The last snows of winter?
Two weeks ago the Welsh highlands of Eryri had been enjoying wonderful snow conditions and a fever of winter climbing spread across the national park; Jeff Smith and I climbed Central Trinity on Snowdon’s NE Face and in doing so had succumbed to this fever, but were sickened further in the knowledge that a major thaw was set to hit the mountains.
Indeed, a week later saw me back in North Wales with Peter Machin where the snow level had retreated alarmingly. The Idwal ice had all but melted and it was warm, too warm for winter climbing. Undeterred but rather desperate we had made an ascent of Banana Gully on Y Garn in less than ideal circumstances; climbing solo and without crampons had I struggled to keep up with Peter and was glad to overcome the cornice where I was greeted with the words “That was dodgy as fuck”. Still, the retrospective pleasure was a sweet potion and I had developed a thirst unquenchable.
The days that followed found me scouring blogs, forums and webcams in search of the improbable…a winter climb for the coming weekend. The Snowdon webcam offered little hope of a solution, showing a mountain almost entirely free of snow. The weather forecasts were also a source of frustration, predicting a steady thaw and temperatures above freezing. Phooey. I had almost given up hope when on Thursday there was talk of folk climbing on the Trinity Face and also in Parsley Fern Gully. ‘Parsley Fern’ had been on my wish list for this season and the guide book description gave me a glimmer of faith to hold on to…”The most obvious feature hereabouts, striking even from the road. It gives a reliable snow route from the first to the last snows”. Full of optimism I rallied the troops, who, while thinking me deluded responded to the clarion call.
At Blaen y Nant a motley and seemingly over equipped gang stood with bemused looks on their faces. Nobz, to no one in particular proclaimed that “There’ll be no snow and ice up there”. “You’re wrong” I countered. Peter then piped up his suggestion that “If we get up there and it’s bare we’ll blame you for it”. At this I bristled, “So by the same token, when we get up there and find our route in condition you can all thank me”. As the architect of this folly I was on the defensive. Jeff said nothing but smirked at the bizarre scene, four fully tooled up mountaineers in a green valley surrounded by dry climbing crags, nowhere evident a single flake of snow and above only a blanket of clag. We would have to wait and see.
Once in the cwm the atmosphere changed from weary pessimism to breezy optimism. Llyn Glas was frozen, Clogwyn y Person towered above and occasionally we would see a hint of blue above the snow streaked walls of the cwm. At Llyn Bach we were confronted with a confusing array of snow shoots, any one of which could be Parsley Fern Gully but the low cloud made it impossible to identify our route at a glance. Compass work, conjecture and a perusal of the guide book gave us a starting point and we waltzed over to a likely candidate finding footsteps leading upwards…and downwards. Here, axes were unsheathed, crampons were fitted to boots and up we went.
Easy snow took us to a manky ice pitch,
underneath which running water could be seen. Though still of a thickness, the ice was melting and not in good condition. One by one we made precarious moves until we could escape onto a bank of vegetation. Above us more easy snow led to a buttress rent by a dark gully. There was no way we could climb it unroped and it became clear that we were not in Parsley Fern Gully but on a much harder climb. Looking right we could see another line with signs of recent traffic; that was our route so we traversed a steep slope before heading up into the clag, the quality of the snow getting better with every step.
Soon the way ahead was split by a rocky outcrop, this was the junction where the left hand branch takes a line at grade II. Peter was keen to climb it but the consensus was that without a rope and belays we would continue as we were, especially as it was Nobz’s first winter gully. It mattered not though, for the remainder of the climb proved to be an absolute joy.
The snow continued to improve and as the gully opened out into a couloir it steepened in a pleasing fashion. Now we were climbing and it felt uncommonly good. Our monochromatic world was also undergoing a transformation; the snow, no longer white took on a filtered blue and the cornice became a brilliant gilt rim while above us the ragged clouds raced, scudding on their way to who knows where. I knew what this meant. How could we have known? The inauspicious start to our day had given little clue as to what was about to happen.
Peter, Jeff, myself and then Nobz topped out and as one we walked to the summit of Garnedd Ugain, the second highest peak in Wales. We were above the clouds. Across Cwm Dyli Yr Wyddfa was covered with a table cloth, but no ordinary table cloth. No, this one moved as if a giant (Rhita Gawr?) in the cwm was pulling it down. Hugging the contours of our reigning peak it kept coming only to evaporate the moment it hit Glaslyn. I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy many temperature inversions but this was an amazing spectacle, the like of which I have never before witnessed.
Once we’d calmed down a bit we headed over to the summit of Yr Wyddfa which was a complete circus staring any number of clowns, the most ludicrous of which was a father in shorts who had dragged his young trainer clad daughters to the highest point in the land. Other amazing sights included a one handed girl whose dibber-like wrist facilitated an ascent of the upper zig zags with a deft plunging action, an inspiring vision if ever there was one.
By now the table cloth had run out of steam and the view was stupendous. Were it not for the clamour on the very roof of Wales we would surely have spent most of the afternoon there, but on such days it is not a place for those that seek peace on the mountains. And so we made for our descent of the Cyrn Las ridge, pausing only to admire the Trinity Face which took on an alpine grandeur quite at odds with its relatively modest height.
Back in the Pass of Llanberis we installed our weary selves into the car and minutes later we were drinking pints in the Pen y Gwryd. If this is the end of winter in Eryri then I am satisfied enough at what I have achieved but, should the snows return I will be back with a vengeance, the fervour of a zealot and hopefully a good friend that has missed so much this season…I haven’t forgotten you mate, pray for snow.