After missing the worst/best winter weather for many years I was hankering after a mini-adventure and the weekly forecast seemed to be promising some clear skies and cold temperatures for last weekend so plans started to form.
The 15 mountains over 3000ft in Wales (the Welsh 3000s) are arrayed in 3 compact groups around Snowdon, the Glyders and the Carneddau. Steve Watts, Ross Litherland and I had enjoyed a run around them at about the same time last year and having covered the route 4 or 5 times over the years I knew it to be a good day out – especially for this time of year where there will certainly be some darkness hours to heighten the experience. So, the objective was set but what about fellow conspirators. Well, one person who can be relied upon for some potentially foolhardy fun in the hills is Steve Watts so, with Ross on the other side of the world, it was going to be a 2-up this time around.
The start of an adventureThe 5am alarm after a full working week was pretty unwelcome but you do what you have to do and I was soon on autopilot with the soothing sounds of Farming Today whisking me along the A55. By 8am we had a car placed at the finish point in Aber and were at the starting point of Pen-y-pass to see a clear dawn freshened by a biting north-westerly. As we ascended the shoulder of Crib Goch we started to encounter increasing amounts of verglas with some patches of old and very firm neve. Our “weapons of choice” for the day were Kahtoola flexible crampons – designed to be worn over running shoes – and set to be indispensible as the freeze/thaw action of the previous 2 weeks had turned the old snow into solid boilerplate. Of course putting crampons on early would be a great idea but we put it off and put it off until, teetering on the edge of friction, we finally bowed to the inevitable having made the job 10 times harder by waiting.
Once suitably shod, the rest of the NW ridge presented no difficulties and we were soon stepping out onto the famed Crib Goch ridge with just one set of fresh prints ahead of us. It was clear that this was going to be a classic day – clear skies, some challenging snow conditions and up before the crowds. We shared Snowdon summit with only one other person (try coming up here in June and doing that!!) and were soon trotting down the line of the summer railway to search out the steep descent to Nant Peris.
The Welsh mountains have fine character but they are arrayed in discrete groups and are close to the sea so, the near 3000ft descent to the first main valley took a lot out of the knees and raised temperatures by about 10 degrees. In fact it was to be one of those days where constant adjustments are needed to keep the temperature balance. With the first bag of hot cross buns dispatched we toil up the slopes of Elidir Fawr and re-enter the winter wonderland. The crampons are needed again half way up Y Garn and as we descend to Llyn y Cwn we see the big yellow bird. No, not something from Sesame Street but the RAF Sea King helicopter. It seems that its not just the usual practice exercise but an airlift of someone who tried to descend from Glyder Fawr without crampons and found a very quick way down. Indeed there are a few people trying this and we overhear one pass on sage advice to his girlfriend – “don’t hit the rocks too hard” – a wise man!
This whole section is wonderful – wind behind us, wonderful ice rime and neve, a dusting of new snow, sun in the sky. Soon we are descending the gully down to Bwlch Tryfan and, guess what, the helicopter makes a second appearance to airlift another unfortunate soul who took the fast way down. The clatter and throb of the helicopter is amazing as he hovers 100ft above us. Whilst its reassuring to know that they are “to hand” should we need them it certainly makes us want to hurry along and get out of their way. The descent of the West gully from Tryfan demands care and attention but should be the last of the technical difficulties and we hasten on to a much anticipated cup of tea at Ogwen.
Sitting on the wall at Ogwen brings back vivid memories of the year before. Everyone else is coming off the hill, looking forward to a shower, a bath, an evening in the warmth with a beer in hand. And us? We are setting off into the Carneddau – the biggest upland area in Snowdonia. We know that it will be dark in an hour and we will be above 3000ft for quite a few miles. It is excitement and apprehension mixed but you have to live outside the comfort zone now and again. You have to taste a little fear to appreciate security, you have to hurt a little to enjoy simple comforts and, in any case, nature will have some experiences for us – experiences that we simply won’t get by bobbling around for a couple of hours in the sunshine – she doesn’t disappoint. Over the ensuing 4 hours we get snowed on, we get into the cloud so that distances and judgement of terrain go haywire, we get to see the street lights 3000ft below – so tantalizingly close but yet miles and miles away – and we get to see the majestic full moon peeking through billowing clouds and casting its cold light on the snowy slopes.
If its bling you want then look around – ice crystals falling from a clear sky, rocks encrusted with diamond rime ice, the moon like a huge opal hanging in the sky.
Well, time passes, legs get weary, tops are ticked off and, before we know it, it’s time to descend to the valley. Car to car is 13 hours this time – about an hour slower than last year but conditions account for some of that and I am really quite unfit! So, the Welsh 3’s – a great mini-adventure, especially for the winter if you are OK with the conditions and navigation. Of course, it’s really quite foolhardy in some ways so I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone except those who want to live a little!