Katies Delight Craig y Forwyn.
Mon. 4th August 2019.
I love Craig y Forwyn. I’m not sure if it’s the otherworldly atmosphere of the place, created by the dense vegetation at the base; a Lost World scene the like of which Conan Doyle would have been proud. It could be the generally deserted nature of it, lost to generations after being at the centre of a contentious, and to some extent still ongoing, access debate. I think both elements combine with the quality of the rock and its architecture, to create an almost perfect climbing experience, on a brilliant inland limestone crag in Wales.
When my good friend Alex Mason, underground local rock star and manager at Beacon Climbing, made the first ascent of Katie’s Delight; the direct line on Manhattan Wall, I must confess to being a bit gutted; mostly because he saw the possibility of going all the way up the middle of this beautiful wall when I never had, and also because he estimated the grade at E8 6c, which I knew would make it very hard for me (I had done all the other variations on the wall, up to hardish E5 6b). I hated the idea that I might not be able to complete the best-looking route on the crag.
It’s a very frustrating piece of rock, with a perfect line of holds running straight up the middle to a flat shelf at about half-height, where the weakness totally runs out. The 2 E5’s have already skulked off, more or less directly, up the left edge of the wall before this point. Loads of us will have gazed on the few obvious holds between the shelf and the top of the lower wall, but they were all way too far apart to make an ascent. It was such an obvious challenge. Alex actually had the vision and care to try cleaning it up and look a bit closer, which revealed to him some brittle surface rock, that he cleaned off, unveiling a couple of tiny but totally crucial edges, that would make an ascent of the direct line possible. After a bit of worry that someone else would jump in before him, Alex made a very impressive early-season lead of the route in 2015, and having not practised it that much missed a couple of good bits of protection making it even bolder than necessary!
Straight after this ascent, James McHaffie and Pete Robins popped in for the second and third ascents with the chalk still on the holds, and suggested that it was E7 with the additional gear. There are very few people that have more experience of climbing at this sort of standard anywhere, and both of them confirmed that this was an amazing route on a really cool wall. At the time, I had had a look at the route from an abseil rope, and pretty much written it off as too hard and bold, but that was when I hadn’t actually felt the holds…
Wind forward to 2019, and the end of our Scottish winter season. I always find it handy to have a project on the go in the early parts of the year to keep me motivated, encourage me to train a bit and try harder. I had a brief look at the moves on Katie’s Delight in late autumn 2018, and found I could do it all, but could see it was very sustained, and runout, with hard physical climbing, a long way out from the gear. I went down alone one spring afternoon with my trusty Gri-Gri, to swing around and have a proper look at it and see if it was worth actually committing to. I did the four trickiest sequences straight off, and started to suss the gear out. It all looked manageable apart from the main crux, which either requires an awkward to place but pretty good wire, or a massive runout, either making the move harder with fatigue, or scarier facing a much bigger fall. I opted for the gear option, but even that one runner is still in a shield of slightly hollow sounding rock, so not totally reassuring. The route suddenly came into vogue this spring, getting three ascents in a month, two of which were by my friends Nick Bullock and Mick Lovatt. This helped a lot as I gained useful knowledge from these guys, both about the best gear and a couple of crucial sequences, along with a bit of encouragement. On my next visit my very patient fiancée held my rope for an hour while I sussed it all properly, and managed to climb it clean on a top rope.
These are the moments I love, and hate, most about this sort of thing, when you realise it’s definitely possible for you, and the journey to leading the route really starts. I had a visit on an frustrating day, with my friend Matt (Freeride ski world tour legend), who is so positive and psyched for it. I was thinking of just having a go at leading it, but it suddenly poured with rain, so we rigged a top rope, and spent the afternoon practising it more, and getting comfy with the gear placement. I walked away that day knowing it was on, and that I needed to start trying it for real.
A return visit with my old mate Mark Reeves, on a hideously humid day, led to a lead attempt failure at the crux, after getting sweaty and flustered placing the crucial wire, clipping slightly wrong, which threw my head. Another similar attempt with local hero Lee Roberts, saw me get right up into the hardest move, but again my head wasn’t quite there, and I managed to reverse back to the gear and once more, lower off. The crucial thing was that I had stepped off the ground, I was nearly there. This would be the hardest thing I’d done for a while, but it felt close.
The temperature had been all over the place during the last few weeks, mostly hot and super humid, which was really annoying for a ginger person trying to climb on small holds! However last Monday morning Matt turned up at my place for lunch, and the air was much cooler, coming from the north instead of south, with lower humidity and a consistent breeze. I felt a bit tired from work over the weekend, and not super confident in how I would feel, but had to have a go. I top roped the upper headwall section, reworking a sequence where I had been going off route into the E2 on the right, spoiling the line and effectively cheating. A small but crucial difference here, making the final moves feel slightly harder through the fatigue of hanging on in steeper ground for longer. I successfully completed this section a couple of times, and felt good, and calm, with a definite improvement in friction on the previous visits, the slopey finish felt more secure.
Matt and I rapped down and flicked the rope out of the way, and I faffed about getting all the gear in order. We walked about at the bottom of the crag and I started preparing myself, but was still unsure if I would be ready to commit to the crux. I climbed up to clip the first peg and reversed to the ground to steady myself a bit and warm my fingers up again. When I set off I felt super calm and smooth, and the next thing I knew I had placed the crucial wire, and was into the crux, but this time I pulled through, rocked onto the good foothold, and was angling for the good pocket above. It felt so good to get it, but I knew I had to stay calm, place the wires out right, and psyche up for the remaining throw to a jug and rockover into the hands-off rest on the slab above. This all went smoothly, and I stood on the slab chatting to Matt and recovering, aware that the final headwall above was probably still E6 in its own right. I climbed up, placed the good gear at the top of the easy groove above, and reversed to shakeout below. I hung out here for a few minutes letting my arms and head recover a bit, and refocus for the slightly pumpy and insecure finish. I executed the first hard sequence, getting both hands on a good flat hold on the lip of an overlap. From here a small silver walnut can be placed blind in a seam at the back of the flat hold. I quickly slotted it in and clipped it, and began the final sequence, but to my horror looked down from the first slopey hold to see the nut twisting out of place. I carefully reset it, but could feel my right arm pumping quite badly, and knew I had to go for it. If you fell here and the nut ripped, the fall would be enormous! I got my right foot high, crossed over to the final side-pull, set my feet and…. In a state of total focus and commitment, slapped at the glorious finishing jug. I just managed to hold on to it with the finger-tips of my left hand, matched it, and mantled onto the ledge above. Soaked in sweat and exhausted I pulled up the final few easy moves to the top of the crag, with Matt screaming at me from below.
These experiences are the absolute essence of climbing to me. All the time and effort distilled down to that one moment, when absolutely nothing else exists in life but you, body and mind, totally focused on that one hold, catch it or not, tired, scared and so totally alive. I always reflect on these moments, and it’s interesting how much more powerful they are than when it all goes more easily. I felt like that move was perfect, success that day totally 50/50, the outcome could easily have been totally different, a massive plummet into space… would the gear have held? Luckily a question that will remain unanswered… now, onto the next project!