Western Gully Black Ladders

"This is going to be a straight forward climb with no epics or benightments. I’ve done the route before, it’s grade IV and we are going to make a really early start, so there is no chance of getting benighted." Knowing grins were exchanged by the others.

The route in question was Western Gully in North Wales. The climb is on a crag called The Black Ladders in the heart of the Carneddau. Next morning I kept my resolution about making an early start and we were away from the hut by 5.00 am. Also, I had a very strong partner in the form of the Caveman, so success and descent before the pubs closed seemed assured. We drove round to Bethesda and began the long walk up Cwm Llafar.

The first setback happened when we arrived at the bottom of the gully at about 7.00am, to find everyone else had also got up early. I suppose the route’s inclusion in "Cold Climbs" accounts for its popularity as people add it to their tick lists. Two parties were already established on the first pitch with numerous others waiting their turn at the bottom and we could hear sounds of others above. Andy and I geared up surreptitiously to one side of the crowd and when we were ready played our trump card. Cheating outrageously Andy lead up the steep frozen turf to the left of the first ice pitch. The crowd fell silent and stared at us, amazed that we should manage to outflank them by this simple subterfuge. Andy reached the first stance having successfully overtaken two parties and I climbed up quickly to reach him. We were now near the front of the queue and moving together in the easier section that followed, we overtook all but one pair.

Catching up with the two at the front of the queue just below a steep section, I belayed and brought Andy up to me. The others had managed to get their ropes into a bit of a tangle, so we had to wait while they sorted things out. Looking up at the continuation of the gully, there was hardly any build up of ice with only a veneer of verglas and dusting of powder snow covering the rocks. Eventually the way was clear and Andy set off up the next pitch. This was a narrow chimney, with awkward moves to exit at its top. Climbing in his usual fast and efficient style he had soon reached the next stance. When it was my turn to follow, I found the ground anything but straight forward and struggled on the moves to leave the chimney.

The team in front of us were now at grips with the famous chockstone pitch. The leader had inserted a peg upside down in the roof and was busily knocking all the ice off the steep wall, which is the key to avoiding the chock. Eventually he overcame the chock but took even longer to get up the remainder of the pitch, while we stood in the icy cold of the cave under the chock. His second struggled on the first section out of the cave, demolishing the remaining ice and disappearing into the chimney above. Eventually it was my turn. I climbed easily up to the peg, but several attempts to climb the wall to one side of the chockstone were repulsed by the lack of the ice and resulted in clattering descents to the floor of the cave. Eventually I managed to fix a wire in a crack in the roof formed by the chock and using this for aid I reached over and jammed my axes in the crack over the chockstone and heaved myself up round it. I was now in a very precarious position in a narrow chimney, but a few feet above the chimney widened out and after a few rapid moves I was able to wedge myself in a secure position. It was only then that I noticed a peg below my feet just above the chockstone and which I had failed to see in my previous haste. There was no prospect of other runners nearby so I reversed the previous delicate moves and reached down, managing to clip the peg at full stretch. Regaining my wedged position I contemplated the ground above. The narrow chimney continued with just a glaze of ice on the walls, enough to make normal rock climbing impossible but not enough to allow for the use of Chacals and crampons. I did not fancy tackling any of this without some more runners but the only obvious crack was too small to take my one channel peg. Communicating my sentiments to Andy he asked the two women who had just arrived in the cave if we could borrow one of their pegs. While the peg was being sent up to me I could hear Andy was holding a conversation with the two women; "Do you know Dai Lampard then?" "Yes quite well, he’s my husband."

Their smallest peg proved to be too big and eventually I tied a sling off around a thin icicle, convincing myself that it would hold my weight if I fell. However, there was now another problem. The chimney was too constricting to climb with a sack. Further contortions enabled me to remove it and hang it from the icicle. Struggling to climb above the sack, the ice shattered and all four points of contact parted company at once. I began to slither down the chimney, the icicle thread broke as my weight came onto it and I was heading down over the chockstone onto the boulders underneath. Luckily I managed to hook the crab clipped to the peg above the chock with my Chacal. This arrested my fall but I was now tangled up in the ropes and the sack. After tussling for a few minutes with the tangle of gear, while hanging on with one arm I managed, to get sorted out and was once again wedged in the chimney. A further session of digging out likely looking cracks resulted in a hex hammered into a crack at the back of the chimney. Once again I hung the sack off this and set off up the chimney. This time I was more careful with the ice and reached a better thread round an icicle about twenty feet above. Above this the difficulties eased slightly, the ice got thicker and I was able to rest. At the top of the chimney there was an awkward move out onto a slab but a hairline crack provided a good placement for a knife-blade. There was one final small bulge and I was in a second cave with massive spike belays to which I thankfully lashed myself .

Looking back down the gully I could see all the other parties had given up and were abseiling off. I took in the rope and started to bring Andy up. He climbed up one one rope, whilst I took in the other with the sacks attached.

"You had better get your head torch out," he said as he arrived, "It’ll be dark soon" and looking at my watch I saw it was nearly four o’clock! We had been on the route for eight hours, although it seemed far less 1.

The next pitch was quite short up a slab onto easier ground above. In normal conditions the slab is covered in ice and considred the crux of the route, but today it was just dusted with powder snow, so even harder. Andy balanced up to a peg, crampons scraping on the rock and then mantleshelved onto the peg. A few more delicate moves above this and the climbing was straightforward. When my turn came to follow I was impressed with this lead and I found the climbing very insecure.

By this time I was completely knackered, so Andy offered to lead on. The next pitch was straightforward, with only one awkward boulder to surmount. Above this the climbing became easier and we moved together up the upper section to the top. As I emerged onto the summit Andy walked forward and shook my hand.

It was a starlit night with perfect visibility. "There should be no problem getting off. All we do is to follow the cwm round keeping it on our left and then go down the easy slope to the bottom of the crag," I said. We set off keeping close to the edge, so as not to lose the way. After some time I was convinced that we had reached the point at which we should descend into the Cwm. However, I had nagging doubts, there were lights in the valley below where there had no right to be any and the steep descent that I remembered was an easy angled slope. We kept on going, eventually reaching the bottom, but it did not look anything like Cwm Llafar. After walking down the Cwm for some time Andy shouted that he had found a tarmaced track. Suddenly I knew where we where, we had descended into the Ogwen valley and those lights in front of us were in fact the hut!

Soon we reached the hut and walked in to hoots of derision. This was the second week in a row that I had got benighted and walked off the wrong side of the hill!



Reading the newest version of Welsh Winter Climbs and looking at various web pages, it seems as though I had climbed the direct variation of this pitch, which is now graded VI. No wonder it seemed so hard!