Words: Nick Bullock
It was early in the summer of 2015 when I decided to get fit by attempting to climb Strawberries, the iconic route on the Vector Headwall at Tremadog. I have always had a love hate with Tremadog. I hate the closeness of the road and the noise of the traffic. I hate the leafy humidity in the summer and the midges. I hate the complexity of route finding. But the rock I love.
I love the smooth grains of hard dolerite which take protection as solid as a nail driven to oak. I love the angles and hidden toe scoops and scabs of brown and white and the octagonal indentations that shadow in the afternoon sun. I love the way the rock forces my body to lean to the right and to the left and the way my toes have to press and smear. I love the way that after ten minutes of puzzling, with just a slight change of body position, or a millimetre of foot movement, a strenuous move can be completed, almost, without effort.
I also found new love with the start of my Strawberries campaign, because the most convenient and quickest way to concentrate on the climb, was to approach from an abseil and this means being in the fresh air on-top of the crag.
Escaping the noisy road and the tree cover, walking the steep path through the woods, pulling on tree roots that are curled and smoothed by the touch of hands, walking through the smoke of blue bells until out of the trees and stood on top the of the crag always made me gasp and revel in the openness. And as I stood on the rock platform, getting my breath, before dropping down to the ledge at the top of the climb, I would look-out across the fields that run a flat course to the marsh and estuary and the Cob. The Cob is a man-made causeway built across the Afon Glaslyn and opened in 1811, where thirty-seven years before, as a seventeen-year-old gamekeeper, I would ride my 50cc motorbike while watching the wading birds amongst the reeds before paying the 5pence toll.
Climbing a route that is too difficult for me to on-sight, or at least, that is just hard, has, over the
years, been a regular thing at the beginning of summer. I enjoy the process, which in the end, not only gets the body fit, but, when a lead is attempted, the mind also benefits.
Strawberries is the antipathy of anything I usually try to climb, it’s a bit like Bob Hoskins, short, solid, powerful, physical. There are no ledges, no crumbling rock, no shake-outs but the protection is brilliant as long as you can hang-in and place it. It is also in full view of everyone so if being seen failing affects the ego, as it once did me, rule this one out.
I began the Strawberries road to fitness in anticipation of a visit to Fair Head in Northern Ireland. Unfortunately, I found the climbing so intense and powerful, Fair Head became training for Strawberries, although the Tremadog training made the Northern Ireland fingerlocking feel, for once, OK, so I suppose I could have left it at that, but I was now addicted to everything about this climb.
Tom Livingstone and I went ground up on the first visit but we were shut down quicker than a leaked report of a Conservative politician’s off-shore account. All subsequent visits took the form of a top-rope warm up, in an attempt to become strong on the holds and learn the idiosyncrasies, before a lead attempt to desensitise the fall. And with every visit and every attempt, the experience of setting off, knowing everything had to be engaged, but never quite knowing when the impossible may happen, lit my mind like a burning strip of magnesium.
I fell in love with taking that fall. The position and the air. The crackle of electricity. The internal dialogue. The microcosm and millimetres of improvement. The banter and yawping from everyone who was climbing nearby and I loved watching the confusion when friends asked if I have done it and I replied, “no, and I’m not really bothered if I do, because I’m enjoying the process.” Maybe this was affecting my chances of climbing the route clean, but climbing should be fun and I was having fun. .
Strawberries is such a great climb for so many reasons, it has so much history and it has so many twists it could have been a story written by Arthur Conan Doyle. It is one of those climbs that you have to decide what works for you. Placing the gear, all five pieces in my case, was as important as doing the actual moves. In some way it’s what makes the climb, it was for me anyway. Putting aside all of the bullshit is also another great thing about the climb. In my mind, placing the gear makes the climb about 7c+, it says 7b in the guidebook but this is Pete Robbins at his sandbagging best, a climber who is too strong and talented for his own good, or maybe I’m just not that good and ego won’t allow me to recognise this?
Stopping to place the nut in the top of the right hand crack feels almost as strenuous as the crux move, it stops the climbing flow, it makes you hang on that painful fingerlock longer than you want, it stops the blood flow and the muscle contraction. Placing that nut on lead, as bomber as it is, also gives a feeling of doubt, because it’s difficult to pull-up and check to see if its placed correctly, and the voice inside the brain whispers the question, ‘Is it placed good enough to hold the fall?’ There is another fantastic gear placement higher, in the left-hand crack, but I knew my limitations and taking the air was easier than stopping, and I took that air so many times I could taste those molecules.
In my final week of summer in Wales, before travelling to the Alps and then to the south of France and then to Canada, I had two more visits to Tremadog one with John Orr and one with Rachel Crewesmith. The ferry to France was booked and as much as I have said I could continue the repeated process of attempting and falling, I felt I had done enough for success, I now felt I deserved this climb. I also felt a little pressure and it was not a nice feeling, in fact it was everything in climbing I had attempted to move away from. The thought that I may never be good enough to climb Strawberries was creeping into the grey, but I was getting so near, surely at some point it would happen? But what if it didn’t, how would my mind and ego cope?
The sun soaked the ledge above the Vector Headwall. The fields opposite, no longer resembled the desert, they were boggy with furrows full of water, more paddy than camel. Rachael's instructor experience came in handy. I tied-on and prepared to be lowered for a top-rope warm-up, while feeding the rope the wrong way through the Gri Gri… "What do you mean I'm the hand?" Her paranoia, something I find in equal measure, be it instructor type or mountain guide, was already a bit too honed. "This block moves and the tree you have slung is a twig." "Rachel, calm down, its fine, it's been tested many times."
The warm up went well; I managed to top-rope Strawberries in a single push for the first time and after sorting the gear for the belay, abseiled to the ledge beneath that other three star classic, Cream. Waiting to abseil, basking in the sun above, Rachael practiced her dynamic belaying running back and forth on the dusty ledge while rehearsing short roping scenarios and lapping the rope techniques. Her phone rang. "Hi Iain… Yes, I found someone to climb with … no, just some old bloke I met in the hut…. We are at Tremadog; yes, I've led two climbs… I'm about to belay him… Oh, just something near Grim Wall." .
Time passed. Shadows moved across the surface of the rock and softened. The rush hour surge of racing cars and motorbikes speeding past Eric’s had been and gone. On lead and only inches from the slim, but you're never going to let go of rail at the end if the difficult climbing, as close as I’d ever been … almost, just about, just about … my right toe, pressed to the index finger sized scoop, slipped and I let go, and as I let go the image that ran through my mind was a person practicing how to give a dynamic belay…
"BASTAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARD… "Rachael's dynamic belay practice on top of the crag must have paid dividends; she was ripped from the stance and closely inspected the top pitch of Cream and as considerate as ever, she apologised to the climbers on Grim Wall Direct about the noise I was making as she flew into the air.
Falling off and being annoyed, if only for a few seconds, shocked me. I had been so very close to at last climbing Strawberries and it was obvious, with the almost success and the revelation, that actually, this was possible, some of my motivation had moved from fun and personal challenge to desire, and combined with this desire, possibly, was the admiration I perceived would come from others on having climbed Strawberries. Inches, just inches, I had watched my finger creep along the rock and I had imagined them wrapping the slim rail and it wasn’t until I had come so close from actually latching that rail, I realised my ego had once again taken control. OK, time to take stock, have a word, begin to laugh at myself again, have a glass of wine, spend time chatting with friends and for a while, move on.
It’s now the 20th of April 2016 and after a winter, where I spent two months in Canada and a month on the East Coast of the USA, a week in Scotland and ten days in Spain, once more I stand on top of Vector Buttress. The fields between here and the sea are green and fresh and the breeze that butts the dolerite is clean. The Frisians chewing the cud in the field opposite flick their tails.
Later, that same evening, Tim and I sit outside the Prince Llewelyn Hotel, the stone built hotel just over the bridge in the centre of Beddgellert. At last I had climbed Strawberries without falling and it seemed apt to stop and have a pint in this hotel. The only other time I had drank here was about thirteen years ago with another great friend, Jules Cartwright. On that occasion Jules and I had been climbing at Tremadog for the evening alongside Dave Evans and Dave Hollinger. Jules, I’m sure, would have been very happy for me, as was Tim with my successful ascent of Strawberries and as Tim and I sit on the wooden bench by the side of the road, eating crisps and drinking beer and laughing, it struck me how really enjoyable life can be if you are fortunate and privileged enough and can allow yourself to enjoy it.
Film footage: Nick Bullock collection
Zylo Zylinski, Rachel Crewesmith, Tom Livingstone, Tommy Chammings, Alex Mason and The Hippy. And to the photographers and film makers... Ray Wood, Zoe Wood, Lukasz Warzecha, Wojtek Kozakiewicz, Paul Scott and Al Lee
Known for bold and audacious ascents, a writer and occasional poet. A man who had already opted for one of life's tougher careers as a PT instructor for HM Prison Service only to give it all up, along with the regular salary and house to live in a van and pursue his passion for climbing. His appetite for climbing is as ferocious as ever, Nick is a genuine personality, that rare breed of person who understands and revels in the intricacies and emotions of climbing and mountaineering.
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