Glyder Fach: the Chasm
It just so happened that as I prepared for my week-long Mountain Leader course in Snowdonia, life dealt me a fortuitous encounter. I received a message from my old friend Tarquin Shipley, who just happens to live “round the corner” from the course location. I hadn’t seen Tarqs since we were about 15 but I remembered him well; we were good mates back in the day, and even then he was a prolific climber and adventurer. In fact I wouldn’t be surprised if he’d used his own umbilical cord in learning early rope work before being hatched into the world!
Our paths were uncrossed when he left Millfield early, in his mid-teens, and headed off to Welbeck College to take his first steps in a military career. Aside from a brief exchange or two on Friends Reunited (early social network – remember?) or some such we hadn’t really communicated since.
Oh Lordy! Yes – That’s me centre left and Tarq’s centre right (circa 1984).
How bizarre that he should now live just a stone’s throw from where I would be staying, and was free to meet up on the day before my course began! Indeed, Tarqs is now both an ML Instructor and an active member of the local Mountain Rescue Team. So aside from looking forward to a good old catch-up, I figured it would be awesome to go out on a hike with him and perhaps gain some valuable tips for the week that lay ahead. I was not disappointed on either score.
I was keen to make this catch-up day happen, yet a logistical miracle was required, as I am most definitely not an early riser… “morning” in itself is ambitious enough! I had to be at Tarqs’ house by 09.30hrs, relatively fresh, if we were to manage a full day’s mystery tour in the mountains. Thankfully, I sleep next to a miracle and her trusty right foot hit the mark at exactly the time required for me to head out into the dark Cumbrian wilderness at stupid o’clock, and thus have a fighting chance of making it to this breakfast rendezvous several hours down the road in Wales.
It’s amazing how traffic in the wee small hours is non-existent, yet had I left several hours later it would probably have been a nightmare drive… However, come breakfast time I had arrived, the coffee was on, and I was being introduced to Tarqs’ better half, Louise, and their new puppy Wes. I barely had chance to say “Christ, you haven’t changed an iota!” before the three of us were in a car heading up towards Glyder Fach.
In retrospect I guess I should have realised, when offered a harness and helmet, that this wasn’t going to be an ordinary hike. I mean, hailstones in the UK rarely get to a size where head protection is required. Why else would I require the use of a helmet unless the sky was expected to fall in?
We eventually arrived at our destination, and cars lined the pavements up and down the road but Tarqs finally spotted a space and claimed it. The weather was something of a miracle – clear skies, and temperatures that are ordinarily alien to that part of the world but certainly nothing to grumble about. The kit and daysacks were prepared and we set off at pace…
Now, aside from the fact that I wasn’t exactly looking or feeling slim (read: much weight needs to be lost!), this was my first hike in about a week. Plus which, we were blessed (?!) with solar rays, so sweat made an appearance quite early on. Tarqs, on the other hand, is about seventeen foot tall, and Louise seemed very comfortable travelling at a Goliath’s pace. In this kind of situation my favourite strategy is to ask open-ended questions and just concentrate on breathing whilst my companion talks away… ermmm, and hope that this stalls the pace a tad. I don’t think Tarqs can be stalled, however, so I simply tried to keep up whilst watching what felt like my very essence disappearing into the threads of my shirt!
Somehow I managed to keep up, or perhaps Tarqs just slowed down a little for me, but it wasn’t long after setting off close to Idwal cottage that we reached Llyn Bochlwyd. Due to its similarity in shape to a certain antipodean continent, this lake is often referred to as Lake Australia. I don’t mind saying that I was delighted to have reached our destination already…
“Right, Dusty, we’ll have a coffee here and then start the climb,” Tarqs announced.
Looking around I thought perhaps he was yanking my chain. I could see only vertical cliffs around us… and Tarqs then consolidated his remark by pointing at one of those… ermmm… vertical cliffs. I forced my brain to dredge up some memories of the time he and I had spent together some 30 years ago. Had I somehow offended him to an extent that still bugged him three decades on?! Nothing sprang to mind… (Lol).
“Sounds great, Tarqs, would you mind just pointing the route out again?” I asked, wiping sweat from my brow and unsure whether the cause was still simply heat… or was this moisture now adrenaline-fuelled?
“It’s just up there…” Tarqs’ voice tailed off, and I gazed along to where he was pointing: more or less at the near-sheer face in front of us. Ish. “Are you ok with that?” I nodded. I think. Or something…
Anyway, as we set about putting on harnesses, I reminded myself that Tarqs 30 years ago had really been one of the more sensible ones in our peer group, and I had trusted him back then. Time had passed, but nothing else about him seemed to have changed. I guessed that for him, this would be a breeze… while for me it would be a brand new adventure, and I felt I was in good hands. We had got into serious mischief back in the day, and as we headed towards the rock face it kinda reminded me of those days and I began to relax a little.
We scrambled up parts of the rock face, reminiscing about days long past and only stopping so that he could instruct on what I needed to do. He was showing me where the handholds and footholds were, and what to do with the ropes as I went. Tarqs, Louise and I were all climbing on the same rope, and I was very much the amateur beside these two very experienced individuals, but hell I was having fun!
Eventually we reached a particular point, notorious to those in the know, where we had to make a decision requiring information from the guide book. It read, and Tarquin eloquently quoted, as follows…
“The route now splits. Tubsters and claustrophobics can mount the fallen block and escape rightwards, taking an enjoyable detour through ‘Main Gully’. Masochists can continue to the upper left corner of the bay and enter the depths of Glyder Fach via an unlikely narrow cleft.
Breathe in deeply and squirm through the cleft to arrive at a thankfully wider, vertical chimney. This leads, via some nifty back and footing, to daylight and the crest of ‘East Buttress’. The main difficulties are now over and the route continues delightfully over the blocky outcrops that litter the upper slope before reaching the summit plateau.”
I think we were both transported back 30 years at this stage. Mischievous glances were exchanged, no questions or answers were required, and before I knew it Tarqs was halfway in, with his legs poking out awkwardly from the chasm. Louise and I watched his feet for what seemed like an eternity, while loud caveman-style grunts echoed out of the mountain face. Inch by inch, Tarqs made his way through, pulling his rucksack up behind him…
Of course, the advantage of watching the entire manoeuvre was that Louise and I had the benefit of his hindsight when our turns came around. I was next to go and edged my way into the darkness at an angle my body simply wasn’t intended to manage. On Tarqs’ advice I had donned a head torch to help me find my way across this cramped, dark and cold space. While I was busy wriggling inside the chasm, it struck me that it might have worked in my favour if I’d simply admitted to being a ‘tubster’… but now that I was committed and surrounded on all sides by solid rock, it was a bit late for that. I finally reached what I had assumed was the end, but a voice from above told me there was still some “up” to be climbed.
Several metres above me Tarqs was congratulating me for getting that far fairly quickly, and now he said, “Well done, Dusty, you just have to haul yourself up here.” He made it sound easy, but I hadn’t forgotten his effort-induced grunting a few minutes earlier. “Push your back against one face, then use the other wall to step against and walk up,” he called down, again making this Spiderman manoeuvre sound simple. Now, I’d always thought that tennis players, and more recently climbers, grunted loudly for dramatic effect. However, as I exerted my entire strength in walking vertically up these walls – whilst my rucksack hung down to the side of me, reminding me I had over-packed for a day out and that if gravity got the better of me it would hurt a lot – I realised that grunting is actually an involuntary act!
I think that in the end my pride led the way in ensuring that I did eventually pop out safely at the other end. And then I could enjoy a brief respite as it was now Louise’s turn to run the gauntlet… Well, she’s undeniably smaller than me no matter which way you hold the tape measure, and probably more nimble than either me or Tarqs… so she shimmied up through the chasm like a whippet. Bravo, Louise!
Once we were all safely through the chasm, we sat and had lunch on a small precipice (!) before making our final scramble to the peak. Here I enjoyed a victory pipe and a brief shenanigan on the cantilever – both caught on camera for posterity! – before we headed back down. This meant a grade 1 scramble back to our original long outward path, which now led us back to the ice cream shop and the car.
It had been a great day. My boundaries had been pushed in all sorts of new directions, and I now had a much clearer idea of what it means to take hiking to the next level, and completely turbo-charge a day in the hills. I hadn’t known what to expect on setting out, but I wouldn’t have changed the day’s exploits for the world. So much so that I hope to go back, this time with Jen, to meet my old school pal Tarqs again and indeed Louise, and hopefully get out on a few more mountains and ridges that I have yet to climb!
Simon Duringer is an award-winning blogger, interviewer and author. His own books can be found on Amazon too by clicking any of the following icons…