To British climbers one name is synonymous with North Wales like no other: Simon Panton. An adopted local, he has worked tirelessly for over two decades to produce and publish a number of guidebooks across the many climbing disciplines available in this small mountainous corner of the British Isles. But bouldering remains the genre upon which he has had greatest impact. Without operating at the highest level himself he has shaped the bouldering fortunes of the area in a way that no mere elite athlete ever could. Acting as a documenter, curator, publicist and often a catalyst for development, Simon has overseen the development of North Wales from a relative bouldering backwater to an internationally significant destination of tremendous variety. He remains a pivotal figure in the scene—an infamous scene of core activists, local names, legends and pub folklore.
All photos by Simon Panton unless stated.
You've been relentlessly documenting the bouldering scene in North Wales for the past twenty years. How did your relationship with North Wales and guidebook writing begin?
Well, let’s start at the beginning: I began climbing in 1983, aged 15, messing about on Peak grit crags, dossing in a cave at Stanage for a week in the summer holidays, falling off VSs and learning how to jam, all the usual stuff. From 1984 to '86 I lived in Blackpool and followed the typical trad apprenticeship into the Lancashire quarries and up in the Lakes, under the guidance of the great Martin Dale. I also went on my first few proper climbing trips to North Wales with the Fylde Mountaineering Club.
When I was 18 I went to college in Huddersfield and stayed on afterwards. I was going to a lot of punk or indie gigs at the time—often two or three a week in Leeds or Manchester—and I joined forces with Holmfirth lad, Steve Lee, to produce a punk/hardcore fanzine called Vision On. It was an old school cut and paste job: Typewriter, glue, paper and we used to sell it at gigs.
I got drawn into the Yorkshire sport climbing scene, hanging out at Malham and Kilnsey, although around 1993/4 I had grown a bit bored of clipping bolts. I still loved trad, but increasingly spent more and more time bouldering at Caley and Almscliff. I ended up helping out on the first Yorkshire Gritstone Bouldering guide with Steve Rhodes. I'd also met Al Williams (current Ground Up designer and author of the first Peak bouldering guides), while working at Bendcrete. Looking back it was obvious that I was destined to end up make climbing guidebooks, although at the time I was just doing whatever inspired me.
As for the North Wales connection I’d been a regular visitor since the late 1980s and used to come over and stay with friends who lived in the area. It’s an intriguing place if you’re a climber; both for the climbing and the peripheral scene. My wife has family here and she spent a lot of time visiting Bangor and Llanfairfechan as a child. Clare’s not a climber but when I suggested we move to Llanberis, much to my surprise, she said yes straight away. When we arrived in 1996 I was keen for trad routes and raced through the summer and autumn gorging on classics up in the mountains and out at Gogarth. There was always someone to climb with and everybody seemed really keen, so I got lots done. Come the winter I assumed that this same level of enthusiasm would shift to some bouldering action. This wasn't the case at all. Nobody seemed interested in bouldering, at least not outdoors. At first I was mystified; it was winter, why weren't people bouldering? I started hanging out on the Ormes, often on my own, although Tim Emmett and Joe Le Sage used to come along sometimes, and I bumped into people like Patch Hammond, who thankfully shared my keenness. Neil Gresham had done some good traverses at Bodafon and Angel Bay but crucially he only viewed it as training for routes. I, on the other hand, had long since come to the conclusion that bouldering was a worthwhile end in itself.
We started developing Angel Bay and it struck me that there was a huge untapped potential for bouldering in North Wales. I’d already been very active doing new problems in Yorkshire so my default mode was to always be looking for the unclimbed stuff. Paul Higginson turned up and a tight knit group was formed with him, Gav Foster and Chris Davies, manically developing places like the Wavelength hillside (with Paul Pritchard) and Porth Ysgo. We did a lot of climbing but we also did a lot of partying. It was a pretty crazy time. I realized that we needed to start documenting all this new stuff or it would just be forgotten, so I started producing a series of fanzines under the title Northern Soul. They had topos and little pieces of writing; usually somebody having a good rant about something. The fanzines sold well and soon more people got involved in the bouldering scene: Mark Katz, Neil Dyer, Kristian Clemmow, Dave Noden, Jon Ratcliffe, the Cattell brothers and Chris Doyle.
At the time I was managing the Outside shop in Llanberis—which subsequently became V12 Outdoor—and one night while I was locking up I heard a Geordie voice call out behind me: “Are you Simon Panton?” I turned to find a group of vaguely intimidating blokes standing round me. Then, quickly, before I could react, “Have you got one of those Porth Ysgo topos?”, said the familiar-looking blond haired one. My wariness switched to shock when I realised that it was Bob Smith (Northumberland legend!) and his friends down on a trip from the North East. As far as I was concerned he was fucking royalty! I kept my cool, sort of, and invited them in, all the time blinking with disbelief.
Over the next five years I produced a couple more fanzine style guides and then eventually, managed to get the first edition of the North Wales Bouldering guide published in book form. I also launched the northwalesbouldering.com news site and I am so glad I did. Not least because as it has been an extremely useful tool in producing the second edition of the guide—12 years of detailed first ascent information neatly filed in chronological order.
How have you seen the North Wales scene change over the years?
In some respects it is similar to what it was in the late 1990s. There is still a core group of around 10 people doing the majority of the first ascents, and to everyone's surprise the quality has not dropped off. In fact I reckon much of the new wave is actually better than that unearthed in the late 1990s/early 2000s boom, documented in the Northern Soul fanzines and 2004 guide.
It seems hard to imagine that we will just keep on discovering amazing new venues, but then again maybe we will? I suppose even if we don't find another Pant Ifan there are loads of projects on the existing crags, especially if you can climb the harder grades.
Whatever happens, the last five years have been incredible. There has been such a strong surge of activity. Pete Robins has produced a huge number of new lines, right across the grade spectrum. And then there is Martin Crook, no-one knows the North Wales landscape as well as he does. He's always got something new on the go, whether it's an entirely new venue or a long forgotten crag. His ability to find this stuff is supernatural. Owen Hayward is a machine too. Relentlessly pushing new ground—he has made a huge contribution.
The Cattell brothers from Denbigh are phenomenal climbers. Incredibly strong but more importantly, very creative. They have pushed so much new ground it is hard to imagine the North Wales scene without them. In 2007 I watched Mule (Sam) almost do the central roof project at Pantymwyn—an incredibly athletic Font 8b (V13) line. 10 years later, no-one has got near it. These days he is a bit out of the game, intermittently injured—although he recently informed me that he has a few new crags lined up for development—but Danny is still on it, developing secret new limestone crags near his house in Denbighshire and questing into the hills every month or so to pick of another ripe project.
Chris Doyle has played a big role; when he's not seiging desperate sport routes in Llanddulas Cave he produces a regular supply of new limestone problems and epic link lines. Nodder (Dave Noden) is not as active as he used to be as he has a young family to look after these days, but he has an amazing run of quality lines to his name. Everyone was made up when he finally completed his big line on the Cloggy boulder. After that it felt right to push for the finishing line with the guide.
Even though I have been super busy, working away on the ropes to pay the bills, or doing guide stuff when I'm home, I have still managed to keep my hand in. Martin has been very generous too, gifting me many killer lines. I guess there was a sense that we wanted to get as much as possible into the guide so if you didn't have time to do a line it was passed on, typically from Martin to myself and Andy Godber, and then on to Pete. We nicknamed Pete "the Hoover" as he would arrive at the crag and sweep up all the remaining lines in a disturbingly efficient style. He's really bold too, so the number of big highballs has increased significantly.
Paul Higginson is an interesting one. Me and him have had our ups and downs over the years, although these days we're good. I'm not sure he gets the credit he deserves. Think about it, Manchester Dogs at Angel Bay, first 8a (V11) in North Wales, way back in 1997. Then he managed to burn off Jerry Moffatt in a race to do Pool Of Bethesda, the first confirmed 8a+ (V12) in North Wales in 2001. Jerry had been driving over from Sheffield specifically to try this great project line above his famous roof problem (which he had previously snaffled, along with The Barrel Traverse, from Johnny Dawes back in 1989). It was an outstanding effort from Paul. I'm kind of hoping the new guide will bring him, or maybe even Jerry, out of retirement.
There was a definite punk feel to the early North Wales bouldering scene, or at least the coverage of it. Was bouldering in any way a rebellion back then? And with bouldering today being mainstream, where do you think the rebellious aspects of climbing exist today?
The punk ethos was very important to me, still is. More from a do-it-yourself point of view though than some clichéd snotty attitude and a bad mohawk. I was influenced by the Dischord Records label, Ian MacKaye, Minor Threat, Fugazi—all that American hardcore stuff.
I knew we were on to something special too. The oldtimers hated us, which just confirmed to me that we were doing something right. I remember Leigh McGinley ranting about how we had dared to give names to poxy boulder problems, and people openly laughing at you when you turned up at the crag with bouldering pads.
Leigh changed his mind in the end. He came to me one day and said, "Hey Simon, I owe you an apology. You were right. I've become obsessed with that King Of Drunks problem—it's amazing!". We got on great after that, even did a really cool winter first ascent on Clogwyn Du together (El Mancho).
As for the rebellious spirit of climbing I think it is still there, but maybe a bit off radar. I certainly feel it when I head out with Martin and legends like Mel Griffiths turn up. The piss taking is of such high quality! Martin speaks of dark ops, and you do feel like you're operating in the underground scene. Obviously with lots of laughter.
Developing new crags is a dirty, difficult business. It's not for everyone. I love the process though, from initial exploration and discovery, right through to the inevitable head crushing redpoints that you get drawn into.
In terms of the history of the area, of industry, colonialism and culture, North Wales is very different to other upland areas of the UK—say, Cumbria or the Pennines. In what way do you think the area itself shaped the scene there?
There is a distinct otherness to North Wales; not just the language, which people tend to focus on, but the very specific culture which exists there. In some respects it is not that different to the northern English way of life—lots of Liverpool supporters round my way—but then there is always a sense of a different sort of history, a Celtic twist if you like. The disused slate quarries stand as a reminder that villages like Llanberis once had a meaning beyond tourism. Whilst I am very respectful of the hard lives that the quarrymen endured, I also think that we climbers have made places like Dinorwig Quarry come alive again. Ian Lloyd-Jones, one of the most active new routers in the quarries, had grand parents and great grand parents who worked in the quarries—the connection is made down through the generations.
The Joe Brown generation took root in the area in the late 1960s, buying up cheap properties sold off by the Vaynol Estate. That meant people like Al Harris and his infamous house up on Bigil. This was the start of the Llanberis climbing scene, and now 50 years later you have second and third generation incomers who have blended into the fabric of the place. When I first moved here in the mid 1990s it felt like there was very much a divide between the locals and the climbers. I think that has changed a lot over the years. The climbing walls have drawn more local people in and generally I think there is less of a hard edge to the nationalism. The anti-English sentiment, which occasionally reared its head back then, seems less prominent nowadays. In fact I can't remember the last time I witnessed an example of it.
There have also been some great initiatives like Hongian, an attempt to inspire local youths in the Bethesda and Blaenau areas to get involved in bouldering. Rhys Roberts from the ace Cell B cafe/bar/bunkhouse in Blaenau was the driving force behind that. I produced a run of free online bouldering guides for both areas and we took the youths out and showed them what bouldering was all about. A year later I was pleased to bump into some of them at Sheep Pen boulders, totally mad for it.
Documenting development and guide writing is a hell of a lot of hard work, often unseen or overlooked. Where does your motivation come from? What has kept you plugging away at this for so many years?
On a basic level I am definitely the trainspotter type. I've always been obsessive; whatever I get into I like to go in deep. I've been fascinated by guidebooks since I first started climbing aged 15. They are such a fundamental part of climbing culture and they have profoundly influenced me over the years. I suppose I am mostly drawn towards information vacuums. If you look at the non-selective guides I've done (Gogarth North, North Wales Winter Climbing, Llanberis Slate, Gogarth South and the bouldering guides) they are all filling a gap and documenting big surges of development. That type of creativity, out on the crags, excites me. Gogarth has always been my favourite trad crag, it was a privilege to celebrate those amazing sea cliffs. With the winter guide I was frustrated by the lack of respect shown to modern mixed climbing. It felt an important story had been buried. During the 2008 to 2013 period we had some really strong winter conditions and suddenly the place was buzzing. Every week there was an exciting first ascent and we were out either chasing new lines or doing second ascents. In the middle of it all I managed to complete the guide—it was such a rush seeing the scene transforming before my eyes and being right at the heart of it. In the last three or four years the winter conditions have been poor, which suited me fine as it meant I could focus on the new bouldering guide instead.
With the bouldering I just hate the idea of North Wales being sold short. I know the quality of these crags and I feel compelled to spread the word. I also want to make sure that the historical record is maintained. If we don't write this stuff down it will be lost and at some time in the future the climbing community will regret being so slack. It is a lot of work though. In the last year I had to stop updating northwalesbouldering.com as I just had no free time at all. Owen Hayward did step in and help out but it really needs more editors. There are plans to start the site up again, but this time with a crew of editors to spread the load. I knew the new guide would stimulate a wave of new lines, after all many projects are highlighted on those pages. It has already started: several new 7B+s (V8) and a very impressive 8a (V11) from Tom Newman. The legend Paul Houghoughi has also climbed a load of new 7s (V6-9) in Nant Ffrancon.
Other than the pace of development, what is the biggest challenge you face personally as a guide writer, and how do you overcome it?
Earning a living and somehow finding time to do the guides—the eternal quandary! There was a time, around the release of North Wales Winter Climbing and Llanberis Slate when both myself and Al Williams, our designer, were close to working full time on the guides but the sales just faded. You realise that adventurous trad/winter climbing is a specialist interest and that you are never going to sell that many books. The bouldering guide looks likely to buck the trend but I know it will never be paying my bills.
Three years ago I got sick of being skint. I was just about scraping by doing bits of copy writing and photo editing on the side but it was a subsistence lifestyle really. I decided to adopt my long held emergency plan, namely go into rope access. Lots of my mates have been in the business for years so I had a bit of a helping hand getting started—thanks, Pete Harrison, you star!. I now work for Highersafe, mostly doing pipe fitting or cladding on construction sites all over the country. My boss is pretty understanding, and has on occasion allowed me to take breaks to do my guidebook work. During the last year or two I was working away during the week then coming home and spending all weekend working on the guide. It was exhausting but I knew I had no choice but to keep on grinding towards the finishing line.
Fair play to my wife Clare, she has been very understanding. Since the book went to the printers I have been spending a lot of time hanging out with her and the kids. There's a big debt to repay and it feels so good just going out and doing classic trad routes with my son or going walking in the hills with Clare and Cadi, or just sitting in my garden, supping a quality ale and gazing up at Cloggy as it turns red in the evening light. Heavenly!
It could be said that access to information about climbing is now better than ever. Databases and topos online are commonplace, almost a democratisation of information. How does this impact upon you as a guide writer and publisher? What is a North Wales guide going to look like in 15 years' time?
"Information wants to be free", so say the internet evangelists. Trouble is, someone has to do the leg work first. I know that what I have just produced is prone to being ripped off, copied and re-published. On the face of it that is a depressing prospect, given the monumental effort it took to create the North Wales Bouldering guide. However, I know that most keen climbers will see the value of having all that information and inspiration in a solid, printed book. Much like radio did not die out when television came along, I think books will survive, albeit with less dominance than before. I think in fewer than 10 years I will be making the third edition of the NWB guide, perhaps as two volumes, but definitely as a printed book—unless of course there is a dramatic improvement in phone technology. As it stands, I can't abide phone app guides. It's just a crap version of the real thing. The only scenario I can see where it is relevant is for very occasional visitors who don't want to invest in the full book. A segment of the guide could be sold at a sub-£10 price. We might do this next year, but I can't say I have any enthusiasm for it.
Obviously the rapid sharing of information is good for everybody, although I do have some misgivings about film footage. I think people rely on it too much and forget that the reason we call bouldering lines "problems" is that they are hard to work out. Yes, you will face frustrating sessions, much like the first ascensionist did, but when you crack the sequence yourself it'll be pure joy.
I have argued that all hard first ascents should be backed up by clear unedited footage—in fact this has been a policy on the northwalesbouldering.com news site for a few years now—but I can see how a legitimate climber might be reluctant to reveal their hard-won sequence. Maybe they should only release the footage to the site editor, and then subsequently to those who make a successful repeat. (I'm half serious with this suggestion....)
What's been the biggest surprise for you, in both guidebook work and climbing in general?
The decreasing popularity of adventurous climbing is a surprise, but even the the so-called new wave of winter climbing was only really of interest to a small group of people. The increasing popularity of indoor walls—given how good they are nowadays this is not surprising at all. The decline in book sales—inevitable to a degree, given the rise of online freebies, competition, the drift away from adventurous climbing etc.
This probably sounds a bit cheesy but the one fantastic surprise is the way in which North Wales is the gift that keeps on giving. But even that is no real surprise; what other outcome should we expect with the combination of an endlessly fascinating, complex landscape, packed with intriguing bits of rock and an extremely creative/enthusiastic bunch of activists looking for new games to play. There will always be something interesting going on, be it crazy new sport routes down Pigeon's Cave, mind-boggling trad routes on the Range at Gogarth, radical dry tooling routes in a Crafnant slate quarry, secret bouldering crags, ever bolder and harder highballs. It never ends.