5 October 2009

A Test of Faith

Slate – surprising!

I first heard a rumour about a huge slate cavern from Andy while on a trip at the start of 09 but it was one of those things that I never quite got round to checking out. It was lurking in the back of one of the quarries near Llanberis and on the handful of trips I made to N Wales during the summer there was always somewhere better to go. But as winter started closing in (about August time) we got motivated for exploratory expedition. So one afternoon Ramon, Andy, Pete and I made the walk up to the top of the quarry and I got the first sight of a big steep wall. Impressively big but also, as it’s in Wales, wet and green. The approach brought us out at the top of a slab so we abseiled that (~30m) and went on a quest to get to the lower part of the cavern. I don’t think anyone has been down there since the quarry closed in the 1930’s, a few pieces of shrapnel have made the journey as the Air Ministry disposed of evidence in the 50’s but that’s about all. On the floor of the cavern everything was coated with a thick layer of moss that sort of gave the impression of stability but below the carpet there was scree, primed and ready to fire off down the slope. After the delicate mission to cross the frictionless razor talus we actually got to look up from the base of the wall. It was massive. Looking down from above had disguised its size but now the scale of the wall and its features sank in.

Ramon Marin

The back wall of the cavern seems to have been formed by a fault and then the slate has been quarried from below to leave a huge steep wall, not as steep as Newtyle but much bigger. The wall is divided in to three areas: on the left is a ‘short’ steep wall probably 20m high and overhanging at about 45deg. Here; Ramon and Matt bolted a line during the Aug bank holiday weekend. Then there is the central wall of the cavern with two caves formed by tunnelling during the quarrying days and on the right of this, the steep groove that Pete and Andy have been working on. Then further right is this hanging arête with a few chunks taken out of it, initially I thought this seemed like the line to do....

Day 1 – The plan: drop a rope down the line, bash in a lower off and a few bolts down the route.
The reality: drop a rope down the wrong line, ab off, jumar, drop a rope down the correct line, bash in a lower off, ab off in to space. Hmmm it’s steep!

It took a while to adjust to the scale of the place and the length of time things took to clean and bolt. It also took time to get used to the intimidating drops, loose blocks, razor sharp edges and, when wet (all of the time!), zero friction slate.

Click on photo for more info

After the initial exploration some psyche for the venue returned and Ramon, Andy, Matt and I chipped in for 50 bolts (and Ramon and I brought battery drills). This was clearly the time to ensure that a pure ethic was adopted for the routes and we agreed that everything would be climbed ground up. So we ground up a lot of slate and tried to climb it. Unfortunately the slate features are tiny and more friable than eggs, so unlike White Goods, holds have been drilled. Starting at the car we carried all of the drills, batteries, bolts, cable, hammers, crow bars and jacks up the quarry and down the slab (try jumering back up that f****r on a dynamic rope, in the wet with a 40Kg pack on!). Slate route bolting ethics? Anything goes. Climbing ethics? Only hands on axes, no spurs. Or for the ultimate tick, leashes and strap on duo points!

To equip the arête the plan was to fix a 2t s.w.l. sling to bolts at the top of the route then use a Land Rover screw jack to tension 50m of 8mm stainless cable down the arête. Why cable? I have tried drilling while ‘standing’ on a ‘tensioned’ static line before, it’s ok for shortish routes but this route wasn’t short.

Day 2 Bolts top and bottom, hang cable.

Day 3 – 6 The August bank holiday weekend. The back of the cavern is always dry. The approach slab was always wet.
During those 4 days I placed most of the bolts on the arête. The arête was generally straight and after the cable was tensioned I could tie it back to a quarry spike and a bolt approximately one third and two thirds of the way along its length. Bolts were placed from a top rope using the cable or 6mm bolts tied off with 2mm cord for positioning. The line of the lower section of the route was changed as some looseness and big roofs with sharp edges were encountered. Maybe a harder start at a later date? An especially memorable moment was hanging from 2mm cord horizontally below a roof using a crow bar to remove a loose block I was astride.

After stumbling about amongst the debris for a few days I wondered what it was like for the quarrymen working down there where 1 tonne of slate had to be quarried to produce 50Kg of slates.

B&W photos - http://www.llechicymru.info/

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