Go through the mountains, crest a rise topping out Crimea Pass, then drop 13% steep, am millitar for ¼ of a mile, but don’t expect all visions of Snowdonia to guarantee serenity. You could for instance wake up in Blaenau Ffestiniog engulfed by Trollenberg Terror cloud cover and, if unfamiliar with drizzle grey surroundings, be forgiven for countenancing facial expression similar to that depicted on Edward Munch’s The Scream.
Vehicle approach, coming up the valley towards Tanygrisiau (Blaenau satellite village) is less alarming, that way the entire Moelwyn Mountain range vistas out the scene, weirded in places by abandoned slate workings, hydro-electric dam wall and reincarnated Porthmadog to Blaenau steam railway. At least since the 1930s when R Elfyn Hughes pioneered early climbs and scrambles throughout the area, fortune has favoured climbers hereabouts so that rock is in abundance. There are traditional crags like Craig yr Wysgan, Clogwyn yr Oen, and Craig y Clipiau, and by 2017 a wealth of known bouldering venues. Assorted blocks underneath the aforementioned trad cliffs provide 21st century interest easily accessed via the Stwlan dam road and it is here that perhaps the most tried problem in the entire valley can be found. Flick of the wrist, a Jordan Buy’s test piece at 7C+, a big number, small holds, a lovely overhanging white walled groove two minutes from tarmac, with open sit start project. So, Tanygrisiau may hardly resemble a blue print for an Olympic village, yet five minutes further up the same road from “flick” is the athletically inclined hippocampus block, housing amongst other things Adam Hocking’s, think manta-ray-shoulders, 8A+ traverse. Going left to right from sit start, across the obvious leaning wall. A sobering shutdown experience for most aspirants on first acquaintance. Nearby is the somewhat hidden gem of Geoff’s Roof 7A and John Radcliff’s recent addition Break on Through at 7A+. Mixed and matched with these strongarm testers are a host of quality problems which weigh in at more amenable standard in an area developed by local talent, Sam Davies and Zed Jones. Below the road, compact slabby rock inset between buttresses shows off their efforts, so that Minecraft Crack 6A and Minecraft wall 6C give good examples. Similarly, there are two immaculate 6B highball balance teasers. No rope, good landings, psyche up and smear or disappear on Bendigeidfron and Bendigeidfran Llaw Cwith, both done by Dafydd Davies circa 1990’s.
Beyond tortured mountain slopes thrown down random interspersed with scree chutes and heather overwhelmed incline running hundreds of feet towards mighty rock head precipice once known as “The Crag above the Bacon Slicer Factory” comes on Blaenau’s opposite side, gargantuan grey slate heaps evidencing Llechwedd quarry’s historic industrial endeavour. Cloth capped men, walking zigzag ginnels and other proud ways of the non conformist chapel goer, to ply a pitiless trade in the days of Lloyd George, could not have known that such places, after bleak decline, would one day echo the tortuous sound of rampaging mountain bikers and the zing of zip-wires, becoming in time, re-imagined under the auspices of a growing outdoor leisure industry in a digital internet connected age.
At least two definite inclines above Blaenau give access to bouldering arenas and one “the sidings” was original developed by Moelwyn’s afficianados Elfyn Jones, Mel Griffiths and a visiting Jerry Moffet in the early 1980s. Whilst both above and right of the sidings natural rock aesthetic is occupied by clusters incorporating attractively shaped blocks where resides a number of more recent additions in which Daffyd Davies, Craig Davies, Jack Rattenbury and Pete Robbins, amongst others, have all played a part. When Simon Panton’s North Wales bouldering guide arrived in August 2017 many of the aforementioned became documented for the first time giving climbers from far afield, as well as locals, much sought after information. And not only to the Moelwyns, but throughout Snowdonia. With the publication of any guide there is sometimes a lull in activity, yet the North Wales bouldering scene, if anything, seemed to continue unabated. Happily thus I am able to extend this report post guidebook with description of a few personal contributions, which it must be said, were supported by local guru Mel Griffiths and the constant exploratory zeal of Dr Terry Taylor.
Situated high on the Eastern fringes of Craig-y-Clipiau’s Crimson Cruiser crag is a two tiered area of jumbled blocks. One of which is well seen in certain lights when walking downhill from the Clogwyn-yr-Oen roadside boulders. The normal slate spoil pathway that is followed for Clipiau suffices as approach march before a further stumbling adventure accesses the tier including blocks directly under the crag where there are twelve problems thus far. Highlights being Terry’s 6A Shadow boxer wall and the amazing upside down world sub terrain of a spanner darkly which climbs through a double body length roof at around 6B.
Those hell-bent on the powerful narcotic of things planned in the overhanging will not be disappointed on close inspection of the previously mentioned prominent block seen from across the valley. Here, from a sit start in a cavern of sorts, hangs truly the somewhat Yosemite style slashed crack of the Pile Driver 7A. A crack you say, are there footholds? No of course not! You turn your toes into the same holds previously used by fingers. Its big body tension territory where you have to walk the Aled Jones air in sensible shoes, but watch out, the Pile Driver might hit you at the change in angle at the end crux. Here you could get the one arm bandit fever when rocking out and a left foot Ali shuffle, but a blank mind pull might see you through a Kestrel super strength reach. Un-droppable now, amazed and standing with poise in altered state on a blood red Martian rock slab. Homo deus you can take a hand off the rest before finishing with puffed out cheeks like Dylan Thomas in his Craft or Sullen Art.
The Tier overlooking problems so far mentioned has much potential though currently contains merely a smattering of ascents. One of these, the long horizontal traverse of Petros has Fallen 6A/B gives a sort of warm up power endurance outing, crossing a slightly leaning wall which shows lines for future highball devotees who might benefit from rearranging the landing zone into more suitable shape. Such antics however consume vast amounts of time, yet must on occasion be undertaken, perhaps easing out the odds of dire consequence in the event of a fall.
When considering the notion of power endurance with regard to Moelwynion bouldering, seekers can now be best served by venturing back up the Stwlan dam road, continuing a hundred meters or so beyond hippocampus and Geoff’s Roof Areas, then contouring right towards a low stone wall with nothing but apparently wet slabby rock behind it. Such illusion is swiftly dispelled by sudden realisation that a dip behind the wall contains a black and white quartz fracture lined mini crag whose striations, running diagonally left to right, resemble the stripes of a zebra. Once again it was Mel Griffiths who alerted me to possibilities within this somewhat hidden enclave and by winters onset in 2017 the project began. Soon it became clear that this severely undercut twenty five meter traverse will not, at least for me, succumb to on-sight flash.
Cyclones came and went so that for a while concentrated effort on projects in the mountains temporarily shut down, suspended by schizophrenic weather which eventually turned truly cold. The year crept out so that by January 2018 even on indoor resin people climbed in duvets and bobble hats. Thus transpired an enforced training periods which, whilst surely useful to increase endurance, seemed as if by some bizarre decree climbers had been sentenced to spend time within the confines of a giant hollow skull with the eye sockets shuttered up. Outside this asylum the air was clean. So clean in fact it came all the way from Siberia. In fact Siberian winds blew in dramatic amounts of snow blanketing the Snowdonia mountains and those who lived there in white mantle. The Beast from the East pundits and forecasters called it. Then a week later came the mini beast, which by mid March, had pretty much evaporated, or so I thought.
Conditions on the Moelwynion traverse project revealed that thawing snow residue lying on slabs creates drips which, in this case, caused constant trickle and fall to hit overhanging rock below. This water born frustration out of actioned crucial slopers and pinches, which despite various drying techniques, prolonged the embargo. Faced with the situation, we tried absorbing the flow rate with sacrificial socks, tampax, jacket cuffs, toilet paper and foil whilst other seeping holds were liberally coated in chalk, creating for a few minutes vaguely hangable foolish optimism. Quickly dispelled, the optimism slipped way in the form of the boulderer’s verglass where white magnesium dabbed hope shortly acquired the properties of ungraspable lubricant.
No sooner than I was ejected from said holds for a second time, and relating their regrettable state of metamorphosis to Tony Loxton, he suddenly leapt backwards letting out a yell in the process as ice flutings bombarded his previous position with startling force. Later this unexpected objective danger, usually more associated with the realms of the mountaineer, revealed itself again. Walrus tusk size daggers released in the defrost shattering on earth impact a metre or so to our left. There was no better time to quote Lao Tzu:
“Heaven and earth are merciless and treat the myriad creatures as straw dogs”.
Next visit was better. Fingers taped in all the right places, pre-empting sharp initial holds, crozzly in their taking. Sit for pull on knowing that behind me in far distance out towards Rhinogydd and the sea lay the decommissioned squat bulk of Trawsfynydd power station’s brutal architecture. An irony now in name. It sits stranded on a concrete gulag archipellago overlooking the lake. The set perhaps for a Lars Von Trier film. It looks weird and dysfunctional amongst the ancient Welsh landscape, blemishing. In any case it’s a personal power transfusion that’s called for in a bouldering sense, so fire up the generator Dr Frankenstein. Igor pulled back the lever, but the monster, proceeding on command, got a drip fed amnesia feeling and out of sequence at the half way mark, went in for voluntary redundance. Next go finished more or less at the same point. This time forced retirement due to mild hot aches demanded respite before returning blood allowed enough sensitivity in the fingertips to really open fire. The session continued after roughly fifteen minutes. At one point moves dictate that the climber literally hangs horizontal or nearly so at a place where sharpish quartz lined locks are exchanged for a rising sloper rail. I’m not sure where the juice came from, but it was there! It’s hard to use foot edges precisely when there are none and having droppable previous experience here reverting to high left turned flat ankle against the wall enabled a span to better holds. All climbers, at one time or another, race against the pump especially into the world of the overhanging. Yet for some reason the injector plug inner glow on this occasion meant a victory of sorts which ended in dismount from the arete overseeing a narrow wet groove, not the entire traverse, but progress nevertheless which on this particular battlefield represented the flag of 7A.
“Dog on a bone” Mel called me because on any dry day of free time I set about isolating moves across the soap gut groove since these surely comprised a key which would eventually unlock the entire project. Thereafter known as the Pump Station Zebra.
Another day, no rain, temperature rising, no chance t-shirts and shorts but rising nevertheless. Maybe it’s 8 degrees in a light wind when Mel Griffiths and I get to the station. I’ve got the Ben Moon Big Blue, two mats pre stash and Mel’s carried up the DMM. We’re ready, but the problem isn’t. 10m traverse all at 45% overhung. Drainage still killing off the groove cross, so I do three laps to shutdown and call it practice. Later, an extra curricular trip to a block grouping under Craig-yr-Wsygan. Not bad, lovely little plateau, sheltered where the grey rough stones sit. Arms cramp on one called The Da Pinchey Code and swift calls the time after the hour glass drains of sand. Mari’s Tan-y-Grisiau lakeside cafe, a better choice for sit downs.
Next time it’s definitely warmer, dizzying even, no spring sunshine to go with. In fact overcast, brooding on the highest tops, but approaching late March we’re getting somewhere and everyone has by now seen the roadside daffodils. So fine did weather become we were able to mount a spring expedition to Cwm-y-Foel, which if you don’t know, gives some of the finest mountain bouldering in Wales. Situated off the shoulder of Cnicht at the far end of Llyn-y-Foels surrounding slopes there glows a magical red dolerite circuit. Getting there takes on an aspect of pilgrimage, beginning either from Croeso Village, or via Cwm Orthin on the Moelwynion side of the mountains. It requires an hour or so trek. For the most part, the boulders are concealed from view, yet once entering the cwm visual impact is enhanced by crocodile tooth arêtes, seamed grooves, bat winged cantaloupes, slab smooth walls and roundedness of all kinds. If on first sight of the lake, a hand clutching the mighty Excalibur slowly emerged such supernatural phenomena might only account for half surprise. Here blocks exude tangible quality before even pulling on. Giraldus Cambrensis, Owen Glyndwr, Prince Llewelyn, Iolo Goch, the voice of Richard Burton in Where Eagles Dare or Under Milk Wood. You know that kind of charismatic appeal given to some humans, only here it’s found in silent stones. Tonfedd 6A+, Christmas Tree Traverse 6C+, The Knight Project 8A? or Shining Armour 7A. Fastidious indeed you would have to be to enter a plea of disappointment.
Back down in the pump station valley a veritable transformation was taking place. Youths struggled up the tarmac from Tanygrisau like beetles under the carapace of back strapped bouldering mats to try “flick” and many others. It was as if some tattooed lothario had kissed a frog behind a chippy in Blaenau, then, abracadabra, the frog turned into a princess. In the morning when night’s embrace has left them, they looked out towards the blue remembered pills and saw the sun coming up for a third consecutive day. I cannot say if they lived happily ever after or if the old Squeeze song “up the junction” foretold their fortune. Yet I can say that the entire length of the pump station was now uncannily dry. Thus from sit start overhang slopers, through sharp pinches and along smoothish stratum at mid section, past the terrible uncertainty of the groove stem and onto the balancing slabs, not a drop of water remained.
Maximising benefits, I get on it in the shade. A pressure drop you could call the crux sequence. One hand (the right) takes a pinch a foot higher than the left which crosses to a horn type hold which is then used as a lowering lever allowing the right to gain a waist high side pocket whilst a stem jab with the right foot karate kicks to ledge edge at the grooves for baseline, bridging the gap. Snatch a side pull with the left and release the pocket, going for jug with the now free right. Swing across final steepness to awkward initial exit onto hallowed off vertical balancing and the finishing lines in plain sight, nearly 30 meters from the start. Pump Station Zebra 7B with which early in 2018 I conclude this Moelwynion report.