Pilgrim’s Progress

(by Gerry Moss, January 2007)
"We were tackling Lockwood’s Chimney, surely, when wet, the most undergraded climb, not only in the whole of Wales, but on the entire planet."

Who would true valour see
Let him come hither!
One here will constant be,
Come wind, come weather;
There’s no discouragement
Shall make him once repent
His first avowed intent
To be a pilgrim.
John Bunyan

A keen-eyed observer, viewing the scene from across the valley, would have felt sure he was witnessing some kind of traditional, religious ceremony: an ascetic, penetential ritual, of the type much practised by our Celtic Christian forebears, it’s origins rooted in the mists of time. The small procession of hooded figures filed slowly, steadily, up the steep hillside, winding its way along the path through the trees, all heads bowed in supplication, all accepting, with quiet resignation, the buffeting winds and the driving rain. From time to time the elderly dignitary at the head of the procession – a frail, saintly figure – would pause, lean heavily on his sticks and raise his face to Heaven, perhaps seeking divine guidance, perhaps beseeching the strength and courage to continue with this gruelling crusade. At such times the other members of this small congregation would wait, respectfully, stoically, for progress to resume, all apprehensive of the ordeal that lay ahead, yet all determined to endure whatever hardship and deprivation might come their way. Steadfast pilgrims, every one. As they rose higher and higher through the storm-tossed trees, there came, wafting up the valley from the distant hamlet of Beddgelert, the deep, solemn sound of a bell tolling….

Was it purely coincidental that Nick was the one chosen to play the starring role, or was that a bit of devilment on someone’s part? With the full 60m of rope strung out behind him and a whole clatter of climbers tied on at various points, he followed me up over the easy, greasy approach, as I, every inch your Judas goat, lured them on, like lambs to the slaughter, into the stygian bowels of the mountain.

We were tackling Lockwood’s Chimney, surely, when wet, the most undergraded climb, not only in the whole of Wales, but on the entire planet, yet probably the only feasible option on the day that was in it. A late October day in Snowdonia, when roads were flooded; when every river, swollen by the incessant rain, threatened to burst its banks; every stream had developed into a raging torrent, and every mountain, hill and crag was awash with running water.

Crowded together, ankle-deep in muddy water, shivering in the dark, gloomy, dripping confines of the pit at the foot of the chimney, it may have seemed to the back-markers (there were nine of us altogether) that they were indeed abandoned souls, doomed to languish there for a year and a day, perhaps denied the prospect of ever seeing the light, as those in front struggled grimly, desperately, to escape from the Slough of Despair and ascend through the Strait Gate to the Promised Land.

The flickering beam of the headtorch reflected dully off the smooth, wet walls; accentuated the narrow, black overhang that barred entry to the chimney proper; highlighted the steady trickle of water that splashed down on Nick’s head as he endeavoured to place a runner. I was crouched below him, back against one wall, knees against the other, held in place by the pressure of the masses, spurring him on with a few bars of Onwards Christian Soldiers, as I belayed ( I am fortunate in possessing a uniquely musical voice : it immediately instils a sense of urgency in all those within earshot – a rare, but sadly, unrecognised talent. I can’t understand why Louis Walsh won’t return my calls – I’ve even sent him a demo tape… )

The walls, at this point less than a meter apart, had holds of sorts, but in the semi-darkness they were difficult to find and, being wet, offered little comfort and only dubious support. But, undeterred, Nick fought the good fight, struggling valiantly, his grunts echoing loudly in the confines of the gloomy chamber, his every effort cheered on by a captive congregation. Eventually he was high enough to throw himself bodily over the bulge and, legs kicking wildly, he disappeared into the black maw of the chimney, for all the world as if he were being swallowed live by a dragon.

Working on the principle that there is no point in keeping a dog and barking yourself, I called for a tight rope and soon joined him where he had set up a throne belay on the wet floor. I untied, hopped up onto his knee, leaped from there to his shoulder, then stepped up, very gingerly, very carefully, onto his head (consideration for others has always been one of my stronger points – besides which, his helmet was wet and rather slippery). In this way I insinuated myself further up, and deeper into, the chimney, which at this point was so narrow that a deep breath was all that was required to jam oneself securely between the walls. (I speak as a skinny little runt, others, more amply endowed, found themselves jammed all the time, and could only advance by exhaling sharply. Or so I’ve been told. Naturally, when one is of a genteel disposition, one tends to avert one’s eyes when one’s companions are experiencing personal little problems with their protuberances). Mulling over this I am convinced that the Scriptures have got it wrong: for Blessed are the Meek, read Blessed are the Sleek – verily, the Path of Righteousness shall more readily be revealed unto them.

From my constricted vantage point I could listen to the piteous moans, the weeping and gnashing of teeth, the odd muffled oath, as Nick, now cast in the role of a fisher of men, drew each one up on a taut line, playing them as you would a kicking salmon, until each soggy, sodden climber flopped across the overhang, mouthing for air like a stranded dolphin. Then each, in turn, untied and squeezed up along to take a place in the queue below me, as we strove upwards through the darkness, continuing our quest for light and salvation.

Halfway through these manoeuvres there was a commotion from down below as a further trio joined us and our ranks swelled to an even dozen. Thereafter, Alastair, who had been doing a splendid job of edifying our small flock with some uplifting sermons based on a licentious life in the Lake District, was drawn into a learned discussion by the tail-enders on the merits, or otherwise, of possessing a large backside when climbing narrow chimneys. Profiles were examined, comparisons were made, rough measurements taken, though whether the latter was done by eye or by hand, and how rough they were, must remain something of a mystery. Listening to snatches of this cultural debate drifting up from the depths, I knew, instinctively, that Sile had joined us, and so indeed she had, along with Dave and Kieran.

We continued our slow and torturous procession up towards the dim patch of light high above and, eventually, the front-runners were gathered, like nine beans in a row, below the little holly tree where the chimney exited on to the hillside. Here it was a case of the the last shall be first and the first shall be last, as Nick untied from the the sharp end of the rope and it was passed up the line to me, for it was meet and fitting that the one who lured them into darkness should now lead them into the light. I stuck my head above the parapet and sniffed the wind, as a badger does when about to leave its sett, then popped out and scampered up over the exposed rock, using a mixture of climbing and wind-surfing techniques, to a stake belay in a large pool of water, where I set about taking the first five up. When Aileen arrived she was so delighted to be free of the confines of the chimney that she proceeded to do a Clare jig in the centre of the pool, an activity that so alarmed the two Martinas that they pounced on her and tethered her firmly to the stake. (I should point out that, at present, the club has a surfeit of Martinas: we are up to our oxters in them, tripping over Martinas at every hand’s turn, so to speak. This is something of a boon for absent-minded geeks like myself, who can’t remember anyone’s name or face for more than five minutes: thus Aileen was often addressed as Aideen, Elaine or Eileen, while Genevieve was oft-times transported to Geneva. Then I hit upon the rather clever ruse of addressing them all as Martina, secure in the knowledge that I had an almost fifty-fifty chance of being correct. Sadly, this tactic was received rather coolly by some – particularly the lads).

When Donal arrived I passed over the reins to his capable hands and left him to bring up the others, while we set off down the mountain. With myself to the fore and Cearbhall, a model good shepherd, bringing up the rear, we scrambled and stumbled happily along the descent gully, sometimes on the muddy banks, sometimes on the mossy rocks, sometimes in the bed of the stream itself, delighted to be on the move, oblivious of the chilly water, the sheets of rain and the strong winds. Then it was down through the dripping trees to paddle merrily along the flooded path and, finally, slog up the steep, muddy track to the cars.

As we stood there, backs to the wind, awaiting the arrival of the others, we gave off small clouds of steam that ascended slowly into the heavens, and it was as if each of us was in his or her own personal sauna, enveloped in that muggy, comfortable atmosphere that results when a warm body is trapped within sodden clothes. And all the while the rain continued, coursing down our jackets, running down our trousers, dripping softly into the ever-widening pools about our feet.

"Well now, Eileen", I chortled, as I emptied the water out of my pockets and perused the mist-covered mountains, "wasn’t that a cracker of a day? And the best part of it is, we won’t have to even think about taking a shower for a whole week at least. Talk about conserving energy! Not only that but, by the look of things, tomorrow could be another good one. Are we steeped, or what?" There was silence for a few moments, while she studied me closely through strands of wet hair. Then she shook her head slowly and sighed. "Do you know what I’m going to tell you, Gerry" she said, gently, "you’re a legend, a pure legend".

Young people nowadays – they’re so perceptive.