James “Caff” McHaffie just above the infamous, blunt flake on the fourth ascent of Leo Houlding’s 1999 testpiece, Trauma (E8/9 7a or 5.14 R, 15m), Dinas Mot, Gwynedd, Wales. Below this point the climb requires a foot placement that has the potential to dislodge an imperative number 2 nut. [Photo] Gareth Aston
On June 17, Tim Neill’s Ford Transit trundled down the Llanberis Pass, which splits the Glyderau and Snowdon ranges in Gwynedd, northern Wales. Rising above grazing sheep were Cenotaph Corner, right wall, Diagonal, The Skull, Dinas Cromlech and Cyrn Las–homes to some of the most classic British climbs by Menlove Edwards, Kirkus-Brown and Whillans, Boyson and Crew.
Tim Stepped from the van as James “Caff” McHaffie’s battered VW Golf followed in hot pursuit. Both had just finished work for the day at Plas y Brenin, the national mountaineering center based at Capel Curig in North Wales.
“Hey up, what’s happening?”
“Caff’s going to give Trauma a go.”
Leo Houlding established the fifteen-meter testpiece on Dinas Mot in 1999, grading it E9 7a or 5.14R. It wasn’t repeated until James Pearson finished the climb this April; Dave MacLeod made the third ascent on June 10. Two days prior, on June 8, Caff had joined the Scot on a practice session, where MacLeod asked him: “Hi James, what have you been up too? I never see you in the magazines. I thought you’d given up.”
Possibly MacLeod’s comment helped Caff top-rope Trauma cleanly that day, convincing MacLeod that Caff still climbed. Caff hoped to lead the climb a few days later, but a red-wine fug sobered him of the idea. I was relieved a new opportunity had presented itself because I was being blamed for the night of debauchery. We headed up to the climb together.
Dinas Mot is one of the largest crags in the Llanberis Pass, having an East Wing and a West Wing. A huge triangular buttress called the Nose bulges separating the two wings. The Cracks (HS, 1930, Bathhurst-Bathhurst, FFA: Kirkus) and Lorraine (VS, 1941, Barford-Morin) follow lines of weakness beneath overhanging walls on the left flank of the Nose. Trauma takes a crack line splitting one of these walls.
Caff, Tim and I soloed up the first four pitches of the Cracks. Tim had the intense role of belayer while I cheer leaded.
Dark clouds teased the summits of Snowdonia, where a breeze provided good friction on the chalked Rhyolite edges. A tick mark showed the way for life-saving protection. It was a sign of the times that the most difficult climb on Dinas Mot was well chalked.
Traversing right, positive crimps led Caff to a seam, where a pecker-hook is slotted behind the stub of a broken peg.
“Keep an eye.”
Small, sharp crimps, a cross-through into an Egyptian, back-footing, straining, straining… Caff’s body shook with tension as the number 2 nut was removed and slotted at arms length, forcing him into a contorted position. Sweating, Caff reversed the technical 6b sequence. It was difficult to tell if Caff or Tim, belaying, was more nervous.
Studying, shaking out, Caff eyed the crux moves as groups with tilted heads watched, stationary, from the base of the Pass. Anyone who has seen Ray Wood’s iconic black and white picture of Houlding on the first ascent will have wondered how it must feel to grab the blunt flake that Caff was on. Screwing a toe into the seam, the trick was not to dislodge his only protection with this critical placement. Grunting with effort (this was new and something I had not heard before), his foot level with his head, he pulled through the crux.
A puff of smoke floated. Out of sight, sitting on-top the ledge, the intoxication of tobacco was second only to the success of the climb. Life on the ledge was good.
“Does anybody want to second it?”