Friday, 7 June 2013

Reunion with Wales

Just because my affair with the Lake District is still going strong, it doesn't mean that I haven't forgotten the dalliances of my formative years. They may not have the gentle charm and clear beauty of Cumbria but the Snowdonia hills have more of an in-your-face brashness, a "So you think you're hard enough then?" swagger which tempts, maybe even dares you to take them on.

Most years around this time, my climbing club organises a trip over the Welsh Three Thousanders. Having a hut on the steep little road that leads to the "tourist track" to Snowdon summit, it always makes sense for us take the journey North to South, starting from Abergwyngregan and finishing at our hut in Llanberis. In the 70's and 80's, maybe 20 or 30 of us would pile around to the start in the early hours of a Saturday morning, with the fittest getting back in 10 hours or less and the night shift in upwards of 20. There was a pecking order but this was by no means a race, for the majority of us did no running, we just assumed our normal activities on the hills would be preparation enough to see us round. It was more of an "outing", a bit of communally shared joy and pain, and also a yardstick to check how easy (or hard) you were likely to find the Alpine season ahead.

Over recent years its popularity has dwindled, but last Friday evening there were still half a dozen aspirants down at the hut discussing start times and tactics. Peter decided he would be slow so opted for a solo 3am start; this meant the remaining five of us would fit in one car, which we left at the tiny car park above Aber just in time for the more traditional 5am getaway and hopefully a "torchless" journey back to Llanberis. The forecast was pretty good but there was mist on the tops which we expected would disperse as the day warmed up. I hadn't done the trip for some years so was intrigued as to whether my ultra training would have any beneficial effect.

Over the first 3 or 4 miles it gradually became clear that Dave and Rupert were finding a mutually convenient pace, and likewise Kerry and Nev, so I was pretty much left to my own devices. I continued with the faster pair to the first top Foel Fras. We stopped briefly for something to eat, but the mist was still thick and the wind whipping across; I hadn't really brought enough clothes for stopping so I wished them well and jogged off into the gloom. I thought I knew these hills and I do, but I paid for a rather casual approach with two navigational errors. The first one came because I forgot to take the slight left turn from the second top Garnedd Ugain and ended up in territory that didn't feel right. Map and compass out, a quick bearing and maybe only 5 minutes lost. I was more careful in the poor visibility from there, taking bearings to find the correct direction off both Foel Grach and Carnedd Llewellyn. Returning to the col near Yr Elen after the short out and back to the summit I met Dave and Rupert coming in the opposite direction, now probably just 10 or 15 minutes behind me. From here I made my second and much bigger navigational error. Again rather arrogantly not bothering to look at the map, I remembered that a traverse of the hillside from the col should bring me out on the Llewellyn-Dafydd ridge. Easy in good visibility, in the mist I must have drifted far too low down; not reaching the ridge by the time I felt it should have arrived, I eventually worked out that I was in an area almost below the Black Ladders cliff on Dafydd, requiring a re-ascent of a few hundred feet to get back on track again.

From here the way is straightforward and I soon reached the 6th top, Carnedd Dafydd. A couple of guys on top were setting up some sort of checkpoint and seemed quite surprised to see me. I later found that they were marshals on the Welsh 1000 metre tops race which was held on Saturday. After Dafydd I finally came out of the mist and could see where I was heading. I celebrated by speeding up and almost immediately tripped on a rock, resulting in a two-inch gash on the palm of one hand. This was turning out a rather incompetent section for me! I carried on over Pen yr Oleu Wen then the long descent down to the A5 at Ogwen to meet the real heroine of the day, Tanya, who had volunteered to spend her day at the valley crossings, making tea for weary walkers and ferrying them back to the hut in the event that they decided not to continue.

But at Ogwen it was early days yet. I washed my hand in the lake and patched it up with an impressive looking length of surgical tape, then as it was quite pleasant weather down here I decided to hang around until I knew where everyone was. Dave and Rupert arrived before long, stayed half an hour then pushed on over the Glyders. A phone call revealed that Peter had missed Tanya but was now nearly up Tryfan, and after another hour or so Nev and Kerry turned up, had their teas and a little rest and were ready to go. I started with them but decided to have a bit of a blast over the next section as the weather was by now looking pretty good and clear, though there was still a chill wind. A very direct 2000ft of ascent brought Tryfan up quickly, then down over the boulders to the col and another steep pull up to Glyder Fach. From here, the Glyders relent a bit. I chatted briefly to the 1000m race marshal on Glyder Fawr, which has been not too long ago remeasured as a 1000m peak, making the race a lot tougher than it once was, then down the rather threadbare screes to the lake and on up Y Garn. Descending Y Garn I ran straight past Peter without recognising him as we both concentrated on the ground underfoot, then I enjoyed the long almost level path for a mile or so before the ascent of Elidir Fawr. Just before the top I caught Dave and Rupert again, we celebrated the last Glyder together, then I carried on down the 2500ft descent to Nant Peris, to find Tanya waiting in the car park, now in warm sunshine. I lay on the grass, drinking tea and soaking up the warmth. Dave, then Rupert soon appeared. They were tired but determined and left after a fairly brief stop. Sometime later Peter appeared and decided that he'd had enough for the day - back another time for the full monte he said. We had a text from Nev and Kerry on Y Garn and waited an hour or so. We reasoned that they were OK, just going slowly so by the time they reached us they would have run out of either steam or time so were unlikely to continue. I decided to set off after Dave and Rupert  who by now had almost an hour start on me over the last section. Twelve tops down, three to go.

I had said to Dave earlier that you are allowed to get pretty well knackered on the ascent of Crib Goch, because it's the last big one, and I decided to practice what I had been preaching so I jogged purposefully up the road to the CC hut at Ynys Ettws. From here, the way to Crib Goch summit is pretty unrelenting, up a steep grassy cwm, then scrambling up alongside the stream to the left of the Waterfall Cliff, more grass and scree, then the final ridge, pointy and exposed. No track to speak of the whole way, just get your head down and swallow the nearly 2500ft to the top. I caught the boys just as they reached the summit, and just as we all disappeared into the mist again.

From here we took things carefully. Tired people have paid for mistakes with their lives up here so the exposed ridge was taken at a steady plod, as was the scrambling up to Crib y Ddysggl, as false summit after false summit appeared out of the mist. It was safer to keep the party together, and the three of us arrived eventually at Snowdon summit, the 15th and final top, for congratulations all round. From here it is an easy and safe path back to the hut, so as I was getting cold again I pushed on and ran the final four miles down to a warm shower and dry clothes, arriving just after 9.30pm, sixteen and a half hours after leaving Aber.  I had spent just over 4 hours lazing around at Ogwen and Nant Peris, so my moving time for the trip was around twelve and a half hours, nine hours from first summit to last - for which the record, last time I looked, is somewhere around 4 hours! From Aber back to our hut is around 33 miles and just under 13,000ft of ascent.

But the figures are not so important. Those of us who set out all had a good day in the hills. Three of us made it round, and the others all got to Nant Peris, no mean feat in itself. Wales is still OK.

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