A week in Snowdonia

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.

The broad northern ridge of Moel Eilio

The broad northern ridge of Moel Eilio

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!

Summit shelter of Moel Eilio

Summit shelter of Moel Eilio

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!

Starting the ascent of Tryfan

Starting the ascent of Tryfan

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.

Last section of the north ridge of Tryfan

Last section of the north ridge of Tryfan

Impressive drifts in Bwlch Tryfan!

Impressive drifts in Bwlch Tryfan!

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.

Snowdon from near the summit of Tryfan (no, not that one!)

Snowdon from near the summit of Tryfan (no, not that one!)

Moel Cynghorion glistening away in the sun

Moel Cynghorion glistening away in the sun

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.

South Stacks lighthouse on Anglesey

South Stacks lighthouse on Anglesey

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.

Llyn Caerwych - the campsite for night one

Llyn Caerwych – the campsite for night one

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!

Campsite for night two, by Nant Steicyn

Campsite for night two, by Nant Steicyn

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.

Fairfield horseshoe fell race and leader training at Haweswater

Quite a busy weekend! On Saturday was the Fairfield Horseshoe fell race and Sunday I ran a bit of a “leader training” day for the Hiking Club at Haweswater.

Fairfield Horseshoe fell race

The Fairfield Horseshoe race is one of the classic Lakes races and has been running (no pun intended!) since 1966 when it was first organised by the Lake District Mountain Trial Association. With a distance of 10 miles and an ascent of 3000 ft (16 km / 910 m), it is surprisingly runnable. Apart from the initial drag up onto Nab Scar, the ascents are all gradual and there are few rocky sections, meaning a blistering pace was set by the leaders – we were left trailing in their wake after a few miles of frantically trying to keep up!

The start

The start of the race at Rydal Hall, photo courtesy of Lorna

The route avoids the tourist path up Nab Scar and instead heads up the valley for about half a mile before swinging up along the intake wall. This part of the race is flagged, but from Nab Scar onwards we were free to pick our own way between checkpoints. I was in a group who seemed to know where they were going and picked all of the best racing lines along the ridge.

After 47 minutes I arrived at the summit of Fairfield and began the rather long descent over Dove Crag and High and Low Pikes. The wheels came off on this section and I really struggled most of the way down, loosing quite a few places and probably a good five minutes – if not more! From Low Sweden Bridge the race heads back to Rydal Hall along the stone track, which was probably the most painful part of the race. I finished in 1:47:41 in around 100th position out of 300.

After the race, me and Lorna went for a stroll down to Loughrigg Tarn to make the most of the sun.

Loughrigg Tarn

Lorna walking down to Loughrigg Tarn

Haweswater

The club had decided to run a leader training course on our Sunday trip to Haweswater and it fell to me to run it. We had six people interested and I decided the best option would be to take them on a bit of a walk and introduce the basic concepts of navigation and group management to them so they felt confident enough to get out into the hills and practice.

Haweswater

A rather windy Haweswater reservoir

We headed up Kidsty Howes and onto Kidsty Pike. The wind was pretty strong (40-50mph) and it made progress slow in places. We took a few bearings on the way up and I introduced the concepts of back bearings, transits and resections. I demonstrated the use of transits by taking a back bearing from the summit of High Style to pinpoint exactly where we were along the ridge.

The descent was from Low Raise straight down to Randale Beck, giving the opportunity to walk on a compass bearing. I set the aim of getting to a set of waterfalls on the map and fair enough, we got there exactly! After the walk we went to the Bampton Arms in Bampton for a quick drink and to meet up with Richard’s group who had walked there along Haweswater, before heading to Penrith for chips.

I had great fun teaching people to navigate and I think they all got something out of the day as well. I will definitely look into running more days like it in the future.

Low Raise

Heading to Low Raise from High Raise

Three Peaks fell race

I’ve got a valid excuse for the delay in posting about this race, which took place last Saturday. I had my Master’s project (effectively a lengthy dissertation) due in last Monday and the first of my exams today (in Advanced Relativity and Gravity, and Advanced Particle Physics – scary stuff!). I thought I’d take a break from the work this evening and so I’ve finally got a chance to write about what was one of the most enjoyable days out I’ve had this year!

The Three Peaks fell race is in its 58th year, and attracts people from all over the globe. The entry limit for the race is 1000 and it also sells out without a few weeks of entries opening. And rightly so, as I personally think it’s one of the best, and indeed toughest, races out there, standing at 23 miles and with about 5000 ft of ascent. Ironically, it’s not the height gain or mountainous terrain that make it tough, but more the relentless pace and long flat sections that you have to pace perfectly – go too fast and you’ll end up in agony by the end, go too slow and you’ll miss the cut off times! They’re quite severe cut off times as well, many people get “timed out” each year.

The record for the current course is an incredible 2:46:03, set by Andy Peace of Bingley Harriers in 1996. The fastest ever record was set in 1974 by Jeff Norman, in a time of 2:29:53, on a considerably different course. The race has gone through many permutations in its rich history, and the start was originally at the Hill Inn. The first race, back in 1954, attracted only six competitors!

Last Saturday was the second time I’ve done the race, the previous time being the year before when I hit “the wall” big-time on the ascent of Ingleborough (affectionately know by competitors as Ingle-bugger) and was in agony for the whole of the descent. I finished in 4 hours 48 minutes then, and my aim for this year was simply to beat that time.

Joe Symonds

Joe Symonds from Hunters Bog Trotters, the overall winner, ascending Ingleborough.

The weather was somewhat similar, very windy but with sunny spells. However, this year, it was much colder and conditions underfoot a lot boggier, making the overall pace slower. Nearly 800 of us set of from Horton at 10:00am and after a run through the village, spectated by a surprising number of people, we were off up to Penine Way towards Pen-y-Ghent. It always gets me what an amazing atmosphere there is at the start, there are always loads of people out in Horton and along the Penine Way to Pen-y-Ghent.

I set off faster than last year and arrived at the summit of Pen-y-Ghent nearly 5 minutes up. By Ribblehead I’d gained 10 minutes and was still feeling great. I started to struggle a bit on the ascent of Whernside (the race goes straight up the side, which is horrendously steep at the top), but felt great again descending and running through the checkpoint at the Old Hill Inn, in exactly 3 hours (still 10 minutes up). Lorna and family were waiting just past the Hill Inn with some water and I took the opportunity to take a quick break. By this point, a lot of people I was running around had started to slow down and a group of us (including Wendy Dodds, who won the race back in 1983) went on a bit of an overtaking spree all the way up Ingleborough.

Me

Taking a well-deserved drink on the way up Ingleborough, kindly provided by Lorna!

Notice the windshirt and gloves in the above photo. It was unbelievably cold for the time of year on the summit of Whernside and I was still warming up back in the valley! With the wind chill it definitely felt below zero, and in fact the Fellsman race (a 60ish mile event through the Dales) that was taking place the same day had to be cut short with numerous entrants suffering from hypothermia.

Me

Me at the finish. Notice Wendy Dodds a few seconds behind!

I got much further before I hit the wall this year, and that eventually came about a mile after the summit of Ingleborough. It was my own fault really – I always misjudge how long the descent from Ingleborough back to Horton is and set off far too fast from the summit. I finished (in slightly less pain than last year) in a time of 4:22:57 and a position of 276 (out of 660ish finishers), nearly half-an-hour up on last year – which I was pretty chuffed at!

The race is just fantastic, the atmosphere around the course is electric and it has a real special feel about it that not many other fell races I’ve competed in have. The aim for next year is sub 4 hours, watch this space!