Snakes, Ladders and Tunnels
One does not simply walk into Mordor. However, it turns out that you can get there via a series of rusty ladders, low tunnels and loose chains. This way is known as Snakes, Ladders and Tunnels.
Dinorwig quarry, where the route resides, excavates itself into the hills opposite Llanberis in North Wales. The last commercially chopped block of slate was carried away from there in 1969. Since then the quarry has been left to nature and to climbers. Covering more than 700 acres, the quarry offers a lifetime’s worth of routes, and the impossibly smooth rock offers a unique climbing experience that people from around the globe visit to try.
The slate quarries are more than just their rock though. Rusting equipment abandoned by miners litters the quarry floors and walls, often becoming a vital handhold or gear placement in some of the more idiosyncratic climbs. No one can consider themselves a slate veteran however, until they have completed a traverse of Snakes, Ladders and Tunnels.
Entering California is the perfect beginning to the adventure. A dark entrance tunnel emerges mid height into a circular chasm. A path cut into the wall, leads out right, traverses half the circumference and disappears again into another tunnel on the opposite wall. A small waterfall pours from this tunnel, falling to the chasm floor some twenty meters below. It’s the stuff of epic novels and movie sets.
The beginning of the journey is also the hardest. Partakers are faced with climbing a twenty five meter chain that dangles from another tunnel high up in the quarry face. The effort to climb it evokes memories of Physical Education lessons, of climbing ropes and clamping them tightly between your thighs. Clipping the chain as you would a bolted sport climb seems to make it a safe prospect.
Until you see that the several hundred kilos of iron links are being held in place by a disfigured pair of iron stakes and some rapidly fraying ropes. Reassure yourself that this is all part of the excitement. If that fails, be glad you didn’t see it before you started climbing.
A couple more obstacles bring you to a blocked entrance of a hidden tunnel. There is just enough space to squeeze between the gaps of the obstructing boulders and to lower yourself into the dark.
Take a moment and let your eyes adjust; don’t panic, that light at the other end isn’t your untimely demise. A torch is a sensible bit of kit to bring with you, but navigating the shaft in almost total darkness is more in keeping with the character of the route. There are no deadly abysses lurking in the dark (that I know of).
Once you re-emerge into the light you begin spiralling up and around the chossy edges of Australia, one of the more popular climbing areas in the quarry. Before you can reach its top you will have to contend with the first of many ladders. If your heart isn’t still beating from the hike up, it will be as you make exposed transitions between ladders with nothing but air below your feet. Keep your fingers crossed that you won’t be the straw that finally breaks this rusty rung’s back.
The plateau at the top is the highest point of the journey. Spectacular views over Llanberis and Snowdon are rewarded to those who choose to do the route on a sunny day. Many parties find themselves undertaking the route in the rain during climbing down-days. On this high plateau there are more than just views to discover. Several of the buildings here have been maintained and a small collection of un-pilfered items belonging to past minors, such as a disintegrating collection of leather boots lined up on a bench, are found within.
From here the path takes you into the Lost World. This gigantic amphitheatre hides behind the main climbing areas and consequently surprises many who thought they knew the quarries well but are seeing this are for the first time. The huge wall opposite is peppered with hanging tunnels. Descending to its base will require two abseils and a further two ladders. The floor of this area was once a primeval-like forest but it has been sadly bulldozed by a gigantic rock fall quite recently. Some remnant of the glade remains at the very lowest point of the area, hiding the entrance of yet another tunnel.
Finally you emerge from the passage into Mordor, an echoing arena with ladders heading both up and down. This isn’t quite the end of the journey yet however. The longest ladder so far leans in the corner, several of its rungs missing and replaced by old static rope.
At its top is one final reminder that you are passing through a disintegrating landscape. The two twisted ends of the bridge of death reach across a gully of scree, but the bridge has collapsed. Perhaps it’s a good thing that the temptation to cross its rusty rails has been taken away; I hope that a similar temptation didn’t lead to its collapse. But one day the rungs will eventually break, the tunnels will cave in and the chain will fall. This rollercoaster is going to close. Just make sure you take the ride before it does.