For the hundreth time tonight, my crotch has hit the snow.
This isn’t some bizarre adult activity, but the result of an unusually large amount of snow on the mountains of North Wales and several days of freeze-thaw, creating a thick layer of frozen snow on top of several feet of powder. This made for treacherous, and tiring, walking conditions for myself and my climbing partner Dave, especially me as I am built more like a Land Rover compared to Dave, who was modelled on a Lotus…
This microadventure started a few days ago with a phone conversation, lamenting the fact that despite there were perfect winter conditions neither of us had spent much time making use of them in the way we normally would – climbing, mountaineering and generally having fun in the snow. We had both been busy over the previous weeks with work and other commitments, and it looked like we would be putting away our ice axes and crampons until the end of the year when the ice and snow returned. Then an idea struck me, and I put it to Dave – why not go out overnight?
Normally I would try my utmost to be off the hills before nightfall, unless I’m planning to wildcamp or out on a night navigation trip. However, we were both experienced mountaineers, very familiar with the area, with good, clear conditions forecast and enough head-mounted lighting to illuminate Blackpool prom. We chose a short, simple route in the Glyderau, planning to ascend via a steepening ridge (Y Gribin) and to descend via a narrow route just east of Bristly Ridge. The snowline was hovering somewhere near the plateau of bog and moorland grass that stretches between the A5 and the foot of the mountains, and the forecast was for clear skies, light winds and sub-zero temperatures. We informed our colleagues in the local mountain rescue team and left a route plan with our respective partners – there is a fine balance between adventure and foolishness, and the last thing we wanted was to cause a FAGI (False Alarm, with Good Intent) callout if somebody reported two headtorches high on the mountains where they shouldn’t be.
Dave (a doctor at a local hospital and mountain rescue medic, always handy to take along on climbing trips!) picked me up from the side of the road and we set off towards the Ogwen valley in his slightly-battered car. We parked in the car park near Cwm Idwal, packing rucksacks and locking up the car in stark contrast to the climbers and walkers wearily packing away gear and changing into comfortable footwear after a day in B3 climbing boots or skis. We exchanged a few nods of acknowledgement, then strode off towards the start of the path into the mountains. It was just after 7pm, and the sun was just visible above the hills to the west.
As we struggled across the boggy sections we drew encouragement from the rosy alpenglow on the snow-laden peaks in front of us. Tryfan, always a striking mountain, was bathed in a light that reminded us both of trips to bigger mountains in the alps. We stopped to take photos, then turned our attention to the slopes ahead of us. The ‘usual’ route follows the line of a stream as it tumbles down from Llyn Bochlwyd but a rather attractive slope rose from the flatter ground, curving left before reaching the cwm surrounding the lake above. We slowly climbed the snow, first having to work hard as the snow gave way beneath our feet, then kicking steps and moving carefully as the powder became compacted and more solid higher up. Despite the dropping temperatures we began to sweat with the effort of placing our feet JUST in the right place, the edges of our boots sawing through snow. Stripped down to baselayers, we chased the shadow as the sunlight rose up the opposing slopes.
The small lake sitting in Cwm Bochlwyd (named Australia Lake by some, it does have an uncanny resemblance) was surrounded by deep snow, carved into unexpected shapes by the winds of the last few days. The heather-clad slopes of Y Gribin looked tempting, but an early attempt to make way showed that we would have to work hard to reach its flanks. Each step forward was an unknown, with some patches taking our weight but most giving way and collapsing, the soft snow on the springy heather between large boulders no match for our weight. We changed tactics looked for routes that followed the exposed rocks, familiar and reliable walking surfaces that we could move quickly over.
The sun had now dropped completely behind Y Garn, and the Nant Francon valley towards Bangor was a patch of shadow, spots of amber and white light showing the route of the A5 through Bethesda. Despite the encroaching darkness we could still move safely without headtorches. We followed patches of solid snow and clean rock, occasionally coming across areas where the wind had scoured the snow from the slopes and the sun had melted away any remnants, leaving clear grassy patches. As we rose the wind became stronger and colder, and our eyes were drawn towards the cornices above Cwm Cneifion. The cwm had been the scene of a fatality just over a week before, and the amount of snow in the small hanging valley was much more than I had ever seen before. The slopes were laden with windslab, and the gully climbing routes had barely been touched – most climbers probably retreating early, if they reached the climbs at all.
The plateau partway along the Y Gribin ridge seemed like the perfect place to change from baselayers and windshirts to heavier clothing, and to put away trekking poles and put on crampons and helmets. The terrain ahead would be steeper and more technical, so we chose to put on head torches as well. Looking over towards Y Garn we saw two spots of white light – climbers on either A or B gully. We waited for a few minutes, discussing which route they were on and trying to see how many head torches there actually were, but really just savouring that feeling of being in the mountains after dark has fallen. I always get that same feeling, excitement deep inside from knowing I am doing something that technically I shouldn’t be, but that I know I can do. It is the same sense of adventure I feel when bivvying out under the stars rather than in a tent, or soloing a climb instead of using a rope. For me that is a big part of why I work in the outdoors – I want to watch other people get that feeling, and to show them a new way of exploring the world around them.
We began to climb the steep, icy slope ahead. We moved up and left, trying to handrail the ridge and stay away from the steepening convex slope down into Cwm Cneifion. Dave, faster and lighter, moved ahead of me, his smaller head torch and the reflective piping on his jacket marking his location in the periphery of my torch beam. I tried to remember what this route looked like in summer conditions, before realising that most of the time it is shrouded in mist when I have climbed it. This clear night, with the stars multiplying each time I looked up, was probably the most I had seen of the ridge.
This section is marked as a grade 2 winter climb in the guidebook, but it seemed easy this night. We stuck to the rocky ridge, sometimes having to weave between rocks and along snowy ledges, rucksacks and helmets bumping into rocks unseen in the darkness. All too soon we reached the top of the ridge, marked by a shelter cairn. The wide slope between Glyder Fach and Fawr stretched before us, and the view extended towards Llanberis to our right and Porthmadog to our left. The glow of the lighting in Blaneau Ffestiniog and it’s surrounding industry showed as a bubble of amber in the darkness, beyond where I knew Cnicht and the Moelwyns lay. We moved quickly as the wind stripped away the heat we had gained whilst climbing on the ridge, memory taking us forward and left towards the path that we knew was somewhere beneath the snow. The sun had repeatedly melted the surface of the snow, refreezing each night to create a floating ice sheet. Our feet broke through the ice, stepping straight through to the grass and rocks beneath.
We turned the corner by the edge of the pile of rocks surrounding Castell y Gwynt. Finding a place between boulders we stopped to drink, eat chocolate and take a few photos, again conscious of the flash potentially triggering a false callout.
The temperature, even out of the wind, was now well below freezing. Another layer added we pushed on, climbing the slope and laughing at each other as well fell through the gaps between boulders, hidden under uniform whiteness. At one point I fell through so deeply that I became stuck, having to chip the snow away from around my boot with my ice axe. We twisted through narrow gaps, crampons scratching on bare rock and gloved hands rasping over the rock. We still walked on a bearing that existed only in our memory, confident on our direction and the destination of the summit pile of Glyder Fach clearly silhouetted against the stars. As we moved closer the distinct shape of the cantilever appeared, but with the wind still biting and conscious of time we continued past. We had chose to descend via the steep gully alongside Bristly Ridge and drop down to the col between the ridge and Tryfan. The chopped snow and steps showed that several others had passed by this route, and we followed them down. The impact on our thighs was noticeable as we quickly descended. It was like descending a ladder facing out, our ice axes providing a point of balance. Occasionally we turned to face the slope and kicked our own steps, the snow like concrete in places. The line of footprints curved away ahead of us,
finally reaching the stile marking Bwlch Tryfan. This stile normally towers above most walkers, the top 7ft or so above the ground. With the drifting snow it was more of a tripping hazard; only the top few inches were exposed.
We sat, refuelled on chocolate and hot blackcurrant and set off again, the amber glow of the car park lighting leading us home. Our crampons were a necessity for most of the descent, but my abiding memory will be of the soft snow hiding under frozen slab. As some of you will know, there are few things more demoralising and tiring than the continued unexpected disappearance of one’s feet into deep snow. After a quick trip through slightly challenging terrain, following a full day at work, I began to feel tired. The effort to step up high out of each hole began to take its toll and by the time we reached better ground I was done in. It was about 30 minutes after midnight and Dave’s car was a welcome sight.