It’s early February 2009 and in the mountains we have been enjoying the best snow conditions for many a year. Winter mountaineering in the UK is alive and well; routes of all descriptions have been climbed but amid all the prolific activity a grave price has been paid by too many of our fellow hill goers. The climbing community is stunned at the carnage and on a personal level I am extremely saddened.
At the time of writing the mountains we all love have claimed 8 lives so far this year, one of which was snuffed out on the day I will shortly describe. I will spare you such platitudes as “They died doing something they loved”, or “No mountain is worth a life, but without mountains perhaps no worthwhile life remains to be lived”, for whatever truth lies within these statements it will be of little comfort to those left behind. We must also resist the temptation to enter into hearsay or to speculate on the minutiae of the accidents, pointing out failings which in hindsight may become painfully clear. There for the grace of God go we.
The media have naturally been quick to publicise the recent tragedies, for them it is good copy and a wonderful accompaniment to their hysterical reportage of “major snow events”. Armchair pundits have also been active, taking great pleasure in condemning those of us who take to the winter hills. They brand us as irresponsible idiots, egotists and adrenaline junkies. I have long since given up trying to explain let alone justify that which makes mountaineering such a rewarding activity. That they will never understand is a terrible shame for them, but free will is a blessing and we must all follow our own roads knowing not the outcome of our choices. It’s called life, and I intend to live my version of it as fully as I can; for me that means visiting the mountains as often as possible and in all weathers.
So was I, after meditating on the above, disinclined to head for the hills once again? Did I fear for my safety or wonder if I would become another statistic? The simple answer is no. After being bereft of mountains for 6 long weeks I was straining at my leash, eager to get things done while winter climbing conditions remained favourable.
As is usually the case, enforced inactivity had reactivated my tendency towards obsessive behaviour. What started out a few months ago as a vague ambition had quickly become a fixation and more often than I’d care to admit my thoughts were monopolised by it. My flights of fancy were circuitous, triggering powerful emotional responses and even physical though psychosomatic symptoms which further fed my compulsion. Its attractions are manifold, the most compelling of which is a beautiful direct line up the North East face of the highest mountain in the land of bards. Something had to give; I was in dire need of release so when Jeff and Moira Smith proposed a weekend in Wales I started packing immediately, relieved that a cure had at last been found.
We arrived at Gefnan in the knowledge that it was a Wellingborough MC weekend but reasoned that they wouldn’t begrudge us three bed spaces. As it turned out, we were not the only interlopers. We enquired in the barn about the availability of accommodation and were told that the PMC were installed next door, in fact we outnumbered them on a ratio of 3 to 1. It soon came to light that Charles Clay and Ben Robotham also had plans to climb on the Trinity Face so Moira kindly offered to drop us all at Pen y Pass in the morning.
After a fitful sleep plagued with apprehension I rose and breakfasted with a knot in my stomach. My obsessions often lead me into situations of extreme terror and I wondered what the day ahead would bring as thoughts of recent events formed a cloud that followed me around the hut. I tried to reassure myself that my course need not be unswerving and I could back off our route if I felt at all unhappy about the snow conditions. Indeed it was avalanche hazard that had been worrying me of late but the forecasted wind direction pointed to minimal risk.
At Pen y Pass in the early morning light the mountains were majestic and with purposeful strides we made our way up the Pyg Track. Six weeks away from the hills had been detrimental to my fitness but I managed to keep up with Charles who set a blistering pace ensuring that we made good time to Bwlch y Moch. There we could see that Cwm Dyli was in fantastic condition and it had an effect on me; no more anxiety did I feel, just the desire to get to Trinity Face and climb it.
Above Glaslyn the path became an ice sheet on top of which lay a thin covering of powder snow. Here we decided to put on crampons and while doing so a serious looking solo climber approached us. He was wearing plastic boots, ski goggles and carried a single technical axe. We asked him about the condition of the face which was now lost in cloud. His report was that it was too dangerous to climb and was waiting to avalanche. I was crushed. Having invested so much nervous energy contemplating the climb it now looked as though the game was up. In the distance we could see a party making there way up to the Spider snowfield that lies below the Trinity gullies. We could hear their shouts but couldn’t decipher the words. After a time it became clear that they were retreating; surely that was the end of it, would Trinity Face remain as elusive as it had been while I was in exile in the flatlands?
Charles and Ben seemed unconcerned and were intent on having a first hand look at the face so we left the Pyg Track and descended into the snow bowl. Soon we were traversing a steep slope of perfect nevé en route to the bottom of a small buttress where we geared up. We then started our ascent to the Spider and before long we were climbing loose powder. Alarm bells were ringing. “Jeff” I called, “I think I ‘m going to sack it. This snow is shit”. Jeff, who was some way above with Charles and Ben, offered some encouraging beta, “It’s much better up here, the snow is solid”. I followed unconvinced but sure enough the powder gave way to good nevé as I made my way up the Spider.
On reaching the bottom of Central Trinity Jeff and I dug out a ledge so we could get roped up. By this time Charles had disappeared from view and Ben was starting up behind him. Below us a number parties were coming up to the Spider so we decided to move together for speed and I led off easily into the gully.
The initial pitch was at a relatively easy angle and I made light work of it by plunging the shaft of my axe for balance. I then came upon a chock stone which formed a tricky step. After surmounting this obstacle I realised that to reverse it would be very difficult, an alarming realisation as the gully had steepened and from now on had to be climbed using axe placements and firm kicks with my crampons. It then dawned on me that I hadn’t placed any protection and a brief inspection of my surroundings revealed that there wasn’t any. I was feeling insecure, nervous and was starting to feel my legs cramping up. To buy a little time I cut two large steps and gave myself a good talking to.
Just as I was beginning to calm down, an object that felt as big as a brick hit my helmet. This did nothing for my nerves which were starting to unravel. I looked up to see Ben, high above and hacking wildly with his axe, “There’s an ice pitch here” he cried, audibly thrilled. With the prospect of more missiles I waited until he had climbed out of sight before resuming my ascent. I had by now resigned myself to the fact that I wouldn’t find any protection so used every bit of concentration I could muster to climb safely, making certain that every foot and axe placement counted. Then I came to the ice pitch.
This stopped me dead in my tracks and Jeff came up to join me. The gully was now full of climbers and if one fell they would take out everyone below them, no one had placed any protection and the situation took on a seriousness that left me nauseous. As we pondered our predicament we let two teams pass us and with their technical axes they climbed the ice with ease. Jeff and I had only one axe each and the thought of tackling the ice didn’t hold much appeal, but to retreat? No dice. The only way was up and Jeff now showed great resolve and carefully picked his way up until the rope ran out. “How’s it looking Jeff”, “It’s not too bad, I’m above the ice now and I’ve got you on belay. It’s not very good so please don’t fall off mate”.
I chose to ignore his last sentence and started up the pitch, immediately appreciating the comfort of a rope above me, however illusory my sense of security may have been. I struggled to find good axe placements, the ice was brittle and my tool blunt but after about 20 feet I was on snow again. Above, the gully widened and before long we left its confines, emerging onto the upper snowfield.
Below us the clouds momentarily parted and I became all too aware of how high up we were. I felt beautiful, almost touched by the divine. The snow was steep and hard but with care we would soon be up. We could see Charles and Ben peering down at us and taking photographs. The last 30 feet steepened and for the last time I allowed myself to look down before the final push. My legs were screaming but every bit of worry and discomfort was a price worth paying, for my position on that special mountain was priceless.
Jeff and I topped out ecstatic; handshakes were exchanged along with hearty back slaps and huge belly laughs. Celebration was in the air and we will surely remain aglow for quite some time after what was a fantastic climb. Charles and Ben were eager for more and left us on the summit to climb Y Lliwedd on their return leg. For me and Jeff though, anything other than a slow walk down the Pyg Track would have diluted the purity of our ascent. It was time to descend and for me it will soon be time to find a new obsession.
On my return to Peterborough I learned that while we were celebrating on Snowdon the mountain had claimed yet another life. Please go out and enjoy our precious hills, never stop, but always take great care and go home safely. To conclude I’d like to quote Edward Whymper…
“There have been joys too great to be described in words, and there have been griefs upon which I have not dared to dwell; and with these in mind I say: Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are nought without prudence, and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime. Do nothing in haste; look well to each step; and from the beginning think what may be the end”.