I was new to Snowdonia
Even as recently as Spring 2008, (when I had never set foot on a Welsh mountain), I wouldn’t have thought for a moment that I would be making multiple visits to the Snowdonian mountains in North Wales, (UK) during the winter of 2008/9. That I would “walk” up Snowdon, the biggest mountain there , seven times in winter conditions. And enjoy a good number of other local peaks. But that is what happened, and, oh boy, am I glad I got to know that part of the world, especially in winter conditions! This Trip Report covers all my visits to that area in winter conditions during 2008/9, and starts with some background information about the area, and how I got to be going there so often.
Snowdonia is an area of mountains in North West Wales, UK. A large part of the area, (838 square miles), has been designated as a National Park: no surprise there, it is an area of outstanding natural beauty. In places, by UK standards, quite desolate as well. The mountains in Snowdonia are not high by any standards. The highest, Snowdon, is just 3560 feet.
But the National Park has sea to it’s North, West, and to smaller extent, part of the South. Mainly surrounded by the Irish sea, from which dramatically fast changes in weather can originate. So, whilst Snowdon and many other mountains in the area may be no higher than the foothills of many well known mountains ranges elsewhere in Europe and wider afield, they can be subject to quite severe weather.
That weather also leads to conditions that can be very misleading to hill walkers. The lower lying country surrounding the mountains can see almost mild days in winter. Little wind, no lying snow or ice, just easy winter walking conditions. But climb a thousand feet or more into the cloud that so often covers the higher peaks, and dramatic, and at times very dangerous changes can occur. Fierce winds, sub zero temperatures and what snow that has fallen has gone through a freeze thaw cycle many times, becoming compacted, icy and treacherously slippery. Such conditions are what Snowdon itself is infamous for in winter. A mountain of ridges, some of which lead onto very steep cliffs, which sadly do claim the lives of those who climb that mountain equipped only for the benign lower levels.
Such conditions are a far cry from the more predictable, (but still never totally safe), Bavarian winters I was starting to explore in winter when the loss of my lovely wife Bobbie made it so hard to go back to a country we had spent so much time visiting together. Leaving me to find somewhere else to restart my still young hill walking exploits.
Summit Post to the rescue
Summit Post came to the rescue when, in August 2008, SP’ers Lolli and dadndave met up in the UK, and along with myself went to Wales to walk up Snowdon. My first visit to those Welsh mountains, and despite the dreadful summer weather, (heavy rain and gusts up to 75 mph near the summit), I was hooked! A part of Europe easy for me to get to, (just over a five hour drive from my home in SE England), and somewhere with no painful memories of Bobbie as we had never been to the Welsh mountains together. Photo left, dadndave and myself on the Summit of Snowdon in August 2008.
The year progressed as a local lady, Sarah, introduced me to the Snowdonian mountains within reach of Snowdon on what were becoming quite frequent visits by me. Immediately obvious were the differences over my walks in the Bavarian Alps. The Snowdonian mountains may be no where near as large as those in Bavaria, but I soon found they were as hard if not harder to summit! Partly because away from the main trails up a very popular mountain like Snowdon, routes could be hard to find. Maybe they were marked on the Ordnance Survey maps, but they were not clearly marked on the ground. A further difference to my Bavarian walks was that there is no ironwork on the Snowdonian mountains! No Klettersteig or Via Ferrata. When you reach steep rocky sections in Wales you have to scramble up and down them without the benefit of a rung, a ladder, a chain or whatever else can make such sections easier in Germany. But thanks to Sarah, and as winter arrived and I started walking alone, I did at least have an idea of what to expect as I maintained the frequency of my trips to the area.
Winter comes early and briefly in 2008
Now don’t go expecting tales of a winter where snow starts early and just keeps piling up month after month! Such winters don’t happen in most of the UK anymore, (in many parts they never did!). Deep snow cover is becoming less and less frequent on even Snowdon. And winter 2008/9 was to be no exception. Yet it was to be a very cold winter. From December through to February one of the longest and coldest spells for between 20 and 30 years. But with some days where direct sunshine, and later in February and March especially, some milder days, saw what snow had fallen on Snowdon go into that dreaded freeze/thaw cycle that caused such dangerously icy conditions.
However that was all in the future when several inches of snow did indeed cover a lot of central Snowdonia late in October. Raising false hopes that such an early start would indeed see unusual depths of snow building up over the forthcoming months.
That early snow let me do a great “winter” walk up Moel Eilio, (2381 feet), and along a broad ridge to Moel Cynghorion, (2211 feet), all of which was covered by several inches, providing a lovely looking winter panorama.
On my return in mid November that snow had all gone, replaced by wet and mild weather! But at least it meant I could continue to walk more and more of the different routes up to the summit of Snowdon and other local Peaks in reasonable easy weather.
A rare clear view from Snowdon during my November visit, when winter had gone.
Winter Returns and a valuable lesson
By early December, my next trip to Snowdonia saw the start of the mainly dry, (with some exceptions!), but very cold weather that was to characterise the next weeks. At least when I was in the area.
Continuing to add different routes up Snowdon I chose the South Ridge route for December 6th, a freezing cold day with plenty of frost around first thing. I could see there was some snow on the higher parts of the mountain, so packed my ice axe and crampons. I walked into a light layer of hard packed and frozen snow some way up the South Ridge. A great route that climbs steadily from Bwlch Cwm Llan, (North of Yr Aran), and does need a small use of hands a few times.
Above, looking on towards Snowdon summit over part of the Bwlch Main ridge.
Close to the summit the South Ridge Route crosses Bwlch Main, a ridge with some exposure near and after the point where it joins the Rhyd Du track. Above: looking back along part of the already crossed ridge.
It was just before there I made the error of not stopping to put on crampons, or to unstrap my ice axe from my rucksack as I got onto a narrow section.
So I slid part on my backside, then pivoted forward on one knee after I had dug a small depression in the frozen snow and ice with one of my Leki stick! Then crawled the rest of the exposed bit!
I wasn’t the only person to encounter problems there, (photo above),
but I was properly equipped and learned a valuable lesson for the rest of my first winter walking in Snowdonia.: not only to carry the right gear, but to use it!
The rest of the climb was exhilarating and allowed me to get some of my best winter photos on Snowdon. Most , (but thankfully not all), subsequent winter summitings were to be in very poor visibility.
Some of the other photos I took from around the summit area of Snowdon on December 6th.
I did a shorter walk on the 7th and then, in about the heaviest rain I was to encounter during my winter visits, took a rest day on December 8th and waited for more clement weather!
A Hard Ascent of Snowdon
December 9th did dawn a little better than the 8th, so I decided to go up Snowdon via the PYG track from Pen y Pass. Arriving at the trailhead after breakfast I was surprised to see the car park virtually empty for such a popular starting point. But never mind, it was a cool overcast morning with visibility only fair as I set off on the straight forward track. There was no real sign this was a winter walk until I reached the point with a view down onto the large Llyn Llydaw reservoir. That was mainly frozen over, and above it I could see lying snow just below the cloudbase on Y Lliwedd. That made me start to wonder how much of yesterdays torrential rain had fallen as snow higher up on Snowdon!
Conditions got worse very quickly above the Reservoir, Llyn Llydaw.
I headed along an easier stretch of the PYG track, gaining height easily and soon reached the snow line, At the same time walking into very poor visibility. Blowing wind, snow showers and low cloud! Shortly afterwards I lost the track and realised I had to turn back. As I did so, two figures walked purposefully out of the gloom. Rarely would I ever “attach” myself to other walkers but for some reason I asked if I could follow them up to the summit. “No problem” said the guy, (John), whom I later found out was someone in the process of climbing all the European High Points. An ideal person to be with for the next few hours as it turned out, along with his wife who was the other walker with him.
We soon found that most if not all the heavy rain of the previous day had fallen as snow higher up, making route finding in the gloom very hard indeed. But John knew his stuff. Several times he left his wife and me and walked a short distance ahead to try and find a way up: but always staying in view of us in rapidly deteriorating weather. The snow was deep and slowed us. Twice John told us if the couldn’t find a route up we would have to turn back. Several times we found what may have been the track, only to lose it in conditions we were in, and then have to force ourselves up very steep sections through thigh deep snow onto what again we thought may have been a part of the PYG track.
It was exciting stuff but it was with relief that John shouted we had reached the zig zag on the climb, which meant we were just a sharp bend and a well defined ledge track away from the summit ridge! That was still slow going in the deep and untrodden snow, but that changed after we had struggled up the last very steep snowy section onto the summit ridge, (about 300 feet below the actual summit), where underlying well trodden and hard packed snow and ice had meant the new snowfall had just blown off. Probably adding to the depth we had just walked through to reach this point.
We were soon on the summit ridge, (photo right),
and then the summit in pretty bad conditions. John hurried us off back down, describing the ascent as “very challenging”! He lead us down the Llanberis Path on a deserted mountain as he judged a descent the way we had come up was not safe in the worsening weather. So a big pot of tea at Stefan’s tea house at the bottom of the descent, and then I was very happy to get a taxi to take us back to our cars a few miles away at Pen-y-Pass. Not the last time I was to do that during my first winter in Snowdonia! I went home from that trip feeling I had really pushed my own personal boundaries for winter walking in the mountains.
A Frozen Christmas and New Year
I’d lost Bobbie two days after Christmas the previous year, and could not face being at home for any of that period. With the agreement of my two daughters I’d decided to spend the whole of the holiday period in Snowdonia, based at the Bistro in Beddgelert. I arrived Christmas Eve in time to do my normal warm up walk up from Beddgelert to Mynydd Sygyn in very cold weather. Indeed the spell that lasted well belong the length of my trip was to become one of the coldest for between 20 and 30 years, depending on which local expert I asked. A cold spell with very little snowfall, but day after day of severe frost at night and cold sunshine in the daytime. With some exceptions!
The Bistro had suggested I join in their open house on Christmas Morning when they open their doors to the village providing bubbly and bacon rolls: this year with me pouring the bubbly! But before then I had a chance to repeat my Christmas Eve walk by doing the steep ascent from the village to Mynydd Sygyn. Done in darkness now, on icy rocks but with my head torch showing me the way. I got to the top as the first light of dawn allowed me an outline of the village early on Christmas morning, (photo top right).
By Boxing Day I was raring to do a long walk, so chose to go up the Miners Track route to a Snowdon that was well frozen on top, albeit a bit short of snow.
Indeed most of the deep snow I had encountered early in December had gone, ( (photo right),
), but the top end of the track, (after it joins the PYG track), had some icy and very tricky sections. In particular a narrow bit of quite exposed ledge at the start of the last section of the combined PYG/Miners Track that had been, and would continue to be a problem to most walkers the whole of the long winter.
But with crampons firmly strapped on I felt comfortable going up and down over the ice.
Left: freezing mist blowing across the ridge near the summit enlarges the view of a sun trying to shine though.
The next day I wanted to be truly alone as it was a year since I had lost Bobbie. So I parked at the end of the lake Llynnau Mymbyr, near to Capel Curig, on another superbly cold and clear winter morning.
Snowdon Horseshoe behind Lynnau Mymbyr, SP'er on summit of Moel Siabod, and Snowdon Horseshoe again in afternoon light.
The walk start gave a great view of the Snowdon Horseshoe, and I enjoyed a very peaceful ascent in quiet solitude up to the summit of Moel Siabod, (2860 feet). Near the summit was a small stone shelter. No more than a circle of rocks less than waist high, and I spent some time there in quiet meditation as a strong and icy wind blew strongly around me. Others were summiting by now, so after exchanging brief pleasantries I left and headed back down, wanting only my own company on that sad day.
Looking SE from the summit of Moel Siabod in lovely lighting conditions.
A rest day was followed by a superb day out in the Carneddau, a large part of the Snowdonian National Park North of Snowdon, and big enough to spend all day largely alone.
I started from the North near to Rowen and planned to walk in the general direction of Carnedd Llewelyn, at 3490 feet the highest on the Carneddau.
That was a long way off when I set out in icy cold and clear weather with my head torch lighting the way, as it was still before dawn. Indeed, I never for a moment thought I would get as far as Llewelyn, planning instead to tick off a few summits on the way before turning back at my self imposed turn around time of 1pm.
I walked, and walked in superbly clear weather. Any lying water was solid ice, and with no snow I made good progress and kept going. Until, just 5 minutes before my turn around time I was on the summit of Carnedd Llewelyn, taking in the dramatic view to the South!
I’d crossed five other summits to get to what became my sixth of the day, four of them Welsh three thousand footers. Wow! But I couldn’t linger, I had to get back and that included re-crossing those five summits I’d done on the way up.
Not large ascents on the return by any standards, but all energy sapping. But for once my timing and efforts were spot on. I descended the last steep section off the last summit as darkness fell, and was faced with just and easy valley track back to my car using my headlight for the second time in a superb days winter walking in Snowdonia.
Right. A wonderful view from the summit of Carnedd Llewellyn, the highest peak in the Carneddau region of Snowdonia.
Another rest day followed before I started exploring the Moelwyns on the last day of 2008. A collection of mountains with Moel Siabod at the North, and Cnicht, the Welsh Matterhorn, broadly at the Southern end.
Wonderfully clear views from the Moelwyns, along with a frozen waterall and frozen lakes near to Moel Siabod.
I didn't venture far on New Years Day. Just went and enjoyed the sight of an icy Afon Glaslyn flowing through the Aberglaslyn Pass.
With just a lazy post “New Years Eve Celebrations” recovery walk into an icy Aberglaslyn Pass on News Years Day 2009, my Moelwyn mountain walks were to fill all but one of the remaining days I spent in Snowdonia over this period. Lovely walking in a usually very boggy area, but in the severe winter conditions with rock hard and totally frozen ground to walk on.
Cnicht, (top left), frozen lakes and a normally boggy part of the Moelwyns gave a lovely area to walk in for several days.
The frozen Lyn y Adar in front of Cnicht's NE ridge during a lovely clear late afternoon.
After those Moelwyn days, I decided to end my trip with another ascent of Snowdon. It was still very cold and there had been a light fall of snow higher up as I set out on the Llanberis Path, possibly the easiest route to the top, but one that sadly has a very poor accident record in winter. Largely for those who venture off the track onto the steep and icy adjacent slopes which in a number of places lead to cliffs at the ridge edges. I stayed on the track, took my time and enjoyed the walk to the summit of Snowdon and also the nearby Carnedd Ugain in quite good weather conditions.
Lovely views from the Llanberis path up to Snowdon and Carnedd Ugain.
An icy Crib Goch seen from an icy Snowdon summit ridge.
I was sad leaving the area on January 6th but I was very tired having achieved close to 24,000 feet of ascent since Christmas Eve, so was badly in need of some rest.
I still found time to stop for a few minutes by the large and still frozen Lynnau Mymbry on the approach to Capel Curig, to look back at the Snowdon Horseshoe.
The long icy spell ends in February.
It took me a while back home to recover from that Christmas and New Year trip. But I kept a close watch on the weather in Snowdonia, and by early February it looked like the long cold spell was going to end.
So I hurriedly packed and headed back to the ever welcoming Bistro in Beddgelert. My priority was to get another day up in the Moelwyns before milder weather turned the frozen icy surface back into a muddy bog, and I just managed that! Gone were the largely clear days of my last trip, but I still enjoyed walking on the frozen snow and ice, whilst ticking off some minor peaks.
The mild weather duly arrived, so I headed to the only place I thought I would still find winter conditions: near the summit of Snowdon. And yes, winter was hanging on up there as I went up on the Rangers path, but only just and without the picture postcard scenes I had enjoyed a few weeks before.
I walked a few more days in the Carneddau region in conditions that saw most ice and snow had gone, with the ground becoming increasingly wet and boggy. But I did some good research on walks I planned for the warm months, (including one I subsequently did with SP’s Lolli in April). Heading home I thought I had done well over the trips I had spent in Snowdonia since winter came late in October, three and a half months earlier. Time to put my winter gear back into my a garage at home and prepare for Spring and Summer walking. But no, that was not to be!
At the time I thought this view in the Moelwyns would be my last Snowdonian winter photo in 2008/2009.
Winter returns with a vengeance!
After a spell of mild weather I got very excited to see a cold and snowy spell was forecast for Snowdonia early in March, so back I went! Staying again athe Bistro in Bedgelert, run by Ron and Sheila who themsleves know a thing or two about the hills. Later in 2009 they were to do the Everest Base Camp walk in the Himalayas.
As before during the winter the snow was only higher up, but was coupled with sub zero temperatures on the summits, so I had full winter gear with me as I set out up the Rangers Path early in March.
Right: Snowdon early in March 2009. By now I knew exactly what to expect inside that cloud base!
And enjoyed myself so much with the icy wintry conditions higher up that I took a rest day with a view to going up the PYG track to Snowdon the next day.
My timing looked great as I checked the forecast for Snowdon’s summit over breakfast that morning: minus 4 C actual, wind gusting to 75 mph and visibility locally very poor in occasional blizzards!
“I’m going to have me some of that” was my comment to Ron and Sheila who run the Bistro where I was staying again in Beddgelert. They both looked a bit concerned and made me promise to phone as soon as I was back down below the snow line.
I started from Pen-y-Pass on a day when quite a few others were walking up via the PYG track, all of whom overtook slow old me! Getting close to the snow line I was shaken to see a Royal Air Force Sea King helicopter carry out the rescue of someone from the side of Grib Goch. Thankfully I later found out it was an uninjured climber who had become crag bound.
Start of the ledge that had caused problems on the PYG track to walkers on and off all winter. Often thick black ice with fresh snow on top. As the ledge progresses it does have some quite exposed strectches.
I got onto the ice and strapped on crampons near the junction with the Miners Track, and soon after, started to meet those who had overtaken me earlier, who were on their way back down. The conditions higher up were bad enough for them to have turned them back, and I guessed where that difficult would be. A narrow ledge that had got badly iced up earlier that winter close to the summit ridge. One guy stopped to warm me, “it’s very grim up on the ridge”, but then noticing my crampons reckoned I’d have a chance of getting over ok.
I reached the narrow ledge and it was as I thought it would be. Sheet ice with loose snow on top. With the few who hadn’t turned back, (all without crampons), having enormous difficulty with it. I took it very gently, as I did the final very steep and very icy section up onto a very windy and very icy summit ridge. Visibility was very poor in blowing snow and low cloud, the wind was howling across the ridge, (but not quite as high as the forecast 75 mph), and it was very slippery. I went slowly but really enjoyed it without getting too confident. At one point I left the track and only stopped when I realised there was a very steep drop right in front. Time to really concentrate, which I did.
I got to the icy summit, but stayed only a few seconds in those conditions and quickly headed back to an almost snow covered wall, (part of the station for the railway that goes almost to the top of Snowdon from Spring to Autumn), and dug myself a hole to sit in. Well, I thought this must surely be my last winter ascent of 2008/9, and I was going to celebrate by having a quick picnic. Which I duly did, with the summit stone just visible from time to time in front of me. “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” did come to mind!
By now I was just about alone on the mountain, and in still very bad weather conditions I felt it stupid to try and descend the way I had come up. So I went down the Llanberis Path, and called into Stefan’s the house at the bottom for very welcome pot of tea. While Stefan called a taxi to get me back to my car at Pen-y-Pass.
I did a gentle “warm down” walk the next day, and then , with some reluctance had to accept that would be the end of my last visit to Snowdonia in winter 2008/9. But what a winter it had been, and what wonderful walking I had managed to enjoy in such superb surroundings. Roll on the 2009/10 winter!