Proper Mountains 1: Yr Wyddfa

This week, in a break with tradition, I set off not for work but for Snowdonia. The last time I was here was in 2010, as part of my preparation for the second Everest Base Camp trek. I wanted to go back partly to climb the Glyders and partly to get some decent photographs of the area. I prayed for fine weather.

On the journey up, I stopped off at Bwlch Oerddrws, where from the car park and the mountains above you can get dramatic photographs of military planes as they fly up the valley and overhead at about 200ft. The noise and the speed are exhilarating. I always aim to get here in time to have a coffee and a break and I usually build in at least an hour  here to catch a few fly bys. I managed to photograph a C130 and a Tornado during my stop over.

The cottage I stayed in was at the top of a narrow and rough farm track winding up from a similarly narrow and rough side road just outside Capel Curig. It had everything I needed as a base for walking except internet access and a mobile phone signal!

The plan was to climb mountains – as many as I could fit in depending on the weather. I was unfit, not having climbed a proper mountain in the UK since last year. I wasn’t sure how far I’d get or whether I’d only manage one before collapsing in a heap. At least the cottage had a bath that I could soak in if necessary. I watched the local weather forecast and made a loose plan based on the prediction that Tuesday would be the best day. Snowdon it was, then!

I decided against doing Crib Goch this time; if I was unfit, that would be a tough route to find out about it. So I set off on the Pyg Track around 8am. The weather was gorgeous, so much better than I had expected. It was warm going up alongside the Llanberis Pass before reaching Bwlch y Moch. I stopped to drink in the magnificent views down into the cwm with it’s lakes and river and was passed by several walkers heading up to Crib Goch. We joked (last one to the cafe buys the drinks, etc) and left them to their airy stroll. I set off along the Pyg track. It was like a familiar fried; the last time I’d come this way was during the preparation for my first trek to Nepal in 2007. In fact, I’d climbed it twice that year, in mist and then in sunshine. Today was like the latter.

A number of improvements had been made to the path. All of them were in keeping with the surroundings, but where erosion had threatened to make the route impassable, it had been repaired. It hadn’t made the path any easier though and I was soon feeling the strain in my leg muscles. But it wasn’t too bad and I carried on. The last stretch before reaching the railway line was easier than I remembered and the pull up to the summit was straight forward. After a few minutes sharing the summit with four mountain bikers (and their bikes) I headed off to the cafe for a well earned cream scone and a drink. As I tucked in, the train disgorged a load of passengers and they hobbled and shuffled through the cafe towards the summit cairn. I felt smug and finished my scone.

Coming down was straight forward. I detoured to take the Miner’s track on the way back and the walk along Glaslyn and Llyn Llydaw was peaceful and a nice way to end the route. Apart from the 10 minutes when a military helicopter was buzzing me during a training exercise as it flew in and around the cwm.

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Crib Goch

Crib Goch (The Red Comb or Ridge) is the first difficult section of the Snowdon Horseshoe, when that route is tackled in an anti-clockwise direction. It’s a narrow ridge with significant drops on either side. If you stand by Llyn Llydaw looking up at Snowdon, it’s the big ridge on your right. For someone without a head for heights (like me), it’s a real challenge. Every time I climbed Snowdon, I looked across to Crib Goch and wondered if I could.

On 4 October 2010, I did. At about 7.30 am I stood at the foot of Crib Goch where the path from Bwlch y Moch and the Pyg track stops and the scramble begins. Looking up, it seemed like a chaos of jagged rocks with no clear line to the peak. I stared up, trying to see where others had made a start but nothing stood out and I knew I would have to make my own. I reached for the first hand and foot hold and started the climb.

After a few moves I got into the stride and found the initial stages deceptively simple. Hand holds were firm and plentiful. In fact, it was hard to decide which ones to use at first. I wanted to stay over to the right of centre to avoid the exposure to a long drop into Cwm Dyli, which would bring me to a petrified halt. 20 minutes of climbing later, I stopped to take a break and looked back and down to where I’d started. Early morning mist filled the valleys between the mountain tops so that they appeared to be islands in a white sea. Far below, two walkers were making their way along the Pyg track. It felt good to be here.

After checking the line again, I set off on the next stage. Hand holds weren’t so obvious now and the route became much steeper. Occasionally I could see where others had been by the loose gravel and polished rocks, where thousands of hands and feet had worn the rock smooth. At other times, perhaps because I’d strayed off line, it was impossible to spot a popular way and I had to find my own. This was scary but quite exciting and very satisfying.

I started to find the going tough as I’m not a natural or frequent climber and I’d done no particular preparation for this climb. I stopped a few times to get my breath back and I was able to enjoy the views across Cwm Dyli and Llyn Llydaw and beyond to Llynnau Mymbyr and Capel Curig. The mist was beginning to lift and the views were getting hazy as the sun rose.

The going was getting steeper the higher I went. I found that some of the handholds were loose when I tested them and some of the vertical steps were higher, too.  Then the slope lessened and I found I was able to walk without using my hands for parts of the way. Then another steep but short section led to the start of the ridge itself, which popped in to view all of a sudden.

I paused before starting this part of the route. Without dwelling too much on the drops either side I set off on the extremely narrow crest towards Garnedd Ugain and Snowdon. For the next half a mile or so, I concentrated on keeping my balance and not falling over. I alternated between walking on the top and walking on the southern side and I found the going straightforward, if not easy. Every now and then, the dizzying drop on the north side popped into my peripheral vision.

After what seemed like 30 minutes but was probably a lot less, I descended into Bwlch Coch for a rest and a chance to look back over the route I’d just covered. It didn’t look like the same place I’d just been, towering much higher than the bwlch and looking more like an Alpine wall than I remembered.

The next stages of the traverse was across Crib y Ddysgl to Garnedd Ugain. The Crib y Ddysgl ridge is a little wider and the drops either side are not so precipitous but I found the going harder as I was getting tired. The final climb to Garnedd Ugain involved scaling a near vertical wall, with a drop below before finally reaching the summit plateau and the trig point. The gentle slope to the trig point was a welcome end to the hard part of the climb.

From here it was a simple descent to the Snowdon Mountain railway and a final half mile pull up to Snowdon’s summit, following the railway track for most of the way. The weather was warm and clear and the visibility was excellent as I got to the cairn at the top.  I was pleasantly surprised that there were few people there despite the recent arrival of a train to the top station. I called in to the café for a coffee and a rest before heading back down the Miner’s track back to my starting point.

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