Climbing Jebel Toubkal

As usual, the riskiest part of any climb is the descent. You’ve concentrated hard to get to the top, expended all your energy, sweated all your sweat and all the training, planning and mental preparation has been to get you to the summit. At the top, you’re cold or dehydrated or tired, or all three. Coming down is an afterthought (although quite an important one). Anyway, it’s all downhill from here, right?

We had three nights booked in the Atlas Mountain Refuge des Mouflons. Mouflons, I hear you ask? It’s a kind of mountain goat local to those parts. So yes, I was in a mountain goat refuge. Get the jokes over with now so I can continue.

The plan was to quickly get to the refuge on day 1, climb Toubkal on day 2, climb Ouanoukrim (another 4000m peak) on day three and combine a swift ascent of Tizi n Ouanoums with the descent back to Marrakech on the fourth day. The trek started well – we got to our start point, where the technical kit was handed out. I’d picked this particular trek because of the winter skills training and experience and so I was expecting the crampons and ice axes. I wasn’t expecting the avalanche transceiver, which we all had and were told had to be worn at all times while we were in the mountains. The transceiver would enable members of the group to find other members of the group in the event some were buried by an avalanche. Or it would enable the trekking company to recover their ice axe and crampons. Either way, the concept that we were at risk of an avalanche was sobering.

We walked for 7 hours in the increasing heat of a North African day to get to the mountain goat refuge. It was tough going – climbing around 1300m in total. The accepted norm once you get to the mountain sickness altitudes is to climb no more than 300m per day. But the idea was that we would be at altitude for no more than three days and it shouldn’t be a problem. And apart from exhaustion, it wasn’t. Almost immediately after we got to the refuge, we started our technical training with the ‘ice axe arrest’. Rather than some local constabulary technique for apprehending villains, this was a skill that would (hopefully) stop us from sliding too far down a snow or ice covered slope while climbing. The basic drill is this: Once you find yourself sliding towards a horrible and drawn out end, you twist and roll and dig the sharp bit of the ice axe into the snow/ice. The skill is in the twist, in the grasp of the ice axe and in not skewering yourself with the sharp bits of the axe. Our instructor picked a gentle slope, created a slippery channel in the snow and demonstrated a perfect ice axe arrest. Then it was our turn.

The risk was minimal – if we got it wrong on this bit there would be laughter which would probably continue as the unfortunate soul trudged back up the slope to have another go but no drawn out slide as the refuge was in the way. One by one we shot down the slope, twisting like it was last summer and rolling like it was the 1950s. Eventually, we got it and we took the opportunity to keep practising because it was important to do it without thinking and not because it was great fun. Then we tried it left handed.

They all laughed as I lost control of the ice axe and ended up sliding head first for a few yards until the slope tailed off. I did too. And I laughed as other people got it wrong. But in the end we were pretty good at the ice axe arrest, as we found out the following day when one of the group slipped for real on a properly steep section of ice and executed a perfect arrest. We all clapped. And we all gripped our ice axes a little tighter.

The morning after our training we were due to climb Toubkal. But we woke up to a howling gale, sleet and mist. Our guide said it was too dangerous to go up and indeed we saw the group that had left the refuge early to catch the sunrise returning a few hours later, having turned back before the top. The weather cleared up in the late morning but it was too late safely climb and descend the mountain, so we went on an acclimatisation walk up the valley for a couple of hours and practiced more crampon techniques. It was here that our real ice axe arrest took place.

On the second full day with the mountain goats, the weather was perfect for an attempt on the mountain so we set off just after dawn. Despite being only a few miles north of the Sahara desert, there were great sheets of frozen snow for most of the climb up and the technical kit was most definitely needed; the first 2 hours would have been impossible without crampons, and the next hour extremely difficult. Unusually, the higher we got the less snow there was an the final hour of climbing was on relatively snow free scree and rock. Our crampons had been left at the snow line. The wind picked up at around 4000m and despite the strong sun and cloud free sky, it was bitterly cold. The summit marker, a large pyramid frame, was invisible on the way up until we were only a few tens of yards away. It was a welcome sight as we had climbed another 1000m in 4 hours. Our guide later told us it was -8c on the top but I didn’t feel any of that.

The views from the top were fantastic. As the highest peak in the High Atlas, there was a 360 degree panorama of North Africa, with the Sahara just visible as a hazy patch to the south and the village we’d set off from three days before to the north. East and west, the High Atlas mountains stretched as far as I could see. The guide pointed out a squirrel, slightly smaller than the UK native brown ones, and with stripes running the length of its back and tail. It was checking out the latest batch of visitors to see what scraps we’d leave behind. Rock thrushes and Alpine Chough also waited patiently for tidbits. We had the top to ourselves and after the inevitable summit photos, there was a chance to just stop and take in the beauty of the place, and the achievement we’d managed.

All too soon it was time to descend. Our guide pointed out clouds edging in from the north, from where the wind was blowing. We set off down and for the first time I realised how steep it really was. The loose rock and gravel was extremely treacherous and we all slipped and slid on the way down. The danger with descent is that any fall forward is usually a fall down the slope and far worse that falling on the way up, where the fall is usually uphill. At some points we were negotiation narrow sections with steeper drops either side and while we were on the scree, there would be no ice axe or crampons to help.

Eventually, with aching knees, we got to the snow line and a chance for a rest and a mini picnic. The wind was cold here, at 4000m, and as I tied the straps of my crampons on I could feel my fingers aching and stiffening with the chill. It was important to get the straps as tight as possible as any slippage would translate to difficult walking and possibly a demonstration of exactly how good I was with the ice axe.

It took about two hours to walk down the snow slope. It was steep and hard going on the knees and thighs and by the time I’d zigged and zagged down, all the while stomping to make sure the spikes dug in and gripped, I was shattered. But I remained upright. Just.

There was a subdued celebration as we were all tired, and an early night with the prediction of bad weather for tomorrow. It’s the nature of the High Atlas that the weather changes completely from day to day. A few year ago, heavy rainfall combined with melting snow to cause flash floods in the foothill villages that killed 60 people and destroyed vital farmland Only now are they restoring the land to production.

Sure enough, the following morning was grim with high winds and driving snow coming up the valley, and temperatures well below zero. There was no question of us doing the short walk tot he mountain pass. Instead we delayed departing for Marrakech as long as possible in case the weather improved. It didn’t, and we set off in a blizzard that had deposited more than 18″ of snow overnight. The path down, so obvious in the sunny weather when we’d come up, was hidden, as were the valley sides. We trudged along, bent forward against the wind and with faces covered, in the footsteps of our guide. Here was the sense in paying that little extra fro a professional, experienced trek leader. Cheaper guides were available in the foothills but as we were to find out, they didn’t care about the people they were guiding, just about getting their money.

Very soon after leaving the refuge, our guide stopped us and pointed out a large shoulder of fresh snow. “Avalanche”, he said. “It’s just happened.” All hands dived inside jackets to ensure the transceivers were switched on. We made our way quickly over the snow, which was hard going as it was soft and deep. It had come down from the left but I couldn’t see where because of the poor visibility. We carried on as fast as the conditions would allow. Little rocks and stones hidden by the snow threatened to turn ankles and I was grateful for decent walking boots, which saved me a couple of times.

On a flatter section we stopped for a few minutes to regroup and take a breather. We were still at altitude and it was below freezing. I could feel snow and ice on my beard and my sunglasses (despite the cloud and mist it was too bright not to have sunglasses on at this altitude). There was a layer of ice on the glasses and in my beard. It was the only positive I’d felt so far – I’ve always wanted a photograph of me with ice in my beard.

It took us another 7 hours to get back to the little hotel where our bus was waiting to take us to Marrakech. For most of that time we were walking in blizzard conditions with the wind directly in our faces. For the last hour, the wind abated and we walked in decreasing mist but on slushy ground which was equally slippery as the snow and ice further up.

The steaming glass of mint tea, known as Berber Whiskey in these parts, that was waiting for us in the hotel was delicious.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Advertisements

Summit Fever

Ahead was a wall of broken rock, covered in ice. To my left, a drop steep enough to give my acrophobia a phobia of its own. To my right, the scrambling route was covered in ice like a glass waterfall. The wind was gusting unpredictably and had just tried to push me off the path. I took a moment to recall why I liked walking in the hills and mountains. I looked back along the way I’d come and found the answer. In a 180 degree panorama were a range of snow topped hills and mountains stretching away into the distance. Immediately below me was a beautiful valley with the remains of slate quarries and the associated ruins covered in snow and ice. The sky was blue and despite the wind, the sun was warm.

The wind, taking offence at my ‘despiting’ it, nudged me closer to the drop.

Rewind a few days. The long term forecast looked good, so I booked a few days at a cheap hotel near Bangor and settle down with some maps and my planning head on. More mountains, more training – I knew I had to get some longer walks in with more serious climbs to prepare for trekking in the Atlas Mountains.

They day before I set off the forecast suddenly started talking about snow and more importantly, heavy drifting snow along the route I’d use to drive to North Wales. Although the days I was due to spend there were going to be cloud free, I knew that conditions might be more difficult that first thought. But on the other hand, it would give me some experience of winter walking in challenging conditions, which was what I could expect in Morocco. So with some trepidation about the driving conditions, I set off early in the morning to head north. The road conditions weren’t as bad as I was expecting but there was a lot of snow, and I could see it beginning to form drifts in the wind. Nevertheless, I managed to get to Snowdonia earlier than anticipated and with time to spare before I could check in, I parked in the Ogwen Valley and strolled up to Cwm Idwal to get some photos of the snowy conditions. A cold wind blew along the valley and in the cwm, but I was wrapped up warm and enjoyed the short walk to the lake. By now the snow had stopped and the clouds were beginning to break up. The waters of Llyn Idwal were a cold grey and very choppy. Ice formed on the grass and reeds at the water’s edge. Ahead, the Devil’s Kitchen looked decidedly frozen.

The hotel was warm and comfortable and, coffee in hand, I settled back to plan the next few days. Tomorrow, I would climb Snowdon on the Watkin Path. This I had first done 11 years ago when I met up with two fellow trekkers to train for my first Everest Base Camp trip. We’d set off along this route, one of the longest paths and one with the greatest height gain, full of confidence. We were all well into our training routines and very fit. At first it was clear but as we neared the top the mist descended and the last 100m or so was a steep, slippery and pathless scramble in near zero visibility. Similarly, on the way down we struggled with the steepness and the lack of firm footholds. Only later did we find out that we’d missed the path and scrambled up a near vertical face with ridiculous drops beneath us.

This time, I knew the route I was going to take and it definitely didn’t involved scrambling. The correct path went off to the left and I was determined to follow it, not being good with heights. I set off in cold sunshine and followed the lower part of the path through an ancient woodland to a valley and waterfall, before reaching a gateway which featured in the film ‘Carry On Up the Khyber’. Much of the film was shot in and around the area. Beyond this, the path rose steadily into slate mining country and I passed a number of ruined buildings, inclines down which the slate bearing trucks dropped, and water mill workings. A large rock bears a memorial to commemorate the opening of the path in 1892 by William Gladstone, who was 82 when he addressed the crowd here. He didn’t go on. I, being younger, did.

Now the snow began to make a difference. Until this point, it had merely been a coating on the mountains, making them even more photogenic than usual. Soon, I found the going underfoot was slippery and as the depth of snow increased, it became tiring too. I found myself wading through knee deep snow for large parts of the ever steepening pathway. I was the first person up this way since the snow and while it was great to be walking in no one’s footsteps, it made route finding difficult as the snow was deep enough to obscure the twisting route. In places, ice had formed beneath the snow and while the deep snow prevented me from slipping too far, it was like walking in sand with every step forward resulting an a slip backwards. This became tiring very quickly and I found I was out of breath far quicker than I would normally expect.

On one of my rest stops, I was passed by another walker who, without pack or poles, was making light work of the conditions. His foot falls were confident and I guessed he was very familiar with the route. Although I couldn’t keep up with him, his foot prints were a useful guide to the route. I was careful not to follow blindly (after all, he could have walked off the edge of a drop) but it gave me some clues as to which way to go.

It was getting warmer now and eventually, the gradient dropped off as I reached the saddle between Snowdon and Y Lliwedd. I remembered this from the first time I came this way, and also from the time I walked the Snowdon Horseshoe, when at this point I found I’d run out of water. Now I stopped for a rest and a snack, and to enjoy the views East down towards Glaslyn and Llyn Llydaw. Ahead, the bulk of Snowdon disappeared into low cloud and I spent a few minutes identifying the route up the steep scree slope to the top. It was difficult to make out the path as it disappeared amongst the loose rock and snow. I could see a diagonal line of snow leading up before fading out. Then there seemed to be an outcrop of rock before another, fainter diagonal heading into the cloud. There was no sign of the walker that had passed me.

As I set off from my rest stop, the wind hit me from the east. Cold and blustery, it nearly knocked me off my feet. The next gust overbalanced me and I only stayed upright by grabbing onto a nearby outcrop of rock. The wind, mist and the lack of obvious path made me feel a bit nervous. I’ve walked in these conditions before but only once with such a drop to one side, and I didn’t enjoy the experience. Carefully, I set foot on the scree slope and made my way up. It was steeper than it looked and the wind was now gusting in the opposite direction – towards me. Now I was battling against the wind steeply uphill and at any moment, the wind direction could change again and I’d be left leaning in the wrong direction. And then the scree slope stopped abruptly against a wall of broken rock covered in ice.

As I stood and looked at the vista before me, I was thinking about what move to make next. Although I had crampons and an ice axe with me, I was not experienced in using them. The ice axe wouldn’t help as it would probably be torn from my hands if I fell down the scree slope. With my inexperience, the crampons were more likely to cause a fall than prevent one as I would probably catch the spikes clumsily and take the express elevator down. The mist made finding the route after the first few hand holds nearly impossible and without visibility it would be difficult to plan a safe line. Finally, I was very tired after ploughing through the deep snow. So reluctantly, but knowing it was the right choice, I decided to turn around and make my way down. As if to confirm my decision, the wind gusted once again and pushed me down the first few feet of the scree path. Then it tried to push me over the edge.

At the saddle, I turned to look back to see if I could spot the path again but I still couldn’t see a clear route and, disappointed, I made my way back down the path. By now the snow as melting and beyond the deepest drifts of snow, the path was becoming more and more defined. I passed another walker who had turned back before me and another who was heading up. I stopped and chatted to him and he said he was having doubts about the final part of the climb. I left him heading up and made my way down the the quarry ruins. By now the wind had dropped and it was beginning to feel like a summer’s afternoon. The countryside was beautiful and the views down the valley magnificent. But I was feeling deflated after the turn around and some of the magic was gone as I finally made it back to the car, tired and hungry.

Back at the hotel, I went through everything again in my head, and came to the same conclusion. It had been the right choice to turn around. But I also decided to try again the next day, using a different path.

This time, following the Llanberis path, I made it to the top of Snowdon with the aid of crampons. The conditions just past the Clogwyn station were extremely wintry and ice on a difficult slope threatened to let me slip down and over the Clogwyn Dur Arddu cliffs. I used my crampons and while they did give me the ability and confidence to manage the ice, I was clumsy in them as I got used to the front spikes catching in the ground, and I was glad I hadn’t tried using them the previous day. I made my way down in a much better mood, only briefly stopping to wonder at the people making their way up, having ridden half way on the train, and totally unprepared for the conditions ahead.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Moel Siabod

Day two in Snowdonia and I was seeking out a new mountain to climb. I’d seen a route suggested in a magazine which appealed to me – Moel Siabod (roughly translated as ‘Shapely Mountain’) and this morning I set out even earlier than yesterday to get to the top. Once again it was bitterly cold in Nant Ffrancon but the sun was coming up fast and it promised to be another perfect walking day.

At the car park I compared routes with another walker who was just setting out. We both decided that scrambling (one option) wasn’t wise given the ice and frost but i knew there was a more traditional path running slightly to the left of the scramble route. With this as my first goal, I set off to cross the Afon Llugwy on an old single arch stone bridge. After a short detour down the wrong path, I finally found the lane leading onto the mountains. It was a steep, twisting tarmac farm track nestled between high hedges that restricted the view to some branches and many potholes. But just as I was getting bored, the lane pooped out and turned into a footpath that skirted the farm and led to a rougher track. But more importantly, ahead I could see the classic mountain shape of Moel Siabod. I could see how it had got its name.

For the next half mile or so, it dominated the view ahead and I had plenty of time to study the layout of the ridges and make an educated guess where the path I was looking for climbed to the top. The path led over several stiles until I was walking alongside the steepest part of the mountain. I came across the first of three lakes I was looking for. This one sat at the foot of a large spoil tip of broken slate. Above the lake were a number of ruined buildings made from stone; the remains of a slate quarry that had dug into the side of the mountain and excavated a deep hole which became the second lake. This was Moel Siabod Slate and Slab works, which operated from the early 19th Century until 1884.

Beyond this, the path climbed steeply for a few yards and water had seeped onto the ground and frozen in a solid sheet of ice. It was impossible to walk upon and I had to dance a few deft steps to avoid sliding back down the quarry again. Soon I was walking on more even ground, climbing steadily rather than quickly. Underfoot, the ground had been boggy and muddy but the cold temperatures had solidified most of it to make the going much easier and considerably drier.

I skirted the third lake and spotted a path leading up the side of the mountain. It was clearly the scramble route, so I avoided it and carried on looking for the adjacent path. About 15 minutes later, I started to wonder if I’d missed the start of the route up. I stopped to snack and drink and checked the map. The path on the map seemed to follow the scramble route and there was no other marked. I couldn’t see a path on the ground but the eye of faith spotted a faint route up following two slanting lines of rocks. With yesterday’s gully route in the back of my mind, I set off for a short but very steep climb up to the rocks. High above, the grey mass of the summit seemed miles away and I started a slow plod to gain height.

After about ten minutes, I looked up to see how far I’d gone and found the summit no closer. My legs were heavy after yesterday’s climb and I stopped for a breather and to take in the view behind me. A hazy vista lay before me, making the landscape difficult to identify. Occasionally, a shining rooftop or road surface cut through. I set off again, slower this time as the going was much steeper. There was no clear path to follow and I had to choose where I put my feet carefully as in places the way forward was more the 45 degrees. I checked my progress and the summit still seemed impossibly far away. The next ten minutes felt like an hour. I went slower and slower as my energy levels started to ebb and every time I looked up, it felt as if I’d gone backwards.

Eventually, I stopped to make the call whether to turn back. I didn’t know where I was in relation to the summit and I was clearly not on any well used path. I didn’t seem to be making any progress and my spirits were low. I had stopped enjoying the morning. I stared at the summit rocks and as I did I started to pick out details and began to realise that I was much closer to them than I had previously realised. There was nothing to suggest scale and so I hadn’t been able to judge distances but now I spent some time I could see little cracks, patches of snow and other subtle signs that said ‘I’m soooo close…’

This revelation gave me a little extra energy and I set off on the final push to the top. Within ten minutes, the slope had backed off and I could see a low wooden fence leading up ahead and off to the right. I looked up and the rocks I’d thought were miles away were within touching distance. But I still had to be careful; the way up the last few metres was across broken rock, all of which was white with frost and snow. I wobbled and slid my way over the uneven ground, wary of twisting an ankle at this late stage, and suddenly I was on the flat summit plateau with the trig point just above me on the right.

Moel Siabod is a great mountain. It has 360 degree views and I spent minutes just looking around, trying to identify the various snow capped peaks I could see sticking out above the haze. Ahead of me was a panorama of Welsh 3000ft mountains, ranging from Snowdon and Crib Goch, across to the Carneddau and the Gkyders, where I’d been yesterday. It was beautiful and tranquil and awe inspiring and it was everything I want a mountain top to be. Eventually, I recovered and started to take photos. It was warm up there, as it had been yesterday. Despite a slight breeze, the sun was warm and suddenly all the effort and doubts I’d had on the way up was forgotten. It was mostly white beneath my feet and there was a thick frost on the rocks around the trig point. Off to my right was the ridge I would have scrambled up and I guessed that the path I should have followed was much closer to the scramble route than I had expected.

All too soon it was time to head down. I had thought of going back the way I came but I chose instead to use the rest of the route as described in the magazine and head off on a circular path back to the car. I gingerly made my way over the frosty rocks and down onto a frozen grassy slope. This dropped me down very quickly but easily until I reached a deeply rutted path. This was filled with ice and snow and was harder to negotiate. Most accidents happen on the way down after the walker has become more confident and wants to get off the mountain quickly. I was very conscious of this as I stepped carefully to avoid ice and loose rocks. I stopped to chat with a couple from the Wirral who were spending the afternoon on the mountain. They often came up to North Wales and we agreed about how much better it was to have the mountain to ourselves rather than sharing it with hundreds of tourists as on Snowdon.

The walk back to the car was hot and towards the end, when the views had gone, long and lacking in interest. I made my way through the forest and across the river once again before walking the last half mile or so along the A5 to the car. On the way I looked back to see Moel Siabod, hazy in the distance, looking like a proper mountain between the trees.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

Glyder Fawr

The first time I climbed Glyder Fawr in Snowdonia, it was raining, misty, cold and miserable. The day before I’d climbed Snowdon via the Watkin path with friends I would later trek to Everest Base Camp with, and we’d done it as a training exercise and to get to know each other better. I got to the top of the Glyders twice more between 2007 and 2014. It was about time I went again.

The weather forecast was for clear, cold weather and I knew there would be some snow on the tops of the Snowdonia peaks. I was staying in Bangor and I reached the area in darkness the day before so I didn’t know exactly what to expect. I wasn’t to be disappointed. I set off from the car in a bitterly cold wind and walked along the A5 in the Ogwen Valley until I turned off at the visitor centre to make my way to Cwm Idwal. The last time I was here I was with Rufus, and we’d circumnavigated the lake with one of us paddling and splashing his way along the water’s edge and the other one, knowing his role, throwing stones. At one point Rufus had set off up the steep and winding steps that led into the Devil’s Kitchen route to Glyder Fawr. I’d had to stop him in the end as he was still recovering from a bout of Pancreatitis and I didn’t want him to over do things.

Today, I set off along the same route up into the narrow cleft in the sheer mountainside. From the lake, it’s very difficult to see the route and it looks as if ropes and climbing gear will be required. But close up there is a path amongst the jumble of rocks and boulders that have fallen from the cliffs, albeit one that fades in and out of clarity even as you are walking it. The steps from boulder to boulder are high and it makes for hard going as it’s difficult to get into a rhythm. This morning it was made harder by the ice that had formed where water was seeping onto the path and the verglas on the rocks , which was impossible to see. I only knew it was there when my boots failed to grip and I went flying. The first of three slips due to difficult conditions.

Behind me, Cwm Idwal and the lake slowly lit up and behind them, Pen yr Ole Wen shone brightly in the morning sun. Ahead, the shadows made spotting slippery rocks even harder. I plodded on slowly, straining to reach the next rock step and holding on it case it was icy. Around me, trickles of ice clung to rock faces and icicles threatened to drop as the sun began to melt them. Far below, I could hear the voices of walkers and climbers, mostly hidden by the twisting and confused path.

After what seemed like hours, but was just under and hour, I reached the first proper patch of snow. It was frost hardened and the steps of yesterday’s climbers provided good foot holds. Although I’d brought crampons with me, I hadn’t felt the need to use them as from the start point there seemed to be little snow on the mountain tops, and they were in the car. I carefully made my way across the snow and up to the dry stone wall that marks the end of the big steps and the transition to less steep inclines. Here there was more snow, which was easy to navigate and I was soon in the little cwm with the lake where I had planned to take a break and plan my route up onto the summit.

I sat and stocked up on calories, and the sun kept me warm as I scanned the side of the mountain looking for the path I’d used last time. I spotted a steep gully filled with scree and snow, which seemed the obvious path upwards and it was this that I made for to start the final ascent. The sun disappeared as I started and it went a little chilly. It was much steeper than I first thought and walking on scree was tiring. Some of it was frozen solid and this made progress a little better but every now and then, I’d step on a patch that had thawed and my footing would go. This section of the climb was just hard work without the rewards of new views and I found it very tough. It was difficult to find a stable spot to rest and so I tried to keep going to get it over and done with. As the slope began to ease, and as the sun popped back into view, I came across a large expanse of snow. It was too steep to walk safely on and I wished I’d brought the crampons. But I traversed to the right to an outcrop of rock and made my way along a snow free section until the slope eased off completely. Now all that was left was a short scrabble over rocky ground and the summit was mine.

These rocks, shattered by the repeated freezing and thawing of water in cracks, define the top of the Gylders. It’s an alien landscape of sharp, pointed crags in between which is a carpet of weathered stones. There was a thick frost of the rocks which made them treacherous but at least I could see the slippery patches and I was able to avoid them. To my right, Snowdon and Crib Goch stood out from the haze and to my left, beyond Glyder Fawr’s summit was Tryfan and Glyder Fach. I still had to be careful where I stepped but the summit is flat and it was pleasant walking in the bright, warm sunshine. Every now and then a wind would pick up but just as quickly it would drop again. I took my time walking between the towering crags, which all had snow piled up against them in deep drifts. Ahead, overlooking the Nameless Cwm, a long crescent of corniched snow overhung the vertical drop and I made sure to avoid going anywhere near it.

Without warning, a strong, cold Easterly wind started to blow and the top became much harsher. It was time to go back down. I followed roughly the route I’d taken up but avoided the steep gully by using the path I should have taken, which was longer but less steep and better underfoot. I managed to reach the cwm quickly and stopped to have a flask of soup to prepare me for the drop down through the Devil’s Kitchen again. By now there wwere lots of people making their way up and my descent was slowed by stopping to talk to people, to share the conditions on top and to generally chat about how fine a day it was. By the time I reached the path around the lake I was tired and aching but the worst of the descent was over. While I still had to be careful as the icy paths hadn’t thawed, I could spend more time enjoying the surroundings and appreciating how wonderful this place really is.

Just before I reached the main road, an RAF Hawk jet screamed over head as it negotiated the tight turn around Pen yr Ole Wen and headed off down the Nant Ffrancon valley towards Angelsey and its home. I trudged wearily back along the road and slumped into the car. It had been a long day. I’d been walking for more than 6 hours, covering 7.5 miles and climbing to just under 1000m.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

At last, Atlas!

This is not a sad, reflective post.

Since I lost my walking buddy last month, I’ve been at a bit of a loss. The house is empty and silent, my walks have been enjoyable but half hearted and generally I’ve been struggling a little to find something to focus on.  Friends have been really great (thank you all) but inevitably there were moments I had to deal with myself.

I had committed to spending all my spare time with Rufus while he was with me and I never regretted a second. We had some great adventures side by side. We walked all of the Brecon Beacons together. Rufus swam, paddled or splashed about in every muddy puddle in South Wales along with a few rivers and a couple of lakes. I had to stop him climbing up the Devil’s Kitchen in Snowdonia as it was only a few weeks after he had Pancreatitis and he was still recovering. We got about half way up before I managed to persuade him that Llyn Idwal was an ideal paddling pool! If peeing on lamposts is a territorial marker, his kingdom stretched from Sketty Park to Uplands and from Cockett to Oystermouth road (for non-Swansea folk, that’s quite a patch). Squirrels in that acreage were very, very scared!

Everywhere I walk now has some kind of memory of Rufus for me, almost always one that makes me smile. Last week I walked down to Tor Bay and on the beach, I remembered Rufus triumphantly running up to me with a giant piece of rotting seaweed in his mouth. I was meant to throw it for him. I declined. On Fan Gyhirych, I remembered him feigning a limp when he thought we were heading back to the car, only for it to disappear as he leapt over a stile, and instantly reappear again after he’d eaten the treat he knew he’d get for such a feat. It came and went according to the adventure he was having and at one point he got stuck up to his belly in thick mud, which I had to rescue him from. The limp went completely after that! I like these memories, they genuinely make me smile. If you see some grinning idiot on a mountain, it’s probably me.

But I always knew that one day Rufus would head off to the hills without me and I would be left to fill the time with something new different. And I always wondered how I would feel about that. I have a long term plan, with no dates because I couldn’t predict the future, to climb a so-called trekking peak in the Himalayas. A trekking peak is a mountain that can be summited with limited technical skills. There would be no mountaineering but there might be some ice axe and crampon sections, and the need to rope up to protect against falling into hidden crevasses. I knew the first stage of that plan would be learning to use crampon and ice axe. My previous blog was about getting boots that would take crampons but was written well before I had made a decision about when to start. I was merely taking advantage of sales prices.

On Monday, I found a short trek that would combine ice axe and crampon experience for beginners with two summits. Although it was very soon after losing Rufus, it was also an ideal opportunity to start to focus on ‘the next thing’. And here was my dilemma, because no matter how I thought about it, I felt guilty about moving on this quickly. Irrational, I know, but a real issue for me. So, (and bear with me here), I had a little chat with Rufus about it and he ended up calling me names for being so silly to think that way.

The upshot of all this is that I’ve signed up to trek in the Atlas Mountains in Western Morocco later this year. The trek includes a section of walking on ice and frozen snow and offers the opportunity to summit Jebel Toubkal, at 4190m the highest in North Africa, and Jebel Ouanoukrim, which is only a few metres lower. I have heard good things about these mountains from fellow trekkers and one of the great things is that start point in Marrakesh is only 4 hours from the UK – nearly a third of the travel time of the longer treks I’ve been on.

My aimless wanderings will very quickly become focused training sessions. I have Rufus to thank for making me maintain a decent level of fitness, which has meant I can take advantage of last minute offers and a shorter build up. While I won’t say exactly when I’m going (this is the internet after all, and the last thing I want is unwelcome visitors while I’m away), it is relatively soon.

Expect some more posts about the build up, and eventually some long and boring account of the trek itself (from which you are only excused if you have a valid excuse).

Finally, below is what most of weekends will end up with…

Soaking feet

Aahhhh!

 

Boots

I’ve been looking for new walking boots. The problem with being a walker is that boots wear out. Whether it’s through normal, but constant, use or whether it’s because of damage they will one day give up. And it’s always just as they become as comfy as they will ever be.

My first pair of boots that I went walking in weren’t intended to be full on, hill-bashers. They were thin, canvass trainers with a higher ankle for more support. They were great for general walking but as soon as I discovered more challenging terrain, they showed themselves to be sadly lacking in most of the key areas – grip, waterproofness, comfort and ability to survive. So I went and bought a pair of what I thought were ‘proper’ mountain boots. They weren’t, although to be fair they looked the part to my inexperienced eye. They were big, heavy and clumsy and more like work boots for navvys. They were only comfortable if I cushioned my feet in two pairs of thick socks. I hardly wore them, apart from a couple of times on the Isle of Skye in the snow and once near Glen Coe.

The last I saw of them was after a marathon walking day along the relatively easy Bridge of Orchy section of the West Highland Way. I’d been taking photos and wandering along the rough track near the railway station for most of the day and my feet were aching and hot. So off came the boots to dry in the sun, on went some old trainers and I sat in the car, drinking from a flask of coffee and feeling smug.

Later, in the B&B, I realised I’d left my boots behind in the car park. It was raining and cold, so I didn’t go back to get them that evening. I thought back to what had happened. I’d forgotten to put them in the boot and, given where I’d put them, I must have reversed over them when leaving. I decided that I would abandon them as lost, and invest in a decent, purpose made pair of hill walking boots. I was staying in Fort William and the local outdoor clothing shop was nearby. So in I went, and out I came with a pair of Brasher Hillmasters, recommended by one of the staff.

What a revelation! They were comfy like warm slippers are comfy, straight from the box. I didn’t have to walk them in. I didn’t have to layer sock upon sock to cushion my feet. Walking in them felt like rolling along with little effort. I felt I could take on Ben Nevis. Over the next couple of years, I wore these boots every time I went on the hills. They got a proper bashing when I trained for my first Everest Base Camp trek in 2007, including Ben Nevis, and they got me to the top of Kala Patthar and to Base Camp itself in supreme comfort and warmth. In the end, the soles wore smooth and they became my gardening boots. I only got rid of them last year.

I replaced them with a second pair of the same make, which were just as comfortable. These took more of a hammering as by now I had the mountain bug. I managed to do all of the Brecon Beacons in them, and plenty of other hills and mountains, including Crib Goch and Snowdon, several times. These boots got me back to Everest Base Camp in 2011 before finally giving up the ghost the following year when something snapped inside and they began to click loudly!

I bought a third pair of Brashers straight away. But I also invested in a cheaper pair of boots for training, to give the Brashers a chance to rest now and again as a lot of my preparation was on the streets, which tended to wear out the tread more quickly than mountain paths. These boots got me to the top of Kilimanjaro in 2014 and are still my main walking boots today. They have the scars of walking on sharp, volcanic rock. The leather uppers are scuffed and scratched but they remain great boots.

But this weekend, I decided that I would buy another pair of boots. Not to replace my Brashers, but to add the ability to use crampons. The Brashers are designed for all conditions bar deep, slippery snow and ice in winter. As my long term plans include the possibility of walking in deep, slippery snow and ice in winter, I needed different boots.

The website of the specialist outdoor clothing shop I went to said they had the boots in stock, in my size. The sales assistant didn’t seem to grasp what I was saying and told me they hadn’t had any crampon compatible boots in for more than a year. So in the end I went to my local discount outlet, ‘Go Outdoors’, where I bought most of my trekking kit over the years. I hadn’t tried it first simply because they usually cater for the more popular end of outdoor activity. Careful to get the right size (as they will be used in colder conditions, I need to have a boot that fits when I’m wearing two pairs of socks). Not only did they have the exact boot I was looking for but it was nearly £50 cheaper.

As I type, they are sat in the front room. They are comfy but in a different way. They are stiffer and heavier than normal walking boots, as they are designed to cope with harsher conditions and to hold crampons stable and securely. Now all I have to do is find some deep slippery snow and ice in winter.

 

If at first you don’t succeed…

…wait two weeks and try again.

Yesterday I set out once more to try and catch the sunrise from the top of Pen y Fan. ‘You fool’, I hear you cry. Yes, well I hear that a lot and I’ve got used to it by now.

If I’m perfectly honest, I don’t really like climbing Pen y Fan. I love the feeling of getting to the top, but there are other hills and mountains that I prefer climbing as the routes are more interesting. I’m not training at the moment, so I climb for pleasure and for the opportunity to take photographs. Carreg Goch has become a favourite as the surrounding hills and valleys make wonderful subjects. Fan Brecheiniog remains my all time favourite; Llyn y Fan Fawr nestled beneath it is my happy place and the route up from Tafern y Garreg along Fan Hir is one of the best ridge walks I know.

So back to yesterday. I wasn’t climbing for pleasure as such. The goal was to reach Bwlch Duwynt by 8am for the sunrise. I trusted the weather forecast which told me that, unlike last time, the tops would be clear of cloud. I also anticipated some snow at the top which always makes for a classic winter mountain photograph. The journey to the car park was better than last time; I was the only one on the road and the conditions were much better. The temperature only dropped below zero as I dropped down onto the A470. I had the car park to myself and immediately I could see in the near darkness that there was plenty of snow on the hillside and some on the path.

Snow is easy to walk in. Unfortunately, this snow had thawed during the previous day and refrozen over night. As I picked my way carefully up the first part of the path I quickly found out that the patches of snow on the path were treacherously slippery. On went the head torch and I started to tread more carefully. It was darker than last time because there was high cloud overhead, hiding the pre-dawn sky. I wasn’t worried about the cloud ruining the day, but the icy snow was making the first part of the climb energy sapping. I couldn’t get a rhythm going and had to stop, side step and take longer strides to avoid the worst of it.

As the darkness slowly faded, and as my eyes got used to it, I saw that further up the path there snow was continuous on the path. Ideally, I’d be using crampons on this kind of ground. I don;t have crampons. It was going to be interesting.

I hit the thicker snow and found that while it was frozen, it hadn’t turned to ice. My feet broke through the icy crust and found grip underneath. Apart from the odd patch where ice had formed the walking got much safer, although the sensation of walking on a sand dune where your foot goes backwards as you push forwards still remained.

I lost all sense of time as I trudged on. Several times I looked behind, across to Fan Fawr the the hills beyond. Each time they were brighter and all the time I expected to see the first pink light of dawn highlighting their summits, letting me know that I had been too slow. But suddenly, the wind picked up and I knew I was nearing the bwlch. Sure enough, a few weary minutes later, I got to the shoulder of Corn Du and saw the whole of the Gwaun Taf in front. Apart from the bit where the sun would come up, which was obscured by a cloud. And Pen y Fan was missing!

A bitterly cold wind was blowing from behind so I made sure I had my back pack between me and the chill and I stood to see if I could judge when the sun would rise. I quickly realised there was little point in standing there as I’d only succeed in getting colder, and the cloud wasn’t going anywhere. So I turned to my left to make my way around the foot of Corn Du to Pen y Fan, which was slowly appearing from the mist. The rocks beneath my feet were clear of snow but thick with clear ice and this was by far the most dangerous bit of the climb so far. The wind threatened to catch the back pakc and unbalance me, the ice would stop me getting a grip and the steep drop ahead would ensure a swift descent.

Gingerly I made my way to where the route to Pen y Fan started. The path that is normally so clear and flat was nowhere to be seen beneath a featureless blanket of thick snow which sloped down the Corn Du and dropped steeply to Gwaun Taf on my right. Untouched snow, no footsteps. It was beautiful. I made sure I took photos before I spoiled the snow, then set off to try and follow the path.

I have an ice axe. I bought it when it was on sale, and after recommendations from a magazine review. I hope to use it winter climbing in Scotland or Nepal but I’ve never considered it necessary in the Brecon Beacons. And while I still wouldn’t take it with me, I felt at that point that it would have been useful in case I slipped. The snow here was deep and deeply frozen. Although not as slippery now, it was still difficult to walk on and not knowing where the slope started beneath made my first few steps quite tentative. But soon I figured out where the path lay and found myself on the more gentle slope leading to the summit of Pen y Fan. At this point I could see behind me the snow of the Craig Fan Ddu ridge turning pink as the new sun lit it. It was worth every chilly, slippery step.

On the summit, I was alone and at first enveloped in mist. This soon blew off and the views north and west were magnificent. This is always worth the effort of the climb and I spent a few minutes just enjoying. But it was too cold to linger and so after taking the photos I wanted, I set off back down to the snow covered path, passing another walker on the way. We chatted about the conditions and joked about the over crowding and then parted – two lone dots on a white landscape.

Coming down the same way I went up was easy to start with. The deeper snow provided better traction coming down and absorbed some of the impact so my knees didn’t hurt so much. But inevitably, just as I was passing another walker coming up, I slipped into a deep gully at the side of the path right up to my knee. I managed to struggle out and we both laughed as I told him not to come over as this was the deep end. I had hoped that the icy snow near the beginning of the path might have melted as the sun rose but it was as slippery as ever and I had to work hard to avoid the ice. Even parts of the path that weren’t covered in snow had frozen where the melt water had flowed. But I reached the car park unscathed and relatively intact. There were very few people there even 9.30.

This was my 53rd Pen y Fan ascent.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.