It’s 2011. I’d completed a few of the classics by now, National 3 peaks, Yorkshire 3 peaks etc and so started to look for the next challenge. I wondered what other attention-grabbing ticklists there were to complete in Wales. After all, my very first mountain was Snowdon and my curiosity about those other outlying summits had been growing ever since.
A quick google search revealed that those neglected peaks did indeed have names and not only was it was possible to climb to to the top of them but the highest 15 mountains in Wales were all in the same corner of Snowdonia, and that it was possible to visit all of them in just two days (it is actually possible to do them all in one go but more on that later). The Welsh 3,000’s (three thousand feet above sea level) sounded intimidating but just the sort of challenge I was after. Before setting off, I suppose that I (rather naively) liked the idea of being in a dangerous environment, but being able make the right decisions to stay safe. It turned out that being in real danger wasn’t so much fun. At the time…
After a persuasive phone call I’d recruited a fellow adventurer. I had no idea what kind of fitness would be required for such an undertaking but this lad was a much better footballer than me so he’d be fine. We decided that we were going to tackle the route in three separate sections as recommended by the Wikipedia page. The first two on the first day and the long one on the last. We’d be able to resupply from the car in between legs and planned to camp at the Gwern Gôf Isaf Campsite at the foot of Tryfan.
Car full of pork pies and maps, we left Nottingham just before 6:00 on Saturday morning and arrived at the Pen-Y-Pass Car park by just after 9:00. We did drive quite quickly.
In terms of a kit list I was pretty well equipped already. I knew how to read an OS map (but had never needed a compass), had some shorts with lots of pockets, the thickest socks I could find and had even splashed out on some Karrimor walking shoes from Sports Direct. The other lad had even less kit and less experience than I. He was pretty tough though. Besides, it was just walking in August in the UK. We couldn’t possibly fail.
It turned out to be incredibly hot. The sun was high, there were no clouds and no breeze. My backpack which was full of bottled water and my shorts with lots of pockets (that seemed like a good idea in the car park) were already feeling heavy before we reached the foot of the first mountain, Crib Goch. We had bought a parking ticket for 4 hours and with nine summits to bag that day, needed to move quickly. We were sweaty and the sun continued to blaze. Crib Goch is big, steep and intimidating. It rises out of the valley floor like the back of a dormant dragon and to a pair of novices as we were, it looked very intimidating. I was dizzy and it felt very adventurous using my hands to hold onto the rock in order to clamber onwards and upwards. It felt dangerous, probably because it was. For the first time since I had first started to explore the blank spaces on the road map, there was genuine potential for me to slip and fall to my death. Having never experienced such exposure before, I definitely found it exhilarating, in my imagination I was pushing the boundaries of what is humanly possible but in reality you’d have to be a bit of an idiot (or very, very unlucky) to actually die up there. It’s simply essential mountain walking, a classic of classics. Do it!
From there it’s a pretty straightforward march over the next summit, over to Snowdon, weave your way through the crowds, then pace it back to the carpark. We managed it inside the required four hours, ate two pasties at the bottom and headed over to the next section in the Ogwen valley.
Our particular route choice meant that at the end of the day, in order to get back to the car it would be a long march back along the road. We’d worry about that later. We were in a rush to get onto the next hill – Tryfan. It is a truly remarkable mountain. It’s shape, once seen, projects itself onto the retinas of the enthusiast and can never be forgotten. Your eyes are drawn up its faces, selecting different lines and allowing your imagination to bubble and foam. To climb it is to live that feeling, you make constant, sustained decisions assessing the shape and scale of the landscape, assessing your own capabilities and then hoping you were right as you haul yourself ever upwards. With hands on the rock, you select your own level of challenge and really feel the rewards. On the hot day that it was, the views from the top were obviously fantastic and the Adam and Eve leap was made. It was everything you could hope for on a summer’s day in the mountains with a mate.
Since this was a challenge and there was a two day time limit, we needed to move as quickly as possible. Being as fresh and green as we were, this meant charging ahead, and then stopping because we were hot, stopping to have a drink, stopping because we’d gone the wrong way, stopping to catch our breath, stopping to tie shoe laces etc. It was an exercise in naive futility. Despite our joyful striding, leaping, hopping and panting, we would have been much quicker if we’d never ran at all, but just walked properly without stopping all the time. This sort of insight unfortunately cannot be learned through reading blogs but through bona fide experience. A seasoned walker on a mission is faster over a long, mountainous route than a treadmill-trained runner. Unfortunately, this time we were neither seasoned walkers or treadmill runners and so were quickly falling behind schedule. By the time we’d limped back to the car, we’d bagged all of the day’s 9 summits, but were blistered, sunburned, hungry, limping, swollen ankled, and despite carrying about 2kg of water all day, dehydrated (water is only useful if you drink it). And it was dark. My mate had quite understandably decided that he was not going to continue tomorrow and I agreed that I felt pretty shitty but that I’d see how I felt when we woke up. Spooning cold beans into my gob, I had a feeling I’d feel better in the morning and would want to go to finish the challenge alone. It’s just another long walk in the sunshine, I’d be fine on my own.
We woke to low cloud that seemed to drift into the tent upon opening the zip. The chill that came with it eradicated any hope that it might brighten up. The cloud was very Welsh, very low, day-ruining cloud that I have since come to know very well. It hung in the air just above the tops of the tents in the campsite. My sunburn glowed beneath the sleeping bag and was all that remained of yesterday’s scorcher.
Bones was certain that he wouldn’t continue and I couldn’t blame him. I woke up feeling pretty good, and had never been in a closer position to being able to finish this challenge I’d set myself. Despite the conditions, just the very fact that yesterday I’d already done over half of the peaks, and that I was at the foot of the next one on the list actually meant that conditions were more prefect than they’d ever been in my life. What good is a clear day if you are at work, 200 miles from the start line?
With this in mind I decided to go it alone. I’d got a map, waterproof jacket, a pastie and bottle of water. It was August, yesterday had been a doddle. Maybe the weather would clear up. Bones was to take the car and meet me in the carpark at the end of the route at 5pm if not before.
By the time I got to the top of Pen Ole Wen, with all my clothes on (it was cold at the bottom) my cotton t-shirt was dripping with sweat and I was completely surrounded by clouds. On the top it was suddenly quite windy. Feeling liberation and a smugness for being the only one ‘brave enough’ to be up here in this weather I marched on to the next peak, shrugging off the shivering. My map was getting a bit soggy around the edges but I was being careful. Wandering through thick clouds I came to a rather steep drop, checked myself on the map and headed off, the countour lines suggested that provided I didn’t go down anything too steep, I’d end up traversing the broad, grassy ridge and end up at the next summit. This all went very well for the first couple of hours. I felt amazing, completely free, master of my own destiny, rejoicing in my solitude. I should go out on my own more often, I thought to myself.
Then it started to flatten out a bit, the nice worn path that I had been following vanished and I wasn’t quite sure I was heading the right way. I lost the spring in my step. I knew that I just needed to keep walking and I’d find a feature soon. I was just starting to get to the point where I could admit to myself that I was getting concerned, when sure enough I found what I thought must be a path: trodden grass and a slight trail on the ground. Relieved, I followed it for quite a while but all the time I was slowly coming to realise that the direction it was taking me in was completely nonsensical. It was littered with sheep shit because it was a sheep trail, not a footpath. I had no idea where I was, nor which direction I should head in. I couldn’t even retrace my steps. The wind was still present and I was wet and was shivering more. I thought I was in control but really I was panicking quite a lot. By now my map had been shredded by the wind and rain, and in the swirling confusion I realised why these outdoorsy types always carry a compass and that I was more than a bit out of my depth. The anxiety had begun to wreak havoc with my bowels which amplified the uneasiness. I was getting colder and more lost. And it was getting later. And Bones would soon start wondering where I was. But how could I be lost? I was only in Wales for crying out loud. Just walk in a straight line, after a few hours you’ll come to some sort of feature. Hopefully a toilet.
It’s very difficult to walk in a straight line in these conditions. No compass and many steep drops that you would not want to fall down. Simply walking downhill seemed to work for a short time until the ground began to rise before me. On a clear day I would have been able to see if this rise was was a short hump before a gentle descent, or the flanks of another mountain. That clarity was not a luxury I was granted. I think I actually, in trying to go down, managed to go right over another summit at this point. I cursed myself repeatedly but this outward admission of panic made my situation even more real. I’d been lost for quite a few hours.
I told myself that if I got down from here, I was never going to set off without a compass and map case again. No, I was never going anywhere by myself again and as my morale deteriorated, eventually I was never coming up any mountain ever again. This is one of those moments where the photographs stop being taken, yet my memory of these hours is very clear. Indeed I feel a little sick now regurgitating it all as I type. As the time ticked on, the prospect of staggering around in the dark by myself, shivering uncontrollably became too much to bear. By this point I was in full blown useless mode and I needed to take back control. I did the one thing I could to actually improve my situation – dig a hole with a shard of slate and relieve myself.
Needing a poo was really feeding my anxiety although I hadn’t realised this at the time. Once free of this of terror, clear bowels lead to a clear mind and I worked out that I just needed to head downhill for as long as it takes to find a small stream. Then I follow it wherever it goes and eventually it will lead off the mountain. Basic geography! I began following the tiniest trickle of water and was full optimism. The light was already fading but surely I’d at least be off the mountain before dark now. I could hear the sound of roaring in the distance and realised I had come to a pretty large waterfall and some larger cliff faces. I’d have to leave my lifeline of this steam I was following and take a longer way round but the ground was pretty steep and it was very wet. I slipped from my feet and began sliding down a scree slope. Unlike most slips that one takes, I did not quickly grind to a halt. I continued accelerating and due to the thick white clouds below my useless feet, I could not see the bottom of the chute I was hurtling down. And I wasn’t slowing down. I rolled around and clawed at the scree as I slipped and luckily as the gradient eased I came to a stop. Smaller fragments of slate tumbled below me, disappearing into the fog. I slithered off the scree towards the rocky edge and with my numb from the cold, bleeding hands pressed against the rocky side of the trench, I slowly lowered myself down to a point where I could once again stand and walk. It was pretty scary.
By the the time I was below the clouds the sun was setting and the green hills I had expected to see on the horizon had been replaced by the sea! I had wandered really far off the route and in a completely different direction to that which I had thought I was travelling on. Less than a couple of hours before, I’d sworn to myself that I’d never head up another mountain ever again.
There was a car park with a payphone and no cars so I called Bones who came and fetched me. By the time the orange streetlamps were illuminating the inside of the car on the way home, sitting in dry clothes, I had been washed clean of the fear and couldn’t wait to get back to Wales and complete the challenge. This time with a compass.