe I should rest my finger. Maybe I shouldn’t risk this. Maybe the gear’s junk? Maybe onsighting an E7 is necky? I looked out to the arête. Beyond it was only pale sky. It felt like a vertical diving board, where if I just leaned over the other side, I’d be able to walk away harmlessly… or would I fall off the edge?
It was certainly beneficial that Alex had only suggested Cloggy yesterday. I hadn’t had time to get psyched out, thinking and worrying about the route, a downward spiral of negativity. A route like this is usually committed to weeks in advance, the idea rolling around my head like a bowling ball, smashing all rational thought. Maybe I’ll snap a hold; maybe I’ll snap a hold and fall off; maybe I’ll snap a hold and fall off and break my legs… But thankfully this thought process didn’t have time happen. ‘Maybe I’ll just take a look,’ I said to Alex.
Bang! The foothold snapped and I shocked onto my arms, full of adrenaline. My curses echoed around the gully, a traitorous chip of rock bouncing down the grass. I’d only been traversing out to the arête at the start of the route, a couple of moves in, when the piss-taking foothold had broken. I felt like the route had shown it’s intentions. ‘Uh oh!’ Alex chuckled, completely aware of my thoughts, and knowing the only remedy was black humour. The crack of the warning shot echoed around my head. I was out of my daze and ready for a fight.
Half an hour later, I shook out, stressed and pumped. I was clamped to the arête, arms and legs splayed either side, a starfish in trouble. Below me, a handful of RPs were clipped to my ropes like a limp window display. ‘Where are you?’ shouted Alex. I described my position, reluctant to leave a good hold and commit to a hard sequence. ‘Oh no! Don’t mess it up!’ came the reply as Alex chuckled again. I’ve grown accustomed to Alex’s humour, even enjoying his taunts in a twisted way. I know he’d happily encourage me onto a hard and serious route… but I also know he’d tell me if the situation was really serious.
How much did I want to climb this route? My desire was certainly being tested, and I realised this was where Alex must’ve stood, unable to commit for an hour. Committing to the crux - often as hard as the crux itself - took some motivation, but finally I stepped my feet onto crozzled smears and began tack-tack-tacking my hands up the arête. Maybe this’ll work? I thought. Simultaneously pushing with feet and pulling with hands, I hung from the arête, arse out, eyes wide, going nowhere as the timer counted down. All positive and negative forces equalled nothing; I was stuck but I had to move fast. I could sense Alex’s eyes on me, knew he’d been up here before, knew he had felt this urgency. Maybe I’ve stacked it! ‘Go on!’ Alex shouted encouragingly.
I grabbed a large flake on the left side of the arête and it crunched sickeningly; loose, hollow sounds matched my light thoughts. Shit! I thought. Get off this thing, now! The flake was at 15 or 20 metres and directly above Alex. Images flashed through my mind of rockfall in the past - holds ripping, rocks spinning, ropes slicing. Core-shot ropes at the top of Divine Providence in the Alps… a trashed rope on Gogarth’s Main Cliff…
A few minutes later, still pumped, I found myself completely on the flake. This is not good! My fingers dug behind the top edge, and I stood on the lower half. Somehow I’d been unable to avoid the hollow flake, and I was fully committed to it. My brain was becoming as pumped as my arms, not enjoying the stress. ‘I’m on the death flake!’ I shouted down to Alex. His laughter echoed back around the gully walls. Move… gently… was all I could think. I wanted to be off this flake and off this route.
At the belay, with a handful of empty carabiners left on my harness, I looked back down the route. I’d received the full experience: most of my gear was lark’s-footed to the ropes when I’d ran out of quickdraws, and I’d placed most of a double set of RPs. I ripped off my rock shoes and massaged my screaming feet. Sweat and chalk stung my eyes. Authentic Desire… what a name!
As we walked away from Cloggy, I stopped and turned back. I could instantly identify the arête of Authentic. There’s something about arêtes… my eye is drawn to them, proud features which jut out from the cliff like a blade, inviting me to climb. They offer double the features to play with, two sides of a wall, and nothing feels better than tack-tacking your hands and feet up the sharp edge… but watch out: if you fall off, you might get sliced!