Somewhere between Akinari Vedas tales of a pale mysterious moon after rain, and Von Ryans express lies the Lledr. That is not literally so hardly matters.
Miss the train from Roman Bridge to Llandudno Junction on a misty November night and, well, tell me about it! Maybe your car’s parked in Dolwyddelan, so walk a ghost road, passing the castle of that name where in 1172 the last true Prince of Wales, Llewelyn the Great was born. Silhouetted against dark shadows of mountain bulk, a single octagonal tower bails skyward as if star bound underneath, within arrow shooting distance, a sheltered black bay sets the scene for Overwatch, of which more later.
Suffice now to continue trekking, get strolling down a long hill, gaining succour and comfort in the neon glow of Dol’s sheltering spa. There is a roman road nearby, Sarn Helen, but the A470 has long been tarmacked with cats eyes. Emperor Caesar Augustus in a two litre turbo whizzes by with a bling queen on the way to Blaenau. At the bus stop, a few youths stand immobile, waiting perhaps or hanging out. A timetable where their heads should be, muffler wrapped as it were in “the sable garb of woe”. Hoo, Ha, Hoo, Ha.
For bouldering purpose, let’s say we enter this valley’s generally steepsided, wooded quiet from the other end where, just outside Betws-y-Coed at a confluence of Afon Lledr with Afron Conwy the A470 leaves the A5. No more than a mile in beyond well-known elfin banks of fairy glens and anointed tourist grotto hides the equally enchanted tubes. They say that bouldering in North Wales is amazingly varied. Limestone, dolerite, granite, coastal areas, mountain settings etc, yet the tubes is a phantom apart.
“Most of the routes in the tubes are strange and a custom grading system seems called for” states the 2002 Meirionnydd guide. Whilst the term “routes” is a misnomer, the unique grading system runs T1 to T3 rather like “master of rock” John Gills all American definition of B1 to B3, but with a twist and resonance all of its own. Want to find out? Enjoy a body pump? Then try fabulous shapes on Enter the Bidet T2, Full Opening tube T3, or Aqua Jam T2. Note that the founding fathers, Crispin Waddy, Johnny Dawes, Dave Pritchard, George Smith and Nick Dixon amongst others formed a strong band of shallow water soloists during development in the later 1990’s yet were forced on occasion to top rope certain T3 highball tubes where landings thought unjustifiable, spoilt the fun. Tubist George Smith puts it like this:
“It is an acquired taste. The bottom bits are obviously waterworn and smooth as rounded slate. The tops are mossy, but holds can be used without recourse to significant cleaning. Indeed, some problems rely on the mosses for any grip at all. The landings are catastrophic in the main, but this is resolved by picking a likely looking bit and arranging a top rope”.
Truly, an out of world kinaesthetic engages the senses when conditions allow. Imagine for a moment water level low, savage fast flow, torrent tamed by excessive dry spell allows easy access along gorge bed. Everywhere are little gravel beaches below, incredibly featured rock sculpts glinting black marble mirrors, inner and outer forms, trysts and bends, climbable, as if river run jet wash finish had flown uninterrupted directly from the mind of Henry Moore or Barbara Hepworth. Palms down, balancing, shirt off, pressing, sample a few T1/T2 tubes and you get the picture.
General tubing can at times extend to the serious, yet some ascents are perverse in their doing. Mind bend aspirants towards experimental movement, nay contortions more normally seen within the confines of a vivarium, and as such associated with slithering reptiles. A variation, yet still based on techniques borrowed from observations in the natural world, is the “bird about to fly”. Take for instance George’s first ascent of Flamingo Dancing. We’ve got a toppy on, and the big man wrestles and is star-fished out apparently standing on shiny extruded plastic. At any rate, I can’t see any footholds. There’s a pause where the last three meters get steeper. Arms outstretched at waist level appear suddenly to flap, whilst hands simply seek adhesion on slopers, and legs with feet turned in initiate momentum when one knee drops semi-Egyptian for step up. This was the Flamingo’s dance move and can easily end in unwanted flight before top out. A sort of slow motion vertical ice skating procedure on moss gains him the honours. He lowers down talking in rockovers and takes up belay. My turn.
Could it be wet rock shoes or just that stealth rubber soles encountering polyurethane like surfaces are hard pressed fulfilling frictional responsibility? Anyway, I somehow achieve a respectable height before becoming stuck, tree frog still in situ. Facing ejection, it occurred to me that no one I knew, not even the Dawes in his heyday, had yet mastered the art of falling upwards, though this appeared the solution. No, I was in the realm of Orla Guerin’s happy hour. A place of deep concern with no obvious end to trouble. Here, I regretted claiming that George, because of his long reach, only climbed 5B between jugs since this problem close up evidenced the contrary.
What to do? Better try emulate the Flamingo, can’t stay in this Kyffin Williams abstract infinitum. Where though would thrust come from? Assume the pose, ready, off, here comes the launch. It’s implausible, but works. Three strokes on the clock of the long now, wings out, step, push, friction at outer limits, do not adjust your set, do it again. Somehow, the ether opens up. Just another beanie hatted idiot step using frictional characters called holds, dimple and dish types that are felt and not seen aid gravity’s escape. As angle abates at a silly arête, hands cry baby for crimps where there are none, and that’s where the moss comes in to cool your palms. “That’s a desperate slab” I tell him. “It’s not a slab, it’s a T3 tube” says George.
Extending from Betws to the Crimea Pass beyond which lies the enduring slate town of Blaenau Ffestiniog the Lledr has further bouldering appeal. Roughly halfway along it’s 12 mile length set just below the fierce little Crag at Pont-y-Pant is Rhiw Goch’s overhanging enclave. Merely five minutes approach trek gains blockage that if trade marked by vicious power pulls is altogether normal compared against twisting trickery in the arthouse Tubes.
If you are going to get best value here, sun trapped crisp conditions are best. Slight dampness or humidity tends to spoil the campus-board style demanded by ace problems like Gap of Rohan 6C (your chance for warm up) and White Rider 7A+. Throw a foot out on the corners left wall and, well, not really 7A+ but studiously avoid doing so, latch the lip and there’s no argument.
You have to thank Sam and crew for getting the aforementioned done in 2002 thereby opening up the place for business. A business that also includes Nazguls Traverse 7C and sit start to ride The Wild Smurf 8A, as well as the classic 7B tenuous right to left snatch and throw slap strenuosity that is Moria. Maybe intensity here eliminates chances for mid-grade boulders, but everything’s worth a try and the scene aesthetic a pleasing one, even if close by road traffic gets busy. We’re hardly talking urban. Olympic gymnast 8A+, that’s my verdict. I’m hypothesizing now about Poppy’s move which might suit tall dynoists. Talking about it is really all I could do. Couldn’t even set up for the fling. Anyway, there is always the sit start to Ride the Wild Smurf (plenty of mat action without a send on this one). So what about Jemma Pavels Arya 7B+ or Ned’s Wall 8A+ (Ned Freehally 2017)? Well er, yes. Haven’t tried those yet, but by the looks of things it’s time.
If contemplating these matters to “connect your charger”, something tells me I need the juice. Not far from here, nestling amongst the trees, way above Pont-y-Pant Crag, reached roadside via a turn off further up the valley is a yoga retreat, so if all else fails, book in, set your mind straight and click on the truth path, the big sends. The Dolma Ling Nunnery we call it without ever having set foot inside.
Winds the valley through Dolwyddelan en route towards our initial starting point at Roman Bridge. Going this way in daylight shows prominent the watchtower castle right of the road. Ample visitor parking, Welcome, Benevento, Croeso. It’s a short trek to the fort and a slice of history thankfully untwee. The battlement view shows you’re surrounded by mountains and wooded hills where rainfall, when severe, is the once and future king.
So what is in it for boulderers? Well hold your jesses and let your hawk keen eyes focus for a moment on a rocky knoll several hundred meters across well scoped hillside. Can’t see it? Admittedly, wall hidden, this outlaw lair get the Llywelyn Ap Y Moel vibe. Underneath, “trusses of sweet leaves crowded like a dark tent” is worth seeking out. In fact, if you’ve not had much luck at Pont-y-Pants Rhiw Goch area then this little Hylldrem-esqe aspirin might feel like an antidote.
There’s no circuit, just left to right rising and dropping mid-rift fracture line. Obvious, sheltered, 20ft long, overhanging with a gargantuan span finish. No more than 6C, yet droppable as anything else if some wizard of the biomechanics summons up demon instapump.
So this problem’s called Overwatch and I must have concentrated hard on the end crux because after the send there is red sticky liquid coming from somewhere. In fact, so much does the gashed wrist gush when I find this is the leak source there is initial cause for alarm, but hey, zinc oxide and chalk swiftly stop anymore flow when the boulderer’s magic toolbox doubles as first aid. Uther pen Dragon, Iolo Goch,Taliesin’s death song for Owain ab Urien, Yanto unleashing crossbow dart in scene from sheep shagger. Looked like there’s been plenty of bloodshed in the dragon red weirdness of the welsh hills. Maybe my wound is a sign. I tell Terry, who, foot up bracing for a sort of sideways batswing aims for slopers which he must eventually share, knows I’m not serious, keeps going. Shadow walker with a magnesium pulse. Setting up for the sound of one hand slapping.
There is a purple calm at autumn’s beginning. Relax towards it and consider the flow of the salmon run river. Those fish, the best dynoers in the world, we can learn from, hardcore on the slippery rocks. They never give up. Well now we are going to, down first from Overwatch because this is Wales and, as if to remind us, the sky opens and as before we are deluged. Yet onwards and upwards towards lonely start station point back at Roman bridge. Take a final glance. No watchers on the watchtower now. Walk a Borris Karloff Frankenstein walk. Original. That’s what it is like when the world’s black and white or changing graphite under the cloud umbrella and you’re layered up carrying malts. Mr Ruper, old skool solid in a Spetnatx parka leads us out.
Then I remember there’s that valley close by, I’ve been with Terry. Sheltered with a break line running many meters. Oh yes. The Fast-twitch Armadillo. Clogwyn-yr-Adar it’s on, but that’s another story, another valley.
Postscript: April 2019, Pont Gethin, lower Lleddr.
Mistake, went to find Joe Sterling’s problem at Conway Falls, a satellite 6c, checked out the map then forgot to take it with me. I’m in the wrong place, walked under Pont Gethin. Traffic death caravan pulling marauders nearly did for me. “Round the bend” there’s no lollipop lady, but for anyone willing a chance at becoming road kill beckons switch action.
Cross perilous thus the A470 when soon an isolated footpath sign allows access over a all. Dropping in minutes towards an unsuspected other world “river run through Eve and Adam”. Then it’s there, the Zen Garden with rocks each side of a narrow gorge. Spanned by a single lane wooden bridge. Silence counts the sound of rushing water marking times, flow through swirling Eddys and sculpted stone. Whirlpools, the eyes of Ryan Gosling in Only God Forgives staring upstream. Download it. Marvel at great Roman shaped arches and giant pillars above the grey rock wood holding aloft Pont Gethin as if it were a sacred temple.
Lower within two minute traverse after scanning from bridge mid distance its clear there’s a different architecture worth exploring. Speaking that is in the language of bouldering. A natural plateau breached only perhaps in severest spates serves well for takeoff and landing zone. Shallow scooped a mat width wide and twice that long it forms a base to the slightly leaning wall, which close on, displays solid surface rounded edges and slanting dish smears. Bruce Chatwin, song lines, I’ve found one of sorts. A diagonal rail, rising left to right, mini headwall, one move groove finish. Climbable no doubt, but common sense denominator tells you “don’t drop the top out at this height. Anyone doing so might edge off the pads, facing, after interruption from a backward roll, a further two chaotic meters of collision before inevitable and unholy shock immersion. It’s a simple game really, a short abb making sure there’s no loose exit holds, a quick brushing. Clear the kit, get ground level then try it!
So there’s a sit down obligingly set by nature where a climber starting this exercise reaches for the rails first incuts without trouble. Pull on and within a few moves crux it out to better holds. “6B?” Terry asks, “Somewhere like that” I tell him. I’m not really interested in the difficulty, but more the aesthetic of this line and glad it doesn’t prove too hard. Even the high left foot rock up and incut wall, steep as they are, don’t mock the afflicted. A beauty not a beast is the overall verdict. Nicky Ceria vibe. Flawless on 8B cipher hanging it up on Yorkshire grit where the hard things are. I don’t know him, but like his statements were not taking that standard here, yet sharing the attitude over weird welsh hills and far away.
It is said, within the Zen Gardens of Japan, stones tell the monks where to place them. On a problem called “Flash Pump” Terry is an upside down heel hooker only half listening, following dictate above absorbent foam, throwing them on along horizontal rail with an “oo’s” power surge, he gets jugged for top out, a happy man with blue moon underneath, howling. The next ones called Half Past Zen I tell him, and luckily we are about to find it.