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black ladders - Richard Law

Top of the Black Ladders – a famous winter climbing wall in Wales (by Richard Law Wikimedia)

Fifteen years ago I was diagnosed with Fibromyalgia and ME (aka Chronic Fatigue Syndrome), a debilitating condition that includes continual pain and delayed fatigue as its primary symptoms.

I often find myself trying to explain to other people what the delayed fatigue is like by giving an example that describes the degree of exhaustion I experience …

Have you ever been Winter Climbing?

Well let me tell you a tale …

Winter Climbing

Winter climbing isn’t like rock climbing. Rock climbing is a vertical ballet with a limited number of holds and a sequence of moves in between until the top is reached. The harder the climb is rated, the more limited and difficult the holds and sequence of moves become.

In winter climbing you mainly make your own handholds and footholds using ice-axes and crampons (spiked steel snow-shoes). Generally, the harder the climb is rated, the steeper the ice and the more technical and strenuous the route.

My winter climbing partner was ‘Tunni’ (1960-2014)  (aka Paul Tunnicliffe by his mother). Tunni was a close friend from my student days at Bangor University where he introduced me to rock climbing. He was a Mancunian raconteur with the obligatory dry wit and wry observational humour of that tribe. When he recently passed away, his son gave me his climbing diary, in which he had meticulously logged all the 568 rock and winter ice climbs he had done between 1984 and 1997.

Ysgolion Duon “The Black Ladders

The diary records that on the 10th of February 1996 we set off to climb ‘Eastern Gully’, a Winter Grade II/III, seven hundred foot climb, on Ysgolion Duon (the Black Ladders), a thousand foot high north facing cliff that sits in the most remote part of the 200 square kilometre Carneddi mountain range in Snowdonia, North Wales.

Carneddi Massif

The Carneddi Massif: Blue indicates access footpath. Red indicates cliff location. The black at the bottom of the red marker is the shadow cast by the cliff and is not a lake unlike the other dark patches

The route itself climbs the eastern section of the cliff, rising in a diagonal slash from the centre of the Eastern buttress to the top left of the cliff midway along the ridge that runs between Carnedd Llewelyn (3500 ft) and Carnedd Dafydd (3050 ft). The route consists of 700 ft of climbing proper and a further 300 ft of ‘scrambling’.  It needs 3 days of sub-zero temperatures to come into condition for good ice.

Eastern Gully Route

Eastern Gully Route

Over the previous 3 years Tunni and I had climbed several ‘classic’ 1000 foot winter routes, and for the last couple of years he’d had his eye on Eastern Gully, with just the lack of snow and ice precluding a winter ascent of the route.

I had spent the previous night at his home preparing our equipment and spare clothes. In 1996 neither of us had a mobile phone. Our failsafe consisted of leaving a route-plan with Tunni’s wife and the instruction, ‘not to worry until mid-night’.

The morning had turned out a perfect day for winter ice climbing:, freezing cold and clear with a fresh overnight snowfall. So at 8.00 am in the post-dawn light we set off from the nearest car-park and into the fresh virgin snow in splendid isolation. The guide book says the walk-in to the foot of the route takes about two hours. When the footpath is hidden beneath knee deep snow it can take twice as long, and we found ourselves at the start of the route shortly after 12.00 noon.

Have no illusions that this sort of outing is ‘a walk in the National Park’. It is a serious undertaking, with no safety net and no easy way out should an accident happen, and we were both acutely aware of the freak winter climbing accident in the mid-eighties that had claimed the life of a friend, Mark Pither, when an ice slab he was resting on collapsed underneath him after he had completed a route adjacent to the one we were doing.

We wanted to be at the top of the climb at least an hour before sundown at 5.00 pm to give us time to complete the descent back to the start of the route before nightfall, and we anticipated having to make the walk out of the cwm and back to the car in darkness, using head-torches. This would give us three hours to complete the climb.

Half an hour later we were properly equipped with crampons strapped to our feet, rucksacks on our backs, ice-axes in hand and a rope uncoiled. The first pitch was a 150 ft frozen waterfall, in perfect condition. The start was a vertical wall of ice 50 feet high that then relented to a 60 degree slope, allowing for a belay at the top of the pitch.

Ice Axe – from Wikimedia – Amada44

Tunni led, placing ice-screws into the ice-wall every 20 feet and running the rope through the karabiners clipped into the ice-screws, so that I could catch him and arrest his fall should he slip or become detached from the ice.  After he completed the first pitch, I followed, unclipping the rope and removing the ice screws as I climbed until I joined him on the ledge that he had belayed from, only to find that the 150 ft pitch had used all the available rope and Tunni was using the infamous ‘psychological belay’. In other words:  ‘unsecured and imaginary’.

Above us the second pitch and the gully proper started: a deep cleft rising at an angle of 45 to 60 degrees for 200 feet. The guidebook said, ‘follow the central depression to the fork’. We set off together, moving un-roped as the gully looked like easy ground.

The snowfall from the previous night was knee deep as we started and gave a reasonable purchase as we stamped our way upward. However, we found that the snow was hiding a complete absence of ice, which, counter-intuitively, made progress difficult.

Crampons are marvelous for walking on ice or for ‘front-pointing’ up vertical ice using the two prongs that jut from the front, but when walking or climbing on dry rock they can be more of a hindrance than a help. The higher we went, the deeper the snow became, and when we reached the fork at the top of the second pitch, it was up to our waists.

The guidebook says of the third pitch (300 ft), ’The right-hand exit is steeper and probably better’.

The first part of that description was correct. The second part wasn’t. There was still no ice worthy of taking crampon points and the snow was getting deeper. We were taking turns to lead, using the scooping blade on the ice-axes to cut our way through snowdrifts and to compact the snow beneath our feet. Progress forward was more akin to clearing and stamping snow than climbing ice.

At about 200 ft up the third pitch, the snow had reached shoulder height and the walls of the gully narrowed to about six feet as we reached an impasse in the form of a rock boulder blocking the gully. This presented us with a sheer ten-foot blank wall of granite, topped with a six foot bank of snow. We compacted the snow at our feet and used the rucksacks to make stable footing.

Crampon (from Canadian glacier climber)

Tunni removed a crampon so that he could stand on my shoulder and brace himself against the gully wall with his cramponed foot, allowing him to use his ice-axe for clearing the snow-bank covering the boulder.

This resulted in the cleared snow cascading down upon us. Eventually he thrutched and squirmed himself onto the top of the boulder. Rucksacks were hauled up by rope, as was I, and we laboured up the remaining snow-filled gully to the summit of the climb and the spectacle of a waxing moon rising on the horizon.

Our three-hour climb had taken nearly five hours.

I then made a grave error. Unlike Tunni, who had reached the summit a few minutes before me, I didn’t change into a dry set of thermal underclothes. Time was of the essence as we were benighted and a biting wind had blown up, along with the first flurries of that night’s snow. We set off down the descent route into the dark, head-torches illuminating a twenty-foot circle of the space below us with an increasing number of snowflakes tumbling in the light-beams.

In the fresh snow it took nearly two hours to reach the foot of the climb, where another three-to-four hour walk to the car awaited. At least we knew where the footpath went.

I was utterly exhausted from the physical efforts of the day and I hadn’t realised that the cotton underclothing I was wearing was soaked through. A combination of sweat from the physical effort of the climb and the copious amounts of water from the snow showered over me during the boulder-in-the-gully incident had seeped through my clothes and my padded mountain jacket.

The heat from my body core was draining away and the sub-zero wind chill was not helping. Tunni walked ahead of me breaking a path and I followed, using his footsteps to make each step I took easier. By the time we reached the mouth of the cwm, I was flailing and failing. Each step required a Herculean effort and I was falling further and further behind.

I remember thinking that I would sit down and rest for a couple of minutes to recover myself. Even as I lay back into the snowdrift, I realized that if I didn’t get up, there and then I would simply fall asleep and die of exposure, and at this juncture my resolve was overcome by a fatigue that went beyond movement and reason. I had become hypothermic. Blood wasn’t reaching my legs, arms, or brain. I was drifting into that blissful state between waking and sleep.

My brain was shutting down and I didn’t care …

All I recall of the remainder of that day is a dim memory of being hauled to my feet and half-carried the remainder of the way to the car; sometime later standing in front of a roaring fire whilst being plied with large mugs of hot tea; and a long hot bath to gently re-heat my body core back to normal.

That’s what friends are for.

They save your life.

And now, in 2019, I get to feel like this whenever I do more than I’m capable of; like walking upstairs or having a bath.

And when I’m asked, ‘How fatigued are you’?

Well, this is my measure.

Paul Tunnicliffe – Diary entry for 10 Feb 1996

 

“Winter Climb. Black Ladders. Eastern Gully with Simon, Loads of snow. Walk-in took 4 hours! v.knackered. climb took over 4 hours. so much banked up powder the climb was hard to start, even. Si had a couple of new screws & pegs and I got placements on the first bit and belayed on the lip with no rope left. Snow in the gully proper a bit dodgy looking and loose(ish) and we ‘daggered’ about 90% of it. 5.00pm top out and v.exhausting walk out mainly with head-torches during which I lost the spare battery and Swiss army knife and Simon had an epic! A good day.”

Dedicated to Paul ‘Tunni’ Tunnicliffe and Mark Pither

Simon Parker is now 62 years old. He lives in rural Anglesey, North Wales. His story:

Simon Parker

In 2000 I was completing my PhD in Pedagogy at Bangor University North Wales and enjoying an active outdoor lifestyle, when I caught a bout of flu that resulted in increasing periods of debilitating fatigue and pain after exercising. I was diagnosed in 2003 with fibromyalgia and ME/CFS.

When I was first diagnosed I underwent the procedures recommended by my local ME/pain clinic (CBT & GET) who advised me to ‘exercise to my full capacity as the condition is temporary’ – a course of action which only made my symptoms worsen.

Luckily I found a ME/CFS consultant (Dr Sarah Myhill) whose tests and approach (leaky gut, PK diet, and mitochondrial functioning, etc.) made a huge difference in understanding the condition and in taking appropriate steps to mitigate the worst of the symptoms.

My symptoms have increased in severity over time and I now spend about 80% of my time in bed and the remaining 20% of my time trying not to over-exert myself while making time-lapse videos of blossoming trees in my locale each Spring.

I still (literally) dream of going climbing and live in hope that the current research avenues will one day lead to a cure or at the least an alleviation of the symptoms so that I could go rock climbing again with my son.

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