Saturday, 6 March 2010

Western Gully

Ysgolion Duon - The Black Ladders
When I was about fifteen, having kicked steps up the back of Cwm Ffynon Lloer, we walked the ridge between Carnedds Dafydd and Llewelyn and peered down into Cwm Llafar at the brooding mass of The Black Ladders. A big crag, a serious crag, I was told, not for the inexperienced. A couple of years later they were pointed out again, this time from the A55, en route to Idwal for my first day's ice climbing. I could tell from the tone of Gary's voice that up there was the real deal. For me motivation is closely tied to my relationship with a place, and little events like those from formative years have lasting effects. Finally last year I managed to get up there myself, and was impressed. Conditions weren't perfect though, and we had to be content with a couple of pitches at the base. This year was a similar story (see January's post)  and despite this great winter I was beginning to despair of ever completing a route.

Ben soloing up the initial steep band
So its not often I get a pang of jealousy when I hear about someone else doing a route, but for few years now ascents of Western Gully have illicited just that. Ysgolion Duon/ The Black Ladders aren't just significant to me, they're our best winter climbing venue outside Scotland. Western Gully is the best line and justfiably famous.

Ben on the famous crux slab

Classically graded a solid V,6, it's recently seen an upgrade to VI,7 amidst reports of it being a tough outing. The internet has made judging conditions so much easier in the last few years, but any reports were five days old and a rising freezing level was forecast. Would it be in nick? We left the van early, and walking into a bitter wind the ground crunched encouragingly. At the first steep band we geared up and then soloed up to the start of the gully proper. Placements were fantastic, even in the snow, and we romped up barely needing to swing an axe twice. Ben's ambition has its advantages sometimes, and his yen for the crux pitch left me the long 6 pitch below and the 5 above. All went without a hitch, too easily if anything, and things only got interesting on the final pitch of the direct finish where the bomber neve finally gave way to deep hoar. Feeling a bit short-changed by his crux pitch, Ben threw in a bit of final mixed spice above, and we were onto the final snow slope.

grand surroundings on the final pitches

I led through, stepped onto the ridge and into the sunshine. There was no wind. Instead I stumbled against the intense glare of the sun. The surface of the blanket of snow had melted and refrozen, and was covered in a thin skin of clear, shining ice. The sun was was hot, and squinting into the west the summits of the Glyderau and Yr Wyddfa shone like polished metal. Far beyond, Mynydd Cilan lay as a dark hump in a bright, still sea. A few distant walkers gave scale to the great ridges of the Carneddau, and we headed east up Llewelyn in an alpine wonderland.

looking west along the top of The Ladders to Carnedd Dafydd

The descent was a walk into spring. A stream sprang from the base of the snowslope, and I stopped and filled my bottle. The Cwm was absolutely silent except for the quiet gurgling of meltwater. No lambs yet, nor flowers pushing up, but the heat of the sun and the still air told of warmer times ahead. Lower down catkins the colour of sunshine hung in the hedgerow hazels, and a different bird sang from every tree. If winter was over, it was a great way to end it. But I suspect there'll be a little more yet.

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