Friday, 22 January 2010

Solo on Snowdon

My solo trips always seem to follow a pattern. Night one is stupidly ambitious and I end up getting pounded by the wind for a night. Night two is way better and usually turns out to be something special. This trip was no exception except the lows were unusually low and the highs were in the order of things that only happen once or twice in your life.
I still hadn't decided where to go for the weekend by the time I'd finished work. The weather reports for Snowdonia were marginally better, but I wasn't sure how much snow there would be. I took the laser competition and put the tarp in the car in case the weather gods miled on me. There was a distinct feeling of having missed the boat-still, I set out and made good time, arriving at the foot of Tryfan at about 8.15. I always get a little nervous when I have to get everything together, but always manage it sooner rather than later. The weather is never as bad as it sounds when you get out of the car and I could see some extensive snow fields under a clear sky. The plan was to walk up to Llyn Bochlwyd where I would be protected from the winds by the bulk of the Glyders. I know the area, there's plenty of spots and it's an easy walk up. Famous last words. My first mistake was that I started up too far to the East. It was easy to see the footprints on the footpath in the light reflected from the snow so I turned off my photon but left it clipped to my cap just in case. The footpath led me into a boulder field but the light was still good so I kept on climbing. I'd figured out I was on Bochlwyd buttress so I began to drift towards the west, hoping to hit easier ground. Of course the hill didn't want to play ball. There were some hefty drops that I had to negotiate past-some of the hefty drops turned out to be nothing of the sort because of the way my depth perception was affected. This made route finding interesting to say the least. The weather was still good, in fact it was too warm for my new Trekmates Primaloft filled gloves. The actual 'walking' was quite good fun- I prefer scrambling as a way of gaining height rather than walking but I was keen to get onto easier ground. While I hadn't felt in danger to that point, I was concerned that I would end up on the top of a big drop with no way to negotiate round it. I finally hit a grass slope, and this was where the hard work began. I kept encountering deep snow fields. The snow would hold my weight for a few steps, then I would go in up to my waist. I avoided them where possible but sometimes I was forced to cross them. It had taken a lot longer getting to this point than I had anticipated and there was still no sign of the lake. I sat down for a rest, took off my hat and gloves and had a good drink and a Snickers. The weather was still good, it was warm and I had all my gear. It had turned out to be more of an adventure than I had expected but that was all good. It was at this point I raised up my head from where it had been resting on my hat. In an instant the hat was gone, bouncing down the mountain. I slipped off my pack and chased it for a bit but soon gave up- there was no way I was ever getting that hat back. I was furious. I'd got the hat a few years back. It was a standard Lowe Alpine mountain cap but instead of loops for a chin strap it had shock cord running through a seam all the way round the bottom. I'd never found anything like it for sealing around my ears and had dreaded the day when I lost it, but to lose it in such a stupid way... and of couse my Photon was still attached to it despite the fact that I'd thought a few times that I should put it in my pocket. And when I got back to my pack, one of my gloves had also gone. Looking back, this was the moment when my moral got seriously shot. I had gear to use for the night's camping-spare gloves and a down hood and the weather was warm enough so there were no safety issues but I was very pissed off.
Shouldering the sack, I proceeded upwards. I was becoming more aware of the wind the higher up I got. The climb seemed never ending. Finally I crested a ridge and Lyn Bochlwyd was spread out before me. I was East of the lake, and it seemed a good hundred feet below me down a sheer looking drop. The wind was now really strong and seemed to be blowing from sveral directions. I decided to camp on one of the snow patches. I was getting worried about getting the tent up. The slopes underneath the snow were too steep, the snow was too soft for pegs, I was worried about the rain washing the snow away and the tent collapsing, each spot I found seemed to be sheltered then there would be another gust of wind from a different direction. I was beginning to talk myself out of even attempting. I got the tent out a couple of times and began trying to put it up. I descended to different spots. I got angry with myself. I finally got down to the level of the lake. The wind was really gusting now. I knew that there was some shelter on the West side of the Lake and some flat spots. Except the outlet stream was a savage torrent under a thick layer of ice. That was it. I gave up. The plan was now to get back to the car. The decision made, I began to get nervous about the descent. I was on easier ground than the route up, but there was still a lot of snow to negotiate and thick ice under the grass. I descended carefully and holding my ice axe for moral support as much as anything. I think if I had been in a better frame of mind then I would have felt it was a reasonably straightforward descent. As it was I kept encountering slopes that looked too steep to get down and I backtracked several times. I stopped a couple of times to get my head together and to prevent myself from rushing. I got to a point and could finally see the road a good distance below me. I walked forwards a few steps and hit the boundary wall. Once again, the dark had confused my depth perception-I was back on the road. It was a ten minute walk to the car. I could see someone parked behind me with lights on-If someone was trying to break into my car I had my ice axe with me. If they had ice axes too, it was probably the case that they weren't trying to break in as they were walkers as well. And if the worst came to the worst I could always let them take everything except my poncho!
Turned out it was a camper van. I settled in for a deeply uncomfortable night's sleep on the back seat of the car. I was extremely grateful to be there though. I could hear the wind coming howling off the hill and pounding the car, shaking it on it's suspension. I'm not sure that a night like that was in the Laser competition's design remit!
I was driving by eight. I had figured out a plan- I drove to Betws-Y-Coed, picked up a coffee, dashed round the gear shops and then head towards Snowdon. I wanted to climb up via the PYG track- a route I'd never done. I was still slightly chastised by the previous night's events and felt like I wanted something reasonably well populated and easy going. With my wallet substantially lightened I parked up and began walking. I love Snowdonia and the Snowdon area in particular. It was the first real mountains I came to after I got into backpacking and it just blew me away. The evidence of tremendous natural forces are so evident and even driving down the Llanberis pass is just stunning. I walked up the road and then began tracking up the valley wall just below Dinas Mot. The snow got deeper and the rain poured down. There was no-one about and I was having a fantastic time. I popped up onto the path that leads up to Crib Goch and descended down to the PYG. The whole of the Snowdon horseshoe was spread before me. Despite the tourist hordes that descend onto the area, there is something about the combination of mountains and lakes that has a real resonance with me. Now, although there were plenty of footprints, the place was deserted. After a brief breakfast I headed up.
The going was nice and easy. The snow was soft enough to give, but firm enough to hold. The Light-trek 4s proved their worth. I don't tend to use them to propel me forward or even to take weight, but they are more like extensions for my arms, supporting me, probing the terrain ahead, allowing me to descend without putting my hand down. They had a new use too. I'd got hold of a gorrilla pod for the camera and I could now attach my camera to the end of one so that video was not just shot up my nose. I had a few goes and it worked quite well.
As I got higher, the snow got icier. Despite the fact that it was probably okay, I put on my crampons. I encountered a few people descending with ice axes and it wasn't long before I had my axe out too. What was quite worrying was the amount of people coming down from the top who seemed fairly ill prepared. I don't have any problems with 'budget' gear-I was wearing Peter Storm waterproof trousers, but it can be an indicator of your experience. There were quite a few people descending sharing a pair of 'hill-king' walking poles and wearing Crag-hoppers jackets. They were slipping and sliding all over the place and finding it hilarious- there was hundreds of feet of sheer slopes covered in snow and big pointy boulders below them. The bottom of the track was totally free of snow and this may have led them to believe that things were okay further up. It was proper winter conditions up there though. Interestingly, I was one of only two or three people I saw with crampons. The snow was soft enough to give some grip but there were icy stretches particularly up top. Plenty of people had ice axes though and it was probably soft enough to ensure that you wouldn't slide far. As far as I'm aware one without the other isn't particularly safe either way- the best thing to do is to prevent a slip so you don't need to self arrest.

There was the nice feeling of cameraderie up at the top that you get when you've all spent a few hours geeting to the top of something. I took the opportunity to sit and brew up a hot chocolate with a shot of whisky in it. It was at this point that I began to think of spending the night at the top of Snowdon. There was a sheltering wall to pitch behind, and the snow was frozen enough to accept my pegs. A bloke asked me if I was spending the night and that made up my mind. I cleared a bit of snow as the last walkers left and pitched the tent. I douple pegged the main guys for security and sat back to melt some snow. I was running short on meths as I had never expected to be camping away from a water source but I managed to brew up a litre of water which was enough to last me. I had my down sweater, minim ultra vest, my new down hood and was really toasty. I did fancy some of the PHD down trousers but that was merely a luxury that I didn't have. I sat outside the tent, read 'Trainspotting' and finished the Jura while my meal rehydrated.

I settled down fairly early as I was tired from the night before. The condensation was pretty severe in the tent. The wind had kicked up and I opened the top of the inner tent but nothing helped. I was comfortable though, in fact I was so warm I had to take the down sweater off. I had a fairly broken sleep, but not unreasonable. When I finally woke up, the wind had died down again. I made a cup of coffee with the last of my meths and packed up. There was amazing frost on the guys, stretching out a good centimetre. The snow outside was nice and crisp too. Despite my worriees, it was easy to extract all of the pegs and I was moving by 8. There was a lot of fog, and conditions going down were a little more dicey than going up. I was extremely glad I'd brought the crampons as I teetered along tiny ledges above precipitous drops. I was trying to get down pretty quickly as I wanted to get home to see Solomon and Steph but I still made sure to take it all in. Getting back to the car took a couple of hours and from there it was an easy drive home.


Roger said...

Thanks for the superb report.
Nice to read abt adventures. Espescally when I'm stucked at the office :-)

Stuart Brown said...

Great read, nothing beats a wild camp on a summit, especially in conditions like those you describe.

John said...

The Snowdon summit pitch is inspirational but it was the description of your difficulties on the first night which captivated me. That was an excellent account of the fraught moments which sometimes happen when alone in winter conditions. An excellent report.

The Dude Abides said...

Nice work, really enjoyed the read.

I've had a few instances where things don't go quite to plan but as you say they end up being some of the best trips. I'm all over getting out in the winter landscape and the odd challenges they often create - Adds to the adventure in my book! Nice video too.

minimalgear said...

Thanks for all the comments. When I put something together I'm never quite sure it captures how it felt. It's certainly the dodgy times that make for the best stories though!

Thomas W. Gauperaa said...

I really enjoyed reading it - thanks for sharing!