North Wales, Australia, climbing, and the start of our van life

Nearly two years ago I stepped into the unknown and moved to North Wales. I’d arrived in London three and a half years prior, not really knowing what I wanted from the place but feeling like it was an obvious thing to do. As I got increasingly motivated for climbing I started to feel less and less content in the city. Week days were busy with work, evenings at the climbing wall, and then at the weekends I went in search of real rock. Long drives to Portland, Brean Down, Anstey’s, the Peak or sometimes North Wales. There wasn’t really much space left for the other things which feature in a balanced life, like having friends for dinner, going for a walk in the park or spending time with my partner.

I’d been discussing a move with Emily for months but eventually we concluded that whilst she had her reasons to want to stay put for a while longer, I really needed a change. So we decided to try living apart for the first time in five and a half years. It felt like a risk, but the status quo wasn’t risk-free either.

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Clogwyn yr Eryr with Will on my 27th birthday

I slotted into the Llanberis climbing scene and for the first time felt like I lived in a real community. Hours on motorways were replaced with having a social life. I could walk down the street and bump into friends. I had enough time and didn’t need to rush from one thing to the next. It wasn’t perfect but it felt like a huge improvement on the big smoke.

I was delighted when Emily decided to join me the next July. Surely she’d love it! We’d live happily ever after in our cute little mountain village, surrounded by friends, rock, and lots of fluffy sheep!

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Snow day with Emily and a friend’s lively dog

She did love North Wales, so it came as a bit of a shock when later that year she told me that after a long process of reflection, she’d decided that what she really needed was to return home to Australia. Having come to the UK 10 years ago for university, she’d not really intended to settle but had ended up staying (I had something to do with it…) But Australia was home and she was asking me to go with her.

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Bouldering in the winter sun with Ramon at Porth Ysgo

A digression: one thing that I have found helpful in the last couple of years is learning about mindfulness and meditation. There are some good apps available to help. Initially I used Headspace for a few months but fell out of the habit. I picked it back up with Calm around the time that Emily and I were having this discussion, and have managed to continue more or less daily since then (although I no longer use an app).

Anyway, mindfulness has definitely made me more able to be accepting of the idea that I am not actually the absolute master of my life, able to direct it exactly how I want. (For what it’s worth, nor do I believe that there is some external deity orchestrating things.)

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Trying out our new wetsuits at Whistling Sands on the Llyn Peninsula

It’s easy to think that we know what should happen or is going to happen in life, but that idea is demonstrably false. I can think of many instances in my own life when I was convinced something was going to turn out terribly, and yet it did not. And vice versa – times when I thought things were going great but then the shit hit the fan.

Observing this has made me more able to accept paths I did not explicitly choose. Paths like moving to Australia. Initially I definitely threw my toys out of the pram a bit, but as I gave it more thought, I realised that I actually have no idea what might happen either way. What I do know is that I value my relationship and that given I can’t predict the future, I may as well focus on enjoying the present.

So we’re moving to Australia in March! Melbourne initially, but we will probably look to live closer to rocks in the longer term.

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Gogarth Red Wall

Having made this decision I started to relate to climbing in North Wales a bit differently. My days there were now numbered and I needed to choose my battles. Somebody asked me in April what my goals were for the season. I hadn’t given it much thought but replied that a very good year would include doing my first F8a+ redpoint and my first E6 onsight. I didn’t really think I’d achieve this, but knew I’d be stoked if I did.

The spring and early summer saw many days spent at LPT . I had half an eye on a planned trip to Céüse in July and so got stuck into sport climbing. One session I decided to have a play on an 8a+ called Wild Understatement. It’s a cool variation on Ben Moon’s classic 8a, Statement of Youth – it takes a more direct start through a big roof, climbs through the middle of Statement, and then branches out left into a delicate off-balance crack at the top.

I was surprised to find that I could basically do all the moves and so decided to keep trying it, whilst telling myself that I was still just playing around. After a few sessions I fell right at the top and had to admit that I was probably now on redpoint. I got it done just before the Céüse trip, many thanks to John Bunney who pretty much came down to hang out and belay me! In hindsight, Wild Understatement was exactly my style: sustained endurance climbing without any super bouldery cruxes.

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Introducing our friend Charlie to the slate

When I returned from Céüse I was super keen to do lots of trad climbing. The sport climbing in North Wales is decent, but trad is really what it’s best at, and I still had loads of classics to work through. As the summer wore on, in the back of my mind was Skinhead Moonstomp on Gogarth Main Cliff. I’d read about it in Andy Pollitt’s book and it sounded epic and kind of scary. But Dan Mcmanus told me it was basically safe so I kept wondering… maybe I should try it.

I spent a while waiting to see if the opportunity would magically arise but it did not. Eventually I realised that if I wanted to try it I needed to just decide to do so and make it happen. I couldn’t really think of who else I could persuade me to give me a belay so asked Emily, and she graciously agreed.

We left a bit later in the day as I thought conditions would be better, but arrived at the base to discover that the only other party on the cliff were just starting up Positron, with which Skinhead Moonstomp shares some climbing. After waiting for them to get ahead I did the first pitch and Emily started seconding.

I’d perhaps been a bit optimistic about Emily’s suitability as a second for this route, and she fell off but eventually got to the belay. I started up the second pitch, which is the E6 6b crux. You traverse out left to beneath what I think the guide describes as a “looming wall”, plug in some gear, take a deep breath, and run it out until Positron’s crack. At this point the ropes are fluttering in the breeze for perhaps 8 metres below. (I could have done with a breeze actually, my t-shirt was now drenched in sweat.) You then do a few moves on Positron before going directly up to the infamous “bucket seat” belay. Somehow I succeeded, my Céüse fitness certainly helped but it was touch and go.

Poor Emily now needed to follow, and the traverse moves are not actually straightforward. She fell off and took a pendulum, finding herself dangling in mid-air some way beneath me. I’d hurriedly tried to remind her how to prussik at the previous belay, but she was out of practise and there was some trial and error involved (we couldn’t really communicate due to the noise from the sea). By the time she arrived at the bucket seat it was nearly dark. I set off to string together the final two easier pitches by head-torch, slightly gripping. When we got back to our bags it was midnight… dinner was on me the following evening!

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Rock Bottom Line with Glyn. My technique was completely wrong but made for some fun photos…

Having decided to move to Australia, I was sad to be leaving behind the fantastic variety of climbing destinations that Europe has to offer. (Which is certainly not to say that Australia doesn’t also have exciting climbing potential.) So I was pleased when Emily agreed to the idea of us spending the winter pursuing the quintessential climbers’ dream of living in a camper van, following the sun, and doing loads of climbing at European crags.

It’s easy to look at people doing these sorts of things and think “wow, they must be having fun literally all the time”, but this overlooks the fact that such trips take quite a bit of (worthwhile) work to put together, and even once you’re on the road there are still highs and lows. (I’m still getting used to the stress of manoeuvring a massive van up tiny Italian mountain roads…) The fact that we rarely share photos of the more dull or difficult moments of our lives probably helps to perpetuate the image that everybody else is having more fun.

For us the run-up to coming away felt pretty stressful and busy, and didn’t involve much climbing either (in part due to a terrible September in North Wales). There were lots of things to do: buy a van, get it ready, sort through our belongings, get rid of a load of them, pack the rest of it into boxes, clean the flat, and so on. Then, once we’d finally left North Wales, several days of driving lay between us and our first destination, Arco in Northern Italy.

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Putting a solar panel on the roof of the van

Before all this though, we thought that if we were going to move to the other side of the world, we’d be really sad to say goodbye to the lovely friends we have in the UK. It felt important to mark the occasion, so we decided to put together a big party in North Wales.

Just a few miles from Llanberis is a beautiful, co-operatively run, organic farm called Tyddyn Teg. We’d been getting weekly veg from them and so asked if it might be possible to hire out their barn. They agreed so we set the date for the first weekend of September and started to make plans.

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Tyddyn Teg farm

We were really touched to receive help in all sorts of ways from various friends which made the end result all the more special. Lots of people pitched in to make food (veg supplied by the farm!), Nathan set up some awesome speakers, lights, lasers and smoke machines, Amy made hanging decorations, James and Chris (aka Gaenz and Fixd) kept the dance floor moving til the early hours, and lots of people turned up with great costumes. We were quite stressed with the organisation for a couple of days preceding but it came off really well and felt very rewarding to put on a party that everyone seemed to enjoy!

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Amazing lighting setup from Nathan

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Veg shop jamming trio

Also, I had been pondering learning to DJ for some time prior, and so decided that having a deadline would give me some impetus to actually do it. I played for the first hour or so and it seemed to go down pretty well!

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My first live DJ set!

So that’s it! I’m sad to leave North Wales behind, but I also feel like it has been an immense privilege to spend two years of my life there. It’s the first place I’ve ever left which I feel like I’ll miss.

Now we’re on the trip, living in the back of a van in Northern Italy. We’ve enjoyed some great climbing in beautiful scenery, but have also dealt with some electrical issues in the van, a part of the sliding door breaking, some exceedingly polished routes (which we are striving to avoid) and various day-to-day things that don’t just go away because you’re on a trip.

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Waking up in Austria, en route to Northern Italy

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Rest day sunshine in Sarche, Northern Italy

At some point we’re planning to get a ferry to Corsica and/or Sardinia, and then another ferry onwards to Catalonia. In March we’ll fly to Melbourne. After that, who knows?

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