And so again it starts– Welsh winter mountaineering
The Cneifion Arete
Although we fill as many summer days as we can with long rock climbs and even longer walks we wait every year for the temperature to drop and the snow to fall on our beloved mountains. In Eryri it seems to have started again and the hope is that a repeat of last winter’s deep freeze will come to pass. It’s December and the gullies are still ‘out’ which means for mountaineers of modest ability that ridges are most definitely in.
Last weekend found me once again at the Gefnan hut and I was looking for someone who shares the same taste as me in things high and white but I was getting nowhere fast. Rob was talking about looking for a real challenge, Reg and co were off to Ysgolion Duon and various others were intent on spending their precious hill time on bicycles. None of the above really appealed so I slunk off to bed deciding that a solo walk for the following day would be much, much better than nothing, in fact it would be brilliant.
Come the morning my plans rapidly changed as I bumped into Jeff in the toilet block. He’d arrived in the small hours and I was extremely pleased to see his royal loftiness emerging from a fragrant cubicle. “Jeffery you lanky streak of ginger piss, when did you get here”? “Too bloody late mate, the roads were chaos. Now then, what are we climbing today” he demanded before honking like a braying donkey. There are two things I especially like about Jeff, one is his unique laugh and the other is his readiness to cut through the bullshit and hit the hills with gusto. Caught on the hop I blurted out the first thing that came into my head, “The Cneifion Arete in winter is the one I fancy”, he was in concurrence, “Brilliant, let’s do it”.
Back in the kitchen we announced our plans and Rob immediately wanted in on the action, “Sounds interesting, what grade is it”? “In the book” I replied, “its grade III”. Rob was sold, “That’ll do nicely, I’ll bring Audrey. She hasn’t done any winter climbing before”! Alarm bells should have sounded but Rob being Rob we are well used to his penchant for pushing himself and others beyond their comfort zone.
In the Ogwen Valley the ground was frozen and puddles of ice crunched underfoot as we made our way into Cwm Idwal. The cloud base lay just above our route which in summer conditions is my favourite moderate climb in Wales and must surely rank as one of the best scrambles anywhere, 450 feet of alpine ridge transplanted into the land of bards.
Soon we were at the snowline and we trod a route though soft snow and thick runnels of ice masquerading as the path. High above, the arête looked a delectation and a solo climber on its upper reaches gave scale to the scene. The atmosphere in Cwm Cneifion was one of wild desolation and as always I marvelled that such remote ambience could be found less than an hour from the busy A5 below.
At the foot of our climb a cruel wind raced around the cwm blasting our faces with spindrift as we hurriedly donned harness and uncoiled ropes, the carefree delights of summer long forgotten in the midst of a furious maelstrom.
The first pitch was dry and almost snow free so axes remained unsheathed and crampons in rucksacks. A coin was flipped and the die cast, Jeff and I would start first so my companion led up and quickly reached the tricky move just below the first stance, this coincided with his only piece of protection sliding down the rope and into my lap. Anticipating an unhelpful report Jeff called down, “YES, I KNOW IT’S FALLEN OUT”. I took that as my cue to keep quiet and faithfully complied.
On joining Jeff below the chimney pitch I opted to save time and escaped to the right on a snow covered ramp. This proved to be a mistake; suddenly I was up shit creek and scrabbling around looking for holds which were buried if indeed they existed at all. I craved an axe to smash into the turf but there was no time and fearing an imminent plummet a desperate manoeuvre suddenly found me in a better place. I made myself safe and then started to bring Jeff up who also found himself in difficulties, “I’m stuck, how good is the belay”? I uttered a special incantation, “It’s bomber” and he floated up as if by magic.
We then shortened the rope and commenced a lengthy vigil as Rob endeavoured to coax Audrey up to the chimney. Our wait would have been irksome but for a window in the clag which gifted us with a brief but priceless view of Y Garn, Nant Ffrancon and the Carneddau. We forgot about the cold, sharing one of those golden moments found only on winter mountains.
After a time Audrey was installed at the first stance and I moved off again, running out twenty metres before finding the next belay station. The ridge was covered in loose powder snow and the weather had once again turned nasty making it a completely different proposition to my four previous ascents. We were moving well but rather than climb simultaneously we continued in a series of short pitches as Rob had asked us to keep in eye and earshot should he and Audrey find themselves in extremis. And in extremis they were soon to be found.
We had surmounted the crux step, cruised the juggy slab and teetered along the knife edge before realising that Rob and Audrey were now far below and at a stand still. Rob called up, “We’re having some problems. Will you two stay where you are until we sort ourselves out”? Audrey was finding the crux challenging and a long battle ensued until Rob finally managed to pull her over the step. However, they were still two short pitches below us and almost an hour of grunting, moaning and cursing passed before we were able to unfold our stiffening limbs and resume climbing. I had lost the feeling in my fingers and moves so easy in summer felt desperately insecure and tenuous but at last we were within spitting distance of safety.
As close to the top as we were though, there was one final nasty to deal with. Our axes, still strapped to our backs were much needed as we found ourselves 30 feet from safety but somehow struggling on powder covered ledges of frozen turf in a precarious position with death fall potential. For the second time that day I was readying myself to take flight and I concentrated with every fibre of my being until there was no more up. We had reached the top of the climb and hugged each other, laughing hysterically in the gloom.
As the light of day finally gave out we welcomed Rob and Audrey onto the football pitch of Y Gribin. Slowly and carefully we made our way down in darkness knowing that in a few short hours we would be back at the hut eating good food, imbibing of Christmas cheer and celebrating a great little adventure. And what’s more, this is only the beginning. I wonder what other exciting escapades I will have this winter season?