It felt a bit strange packing ice axes, crampons and full winter gear when setting off for a week in Snowdonia for my summer Mountain Leader (ML) assessment, but such is the weather of the UK! Most ML courses being run last week were actually cancelled, but fortunately Snowdonia First Aid, who were running my assessment, were imaginative enough to think up a plan to still get in all the necessary stuff but whilst (nearly) avoiding the snow. The plan involved a trip to Holyhead Mountain for the “steep ground” day, a small but very complex sub-400-metre-high hill south of Beddgelert and a two-night expedition to the northern Rhinogs.
I headed up a few days before my course began, under the premise of getting some last-minute practise in. However, the lure of the pristine snow-covered summits was too strong and I spent a good deal of my time exploring Snowdonia under a not-insignificant blanket of the white stuff.
I got a lift to Llanberis with my Mum and Dad on the Friday, and we went for a walk up Moel Eilio, one of my favourite hills in the area. Its gentle slopes are more akin to the Lake District than Snowdonia, but it offers some grand views over to the Snowdon range. Indeed, if you’re feeling energetic, it offers a great way up Snowdonia’s highest peak. There was a good amount of snow and ice, and crampons became necessary for the final part of the ascent. Take a look at the picture of the summit shelter, which was encased in a thick layer of ice – something I’ve never seen before!
Back in Llanberis, we tried the little cafe attached to Joe Brown’s corner shop, called “The Pantri”. I make a point of mentioning this as they served a particularly good cup of coffee, something which is quite a rareity in Wales!
After a rather chilly night at the campsite in Llanberis, the following day I decided to combine nav practice with a bit of fun in the snow. The fun comprised of the north ridge of Tryfan, whilst the nav practice came the other side of the Glyders, just off the Miner’s Track. There was a veritable motorway of mountaineers ascending Tryfan, obviously all making the most of the Alpine-esque conditions. The route was challenging in places, and definitely warrants its winter climbing grade of I/II, especially with the amount of snow that was about. Said snow transformed the fun summer scramble into a real mountaineering route and made the summit feel a lot taller than its 914m.
The following day, I rather reluctantly decided that I should concentrate solely on nav, and so devised a route up the ridge to the north of the Llanberis path. This ridge would make a fantastic route up for anyone wanting to avoid the crowds up the Llanberis path itself, offering grand views of Snowdon, Moel Cynghorion and Llanberis.
I dropped down to the Llanberis path later in the day, mainly to marvel at the masses of tourists attempting the ascent in their trainers and jeans, with no gear whatsoever. A scene of chaos was ensuing just below the Clogwyn station, where the path steepened and the cramponless tourists where desperately slipping and sliding all over the place. I hasten to add that, for me at least, crampons were necessary at this point, where hundreds of boots had trodden the snow into a lethal icy slope. I hung around for a while to make sure some struggling parties descended safely, before making the decent myself. Unsurprisingly, and to reassure you that I wasn’t exaggerating, Llanberis Mountain Rescue Team were called out that evening to assist a group that were stuck on the same slope.
For a bit of comfort and relative luxury, I booked myself into Pete’s Eats bunkhouse for the ML assessment itself, and it was there that I stayed on Sunday night. I was impressed by the place, which was very clean and which boasted a self-catering kitchen (hobs and microwave, no oven), large flat-screen TV and importantly, nice and powerful showers.
The next day – the first of the assessment – was spent seeking out little contour features and the like on Moel y Dyniewyd. Our instructor, Steve Howe from Snowdonia First Aid, gave us each features to navigate to in turn, whilst the others tried to follow the legs blind and point out where we were at the end. Although a bit nerve-wracking at first, I soon settled into it and started to enjoy the challenge of navigating through the undulating terrain of this little hill.
Day two of the assessment focused on “steep ground” work at Holyhead Mountain. This covered everything from managing groups up steep rocky or grassy terrain, through to confidence roping nervous individuals and setting up impromptu belays for emergency situations. The ML award is seeing a diminishing amount of rope work, due to the argument that if an ML is using a rope they are out of their remit area. However, I would argue that the basic skills taught are invaluable should a leader find a member of their party needs help on ground that is definitely within the ML remit, which from experience can sometimes be the case. The kind of ground I am talking about is easy scrambling such as Striding Edge, or just steep scree slopes such as that to the east of Bristly Ridge. As a climber, I’m glad to have learnt these techniques that can be used without a harness or indeed any other gear than the rope itself.
The remaining three days and two night were the “expedition” part of the assessment. In an attempt to avoid the snow, we traveled down to the northern Rhinogs and the Wednesday morning, and Helen took over from Steve in assessing us. That day, we followed a similar pattern to day one, each taking turns to navigate to certain features. We also got assessed on picking a suitable wild camping location (which proved harder than we initially thought!) and general “campcraft” skills. Our chosen location for the first night was beside a partly-frozen Llyn Caerwych, the ice on the llyn hinting at how cold it was! That night, we were assessed on our night navigation, in a similar fashion to the daytime navigation.
The terrain around the northern Rhinogs is very complex and made for great testing ground. The area is truly beautiful and also unfrequented – a refreshing change to the hustle-bustle of central Snowdonia over the Easter weekend. In the whole three days we were there, we only saw two other people. Because of the snow (which is definitely outside the summer ML remit), we didn’t head up onto any of the summits, which has definitely given me an incentive to revisit the area and explore some more.
The second day of the expedition was similar in format to the first. The night nav this evening was a bit more challenging, or the terrain turned from the boggy grassland it had been the previous evening to heather-covered fields strewn with boulders and crags to negotiate – which I’m told is quite stereotypical of the Rhinogs! The following morning, we walked back out to the cars and were back in Pete’s Eats for our debrief at 1030. Helen commented that it was one of the coldest ML courses she’d been on, and I agree – my insulated jacket didn’t come off for the entirety of day two!
I’m pleased to say that I passed the assessment and also learnt quite a lot from the week and the people who were on the assessment. Anyone’s progression through the outdoor world is an ever-learning one and I look forward to learning and experiencing much more in the years to come – be it when leading groups, with groups of friends, or just out on my own.