Friday, 5 May 2017

The First ascent of Suicide Wall

In the 1930s and 40s I fell deeply in love with Clogwyn y Geifr, otherwise known as 'The Kitchen Cliffs'. I haunted the place and was not really happy unless I was wading up through the vegetation of one of its messy, dirty routes. The classic Devil's Kitchen route I knew by heart, every handhold was engraved on my memory. I had been up or down it some 50 odd times, mostly in bad weather. We used nails on the Kitchen Cliffs, or sometimes socks, it never seemed dry enough for rubbers.

On one occasion I had 26 climbers on my rope. As soon as I had brought up a reliable second or third, I vacated the stance at the top of the cracks, waltzed over the traverse and ran down the track in order to ascend another route. I managed four routes that day before my last man had ascended the Kitchen Route. During one of my numerous outings to this delectable area, I met David Cox, who was the Commanding Officer of the advanced field training course stationed at Llanberis.

I had been introduced to some of his tutors, one of whom was a little chap named Chris Preston, who was a splendid climber. He soon shared my love for the Kitchen and we went up and down a few classic routes. On one of our descents from the Kitchen I pointed out a line on the right hand wall and mentioned to Chris that I thought it might go. No sooner said than we were roped up at the bottom, Chris, myself and Dan McKellar.

One and a half hours later we were at the top of the new route (which we subsequently called Advocate's Wall) congratulating ourselves on a fine new line which, for the Kitchen, was on sound rock. Chris Preston really impressed me. His climbing was so sure, so steady. His reading of a line of rock face was superb. Once embarked on a chosen line he rarely had to retreat.

I mentioned to David Cox that here was the man, if any, to solve the old problem of Suicide Wall. David agreed but stipulated, as Chris's Commanding Officer, that Chris should abseil the wall first to have a look at the proposed route. Some days later he did just this and pronounced the wall climbable. So, there and then some three or four of us roped up to Chris and he climbed the first pitch up to the ledge which we promptly labelled Preston's Ledge. Much to his dismay not one of us could follow. He decided against a solo ascent as he thought that the first 10ft off the ledge would be the crux of the climb and he would like a second man there.

 He gave a quick glance around the ledge and then called for a top rope and then proceeded to climb the second pitch faultlessly. On returning to Mother Earth, Chris told us that the ledge was completely devoid of belays and that there were no cracks for pitons. You must realise that pitons or pegs were not used very much in those days and if we had them we were not very expert in using them. The weeks that followed were mainly spent arguing as to how we could arrange a suitable belay on the ledge. Lump hammers and chisels were shouldered up in order to open up a crack but all that we succeeded in doing was to make a groove half and inch deep. There was some talk of using a 'beehive', which I understood was a plastic explosive, to blow a hole or crack in the wall or on the ledge.

Fortunately nothing came of this proposal and the whole problem was shelved for some weeks until one evening in a pub in Capel Curig someone mentioned that there was now a patch of damp on the wall. Bad weather would soon be along and unless we really had a go at it now it would probably get wetter and wetter and have to wait until next summer. That did it. Whether it was the numerous pints we had drunk or not we shall never know, but we all agreed that we were climbing as well as we ever should; we were fitter than when we had tried the route before; we could arrange some protection on the ledge when we got there and if we could not we would let Chris climb on a slack rope. He would hit the ground before he pulled us off. Mind you, this was entirely Chris's idea. He said that the first 10ft were the hardest and we reckoned that with two of us on the ledge we could protect Chris for that distance and afterwards he was on his own.

The next day saw a large party at the foot of the intended route. Chris, myself and Jack Haines were to be on the rope. Chris was soon up on the ledge and now it was my turn. We were all climbing in socks as the wall was slightly damp. I could not make head nor tail of the first few feet so elected to have a shoulder from Jack Haines, the third man. Once thus launched on the wall I proceeded up to the ledge and Chris, but I made heavy weather of it. I was over 40 and did not really try to keep very fit, apart from rock-climbing and many, many pints of beer. Jack came up as third man without a shoulder and suddenly there were three of us on the ledge. We busied ourselves trying to arrange a belay.

I eventually got myself tied on to a couple of pegs which were in about half an inch. Jack Haines, a big, powerful chap, was holding me as well. I was looking after the leader's rope. Away went Chris. Nowhere did he stop or retreat. He had made up his mind as to the correct line and he stuck to it. He was soon over the so-called crux - Jack and I breathed easier. Jack pointed to the pitons, one of which had already fallen out. Chris was now at the damp patch which, from below, looked desperate, but he did not stop, on and steadily on he went until he reached the top of the wall and disappeared looking for a belay.

He shouted "Come on". I threw away my fag end, tightened up my belt, said a few quiet things to myself such as "Why aren't you in a nice quiet pub just now" and started off up the second pitch. I nearly made the first 10ft, nearly. I think that if I could have made a few more moves I would have been all right but I came off. The holds to my 'aged' hands were nowhere near large enough. Back on the wall again, a pull for a few feet (Chris by now, had a lot of willing hands to assist) and then I climbed again. 

 The wet patch humbled me. I fell off three times and, in the end, was hauled up, exhausted and crestfallen. Haines came up without falling off and without a pull on the rope but he told me afterwards that he had a good tight rope. Chris Preston had made the whole climb look relatively easy, never seeming to stop or even hesitate. A wonderful climber. I wonder where he is now? 

RG Morsley: First Printed in the MCNW Journal. (Date Unknown)