This article first appeared in the September 2015 issue of Climb Magazine.
The sun beat down on the black slate, radiating from the rooftops. The skyline of terraced houses in Llanberis shimmered, blurred by the mirage. I lay in the square garden, eyes closed against the light, not daring to move. A breeze lazily flicked the air, barely shifting the oppressive warmth. The summer heatwave rumbled on.
The midday sun became unbearable and I stepped inside; thick stone walls and tile floors, a cool relief. My eyes adjusted to the darkness of the room but my head still throbbed with the heat outside. Our afternoon’s plan was rapidly abandoned. It would be foolish to run the Welsh 3000s with the temperature and humidity in the red. I couldn’t bare to think about thrills in this heat.
The weather began to change, overcast and humid. A dark sky threatened, black clouds boiling on the horizon. We settled for a link-up of routes and running, a chance to stretch before the Alps, a mix of challenges.
Our shoes kicked up the dirt as we jogged, padding uphill towards Cyrn Las. The crag rose at the head of the cwm, steep grooves leading into the hollow eyes of The Skull. I was content to be in the mountains, a steady rhythm beneath my feet and sweat stinging my eyes. Main Wall traced the lines of weakness through the full height of the crag, but it grew steeper, rearing up as we approached. I kept my head down, ignoring the full height of the crag and hungrily breathed in the humid air.
As John put on his rock shoes and chalk bag, I realised soloing in running shoes was not the best idea. I tried to relax, but my limited experience of climbing without a rope now left me wondering, uncertain of what was about to happen. It was a relatively new area of mental thought, and I realised there could be no ‘attempt,’ no ‘half-hearted try.’
But I wiped my hands on my sticky shirt, tightened my laces again, and started climbing.
I quickly relaxed into the demands of climbing, absorbed by the moves, unlocking the puzzle before me. The worries and mental chatter slipped away to reveal only a calm, necessary focus. The thought of being ‘near’ to the ground comforted me, but as I climbed higher I became aware of the drop beneath my feet. My bright red shirt matched my sunburnt cheeks, flushed hot.
I climbed, John just behind, enjoying the sense of a dangerous thrill. The lack of ropes, back-up, ‘take,’ held my concentration. I knew I could climb this, but the knowledge that if I couldn’t… I felt alive.
At the end of each pitch, we reached a square of comfort; a ledge to sit, but not relax. I couldn’t forget my position, one hand always clasped onto the rock. My mind wandered and I looked out from the mountain, delaying my leave from the relative safety. Chatting, enjoying our eagle’s perch above the Llanberis Pass, legs dangled in the updraft. The cooler air was a welcome change to the heat of the morning, but still humid and heavy. The thrill of our situation replaced the thrill of soloing.
Eventually, we had to leave our square of horizontal and climb on. The route continued with interest, all the more exciting in soft running shoes. My fingers crimped hard against small edges, holding tightly as my feet rolled inside the shoes and the edges squashed uselessly against the rock. I wiped sweat from my hands again, envious of John’s rock shoes and chalk.
The pitches didn’t flow as I expected them to - more of a short burst of concentration between attempting to relax at each belay ledge. But I always stayed firmly on the edge. It was electrifying; refreshing but with a gentle numbness. Every hold was tested, tapped, treated with suspicion. Every flake we pulled on, every groove we climbed, we grew closer to the sky. I looked down and saw the grey scree and green grass far below.
The final slab was a perfect sprint for the top, good holds giving comfort but vivid exposure reminding me exactly where I was. I kept glancing up at John, proudly stood on top of the crag as it started to drizzle, glad to be back on the grey and green. I glanced down again, taking a final look at the hundred metres of hot, sweaty air and hot, sweaty climbing below, content and finally forgetting to be scared. At last, it was a delight to be running up easy ground in running shoes.
I flopped onto the wet grass at the top just as the rain moved in; we were glad we had luck on our side today. Raindrops ran down my nose and dripped onto my hands as I sat, floating, content, satisfied. The red shirt had faded, dark from the downpour. I buzzed from the route, riding the thrill. John and I grinned at each other as we began to jog towards Snowdon.
Main Wall (HS 4b) ***, Cyrn Las. Llanberis Pass, north Wales.
Thanks to John Crook for a great day out.