The past few weeks work has been pretty much back to back navigation courses in Snowdonia. I have delivered everything from novice level navigation for lowland areas, to advanced winter navigation techniques and Gold Level NNAS training courses.
Today however was the first day I was simply leading a guided hike/scrambling day for a couple of enthusiastic budding mountaineers. As such it was a chance for me to just enjoy showing people the mountains and hills I live, love and work in.
Our plan weeks ago was to go up the Gribin Ridge onto the Glyderau, for an explore of this very unique plateau of upright spikes and table top style rocks of all sizes, not to mention the Cantilever. However as the weather was forecast to be 55mph Westerlies with hail, sleet and snow, we decided that perhaps being on a ridge on the windward side probably wouldn’t be the best option, so we chose to head up the South Ridge of Tryfan and mix up some of the easier hiking with some of the steeper short scrambles. It was a good judgement call, as we were slightly sheltered from the worst of the high winds, we still had some snow and hail on the way up, but the wind was lighter and the buffeting was minimal.
On the way up I was asked what my greatest mountaineering achievement was. Now you would think that with so many years of hills and mountains of the world behind me, that I would have said something jaw dropping in Scotland, the Alps, Dolomites or Himalayas?
Well, you would be wrong! I even surprised myself with my own very honest answer, there was no pause of a few seconds while I thought of something witty to say, allowing me another few seconds to pick my greatest mountaineering achievement, Nope, my answer came very quickly indeed;
It was the day I came home alive, after being very close to the end of my life on the rugged side of a North Wales mountain, this was my greatest mountaineering achievement, not dying on that mountain.
This was back in September 2003. I was living in Penmorfa, just up the road of the hallowed climbing ground of Tremadog and the famous cafe run by Eric Jones (who once cooked me a breakfast that I ate in bed, but that’s another story!). I was getting fit for a trip to Nepal and the Annapurna Himalayas. On this day I had checked the weather forecast, winds of 30mph, with gust perhaps to 50mph and a 70% chance of rain later in the day. Not too bad really, It was going to be a quick loop of the Snowdon Horseshoe starting and finishing at Pen y Pass. The weather was OK, I skipped along the knife edge ridge of Crib Goch, then Carnedd Ugain, up and over Yr Wyddfa and down the loose scree to the bwlch and onwards to Yr Lliwedd.
This is when the weather started to kick in, the wind picked up and the rain showers started. No problem, I have the right clothing, footwear, warm layers, food, map, compass, phone etc, I’m strong and fit and know the mountain really well. So onwards I went, picking my way through the steeper scrambling ground, then up to the summit of this brilliant mountain, steeped in climbing history with classic rock routes such as Avalanche/Red Wall and Rocker Ridge and starting places like ‘the quartz topped block’ and ‘the chevrons’, there’s much mountaineering history here on this mountain.
I stopped just off the summit, on the way down a little and decided to give my close friend and climbing partner, David Williams, a call, I got my old Nokia 3810 out and gave him a call, we chatted for a while with me rubbing it in that I was on the side of this classic mountain while he was working etc etc, perhaps 5 minutes or so, then it was time for me to say bye, and get moving again as I had started to get cold quite quickly.
I continued down a little further and the weather suddenly got much worse, the winds were slamming through with gusts in excess of 70 mph, I was being forced onto braced knees and a couple of gusts actually put me right on the ground – the kind of gust where it goes very quiet just before the booming whistling rushing noise and then bang down you go! I needed to get out of this bloody wind and driving rain.
The visibility was in and out, but generally pretty poor, I was around the area of Lliwedd Bach and started to move down hill to the South, out of the energy sapping weather. The going was slow, still being buffeted, still falling over, the ground now streaming with water, the lichen covered rocks seemed even greasier, broken steep ground, no visibility, driving rain and battering wind. My energy was very rapidly disappearing and I felt the need to hide, to take cover, regroup, get my head together, eat food, yes I must eat some food, I feel so weak, man it’s cold, got to warm up.
There it was, some solitude, a jumble of a few larger rocks with a bit of a shallow scoop to hide in for a while, I’m on my knees and I try to cower over as I take my rucksack off, where’s my food? oh no, literally a few nuts left in the tesco ziplock back of trail mix and half a bruised and semi mushy banana, no fluids left, no flask, no more warm layers to put on, I check my phone as my brain is racing, I’m in a shit state, can I get myself out of this? I’m panicking, brain race, do I call mountain rescue? Im scared, I think I need to stay here a while, call mountain rescue, do it! I stare at my phone in disbelief, the screen is blank, grey, lifeless, there’s no reassuring green glow from the screen or the buttons, shit, shit shit shit! this is not good, think , just think, got to think, to recover, regroup my thoughts, refocus, plan, yes plan. If I keep going South I will end up way way down in Nantgwynant by Hafod y Llan, no way, I’m never going to make it to there, I’m so tired, I need to rest, I need to get to Pen y Pass, I can’t go down to gwynant, it’s too far for me to walk all the way back round to Pen y Pass, too tired, I can’t do that!
I have stopped shivering, I’m aware of that, I’m aware that the panic and the racing brain has also gone, that I feel calmer, no longer cold, all the time I am aware of this, I’m not cold anymore, but I still need to rest, it doesn’t seem as noisy, as windy as wet, it seems to be far less worse than it was, just need a bit of a power nap, let those nuts and banana do their stuff, then I can get going again, just a few minutes, Im warmer the weather has eased off, it’s getting better, my mind is calm, I’m warm, no hurry, just a short sleep.
Somewhere deep inside my head there is survival mode kicking in, ‘Hey!! no, no no no’ my brain is screaming at me, ‘get moving, get moving, just fucking move, move now, go uphill, just move uphill’! The wind and rain returns, and with it the noise, the battering is not as bad, perhaps I’m just not feeling it as much as I stare at my mottled blue hands that are crawling their way upwards, I’m on my knees, crawling uphill, so tired though, just keep crawling, that’s what my brain is telling me.
There is no plan, I’m not aware of where I’m going, just that I need to crawl uphill and just keep going. The visibility is still poor, perhaps 10 metres. All I’m focused on is my hands, the ground, my hands and the ground, I don’t see anything else. Then I notice a break in the ground in front of me, I see that I’m on a narrow track, my hands in the sheep shit and puddles and dirt and moss and my brain looking at the sheep trail and comparing it to an image of this very same sheep trail in my memory bank, yes, from another time, on a sunny day, I was wearing Karrimor KSB’s, it was a long time ago, I have a split second of reminiscing, then I switch back on, woo hoo, yea boy! I know where I am , I know this track, I know it, yea, cool, Im boosted, uplifted, suddenly I feel energised, renewed, Im standing up now, the wind has eased off, the rain is still there, but Im standing up, Im walking, Im moving, not fast but Im moving, Im fuelled on the dregs of whatever is left in my muscles, perhaps Im in flight or fight mode, with a surge of hormone and chemicals surging through my blood stream, who cares, I know the track, I know where I am, I know where this takes me, it still hard work, I feel alive and buoyant, still running on empty though. Each step down feels like it is so heavy, I feel the shock of the ground travelling up in to my knees, sometimes it jars my back, I don’t care though , I know where Im heading, and soon I’m out of the cloud, Im lower down, the rain has nearly stopped, I can see the pumping house at the Llyn Llydaw, the Miners Track is ahead of me, my last challenge, the flat sweeping track back to Pen y Pass, to safety, to my Jeep, I can almost smell the leather seats.
I don’t remember anything else about that day, I don’t actually remember getting to Pen y Pass, or driving through the bends through Nant Gwynant, Beddgelert, Tremadog and then Penmorfa. I simply don’t remember. Everything else Is still crystal clear, the emotions, the feelings, all vivid snap shots, very short bits of video clip playing in my mind, just short clips though, not a whole movie, just movie clips. I’m sure it was about 11.30 ish when I called David Williams, and I think it was well after 15.00 when I got back to Pen y Pass, but I just cant remember. All I know is getting off this mountain alive was my greatest mountaineering survival achievement, yes there have been other epics where I have been scared and thought I may die! but this one nearly got me good and proper.
What do I think helped save me? Alarm bells of knowledge saved me from going to sleep, that I knew the symptoms of hypothermia, that I knew not to curl up and sleep. Also that I knew the mountain really well, having done so many rock climbs on here, from hiking over it so many times, also from traversing round the Southern slopes at all heights as I practiced mountain navigation. That I had seen and remembered that sheep track a long time ago. These things certainly stacked some of the mental odds in my favour, helping me stay focused in some kind of positive way, however small that positive thought was.
I wasn’t complacent with my respect for the mountains, I was an extremely fit very capable mountaineer, I just ran out of steam and was overcome by the weather, I guess I also didn’t appreciate how fast my metabolism was at the time. I was fell running with a big pack on a regular basis, and on this day I was travelling light and fast and didn’t have enough calories with me.
This was a bit of a wake up call for me on the food front, my metabolic rate was so high, that most of the time I was probably on a very fine line when I was pushing my endurance training. After this I changed what I ate before and during a mountain day,and today I always pack more food than I know that I will normally eat, Oh and I no longer run around the mountains with a big bergen on! I much prefer a nice hike with a 25lt pack instead.
Thanks for reading