Thursday 16 January 2003

In which the author learns about winter walking

Gus and I packed the boot with winter walking gear; fleeces, coats, down jackets and sleeping bags, bivvy bags, ice axes. When we had no more bags to cram into the car we filled the remaining space with music and set off. A million snare drum snaps and guitar chords from The Streets, The Pixies, The Chemical Brothers and a tiny bit of Bob Dylan fuelled us through the sodium draped Midlands murk into the cold, dark clarity of North Wales.

Saturday dawned frost-covered, the sky empty and sharp. Snow-dusted mountains thirty miles away were etched into the cool blue backdrop like photographic negatives, tiny but ornately detailed through the icy air.

The car spooled the hills closer and closer until we parked at the base of Tryfan and started walking up Carnedd Dafydd. We soon ascended from the sub-zero shadow of Y Garn into the sunshine that cleanly coloured the steep mountain side. Even with our weighty packs we passed dawdling and unfit groups struggling up the scree and shale path, and were in turn passed by the park warden, metronomically stamping out time to a steady but unheard rhythm.

The ground proudly displayed its lowest snow at 400m, and the covering steadily thickened until the summit plateau where it lay inches deep and a thousand needles of hoar frost pointed from each stone. The climb revealed more of the world around us, from the craggy North Ridge of Tryfan, to the sheltered Cwm beneath the Glyderau, until eventually we could see the whole of Snowdonia, the Irish sea, England, the Lake District.

We strode the ridges as afternoon dwindled into evening and the day walkers left us to the empty amphitheatre of our secluded bivvy spot. The temperature dropped to minus 6 deg C just an hour after the sun left the moon alone in the sky and we could only keep out the chill by supping tea and soup and gazing at the dark mountains around us and distant amber lights of Bethesda. By eight o'clock I sought my sleeping bag to add warmth to the five fleeces, two trousers, hat and multiple socks and woke up sweating twelve hours later to a cloudy Sunday.

Strapping crampons to our boots we set off in the strong winds up the North ridge of Yr Elen. The twelve razor sharp points of steel underfoot creaked into powdering snow, splintered the shards of hoar frost and skittered nervously on rock, but turned previously slippery footholes into secure steps. With chilling hands we pulled through pinnacles of rock and over small crags, the ridge and sides of the hill dropped from the edges of the ground beneath our feet. We gingerly picked through flakes of rock and scree consolidated by frost, digging the ice axe shaft into anything trustworthy. We summitted alone, day trippers unable to compete with our advanced starting position, and jubilantly shook hands at our first serious winter ascent.

We walked off battered by winds and low clouds and droned back to London.

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