dimanche 1 septembre 2013

What do The Bells! The Bells!, Steve Boote and The Climbing Hangar have in common?

The climb described is John Redhead's famous scarry route The Bells! The Bells! (E7 6b) on Anglesey's North Stack Wall.

Anyone who knows Steve Boote knows that he's great fun and always good for a wind up. It started at The Climbing Hangar. He encouraged us to join him in the last bouldering comp. We'd been there 3 hours already and were pretty tired. He was fresh. However, he didn't spend his time there just climbing, he was busy having a laugh behind my back and bigging up my reputation, particularly my 3rd ascent of The Bells! The Bells! way back in 1990. As we were leaving, one of the climbing coaches (Mike) said "You're Mike Owen, didn't you do the 3rd ascent of The Bells! The Bells?" (or words similar to that). We had a nice chat about the routes on North Stack and the fact that Bootie had been spreading the word.

When we next went to The Hangar, the word had spread further (much to my surprise) and one of the young lads behind the counter said "You're Mike Owen..........." Infact he then asked for my autograph (saying it was for Mike). Well, I couldn't refuse, could I?

The story really begins even further back in time. Way back in 1983, to be a bit more precise. Andy Pollitt and I come from the same area of North Wales and got to know each other through climbing at our local crag, Craig y Forwyn, in the late 70's. In 1983, he stayed with us for 3 months as he worked with me at Black's in Liverpool. We used to talk for hours about climbing, trading tales and sharing wish lists, and so on. We'd both done The Cad that same year, so obviously we sowed the first seeds about doing The Bells! The Bells! which was first climbed by the talented and very brave John Redhead. At that time it was probably the most dangerous route in Britain. Still, Andy and I were both young and we had high aspirations.

Andy moved to Sheffield and became one of the first professional climbers, making phenomenal new routes in the Peak and back in Wales. He went on to make the coveted 2nd ascent of John's death route test piece in 1986. I have his signature on the Berghaus poster from the time in the cave downstairs (next to Phil Davidson soloing Right Wall in 1984). It took me a few years longer to realise my dream.

The Berghaus poster showing Andy Pollitt making the coveted 2nd ascent of The Bells! The Bells! in 1986 (Andy's faded signature is down right from his right hand).
June 1990: Twid and I were onsighting E6's and E7's in Wales and we had both done a few 8a sport routes by then. So we were pretty fit and still young enough to be brave. We were working our way through the North Stack routes and both of us had eyes on doing The Bells! The Bells. I couldn't believe nobody had done it since Andy. I finished my degree and had time to climb before entering the teaching profession. Twid got busier with guiding and had less time. So, it was there for the taking, if only I was up to the challenge.

Graham George and I abbed down North Stack Wall on a reasonable busy day and I set of on-sight. To be honest, things didn't feel right. I remember finding the start (in common with The Cad) harder than it should have been. At the end of the first traverse I placed a small offset HB2 which was basically the only thing between me and the floor. After several half hearted attempts to commit myself to the moves leading to John's 10 year old peg I called for a toprope which, thankfully, arrived pretty quickly. I cursed myself for being a wimp as the move seemed ok, albeit with protection from above. However, I found the (wrong) sequence going rightwards from the peg desperate and covered in "grandfather's whiskers" vegetation so typical at Gogarth. It was a very empty feeling I had at the top. Ok, I'd climbed The Bells! The Bells! but hadn't actually led it on the sharp end of the rope. To tell the truth I was gutted even though I had underestimated the severity of the challenge. Still, Graham was well chuffed to follow, which he did impeccably. I returned, much better prepared, next weekend but I was still concerned about the moves right from the peg.

Saturday 9th June 1990. There was a lot of moisture in the air and the sky was grey. Still I was ready, the time had come to either realise my dream or die on the jagged boulders at the foot of the cliff. I abseiled down The Bells! to brush off the vegetation and to tie off the peg, which was in a pretty sorry state after ten years of weathering. I was shocked when I saw a line of finger incuts going directly above the peg. This was the obvious sequence to gain the second traverse where, later on again, I was shocked to find a bomber Hex 4 placement just to the left whilst doing The Hollow Man with Phil Ralph!

There was nobody there at all, just Elaine and me. Therefore no chance of a top rope this time. The boulders were slippery and it was very still and quiet.  It was do or die. So I set off up the start of The Cad, traversed right to a good foothold and put the HB2 in again. Without hesitating, I committed myself into serious terrain, where it was up to me alone to see this thing through to the end, come what may! I dared not look at the tied off peg as I followed the line of incuts up to the start of the second traverse. There is a shield of rock there where I spent ages trying to get in some dodgy rp's and a tape sling over the top. The seriousness of my position was gnawing away at my concentration (if only I'd known that Hex 4 was nearby!). I have never been so totally frightened in all my years climbing, as I was from that shield onwards. I seemed to be looking down at myself tiptoeing across, with the ropes trailing uselessly down to the left of me. By the time I gained the shallow groove that led to the top I was almost completely spent and there was no meaningful gear to stop me decking out from about 150 feet. There was a nasty sting in the tail: on the last difficult move I felt a tiny foothold break off as I delicately weighted it. For a moment I swear that I thought I was going to fall to my death. At this point, Elaine was well aware of the mess I was in and was weighing up her possible options to run over the slippery boulders in an attempt to take in the slack if I fell. She told me afterwards that she realised there was nothing she could have done! Somehow, I told myself to calm down and test with my foot to see if there was enough left to stand up on. I crawled over the top and just lay there, utterly spent and sobbing as it all sank in. After a long time, I set up an abseil to strip the gear. You should have seen the smile on my face by the time I got down to Elaine. And I've been wearing it ever since!
The incuts above the peg that lead to the second traverse. This section of The Bells! is shared with The Hollow Man, a harder but safer direct version first climbed by Andy Pollitt. Elaine took this photo (from an abseil rope) of me making the 3rd ascent on 17/6/90. This photo became a DMM poster used in outdoor shops.

At the time I was testing gear for DMM, hence the Mammut harness, Mammut ropes, La Sportiva shoes,  DMM chalk bag, nuts, quickdraws and the shoddy La Sportiva tights!

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