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Book of the month: Echoes

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Nick Bullock. Photo: John Coefield

In November, Nick Bullock will follow up his acclaimed first book Echoes with Tides; a deeply personal account recording his climbing, life after the prison service, and the horror of listening to his climbing partner Greg Boswell being mauled by a grizzly bear in the Rockies. The book recalls his finest climbs, the friendships along the way and his old life that he can never quite leave behind. Jon Barton has been one of the privileged few to have read the book, and comments that ‘From Gogarth to the Himalaya, new routes, friendships and tragedy, this is very much a climbing book, which I know will delight a lot of people out there. There is a darkness to Nick’s writing – fear is never far away. He expertly transfers the tension of climbing on to the page and into the reader’s soul.’ 

If you can’t wait until November for the latest instalment of Nick’s wild tales, keep reading for an extract from Echoes in which Nick proves his mettle on the Trinity Gullies during his early climbing days and has a surprise encounter with one of Britain’s climbing heroes. 

My continued reading of Chris Bonington’s Alpine exploits made me determined to climb snow and ice. I gleaned that the way to advance towards climbing in the Alps and the Greater Ranges, my ultimate ambition, was to serve an apprenticeship of British winter mountaineering. So I bought a pair of axes, stiff boots and crampons and drove to North Wales at the first opportunity.

It was the week between Christmas and New Year. Snow lay heavy, covering the fields, lapping against the boulders where sheep huddled for shelter. The wind had left frozen wispy waves alongside the road approaching Pen y Pass and across the deserted car park. The youth hostel, buzzing with people in summer, was dark and silent. Burdened with a borrowed rucksack stuffed to overflowing, I strode off towards Snowdon heading up the Pen y Gwryd track, skirting frozen puddles and kicking steps into fresh snow. Wearing a newly purchased breathable jacket, I felt ready for anything the weather could throw at me. Head down, sheltering my face from the driving snow, I nearly bumped into folk being blown the other way.

“My, that’s a big rucksack,” said one chap, wrapped from head to foot in the best Gore-Tex money could buy.

“Aye, it is. I’m out for a few days,” I said proudly.

Mr Gore-Tex looked me over carefully. “Take care!” he concluded. Setting off once again into the white I was sure I had just met Joe Brown. It certainly looked like him from pictures in my well-thumbed books. Buoyed from my chance meeting with a man I had read so much about, I scrambled into the maelstrom, pulling on ice-covered holds with gloved fingers and clearing snow from encrusted cracks, until I stood on the summit of Crib Goch.

The awkward knife-edge ridge leading from Crib Goch to the Pinnacles at the end of the difficulties was either coated in verglas or polished smooth by a million boots. Every now and again, gusts of wind grabbed and shook me as if I were a naughty child. The rucksack threw my balance, and my feet skittered on the greasy surface. With so much brushing of wet snow from the holds, my woollen gloves grew sodden and my fingers numb. Wet, wind-driven snow splattered heavily against my jacket. I was on my own, with my fate in my own hands, and it felt liberating.

Later, driving the heels of my boots into firm snow – was this névé? – I crunched downhill until I stood in the base of a cwm behind Snowdon’s summit. Then I worked my way beneath the dark cliff of Clogwyn Du’r Arddu in the gloom of late afternoon. Pitching my tent, I climbed into my sleeping bag and wrapped myself in dreams.

Next morning, there was heavy snow on the wind, and more snow hissing over the folds of Clogwyn Du’r Arddu’s dark face. I had read about Cloggy in Julie Tullis’s book Clouds on Both Sides. Clouds were now swirling across Snowdon, an ominous turmoil that parted occasionally to reveal tantalising glimpses of the ‘Black Cliff’. I wanted to see the climbs Tullis had written about so poetically. Grabbing my axes, I set off towards the crag, aiming for its snow and ice-covered tiers.

Five hours went by, five hours spent climbing up, climbing down, traversing and breathing in the atmosphere of this extraordinary place. The wind blasted powder into my face. My ears, nose, fingers and feet became numb. The cold burned. Exhausted, soaked and satisfied, I returned to my tent nestling among the boulders beside the dark waters of Llyn Arddu, with only the wind and the night and Tullis’s words for company.

The final day of my mini-expedition was the high point, quite literally when 
I crossed the summit of Snowdon, crawling on all fours like some kind of snow-snail, with my belongings on my back. At any moment I thought the wind, like a thrush, would get hold of me and smash me against a rock. Staggering down the rock-strewn slopes, the wind roared at me as I crossed through the gap of Bwlch y Saethau, the pass of the arrows. Then, taking the ridge opposite, I climbed to the summit of Lliwedd. A break in the clouds offered a flashed view of the Glyders’ spiky white cockatoo’s crest.

The wind finally relented as I dropped towards Llyn Llydaw and the vegetated cliff of Lliwedd sheltered me. The temperature increased and the ice covering the Miner’s Track turned to slush beneath my feet. Suddenly my three days camping and surviving in the hills had come to an end. I was back at my starting point, Pen y Pass. As I unlocked the car, I was already wondering – what next?

That night, I camped in the Llanberis Pass, in the corner of a field beneath a deserted farmhouse. My solitary tent, pitched behind a stone wall, looked forlorn. During the night the temperature plunged, and I woke shivering, despite being wrapped inside my cosy borrowed sleeping bag. It made no difference. I was too excited to care about being cold. Squeezing out of the tent, the air seemed to crackle. I gazed up at the mountains and immediately spotted a snow-filled chimney-line. That’s it, I decided. I’m ready for a more technical challenge. I wolfed down breakfast with as little chewing as possible, and in what seemed like minutes was scraping and wading through deep powder snow, sometimes buried up to my chest. Struggling in the snowy depths of the deep chimney that I’d spied from my tent below, I found myself grappling with chockstones, fighting my way past constrictions, sweating, swearing – it was everything I had imagined it would be.

Emerging from the chimney, I traversed into Cwm Glas. The small tarn beneath the steep cliffs was frozen solid. Silver streaks ran down the steep rock leading to the ridge above. I climbed into Parsley Fern Gully, and for the first time my crampon points bit perfect névé. Forget the hard snow from a few days before; this stuff seemed like polystyrene, squeaking every time I kicked my feet or placed an axe. 

Breaking through a cornice and out onto the wind-blown ridge of Crib y Ddysgl, I caught sight of a magnificent triangular face, rising like the Eiger before me. My eyes scanned the obvious gullies that ended abruptly right at the summit of Snowdon. Ripping the mitts from my hands, I flipped through the guidebook, numb fingers struggling with the pages.

Eventually I discovered I was looking at Clogwyn y Garnedd and the lines I’d spotted were called the Trinity Gullies. The names of the cliff’s features set my heart racing – the Spider and the Fly, names from Bonington’s Eiger epics. For me, at that moment, tracing the cliff’s white lines with innocent eyes, I could have been in Switzerland. I promised myself I would be back next morning.

That night sleep was difficult, but for once it wasn’t the cold that kept me awake. As soon as light started to filter through the tent walls I could stand the delay no longer. The Miner’s Track, now frozen and crunchy, passed in a blur, and I soon stood beneath the triangular face I had seen the day before. I could now pick out the fine detail of ice gullies and overhangs. My crampons snapped into place, and in no time I was kicking into névé.

I soon reached the Spider, a large snowfield with several ‘legs’ extending from its bulk. Thick ice curling over rock barricaded an easy exit at its top left-hand corner. Here, the walls closed in, forming a dark corridor that dripped with icicles. Taking a rest before climbing the crux, I turned to take in the view below. Llyn Llydaw was frozen solid with a wind-blown dusting of snow swirling over the ripples of the lake’s ice-skin. The Miner’s Track, crossing on its causeway, slashed a black line across the toe of the lake, the isolated corner shaped like a frozen tear, weeping from its far side.

The low temperature had locked up all the water, and conditions were perfect. The teeth of my axe-pick bit into thick ice. The front-points of my crampons penetrated with a single kick. The gully walls closed in to thicken the atmosphere, but they couldn’t imprison me. Soon I was romping up the final snow-slope and in an explosion of polystyrene bricks, I broke out, smashing my way through a cornice near the summit.

My sudden appearance startled some early-morning walkers.

“Hello! Sorreeee!” I sing-songed.

Standing under the face for a second time, and without stopping, I started up Left-Hand Trinity. The guidebook suggested this climb was more serious than Central Trinity, but the conditions were good and as I was soloing the warning about poor belays didn’t concern me. Once again I reached the Spider, but this time traversed further left into the middle of the face and climbed directly up the Fly, a smaller snowfield. The repetitive blows with my ice tools into the easier-angled névé made my knuckles swell and ache.

Pulling once again through the summit cornice I met the walkers I had previously startled, now huddling behind the ice-smeared trig point at the summit.

“Hello again!” I yelled happily, sweating on the freezing summit, steam billowing from me.

They stared with wide eyes at this apparition of glee. “How did you get up here again?” they asked in unison.

“I’ve just climbed the second of the Trinity Gullies.” I kept my reply as nonchalant as I could.

“Wow! You must be really good. It looks very steep. And you have no rope.”
Pleased to get the praise I was after, I walked merrily down once again from the summit. Despite the icy wind that sliced into me, I decided to complete the trilogy and climb the hardest of the Trinity Gullies – Trinity Right-Hand, Grade III.

That evening, I burst into the living room of my parents’ house in Cheadle, still dressed in my climbing gear having driven straight from Pen y Pass. They turned to look at me, startled at my wild appearance and damp smell. We looked at each other.

“You’re going to read about my climbing in a few years,” I said.
Dad turned back to the TV. “Aye, okay Nick. Just get a drink and shut up, will you? I’m trying to watch Only Fools and Horses.”

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