We were going to go to Scotland but there were reports of so much deep snow that might have been ungainly swimming through great swathes of the white fluffy stuff before reaching the buttresses and gullies we would have liked to climb. Instead, we decided to head to North Wales, following reports of the best winter climbing conditions in years.
With the consistently low temperature of the previous days, Robin and I plumped for a 600m climb called Grugog Gully, rising high above the A5 and onto the upper slopes of Pen yr Ole Wen. The guide suggested it was best to climb the gully when the stream that flowed from its lower reaches was frozen all the way down the hill side to the road. The stream was happily gurgling away as it flowed freely into the bottom of the valley. We optimistically continued with our plan and began walking up the side of the stream, following the tracks of a much lighter-footed animal that had skipped its way up the soft snow.
Carrying a winter-climbing pack for the first time since the previous winter’s foray up Buchaille Etive Mor, I felt slow and cumbersome, carried by legs lacking the required oomph to propel me upwards with any speed or finesse. It seems that regular cycling around London, with occasional bare-foot mountain walks in spring, summer and autumn, does not translate into easy load carrying up-hill. More long walks with full rucksacks and stiff, heavy boots would make better preparation for movement in the winter mountain environment.
As we neared the first and longest of the ice pitches, the narrow, vertical streak of black that we had seen splitting the pitch in half from the road, became an ever-wider gap of free-flowing water between the two thin sheets of ice that hung like brittle, clunky curtains over the waterfall, some way from the rock behind them and some way from the safe and comfortable climb we had hoped to enjoy at the beginning of our fickle winter season. We skipped, or rather, we trudged past the pitch on its left and attached our crampons before a thought provoking step into the gully some way above.
Once inside the gully, we picked our way over a mixture of rock, ice and snow, finding a short strech of easy-angled, slightly thicker ice on the next pitch. We removed our second axe from our packs to climb some frozen water at last. It was a short pitch and quite easy to solo, just a little disconcerting with the soft and snowy ice we had to climb through.
The following few pitches were in similar condition to the first and didn’t look at all inviting. We resorted to pulling on heather to climb the steep slopes on the right-hand side of the gully. It was slow going, the snow was soft and our axes ripped through the un-frozen ground below. Eventually, we reached a short and sharp pitch that had a narrow but reasonable covering of ice on its right side. Down the centre was a thin sheet of clear and brittle ice that covered the water cascading behind it. The first few moves looked and felt quite steep, steep enough to make us dig the ropes out of our packs and rack some gear on a harness. Whose harness was yet to be decided. Both Robin and I were drawn to climbing the pitch but we both had reservations about doing so. A quick game of Paper Scissors Stone put me in the lead.
I removed my rucksack, climbed up onto a small step and placed an ice screw as high as I could. The steep ice was concerning me and I didn’t like to risk a fall onto Robin just below me. Getting the screw to bite into the ice so far above my head was a tricky and strenuous procedure that I would think twice about before attemtping again. With only half its length dissappearing into the ice, the teeth of the screw grinded into rock and it would go in no further. I tied a clove-hitch around the screw and, despite pushing it flush to the ice, it kept pulling towards the end of the screw as I made a couple of steep and tentative pulls on shallow axe placements to reach another good step. I placed another ice-screw, again only half way in before it touched rock, and continued with growing confidence to some less steep ice above me.
By now the hot-aches were seeping into my hands and causing some considerable discomfort that demanded an effort of concentration to place the third ice srew. The ice above continued to ease and I found a good belay of two nuts and a hex in the rock of the right wall of the gully. Robin climbed the pitch well before we wrapped most of the rope around us in coils, leaving ten metres of so between us as we continued up the easy ground above. After a good deal of heather-tugging, a short, mixed pitch and a tentative step across a fragile ice-bridge we reached the top of Grugog Gully’s steeper, bottom half.
We still had around 300m to climb before reaching the upper slopes of Pen-yr-Ole-Wen. In good conditions, this upper half of the route would be a joyful romp up steep but firm snow, crampons easily sinking all the way in and ice-picks providing, deep, solid placements. We trudged, swam and floundered up the deep, soft snow that sapped our energy and tested my sense of humour. Robin cheerfully took over and broke the rest of the trail all the way to the summit ridge.
The sunset over the mountains behind us filled the sky with a warm orange glow, providing a sharp contrast with the blue sky that defined the snowy ridge line above us. As the angle eased, the wind picked up and the sun dissappeared behind Foel-Goch on the other side of the valley, we put on a warm layer, ate the last of our food and walked wearily to the top of the mountain. Night had descended by the time we reached the summit and the wind was blowing hard into our hoods. The navigation and route finding was thankfully easy as my slightly wobbly legs carried me down Pen yr Ole Wen’s east ridge.
Walking into the camp-site twelve hours after we had walked out of the car, at the end a good-value wake-up call to the rigours of winter mountaineering and a reminder of the difference a southerly aspect can make to the snow and ice conditions, we cooked and ate a simple veggie curry before falling asleep. Note to self: Do not attempt to cook the rice in the same pot as the curry again.
My legs were so tired the following day we took a walk into Cwm Idwal for a look around:
The routes were in excellent condition and we returned to climb Idwal Stream:
Whilst swopping the lead at the top of the first pitch, a large lump of ice was dislodged by a party two pitches above us and it hit Robin squarely on the top of the helmet… a little dazed and confused for just a moment and all was well. A few metres above the belay and aiming for some good ice to place my first screw, another lump of ice hit me on the shoulder. In some considerable pain, I had a good shout and continued to the good ice above.
A fine route! In future we’ll aim straight for Cwm Idwal when North Wales next gets such great ice conditions.Posted: January 31st, 2010 | Author: Mountain Magic | Filed under: North Wales, Winter Climbing | No Comments »