Seriously Good Doorstep Ice
Seriously Good Doorstep Ice
As news spread that every climber imaginable was heading for North Wales and other mountain areas, to hack their way up all visible ice it was time to play my ace card and head in the opposite direction. And when every drop of outdoor water was rapidly turning into ice why waste time and petrol money getting to the mountains and then queuing with others on routes. To me it’s all about serious solitude and action, which can easily be had right on your doorstep when the conditions are right. The waiting game was over, the conditions were perfect, and the first week in January 2010 marked the start of our attack on plenty of available local ice. Even broken drain pipes were starting to show promise as temperatures dropped to -14 in Shrewsbury.
The last time we experienced this kind of decent local freeze was back in 1985 when myself and Oswestry lads, Bryan Phillips and Dave Barker ticked off all the Tanat valley and Pistyll Rhyader falls with conditions rivalling anything, anywhere. But the plumb that escaped us then, as a rapid overnight thaw set in, was the 700ft Maesglase waterfall (Wales highest waterfall). Like a pint of well pulled Guinness; “Good things are worth waiting for”. 25 years on, and I was finally trudging up the farm track, with my son Simon and Patagonia clothing hot shot climber Will Stanton, in front of us a mile away it was obvious we were onto a sure fire winner. A bulging wall of solid ice and icicles spewed down from the rim of the cliffs at the head of the impressively steep cwm, and all the way down to the valley floor. A perfect formation, an ice climbers dream come true !
Grades don’t matter when it’s this good. It’s time to play. The sheer quality of the ice, the steep climbing and the perfect cold stable weather conditions turned us into giggling kids enjoying a new toy “this is as good, if not better, than anything I’ve ever climbed on the Italian waterfalls or anywhere else” laughed out Will, belayed to an impressively solid ice screw buried in the middle of the main 300ft wall of concrete hard ice.
The warm up pitch lures you into a huge ampitheatre of towering ice and chandeliers, the inner sanctum. Huge Icicles hang like gladiator spears from bastions above waiting for the slightest rise in temperature to release them, silently raining down on the unsuspecting Christians below, us ! A short straw left you belayed in the target zone whilst the lucky leader escaped upwards. “If this lot decides to collapse we’ll not be mince meat but ice cubes in a Gin and Tonic”. We laughed quietly so as not to disturb what hangs above!
As we close in on the big crux pitch our first impressions are of an easy success, it’s in the bag. Perfectly formed pillars of ice rear up for 100ft like cathedral columns. But, super chilled water from deep inside the ice spurts out of a cleft between two columns halfway up, totally unavoidable on route to easier ground. The whirlwind of spray coats anything stupid enough to come close, or scurrying past, like us! No place to think or hesitate. Swing, Hope, and Frantically Pull. Pointless trying to shield against the inevitable drenching and resulting skin of ice as the water sets hard in the freezing temperature. From bitter experience, sustained vertical ice takes no prisoners. So as arms rapidly drain of energy and leashes bite into wrists all power evaporates and your arms and axes turn to lead. Keep moving, keep moving…. Slow down and become a feature of the ice entombed until the thaw.
Above a narrow ice gully leads to the final pitch and ultimate crux. An 80 degree slab of rock, where in warmer conditions the screaming waterfall starts its 700ft plunge from the boggy plateau, but now the slab has a silent vaneer of flawless 3” thick clear ice. The final moves, 90ft above us and sadly the last entertainment of this awesome climb, is a 3ft overhanging cornice of bulging ice far too solid even for a jack hammer to cut through. With only a short depth ice screw in the vaneer below the cornice for psychological comfort, and a helping hand from a storm force tail wind roaring up the cwm, my weight suspended on just a half inch of my ice hammer spike and crampon points, I lean out backwards, I swing my axe for one more time as high up and over the bulge into the horizontal ice above, and the top. Faithfully biting its steel teeth into the plastic hard ice, I launch out and up. Success !
The 3 or 4 hours spent dancing up the 5 full length pitches of the route wasn’t long enough. It was one of those climbs that you want to last forever and then get well pis….afterwards to celebrate. You suddenly realise how privilaged you’ve been to snatch the moment in time. As climbers and mountain users we don’t reflect enough on the significance of what we’ve been given by nature, just taking it for granted as we breeze across the next landscape. As I topped out darkness loomed. I was blasted off my feet by the howling wind as I struggled to get a quick belay. Nature at its best in every respect. I shouted a very loud yet muffled celebratory “YES” into the collar of my jacket. Below the lads switched on their head torches and began to climb. “Take it slow lads, it’s too good to rush” they never heard me, within a few minutes we were shaking hands. Like the delicious pint of Guinness soon to be downed…. It was all worth waiting for.
The next couple of days were spent chasing other ticks missed out on in 1985, around the Lake Vyrnwy and Berwyns area. In particular a series of fine lower grade waterfalls on the Afon Eiddew, a river that feeds into the top of Lake Vyrnwy. During the walk in Simon spotted a series of three stunning vertical cascades pouring over some 90ft crags high up on the valley side just gagging for a first ascents, as we did. An added bonus, trees on top of each crag made perfect belay/absiel points avoiding floundering about in chest deep snow on the descents.
Not to waste our original plan, afterwards we soloed in the dark, with head torches, the much easier yet equally fine quality ice on the Eiddew Falls. Soloing in the dark, it felt more akin to a pre dawn start in the Alps; crunching crampons, freezing breath, the torch beam lighting up the ice, and yet we were no more than 30 miles from Shrewsbury, with a pub and good beer only a frozen spit away, better than the Alps!
Three days of the finest ice climbing and not another person in sight to spoil the fun. When it next freezes for more than a few days, hopefully not another 25 years, try your own backcountry doorstep, away from the crowds.
- Stuart Cathcart