As the train pulled out of Chester station the rain began to fall in earnest; heavy drops raced across the window in parallel diagonals leaving silver wakes which fragmented into sparkly droplets. I was heading to Wales again and again the weather forecast was dreadful.
The final part of the nine hour journey was a steep hike in torrential rain in the company of a Hungarian woman I had met in Bangor while waiting for the bus to Llanberis, she was to take part in a charity event the next day and was not sure where the campsite was. As the road narrowed soft trees clasped each other overhead to form a leaky roof and in the fields disconsolate sheep made pitiful sounds.
After I had set up my camp I went over to see if my new friend was ok. Apparently not; she seemed to be wearing her tent, the wet fabric wrapping round her as she tried to inset the poles. Together we soon had the thing set up and I went back to cook dinner while trying to keep the wet out of my tent.
It rained throughout the night but by breakfast it had abated. By the time I had finished eating the darkness was lifting and the blanket of tightly spun cloud which had obscured the far side of the valley was starting to unravel and through the rents grey scree was becoming visible. The cloud became sinuous wisps of smoke revealing ziggurats of paths and terraces which are the disused Lanberis slate mines. Between 1787 and 1969 commercial mining has ravaged the mountain. Nature, as she always will, has already started the process of reclamation, particularly on the lower slopes but I still shudder at the scale of the violation. My connection with high places is visceral so to see this mountain with its guts ripped out and left on display wounds me. Below the shattered, tumbled, slate lie the still waters of Llyn Padarn, a white steamer moored on its far side.
Looking at my watch I saw that it was time to shoulder my pack and set off for the half hour walk down to the meeting point at Pete’s Eats. It is going to be a beautiful day.
These two days of continuing professional development (CPD) will concentrate on teaching big wall climbing and MIAs using sport climbing venues.
Mark Reeves was a name I knew from guide book reviews but it took me some time to find him in the familiar environment of the café. I had expected there to be a group but after cancellations I was the only student.
After introductions we had a brief classroom session upstairs, mainly on pedagogic theory and then it is off to the Beacon climbing wall. By the time we arrive it is really warm and there is a last wistful look at an almost cloud free sky before we enter the building.
Throughout the day Mark passed on his tips and tricks both for the arcane world of big wall climbing and also how to teach these skills. Much of the terminology and equipment used in big wall climbing will be familiar to most climbers but the uses are really different and I don’t intend writing a blow by blow description of what we did but in brief we went through various ways to ascend and descend a fixed rope, climbing using artificial means, cheating, moving across a traverse and hauling. For the novice it is complex but no more so than the skills needed to perform a complicated rescue; indeed some of the tactics and techniques are the same and as with rescues can be broken down into blocks.
My head was buzzing as we emerged into sunshine. We drove back to Llanberis and I treated us both to a Georgio’s ice cream (mine a vegan, bitter chocolate) which we ate on the high street.
I arrived back at the campsite after a sweaty, uphill hike, more mentally than physically tired and immediately removed my big boots and socks and clenched my toes in the soft grass before lying down with a contented sigh. The honey bees sang a song of summer around me. Above me the blue sky was sliced by swallows and the white clover enticed the butterflies and bees with its promise of nectar and pollen. The leaves of a moss encrusted sycamore, which had been incorporated into the precise chaos of a dry stone wall, whisper as they nudge each other. Amidst this idyll I can’t help glancing across the lake at the quarry where the imposed geometry of straight lines is as sure a sign of subjugation as the slave’s iron collar.
After dinner swallows swoop and dive, performing barrel rolls inches above the grass and the sun is low enough for its light to give depth to the slate workings and I can now make out elevated, multi arched, trackways, walls, tunnels and buildings. There is at least the majesty of scale to its obscenity and it now looks like a cluster of Aztec pyramids cleaving together in hideous grey favelas.
It took a long time to get to sleep as I ran through the big wall session again and again, rehearsing the individual components until I could file them away under learned and understood in my brain.
Llanberis is defined and literally overshadowed by slate so it seemed appropriate that the ‘sport climbing for MIA’ day should take place in the quarries. MIAs are always being asked by clients to take them sport climbing so it is imperative that we given the opportunity to keep abreast of current best practice.
The sky was behaving like an indecisive Yin Yang symbol as dark cloud displaced blue sky before the sun burned back through the murk; a process which repeated itself all morning. As a first timer on slate it was great to be receiving the knowledge from Mark who has written slate guides put up routes and regularly re equips climbs which have become (or were in the first place) unsafe.
Our first stop was Bus Stop quarry where Mark pointed out some interesting places people had placed lower offs. Diffident rain drops failed to develop into anything more serious as we discussed safety issues and how we can minimise wear on in situ anchors by using our own gear when working with groups. We talked about and practiced several ways to thread anchors for lowering off while remaining safe. We climbed several short routes many of which had very high first bolts and Mark, who is the international representative of a multinational corporation manufacturing clip sticks, convinced me to buy Craggers a cheat stick. We moved round to Australia, the area I could see from the campsite and I could recognise features I had seen from the other side of the valley. The size of the place is staggering but the real surprise was seeing the high quality of workmanship which had gone into building the massive ramps, which up close are not a uniform grey but shades of red, green, brown and purple. The perfectly tessellated blocks looked as if they were polished every day. We spoke as quietly as if we were in a cathedral yet our voices echoed back to us from the smooth facets of the walls. Our feet on the broken slate made the sound of breaking ice which had been fed into a synthesiser and amplified.
In our new venue the routes were longer and more committing. We discussed how we would offer clients the opportunity to redpoint routes. Some of Marks own routes are given a trad adjectival grade as well as a technical sport grade due to his parsimonious use of bolts (I think he had a different excuse) resulting in long run outs and the possibility of cratering. The most aesthetically pleasing route was ‘deceptive dyke’ an incongruous dolerite column rippled with marble shouldering aside the slate flanking it.
My first impression of climbing on slate was a positive one although it took some time to come to terms with its frictional properties. Would I now bring groups to climb here? Definitely yes. Will my growing affection for the medium overcome my revulsion at what has been done to the mountain? Probably not.
A big thank you to Mark and to AMI for offering this opportunity to learn new techniques and a method for teaching them and to Craggers for paying for it.