Monday, 11 February 2013

A Non-Caving Trip

Sunday's caving plans were thwarted by our own laziness, so I thought I'd write about Saturday's non-caving trip to Snowdonia instead, since it was a 'minor epic'. Kathryn and I planned on practicing our winter skills by climbing Hidden Gully, on Glyder Fawr (we'd done a course last year and were keen to take things a bit further).

It's a fair old drive across to Snowdonia for us. When we pulled up in a layby near Ogwen Cottage, the persistent drizzle and low cloud base suggested it might be a wasted trip, but we'd come all this way so had to at least go for a walk. Donning coats and overtrousers, we trudged up to Llyn Idwal, our spirits about as foul as the weather. The occasional brief breaks in the cloud revealed mountain slopes stripped bare of snow by the thaw. We couldn't yet see our destination, Cwm Cneifon, but we feared we were a day too late for winter.

As we slowly gained height, traversing across Y Gribin's western flank, temperatures dropped and patchy slush gave way to snow. By the time we had reached the upper end of Cwm Cneifon, and the bottom of our chosen gully route, we were walking on hard snow, beneath rime-coated cliffs in thick cloud - glorious (based on my limited experience) winter conditions!

Thanks to Mark who we met at the top for sending the photos
Our route began in the unimpressively named Easy Gully, a wide grade I snow slope, steep and hard enough to warrant kicking steps into the neve and, eventually, moving roped together. Hidden Gully is a narrower couloir, grade II, branching off to the right part way up Easy Gully. The combination of climbers above us and a thaw on the gully walls meant small chunks of ice and snow would disconcertingly rain down on us. We realised it was a mistake not to have worn helmets.

As we traversed across into Hidden Gully, the terrain underfoot became icier, and the area immediately beneath us rockier. The view of the cwm far below us was lost in the dizzying whiteness. The climbers above us had two axes each (we had one), helmets and more than just an 8mm thick 30m rope. In the space of a couple of minutes the day felt like it had changed from a fun snowy climb, to a more committing encounter for which it was uncertain whether we had the relevant skills or equipment! I think we both realised that we were operating in that grey area in which an undertaking changes from rewarding and exhilarating to foolhardy and dangerous. That's where the best adventures are found though... so we pressed on (in part because the thought of turning back was not very palatable either, and we could see the top of the gully).

The top of Hidden Gully - Mark's picture
Now treating the climb as pitches, I made an ice axe belay in a drippy alcove, where Kathryn joined me. It was a poor belay - placed too low down so that it was difficult to sit yourself below it, but it would do. Kathryn placed herself below the drips and recieved a thorough soaking as she belayed me up the pitch. I was well aware of the theory that you should place runners as soon as possible but there seemed to be no cracks that would admit a nut and no flakes to place a sling round. Nevertheless, I felt sure of my footing so climbed on. Soon I was past a chute to my right, which had previously been funnelling melted ice/snow onto us; that was something at least. Then I came to a steep and icy rock step. This felt a lot more exposed. I was relieved that, by teetering on my front spikes, I could just about reach a small crack in which to place a tiny nut above me. I hacked my axe into the ice, plunged my other hand into the slope above (oh for a second axe!) and hauled myself up into another alcove which afforded a reasonable belay stance. A dishevelled-looking Kathryn followed me up.

The next pitch was mercifully short and I easily found a good flake and another large crack for some convincing runners. It was surreal 'topping out' onto safe ground with the odd walker plodding past. The climbers ahead of us had stuck around to take photos of us on the last pitch which was great, although I felt a bit silly trying to improvise a belay in front of them with not much useful equipment left on my harness!

We weren't quite out of the woods yet. With visibility down to a few metres, we weren't sure where on Glyder Fawr's summit plateau we had arrived. We de-cramponned, got the compass out and headed in a generally correct direction to find what was probably the summit point. Following a compass bearing we then stumbled across a line of cairns and followed them down to Llyn y Cwm, where the snow was wet and slushy once more. The Devil's Kitchen path led us back to Llyn Idwal and then the car, where we could finally strip our sopping gear off.

Anyone reading this (which would be a surprise in itself!) with any winter experience will probably chuckle at my 'epic portrayal' of what is a very low grade winter climb! But it felt scary and exciting to us at the time. They may also tut chastisingly at our ineptitude. Admittedly there was some 'questionable' decision making (no helmets, not enough slings,  belays placed too low, wrong choice of rope, getting up when the alarm went off at 6am...). Nevertheless it's very satisfying that we don't have to look very hard in the guide book at the moment to find things that feel so adventurous to us! One day we'll read this with amusement too, but for now we're quite pleased with our endeavours!

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