A winter ascent of Crib Goch
Shortly after I was bitten by the incurable fever that is the hillwalking bug, I came upon a large framed print in a local charity shop. It depicted a classic mountaineering scene from somewhere or other, the Alps or maybe even the Himalaya. The whereabouts mattered not for it had me captivated and I took it home to hang on my wall where it remains to this day. It’s quite spectacular; a group of lunatics carrying ice axes are making their way across the narrowest of snow covered ridges. In the distance is a huge pointed mountain under a deep blue sky and the whole thing screams “Epic, death wish extreme”. At least it did to a novice whose mountaineering experience amounted to an ascent of Harrison Stickle in steel toe capped boots and a rubberised cagoule.
A few months down the line I learned that my prized ‘alpine’ print was nothing of the sort and was in fact a picture of Snowdon and something called the Crib Goch Ridge. Rather than diminish the feelings of awe and faint terror which in me it inspired, my discovery ramped them up to eleven. I was amazed that just four hours drive from my home existed a mountain that I had taken to be a Peruvian giant or a glacier riddled up thrust of Tibetan suicide. I dearly hoped that one day I would take a similar photograph for myself but an acute and seemingly insurmountable fear of heights had me placing such folly in the box marked ‘Things other people do’.
Since then my love for the mountains of Britain has grown year on year and slowly but surely I have become an experienced mountaineer, albeit one of modest ability and in the hierarchy of climbing I’m happy to dwell in the ‘Bumbly’ category. That’s not to say that I don’t have many ambitions. On the contrary, 8 years after walking into that charity shop I still hankered after my own perfect winter day on Crib Goch. I had crossed it numerous times in summer and even under a sprinkling of snow one January evening as a tribute to the late Sir Edmund Hillary but the ideal espoused by that damn picture has always eluded me. I can happily report that on New Years day 2010 the dream finally came true.
I was hoping for gullies and in particular Left Hand Trinity on Snowdon’s Clogwyn y Garnedd but it looked as though my plans had been scuppered by the vast amounts of powder which had buried virtually every mountain in Britain. Still, I was willing to have a look until sage of the North Walian hills David Hooper advised me to stay out of them, adding that they may come into condition in a few days time. Time, however, was not a luxury I had so it was back to the ridges and with the weather set fair my thoughts turned once again to ‘that’ picture.
Like me, Jeff and Mark were disappointed that they wouldn’t be seeing in the New Year on a ribbon of pristine nevé, a nervous Juggs somewhat less so. But as the bells chimed and the decade drew to a close we knew that come what may we were in for a memorable start to 2010.
That morning our first sight of Crib Goch was beyond even our most improbable fantasies. Bathed in the glow of dawn it was a vision of mountain perfection. The East Face was completely plastered, its gullies taking on the appearance of Andean flutings. Despite my many ascents I had never seen it looking so big, so magisterial, so serious. We gulped in unison and any thoughts of lost opportunity on the Trinity Face were forgotten.
The Pyg Track was surprisingly quiet and it was heartening to experience the dearth of ill equipped hill goers though we did witness a pair on the retreat, their carpet slippers being no match for winter mountains. In the shadow of ‘The Horns’ all was frozen and our re-emergence into the sun at Bwlch y Moch gave a startling contrast. Y Lliwedd, smothered and dazzling above the indigo llyn, our peak straight ahead, peppered with colourful specks high on the East Ridge, spindrift blowing off its flanks. It wouldn’t be long before we too were up there.
We said goodbye to the Pyg Track -which itself is not to be underestimated in winter- and made our way steadily up through a helpful trench. The snow was deep as the top few inches of a fence post amply illustrated. Interestingly a stile which is usually crossed was nowhere to be seen. Before long the ground steepened and the underfoot conditions dictated that crampons were necessary. I was using a new pair for the first time and after a bit of faffing I soon chilled and was glad to be on the move again.
At the first major obstacle we were joined by a large group from Clwb Mynydda Cymru and we chatted in Welsh before letting them climb through which proved to be a good idea. The step barring our way was a devious customer and in order to make progress two of our number were compelled to pull on a fixed rope, though in the interests of all that is decent I shall mention no names and would appreciate it if my companions didn’t either.
Once through the rock band a steep snow climb deposited us on the East Ridge proper and Llyn Llydaw reappeared far, far below. By now the wind had temporarily strengthened, snow devils swirled and faces stung with Mark and Jeff at last understanding that while a beard may not keep the women happy it does have its uses. I suggested that the best of both worlds might be achieved with the procurement of facial merkins. Apparently there are mountaineering specific models known as The Bonington, The Whillans and The Messner. As I write this Mark and Jeff are busy searching a well known auction site, though I digress.
The airy East Ridge was not without interest. The usually easy steps were festooned with rime obliterating the jugs of summer so we turned them on the right, making a couple of stunningly exposed traverses before climbing back onto the crest. Then there was no more up. Crib Goch’s pinnacled arête lay before us, at times softening in milky light and at others seen in sharp relief. We were as one with the firmament and as humble as men can be.
In a solemn procession we walked out onto the ridge. Our crampons bit into the compacted snow, to the right and to the left the notorious exposure helping the strong blood to flow and suddenly my mind travelled back in time. I could see the picture and after years of waiting I was now a part of it. Indescribable emotions addled my brain, the frisson of knowing that a false step would end it all, the deep affection I felt for my friends and the incomprehension of my surroundings put me in a new state, one of exaltation. At this time words do fail me.
And then the pinnacles, three towers of white encrusted rock. We climbed one then two and at the third our team for a short time fragmented. Three met the spire head on but one escaped to the left. In the interests of all that is decent etc. Reunited we sheltered in the lee of the wind drinking Bovril and fending off attacks from airborne scavengers hell bent on making off with our precious sandwiches.
Though Crib Goch was gone it was not forgotten, but other delights awaited us on Crib y Ddysgl, the long continuation that leads to the second highest summit in Wales, Garnedd Ugain. By now the sun was as high as it gets during the short winter days and it was having a detrimental effect on the snow which in turn would wreak havoc on palsied limbs. We had overcome some tricky mixed climbing when things took an abrupt and entertaining turn. A gang of black clouds quickly assembled and set about us in a ferocious and merciless assault. The wind blew, icy pellets once again stung ‘their’ faces and then out of the blue came a scream of agony. Juggs was prostrate and suffering badly. Severe cramp in his legs had rendered him immobile and something needed to be done. Jeff, a keen runner and no stranger to muscular woes whirred into action and after arranging Juggs’ legs in a series of strange contortions we were ready to get going again, this time into a full blown whiteout.
On the summit of Garnedd Ugain we agreed that Snowdon could do without us and the priority was now to get off the mountain. Such is our familiarity with the Snowdon group we could find our way down blindfolded which in the whiteout we effectively were. Taking great care not to walk over a cliff we felt our way forward until the finger stone came into view right on cue. The zig zags delivered us from the storm and we made our way down to Glaslyn where we rested awhile.
It was dark when we finally returned to Pen y Pass and there had been many slips on the Miners Track which had brought us almost to tears of laughter. Back at Gefnan we would eat a huge meal and reflect on our experience. Every day in the mountains is special, but now and then one comes along that takes you by the scruff of the neck and kicks your back doors in, and indeed we were verily buggered.
That night while snugly cocooned in my sleeping bag I made a new years resolution that when I returned home I would scour the charity shops for a large framed print of the Matterhorn.