The early summer sun beat down on us, basking in the beer garden of a pub in Bethesda. It was 1pm and just a couple of hours earlier we had been freezing cold up at the Sheep Pen boulders. Perched on their hidden plateau high above the Ogwen valley, they caught all the wind available. We’d been hoovering up mid-grade classics all morning, having also been to the Caseg boulder to do the sublime Caseg Groove, quite a contrast from the sharp crimps of Sheep Pen. Skin was already thin and we were hungry and parched.
In the afternoon, after the refuel, we would muster enough energy to check out yet another crag. This time the boulders beneath Milestone buttress, more savage crimps, before we would slink back to doss on the floor of the staff quarters at the youth hostel (for free—one of the perks of being shown around the crags by Dave who worked there). Our muscles were sore and our skin was in absolute tatters, but our minds had been opened up to what North Wales bouldering was really about.
I’d been bouldering in Wales before, where you might do a few roadside problems at the end of a day of trad climbing. But I had never been there specifically to boulder. So this was all new, being taken around crags I’d never seen or heard of, being shown quality problem after quality problem. No ropes to slow us down, no standing around belaying, we just consumed and consumed, like being at an all-you-can-eat bouldering buffet.
Local knowledge was key. Dave had been working in Wales so knew the local scene and where to find the good stuff, the stuff that tourists like ourselves didn’t know about yet. It was 2002 and North Wales was still a couple of years away from its first bouldering guide. Knowledge was a valuable commodity and unlike today, not available at the touch of a button. All day Dave referred back again and again to a bundle of photocopied sheets of paper, a set of hand-drawn topos. These topos, I would later discover, came from North Wales' bouldering fanzine Northern Soul. It was local knowledge in it’s purest form produced by someone who’s name is now synonymous with local grassroots bouldering development in the UK, Si Panton.
Fast forward 15 years and I have in my hand the most recent work of local knowledge from that same author. Not a handful of scrunched up sheets of paper, but a lavishly and lovingly produced guide of 667 pages. Guides have come a long way since the Northern Soul days and even since the iconic 2004 North Wales guide—and so has the bouldering. It could be said that North Wales has truly come of age and finally it now has an up-to-date guide to do justice to the frankly bewildering array of venues. For every crag you knew about there are ten more you’ve never heard of, all lovingly documented and photographed, a definitive guide, and served up for you with slavish attention to detail. This is basically the entire development of North Wales grassroots bouldering, years and years of accumulated local knowledge packaged into one solid brick for you to digest, and it is absolutely monumental in both size and scope. There’s no escaping that the book is pricey, but frankly given the sheer volume packed into this thing, and the quality of the information I think it is an absolute bargain.
Producing a guide like this can only be a true labour of love. Climbing would not be the same without the drive and passion of people like Si Panton, who over the years have gone the extra mile to share their knowledge, to develop and, crucially, document that development. Essentially 20 years in the making, I suspect anyone without Si’s level of commitment and love for the game would have walked away long before now. It would be a mammoth task if it was your full time job, but to do it while holding down real life at the same time—business, family, climbing—well, I take my hat off to him. And let’s not forget that in North Wales as much as anywhere you’re shooting a moving target—the pace of development here is relentless, so not only have you got to throw 600-odd pages of info together into a guide, you’ve got to keep adding problems, adding crags, nothing stands still here for long. I don’t know how many problems are in the guide, but it is a staggering amount.
Si’s not been toiling alone on this though, and the graphic design has been handled by Al WIlliams, who himself has a great guidebook pedigree even going back as far as the Peak bouldering guides in the 1990s, amongst other things. The guide takes on the usual Ground Up house style but I was happy to see that it retains a few little design tips-of-the-hat to the classic 2004 guide. Whereas the 2004 guide was bilingual (English and Welsh) and predominantly black and white with an almost gothic look (which incidentally I loved), the current guide is full color throughout and has tons of action photos as you would expect. This guide also officially marks the end of North Wales’ own hybrid system of Font-grades-disguided-as-V-grades (remember the V8+ grade?). Instead sanity has prevailed and the Fontainebleau systems is in place as standard.
Also worth noting is that whereas the previous guide had a lengthy history section, this time it’s cut down to a paragraph. This is an unfortunate omission but one I suspect that had to be made since the book is already huge. Weighing in at 1.1kg, it is probably the heaviest bouldering guide on the market today. For perspective, that's the same as two pairs of rockshoes, or your favourite litre bottle of water or winter flask of coffee. Many will argue that it is too big. Personally I think a bit of size could have been shaved off perhaps by reducing the text size and shortening the problem descriptions, as the font size is large and the descriptions lengthy compared to other guides. But I suppose in part that is collateral damage for having quality detailed information from a knowledgeable and passionate author.
One school of thought says the guide could have been split into coastal crags and mountain crags in two editions. In many ways two volumes sold together in a slip case might have been ideal. However, there are a range of economic considerations at play when you consider splitting a guide. I can only speculate how the economics and the retail price would have been impacted upon by splitting it. I imagine it will have been considered. But having said that I can only think that this is the last time we will see a true all-area guide to North Wales, simply because any future definitive guide in this form would be ridiculous in size. With this new guide I suspect that prudent weight-conscious users will be doing a fair bit of scanning or taking photos of pages with their phones and leaving the book in the car or at home.
I suppose it's ironic that 15 years later I will probably find myself heading once again out to the crags of North Wales clutching a folded bundle of photocopied topos. It’s funny how things work out sometimes.