Fields of Snow
Getting climbers to the same place and at the same time is harder than herding cats. When those climbers are either students or recent graduates dispersed across the country the difficulties are further compounded. So it was with a genuine sense of excitement and mild disbelief when the faces of the university mountaineering club pocked into my tent late on Friday night.
I had craftily negotiated a lift from Anna who was driving up from the south coast, and having driven up earlier in the day had managed to arrive first. On the journey up I had phoned my mum to get the latest forecast for Snowdonia. ‘A little cloudy’, was her answer, ‘with no adverse weather conditions such as rain or excessively high winds’. Armed with this forecast we were both confident of a long mountain day for Saturday, and I began to run through my mental list of earmarked routes.
As we drove into the hills surrounding Llangollen on the A5 we passed north facing fields blanketed in snow. I causally remarked that I’d overheard a news report stating the recent snowfall across England and Wales to be the earliest since 1934. We enjoyed the view and dismissed the snow, not fathoming what might.
Views across to Tryfan from Glyder Fach.
Snowy peaks reflected in Llyn Teyrn on the approach to Lliwedd.
Anna and I awoke at six o’clock, having decided upon the 250m Horned Crag route on Lliwedd. The dawn sky revealed snow fields across the Carneddau and across the lower east face of Tryfan. This was the first time I’d seen so much snow in Snowdonia, and I couldn’t wait to get up into it. ‘We can’t climb in snow’ said Anna, looking cold already. I mumbled something on the lines of ‘sure we can’ and ignored further protests we bundled into the car for the journey round to Pen y Pass.
It became quite clear as we walked along the Miners Track that we wouldn’t be getting any where near our route. The lower hills we covered in snow and as we approached Llyn Llydaw, its waters reflecting the snowy slopes above, we realised our route was now a snowfield. Accepting defeat, but having enjoyed the view, we then turned tail and headed back to the campsite- hoping to catch the others.
On our return to the campsite Anna very wisely decided to call time on the climbing and instead go for a walk. I still held dreams of a mountain route, and will be forever thankful of Lewis Stewart for being the only one who accepted the challenge with only a minimal amount of bullying
Lewis and I at Llyn Bochlwyd with the north face of Glyder Fach behind.
Into the Snow
We walked along the roadside of the A5 with the rest of the group, who where heading to the Idwal slabs. Llyn Ogwen’s waters mirrored the snow covered tops of Y Garn and Carnedd Y Filiast, giving a clue to the volume of snow that we would find higher on the Glyders. Despite the levels of snow I’d earlier seen on the Snowdon horseshoe I still held hopes that we’d find bare rock. Lewis and I had decided on the East Arete on the main wall of Glyder Fach, a 138m climb rated difficult. I felt that with the conditions this would provide a suitable challenge.
It took us a half hour to climb out of the valley, walking up to the right of the heavily burdened Nant Bochlwyd. This is a route that I had attempted two weeks before with my dad, but we had been turned back just above the waterfall by sheet rain on the mountain above. Lewis and I now stood at the shore of Llyn Bochlwyd and stared upwards in silence, as we redefined our expectations for the day. Instead of sheet rain as before, now a thick cloud erased entirely the features of Glyder Fach’s north face at mid height. Snowfields and icy rock buttresses confronted us. I checked with Lewis and confirmed we were still going up. ‘I wouldn’t miss this for a game of cricket’ he said. That would be a yes then.
We waited for a gap in the cloud in order to catch a glimpse of our route. I had a topo and description, but in the snow and cloud neither of us could make out any discernable features. After a few minutes we gave up and guessed its position, and then identified a long rakish traverse of snow and rock ledges that would take us to where we believed the route began.
Just beyond the shore of the lake the snow line began, and being British and unused to sitting snow we wasted a good few minutes larking around, throwing snowballs and wasting energy thrashing through snow drifts. Half an hour of following a well trodden path leading to the col between Tryfan and Glyder Fach, boots sliding every way but forwards, we reached a point that we could begin our traverse onto the north face.
I'm looking pretty happy on the ascent.
On the Face
Traversing from the col.
The traverse began as pure joy. I lead the way easily kicking in steps into the virgin snow with Lewis following behind enjoying in the fruits of my labour. At times we cut through drifts, and we would sink up to our thighs and occasionally our waists. I have no memory of ever being able to do this in England before. We would switch positions at times, passing through small boulder fields and traversing steep snow slopes. The way was mostly easy but required care, and the exposure built steadily until we were high above the lake. The snow was mostly deep enough to feel secure but at times we would slide on grass below or stumble through patches of scree. The worst times were the occasions I kicked in deep and collided with a boulder, pain for my troubles.
It took us the best part of an hour from the where we began our traverse to negotiate our way to about two hundred metres above the lake. Occasionally the cloud parted above long enough for us to get glimpses of the ground ahead. Each time we looked we saw snow fields and small broken buttresses and nothing to suggest the continuous rock of the East Arete. We were able to use the landmarks of the Bristly Ridge above us to the left and the lake below to ascertain that we were somewhere on Glyder Fach. The finer points of route finding eluded us. Looking further east the ground became far steeper, and looked rather more intimidating than we felt we could cope with. Instead we made our way over to the beginning of a possible rib.
Lewis on the first pitch.
We now stood below a small wall, with two long snow chutes to either side striding down the slope and considerably adding to our sense of exposure. We harnessed up and set up an anchor. I took the first pitch leading around the corner of the wall, hoping to see a rising rib above. Instead further small outcrops blocked my view. I continued upwards, weaving a line between harder ground, wishing I’d an ice axe and places for some better gear protection. I ran the ropes out for fifty metres only to find myself on a snow slope devoid of anchor placements. I spied a possible boulder a further ten metres above, and so we ended up moving together until I could place a sling and belay Lewis.
Lewis leading the second pitch.
The question of our preparedness arose at this first anchor when I realised I’d left my gloves in my down jacket down in Anna’s car. Lewis had also managed to loose his fleece somewhere between the lake and the traverse from the col. So we came up with a brilliant system where by the leader got the gloves, and the belayer got the jacket. We could have used an ice axe each, possibly a dead man and an understanding of the finer arts of moving together but we also recognised that this was too good an opportunity to miss for lack of proper equipment.
From this first pitch we traversed further upwards and right below a more substantial rock crag. Here we found a set of foot prints, and despite not knowing if this was the route we felt more confident knowing someone else had come this way. Lewis led this pitch with less trouble than I took to second it, as Lewis had kicked away the last of the snow leaving me with icy grass on which to further my progress. Lewis kept a tight rope and once I slipped until the rope caught my balance. From where we sat at the anchor we knew we were entirely committed to the route, as descent would have been incredibly treacherous for us.
Lewis having a good time as I lead the third pitch.
Lewis seconding up the fourth pitch.
Lewis before the route's crux.
I took the third pitch, and ran out another fifty metres of rope through increasingly tricky ground. This culminated in a rightwards traverse to a large spike belay. From here we looked outwards across the valley and we amazed by what we saw. The cloud had come into the valley and completely isolated us from the rest of the world. The temperature had dropped also and we both kicked our feet into the snow to regain some sensation into our toes. We felt at least a thousand metres higher than we were. At times a window in the cloud would open and provide stunning views of Tryfan, an imposing sentinel enthroned in snow and ice, or of Pen Y Ole Wen, heather still visible on its lower slopes. The valley floor below remained green and I felt a strong anticipation for the relative comforts it would provide.
The face looked more imposing further to the right.
Lewis’s next pitch provided the crux of our route, a broken wall with deep v grooves covered in ice and snow. The exit move from this crag was a broad bridge across the white void below with jugs for hands and then a pull over onto easier ground above. Lewis, a self proclaimed boulderer, recalled later on the descent that those moves now list as some of his all time favourite. ‘I’ll definitely be heading to the Alps sometime soon’ he stated.
My final pitch through deep and easy snow and mixed ground brought us just shy of the summit itself. Here we met the first people since starting the route, having seen others on the Bristly ridge several hours before. It was three o’clock, and so the climb up from the valley must have taken the best part of five hours. We were both tired and cautious on our descent down to the right of Bristly ridge. In fact this was easy, with a well worn path through the snow which quickly brought us down onto the col. Here we went down to the east and circumnavigated around the base of Tryfan’s east face, arriving at the campsite at around half past four.
This had been an entirely unlooked for pleasure, and proved an excellent opportunity for Lewis and me to climb together again. We approached the mountain with caution even if with a lack of proper preparation but remained aware of what we could achieve. At no point did our day feel desperate, although the adrenaline was flowing at times, and I am incredibly pleased with what we achieved.
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