This feature originally appeared in Rock and Ice 263 Ascent under the title The Great Orme and Other Hard Places.
Climbing has, on occasion, been a multi-faceted frustration for me. I prefer to perform in all genres at a level where I’m happy because happy is good, it’s the reason to do something … right? But on occasion my ego takes over and the sense of being happy includes: to be watched, reported and gossiped about, and to appear in a magazine, all at a level at which I want to hit the publish button on social media.
The mountains, for me, have always been the easiest place in which to maintain happiness and hit publish. They require less skill and training than other spheres, and also require a whole cartload of luck, and my dad always said I was born lucky. Not as many people (sensibly) want to get involved with the mountains as other arenas, hence it is easier to impress others. The mountains are photogenic and have dramatic backdrops, which helps the awe factor, another reason a person with a low level of skill can still impress anyone. I could climb the easiest boulder problem in the world on the side of a mountain, add a stunning backdrop—and get a thousand thumbs up.
Bouldering is at the opposite end of the scale, and for me always the most difficult of the genres in which to hit that happy level. I suck, and disguising poor form on a boulder is very difficult, although being disingenuous on social media helps. It is also harder to create drama for the general observer. Parisella’s Cave, at the Great Orme near Llandudno, is one of the premier bouldering spots in North Wales, yet a picture taken looking in, from a position standing next to the road—which very old people frequent—will be one of goat shit, bits of wet rag, car mats, dust and soaked perma-chalked rock. Bouldering is a difficult visual sell even if I was any good at it.
I have fared a little better with rock climbing, but do best when the genre is traditional, on dubious rock, and with very little protection.
It’s relatively easy to impress others while doing something that people with half a brain wouldn’t do.
My bolt clipping ranks only a little above my bouldering. Being brave is not really helpful in sport climbing, and so I lose most of my assets. Yet one spring day I found myself out at Llandudno and the Great Orme, a premier and revered U.K. sport-climbing destination. I generally avoid the Orme, unless it’s a time of year when floundering is acceptable: meaning because we all-arounders are coming out of a heroic winter or at least recovering from injury.
On this occasion I was both: I had returned home to Llanberis, North Wales, from a Chamonix winter with a broken wrist. After four weeks I cut the cast off with a bread knife and, keen to get a head start on rock-climbing fitness, took the opportunity to climb with friends at the Orme with no worry about a dented ego. We three met in Llanberis and set out.
Turning off the A55, we passed through the small coastal town of Deganwy near Conway. The marina was full of white yachts and speed boats, and the shopfronts have an upmarket air; one was even called a bistro. The seagulls pecked on bits of discarded avocado and Bruschetta, and there wasn’t a sheep in sight.
Coming out of town around a corner in “Jim’s” old purple Volvo 940 sedan, the three of us suddenly faced a police roadblock—very unusual in these parts. In the front, my friends became subdued, almost silent (also unusual). I sat in the back, on foam poking from threadbare upholstery, the smell of mold strong. Stronger still was the smell emanating from the front, and it was of fear.
The police woman stuck her head in the car, looked directly at me, and said, "Who's a naughty boy then?"
Jim is short in stature but bouncy and vocal. The only time he isn’t smiling is when he’s savaging someone by taking the piss. (Taking the piss in English is not the same as being pissed in English, which is different than being pissed in American. Taking the piss does not need alcohol and is generally done not in anger but fun.) Sometimes Jim has a long, unkempt 1960s Beatles bouffant, and other times he is as coiffed as David Beckham. He is originally from somewhere near the Wirral, which is quite near Liverpool, and he can certainly do a good Liverpudlian accent (think Beatles again). I had rock climbed many times with Jim, and no matter how much he had recently abused substances, he could always outdo me.
The passenger seat was filled with the large frame of “Robert.” Robert was, at least on occasion, more serious than Jim. Sometimes he appeared to carry the weight of the world on his back, and a lot of the time, especially in the evenings, he was stoned. He worked at being professional and fixing injured people, so he was a man of two lives that must not collide. Robert also sported a bouffant; his of tight curls, but at the roadblock these beautiful black curls almost stood up straight, brushing the smoke-stained plastic peeling from the Volvo’s ceiling.
Slowing in a line of traffic, the Volvo chugged and belched. Jim had bought the car from a mutual friend called Lee.
As we crawled forward, the tension in the car was almost as thick as the smoke from its exhaust. Putting a hand on top of each of the fading black plastic front seats, I leaned forward. My wrist ached, but listening to the conversation occurring in the front was yet more painful.
Robert to Jim, “What’s the documentation like on the car?”
Jim to Robert, “No M.O.T. [Ministry of Transport test], no insurance.” A whisper.
The pair straightened, and like robots turned their heads to look through the windshield. The car coughed and rolled forward a few more inches on treadless tires.
Jim leaned close to Robert and said, still looking forward, “Please tell me you haven’t got any weed on you?” Not so much whispered, more pleading.
Robert leaned even closer, still looking forward. “Big bag of superskunk. I’ve pushed it under the seat.” Very much a whisper.
Jim to Robert, “That’s O.K., that’s O.K., they won’t find it, this isn’t about that, they’re not looking for drugs, it’s O.K.” A rising whimper.
Something caught our unified attention. A police van pulled up, and a dog jumped from the back. The dog was the type used for retrieving game, the type of dog especially skilled at smelling, and the dog was wearing a yellow coat, and on the coat, in big black letters, was a word, and unless the dog’s name was SNIFFER, we were fucked.
“Hi, boys, now where are you all going today?”
Robert gave the policewoman, who was leaning into the open window, his most alluring smile and gazed up with his big dark eyes. He spoke in deep tones.
“We’re going to the Great Orme rock climbing.”
“Oh, you rock climbers, my hubby is one, you’re all mad.” She laughed and punched Robert’s shoulder. Robert looked as if he would shatter.
I sat in the back wondering how my life had gone from being a physical-education instructor in the prison service, to about to be arrested for drug possession in an uninsured car with no M.O.T., but then I thought, Hang on a minute, I’m not in possession and the car isn’t mine, so no problem, home free. I eased back in the seat, and the mold now smelled of roses.
SNIFFER bounded and barked, cocked a leg and wagged his tail before jumping around the inside of the car stopped ahead of us.
“Well,” the policewoman said, “you do know you’re in trouble, don’t you?”
Jim was quiet for almost the first time in his life, and Robert watched his hard-earned medical qualification burn like a big fat biffta.
I sat smug and righteous.
Fuck ’em, fuck ’em both, silly sods brought it on themselves!
The policewoman stuck her head in the car, looked directly at me and said, “Who’s a naughty boy then?”
The righteousness dropped straight out of my arse.
Help me, my brothers, don’t leave me.
Sweat cascaded down my back.
I watched Jim and Robert relax a little. Wankers!
“You aren’t wearing your seatbelt.”
I grinned sheepishly and apologized profusely.
“Haha, you climbers, go on, on your way, but”—she looked stern and faced me directly— “wear your seatbelt in the future, you naughty boy!”
Jim hit the pedal, and the Volvo lurched into another uninsured day as we juddered toward the Orme.
For the very first time, the thought of climbing at the Orme and being crap paled. Broken wrists, being seen to be crap? Being banged up in prison would have been a lot worse. I stepped from the wet grass and onto the polished rock of a climb called Contusion, a particularly awkward and under-graded 6c. The air was clear, the rock white and dizzying; the Irish Sea whispered a lullaby. I squeezed the first in a series of sharp edges, pushed toes to minute scoops. The rock bit into the skin of a soft fingertip, and I was happy.
Nick Bullock, of Llanberis, North Wales, wrote “Zoning In” for the 2019 edition of Ascent, and “Worst Nightmare: Grizzly Attack in the Cold Wilds,” for Rock and Ice.