Welsh 3000's - FAIL

Another failed challenge due to a sudden return of winter weather... a good weekend though.

Graeme Stanford

Starting my articles with the word ‘fail’ seems to be an emerging theme recently. The old adage “you should always be prepared to turn back” rings very true however…

Chris Dean and I decided to have a crack at the Welsh 3000’s on a spur of the moment. Busy schedules quickly brought us to May bank holiday as a date for the attempt. All we needed was semi decent weather. I think we both agreed that “as long as it’s not p**sing down we’ll do it !”. How prophetic that was to be.

The plan was simple. Leave one car at the North end of the route with food, water and warm clothes in it. Leave the second car in the Llanberis pass with more food and water in it. Bivvy on Snowdon. Start the challenge at dawn, descend to the car and dump bivvy kit, re-fill with food and water etc, then go for it. We were going to carry all the food we need and get more water at Lyn Y Cwn and Pen Yr ole Wen. We reckoned on 15 ish hours for the whole thing.

We met in Betws Y Coed, on Friday, as planned and then Took Chris’s car North to it’s overnight resting place. The weather at this point was lovely. Hopes were high. The Mountain Weather forecast predicted a weather front coming in Saturday afternoon / evening but clear, if a little windy, until then. We had a quick faff to make sure the right kit was left in Chris’ car and then headed for the club hut to dump gear for Saturday night. More faffing and a little later we were sitting in the Vaynol Arms, in Nant Peris, having some food and a pint before starting up the hill. Still the weather was with us… lulling us into a false sense of security.

We left my car halfway up the pass, near the wooden bridge at the climbers hut. This left us a stroll up to Pen Y Pass and 2030 hrs saw us starting up the Pyg Track. It was a thoroughly pleasant evening and we wandered along putting the world to rights. We stopped and read the warden’s ‘conditions report’ which also led us to believe all was well. Onwards and upwards. Not even cold enough for a jacket. As the light faded we crossed into the inside of the valley and started the slog up to ‘the zig zags’. Darkness fell and out came the headtorches. Near the top of the path we heard voices and two chaps appeared out of the gloom. No headtorches and no gear as far as we could see… it takes all sorts I suppose. We said hello, as you do, and left them picking their way down the track by dim moonlight. As we approached the slate marker the wind started to pick up so we donned jackets before coming over the rise by the railway. The night time view from here, of the lights in the valley, is breathtaking and gave a dramatic backdrop as we wandered up to the summit café.

Once there we looked in vain to find a sheltered spot, around the café, out of the wind. We settled on the plinth in front of the café. It was too cold and windy to enjoy the location so we sorted our bivvy bags etc out and climbed in. After I’d spent ten minutes mucking about inflating my Gucci new mat Chris was finally able to stop taking the mickey and get his head down. About 0230 I woke to light pitter patter of what I thought was rain on my bivvy bag. When the alarm went at 0430 and we sat up we discovered it had been snowing. The wind had picked up a little so we had something to eat while packing up and were touching the summit by 0500. At this point the weather still wasn’t too dramatic although snow was falling lightly. Visibility was around 50 metres but our spirits were still high. We headed towards Garnedd Ugain and pretty quickly found the trig point. From here we took a bearing to make sure we were heading onto the ridge proper. Once on the ridge the route couldn’t be more obvious but care needed to be taken with the scrambling as snow isn’t the most grippy substance in the world. Garnedd Ugain quickly became Crib Goch and the snow continued to fall. When there’s no visibility the ridge seems to be over quicker than expected and very soon we found ourselves picking our way down the North ridge. (I’ve never been on the North ridge before and to say it’s a little narrow at the top is an understatement.) As the angle decreased and the narrow ridge became steep scree we took another bearing to ensure we didn’t end up on top of the crags looking for the descent. We quickly found the route down and were soon descending out of the clag. Unfortunately this also meant the snow was turning into rain.

We arrived, damp, back at my car two and a half hours after touching Snowdon’s summit. Well within our plan. This gave us some confidence in completing the challenge despite the weather. We had a longer faff than we would have had if the weather was better. We rearranged clothing, loaded up with food and water and, most importantly, shed the weight of the bivvy kit. Once sorted we headed of down the pass towards Nant Peris. By now it was steadily persisting it down. We reluctantly passed the pub (not without discussing a pint or two) and soon found ourselves on the flanks of Elidir Fawr. From this point on things started to go downhill while we struggled uphill. There were a few other walkers sploshing around and they were warned not to follow us. We slogged uphill slowly and as we slogged the wind increased. As we approached the 700 metre contour the gusts were getting up to 40 + mph I’d say. The kind of wind where you occasionally haveto stand still for a moment while waiting for the gusts to pass. We had a quick conflab about the route to the summit and I made the mistake of recommending getting straight onto the ridge so the angle of ascent would be easier. Sadly this led us into a 400 metre boulder field. Added to this it was now snowing steadily but the wind was turning the snowflakes into something more reminiscent of airgun pellets. The boulders were slippery with snow and the ankle breaking gaps were being rapidly hidden by snow. Our progress slowed rapidly. We stopped behind a large erratic (the only shelter on the ridge) for a quick bite to eat and for the first time we discussed the possibility of retreating. From here it was another 300 endless metres to the summit where we sorted out our route and made the firm decision to descend to the car. We were heading straight in to the wind so Chris was looking down and walking on a rough bearing while I followed, also looking down, his boot prints in the snow. The conditions continued to worsen so we were never in any doubt about our choice to retreat. Once on the col below Elidir Fawr we headed straight down the valley toward Nant Peris, picking up the path along the stream as we went. We noted that the snow was falling at a lot lower altitude than earlier but once below 500 metres it helpfully turned back into rain.

As we approached the village we said hello to a young chap who looked like a poster boy for Cotswold outdoor. He was wearing all the latest ‘top of the range’ fell running kit. It all looked brand spanking new. He asked what it was like ‘up there’ and we gave the honest answer “it’s shit” Chris helpfully added “it’s like a Scottish winter day”. The lad cheerfully ignored this and set off up the mountain to scare the sheep with his brightly coloured kit.

For us it was another interminable slog in the rain up the Llanberis pass. We looked at all the same roadside rubbish that we’d passed earlier in the day. The car soon came in to view and by 1330 hrs we were heading north to collect Chris’ car.

It was disappointing not having completed the challenge but that’s the good old British weather for you. The 3000’s will still be there when we try again.

Graeme Stanford

This article was written by Graeme Stanford and published on this website on the 12th May 2015