Dangerous Resting: Lord of the Flies
This article first appeared in the March 2015 issue of Climb Magazine.
Unaware of the reputation, history and aura of the route ‘Lord of the Flies’, you may choose to approach it calmly, rationally. The legendary run-outs would be noted, but remain unassociated to the stories and rumours of sweeping falls. Climbing the headwall would be a delight, without the knowledge that so many people have reached these holds, only to lose momentum and tumble downward. If you were successful in your ‘blinkered’ ascent, the memory might quickly fade, forgotten amongst any number of other climbing experiences.
However, if you are like the majority of climbers in the UK, you’ll have heard of Ron Fawcett. You will be aware of his incredible ability and the testing routes he climbed in the 1980’s. One of his most famous achievements must surely be this famous E6 6a, blasting straight up the unforgiving right side of Dinas Cromlech, perched high in the Llanberis Pass. This is certainly one of the most famous routes in Britain.
The route description - “a chillingly-bold wall climb which has lost little of its formidable reputation, requiring supreme fitness and confidence” - was enough to fill me with dread. Rumours of tricky route-reading and several run-outs added to my apprehension. Crozzled brown pockets and shallow spikes trace a faint line upwards, creating 40 metres of powerful, strenuous climbing up a broad rampart of rock. Nowhere to hide, nowhere to escape to. Just thinking about this route makes the palms sweat.
The list of strong climbers that have fallen off Lord… is worryingly long. I have heard of people gently lowering off skyhooks, flash-pumped and scared on the bottom wall; mis-reading the route, ending up gripped and lost in a sea of crozzles in no-man’s land between holds. Although it has been said that ‘the hardest part is committing,’ this might not be true for Lord…
The build-up to such a prodigious route is often a drawn-out, painful experience. Days are filled with a deep sense of dread, trapped under the weight of apprehension. Nights crawl by, deprived of sleep then plagued by tormented dreams. Stifled, I felt eager to start the route - the waiting would finally be over, but the nightmare would become a reality.
Although it felt counter-intuitive, I found it best to set a date with my new-found nemesis. My heart wanted to put it off, avoid confrontation until I felt ‘ready’, but my head spoke louder. ‘Square up to this beast, attack it!’. I attempted to remain innocent of my execution date, but could not escape.
On Saturday morning, I wake and feel the full pressure of my plan engulf me. In spite of my nerves and disjointed thoughts, I continue on autopilot and find myself driving down the Llanberis Pass. As the car pulls over a crest, sunshine spills through the windscreen. The soft light warms my face, but doesn’t sooth my turbulent mind. I push the throttle harder and accelerate down the valley.
Before the long walk to the crag, I hold a skyhook between my fingers, slowly twisting it around. Resembling an ancient iron weapon or gruesome torture tool, I keep it at arm’s length, eyeing it cautiously. The black metal is folded into a sharp hook, intent on snagging and clawing at everything in reach. I hide it away, out of sight and out of mind. I can understand the principle, but lack in the belief of its application. The imprint doesn’t help dispel my doubts: ‘2kN’.
Standing beneath the mighty Cromlech corner, the air feels warm and sticky; perfect July. A fresh updraft rises over the crag and I can smell honey-sweet heather on the breeze. Sunshine flashes through the flecks of cloud, warming my skin. The other climbers on the crag are all high on the walls, slowly creeping into the wings, disappearing out of sight. I am left deserted, centre stage. Underneath my blank canvas, washed bare of any white chalk, I fight the demons throwing me down the crag, denying me entrance to the mythical upper headwall.
At a thin ledge below the start of the climbing ‘proper’, I see an opportunity for a good wire to stop me tumbling onto the sloping platform at the base of the corner. Although it appeared to be obvious and easy to place, I spend precious minutes selecting the best wire and finding the ideal section of the flared, variable crack. I quickly learn the true nature of this route: nothing is given away; it must be won after a hard-fought battle. Difficulties start from the floor and continue right to the last move.
Hands in the gnarled, broken pocket seven metres above the ground, I create a cluster of dubious gear. A sling hangs loosely behind a shallow spike, kept long to prevent it lifting off. My skyhook is in a pocket out left, about as reliable as a skyhook can be. The tri-cam is wrapped into the top of the pocket, between the loose fangs that hang from its ceiling.
The crux grimaces above, an obvious blank section stained black from the tears of seepage down the wall. Breathing slows to a long, deep calm. Pounding heart rate becomes a faint pulse in my ears. The updraft cools my forehead, and I wiggle my toes slightly, seating them neatly on the footholds. Focussed now, I compose and grit my teeth, ready to strike. I launch into the thin crimps with determination, attacking with conviction. Reaching up with my left hand, teeth clenched and fingers outstretched, I fire for the next big pocket.
Sitting on the Girdle ledge, I dangle my feet over the edge and press my back to the wall. Facing outward, I have the perfect view from my precarious position, half way up Lord… The clouds have parted, and the afternoon sunshine is gloriously warm, baking me and the rock. I have carefully slipped off my new boots and now wave my toes in the breeze, glad to have reached this far on the route. Although I still fear the notorious headwall, I feel much more confident that I can succeed. I will wait another few minutes to allow my arms to fully recover, before squeezing my toes back into tight shoes and resuming my fight against gravity.
The headwall does not relent; right from the ledge, the climbing is tricky and run-out. I eventually gain momentum, moving higher and higher; the top becomes ever more tangible. Good protection is plugged into pockets, before I assess each new section.
Only metres from the top, I begin to panic - the climbing is suddenly hard and forces me off-balance, fighting to press my left foot onto a sloping rail. ‘I can’t fall off here!’, my mind cries, after all the climbing I have been through. Now I understand how people can spill down the crag, mere striking distance from the finish. Just as I become desperate, searching of ways to down-climb or lunge, I spy a positive crimp at chest-height: so obvious, but hidden from view in my frantic waving for holds. Relaxing, stemming the flow of adrenaline, I grasp it with my fingers and begin upward again.
This time, pulling over the top of the Cromlech is a truly special sensation. The route has tested me both mentally and physically, from the first to last move, but is finally finished. I am grateful to sit, content amongst the bilberries, and look up the Pass bathed in sunshine. My first E6 onsight, a true milestone in my climbing career which I shall remember for a lifetime. I can now walk down from the crag content, a new sense of satisfaction gained.
Now aware of the route’s reputation, reaching the top after a successful ascent will trigger an emotional release like no other. Endorphins of joy and relief pour out, with a deep sense of satisfaction and success. The wind feels warm and fresh, the sunshine glows over the Pass: this is surely the definition of contentment. Embrace the wide grin across your face, relish the hallowed ground you have climbed. Shout like Fawcett: ‘Come on arms!’
Lord of the Flies. E6 6a. Dinas Cromlech, Llanberis Pass, North Wales.
Quote in third paragraph: LOTF route description from Ground Up’s ‘North Wales Rock’ guidebook.