Ogwen’s lonely mountain
A winter ascent of Yr Esgair
The Ogwen valley is a mecca for UK hill-goers, offering in small compass endless opportunities for walkers, climbers and mountaineers alike. The Glyderau alone plays host to numerous climbs, scrambles and hill walks; enough to keep even the most ravenous of hill gluttons busy for many a year. Surely there can’t be many better things in life than a long summer day spent on the East Face of Tryfan or for the more sedentary an evening walk around Llyn Idwal as the exhausted hoards descend after a good trog around the surrounding tops. In all Eryri its popularity is second only to the Snowdon range but comparative peace and solitude can still be found. Indeed, the hills north of Y Garn are trodden only by the lost and the connoisseur. In my time I have been both.
There is one particular peak that doesn’t receive the attention it deserves and there are a couple of very good reasons for that. Firstly, it doesn’t really lead anywhere unless your ultimate destination is Bethesda or Nant Peris via Elidir Fawr and secondly it isn’t blessed with classic scrambles or rock climbs, and although the view from its summit is one of the finest in the valley even walkers steer clear. Which peak? Foel Goch of course.
From beside Llyn Ogwen its steep nose is an unforgettable sight and once one has become blasé with Tryfan’s arresting profile it is the line that shouts loudest to be climbed thereabouts. That line is Yr Esgair, a shapely and compelling siren admired from below but seldom ventured upon. Blame can surely rest at the feet of Steve Ashton who, in his book ‘Helicopter rescues in’ err sorry, ‘Scrambles in Snowdonia’ talks unfavourably of this striking ridge and gives unspoken but cryptic warnings to leave it severely alone. Still, it has long fascinated me and I have heard hushed mutterings to the effect of ‘it might go as a winter route’. Such suggestions have to my mind made it even more attractive and exciting a proposition. Last weekend it was time to find out the truth for myself.
With Jeff ‘Demon’ Smith and Andy ‘Desperate’ Dann for support I arrived at Oggy Cottage in the pre dawn, the place buzzing with activity. Secretive ice climbers had descended to grab routes in Cwm Idwal but they had not been the only ones glued to UK Climbing.com. Indeed, high on the frozen walls of the Devil’s Kitchen could be seen a galaxy of tiny lights, evidence that a legion of insomniac baggers had invaded Cwm Idwal even before the early risers had scoffed their porridge. We, smug in the knowledge that ours would be a day away from the circus shuffled off quietly down the old road and soon we were completely alone, at least for the time being.
Our journey into Cwm Coch was a laborious one and I stayed well to the back feigning a lack of fitness and taking advantage of the trail broken by Demon and Desperate through the deep snow. I wasn’t alone in employing such devious tactics. No, as we entered the cwm a rabble of noisy mountaineers suddenly sped past us en route to ‘Curver’, bidding us a cheery good day and thanking us for breaking the trail for them. At this the Demon collapsed in an untidy heap and I rolled a smoke, taking in the scene as day broke over the mountains. The East Face of Foel Goch was a gift to the eyes, in fact maybe I have never before seen it for the Esgair goggles have effective blinkers attached. Red Gully split the face and called us to its company but would have to wait for we were bound for the as yet unknown truths of Yr Esgair’s forbidding and quite frankly terrifying promise of adventure.
Eventually, Demon left his recumbence regaining Homo-erectus status before ploughing through the powder until at last we gained the northern ridge of the Cwm. In the lee of a considerable buffeting we equipped ourselves for what was to come. Soon the ridge narrowed to a knife edge, Yr Esgair soared into the blue. She was not a scowling, repellent brute but a divine temptress in luxurious winter finery, exhibiting a dangerous but compulsive beauty. In very truth that forsaken Glyder had become the epitome of a mountaineer’s wet dream come true. She frightened me and I feared she might hurt me, but I am a man with feet of sand and I just had to drink of her so we danced along the ridge until below us the notch suddenly appeared.
At the notch we were met with a fearful sight. A team of two were in situ, the leader picking his way up the crux which appeared to be a vertical wall of choss and quite free of gear. We looked at each other and said nothing as the wind gathered strength and purpose. Once the interlopers had vacated we ourselves were installed and Demon scratched his way up followed by Desperate and then myself. It was a bold lead and upon my arrival at the stance I was exceptionally grateful that I hadn’t fallen, as was a flustered Demon who was anchored to a belay of dubious integrity.
By this point Desperate had untied and flown off solo muttering words of extremis the like of which I hope never to hear again. I remained roped to Demon and led off up ‘easy’ ground which proved to be anything but. We had to gain the ridge and gain it we did but the going was insecure with indifferent axe placements in graupel and heather providing nothing of reassurance to pull on. Critical moves made above a death fall drop became the signature of the climb, but to reverse? No dice. Desperate kept on trucking, far from the illusory protection of the rope while Demon and I clawed our way up one short pitch after another. Yr Esgair was not giving up her secrets without a fight but after a time we sensed that victory was within our reach.
Letting our guard down we were seduced from the crest into an inviting gully. Demon fought on and belayed his last. A thin layer of snow covered an icy slab and I squeaked my mortal remains up and fled the scene to re-emerge once more on the sun kissed crest where I looked up to see Desperate making for the top; we were almost there. Demon followed and we moved together over slabs until at last a fence post came into view and the full force of both the wind and our jubilation was felt full hooligan.
We three reunited and shrieked and hugged and laughed laughs silenced by the arctic blast and while there have been happy men there has never been any happier than us at that moment. Yr Esgair had fallen and we were glad for we could rest knowing that if we so chose then we wouldn’t have to climb her again. It was done. This sentiment was felt even more keenly the next day when on Y Garn’s summit we were battered half to death by the worst the mountain can give…but that is a tale for another time.