As we slipped into December, and probably with the end of my relationship with Diane, I began to see that things were changing down at the cellar club. I think that we’d been in our own little worlds down there, and I hadn’t really taken much notice of any changes. But, all at once I could see that a new breed of youngsters were taking over, and the old happy gang was gradually moving on. At one time I’d thought that I’d never get fed-up with going down ‘our’ cellar club, but now I had began to tire of the place and wasn’t really fussy whether I went down there or not. Another thing that was probably helping me to become more discontent, was the fact that I was longing for the better weather so that I could head off up to North Wales again.
When I did go down to the club, the few friends that were left, and some new ones, were always pleased to see me and I’d happily dance away to the latest music. At that time I was wrapped in the latest Beatles’ song ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’. The Rolling Stones had just released ‘I Wanna Be Your Man’, Dusty Springfield (‘Rusty Springboard’ we called her) was doing well with ‘I Only Want To Be With You’, and Gene Pitney had just released ’24 Hours From Tulsa’.
As usual by then, Christmas passed by with no recollections, and the new year of 1964 arrived. The music charts had quickly changed again, with the latest hits being ‘Glad All Over’ by The Dave Clark Five, ‘Needles and Pins’ by The Searchers, and ‘Hippy, Hippy, Shake’ by the Swinging Blue Jeans.
Then Alan and I decided to have another of those cold nights out.
It had been a very mild Saturday for early January and, towards the evening Alan and I decided to do a bit of hitch-hiking. We hadn’t planned to go anywhere in particular, but just wandered up to the Bath Road and stuck our thumbs out.
At the time there was a train-strike and the London newspaper delivery vans were having to distribute the daily newspapers around the country themselves. One of these vans approached us as it was heading down towards Bristol, the driver stopped, and we had soon climbed up into the space between the top of the load and the roof.
But, as we rode on through the evening in that unheated van, the weather began to turn very cold again, and laying on the cold bundles of newspapers didn’t help matters. The driver and his mate were wearing thick overcoats and had scarves around their necks, but, as usual Alan and I were only dressed in our thin suits. It wasn’t long before the pair of us were shivering like mad.
Finally, in the dead of night, the driver dropped us off in the centre of Bristol. We were almost frozen stiff and ran along dark, empty streets to try and warm up a bit. There wasn’t a soul around, and nothing much to see at that time of the night. Feeling that we’d at least reached some kind of ‘goal’, we decided to head out onto the London Road in the hope of getting an early lift back home.
Not so much as a cycle passed us as we plodded out of Bristol. In the early morning we reached Keynsham, where a light, shining from a window of the station, seemed to beckon to us. We made our way over to the station in the hope that the room would have a fire so that we could get warm again.
But, there was no warm fire. The whole station was completely deserted and dark except for us. The door of the lighted room, which turned out to be the waiting room, was open and we walked in. The room, which was lit up by a gas-light hanging from the centre of the ceiling, was very cold. We could only suspect that somebody had forgotten to turn out the light and lock the room up when the station had closed for the night.
We pulled a heavy table over to below the gas-light, and stood up on top of it while we tried to warm our hands up a bit by the heat of the flaming gas mantles. This idea helped to make our hands a few degrees warmer, but the rest of our bodies gradually became very cold with the inactivity. Finally, with dawn breaking in the eastern sky, and both of us very cold and tired, we left the room to continue our journey home.
A lorry soon picked us up and we squeezed thankfully into the warm cab. As we headed up the A4 London Road towards Reading, I explained to the driver how we came to be there, and about our cold night spent standing up on a table trying to warm our hands up by a gas-light. The warmth of the cab and the throbbing of the engine was causing me to feel very sleepy and I couldn’t keep my eyes open. Alan was already asleep, and I soon followed. The last thing I recall was the man laughing heartily at the thought of us two using a gas-light to try and get warm.
The next I knew was that the driver was shaking me and asking where we wanted to be dropped off. We were just passing Prospect Park, almost at the point where the newspaper delivery van had picked us up the night before. As the driver reached the point where he would turn right into Berkeley Avenue to by-pass the town centre (which was the accepted A4 route in those days before the M4 by-passed Reading), we asked to be dropped off. I apologised to the driver for falling asleep, and thanked him for his help. He told us not to worry as he understood, and at least our tale had given him a good laugh.
Although it was cold, the mild weather continued. It was a lot different from the terrible conditions of the same time the previous year. Cilla Black was up in the charts with a song called ‘Anyone Who Had A Heart’, Brian Poole and the Tremeloes was also there with ‘Candyman’, and Brenda Lee had released a weepy song called ‘As Usual’. A couple of weekends after the Bristol trip, not content with all the cold nights that I’d already spent out in the open that winter, I asked Alan if he wanted to attempt another trip over to Amersham and he agreed.
This time we had decided to try the Henley/Marlow/High Wycombe road, and we managed to reach my old home-town without too many problems. But one incident stands out in my mind from the journey over there.
As we stood beside the High Wycombe road after being dropped off at Marlow, a car skidded to a halt beside us. The car was packed to the brim with Asian men, and they seemed to be in a terrible hurry. The window flew down and one of them shouted at us, asking quickly "Weer iz Hee-wi-com-bee, pliz?" (as I heard it). Alan and I looked at each other, neither of us had understood the question. But almost immediately, with a voice that told us the he definitely thought we were a couple stupid country yokels, the man shouted at us again. This time he only screeched the word "Hee-wi-com-bee!", obviously thinking that any moron should understand that!
And he was right, for I suddenly realised that he was asking where High Wycombe was. But, even as my finger came up to point in the direction of High Wycombe the car roared off. I hadn’t even had a chance to tell them that High Wycombe was straight ahead.
With the car vanishing out of sight, Alan and I had speculated as to what those men were up to. They seemed to be in a terrible hurry, as if they were being chased, and we expected to see at least ten police cars come racing along in pursuit. But the road stayed quiet until we were picked up a few minutes later. From that day on, High Wycombe was known as ‘Hee Wicombee’ (with the Asian accent, of course) by Alan and myself.
None of my old friends could be found that Saturday evening. The pair of us walked from house to house in an effort to try and discover if any of them were home. Finally we gave up and began looking for somewhere to spend the night. The evening was turning cold and I suggested to Alan that we could go to the camp that Alf, Ray, John and I had built in Raans Wood. At least we’d have shelter and could light a fire. Unfortunately, after walking all the way down there and fumbling through the wood in the dark, we found that the camp had gone. I suppose that, after eight or nine years, I should have expected that!
As we were walking back up past Raans Farm, we could just make out the darker bulk of an open barn against the starry night sky. We crept over and found that the barn was full of hay bales. It didn’t take us long to pull a few bales out of the stack, snuggle down in the hole we’d made, then pull a few bales across the entrance. Except where the freezing night wind blew through cracks between the bales, it was fairly warm in our hideout and we were soon fast asleep.
The winter sun was already peeping over a frost-covered land as we awoke, very cold in spite of our shelter. Peering all ways so that we wouldn’t be discovered by the farmer, we scooted from the barn and didn’t stop until we felt safe. I had been horrified to notice that my thick, mohair jumper was absolutely covered in bits of straw, but I’d dared not stop in case the farmer had seen us and gave chase.
It took us ages to strip off and get rid of most of the straw that covered our clothes, body, and hair. Feeling a bit dirty, and worried that we wouldn’t get a lift if we looked scruffy, we tidied up as best was possible and headed for home. But the drivers were just as reliable as ever and we arrived in Reading with no problems.
As usual, the music charts were rapidly changing. ‘Little Children’ by Billy J Kramer was one of the latest hit-songs, along with ‘Not Fade Away’ by The Rolling Stones, and ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’ by The Beatles.
The weather was becoming milder and the urge to get back up to North Wales was really beginning to nag at me. I was still reading everything about mountaineering that I could get my hands on, but I also wanted to get out and do my own stuff. Alan and I went on a few weekday evening trips up to London in the Ford Thames van (that Mum had purchased for the failed window-cleaning job), but those trips didn’t satisfy my longing to get up the real open road towards those beautiful hills and valleys. Mum still wouldn’t allow me use the van on weekends at this time. I explained to Alan that I really needed a partner to go up into the hills with, and tried to fire his imagination a bit. But he still wasn’t interested in trying to hitch-hike up to North Wales.
Then a casual friend from the cellar club, whose name was Ron, offered to go with me. I was suddenly very excited at the thought that this time I’d have a companion and could actually attempt to climb something - I was hoping it would be Tryfan again! I prepared everything in advance, obtained time off from work on the Friday afternoon and Saturday morning, and we set off in great spirits. As things turned out, it would be Ron’s only trip in that direction with me. The whole trip was a disaster.
Alan and I had learned a long time before that very few car drivers will stop once they have built up speed out on the open road. But, if a hitch-hiker stood at the beginning of a road (out from a town for instance), or at a road junction where cars were going slower, there was a lot better chance of being picked up. Also, by standing at these spots, it could look as if the hitch-hiker had just been dropped off by a car that wasn’t going any farther in the required direction, and, if the hitch-hiker had just been dropped off by some other car driver, then he/she must be fairly acceptable. Hitch-hiking was a case of being patient, and content to wait on corners, rather than to step out onto open roads - riding in cars was a lot easier and faster than walking!
Ron didn’t want to stand by a road junction (in this case, standing near the Tilehurst roundabout on the road to Oxford out of Reading). He insisted on walking, and only my desire to have a companion allowed my to give in after protesting. Once past Tilehurst Station there was only one pavement beside the road, and that was on the wrong side for hitch-hiking the way we wanted to go. We wasted a lot of time walking right along to, and through, Pangbourne where we finally got a lift.
And that’s how it went on for the rest of the afternoon and early evening. We walked a lot and only managed to get a few helpful lifts. I didn’t blame the drivers, I knew the score and became very cheesed-off with the wasted walking, the straps of the backpack biting into my shoulders, and our slow progress. It began to dawn on me that Ron was a useless companion for what I was planning.
It wasn’t even dark when we reached Bromsgrove and Ron decided that he’d had enough for one day. I would have been happy to have travelled on all night to get a decent day up in the hills if it had been necessary. But I could see that he’d made up his mind and I eventually found a field where we set up our camp for the night behind a hedge.
On the Saturday morning, I couldn’t get Ron out of bed as he said that it was too cold to get up. In an effort to try and save a bit of time, I made his breakfast and a cup of hot tea. But he still languished in bed, while I strained at the bit to be off. Finally, I pulled the tent down and, in a bad mood he unrolled himself from his blankets.
Still walking and hitch-hiking, we eventually made it to Shrewsbury where we got a decent lift up to Corwen (at least we were in North Wales). But it had taken us until the early Saturday afternoon to reach that point and, at the rate we were going I gradually began to worry about getting back home in time for work on the Monday morning.
We went into the station café and, over a cup of tea, I told Ron that I’d had enough and was turning back. I explained that I’d tried to do things his way so as not to cause any arguments between us, but it wasn’t working. I went on to point out that I might be late for work if we took as long to get home as it had to reach Corwen, especially as there were fewer cars on the roads on Sundays. I suggested that he could go it alone if he wanted to. But Ron didn’t want to go home on his own, and had asked if we could stay together. I told him that if we were going to travel home together, then he would have to do it my way and he agreed. Finally we walked back through Corwen and stood beside the road heading south.
But, after all the fuss and bother that I’d kicked up about not getting a lift through walking, the drivers let me down as we waited in vain for a lift. Ron began to make snide remarks, and I began to get annoyed. Eventually, in the late afternoon, I suggested that we split up to better our chances. I was used to sleeping out anywhere so I gave him the tent and we shared the food out. Then I wandered down the road a bit so that he would have the first chance of a lift. We agreed that whoever got picked up first would tell the driver that we were together, and ask if there was room for the other.
No more than a couple of minutes later, I watched in pure amazement as a black, chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce purred to a halt beside Ron, where the rear door opened and he climbed in. When the car swished past me, I could see an old lady in the back, with Ron sitting beside her and sneakily sticking two fingers up as he laughed his delight at having so grand a lift. But I didn’t care, I was glad to have got rid of him. If I tell the truth, I was wishing that I’d ditched him back at the Tilehurst roundabout the day before!
It seemed that, no sooner had Ron vanished down the road, then a good driver appeared and my old luck came back. Within a few minutes, two hill-walkers had stopped and picked me up.
The two hill-walkers (fell-walkers) were from Watford and had just spent a week’s holiday up in the mountains of North Wales. To me, it was a wonderful opportunity to grill somebody of experience on the pastime that I was trying to get into. And grill them I did, all the way down to Watford,
They were not rock climbers, but they had walked up a lot of mountains around Britain and Europe in summer and winter conditions. The passenger pulled out their gear to show me what they used, and I saw, and handled, a karabiner, an ice-axe, and a pair of crampons, for the first time. Every little item of information gleaned from those two friendly hill-walkers was slotted and stored into my memory. They told me stories of their adventures, narrow escapes, and triumphs, and I hung on to every word. All too soon we were down in Watford and I was dropped of by those lads, with the promise that, if we ever met up in the hills, they would be pleased to have me join them.
As I walked through the town towards the Rickmansworth road to continue hitch-hiking, I suddenly saw Ron standing at a bus stop. His clothes were a bit of a mess and he seemed to have a faint sickly smell about him. I asked him whatever had happened to cause him to be in such a state, and he blurted out this story that had me in fits of laughter all the way home. Again it could only usually happen in a movie.
Apparently, after he’d passed me in the back of the Rolls Royce, the posh lady had told him that she’d only decided to give him a lift because her little Pekinese dog was ill and needed comforting. She was tired of nursing the dog and Ron was asked to have it on his lap and comfort it, in payment for a lift down to Watford, which, like the two hill-walkers, was also the destination of the old lady and her chauffeur. Ron hadn’t been too keen on the idea, but did as the lady had asked.
But the dog wasn’t keen on the idea either. It fought to get back on the lady’s lap and Ron was forced to wrap his arms around the animal and hold it to his chest. He told me that the dog had smelt really vile, and he’d been gasping for breath as he clutched it to his chest while the animal had scrabbled more and more to get away from him. Apparently the old lady was just ignoring the struggle that was going on beside her.
Suddenly, according to Ron, the dog had vomited over the front of his coat. Then, as if to add insult to injury, as he’d lifted the dog out at arms-length from his chest, he looked down and discovered, to his further horror and disgust, that the sick dog also had diarrhea, and had messed on his lap. Ron went on to say that when the old lady saw what had happened, she told Ron off and blamed him for the mess, saying that he’d squeezed her little doggy too hard.
Being extremely cross, Ron had wanted to get out. But he knew that he’d have to get as close to Reading as was possible now, then catch a bus the rest of the way home as he hadn’t thought that he’d have much chance of getting another lift due to the mess he was in. So he’d sat in the back of the Rolls Royce for the rest of the journey down to Watford, feeling extremely uncomfortable and occasionally shrinking under the stern glare of the old lady.
If I hadn’t seen the state that Ron was in, I would never have believed that story. But there were still some murky-looking damp patches on his coat, where he’d tried to clean up a bit after being dropped off by the chauffeur, and there was also the faint sickly smell.
And so, after giving me back the tent, Ron went his way and I went mine. I never knowingly saw him again, but I often recall that first failed attempt to hitch-hike up to the Welsh hills, and Ron’s almost unbelievable story.
When I arrived home and told Mum the whole sad tale, she amazed me by suggesting that I could use the Ford Thames van for a trip up there. In an explosion of excitement, I began to prepare for the trip, which I hoped to make a couple of weekends later.
Even the added incentive of using the van hadn’t been enough to encourage Alan to accompany me on the trip. But, having listened well to the two hill-walkers, I’d discovered that most of the groups who climbed amongst the peaks wouldn’t mind if a loner tagged along for safety’s sake. With the intention of trying my luck at their suggestion, I took a stock of what I already had and made a list of the required items I didn’t have. I recall that I bought thick football socks, a thick jumper, a set of mess-tins, an enamel dish and mug, and a knife, fork and spoon set. With the van to carry all my gear, I could take what I wanted, including extra blankets, my pillows, ‘real’ food, a Primus stove, and heavy saucepans. This, to me, was being as spoilt as I had been with Mr. Greer’s group a year previously.
As I wanted to go up on the Friday evening, I once again approached my boss and asked for the Saturday morning off. But, he’d had enough of me taking time off and refused my request. Admittedly he’d been fair with me, I’d had the week off during the previous October, and had just taken the Friday afternoon and Saturday morning off. I suppose that he’d thought I’d make a habit of it if he gave in, which, of course, I probably would have done.
But, I wasn’t going to have that trip spoiled by anybody. Without a moment’s hesitation, I packed the job in. I wasn’t worried, there were plenty of jobs available around Reading, and I was due for a change anyway (I wonder if the youngsters are so fortunate as to be able to do that now, in the mid-90s!). Not only that, but I was determined that the next job I got would not include having to work on weekends.
As I worked my weeks notice, I warned my boss that I wouldn’t be working on the Saturday morning and he adjusted my pay accordingly. During the last couple of days with that company, I took the new driver, that had been hired to replace me, out and showed him the ropes and the round. I chuckled to myself as Getaway Gertie leered in his direction when we did the delivery to her shop. I didn’t say anything to the unsuspecting driver, he had enough on his plate trying to remember the round without worrying about being way-laid by one of his customers. He’d probably just had time to get settled in before she made her move!
But the driver’s future problem with Getaway Gertie was the last thing that I was thinking of as the minutes seemed like hours while I waited for the time to pass on the Friday afternoon. We arrived back at the shop a bit early and, as I helped to sort out the Saturday morning load for the new driver, the clock on the wall seemed to have stopped. I was in a fever of excitement and impatience, willing the time to go faster so that I could be off. I recall wishing that I’d had the Friday afternoon off as well. But, the great moment finally came, I collected my wages and cards, then left with a quick ‘good-bye’ to my (by that particular time) ex-workmates.
The van was already loaded with my gear, I had a hurried bath, then changed into my ‘mountain-clothes’ - complete with trouser-bottoms tucked into the long socks. Finally I was off on the new adventure and, as I waved ‘good-bye’ to Mum, my happiness knew no bounds. I wasn’t worried that I was on my own, the two hill-walkers had seemed to be very confident that I’d easily latch on to a group if I did the right thing, and I was determined to follow their advice. As it turned out, their advice was proven more than I would have dared to envisage!
I joined the early-evening traffic and headed up to Oxford (the ‘City of Spires’ we called Oxford). As I drove around the eastern bypass of Oxford (I don’t think the western bypass was built at that time), I thrilled at the thought that I was really on the open road and making my independent way up to the wonderful hills of North Wales. I sang and laughed with pure happiness, and felt that my chest would burst.
At the time I thought that those feelings would gradually vanish as I settled down and became more familiar with the roads and adventure but, thirty-four years later my inner feelings are still the same each time I go on a trip, although I’ve learned to control my outward feelings now. My excitement as I wander the hills has never diminished. But then, the ever-changing scenery and beauty of the mountains, coupled with the varied adventures to be had in those areas, gives no real adventurer a chance to become bored or blase.
But, on that first trip in the Ford Thames I wasn’t thinking about the future. I was living for each passing moment, enjoying the satisfaction of the long road ahead with the anticipation of unknown adventures at my destination. I didn’t have a worry in the world apart from wondering how I was going to pluck up courage and ask to join somebody else’s group. I speculated as to who this imagined group would consist of, and what I would learn from them. I also wondered what they’d say if I needed a rope thrown down to me as I’d had to have with Mr. Greer’s group. I knew that only time would tell, and that I’d have to make the most of any chances that came my way. Little did I know that a chap who would give me a wonderful introduction to ‘real’ climbing was making his way towards a rendezvous with the Ford Thames and myself.
Chris (I never knew his surname) lived just north of Birmingham if I recall right. His father had been a mountaineer and rock climber for years (so Chris told me), and Chris had taken up the pastime under his father’s guidance. Having planned to meet a friend in the Llanberis Pass that weekend, Chris was hitch-hiking up the A5 trunk road from Birmingham towards North Wales. He’d got as far as the Shrewsbury by-pass, and was looking for another lift, when I came along.
I was delighted to see a lad hitch-hiking beside the road on the Shrewsbury by-pass. I recall thinking that at least it was a chance to repay one of the many lifts I’d had up until that time. I stopped and we put the lad’s rucksack in the back of the van with my gear. Then we hopped in and I was on my way again.
The lad introduced himself as Chris, I introduced myself, and soon we were chatting away like old friends. Chris was tall, fair-haired, and laughed a lot. We swapped details of where we lived and what we did for a wage (I recall that he was tickled-pink when I explained how I’d packed in my job to go on that trip). Then we got down to the more serious purpose of why we were both heading up towards the hills.
I had to confess to Chris that, despite the pile of gear in the back of the van, I was still struggling to get my foot in the door as far as climbing was concerned. With no real commitment, Chris, explaining that his friend was also a ‘beginner’, said that, if his friend agreed, he would try and get me included on some of the climbs they were going to attempt. Suddenly it was there again - that explosion of excited anticipation and fear. Nevertheless, I was determined to make the most of any opportunities that might be presented to me and, with that casual offer, I began to silently pray that his friend would be as nice a person as Chris was, and that they would give me a go.
And so, with those non-committal words springing into my mind every few minutes and making my pulse race with excitement, I drove on through the night as Chris chatted about some of his adventures. We cheered as we passed into Wales at Chirk, then we stopped for the traditional cup of tea in the little station café at Corwen. Chris laughed when I told him the story of my trip up to that point with Ron two weeks previously. The last bit of our journey then flashed by as Chris related more of his adventure stories, and we reached Capel Curig almost before I’d realised it.
Chris had planned to camp down in the Llanberis Pass, and I had planned to go to the Ogwen Valley. At his suggestion I changed my mind and decided to tag along with Chris. I had offered to run him down to the Llanberis Pass then return to the Ogwen Valley, but his suggestion (and the hope of a climb) swayed me and it wasn’t long before we’d set up camp on the piece of ground where I’d camped the last time I’d stayed in the Pass. Soon Chris had retired to his tent and I snuggled down luxuriously in the back of the van.
I was awakened at dawn the next morning by Chris tapping on the side of the van and hissing at me to get up if I wanted to do a climb. I was instantly alert, extremely excited and, at the same time, very apprehensive. Sliding into my clothes, I climbed out of the van and prepared to meet Chris’s mate. But his mate wasn’t there, Chris had decided to take me up a climb, then go back to the tent later to see if his friend had arrived. After a hurried breakfast and a cup of tea to warm us up a bit (it was a very cold dawn), Chris began preparing for the climb.
The first thing he asked me to do was to try on a huge pair of boots with bits of metal nailed around the edge of the soles. They were a pair of old ‘nailed’ boots that had belonged to his father and Chris told me that they’d be better to climb in than my work-boots. I tried them on and luckily they had fitted reasonably well. Chris had a pair of more-modern boots, with what he called ‘Vibram’ soles. Those soles were made of hard wearing rubber and were specially shaped for good grippage on dry rock, but they were poor when the rock was wet. He also told me that there was a springy plate in the sole of the boots to stop them from bending up too much when standing on small toe-holds. As he prepared for the climb, he chatted about the gear, why it was used, how to look after it, and how much it had cost. I listened and slotted all that valuable information into my memory bank.
He produced a length of natural-fibre rope and, after winding it around my waist a few times, he tied a knot and tucked the ends away. This was my waist-line (or safety-belt), into which Chris snapped one of the snaplinks for joining ropes (karabiners, or ‘krabs’ as we called them in those days - ‘krabs’ seems to have been replaced by ‘biners’ now). I recalled that it was at the same spot that I’d first seen krabs as the climbers had sorted out their gear during my second trip up to those hills. Chris put his own waist-line on, hung a few loops of rope over his shoulder, then reached into his tent and produced a gleaming-white rope. He explained that it was a cable-laid, nylon rope, and that these nylon ropes were replacing the old natural-fibre ropes. It was all so interesting, and I began to fret lest his mate turn up and I wouldn’t get a chance to use some of the gear.
But, I needn’t have worried, there was still no sign of his friend as Chris passed me a small day-pack, instructing me to put my water, nibblies, and waterproofs in with his emergency gear, then we were off.
At first I was ecstatic with happiness and excitement as we began to labour up the valley slope above our campsite. Chris had turned in the direction of Dinas Cromlech and I was happy to be in his hands. But, the closer we got to those great monoliths, the more forbidding and steeper they seemed to look. I remembered how I’d watched the tiny figures of people climbing up those great walls and looking like flies. Gradually I began to get worried, I didn’t know Chris all that well, and in spite of all the knowledge he had shown, I needed reassurance. In the end, I asked him to point out where we were going to climb on the rocks. It didn’t really help, for he vaguely waved his arm over to the right hand end of the sheer faces and plodded on up.
As we neared the foot of the rocks, I noticed that Chris was picking up small stones and rocks and putting them into his pocket. Upon my inquiry as to why, he told me that they would be used as chockstones in cracks, so that a loop could be fixed to the face as a safety device called a running-belay. I recalled that I’d also been told about running-belays by the climbers I’d spoken to on that second trip to the area. Now I was going to see the real thing first hand!
Finally, we were at the bottom of a climb that Chris had picked out from a little dog-eared book he called ‘the guide’. That book had a description of all the ways that those great rocks had been climbed, including, Chris had pointed out on our approach, a fearsome-looking corner which had first been climbed by a chap named Joe Brown. Chris had further explained that the climb was called ‘Cenotaph Corner’, one of the hardest climbs in the Llanberis Pass at the time, and a ‘classic’ that every climber wanted to do. I remember thinking that they were welcome to it!
But now we were just out of sight of Joe’s climb, and I came back to earth when Chris told me that the climb we stood below was called ‘Flying Buttress’. To me it sounded quite a forbidding title and I had told him that I sincerely hoped that I wouldn’t be ‘flying’ out into space myself. Chris had laughed and assured me that, at a grade of ‘Diff’ (Difficult) the climb would be well within my capabilities. ‘Difficult’ didn’t sound much like ‘very easy’ to me, but I said nothing and listened as Chris gave me instructions as to my role in ‘belaying’ him while he climbed.
He uncoiled the climbing-rope and, using the krabs in our waist-lines, tied me to one end, and himself to the other. Then he anchored me to the rocks with a loop of rope so that I would stay put. He threaded his end of the climbing-rope around the back of my waist and explained that, as he climbed up away from me, I was to pay out the rope, from the pile at my feet, just fast enough to avoid tugging him off. He also told me that, in the event of him falling off, I had to whip the loose end of the rope across my chest and hold it tight. This manoeuvre would cause friction on the rope from my clothes and, hopefully, arrest his fall. Chris stressed the fact that, in the event of him falling, the rope would probably pull me up in the air but, on no account was I to let it go or he would fall further and possibly injure himself or worse.
Then he briefly explained that a basic running-belay was a stone wedged into a crack, with one of the loops threaded around the stone so that two loops were hanging away from the face. A krab was clipped into the two loops, then the climbing-rope was also clipped into the krab so that, as he climbed on up, the climbing-rope would slide through the krab that was anchored to the face by the ‘chocked’ loop. In theory, he further explained, if he fell after putting in one of the running-belays, he would only fall twice the distance that he had climbed above it. He also told me that the loops could be fitted over projecting spikes of rock, behind flakes of rock, or even around a tree, providing whatever way was chosen would make a safe ‘anchor-point’. Lastly, he told me that it would be my job to remove all the running-belays as I climbed up, making sure that I kept everything, including the stones, so that I could give it to him for use higher up. Finally, with a warning not to untie anything, or relax, until he shouted down and told me what to do, Chris set off.
More than a bit worried, I watched Chris climb up a steep ridge. I paid out the rope from the pile, using that waist-belay system, and, each time he stopped I took the chance of whipping my arm across my chest with the loose part of the climbing-rope (dead rope) clutched tightly in my hand. I didn’t want to mess things up if he fell. As soon as his end of the rope (live rope) moved up, I instantly began to feed it out to him again so that he wouldn’t be tugged off the rock.
As Chris climbed, he shouted down instructions and advice. He told me when he was putting in a running-belay (runner), and explained the best way to get it out. He showed me why I must never lean into the rock as that could cause the soles (or ‘nails’ in my case that day) to slip out of the toe-holds. He said that I must keep upright, with my weight above my heels, heels down, and to always have three points of contact with the face, e.g. move one limb at a time. He finally shouted that I’d soon get the hang of it, and then climbed away as if he’d forgotten me. I dutifully paid out the rope in stops and starts as I stamped around a bit to try and keep warm.
The walk up in the cold morning air had made me sweat, and now that I was standing still, that sweat made me feel colder as the cool breeze blew through my clothes. I would have liked to put on my spare jumper, but I didn’t dare let go of the climbing rope in case Chris fell off, so I stamped my feet to keep the circulation going.
Then the rope stopped moving and nothing happened for a while. Just when I began to think that Chris had got stuck up there somewhere, he called down that he was ‘on belay’. I had to shout up and ask him what he meant, and he called back that he was anchored to a ledge (a ‘stance’ he called it), and ready to take the remaining climbing-rope in between us. At his suggestion, I took the rope from behind my waist and fed it from the pile as he hauled it up until all the spare rope was taken in between us. Chris now did the same system for me, only he had to take the rope in as I climbed up from below. He shouted that I’d only fall down about a foot if I came off, but I’d made up my mind that I wasn’t going to fall if I could help it! Finally Chris shouted at me to untie the anchor and start climbing.
At last the moment that I’d dreamed of for nearly a year had arrived. Secretly, I’d known that I had wanted to get into rock climbing since just after that first trip with Mr. Greer. Now, at last, I was kicking the dirt off the soles of those unusual boots (‘Very important!’ Chris had explained), reaching up for the first hand-holds, and stepping onto the rock face. I didn’t know what to expect, or how I’d react to the heights. All I knew was that I just had a strong urge to give it a go, and I also wanted to feel the fear that I’d experienced on the short wall on Tryfan again.
Right from the start I tried to remember the instructions - stand straight, weight above heels, heels down, and only move one limb at a time. At first it was fairly easy to move up the ridge and I almost thought that it was a bit of an anticlimax. As I made my way up, removing the running-belay loops, and the stones wedged in the cracks (‘Be safe, but leave the climb clean!’ Chris had said), the rope moved up in front of me as Chris took it in and piled it up beside him on the ledge.
But just below that ledge was a short wall. It was almost the same situation as I’d had with Mr. Greer, a wall to climb and the ground falling away steeply to the valley bottom below. I’d only climbed about forty feet up the ridge but, we were already high up on the hillside even before we’d began to climb. This time, I didn’t even get on the wall before the fear gripped me. All I could do was to hang on where I was and bemoan my fate.
Then I heard Chris asking me what was wrong. I looked up to see his face peering down at me from above the top of the wall. I explained my problem and he said that I’d be alright once I got going as long as I tried to remember his instructions. Feeling a bit better at the quiet, confident way that he had said it, I launched myself upwards again. With a bit of grunting, a sudden flash of more fear as I realised that I was actually up on the wall with the great drop below my feet, then Chris’s grinning face was right in front of me as I scrabbled onto the ledge beside him. The holds had all been there on that wall and the nailed-boots hadn’t slipped once.
I only had time to feel mildly elated at this small triumph, as Chris was soon busy anchoring me to the ledge, sorting out the running-belays that I had collected, and getting me set up to belay him again as I had at the bottom. When he was satisfied that I was ready to arrest his fall, he untied and climbed on up with me paying out his rope.
With that pitch (length to climb up between stances) as an introduction, we climbed another four pitches. To me, the climb had been like a series of miniature exploratory adventures. Chris would climb on up out of sight, while I belayed him from the stances and apprehensively wondered what was up there. Then it would be my turn, and I had eagerly set off to ‘discover’ what was around the corner. I’d looked down into the valley a few times and felt that clutch of fear, but Chris had seemed to call down with a bit of encouragement just at the right moments. At one time he told me that we were higher than the top of Joe Brown’s corner and, as I glanced down into the valley, I could well believe it.
Finally, we reached a ledge below a great, flared crack in the wall above. Chris explained that the great crack was the ‘exit chimney’ to the top of the climb. He also told me that it was the hardest part of the climb (the ‘crux’). I groaned inwardly, thinking to myself that it was a good time to spring that one on me, and wishing that the chimney, and its ‘crux’, had been down at the start. Chris swarmed up the right-hand side of that chimney, while I belayed and tried to remember the instructions and advice he shouted back at me. Then it was my turn.
With Chris anchored at the top of the climb and taking my rope in, I set off up the chimney. I hadn’t let myself run away with the thought that I was near the top of the climb, especially when Chris had told me that the hardest part was still to come. But I was determined to give it my best effort. There was a bit of a struggle, another flash of fear, and more struggling. Then the beginnings of triumphant and elated feelings as I climbed the last few feet, scrambled out above the cliffs and walked another few feet up to Chris.
Suddenly Chris was yahooing and cheering as he slapped me on the back in congratulations. He could probably see the sheer happiness on my face as I began to experience the full force of my triumph and elation, I felt ecstatic to the extreme. Chris had shared my happiness as we sat and rested while I re-lived that ascent up the steep ridges, walls, gullies, cracks, and the final chimney. I’d felt so wonderful to have actually finished the climb. I’d also felt that it was the beginning of new things for me. In spite of my fear, I’d been able to complete the climb without falling off or turning back. The climb may have been a mere ‘Diff’, but, to hear us shouting out our pleasure, you’d have thought we’d just climbed Everest! Nevertheless, I’d finished the climb, even if it was a fairly easy one, and I felt absolutely great. Chris had said that he remembered how he’d been ‘gripped’ (scared stiff) on his first few climbs, and he had felt for me as I’d fought with my fears while I climbed, what to me at the time were, those terrifying rock faces.
I was so grateful to that chap who had taken the time to give me a fair go. His friendly nature, coupled with his quiet instructions and keenness to help, had given me the confidence to keep going. When I’d gained more experience and began instructing beginners myself, I never forgot how I’d felt on that first climb, and Chris’ way of quietly dealing with my ‘problems’. I used his manner as a model for my own as I instructed, and it has helped hundreds of novices to success, and their own wonderful feelings of triumph and elation.
After settling down a bit, then tidying up the gear, we set off down a slope towards the valley floor. As we got lower, I kept looking back up to the ridge and walls of the climb, and wondering if I’d really climbed up them, or if it had been a dream, it was all so very unreal.
Then once back down at the safety of the campsite, I became secretly annoyed at being so scared up on those rocks. It was the heights that bothered me, not the heights of being on a sharp ridge or mountain slope, but those awful plunging drops straight down below. That fear would crop up a thousand times during my rock climbing life and, although I learned to cope with it a bit, the fear never really went away. But then, if it had there would probably have been no point in doing the activity, as my fear was what gave me the most challenge. Later on, when I began to go potholing, I would have to put up with being terrified of enclosed spaces. But, I found that ‘fear’ easy to overcome as I gained knowledge and experience. So much so in fact, that, even though I had a go at other caving aspects, such as photography, mapping, and diving, I eventually became bored with potholing. But I have never become bored with climbing, and even now, at the age of 54 years old, I still get that clutch of fear as I look down the plunging drops below my feet. Anyway, back to that campsite.
I’d only done the one 300-odd feet climb, but I been well and truly bitten by the climbing-bug. Chris had said that he’d enjoyed climbing with me and he was sure that his friend wouldn’t mind if I joined them for the rest of the weekend. Thinking again how fortunate I was to have met up with Chris, I was champing at the bit to go along with anything that he and his friend had planned.
But the friend still hadn’t turned up at the campsite when we arrived back there. It was nearly mid-day, and we had lunch while Chris wondered what had happened to him. After lunch, I ran him down to another campsite (was it Humphrey’s?) just in case his mate had stayed at the wrong place. But we couldn’t find him. Much to my amazement, Chris wiped the meeting with his mate off and told me that he’d be happy to fall in with any plans that I’d made. I explained that I hadn’t intended to ruin his weekend by expecting him to nurse me. But he told me that, as his missing companion was only a beginner as well, he’d be happy to instruct me instead as we seemed to get on so well together. And, in return, maybe I’d give him a lift back down to Shrewsbury. Of course, I was delighted with that arrangement and we got straight down to business.
Chris told me that he could see that I was keen to get into climbing, and that I’d obviously taken a lot of interest in what had already been shown and explained to me. He went on to say that there were still many things that I should learn, and that we should spend the afternoon going over a few of them before we did any more climbing. I answered that I’d be very grateful to learn from his experience.
And so Chris and I spent the rest of that day working very hard. At first we stayed around the two large rocks beside the campsite (the Cromlech Rocks) where he taught me such things as a few important knots, placing the stones into cracks (that were used for anchor-points), placing and removing steel pegs (which were also used as anchor-points), and further tips on how to better manage the rope, and also better my climbing techniques. I was still carrying the whistle around and, when asked if I knew the ‘international distress’ whistle-calls, I had confessed that I only had it because I’d seen Mr. Greer carrying one. It hadn’t taken Chris long to teach me the whistle-calls, used by climbers, walkers, and mountaineers, in those days, to summon help while up in the hills. Then, with my head already spinning, he led me over the road to a slab where he taught me how to abseil (the ‘classic’ method) down a rope, and then to ‘prusik’ back up it. Chris had emphasized the importance of knowing how to abseil and prusik, explaining that abseiling was a quick method of getting down off the cliffs in the event of an emergency, and that prusiking would also help in certain situations (for instance, if I was second (or third) on a rope, and couldn’t manage a part of the climb, I could use the leader’s anchored rope to prusik up past that part).
And all the time Chris was giving me other advice and tips on mountaineering, rock climbing, and fell-walking. His knowledge, to me, was vast for those days, and he gave me a wonderful and solid foundation on which to build up my experience. I memorized everything I could and, when I arrived back home, I spent the following week or so writing it all down in an exercise book, so that I’d be able to keep a record of, and practice, it all.
Meanwhile, the late afternoon had approached and we began to get hungry. Finally I forced myself to pack it in for the day (much, I suspect, to Chris’s relief) and , in return for the help I’d been given, I cooked the evening meal while Chris had a well deserved rest.
As we were eating the meal, Chris suddenly asked me if I’d be interested in going to one of the local pubs for the evening. I was never really keen on going to pubs, nor beer-drinking, but he’d been so good to me that I couldn’t refuse his small request, although I did say that I had no decent suit to wear. He’d laughed out loud and told me that we could go as we were. I wasn’t very happy about going into a pub in such scruffy clothes, but I put myself in his hands and left it at that. A while later we set off up to the Pen-y-Gwryd Hotel (Mr. Greer’s boys had first pointed it out to me), just over the top of the pass. I was prepared for a boring night, but I wouldn’t let Chris down after what he’d done for me that day.
The car-park was crowded but we managed to find a parking spot and, as soon as I turned the van engine off we could hear the sound of shouted singing, clapping, and banging to a musical beat, interspersed with much happy and loud laughter. It certainly sounded to me as if somebody was enjoying themselves. We pushed our way into the crowded, smoke-filled, noisy room, fought for a space at the bar, and soon Chris had his pint of beer and I had my glass of lemonade. He knew a few people in the room and I was introduced to them one by one. The atmosphere was so friendly and relaxing that it wasn’t long before I was laughing, joking, and singing along with the crowd. And I had a wonderful time!
I’d only walked up a couple of hills, done one climb, four abseils, and two prusiks, I was still a complete novice, but those people didn’t let that worry them. Within a few minutes I was ‘one of the boys’. I’d quickly shouted of my little experience and Chris told them that I was doing well, then we were into the revelry. I squealed with delight to do the ‘Hokey Pokey’ and ‘Knees-up Mother Brown’ with those friendly and fun folk. I cracked up with laughter to see all the legs being kicked up, clad in knee-length trousers, long socks, and huge mountaineering boots. The thunderous noise was deafening when they did ‘Knees-up Mother Brown’ and the dozens of monster-sized boots crashed down on the floor. The owners of the place didn’t seem to mind one bit about all the noise and stamping around.
As the evening progressed, we got down to some serious singing. Most of the songs were old folk-songs, but I didn’t know that at the time, I called them ‘mountain-hut songs’ as Chris had told me that he often sang the songs in mountain huts while over in Europe. All the songs had a chorus and it didn’t take long to learn each chorus and be able to shout it out at the right time. Hands and boots were being clapped or stamped to the beat and the whole room seemed to vibrate with each beat. As the mood changed (and, I suspect, the beer took hold of senses), the ‘clean’ songs were left behind and the ‘bawdy’ songs started up. From then on the songs went from ‘filthy’ to ‘filthier’ as the singing gained tempo and the beer flowed. I, of course, joined in as the ‘dirty’ choruses were sung.
There were already a couple of ‘Daves’ in the room, so I became ‘Dave from Reading’, and all of a sudden I had plenty of invitations to go on climbs. Just as the two hill-walkers had told me, so it had turned out to be. It didn’t seem to matter that I was only a beginner, those experienced lads were very willing to ensure that others had a decent introduction to their pastime. They seemed to climb hard through the day, and party hard through the night, as if it was a sin to waste one precious moment of the opportunities there. None of them seemed to interfere with anybody else’s pleasure, only to encourage it. I was overcome with a feeling of pride that I’d managed to get in with such a wonderful and unselfish group of people, it was so refreshingly different to what I’d been used to down south. Sadly, to me, I’d see a lot of changes over the years!
Just before closing-time, Chris took me to another, smaller, bar. We picked our way over rucksacks and waterproofs that were scattered willy-nilly along a passage, then turned right and entered the bar where a group of people were already well into the bawdy’ songs themselves. A fire was roaring up the chimney of an open fireplace and the room was snug and warm.
But Chris hadn’t taken me in there to admire the people, nor fireplace. He pointed up to the ceiling and I could see that it was covered in writing. As I moved further into the room, I could see that the writing was in fact, the signatures of many famous mountaineers. Apparently, so Chris explained, a group of mountaineers were spending an evening in the bar and a bit of burned wood had fallen out of the fire. When the wood had cooled down, one of them had used the burned end to sign his name up on the white ceiling. Others followed suit until, over the years the whole ceiling was covered in the signatures of some of the most famous mountaineering identities of the time who had passed that way. Eventually Chris Briggs, the owner of the Pen-y-Gwryd Hotel at the time, had the whole ceiling covered in sheets of transparent perspex in an effort to preserve all the famous signatures, and to prevent the unique ceiling from being spoiled by signatures of just anybody that felt like adding his or her name. I was delighted to be shown that bit of Welsh mountaineering history by Chris. There were the signatures of many famous mountaineers that I’d heard of, and of whom I’d only just lately had a strong enough interest to read about. To me, it was a thrill to stand in that hotel bar and know that some of the famous mountaineering ‘heroes’, who’s adventures I had been reading of over the last year, had actually been in that same hotel bar. Of course, the ceiling became another interesting item that I would show beginners when I began taking them up into the area.
When the hotel closed for the night, a group of us went back to the campsite to carry on with the fun. As a non-drinker, I became a taxi for the beer-sodden folk when the party finally broke up just before dawn. It was great fun having them all piled into the van, and to gradually deliver them to their respective camping sites or huts. The offers to climb with them were renewed, but I couldn’t see that any one of them would be in a fit state to go up on the cliffs that day.
At the time, my only concept of going to a pub was to get drunk, act stupid, then come home and beat up anybody who was handy. But those climbers would show me another side of going into a pub, and I’d discover that they actually drank little, enjoyed themselves to the full as they let off steam, and I never once saw any of them get aggressive in all the years of fun that I spent up in mountain pubs and campsites. Later that morning, Chris and I would see a few of those folk happily climbing as if the night of fun had never been.
Back at our campsite, Chris, who didn’t drink very much anyway, was waiting to see if I wanted to go to sleep, or if I’d rather go and do some more climbing. He didn’t really have to ask. I was happy that he didn’t want to waste time sleeping and suggested that he might be good enough to take me up a climb on Tryfan. Laughingly, Chris said he’d expected that I’d ask to do something on Tryfan. Within minutes we’d chucked everything in the back of the van, and were soon round in the Ogwen Valley.
Dawn was just breaking, and Tryfan was still in the misty gloom of the valley, with its rising bulk looking very black and foreboding. Once again I became charged with a wild excitement, coupled with apprehension as I thought of the coming challenge. I’d secretly wanted to have a go at the rock faces of the Milestone Buttress since I’d watched the climbers on its slabs, cracks, and chimneys when I’d hitch-hiked up to the area. It didn’t look so sheer as the climbs over in the Llanberis Pass, and the slabs were a lot more broken up by cracks and ledges.
For my second climb, Chris chose ‘The Direct Route’, graded ‘Diff+’ (Difficult Plus - just slightly harder than the ‘Diff' grade). I thoroughly enjoyed that ascent. As we climbed the cracks, corners, and slabs, I learned things like how to ‘mantle-shelf’ (exactly like trying to climb up on the mantle-shelf back home), how to jam a leg in a crack, and use that ‘leg-jam’ as a purchase to get higher, and how to do a ‘hand-traverse’ (working along a higher ledge by hanging by the arms while gripping the edge of the ledge with the hands, and with the boots furiously scraping around for foot-holds that aren’t there). Finally we climbed a beautiful little chimney and, after a short slab we stood at the top of the two hundred and fifty feet climb.
Once again I was so exhilarated, and, this time, wishing that the climb had been longer. But Chris told me that I wasn’t to fret as the day was still young yet. We scrambled down a steep gully until we were standing at the bottom of the rocks again.
Then Chris astonished me by suggesting that I might like to lead up a climb. He explained that the climb he’d picked out was fairly easy (graded ‘Diff’), he’d done it many times and knew it well, and that he thought that I could manage it as I was picking up the ‘sport’ very quickly. I had a quick think about it. Chris had mentioned that climbers usually alternate the lead if they were experienced enough. I didn’t want him to nurse me for ever and, of course, I wanted to advance my own experience and hopefully become as good as he was one day. Although I was quite worried and fearful, I decided to grab the opportunity while he was there, and Chris promised to instruct me as I climbed.
On the right hand end of The Milestone Buttress was a large block sticking out of the main slabs about one hundred feet up above us. That block, Chris informed me, was called ‘The Pulpit’, and the climb we were about to attempt was called ‘The Pulpit Route’. We’d ascend up over three hundred feet of rock, and pass The Pulpit on the way.
With the climbing-rope clipped into my waistline, the loops of rope (slings) over my shoulder, a few stones in my pocket, and Chris paying out the climbing-rope using the waist-belay system, I gingerly stepped up onto the slab of rock in front of me.
Suddenly things felt a lot different, and a lot less secure. Instead of having the security of the climbing-rope being taken in from above so that I’d only fall a few inches, it was now below and, if I fell before I placed a runner, then I would fall to the ground. That situation made me feel the height very acutely.
But, as Chris had told me, he knew the climb, and he used the right approach to get me up it. In a quiet and encouraging voice, he directed me up the line, telling me where to go, and where to place the runners. I suppose that I was fifteen to twenty feet up when he told me to place the first runner. The relief that swept over me as soon as I’d clipped the climbing-rope into it, and had realised that I, hopefully, couldn’t fall to the ground, was overwhelming.
Even so, I was still not sure whether the runners would hold if I fell off. Although I gradually stopped worrying so much about falling to the ground as I gained height and placed more runners, I couldn’t help feeling that I might have done something wrong, or that a stone might pop out, or even that the rope might break. Nevertheless, selecting the right-sized stones to wedge into the cracks, so that I could safely thread the slings behind as an anchor for the runners, helped to take a lot of my concentration, and I fiercely forced myself to move upwards.
Then suddenly I was standing on a ledge just below The Pulpit rock. Chris shouted up that I was on the stance, and that I was to anchor myself to the rock by using at least three different anchor points. I’d already been instructed on his rule of three anchors, and set about to make sure that I did the right thing.
First of all I pulled some of the climbing-rope up and made a bight, which I threaded behind a rock and tied back into the krab that was on my waist-line. At that point I was firmly tied to the rock face and I shouted down to Chris that I was ‘on belay’. Normally, on hearing those words, the lower climber would relax a bit, and prepare any climbing-rope, that was left, for hauling up. But Chris was taking no chances and kept me on his waist-belay. I next jammed a stone down in a crack and threaded a sling behind it, which I clipped into my waist-line as a second anchor. Then I jammed another stone into the crack and threaded another sling behind that, which I also clipped into my waist-line as my third anchor. Finally I called down to Chris that I had the three anchors on.
I had expected him to tell me to haul the spare length of climbing-rope in until it was tight between us. But he stayed with the rope still around his waist, and I was more than a little worried when he asked me if I’d be willing to jump off the ledge, and trust that those anchors would hold me. I knew that both our limbs, and possibly our lives, were relying on how good the anchors were, but I still had a good look at them again before I shouted down that, if he really wanted me to jump off the ledge then I would. At his insistence, I tried hard to slide forward, but the anchor-ropes were too short and I could hardly move. Chris shouted up that I should try to jerk myself forward as hard as I could, but I still couldn’t move forward. Chris then shouted up that I had done a good job, as all anchors must be tied short enough so as the climber would not be pulled off the ledge.
I hauled the spare rope in at last, and Chris shouted up that it was tight between us. Setting myself up with the waist-belay system, I was finally ready and told Chris that he could begin climbing. Chris had a rule that there still had to be one last check of the anchors just before any of us commenced to climb at all times. I had a last good look and shouted that I’d done so, then he began climbing.
Chris seemed to race up that pitch, and it had been as much as I could do to take the rope in between us quick enough. Before I knew it, he was standing just in front of me, running a critical eye over my anchor-points and giving each of them a sharp tug. Then he told me that he’d have to go back down a bit to remove an awkward runner that he couldn’t get out. He also told me that it was harder to climb down than it was to climb up, and that I should be very prepared just in case he fell off. As he slowly climbed back down, I fed his rope out from around my waist, as ready to check a fall as when he’d been climbing up.
Suddenly, he screeched up at me to ‘Hold’. I just had time to whip the dead end of the rope across my chest and grip it hard with my hand, when there was a terrific tug and the rope snapped rod-tight as the full falling weight of Chris came onto it. I was pulled up hard on the anchors, and for a flashing second I had hoped that they would hold. But Chris had done his instructing well, the anchors held me there and I was left to concentrate on holding Chris.
The sudden jolting strain of holding the rope as Chris fell had been quite a shock. The rope had pulled around my waist and, if Chris’ life hadn’t been at stake I might have willingly let the rope go and hung on to the anchors for my own dear life. But I did the right thing and shortly the strain came off the rope as Chris got back on the rock and began climbing up towards me again. Then he was up on the ledge beside me once more, and laughing at the concerned look on my face.
The fall had been a deliberate test, there had been no awkward runner. After climbing up and checking my anchors and readiness, Chris had climbed back down with the intention of doing a real fall, so that I would have an idea of what it would feel like. He’d climbed down about ten feet, pulled a bit of extra rope through from me, then jumped down the slab after shouting at me to ‘Hold’. It was a valuable lesson for me to know what to expect when belaying future falls. But the shock of holding that fall was nothing compared with some of the leader-falls I’d have to hold in later years. Modern devices have done away with the painful old methods of shoulder- and waist-belays, and we can all be grateful for that!
With that bit of excitement over, Chris climbed the next pitch and, upon joining him we scrambled up to the bottom of a chimney (Ivy Chimney?). The chimney was the last pitch of the climb and, as it was my turn to lead, I set off. Finally, after much struggling and grunting, I’d threaded my way up through huge blocks that were jammed in the chimney, then climbed up a last slab to the top of the cliff.
Suddenly the elation had hit me again. My happiness seemed to burst out from my chest and I felt so good that no words can describe those feelings. I’d been quite scared climbing up the chimney, not to mention the frights I’d already had on the first pitch. Now I’d come through with triumph and was standing at the top out of danger. I sang to myself as I hunted for, and tied on to, three anchor points, and it wasn’t long before Chris was up there with me to share my happiness. Chris and I had laughed and cheered at the fun of it all and he had congratulated me for doing my first leads, especially the chimney. Then, thinking that we’d earned a celebration drink, the two of us happily made our way back down the gully, and over to the van where we drove down to the little hut above the Ogwen Falls for a nice cup of tea.
I recall that it was barely mid-morning and Chris had asked me if I wanted to do another climb. Again, he need not have asked. I was straining at the bit, so he suggested that we go to a nearby rock face called The Idwal Slabs. A short walk later we stood at the bottom of those long, slabby rock slopes. Chris had picked out a climb named ‘The Ordinary Route’, a ‘Diff’, and he gave me the first lead.
I set off up a great crack in the slabs, and the climb was absolutely superb. There was a certain amount of an exposed feeling, but the slabs were not too steep. The crack was easy to climb, and, just as I had begun to feel that I needed a runner to protect me from falling too far, a spot would turn up where I could get one in. There was another pair of climbers on a parallel route nearby and the leader was climbing up almost level with me. He chatted across to me as we climbed our separate lines and again I could only marvel at how friendly those mountain folk were.
I was enjoying the climb immensely until Chris called up that I only had ten feet of rope left. I knew that his rope was one hundred and fifty feet long, so I must have been about one hundred and forty feet up the slabs. His warning meant that I had to find a stance within ten feet. The climber on the other route called over that there was a belay stance just above my position. I climbed on up and, just as I ran out of rope, a spot appeared where I could set up a belay stance. I recall looking across at the other climber, almost with reverence, and asking him how he’d known where the stance was (thinking that I was going to learn some jewel of climber’s information for the future), then laughing to myself when he explained that he’d already done that climb earlier, and had remembered how he’d looked for the stance himself.
Chris climbed up and passed me as he took up the lead on the second pitch. I seemed to stand at my spot for ages, paying out the rope as Chris plodded on up. Then it was my turn to call out that there was only ten feet of rope left. At the full stretch of the rope, he managed to find a stance and I followed on up as he belayed me.
The next pitch was mine and I passed on by Chris to tackle it. He directed me to climb a crack, then move out right across the face, until I could climb another crack, where I’d find a good stance up above. It all went well until the second crack. It was on steeper rock, and the drop below my feet (about three hundred and fifty feet) suddenly became acute to my senses. Once again the fear had clutched at my throat and I remember searching around for somewhere to get a runner in before my shaking legs had caused me to fall. The concentration of fitting a stone into the crack, and placing a sling around it before clipping the anchored sling to the climbing-rope helped me to forget that great drop below, and I felt a bit better once I had the runner on and I couldn’t fall very far if I did come off the rock.
With the runner giving me a bit more confidence in myself, I stretched up and got another one in a bit higher for extra protection. It wasn’t all that good, but I still launched myself up the crack anyway. After a struggle, another fierce clutch of fear, a gradual easing of the steepness, then a rising feeling of triumph, I reached the top of the wall, where I found a stance and anchored myself thankfully to the rocks. Chris made light work of my terrifying pitch, chuckled as he passed on by, telling me that the crack I had trouble on was the ‘crux’ of the climb, then he swarmed away up the last pitch, leaving me giggling to myself at my triumph and Chris’ good nature.
Chris belayed me up the last pitch and there was the usual yahooing and cheering as we stood at the top of the climb. But I soon sobered up a bit as Chris pointed out Holly Tree Wall immediately behind and above us. It looked more fearsome than the four hundred and fifty foot slabs we’d just climbed. Little did I know that I’d lead my first ‘Severe’ graded climb (‘Javelin Gully’) on that great wall in the near future. But Chris had no plans to climb on up that day, so we retreated back down to the van for lunch.
As we were having lunch, Chris looked up at the summit of Tryfan and mused as to how nice it would probably be up there at that time of the year. The sun was shining and the cold air was crystal-clear. All at once he turned and looked at me with a huge grin on his face. It had seemed so natural, we hadn’t said anything, we’d just broke into excited laughter, scoffed the rest of our lunch, and begun to pack our rucksacks with our emergency essentials in preparation for a walk up to that summit. It wasn’t long before we’d driven back up to where we’d parked earlier that day, and were off.
It didn’t seem to take so long to get up Tryfan that day. I suppose that, where Mr. Greer’s group had been quite large and we’d had to wait for stragglers to catch up (not to mention the time it had taken to get me out of my predicament on the short wall), Chris and I were only a small party and we’d kept going.
But we did stop at one place - that same short wall, where, having earlier already told Chris about my last encounter there, I could look at it in a new light. But Chris hadn’t finished with me yet. Digging down into his rucksack, he produced the rope and told me to tie on at one end, explaining that I should climb the wall again, so that I could get the thought of it out of my system. I was amazed and could only marvel at my companion’s thoughtfulness, and his determination in helping me to overcome my fears.
There were no waist-lines this time, and no slings, nor stones, just the climbing-rope. I tied onto one end, wrapping the rope around my waist and using a bowline knot to secure it as Chris had instructed. He tied onto the other end, anchored himself into a chockstone, using a bight of rope near his end of the rope, then he set himself up to belay and told me to get on with it.
It had been easy - an anticlimax after a year of thinking that the short wall was the most horrific place to be on earth. With Chris giving me plenty of encouragement, I flashed up the wall as if I’d just been walking up the nearby path. I hadn’t even felt any real elation, only a satisfying thought that I’d gained enough knowledge, thanks to Chris and his help, to recognise how inexperienced, as regards to going up in the hills was concerned, I’d been on Mr. Greer’s trip. Nevertheless, Mr. Greer’s little game, and Chris’ determination, had taught me some valuable lessons that would help me in my future years.
And so Chris and I toiled on up to the summit of Tryfan together in good spirits. It was quite cold and the wind was blowing hard, but we did the traditional jump across from Adam to Eve (or was it from Eve to Adam? - although I have lost count of the number of times I climbed up to that summit from all directions and via many climbing-routes, I never did know which was which!), almost being blown away in mid-air as we leapt across the gap. Then, after a rest, we ran all the way back down, leaping from boulder to boulder up near the summit, then sliding down a long scree-slope (slope made up of loose stones and rocks) until, after crossing over a marshy area, we reached the road and the van.
With that long and exciting day behind us, it was time to come back down to earth and set a course for home and reality. The gear was soon chucked in the back of the van, and we took our leave from those beautiful hills just as the sun was setting behind the peaks.
I couldn’t thank Chris enough for his efforts towards making the weekend so terrific. I recall him telling me that it was all a part of mountaineering, and that my turn would come to help as I passed on my knowledge to others who were interested in going up into the hills (and he was proved right). We travelled on down the A5 trunk road together, laughing, joking, and singing some of the songs (in my case, the choruses) that we could remember from the night before. The night before? Already, at that time, it had seemed as if a week had passed since the fun night up in the Pen-y-Gwryd Hotel!
After a stop for a ‘cuppa’ at the old Corwen station, and a good ‘Boo’ as we passed over the border into England (a new tradition that we ‘invented’ that day), we came to the Shrewsbury Bypass. I had offered to run Chris down to his home, then take another route on back to Reading. But Chris assured me that he’d have no trouble in getting a lift from then on. He had already pulled his rucksack from the back of the van and had it on his lap as we quickly approached the road junction where I would drop him off, then turn right away from the A5.
We were talking about meeting for future trips together and it suddenly occurred to us that we hadn’t even exchanged addresses. At the last second I slowed down while Chris found a pencil and scrap of paper, and furiously scribbled his address down for me, as I waved the traffic on by that was piling up a bit behind. Then, with a quick handshake, and much thanks from each other for the great weekend, I quickly stopped while Chris jumped out. I felt very alone as I drove off!
As soon as I arrived back at home and had unpacked, I went to get his address so that I could briefly write up the weekend’s events in my diary while they were fresh, then write a letter of thanks to Chris. But, although I searched in every nook and cranny in that van, the scrap of paper with Chris’ address on was nowhere to be found. Apart from the fact that I would have like to have written to him straight away, I wasn’t really worried. I was sure that we’d meet up again within the next two or three trips.
But, as it turned out, I was wrong, and our paths were never to cross again. It was just as if fate had brought this lad into my life that weekend, so that I could get my foot in the door, so to speak! Not only did I never see Chris again, but I never knowingly met any of the other people with whom we’d spent that memorable evening up at the Pen-y-Gwryd Hotel, then the night down at the campsite. As I’d dropped each of those lads off, I hadn’t known that, apart from a distant sight of some of them the next day, I was also dropping them out of my life after such a brief and happy encounter.
Now that I look back, I suppose that it really isn’t all that surprising. Adventurous people such as climbers like a bit of variety, and there are many other tempting areas to visit. I would gradually seek out and visit different hills and crags as my own interests widened. But, as with my trip up there with Mr. Greer’s group, I have never forgotten that weekend and how Chris helped to move me on so far towards the goal I had set.
And so, with another wonderful weekend behind me, it was time to face the realities of every-day life again. I had to get another job, and was lucky enough to step into one of those jobs that offer plenty of variety, plenty of memorable incidents, and, above all, no Saturday work unless I wanted to do some overtime.
The Berkshire Waste Paper Company was based in Reading and, on the off-chance that they might have a vacancy available, I called in at the company’s office on the Monday morning. Hardly believing my good fortune, I was given a driving test and taken on that day to start the following morning.
It was a similar job as what G. R. Jackson’s company did, but the Berkshire Waste Paper Company only handled waste paper and cardboard. Each day their fleet of Bedford lorries would go off on their rounds, collect loads of paper, and bring the loads back to be sorted and sent to the paper mills for recycling. In contrast to the people at the previous job, my new workmates were a great bunch of lads, and I particularly remember Colin and Jim. The Transport Manager was also a good chap, and the boss looked after us all very well, unfortunately I cannot recall their names now. The paper was collected from towns up to one hundred and fifty miles away.
As soon as I arrived on the Tuesday morning, I was given an almost-new Bedford TK series lorry by the Transport Manager, and told to go up to the Electrolux factory (if I recall right) at Luton, where I was to pick up a load of baled waste paper. The ‘Luton job’ was a ‘cushy’ trip, prized by all the drivers, as the bales were light, and a whole day was allotted to do the trip that could be done in a morning - a lot of visiting or shopping was done on the ‘Luton job’! But I wasn’t aware of this until, as I was sorting out the ropes and tarpaulins to my satisfaction before setting off, a short, stocky, dark-haired chap came over, introduced himself as Colin, and explained that I had to make the job last all day. Well, that suited me as I could stop and visit my Grandparents on the way back. Colin helped me to finish preparing the ropes and tarpaulins, and I finally set off towards the north.
From my memory-bank, I associate that day with Millie’s song called ‘My Boy Lollipop’ (it was up in the charts at the time, along with Peter & Gordon’s ‘World Without Love”) as I remember singing it at the top of my voice as I drove along that morning. I was very content, I had that great weekend under my belt, and then I’d come back and snapped up that nice little lorry-driving job with friendly workmates. In the same week. I’d achieved two of my goals, the first had been to drive a lorry all over the place for a living, the second had been to get established in that ‘something’ that I knew I needed to keep my frustrations at bay.
I did the Luton Run, collected the load of baled paper, visited my Grandparents, and arrived back in Reading well satisfied with my performance. The next day I went up into the Cotswolds and had to collect paper and books from half a dozen different places (the ‘Cotswold Round’). Then I did my first trip up to Birmingham. As I travelled to other places, I gradually became familiar with all the collection points, and some of the lies that were employed by the other drivers so that an hour could be gained to do a bit of shopping or visiting.
I think that most of us went through all the lies at some time or another. There was the ‘accident up the road that held me up’ lie, and the ‘major roadworks up the road that held me up’ lie. There was the ‘delay while waiting to load’ lie, then the ‘mysterious fuel-blockage that took quite a while to clear’ lie, and the ‘huge, wide, slow-moving load that had caused a big delay’ lie.
Of course, if the lorry could be made to go a couple of miles an hour faster, that would give us more time up our sleeve. The governors on the engine diesel pumps were set at a certain speed by an adjusting screw. The diesel-pump governor sealing-wire could be fixed up in a special way as to enable the adjustment of more speed without anyone knowing it had been tampered with. A bit of wood wedged under the air-filter cover so that air could by-pass the slight restriction of the air-filter was another supposed ‘get more speed’ trick, but more probably helped to ruin a few engines. Streamlining the load helped, and so did throwing the gearbox into neutral (‘angel-gear’) while going down long, straight hills (I never once did this last dangerous action all through my lorry-driving years).
But, during those first few days with that company, I didn’t know of, nor bothered about such things. I was just happy to get out and do my work. It was on the first Birmingham trip that I saw the ‘Whipsnade lion’, cut out of the chalk downs below the zoo, from the lower plains. It had been eleven or twelve years ago since I’d sat above it when I’d visited the zoo with my class-mates from St. George’s School. The lion showed up very well as the white chalk contrasted with the green of the downs.
Of course, the ‘Whipsnade lion’ wasn’t a new idea, through my lorry-driving journeys I’d discover (and visit) such sites as the white horse at Calne, the white horse of Uffington, and a row of army badges cut out of the downs near Salisbury (said to have been done by Australian soldiers as a thankyou present for the generous British hospitality they received during WW2). There were other sites of interest that I gradually ‘discovered’ while I worked for that company. Things like the stone circle around the village of Avebury, Silbury Hill (said at the time to be an ancient burial mound), and Long Barrow.
There were also more-modern sights of interest that helped to keep the mind occupied during the passing miles. Sights like the Avon Gorge, spanned by the Clifton suspension bridge, the giant imitation rose outside of the Yardley factory near Birmingham (said to smell of Yardley scent although I never stopped to check this out), the beautiful village of Bourton-on-the-Water, etc.
I nearly always found time to park beside an aerodrome or airport for a few minutes if there happened to be one on my journey. My favourite was London (Heathrow) Airport, but I stopped at such airports and aerodromes as Bristol, Northolt, Birmingham, Luton, Middle Wallop, Biggin Hill, Farnborough, and a host of others too numerous to mention.
To cap it all, there were the beautiful sun rises, always from a different vantage point, and the ever-changing scenery throughout the working day. All this was part and parcel of more exploring to me and I took full advantage of it.
There were also a few incidents thrown in here and there, some funny and some not so, that helped to make the job more interesting. As an example, I shall tell of a funny incident that occurred during my second week of work with the company.
Sometimes two lorries were sent to the same area and the drivers would travel up together. A lot of the paper we collected was in hessian sacks, and we always carried a few bundles of empty sacks to replace the full sacks. Colin and myself, already good workmates and friends, had half each of the Bedford town round. We decided to start early, travel up together, get our loads, and meet in a café later that day so that we could travel back together. Colin led the way up through Slough and Watford, and on to the M1 motorway.
The motorways were being constructed all over the UK at the time. There’d be a section built here, another section built there, and in between we’d still have to use the old A-roads and duel carriageways. Eventually all the sections of motorways were joined together to make up a longer stretch. At that time, if I recall right, the M1 motorway began at Bushey Heath, just north of London, and ended just above the Watford Gap Service Area near Rugby. The easiest way for us to get on the M1 in those days was via Slough and Watford (nothing to do with ‘Watford Gap’).
My lorry was slightly faster than Colin’s and I overtook him as soon as we were on the first flat stretch of the Motorway. As I roared down a hill near Hemel Hempstead, Colin almost flashed past me (was he in ‘angel-gear’?). Not only that, but he’d opened his passenger-side window and, as he passed, he leaned over and threw some orange-peel at me. Laughing at the fun of it (there wasn’t another vehicle in sight) I forced my foot down harder in an effort to catch him up.
On the next hill up, I began to overtake him and he flashed his indicator to the right to make me think he was moving out into my lane. I slowed down and dropped back in behind him. Then realising I’d been tricked, I began to move up again. This time he moved out and turned his side-lights on. Of course, I slowed down again when I saw the red tail-lights, thinking that they were his brake-lights and that he was stopping. For the third time I moved up. I could see that there was nothing in front that would cause him to be forced out into my lane, and this time I ignored him when his hand shot out of the side window to indicate that he was moving out to the right. Laughing like mad, I stuck two fingers up at him, poked my tongue out, and raced on by. As I looked through my rear-view mirrors, I could see his headlights flashing like mad, usually a sign to pull over and stop due to some problem, But I wasn’t going to fall for that one.
On the next hill down he passed me again, going like the clappers, with lights flashing and his indicators flicking from side to side. I just had time to see his two fingers sticking up at me and his grinning face, then he shot ahead and rapidly began to leave me behind.
Suddenly, I realised that there was blue smoke billowing off the deck of his lorry, and there was a red glow in amongst his bundles of sacks. It looked like the bundles were on fire. In my efforts to try and attract his attention to the fire just behind his headboard, I began flashing my own lights and waving my arm out of the window. Colin could see my lights flashing and my waving arm through his rear-view mirror, it was the signal for more fun and he weaved across the empty motorway lanes, flashing his indicators and lights. The hill was very long and soon his lorry was a dot in the distance which was leaving a weaving trail of blue smoke.
The road flattened out a bit just before the long downward hill past Luton. I knew that I had no chance of catching him up and resigned myself to seeing a blazing hulk beside the motorway on the north side of Luton. Then, all at once the trail of smoke changed course onto the hard shoulder and began to rise up into the sky. Colin had at last spied the fire that was now also beginning to take a hold on the deck and headboard of his lorry.
As I neared the stationary lorry, I saw Colin jump out of the cab and run around to the rear. Within minutes, I’d stopped (a bit of a distance away) and run up to help. We threw the burning sacks onto the verge and, with a couple of not so burned sacks, beat the fire out that had taken hold on the deck and headboard. Seconds later we were almost collapsing in breathless laughter as we spread the burning sacks around and stamped out the remaining fires.
Luckily the only damage to the lorry were the deep burn-marks on the headboard and deck. We split up my bundles of sacks so that Colin had at least a few sacks to give out, then continued on our merry way with me still going into uncontrollable fits of laughter - and Colin driving along a lot more sensibly. We suspected that the fire had been caused by a lighted cigarette-end that he had thrown out of the window.
Another good thing about the job were the tips we received from the customers. In those days, especially if the driver loaded his own lorry, we’d be given a little ‘something’ for our efforts. There’d be a couple of bob here and a couple of bob there. Sometimes we were given samples of whatever was manufactured by the companies. The ‘Mars’ factory on the Slough Trading Estate was a good example.
After loading all their waste paper onto the lorry, we’d be given a bag of ‘Mars bars’, ‘Treets’, etc. which we’d dig into with relish. This was spoiled, in later years, when it was discovered that some greedy drivers were abusing the system by going into the factory two or three times a day and delivering a part of the load at a time. I recall that, in the end the Mars factory dispatcher used to get us to sign a form for our ‘goodies’, allowing one bag of ‘goodies’ per driver per day. Us drivers who had done the right thing thought it was more fair, and we were jolly glad that we were still getting any ‘goodies’ at all. Thanks to the greed of those drivers, the Mars Company could have been well within their rights to have stopped giving us anything.
One factory in Basingstoke used to leave a small box of perfume and talc on the top of the bales that we were to collect. Then, for a while there were no boxes and we thought that this practice had been stopped. Naturally, we didn’t go in and ask the reason, the company had every right to stop giving us ‘goodies’ and we still went there for the loads. Then the company discovered that one of their own employees was going out and stealing the box before we got there. As I have said, the company didn’t have to give us anything, but the management apologised to us drivers, and drivers of other companies, and the thief was sacked.
We were always grateful for those little ‘extras’, and we’d usually received enough money to buy a packet of cigarettes a day. Over the years, as things tightened up, and even big companies had to ‘watch every penny’, the tips gradually became less and less until they were almost a thing of the past.
And so I settled in with the job and it wasn’t long before I was polishing my lorry once a week, and had plastic flowers all along the grill. I worked hard to ensure that I earned my money fairly (and to make up for the odd visits to my Grandparents), and the boss seemed happy with my efforts. I was ‘rewarded’, in a way, for those efforts a couple of weeks after I’d been taken on by the company.
The loads had to be covered and tied down so that they were safe and protected from any bad weather. As the tarpaulins wore out, or got holes in them, they were patched up, and the ropes were replaced periodically. My ropes came up for replacement and, as I was measuring the new lengths of rope off a large drum of rope, I asked the boss if I could possibly have one of the old ropes.
He asked me what I wanted the old rope for, so I explained to him about my new pastime up in the hills. He was very interested in my story and finally asked how long the rope was that Chris had. I told him that it had been one hundred and fifty feet long. With no more ado, the boss measured out that length from the drum of new rope and gave it to me, telling me that I’d ‘earned’ it. Naturally, I was very grateful. Now I had my own ‘climbing’ rope, even if it was only made of sisal (a natural fiber used to manufacture lorry ropes at the time - and not good for use as a climbing-rope!).
With every will, I cut some lengths off that rope and spliced them into loops (Colin taught me how to splice as, he explained, it was very important to know how to splice odd bits of lorry-rope together). On the Friday after being paid, I raced along to ‘Carter’s’ sport and tent shop where I bought five large, steel, screw-gate krabs. It was all a start to getting my own gear so that I’d be more independent. (I still have one of those krabs in my possession all these years later - although it hasn’t been used since 1966).
It had been a beautiful spring season that year. The weather was great, I was happy in my work, I had that wonderful new pastime to enjoy, and I felt as if things were really beginning to come together. Although I’d stopped going down the cellar club, I kept up with the latest record releases through listening to the radio. Cilla Black was up in the charts with ‘You’re My World’. ‘Juliet’ by The Four Pennies was there as well, along with The Searcher’s ‘Don’t Throw Your Love Away’.
Alan still didn’t have a girlfriend. I’d introduced him to quite a few girls during the time that we had been friends, but he couldn’t seem to get off the ground where girls were concerned. He wouldn’t work towards a good relationship. It was as if he expected the girls to throw themselves at him while he just sat back and took it all. He hadn’t got anywhere and I’d given up trying to help him. I was concentrating so much on those hills that girls were the last thing on my mind.
But things were about to change drastically in that direction for both of us!
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