18-10-2018 / 10:00

Climbing in the Llanberis Slate Quarries

Mike Hutton has been photographing breathtaking outdoor landscapes since the beginning of this century, so it was always going to be a natural progression for him to turn his hand to capturing the adventures of climbing's elite as they scale rock and ice in some of the most stunning and wild natural landscapes in the world.

So when Mammut climbing ambassador Ethan Walker proposed that Mike should join them to document his and fellow rock climber Michelle Kim Theisen's first foray into slate climbing in the stunning historical village of Llanberis in Snowdonia, Mike jumped at the chance to come along, grab some photos and learn more about the history and imposing topography of the area.

Discover Mike's account of the day as well as a selection of his favourite images from his visits to the slate quarries of Llanberis.

It was a dark and gloomy morning as Ethan Walker, Michelle Kim Theisen and myself huddled in a quiet corner of Llanberis's bustling V12 Outdoor climbing shop in the heart of Wales's Snowdonia National Park.

The friendly and knowledgeable staff fuelled us with some of Llanberis's finest coffee in an attempt to prepare us for our day's activities. After pondering over various maps and guidebooks it didn't take us long to realise that these historically important slate quarries were home to some of North Wales's finest rock climbs.

But in order to understand how this area became a mecca for rock climbing, we need to go back many years to the early nineteenth century. The huge Dinorwic quarry that covers some three square kilometers was at that time the second largest working quarry in the world. Thousands of family's livelihoods depended on the output from this monumental gash on the mountainside that, at its peak, produced a hundred thousand tonnes of slate per year.

Our quest for the day occupied a fine position on the upper levels of Vivian quarry which is imossible to miss as it towers above the dark blue waters of a forbidding deep lake, also popular with local divers. In 1982 local legend, Stevie Haston made history when he borrowed a knife from the town's famous café, Pete's Eats and used it to clean out the cracks on a climb he later christened Comes the Dervish. This has since become the most famous and sought-after route on slate. It's an incredible journey just to get to the climb as you pass remnants of the mining history. The old quarry tram lines have been used to create the Llanberis Lake Railway and all the ancient workshops have been converted into the National Slate Museum which houses all the old quarrying artefacts.

The 3 thousand odd men that worked there would transport the slate from the quarries using horse, hand and eventually steam-powered locomotives on a series of tramways. In the cutting workshop, a gigantic wheel powered by water from Snowdon's saturated mountain slopes would drive the machinery that was necessary to produce the finest roof slates in the world. The finished products were taken by rail to the seaport of nearby village, Dinorwig to be shipped all over the world. During the industrial decline in 1969 the quarry eventually became none economically viable at which point pioneering mountaineer Jo Brown turned his attention to the aftermath and discovered its potential as a new medium for rock climbers to play on. The grey gold, as it was often referred to, had special properties that made it impervious to water. Not only good for roofing slates but good for climbing on as it didn't seep, and dried almost instantly after rain.

"The colour palette of the rock is exquisite."

Emerging through the main entrance tunnel we were greeted by a mind-boggling series of tiered levels that all looked imossible to reach. The colour palette of the rock is exquisite and subtle changes in the light can bring out pigments ranging from dark green to deep grey/purple.

Winding up the hillside is a concealed path that allows access to all of the levels, so thankfully non-climbers can enjoy the delights of this historic playground too. It's a mesmerising experience as you gain height and look down on the eerily still lake. Scattered along the walk are pieces of ancient machinery and remnants of the old slate houses that some of the workers lived in, all of which allow you to get a real feel of what it would have been like to live back in the mining days. If you're lucky you may even stumble upon a few faces of the ancient miners that have been beautifully etched into the rock.

When Ethan and Michelle reached the route, their eyes were drawn to the purity of the line. A lightning bolt finger sized crack soared up for almost 40m. It quickly became apparent to us that the climbing styles necessary to gain height on this strange medium were going to be unlike any we had practised before.

"No amount of training in the climbing gym would have prepared us for this type of movement."

Most of the other walls on first acquaintance looked entirely blank, but as our eyes adjust to the lack of contrast we spotted tiny edges and seams in the blackness. No amount of training in the climbing gym would have prepared us for this type of movement. Luckily the chosen route was quite unlike the others and Ethan was able to protect it well by placing an array of chock-stones in the well-defined crack. This also offered him an assortment of positive finger locks that would assist on his upward journey. Eventually, the climbing gave way to a blank looking slab but positive edges always appeared just when they were needed and, with stiff rock boots, it was possible to stand on the tiniest of footholds.

"Just one drop of moisture and this particular rock turns to glass."

As I observed from a higher balcony I could see rain clouds drifting in from the mountain range opposite. Just one drop of moisture and this particular rock turns to glass, so it was critical that Ethan made it to the top before all friction was lost.

The team topped out on their first ever slate climb in the nick of time and reflected on what a novel experience it had been to climb on this fascinating rock type. It was quite hard to say goodbye to this incredible view. From this one spot, I could see the start of the Snowdon Mountain Railway, (which just happens to be the only rack and pinion set up in the UK), the Llanberis Slate Museum, the lower slopes of Snowdon and many more mementoes of Llanberis history. Only around the corner were many more sites of historical importance. The lavish purple swirls of slate on the Rainbow slabs are also popular with rock climbers and offer fine views. From the famous climb of Pully My Daisy one can look down on a more recent piece of Llanberis history; the Dinorwig hydro-electric power station that was built in 1984 is home to over 16km of underground water tunnels that lay concealed under the slopes of Elidir mountain. We later discovered the 2009 movie; Clash of the Titans was filmed nearby in the aptly named film set quarry.

On the journey home, we reflected on our exhilarating day in the quarries and made a vow to return to this special place that has so much to offer the walker, climber and explorer.

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