Following the death of Joe Brown a couple of weeks ago, Pete recounts his own experiences on one of Joe’s most iconic routes – Cenotaph Corner.
Cenotaph Corner, 120 feet, E1. The crack in the corner of the open book, at the centre of Dinas y Gromlech in The The Llanberis Pass. It was first climbed by Joe Brown in the summer of 1952.
My old guide book states that :- “On his first attempt he dropped the piton hammer from the crux onto his second 100 feet below, then calmly climbed back down, unprotected, to administer first aid!” Apparently the climb was then left alone for almost a year, while Joe concentrated on a few other interesting climbs, among them, “Cemetery Gates.”
The guide also calls the event :-
“A masterly solution to one of the ‘last great problems’ and states. “The Corner was in very bad condition for the ascent,which was done in socks.”
The Corner is a route that is on every aspiring climbers bucket list, one I had given quite a lot of thought to, I was hoping to lead it someday, and may have been good enough back in the middle 70s. But work and family commitments get in the way and I never got around to trying. So by the early 80s I began to realise that I was not climbing enough and probably never going to be at that standard. Then one Tuesday evening I was in the pub and overheard Hamish talking to Andy Orton (Panda). Andy’s car at that time was a Fiat Panda and during a particularly Sunny Alpine season (they do happen…) Andy’s face turned a really dark brown. You have guessed it – he didn’t take his sun glasses off for two weeks and earned himself the best panda eyes I have ever seen. So from then on and for ever more, he will always be known as Panda!
Hamish and Panda were discussing maybe climbing The Corner the following weekend. I had already thought I might get up to Wales, so there I was at the hut, up early on Saturday morning. After making sure I had all the right bits in my sac, I sidled up to Hamish and as casually as I could, asked “what were you thinking of doing today?”
“Cenotaph Corner, would you like to come?”
Yes please!!! I mentally punched the air. Then, on that instant my stomach filled up with butterflies. “Hush ma mouth, what have I done?” This is a serious climb.
Still I don’t intend to back out now, these opportunities only come once in a life time.
We were now a team of four, but unfortunately I cannot remember who the other climber was. The weather was excellent and we parked the car in The Pass near The Boulders and commenced the steep walk and scramble to the foot of the climb, meanwhile the butterflies inside were getting bigger and bigger, I really was getting very anxious. We arrived on the starting platform and found one team on the climb and another pair waiting to start. I wonder if the classic routes are as popular these days? This was going to be a long wait. Would Hamish decide to do something else instead? But as you know, Hamish doesn’t give up that easy, I am sure he had his mind set on what was going to happen that day.
Even in those days I tended to get a bit freaked out by exposure, even the starting platform is quite exposed, situated as it is high above the road and stream far below. The people at the cars look like ants from up here. How am I going to cope with the exposure a hundred feet or more higher up the cliff. The size and strength of the butterflies grew a bit more!
It was obvious I was going to have to give myself a good talking to, quietly of course, I didn’t want to let on to the others how scared I was.
We sat around below the massive rock walls towering above us, waiting for our turn. We must have waited for a couple of hours, but eventually we roped up, with Hamish at the sharp end, Panda second, me third and another climber following last.
At last our turn came and Hamish led off, he was climbing very well and seemed to make very short work of the first 100 foot up to the niche. He paused a while as he put extra protection in, but very soon he was over the crux and up onto the main belay ledge, well done Hamish, an excellent lead. Then it was Panda’s turn he didn’t seem to have any trouble and in no time at all was shouting down “Climb when you’re ready” The butterflies made one last big shiver, then, as they do, completely disappeared as I stepped off the ground.
My concentration was at its best as I steadily worked my way up the vertical crack keeping my feet on the side walls and bridging up as much as possible to keep the weight off my arms. Although quite hard the climbing didn’t seem anywhere near as difficult as I expected, I feel almost guilty saying that, as though I am degrading the climb, but I guess that I was on good form and climbing well. I kept moving and most of the time I could stand in balance as I re-clipped the runners behind me for the last man to take out.
About half way up I came to a short difficult section, then the grade eased off a little, until I arrived at the niche. This was a different kettle of fish, I was underneath a small overhang, and I had been told the grade was E1 if I could do it with out pulling on either of the two pegs, I must have glanced behind me as I suddenly became aware of the incredible exposure below. This is quite a place! I reached out and above the overhang expecting a couple of big holds to appear, nothing, a few bits for my fingers but nothing I could grab hold of to take all my weight. Quite suddenly I realised this climb had put me in my place. There was a short sling attached to each of two rusty old pitons. If I had to resort to pulling on either of the slings, it meant I was unable to climb E1 and had to accept my best grade was HVS. I thought about it for about half a second, grabbed hold of a sling in each hand and pulled hard hoping the rusty old pegs would hold, at the same time shouting to Panda, PULL…… I was above the overhang in just a few seconds and looking up at a grinning Panda a few feet above me. I soon collapsed beside him, exhausted but incredibly elated. He “said well done Pete” as we shook hands, I can bring the last man up if you want to find your way off. I was tired so I didn’t wait to be asked a second time, “thanks Andy” I said as I untied and scrambled off to the left of the crag.
I went a few yards and sat down in the sunshine to catch my breath. I could feel the adrenalin pumping through my body. Only once or twice in my life have I ever felt so alive as I did then. I seemed to have so much energy I could almost have run round and done it again. It seemed to take no time at all to run, scramble and slide, whooping down to the road and car.
I don’t remember much about the rest of the day, except it kept going round and round in my head.
I HAVE JUST CLIMBED CENOTAPH CORNER…..
I was celebrating in the Vaynol that evening, when Mike Burt came in. Mike was a man I looked up to as being a much better and more experienced climber than me. He had been staying at Helyg 10 miles away in the Ogwen Valley, and he had come round especially to congratulate me, there were no phones in those days, so I have no idea how he knew, I felt like some sort of celebrity.
The feeling of elation stayed with me for days, I had never known such a high.
So thank you to Hamish for leading the climb, a very good lead and thank you to Panda for being there and giving me a pull just when I needed it.
And thank you to the corner for putting me in my place, I had to admit I was never good enough to lead the corner. That was on 15th May 1982. Funny how we can remember things from almost 40 years ago, and I haven’t a clue what happened yesterday!
Note: Sadly Joe passed away only a few weeks ago. A legend in his own time.
© Copyright Pete Dutfield, April 2020 – If you enjoyed this you may like to read my book. “Pete’s Himalayan Adventure.” It’s available as a digital download from Wolverhampton Mountaineering Club for £5 with all proceeds going to the Mountain Rescue Association.
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