The Longest Day
“The thing is Ollie, I’m not sure that our plan for tomorrow is a good one. There’s a lot to take into consideration”. Ollie is 14 years old, a talented sportsman and in the company of his grandfather has walked most of Eryri’s 3000ft mountains and tackled many of the classic grade one scrambles. He now wants to extend his experience to mountaineering and in a fit of exuberance Juggs and I have suggested a day out on the Clogwyn y Person Arete. It’s late October, the weather is set to turn and I’m worried; it’s one thing to go out with a trusted partner to face whatever comes your way, but quite another to guide a teenager and his 68 year old grandfather on a challenging grade 3 scramble.
“Yeah but Nick, I don’t want to go on another walk tomorrow; I want to go climbing”. I try to explain that it is a serious undertaking and many things can go wrong, not least the weather and short hours of daylight. “Listen to him Ollie” says Rodney.
Rodney is Ollie’s grandfather and has been walking the hills of Eryri for 40 years. He’s roamed all over Britain, climbed in the Alps and is still a very strong walker. What to do? I don’t want to put them in any danger. With that in mind I nip over to the cottage to consult Juggs who is having a nap. His view is that we should wait for the forecast and if there is a reasonable window we should just go for it. And go for it we did.
The slog up from Blaen y Nant is always a test of will and endurance but Rodney had an idea; instead we should start from Pen y Pass, contour around Crib Goch and into Cwm Glas. It would add a little distance but reduce our ascent by hundreds of feet. In theory it sounded a good idea but still I had my qualms. Nevertheless, I decided that as he had been that way before -and in winter to boot- we should give it a go. And a go to it we gave.
In hindsight we came off the Pyg track too early, but what witchery was this? Suddenly the tourists were out of ear and eyeshot as was the road below. Not a path to be seen, Snowdon our very own. It soon became apparent that no one really knew where our route may lie, but unconcerned were we, for adventure and discovery was found at every turn and what delight is it to weave ones way through a trackless mountain fastness. We climbed the steepest of grass, forded streams and scrambled above Dinas Mot on greasy rocks. We gazed up at untouched crags and down their awful declivities; we squelched through bogs, wacked through bush and trod where none but sheep have any reason to be; we were enjoying ourselves, a little too much perhaps, forgetting that time is short in the early days of winter.
In our traverse of the mountain we had forged a course that found us much lower than we needed to be. Steep crags rose above and lay below with an apron of grass our only means of escape. Soon we came upon a tumbling stream issuing from a precipitous gully, up which Juggs made an exploratory foray. “It’s a goer chaps, up you come”. Ollie followed first and was soon out of sight while Rodney and I adopted a slightly more sedate pace. At the gully’s end we saw it, black, monstrous and a frightful sight, the Clogwyn y Person Arete. On our way to its foot we passed Llyn Glas which was in stark contrast to the beast above; if there is there a mountain tarn more exquisite in all Eryri I have yet to see it.
We had four pitches to descend so Juggs and I quickly formulated a plan; I would lower Rodney down each pitch, at the bottom of which he would build an anchor for Ollie who would then be lowered down to join him. I would then abseil followed by Juggs and we would repeat the process until we were safely at the foot of the crag. Juggs and I were firm with our instructions and any pretentions towards friendliness were for the moment cast aside; we needed to be efficient, businesslike and waste no time faffing if we were to get down before nightfall.
After the first lower off we had found our stride, our teamwork was slick and the co-operation of Rodney and Ollie was vital; their implicit trust in us enabled a smooth retreat from an extremely stressful and potentially deadly situation. Imperceptibly the light was fading and by the time we reached the top of the first pitch it was getting dark. This was a pitch of about 100 feet which on our ascent we had split into two. Now we had to get Rodney and Ollie down as quickly as possible. This final hurdle was slow to overcome, each lower off taking around 10 minutes to complete. As the time came for me to descend I asked Juggs to lower me as it would be quicker than abseiling.
When I reached the bottom of western gully it was pitch black and the time was 5.30; Juggs was up there alone and I feared for him. Before my lowering we’d had a brief disagreement. I had been unhappy with Juggs’ anchor and had insisted on employing the one I had used for Rodney and Ollie. Now, Juggs would be relying on the anchor I had taken issue with and I was filled with dread.
Above shone a lonely light which flickered as it searched out the best way to go. Slowly it descended for a while and then stopped. Profanity filled the air, and then, “Nick, come and pull on blue”. I complied and the light resumed its movement. Then once more a call came, “BELOW”; unseen rocks smashed against the walls of western gully and I cowered, waiting for impact and their devastating effect upon my flesh and bones. I saw not their resting place but the sound of their landing told a tale of extreme good fortune. I then left the gully, and neglected to return again. Eventually Juggs was safely down and I went up to help with the ropes. He couldn’t untie them as his hand had cramped up painfully, forming a grotesque claw.
After a few moments our relief was tempered with a new reality; it was raining, visibility was poor and we were still 600 metres above the road. Our way down was into Cwm Glas Mawr which is hemmed in on three sides by formidable bastions; in rapidly deteriorating conditions we would have to find the one safe breach in their defences. I knew that the path was near the outflow of Llyn Bach, so out came the map and compass. If we could find the stream then the path would be close to hand. So often is the case that in poor visibility the bearing you take seems wildly inaccurate, and on 296deg magnetic that appeared to be so. But what can one do? Trust the compass or don’t take a bearing in the first place; if you may not like the answer, don’t ask the question.
It took longer than anticipated to find the path, but find it we did and picked our way down the mountain. With every footstep came the chance of injury as we slithered on scree and skated on boulders slick with lichen and slime. After we’d looked out for him all day, Ollie was now looking out for me. With only three torches between four he would walk a few paces and then turn to illuminate my passage; we made slow progress and 4 and a half hours after leaving Clogwyn y Person we, at long last made it to the road, it was 9.30.
We were wet, cold and exhausted but that was nothing, such discomfort fades with a full belly and a warm bed. Jane, who had dropped us off 12 hours past, had suffered hours of agonising apprehension. She had driven up and down the pass until she knew every twist and turn; she had feared the worst for her husband Rodney and young Ollie and, unbeknown to us she had alerted the MRT who were preparing to come and get us. As she met us in Nant Peris we hung our heads in ignominy, the poor woman was a mess. I fully expect that she will never let Rodney come climbing with me again, but with the coming of spring we will have to put that to the test.
Back at Gefnan we feasted. Jane filled our glasses with Whisky and we reflected on our adventure. When things are going well in the mountains we often congratulate ourselves on a climb well done, but when things go wrong, and they often do, they provide memories evergreen and promote camaraderie that an easy day out never can. I’d like to thank everyone with whom I shared this wonderful epic, and also extend my sincere apologies to Jane….it won’t happen again….or will it?