Slate of the Art

The Dinorwig quarries. Photo - Malcolm Davies
The Dinorwig quarries. Photo – Malcolm Davies

A line of chalk traces its way up a grey, featureless slate slab. Its presence gives this otherwise blank, quarried wall some character. A climber makes some contorted moves upwards only to ping off the same sidestep left, cursing at the repetition of his failures. This is ‘The Meltdown’, touted as the hardest slab in the world and the climber is James Mchaffie, attempting the project for the umpteenth time this season. The spring weather has been poor: the damp Welsh climate has lived up to its reputation and cold, humid conditions have hampered and frustrated many attempts on the line.

The route lies in the Dinorwic quarries, above the bustling little town of Llanberis. It is now over forty years since the final blast charge rang out over these quarries and this once swarming place of work can often be found empty and silent but for the low throb of the hydro electric plant. Twll Mawr, previously known to the quarrymen as Matilda, is a huge and atmospheric quarry hole that houses the biggest challenges on slate and ‘The Meltdown’ was, until very recently, the last great project.

The climbing is exceptionally powerful for a slab. Big moves between sidepulls and underclings demand a great deal of body tension whilst feet are pasted against tiny edges on an otherwise buffer smooth slate slab. James Mchaffie, who made the first ascent of the line, is an unassuming top climber. He is quietly spoken and polite whilst his slight frame and modest demeanour disguise a strong work ethic. Mchaffie has on-sighted more difficult traditionally protected rock climbs in Britain than any other climber as well as having made free ascents of the Pre-Muir Wall on El Capitan and the desperate Voie Petite in the French Alps. He does seem to have a soft spot for the quarries though where his awesome slab climbing abilities can truly be put to the test:

“Slate climbing is a great medium. It dries quickly after rain; in minutes in fact. The angle is generally pretty slabby, the faces look blank and the holds are incredibly positive and often small; edging usually being the name of the game. The moves on slate often feel wild, involving rocking onto a foothold at head height and then jumping from that foothold to grab another whilst facing a big fall. There’s a huge atmosphere climbing in the quarries with the post industrial relics leaving little to the imagination of the brutal lives of the quarrymen and contrasting greatly with the views of the mountains hereabouts like Crib Goch and Cynghorion.”

Having repeated most of the other difficult offerings on slate Mchaffie decided to attempt this old project of Johnny Dawes’:

“It’s great to get on a climb having had detailed talks about it with Johnny. It develops in difficulty all the way and has so many bizarre slab moves I’ve not found on any other climb. None of the moves are ridiculously hard but it’s a hard bit of climbing to link without a slip, with the top third having some heartbreaker moves involving smearing on slate whilst undercutting.”

Having attempted the line occasionally for several years, Mchaffie finally made a concerted effort on the line in 2012. The summer weather couldn’t have been worse, but Mchaffie persevered to finally make the first ascent of one of the hardest and most unusual slab climbs in the world.

The Dinorwic quarries have been excavated, on and off, for 180 years. At its peak, in the late 19th century the quarries were producing 100,000 tonnes of slate per year and employing up to 1000 men to quarry, cut and transport slate. Working conditions and pay for the quarrymen were dyer and a bitter resentment grew between the Welsh quarrymen and the English quarry owners leading to regular strikes. By 1969, the un-systematic removal and dumping of waste led to unstable slag heaps making for difficult and unprofitable quarrying which lead to the eventual closure of the Dinorwic quarries. 362 quarrymen died in the quarries during this period and on grey, autumnal days the sombre atmosphere of this post-industrial landscape can leave climbers pondering more than just the delicate moves required to complete a route.

British rock climbers have ventured into disused quarries for over half a century looking for new climbing areas after many of the existing natural crags had been climbed out. The Dinorwic quarries opened the doors to not only a new crag, but to an entire new climbing area after the closure of the quarries as Claude Davies described in an article written in 1971:

“A closer investigation, now that the whole of the workings have ceased to be productive, will enlighten and most certainly provide considerable interest and entertainment to any one exploring the area, particularly in the upper and generally older workings. These consist of a series of deep excavations through the slate, all of which can provide viewpoints for some fantastic rock scenery, which access allowing, could well become a future playground for the rock climber as the supply of new lines on naturally exposed rock runs out.”

Later the same year, Davies teamed up with pioneering British rock climber Joe Brown to make their ‘Opening Gambit’ up what was, at the time, the biggest un-climbed rock face in Wales- the South Wall of Twll Mawr. This adventurous shuffle over loose blocks is a far cry from why the quarries became popular to climbers in the early 1980s, but should perhaps be remembered as the beginning of what would become a reincarnation for the slate quarries.

The Golgotha tunnel which leads in to Twll Mawr. Photo - Calum Muskett
The Golgotha tunnel which leads in to Twll Mawr. Photo – Calum Muskett

The first forays on slate were looked upon with great cynicism by the climbing establishment. After all, slate is a fragile rock and the quarrying had made many areas of the quarries inherently unstable, a fact often noticeable during heavy downpours. A decade after Davies and Brown’s first routes in the quarries, climbers began to venture onto the open sweeps of smooth slate slabs from which the quarries were to gain their reputation.

A new generation of climbers, spearheaded by the likes of John Redhead and Johnny Dawes, explored the possibilities of this new medium, developing the style and ethics of slate climbing as well as pushing the limits of what was possible. Redhead was the best climber operating in Wales in the early 1980’s and was naturally drawn, as much as an artist as a climber, to the blank canvases that the unclimbed walls and slabs offered to him.

Described by Jim Perrin as ‘the Big Cat’, Redhead lapped up serious un-climbed projects in North Wales at a rate of knots. Redhead was the Rasputin like figure of British climbing: his un-tamed hair and frizzy beard matched his outspoken personality. Perrin went on to describe Redhead as “some sort of distant brother to our humanity, watchful, wolfish-visaged, beast-taut. If, one day, he sprang clean beyond our comprehension or just disappeared with a puff into the ether, I would not be astonished.” His routes were often epitomised by long run-outs between marginal protection such as ‘The Bells, the Bells’ at Gogarth and ‘Margins of the Mind’ on Clogwyn du’r Arddu- both contenders for first E7 and E8 in the UK respectively. His talents as a well respected and thoroughly creative artist seemed to be closely entwined with his climbing; sometimes climbing was the inspiration for his art and other times the vice versa was true. Many of his routes were often named provocatively: Cockblock, Menopausal Discharge, Raped by Affection; but generally they were named with a twinkle in his eye as he enjoyed the uproar they created.

Slate is well known for being difficult to protect. The open slabs often have few, if any, crack-lines that will accept natural protection and much of the time, where natural protection does exist, it is in the form of tiny RP placements, made even more worrying by the soft rock that they’re wedged in-between. Redhead applied his cool head and strong ethics to slate setting a precedent of bold, mixed protection routes which provided some compromise between sport climbing and trad climbing. To illustrate this point, Redhead was known for limiting himself to two bolts per pitch. I asked him why it was he did this:

“[Joe] Brown’s dictum before had been two pegs! It seemed reasonable. I never did like bolts anyway!”

So why does he enjoy trad climbing so much?

“I always believed in doubt. You never know what strengths you have until presented with a situation where you have to somehow find it. For me, there was a release in opening a door in my head and peering in, which inspired my work as an artist. Sports climbing couldn’t give me that release – climbing for climbing’s sake is like being in a zoo – negotiating in the wilderness is where my animal rejoices!”

Calum Muskett climbing John Redhead's route 'Stiff Syd's Cap' E6 6b, an a-typical slate climbing experience. Photo - Mark Reeves
Calum Muskett climbing John Redhead’s route ‘Stiff Syd’s Cap’ E6 6b, an a-typical slate climbing experience. Photo – Mark Reeves

When I asked Redhead about what he would consider to be his magnum opus on slate he replied:

“Possibly Raped by Affection, for the name, yes, but also for the three 30ft falls from the single badly placed 2nd bolt! I persevered a third time thinking if I fall again the bolt would pull. On the first fall, I broke a little finger but taped it up. Prancing about in lycra tights pissing off the CEB (Central Electricity Board) corporate oppressors, throwing stones at the guards – never a better time to climb…”

Raped by Affection is on the Rainbow Slab, which is, perhaps, the premier sheet of slate in the quarries. 160 feet high and 300 feet wide; its smoothness is accentuated by the lack of cracks and features. Climbers have often wondered, awestruck, what exact combination of blast charges were used to create such a perfect shear. ‘Raped…’ tackles the central line of the slab and is protected by two bolts, the first of which is at 80 feet and an excruciatingly long reach off poor footholds. It was described in Paul Williams’ seminal Llanberis climbing guide as:

“The neckiest undertaking (just) on the slab. Before attempting to lead this route on-sight, it may be prudent to reserve a bed in Bangor Hospital; if none are available, an abseil inspection is advised!”

The Rainbow Slab. Photo - Adrian Trendall
The Rainbow Slab. Photo – Adrian Trendall

Redhead wasn’t alone in developing the quarries though. Johnny Dawes moved onto the North Wales scene in the mid eighties and with a gritstone apprenticeship behind him he instantly made a name for himself by repeating the most difficult lines as well as making some extremely significant first ascents. Dawes was a technical master and had a brilliant ‘eye for a line’. At 5’ 6 he often had to come up with creative and dynamic sequences to overcome long reaches but was rarely seen to complain of the fact. Dawes‘ eccentricities were part of his virtues and he was forever playing around attempting to hop up boulders or climb tricky slabs with one or no hands. The slate, however, really caught his imagination as he explains in his autobiography ‘Full of Myself’:

“A favourite rock of mine is this squeeze-cooked mud called slate; gravity’s fine bone china… blue grey purple pottery encouraging us to look for the crispest challenge.”

Dawes also noted that the climbing Redhead was doing in North Wales was a source of inspiration for him to move to the area and he immediately went in for the repeat of Raped by Affection:

“Raped by affection I approached on sight. The first gear is at 80ft. A tight holed troll 8mm bolt. The problem was once I’d manoeuvred to clip it I couldn’t. Marooned on dime sized edges all I could do was dyno clip and grab, a miss would have left me with a wild grab for a spike 4m down as a last resort. There was reputedly a sling on the bolt for the 1st ascentionist and a rurp to protect the clip somewhat!”

Dawes and Redhead seemed to be vying for position on slate, repeating one another’s routes as soon as they were climbed. Although they would both dispute the fact now, there was a competitive animosity between the two of them which seemed to fuel them on to better and harder things. Both climbers would often ‘forget’ crucial gear placements when giving each other beta and afterwards they would complain, often hypocritically, about the style of ascent the other had made.

When Dawes returned to finish off ‘Raped by Affection’, he straightened out the line slightly before re-naming his version, teasingly, ‘Draped with Affection’. Redhead soon after made a similarly audacious attempt to repeat Johnny’s route ‘Dawes of Perception’ which tackles a diamond shaped slab in Vivian quarry:

“I got a brief low-down about the gear from Johnny and in particular the off-set nuts that protected the moves to the bolt at 60ft. It seemed ok. Dave Towse was belaying and decided not to tie in. My boots were a little on the worn side but I felt confident. All went fine, gear placed and just as I went to clip the bolt, my foot shot off! I cartwheeled down the wall as the offsets pulled out. I didn’t know it at the time but Dave had jumped back immediately as the first nuts ripped. He’d jumped into the pool taking in 20ft of slack! All the nuts ripped and a friend snapped leaving a sling over a loose spike that starts the moves up the slab. The sling held! I was held upside down, my head 2ft from the jagged belay boulders. Dave had saved my life! I broke my little finger. I mentioned this episode in Pete’s and apparently what Johnny hadn’t told me is that he had hammered the off-set nuts into the crack on the first ascent! Thanks! I came back another day and hammered them in! I think Johnny was likewise pissed off with me over the rurp and sling by the first bolt at 80ft on Raped by Affection. This made no difference to me on the first ascent as I could reach the bolt, but merely acted as marginal back-up!”

Dawes later commented in his autobiography about Redhead’s attempts on his routes: “Dawes of Perception had nearly killed him, the technical ones like Windows of Perception E6 7a done the day after Dawes… were beyond him. The Crown was stolen.” Whilst Redhead commented, dejectedly in his book, ‘…and One for the Crow’, that: “It seemed that the Welsh scene, the activists who generally centred their rock climbing on a more meditative, seasonal, almost lazy approach, felt an intrusion of a more ‘professional’, media controlled nature.”

From 1985 onwards Dawes continued to climb many new routes in the quarries whereas Redhead seemed to gradually make fewer and fewer first ascents on the slate. Dawes’ contributions to slate climbing from this period are undoubtedly the best renowned after his brilliant route, The Quarryman, appeared in the seminal eighties climbing film ‘Stone Monkey’. The final sequence of the film shows Johnny climbing the infamous Quarryman groove which he managed to climb a staggering three times in one day to get all the different camera angles. No mean feat considering that Steve Mcclure on a recent repeat of the route, commented that he’s “climbed 8c in shorter time and with less effort!”

Johnny Dawes tackling the flamboyant series of moves necessary to climb the Quarryman groove. Photo - Paul Williams collection
Johnny Dawes tackling the flamboyant series of moves necessary to climb the Quarryman groove. Photo – Paul Williams collection

Calum Muskett climbing the Quarryman groove. Photo - Ray Wood
Calum Muskett climbing the Quarryman groove. Photo – Ray Wood

The Quarryman lies, once again, in Twll Mawr. Fifteen years after it was first developed Dawes turned his attention from the boulder strewn South Wall to the seemingly hold-less West Wall with unusually smooth slate and a golden-brown tinge:

“Twll Mawr was a revelation. A perfect angle; the blend of blank and featured spot on. Where there were holds they were angled and shaped for curious solutions to moves to emerge. There are comfy ledges to belay on, big wall exposure and views of the mountains.

“The lowest angled part of the wall was the blankest part, The Quarryman crux, while the groove included the whole panoply of bridging moves. To have it all filmed and kept for prosperity in stone monkey was a real bonus. Still lines to go. Five pitches still unrepeated….”

Despite the groove being the most famous pitch of ‘The Quarryman’, the first and final pitch certainly shouldn’t be underestimated. The first pitch is bolted in a way where the gap between each bolt progressively increases and a fall whilst clipping the first three bolts would undoubtedly leave you on the ground; the 7c+ climbing between the bolts is no joke either! The final pitch contains the actual crux moves of the route. Excruciatingly thin moves on little wafer holds leading you to a glorious jug and easy ground all the way to the top where you’re greeted with impressive views across the mountains of Snowdonia. The two routes adjacent to ‘The Quarryman’ are also Dawes creations. ‘The Firé Escape’ boasts the potential for the biggest fall in Wales: perhaps a 120 foot whipper from 7c climbing, whilst the unrepeated ‘Couer de Lion’ features extremely bold 8a+ climbing on the first pitch followed by two more extremely taxing pitches!

Over the following few years, Dawes racked up an impressive tick list of new routes in the quarries, amongst which was ‘The Very Big and the Very Small’. At 8b+ this was one of the most difficult routes in the world when it was first climbed and was, until very recently, the most difficult slab climb in Britain. Titanium fingers and a high pain threshold for your toes are de rigueur for a successful ascent! For Dawes, this route was purely meant as a stepping stone for his long term project ‘The Meltdown’. In his autobiography Dawes describes the climbing: “The technicality of these highly positional unique cruxes is such that any limb’s contact can fail.” In 1986 Dawes made an impressive link on this project making it up to the crux traverse at the top before falling off. James Mchaffie recently remarked that this link in its own right was one of the most impressive pieces of climbing ever achieved at the time. Shortly after this link, Dawes broke a hold off the final traverse and soon after gave up on the project which was to wait quarter of a century before it was finally completed.

Pete Robins closing another chapter of slate climbing history whilst completing the first ascent of 'The New Slatesman' 8b. Photo - Ray Wood
Pete Robins closing another chapter of slate climbing history whilst completing the first ascent of ‘The New Slatesman’ 8b. Photo – Ray Wood

Over the last fifty years the quarries have undergone massive changes from industrial workhorse to outdoor playground. There has been a huge resurgence in the popularity of slate climbing with well over a hundred new routes drawing crowds of climbers to the quarries. Most of the old classics have been re-bolted and many of the new routes are popular low grade sport climbs intended for all ages and abilities. It’s not just the climbers who get to enjoy the quarries either; they are popular with dog walkers, mountain bikers, scuba divers, runners, slack liners and paragliders all of whom enjoy the unique charm of this Daliesque landscape. The quarries are no longer a place of toil, or even a scar on the landscape, they are a part of North Wales’ culture enjoyed by the masses.

The original Paul Williams 'Slate of the Art' article
The original Paul Williams ‘Slate of the Art’ article

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