Hylldrem Ap Feddw: Essay by Martin Crook

“I passed under a crag exceedingly lofty and of very frightful appearance. It hung menacingly over the road.” -George Borrow, Wild Wales, 1854.

Black treacle, frozen hard in time when the curtain cooled out obsidian after the grim light of lava flow foretold shape and angle. Now spellbound, the dark stage waits for players to practice their lines, both performers and audience they seldom look out but stare in, assessing the scene like punters in a Casper David Friendrich painting, transfixed.

Al fresco, this is no ordinary theatre, nor Borrows’ menacing crag, but a small facet of its jutting empire where, more or less, the main cliff fades out. About 4 meters  high and 8 meters wide, it is fenced off at the left with rubble strewn to the right. A natural plateau below makes for flat landing and rarely is it breached by even the severest rainfall.

Welcome to Hylldrem’s infamous bouldering wall. 

Overhanging business within the enclave is initially concealed yet a three minute stumble up an incline through dwarf oak from a convenient riverside parking bay (about one mile north of  Llanfrothen near an ancient bridge on the A4085) allows easy access to the temple of steepness and severity.

 Aspiring acrobats might first notice chalk-covered holds, a symptom of rainless unwashed rock , which although adorning a plethora of pinches, slopers and undercuts as well as flat edges, does not necessarily mean distinct lines are easily discernible.

An exception being Stevie Haston’s 1981 highball the Weir Pig 6B+ which takes the central feature with obvious open groove above a horizontal break. The break marks dismount point for most problems, maybe three meters up, and if wishing to continue, factor in strategy from forcing escape through overgrown Tarzan territory.

Various links and traverses, think power endurance, crisscrossed the wall whilst endless eliminate possibilities contribute to the pumpfest. A systems block we might call it, 6B/C predominate. Flat, but hard and stoney is the landing zone. Three in situ Slumberland mattresses living below the wall can be topped with credible modern pads, thus easing heavy thud dismounts or ejections. 

I remind myself that it wasn’t always so, read Nial Grimes introductory note in Boulder Britain; “old school eliminate action in a rainproof roadside church where the stale whiff of 1980’s testosterone still hangs in the air”, and flashback to 1984.

We go there under dark skies and dystopian rain beats down. Flail up treacherous two-minute approach via tree routes set in mud and are suddenly sheltered inside the temple. I see J.R., “a warlock with a loping dog” Jim Perrin called him. Cat smooth gaining the Weirpig break. He’s in silhouette, makes a move down, then hangs vertical from a big flat jug, dropping to dismount, there are no mats. Landing lopsided, he throws out a hand attempting rebalance, and in doing so breaks his scaphoid bone at the thumb’s juncture. Punk leaves this particular gym and five minutes later checks his injury at Carregs Tan Llan cafe. The scene for many post-pulling debates till closure in the early nineties. 

We need not however dwell on such matters, instead let’s revisit Hylldrem in 21st century bouldering guise. Appreciate the beauty of the Dawes’ six inch dyno and note that an archeological dig of our landing zone has found evidence from pre-history of hunter gatherer existence. Not in the form of rusted shopping trolleys, but in the shape of flint arrowheads.

Retro claims concerning known problems remain unlikely and access, thankfully, unaffected provided you don’t say a farewell to arms during a workout here. Prolonged sessions can now take account of the more extensive left hand wall, which, in terms of filthy beast pump potential, remained hidden until a demise of ivy over fringe caused by intrusion from cyclonic natural forces during the winter 2014/2015 later showed naked rocks stripped bare and ready for action. John Redhead and I return, amazed at the gift. 

To get there, simply walk back along the roadside below the main bulk of the crag, midriff macho overhangs surmount a less steep bank then encountered getting to the original and in a few minutes enter the world of These Foolish Clings. Elongated and typically overhanging this edge stretches in entirety to thirty meters, yet because of  definite breaks where grooves or niches provide respite can be traced along the obvious line in four main sections.

Taken individually these rate 7A, 6C, 6C, and 6C whilst those wanting full 7A+ tick need to link all four together going left to right monumentally before stepping off and  basking in glory after an easily droppable pinch strewn technical finale. Vociferous croaking from the local raven often accompanies visits in early spring and although poised only meters from tarmac, the deciduous wooded oasis underwriting and concealing shape throwers from passing gay cyclists or other potential road rage is home to inquisitive nuthatch and dueling robins. Bill Condry, Gwen Moffat, we love you they seem to say. 

Fish tail parka, off, that’s entertainment said Paul Weller. So, I tore a piece from sticky back plastic and tape up. Is that a buzzard passing over, or a drone, nowadays you just don’t know. What I do know is that this tech business promises collective utopia if only you sign up and conform to all its seemingly benign controlling demands, nevertheless I’m not George Orwell, just a boulderer about to be videoed on a phone.

Useful, we take the positives. The problem, Foolish Clings ultra, is a F 7A+/B variant on the original following a lower logical shelf line, but exiting via a highball top out, (Pat’s highball groove). At no other time than the digital age have so many people had recourse to film events whatever respective subjects might be. This opportunity we sometimes avail ourselves of and Big George presses ‘record’ when the action begins.

Luckily on this attempt I don’t drop any moves, and apart from some trepidation finishing, we get footage. Which, far from great cinema, chronicles scenes that have no interest except to boulderers or, at a push any psychologists who might wonder why certain humanoids find interest and inspiration in such matters, a hyper-aesthetic crossthrough panacea perhaps for the estranged shunners of shopping malls. 

Anyway, aspiring Gibbons take note. Once labeled “wet weather alternative” the terrible new truth relies on remodeled attitude, because this particular part of the wall needs three  or four sunkissed days to metamorphose the gnarly, wet unpleasantness into dry cranking zone. Likewise, surrounding hinterland, for which the aforementioned merely acts as front man, entices mat-carrying tribes with further skintrade adventures.

Accessed in ten, or at max thirty minutes’ walk from the same road, these sunken valleys are, so local folklore has it, ghosted by Dick Potts, who, believing himself related to the God Pan, ran naked and flute playing through  the woods and hills here in ecstatic reverie of all things natural.

Back dropped by Cnicht’s dominant form. There is a touch of mystery about the landscape which is hard to define. Take for instance the Cwm containing Craig Creua where sits a mini Hylldrem above foot sucking bog. The single route here, steep for five minutes at E6 6b, is seldom sought out but no matter, blockheads need only walk halfway towards it via unsuitable boulder-strewn slopes to discover a narrow subsidiary dell dissecting the low relief craggy ridge above and, as if by magic, come face-close onto an immaculate white slab.

A four metre midsummer night’s dream hidden underneath oak arms. Spiderman slab we call it. Step on, suck in the chi and right away you have to align the chakras, too much yin and not enough yang or vice versa, and you’re off. Balance across the diagonal crack on smeary feet, well absorbed with slick, Spartan edges and side pull delicates, the hands want more indent but only get it higher, spaced out and grasping with JR on spot. 6C in climbing code we later say, a beauty in Bilbo Baggins land. There is a central line going straight up, compelling and obvious, where the crack/seam slants right. Despite many attempts, we cannot get beyond mid-point. Suitors come and go, but in the end Pete sends Spider Pig 7A, a super quality addition which, as twinkle toed test pieces go, is numero uno in this elite shire.

 Atop the slab, scan across left to see skyline, an almost horizontal rock-bluffed ridge, the other side of which contains the fierce leaning crag of Nant-y-Fedw. Password is “steep”. The central section impresses, E7 thin cracks and a single E8 ask trad questions which probably only those with high standard sport climbing fitness can answer. Unsurprisingly there are no queues. A compact wall sets bouldering tone at the crag’s baseline, carbarundum rough, above the valley’s scene of badger sets and sudden death rush sparrowhawk kills.

Further, on, orientated in the same North West facing aspect opposite more open ground comes the cirque of the unclingables. A shadowland for total bouldering where action kicks in quick. Until Autumn 2016 there were exactly zero problems, by summer 2017 there were twenty. Thus from Hardcore Henry 7A+  on the  far left to Charlie Ranton’s new  7A addition over right then are very few warmup options since only five problems rate lower than 7A. 

An elongated rugby ball of rock with face cold black at the pull on and ruby red dolerite where angle relents over the lip. Top outs generally easier than starts, but paranoid, at a height worth watching. It is a hard game here in autumn and winter but worth it for the stick and we have had our moments.   Shutdown by hot ache winds despite quasi mountaineering gear.

Make no mistake we’re in film noir quality country feeling the mood, a cold one in the crag shadow. To and fro, to and fro. There is a slope a 100 meters away where you can sit sunbathed. Stroll into the cool. Sit down, pull on, fall off. Repeat. I’ve tried this ultra suck problem on two previous visits. Pinches and layaways set in this song line of all overhanging wall.

Third time lucky they say, but here at Fedw with the darling buds of May beckoning, you have to make your own luck . So, twisting up again the nemesis pinch gets full power treatment and feels good for body tension. Milliseconds. The overlap is there for the taking via a vague arête, space below feet, ankle break distance now and still not easy, but the only air born particles are chalk dust and Terry spotting assumes palms up braced stance. Big pocket and easier angle, dead cautious on the style (without polish) exit severe. Its farewell my lovely to this beauty with a beast start. 

All afternoon I spend there. Two weeks later in roughly three hours bouldering most of the session is hypothetical. Completing six moves but no problems. Mesomorph, ectomorph, endomorph a retinue of non interlocking shapes and sizes. Disallowed by dampness when friction has no faith. Best go quietly under these circumstances, and on evening twilight, ghoulish under the black dog clouds see us off. How different it is when dry, and the team zinc oxide taped spot Simon in ritual gathering. He’s between a leftward rising ramp and thin crack, following a shallow groove line in the wall on slopers. Testing servos for steadiness  at high topout there’s a breather before final step vigilance on JC4Pms 7A first ascent.

Another time, same place, Peter Robbins is on. The hoover savage and sideways, doing low gravity defiance across carpe diem. Traverses right into James Dyson unplugged, then turbo kicks after 7C finger strain to higher exalted ground beyond the jug ears finale. Power endurance. You’ll need it! He has it and gets victory lap reward strolling the upper slab. Soon from what Sir Arnold Lunn called “the gross and comfortable security of the horizontal” we’re donning overcoats and strapping the mats. Yellow occum, blue moon, snap chattering on the walk out, in a code of stone. Obsessives. 

Martin Crook. Blockhead, 2019


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