An extract from Slatehead: The Ascent of Britain’s Slate-climbing Scene by Peter Goulding, winner of the 2019 Rheidol Prize for Writing with a Welsh Theme or Setting and published in June 2020 by New Welsh Rarebyte.
May 2015, Joe Brown’s, Llanberis
On the way out, I stop off at Joe Brown’s gear shop in Capel Curig. There’s a book I want, the Ground Up guide called Llanberis Slate. That’s the one Lee has got; Garry’s got a copy too. It has got every route on slate, rather than just the edited highlights that Rockfax has.
It seems like it costs a fortune: the neck end of twenty-five quid! But guide books are expensive; they only ever have a small print run. It is heavy and solid, like a birdwatching guide. The cover is heavy and grey, a picture of someone climbing some- thing that looks impossible on the front, his yellow T-shirt a splash of colour against deep greeny-bluey-grey, white hand-prints of chalk up the smooth groove.
Climbing is a niche hobby – don’t dare call it a sport– and climbing on slate is more specialised still. This is the second year I’ve been on the club trip to north Wales, and I don’t want to borrow someone else’s guide book any more, or read over their shoulder. I want my own book, so I can scratch biro marks against the descriptions of climbs I’ve done, and find the ones that wink at me and smile ‘come over here’.
In the back of this guide book is a list of all the routes in the quarries, who climbed them and on what date. There are forty pages’ worth. Someone must have spent hours going through the new routes books to make this list. Frankly I couldn’t care less. All I care about is what I am going to climb next. Although, saying that, there are a couple of pictures at the front, of some 1960s climbers. One of them shows about six men, standing on each other’s shoulders to start a climb; they are all obviously pissing themselves laughing about it, a fun mess around with mates.
Immediately above the picture is an entry:
1969 June 10 Bluebottle R Kane, J Brazinton.
That’s a funny name, Brazinton. And I’ve heard it before.
In our house in Liverpool there was a heavy white helmet, which I used to take from my dad’s wardrobe because I liked soldiers, and wearing it while jumping down the stairs made me feel like a paratrooper. It was Dad’s climbing helmet, with hard leather straps which bit into the skin under your chin. The enamel on the top was scuffed and scratched, and there was a maker’s badge stuck inside, cloth, red-purple with gold letters. I can’t remember the maker’s name, but Dad had written RP GOULDING across the edge of the label with biro.
Dad had only climbed for a couple of years in university ten years before I was born, then didn’t bother any more. He still spoke about it, though; I knew he was – in some way – ‘a climber’.
Once, he told me about a friend he had climbed with, John Brazinton, who everyone called Little Brazinton.
‘He was short, very strong, but he was very afraid when he climbed. He’d get just up off the ground, then freeze. He’d stay there for ages until he pulled himself together, then he’d go and climb it.’
‘Was he a coward, Dad?’ The way a ten-year-old thinks, raised on war stories.
‘No. He could always make himself do it.’
One night at a party, someone changed the music on the record player and Brazinton didn’t like it. He broke a pint glass over the bloke’s head, who went down like a sack of coal. In the morning, Brazinton went to the police station to hand himself in, believing he’d killed the man. The police told him to fuck off, no one was dead that they knew of.
Dad and I watched films together. My first memory was seeing Duel – Spielberg’s first film – with him. I’d not been able to sleep and went downstairs, and he let me stay up to watch it: I liked the truck in it. One night we watched the famous climber Catherine Destivelle soloing: climbing without ropes, hundreds and hundreds of metres from the ground, on African sandstone the colour of honey in the evening sun. She wore green Lycra shorts, and she was beautiful. Long tanned limbs, curly hair, brown streaked with blonde from the sun. The movement across the rock, totally fearless and graceful. No hanging around, arguing with herself about whether to go for it, she just moved up the rock as if it was a dance.
Dad shouted the first time she hung upside down from her feet and hands. I kept on shouting every time she moved. Dad said, ‘Shut up will you.’ I had thought he would approve; I was just copying him.
I can’t ask Dad about John Brazinton. For one thing, in June 1969, when Bluebottle was climbed, Dad was nowhere near north Wales: that summer, he and his mate Neil drove a knackered van from Europe through Iran and into Afghanistan, just for the crack of it. Dad had stopped climbing by then.
For another thing, Dad is dead: bowel cancer at age 53, when I was twenty-five, in 2003. Killed by his diet, everything out of a tin and never a lettuce in sight. He thought the stomach pains were because onions gave him indigestion, or maybe he was drinking tea too strong. For fuck’s sake.
I saw a photo of him from the spring before he was diagnosed, and can’t believe I didn’t notice. I was just back from Australia, so I had a tan, but he was white. White skin, white hair. Maybe I just thought he was getting old: actually, he was bleeding into his guts, becoming anaemic, while little clumps of endlessly replicating cells swam around his bloodstream, lodging where they could and setting up house in his lungs, his stomach, his kidneys and – fatally – his liver.
Mum and Dad met at Liverpool University in the late sixties, through the climbing club. The climbing wall was in the university sports centre; we walked past it when Mum took me and my sisters swimming there when we were still living in the city in the eighties. The climbing wall frightened and fascinated me. It was made of dark grey, blue-black concrete, cast pillars and buttresses, ruined fortifications from the castle of Llŷr. They hung out of the wall above the badminton courts.
You got to the changing rooms for the pool by walking along a raised walkway, so we were level with the top third of these columns. I looked over the railing, and it added to the fear. Sometimes there were climbers there, often on the middle column, hanging from their red ropes as they belayed their partners up to meet them. Rarely, there was someone trying the right-hand third of the wall, with much smaller blocks and featureless gargoyles sticking out, but I never saw anyone on the left-hand line, which was no more than dents and sharp shallow bulges in the concrete.
That was the hardest one, Mum told me. ‘Can I go on it one day?’
‘Ask your dad. He might take you.’