After a couple of trips in the past couple of years to the UK, I am thoroughly impressed. A trip to Scotland a couple of Januarys ago created many powerful memories of engaging climbing in surprisingly committing settings, and provided inspiration for some great days out back home that winter, and the next. But, in a way, the ground-up traditional style of winter climbing so beloved there is very similar to a common winter ethic still practiced here. The rock climbing though, the traditional, often bold and utterly engaging cragging my wife and I discovered around the Welsh town of Llanberis this May proved the greater contrast, and left an great impression on me.
Anne and I rented a car at Heathrow airport after a visit to her cousins’ in London and some time with family. We arrived in Wales on the Saturday of a bank holiday weekend (their generic name for a country-wide three day weekend). Our first sight once in Llanberis pass was a helicopter rescue on a crag about 10 minutes from the road.
We met our good friend Nick Bullock and his wonderful girlfriend Katy Forrester at a Llanberis pub that night and made plans to head out to the Dinas Cromlich in the morning; home to the well known Cenotaph Corner. This proved to be a great introduction to the the world of UK rock climbing. Not only was the little crag, with a third class approach, utterly packed with people, there were multiple parties climbing the equivalent of run-out 5.11.
It can be difficult to find virgin trad lines around my New Hampshire home. As a result my good friends and I who take pleasure in scouring the scruffy local unclimbed crags most often end up developing sport climbs. Despite the traditional ethic that was still pinned to this area as late as the 1990’s, New Hampshire and adjacent western Maine are a sport climber’s delight. As Rumney achieved its current popularity it’s ethos of safety and access to anyone through well protected routes, ladders and fixed ropes has been pervasive in the Northeast. A few of the areas major developers spread out quietly into the White Mountains and continued a similar style of development. North Conway’s history has involved bolting since its earliest routes and in the intervening years the locals have allowed plenty of the hardware of convenience to settle in, and become accepted.
The UK is very different. While there are areas where sport climbing is accepted, most of the areas are simply bolt free. No anchor bolts, no protection bolts. Nothing. It isn’t contested, but embraced; and is an obvious source of pride. They speak of scary routes, with just a handful of repeats, with admiration.
As I was getting my head around this, launching up seemingly blank faces with a bunch of cams and a few extra borrowed nuts, it came as inspiration. It just felt so good. Hard to spot, unexpected lines up faces with horns to sling, threads to weave, flaring cracks and overhanging, gymnastic movement. So incredibly pumpy, so vicseral and so memorable. It took a few days, but after my first day at Gogarth, climbing a sporty little two pitch route and topping out in a drizzle while the Irish Sea ran into the cavernous zawn below, this became more than just a climbing trip. I loved it.