I had just returned from spending a few weeks in the winter warmth of Andalucía when I received a call from a good friend asking me if I fancied a day out midweek; the suggestion was a walk up Snowdon in Wales, taking in another summit on the return. It was the beginning of February and a ‘cooler’ excursion did have a certain appeal. We looked at the weather forecast and the day with the worst weather was the following Tuesday; it forecast, snow, hail, sleet and freezing rain all day. I know this may sound odd but we like that sort of stuff and it tends to liven a mediocre trip up a bit.
Snowdon is the highest peak in Wales at 3560 feet A.S.L. (1085m) and I have previously refused point blank to venture up Snowdon as it has a cafe and a train station on the top! For me, it goes against everything I’m out there for, but, in a moment of weakness, I agreed.
We decided on a trip up from the south side to the summit and then west from the summit before descending south-west into the valley, taking in the smaller summit of Yr Aran at 2451 feet A.S.L. (747m) on the return. The wind was around 20-25 mph with gusts to 40 mph and an ambient temperature at the start (about 200 feet A.S.L.) of around minus 2 Centigrade. The walk up was steady, with good visibility between the snow showers. We decided to leave the path for the last 1000 feet or so to make it more interesting; it was steep with frozen snow patches. Crampons would have been handy on those bits but most were easily by-passed to give a reasonable safety margin. The ones we did cross were soft enough to kick into with the
winter boots. As you would expect, the visibility reduced substantially during the last 1000 feet and the wind became much stronger; ambient temperature on the summit was down to around minus 5 Centigrade. We had a drink on the summit and some malt loaf before setting off again. Visibility was only about 100 feet now and we set a compass bearing to exit the summit in the correct place.
The route down was obviously cooler as we were not generating any heat; the climb up to the summit of Yr Aran soon put that right. We had decided to climb the short, steep side; indeed, short and steep it turned out to be. By now the wind was 25-30 mph with gusts much higher; the freezing rain producing sharp ice particles that stung our faces, making forward progress painful to say the least. We reached the summit, again having a quick stop for a drink and a bite to eat before descending by the same route.
We continued to descend, the last 1000 feet or so turned the freezing rain to just rain, this continued until arriving back at the vehicle. The thing that seemed odd to us was that we didn’t see anyone else out that day apart from two workers on the path near to where we had parked the vehicle. O.K., the conditions were a little grim but often, it’s these conditions that bring the best adventures.
We both went light but well equipped for the conditions. Let’s look a little closer at the equipment taken by each of us.
35 litre rucksack, 1 litre of water, 1 litre of hydration mix, 2 cereal bars, 6 slices of malt loaf, 1 bag of ‘Gummy Bears’, 1 banana, 2 x powdered soups, Gore-Tex jacket, Gore-Tex trousers, Ventile smock, Fibre-Pile/Pertex jacket, Windstopper gloves, Gore-Tex over-mitts, fleece balaclava, Gore-Tex bivi bag, substantial first-aid kit, SAM splint, head-torch (and spare batteries), map (with waterproof map-case), compass, knife and sparker, cooker and st mug, 10m paracord.
We both decided against crampons and ice axes. The reason being that there was not enough snow cover existing that couldn’t be avoided and if the snow on the day was heavy, then they would have been of no use because the snow would have been too soft.
We all know that weather conditions in mountainous areas can change extremely quickly and the secret of staying safe lies mainly with the equipment we take. Generally, the greater your experience the less equipment you’ll need to take. Taking too much equipment can often lead to accidents resulting from fatigue, balance, lack of agility and not least inertia! Carrying a heavy pack in mountainous terrain is a skill that has to be learned and unfortunately, it can only be learned from actually doing it. Sometimes, the severity of the conditions or the duration of the trip makes it necessary but generally, mountain skills and experience are better than lots of kit.
Experience will tell you that the wind-chill on the summit would be around minus 15 Centigrade based on the available information; looking at the kit taken now makes more sense. I think it was Ranulph Fiennes that said ‘There is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing’ and there is a good deal of truth in that.
The warnings about staying out of the mountains in bad weather are becoming much more common. By learning the required skills and gaining the experience required, these warnings won’t apply to you. Allowing you to venture out whenever you like, in whatever conditions you like while maintaining a good, healthy, safety margin.
Enjoy yourselves and take care!