While climbing is a bit of a distant memory for most people just now, today I have an extract from a book about slate-climbers. So read on to take a virtual trip to Twll Mawr (Welsh for Big Hole) along with Peter Goulding, author of Slatehead, and his climbing companions.
May 2015, rim of Twll Mawr
Lee unfolds himself out of the driver’s seat; I wave and bound forward, handshakes and clapped backs. We’re at the same campsite, same tent pitched over the picnic tables. Some new people with the club, some of last year’s. I put him a tea on.
‘Yeah. Yeah. Amazing. Should have done it years ago. Really good load of people, if you aren’t at the crag and the weather’s nice, they’re asking you “Why not?” Climb when I like, can get two hours’ bouldering in after work.’
‘You getting better, then?’
‘Oh yeah. Grade’s gone right up. Put enough water in for two; Becky’ll be here in a minute, she’s driving down herself,’ he says.
Becky parks up in her car, a small blue Clio. There is a pink- lettered sticker on the back bumper: You Just Got Passed By A GIRL. I’ve met her before, earlier in the year in a National Trust car park in the Lakes. When she met us all in the car park in Langdale, she was obviously trying hard to be friendly, making an effort, but I didn’t have much of a chance to talk to her, only enough to know that she grew up near me in the north-east of England, not much else.
She still carries the accent. ‘Hey, Pete, how’s it going?’
She is a sharp contrast to Lee: she’s short, he’s tall; she’s dark haired and light skinned, freckly, whereas he is blond and tanned from working outdoors. She is chatty and outgoing to his quiet presence.
‘Ah, not bad, not bad. What are you wanting to get on this week, Becky?’
‘I’m up for anything. I’ve only done a bit of outdoors before, nothing much more than VS. I’m hoping he’s going to take me up some of the hard stuff.’
‘Plenty of time,’ says Lee. ‘Plenty of time.’
I like her. I like how direct she is. She looks like she fits well with Lee. If they last as a couple, it will be because she wants to climb as much as he does. Most other people don’t.
Equality in climbing has come on a long way since the seventies or eighties. Back then, very few women were new-routing or doing significant early repeats of new climbs. ‘That’s not to say there weren’t strong women climbers but the quarries didn’t attract them, really, for whatever reasons (odd climbing, serious routes, lack of aesthetics in the quarry?). I don’t think it was intentionally macho, at least not in an unpleasant way, it just happened to be guys who were bonkers enough to go delving into the quarries in the main.’18 Whatever it was, it doesn’t apply to Becky, or women in our club like Violeta, today. Nor to Hazel Findlay, one of Britain’s best trad climbers, who likes sea cliffs and slate.
I wonder what it would be like if Tanya and my son would come climbing, like Becky. They like it well enough when we go to the climbing wall, neither of them are bad at it. But I think it would be frustrating for all of us. I’ve been bitten badly by the need to do well at this, and I don’t want to make the concessions that a parent or a partner needs to make, to keep everyone happy. It is selfish. And I need that, just in this one thing, so that when I go home, I can do the rest of it.
The next day, Lee and Becky march ahead of me. Rob and Sam are behind; they’ve teamed up because they’re mates and work together. Land Rover James looks like he’s climbing with Darryl: they’ll be getting some mileage in, no doubt.
It dawns. I’ve fucked up. I’d assumed I could just climb with Lee. Within the club, we are the two slateheads – though I don’t have the credentials yet – and well matched for single- mindedness. Neither of us would be tempted off by some boring ramble, a ledge-shuffle up the side of a hill.
But Becky and him look like a unit. They tramp decisively up to Australia, drop rope bags, straight into harnesses, and – while I watch – they lead straight up the first route. At the chains, then down, then straight on to the next route. Right, someone else will have to do. By the time that Nick the Policeman, a long- standing club member, has caught up, and I’ve cornered him into belaying me, someone else is already on one of my chosen warm-up routes.
It is late afternoon that same day. I’m in a camp chair, Darryl has outfitted his tent from Go Outdoors, like a Himalayan expedition. I’ve got a mug of tea, and my feet are up on a rope swing, a stick of wood threaded in between the loop of hairy blue poly- propylene rope, the kind every builder has. My head is back. The sun is starting its three-hour descent towards Anglesey.
Lee walks over, he’s just got back. ‘You alright, Pete?’ He isn’t just asking as a pleasantry, he can see I don’t feel happy. ‘How did it go?’
‘Ah,’ I say. ‘Not great. Everything I got on was just so much harder than I thought it would be.’
‘You haven’t been here for a year, though.’
‘Nah. But it shouldn’t feel that hard. I did next to fuck all, really. Went the wrong way on Peter Pan, couldn’t be fucked on Sans Chisel Variation. Had a go on Whizz-Bang, fell off that on the crux.’
‘Shit,’ he says. ‘Are you alright?’
‘Fed up a bit, really. Doesn’t matter, though.’
He knows what I want to do, and knows I’ve been training for it, insomuch as I know how to train at all. I’m starting to suspect that just going to the climbing centre twice a week, and doing what I feel like, might not be enough. I’ve carried a back- injury for the last eight years. Even though I can still work, still do a tough manual job, there is a level in me that knows I am not how I was when I was twenty-four. I see others around me who climb harder at the wall in Norwich, who are stronger and more skilful. If they don’t climb this kind of stuff – 7a on slate – then why would I think that I can?
Lee says, ‘Later in the week, if you want, we can abseil into Twll Mawr. Have a look at Supermassive Black Hole.’
‘That’d be good. See how we go.’ I doubt it.
Sunday night, Becky heads back to Sheffield in her Clio: she’s got work on Monday morning.
Lee and I go and look around the rim of Twll Mawr, looking down the seventy-metre drop. Right on the edge are a couple of shiny abseil bolts. To get to the bottom, we would clip in carabiners and drop a rope. I stand back from the edge, but Lee walks right up to it, the toes of his trainers over the drop. I look at him, afraid that he could inexplicably collapse, fold, turn to jelly and slide off, into a cartwheeling fall through space until he smacked into the rocks below. No rope, no second chance. The thought of abseiling in scares me, that moment when you lurch, walking backwards over the edge. It’s a long way into this pit, down the sheer cliff walls.
‘What do you want to do?’ Lee asks gently. ‘Do I need to get my abseiling gear?’
The very fact he’s asking means he already knows. I turn away. ‘No, mate. Not this year.’
My thanks to Julia Forster for inviting me to take part in the blogtour. Slatehead: The Ascent of Britain’s Slate-climbing Scene by Peter Goulding was published by New Welsh Review under the New Welsh Rarebyte imprint on 4 June 2020 in e-book format for £9.99 (and in paperback format on 29 October 2020). You can order your copy here: Slatehead
From the back of the book
‘Witty, absorbing, wide-ranging and razor-sharp account of a love affair with rock’ Helen Mort
Bobby Drury left Liverpool after O-levels, knowing he had f***ed them up. Free now, he hitched to Snowdonia. His mum came crying on the phone, ‘You’ve failed them all.’ Bobby knew that. ‘No, Mum, I’ve led Vector.’ This was Thatcher’s lost generation. The slate quarries were walking distance; they’d have a smoke, a party in an abandoned hut, try and climb something. A small culture emerged of punks, nutters, artists and petty thieves, crawling up abandoned rock, then heading to the disco at the Dolbadarn. These were the Slateheads.
The people in these interleaving worlds – the punk dole dropout star- climbers; the Victorian quarrymen pioneers; the Welsh-speaking grandson of a ropeman, abseiling in to bolt sport climbs like Orangutang Overhang in the Noughties, Lee and his mates slogging west today – all are polished like nuggets in this 360° view over patience, pride, respect, thrill, movement, the competing claims of home and agency, and above all, a belief in second chances.
‘Good and clear and honest. Like the climbers it presents, the story is careful and risk-taking, ambitious and humble. These are the things of great writing.’ Cynan Jones
‘Peter Goulding gives a personal account of falling in love with the north Wales slate quarries, immersing himself in the climbs and the history… As well as the climbing scene, Peter has done a great job of looking into the life and hazards of the quarrymen themselves, their past times and some of the histories of the conflicts between the communities and the clueless aristocratic quarry owners who cared little for the health of employees… An intriguing read.’ James (Caff) McHaffie
‘Incredibly gripping and emotional… a cast of wonderful characters… thrilling and nerve-wracking… I longed for these heroes to achieve their aims… Feels like a group rock and roll biography.’ Cathryn Summerhayes, Curtis Brown
About the Author
Peter Goulding is a climber and writer from the north of England. He was born in Liverpool in 1978, lived in County Durham for years, and currently lives with his partner and son in rural Norfolk. He works at Center Parcs as an instructor, and goes climbing to north Wales and the Peak District as often as he can. In 2019, he won the New Welsh Writing Awards: Rheidol Prize for Writing with a Welsh Theme or Setting.