070527 A Story of Stupidity

Occasionally, you just have to do something stupid... Cenotaph Corner the in wrong conditions

North Wales hosts the UCL committee elections and dinner meet each year, typically at the scout hut in Bethesda. The second May Bank holiday thus starts with a big yellow minibus trundling it's way from London to Wales, with all aboard hoping to arrive while it's still Friday. Saturday is usually filled with folks keen and eager to get out onto the longer Welsh routes, but by Sunday two late nights of drinking have damped down the mood, and club members are more used to bimbling about on whatever can be found road-side. The Sunday night elections, dinner, and mass drunkenness mean that Monday is a quick trip to little Tryfan to ward off evil spirits and then the long trip home. In addition, it would not be a club Welsh meet without one, or both, of the days being a total wash out, leading to even longer stints in the pub.

I've been in North Wales ~5 times with the club now, and every visit I've come with the intention of finally ticking Cenotaph Corner just to see what all the big fuss is about. The Corner is, as described in one guidebook, one of the most striking rock features in Britain - and possibly the most famous climb. Heading from Pen-y-pass towards Llanberis, you can't help but immediately notice the giant book-corner up on the right-hand side. The slightly odd geological form of Dinas Cromlech is a near-right-angle corner between two walls, both of which appear to be fairly blank from a distance. However, the corner, crack lines, and thin walls in between hold many climbers’ dreams for years, and simply watching from the Cromlech boulders below gives many the urge to try matching their skills against the climbs they've always heard about.

On every visit, something has got in the way; hangovers, weather, lack of willing partner, the lot. And this year (2007) I was driving up from Derby on the Saturday, with the knowledge that the whole of the British Isles seemed to be set for a proper drenching for the Sunday. I dropped into Newstones on the way up to Bethesda for some micro-route soloing and bouldering, and the sky was already heavy with the rain that was coming. Drizzle slightly it did, but with some good gusts of wind the rock seemed to stay reasonably dry and provide enough friction. Driving away from Newstones, it occurred to me that I was once again travelling to Wales for bad weather and hence settling in for longer routes with novices. Here's where it started going wrong.

I believe the thought process was something like this:
It'll be raining tomorrow. It'll be raining hard.
I always want to do Cenotaph when in Wales, and there's always some excuse not to.
Well, I could probably get up an E1, even if it was pissing it down.
That would be a bit of an adventure.
In fact, I haven't had any good epics recently.
I wonder if anyone would be stupid/crazy enough to second me.
Probably not, but if someone says yes, I might just have to do it!

And so Saturday evening got underway in Bethesda. A car-load returned to let me into the hut before rushing out again to buy supplies for the following night's dinner, after which we started getting reports of one of the club stuck half way up a Severe on Idwal Slabs. The minibus returned just before dark, with said climber having been on route for over 8 hours and the subsequent rescue attempt also getting stuck and needing to be rescued. Pitta fights and various drinking not withstanding, everyone seemed in a festive mood, knowing nothing was really going to happen the following day.

Having asked everyone I would normally climb with to accompany me on this latest "adventure", knowing they'd say no, my quest becomes a bit of a laughing matter (as all the daftest challenges do late on a beer-fuelled evening). So the question is extended to everyone at the meet - and amusingly someone who's never met me before, Shaun, agrees - the contract being that if there's someone crazy enough to lead it in the driving rain, Shaun's game for seconding it as he's not found anyone else to lead him up routes above VS.

The next morning duly arrives, and despite comments to the effect of "you're not serious, are you?", we headed off to the Pass. It was throwing it down as previously predicted, but the wind was fairly calm so we started the walk up to the corner. The wet scree wasn't worrying in the slightest, *cough*, and the smaller holds on the boulders lower down felt reassuringly non-slick, hinting at a false sense of security. Having never been up to Dinas Cromlech before, it must be said that the first time you get up to the ledge beneath the corner, you realise just how seriously imposing the walls and corner are. The walls certainly look bigger from the valley, and there are far more features on both sides than you'd previously believe, but wandering up to the corner feels like leaving the outside world and almost being surrounded by rock. Amusingly, though Resurrection, Lord, and Left and Right Walls all had water freely running down them, the corner itself was relatively dry, though the drips coming from the top were indicating that wasn't going to last... At this point it was decided that the only way to keep the water out of my eyes whilst climbing, was to do so wearing a Panama hat.

The line of the corner is, naturally, quite obvious. The right and left walls play independently important roles, and moving on to one or the other becomes occasionally vital, but the route pretty much just leads up the crack in the corner. The first troubles are at ~8m, the 5c crux. Reasonably dry up to this point, I spent a while getting the move right before having a "severe attack of common sense." It was the realisation that because I doubted my ability to reverse the crux, once passed the crux, it would be the top or retreating in shame leaving gear behind. I remember there being four separate moments up to this point where the whole adventure nearly came to very abrupt end, but somehow I kept managing to talk myself further into this daft endeavour.

Crux over, it was just a matter of getting to the top... The next ten meters or so were just brilliant, with good gear and moves, albeit the feet were unreassuringly soaked and the drips from the top were getting so persistent the Panama hat was now saturated and dripping. Luckily it was still keeping the rain out of my eyes. Above this the corner crack widens slightly. Full advantage should be taken of a full leg jam and heel stance, with your back to Right Wall, allowing a terrific hands-off rest and time to have a look at the view down the valley (assuming you can see it through the rain...). Shaun noticed the good rest I'd found and promptly took the opportunity to add a fleece to his layering.

Above this, the crack and walls just felt a bit blanker and the moves more thrutchy, but that's more than likely only because by the time I'd moved from the rest, everything was soaked and my feet were going numb. The combination of this and the fact that the Corner had turned into a waterfall meant sticking to footholds was more an effort in absolute faith rather than technique.

The final 5m section, overcoming a bulge, is almost the real crux of the route, involving delicate footwork on polished sloping footholds and some powerful moves off good finger edges / crack. Having worked out the moves to the top, and the fact that these moves involved stepping on polished, and utterly wet, slopes and small edges, the peg under the bulge felt incredibly justified. The will to live was very nearly lost at this point, and progress started feeling like battling through molasses. The top edges tantalised, but just reaching for the good final flake imposed the question as to whether there was enough strength left in my arms to make the final pull over onto the top. However, forcing them into action one last time resulted in large cheers coming up from a group on the road below, who were obviously waiting to be picked up and had nothing better to do than watch some idiot battle with the final moves hundreds of feet above them. A bow to the crowd, clip the tree, "safe", and the small amount remaining energy drains out, leaving only an uncontrollably-shivering mass huddling in a small divot at the top of the corner.

Shaun, having been standing stationary in the rain for three hours, now has to restart his limbs in order to climb the now completely wet corner. Due to the conditions, the crux, which had just managed to stay dry for me, might just have gained a grade by the time Shaun got there. Not unsurprisingly, before committing to the crux he questioned whether I had enough awareness left to safely belay (something I'd also considered), but having been reassured he managed to climb the Corner in a style that far outstripped that with which it had been led. To be honest, I was terrified of not having someone to check the abseil before I went off, and stripping the gear out of the crack was an even worse thought, as the ab runs down the wall just to the right of the crack. Stripping the gear from the ab would hence have involved even more terrifying swings.

Congratulating ourselves on completion of the task we'd set ourselves, we abbed off and retreated down to the car. Looking back up at the corner, we noted that the rain had receded to a light drizzle, and the conditions seemed to be reversed from when we'd arrived. The two side walls were actually looking like they were reasonable dry, but the Corner was one dark, soaking crack. Hmmm, perhaps there's a lesson there - if you want to climb the Corner in the rain, make sure you do it when it starts raining, not afterwards! To cap things off, just as we headed off for a medicinal tea and hot chocolate at Pete's Eats, the sun finally breaks through the clouds… and all is well.

It is uncommon, I believe, to be fined for doing something on the day of the club dinner, but the brave belayer and I were the first ones fined that evening for "Having the audacity to think that [we] could climb Cenotaph Corner in the rain, and the arrogance to actually do it". I believe "attitude" or "gall" might have been a better word than "arrogance", but you get the idea.

Two days later and both calf muscles are still refusing to move smoothly, but that just serves as a great reminder to where I was standing for so long, on the climb I'd so often let get away from me; Standing there, half way up the Corner, surveying the rain coming down in sheet across Llanberis Pass...