Thursday, 10 April 2008

Snowdonia in April...

The second of our weekends away started in typically complicated fashion - a meeting in London until 5pm, a crowded train home to Nottingham, drive home for tea and to pack the car, a phone call from Karl to say his plane is delayed, another call to say he is boarding (What! I'm 2 hours drive from the airport!), a rather hasty dash across the A50 and M6 to Liverpool airport (mmm, Runcorn, what a place), avoiding the racing fans arriving for the Grand National the following day, another hasty dash along the A55 to Llanberis to get to the

Pen-y-Pass youth hostel for 12:45am to find the door code we were given didn't seem to work. Staring down the barrel of a night in the car, I gave it a good tug and open sesame - Karl was obviously being a bit weak...

A reasonable night in the dorm saw us tucking into a big fry up and working out how to get round to Ogwen, leaving the car behind. As if by magic, at 8:45 the S6 bus hoved into view and through a combination of body language interpretation, wise nodding and smiling, we got two tickets to Capel Curig. I think the driver had forgotten to put his teeth in. From Capel we stuck out a thumb and the first car round the corner was a lad up from Birmingham who fancied taking his dog for a walk up in the Glyders - we know this because he stopped and in we jumped - good man! He dropped us in the large lay-by at the foot of the Milestone Buttress shortly after 9am and we were ready to start on hill number one, my favourite British mountain, Tryfan. I first did it when I was about 15 with my Dad and mate John and have loved it ever since.

The initial pull up from the road is pretty steep and got our lungs working - it was fresh, dry but a bit cloudy, and as we climbed I wondered whether we would be lucky and have a clear view - a strong northerly wind was keeping the clouds moving and I kept my fingers crossed. The higher you go up Tryfan, the less grass / heather there is and the more rock and soon we were picking a line up through the rock buttresses that loomed above us. One of the great things about Tryfan is that I never seem to go the same way twice - you can avoid a lot of the difficulties or set yourself a challenge by taking a more interesting line. The hard bits never last that long but give you a real sense of exploration. Karl's first taste of tricky scrambling looked like ending in a tie but I think he sneaked a win on points - judicious use of the knee securing him the first of a series of victories!

As we moved up, the rocks started to be covered in a thin layer of ice and some small rime ice growths. The wind was fairly strong but the summit was clear of cloud more often that not and I was becoming more optimistic of having a good view from the top. I was starting doubt however that we would be able to complete the traditional jump between the 2 stones on the summit, Adam and Eve.

I had done it on my first trip and I was keenfor Karl to become a 'Man of Tryfan', but the closer we got, the more it was clear that it wouldn't be prudent to try it. Icy rocks and a strong wind are not a good combination when jumping across rocks 6 feet in the air on the top of a very exposed mountain...

Descending to the south west, pausing only to say hello to Spencer, a friend of mine I used to work with and was out enjoying the conditions (small world!), we reached the col and moved up the classic scramble of Bristly Ridge. This dark looking gully brings the climber out high on the NE shoulder of Glyder Fach (hill number 2) and gives you a great sense of exposure. The climbing is not sustained but is in a great position - unfortunately, the cloud had descended again, meaning we couldn't see much. It all added to the sense of adventure and when we suddenly found ourselves on the summit plateau, I felt a sense of shame it couldn't have gone on for longer.

We passed the summit (where has the OSBM gone?), the cantilever stone and Castell y Gwynt (Castle of the winds) and dropped down to the col between Glyder Fach and Glyder Fawr. The intention was to turn south and drop all the way down to Pen-y-Pass so we could then go on to the Snowdon Horseshoe. It is not a descent I can recommend, being very wet underfoot, steep and covered in heather-bound boulders - ideal for disappearing into an unseen hole and twisting as ankle. It is also quite a long way down to Llyn Cwmffynnon and entailed crossing a river - regular readers will know I do not have a distinguished track record in this area, but this time at least I stayed dry. We had lunch by the lake in a delightful spot that would be great on a hot summer's day with the kids, before dropping the rest of the way to the youth hostel.

We refuelled on cake and water and set off up the Pyg track at about ten past two. The wind seemed to be getting stronger and was very gusty and as we got to the point where the path splits, between Crib Goch and the Pyg track, we started up to Crib Goch but after a few hundred metres I was not happy with the conditions. I knew the rocks on this very steep and exposed mountain would be icy and the Northerly winds would be trying to blowing us off the knife-edge ridge, as most of the time you are on the South side of the ridge. Given this, we decided to not risk it and traversed across back to the Pyg track. A disappointment, as Crib Goch is one of the finest ridge scrambles anywhere, but it will be there another day - and so will we.

A rather dull trudge up the Pyg track was enlivened by the fabulous views of the summit - covered in snow and ice, no cloud and occasionally bright sunshine. In fact, when the sun came out on the upper reaches of the path, where we sheltered from the wind, it was very warm. We passed all the day trippers coming back down, many of them in jeans and trainers which never ceases to amaze me, until we reached the col at Bwlch Glas. From here we were a short but windy trip up to the summit (number 3), currently undergoing a massive redevelopment for the tourists, and timed our appearance on the summit so that we had it to ourselves. One of the finest places in Britain, it is said on a clear day you can see 4 kingdoms - the kingdoms of Wales, of England, of the Isle of Man and of Heaven. We could certainly see the coast of Pembrokeshire, a good hundred miles or so south. I grimmaced in a T-shirt (it was a very cold wind!) and we set off down, south-east toward Lliwedd at a little before 5pm.

We dropped height quickly and got a good view of the crags on the north side of this impressive hill, where legend has it King Arthur's knights wait for his return in a cave somewhere. My intention the next day was to do one of the easy long rock climbs so wanted Karl to see where we would be climbing the next day. As we toiled up to the summit, the odd pangs of cramp setting in, the pace slowed and we both started to get tired. It feels like you are not getting anywhere on Lliwedd, but the twin summits suddenly appear (number 4) and we had a great view of the Crib Goch ridge, the stragglers coming down the miner's and Pyg track before setting off down to the valley floor. The miner's track provided some relief for our knees and thighs but not the balls of my feet which were on fire! We arrived back at the hostel for around 6:45pm - around 18km covered, 1600m climbed and nearly 9 hours on the hill. A good parallel for the sort of thing we will need to do in the Alps. Only at altitude.

Once back in the hostel, somewhat stiff in the legs and nursing sore feet, we showered, changed and set off in search of dinner. The famous Pen y Gyrd hotel doesn’t do bar meals in the evening, presumably to keep the riff raff like us out – and in case that didn’t work, the officious manner of the lady behind the bar certainly did - we dwelled long enough only to read some of the famous climbers and explorers who had signed the ceiling before heading off to Cobden’s in Capel Curig. Unfortunately the back bar was closed, so we nabbed a table in the main bar and ordered a couple of massive burgers. It wasn’t a formal competition, but Karl left more chips than me because he is a wuss and overdid it on the garlic mushrooms.

We limped / rolled back to the car, absolutely stuffed and drove back to Pen y Pass in the heaviest hail storm I have ever seen – rather disconcerting when driving a Skoda Fabia. We had a beer or two in the bar, made it to 10pm and made our excuses, going to bed worrying how the legs would feel the next day…

The answer came at 7am the next day when one of the other occupants of the dorm awoke, looked out the window and said ‘Snow’. Oh. Wasn’t expecting that. Getting gingerly out of bed to find the lower half of my body had survived the night, I checked on conditions and found there was a think layer of hail / snow that made conditions underfoot very icy. These conditions, the serious nature of Lliwedd and the relative inexperience of Karl meant that this was probably not the best place to go. I decided instead we should go round to the Idwal slabs and do something less committing.

We packed up and arrived in the Ogwen car park in beautiful sunshine, conditions that made the gentle walk in to Cwm Idwal feel very relaxing. As we approached the crag, I was disappointed to see someone had beaten us to it and was approaching the first belay on the classic easy line, Ordinary Route. I thought briefly about trying something harder, but conditions took a turn for the worse – a snow storm swept up the valley from the north and before long we were in a blizzard. This was going to be fun!

Ordinary Route is not technically difficult and as the party ahead of us moved up, we started climbing. The rock was very wet and in places held a reasonable amount of snow, making the whole thing feel quite adventurous. A tricky step at the beginning of pitch two led to an open groove, where I caught up with the couple ahead of us. The leader was taking his time and I waited, chatting to the second (a lady from Kenilworth, but she didn’t know my friends who live there) who was on her third trip on outdoor rock. She was doing alright, but wasn’t really prepared for the conditions – small rock boots and no socks!

Eventually they moved up and I brought Karl up a few more pitches, all the time being chased by a party of three who were moving very quickly. The top of the route peters out somewhat, leaving us with an exposed and exciting scramble while we looked for the descent. We found the couple ahead of us still roped up and looking for the descent, while an RAF rescue helicopter that was presumably on an exercise in the valley came and had a look at us. I think he was just showing off.

We found what looked like the descent, but as it was covered in snow it looked quite serious so we set up an abseil rope. The group of three behind us had caught up and agreed to throw the rope down after us, which was great as pulling abseil ropes down always runs the risk of it jamming. Karl went first and as he reached the lip and looked nervously down, I shouted a few words of encouragement – something like ‘Come on, get down there’ I think. He eventually did, and I set off after him, to discover the lip was in fact an overhang, explaining Karl’s hesitation. It was a little entertaining I have to admit. The long scramble back down past Suicide Wall was done in reasonably heavy snow, so by the time we reached the rucksacks at the bottom of the crag, they had a good covering on them. We stowed the gear and set off back to the car.

On the walk out the storm cleared, the sun came out and we had a fabulous view of Cwm Idwal, Tryfan and the Ogwen valley, crisp and white. We were back in the car for 1:30pm, plenty of time for the traditional stop off at Pete’s Eats in Llanberis. Pete’s has got bigger since I was last there but the hot chocolate is still great, as was Karl’s pizza. My chilli was odd, as it didn’t come with anything, which was strange and a disappointment – I could have done with a massive infusion of carbohydrate. We set off back to the airport and, bar the enormous queue of traffic caused by an unnecessary (as far as we could tell) coning off of one lane, the journey back was much more relaxing than the journey out. I dropped Karl off at Liverpool airport and set off home, interrupted only by a traffic jam on the M6 and Karl phoning me to say his flight had been cancelled and the next one wasn’t until Tuesday. Bloody Easyjet. What a bunch of jokers. I arrived home safely after 7pm, tired but happy to be back where I belong – among my family.

Next time we meet will be in the Alps and Karl will have another baby – I can’t wait for either…

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