You’ve probably all seen those photos with a silhouetted figure looking out across some high alpine ridge, snow everywhere and a slogan about ambition or achievement or standing tall or that you should ‘go to your dream’. I get the impression that rather than actually wishing to climb mountains in the winter, most of the people sharing these photos actually ‘dream’ of a couple of weeks on the Costa Del Sol and free chips on the flight out. Don’t get me wrong, I love free chips as much as the next guy, but I like to think of climbing mountains not as symbols for something difficult or inspiring, but as a good way for just about anyone to spend their weekends.
The funny thing is that if you wanted to straddle a snowy ridge this winter rather than sit on the sofa in your tracksuit, scrolling through photo after inspirational photo, it’s actually a lot easier than you might think. You don’t need thousands of pounds worth of special equipment or a trained guide. Although you should expect to be a bit scared and quite cold. Most of the time. Still interested?
In a break from thingswhatihavedone convention this trip report aims to answer some of my reader’s questions whilst using a three day trip across the Welsh mountains in February as inspiration. I hope it will act as motivation and guidance for those who might fancy getting out there or as entertainment and insight for those who wonder what winter mountaineering looks like when it is done by a self taught idiot on a budget and his ill prepared mates.
Some people might see it as irresponsible to encourage unqualified people to enter potentially dangerous situations. I think it’s irresponsible to make ordinary people scared of the outdoors. But if you do die, don’t come back and blame/sue/haunt me.
Is winter mountaineering something that I can do?
If you’ve climbed Snowdon, done the 3 Peaks and are pretty comfortable walking the Lake District on a drizzly day you are probably somewhat tempted to see what difference a bit of snow and ice might make. You’re going to need to be fit enough to walk with a bag all day and be stupid enough to actually enjoy spending a few days in such a hostile environment but not so stupid that you cannot spot the real risks when you see them.
My first winter mountain trip consisted of me and three other lads. By now I was pretty comfortable on my own two feet. I’d walked several long distance national trails. After getting very lost, I had mastered the art of map and compass, done an 84 mile walk in one go, and bought some fancy kit (by my cheapskate standards) that made the whole thing much more enjoyable. I’d also done a fair bit of navigating and walking in deep snow as I ticked off stages of the Pennine Way in winter. As for the other lads, Rick had accompanied me on lots of my tours and features on a few blog posts already. He is fitter than me and has finally learned to do what he is told. Martyn is very tough and does not want anything to be easy. This explains some of his decisions. ‘Bolton’ is an enthusiastic fool who loves adventures until he is cold and tired. He likes to pretend he is doing what he is told and is from London and cannot go for too long without a proper sit down dinner. Even Londoners can enjoy the mountains!
If you have done several mountain days out in summer and can navigate with map and compass in whiteout conditions and know about keeping warm then I would say yes – winter mountaineering is something you can do.
I felt pretty experienced before setting off on this trip but did find myself way out of my comfort zone as detailed later on…
What is it like up there at that time of year?
Lots and lots of people travel great distances at great expense to experience the drama of high mountains: an experience that could be had by anyone, just off the A5. The truth is that British mountains in winter do look a lot more alpine than the average ‘Cotswold Outdoors’ shopper might imagine. The snow elongates and exaggerates. The ice is forbidding and shadows look cold. Occasionally the view does stop you dead and once you are high up on a rocky ridge, knee deep in snow, you cannot believe that you are still in the UK.
We’ve all been for a walk in the snow but up there it is very different. Because there is lying snow for such a long period of time and the night time temperatures above 800m are so extreme, the snow freezes. This makes it quite solid and at times, slippery rather than powdery. Obviously is is very, very cold. Stop moving for a second and your core temperature plummets.
Do these conditions make it dangerous?
On the first day we left the puddle strewn car park and climbed up the orange-green hillside moving full of enthusiasm into a dull, grey sky. The first, smaller patches of snow were found before we entered the clouds and they increased in frequency as we climbed until eventually any uncovered ground disappeared altogether. The hillside steepened, the snowdrifts grew level with the drystone wall on our left and our world became very cold and very white and very windy. We found the first trig point and felt happy and confident now that we were battling against the worst that Britain could throw at us and were winning.
We left the safety of the stone wall and trig point behind us and followed a compass bearing into the bare whiteness. The sky and snow covered ground met on an indistinguishable horizon. It very quickly became disorientating. We were heading for the little shelter on the top of Foel Grach. We were getting cold and I knew that it’s stone walls, slanting roof and wooden door should protect us from the icy wind long enough to have some food and a hot drink. The shelter didn’t appear quick enough and in the rush to actually get us there I didn’t stop to layer up. I ignored the warning signs my body was broadcasting in favour of just pressing on. I felt very responsible for bringing my mates up to such a hostile and surreal place
Shivering, we stumbled around in the cold wind feeling quite desperate. Every black rock protruding from the snow looked like the shelter but was not. We circled round for a long time, looking for what in summer conditions could have been seen from a mile off, it was cold and we really needed some protection. Even just abandoning the trip and setting off back the way we had come would have meant subjecting ourselves to another couple of hours of cold. And that depended on our footprints being easy to follow. It was scary.
Eventually the hut appeared, half buried in snow drifts and the rickety door was frozen solid to the frame. Some enthusiastic kicking broke the frosty seal and we were inside the crisp darkness but at least we were out of the wind. By this point I was pretty useless. Now I think about it I had the beginnings of hypothermia, I really didn’t want to put my coat on and told the others that I felt fine. Bolton asked me if I could name a capital city from South America but I couldn’t even think of a country. I was pretty confused.
A cup of tea, all my layers and a tin mug of couscous later and I was starting to feel better. A look at the map and we concluded it was a good idea to get off the ridge and head for lower ground. It would be the long way round and it would mean finishing in the dark but at least we would be off the mountain. Half an hour later we broke through the clouds into a beautiful, if stark cwm. We were lucky really.
On the second day, between Y Garn (947 m) and Glyder Fawr (1001 m) we were faced with a steep scree slope that presents no obstacle at all at any other time of the year. This February morning the snow was so sufficiently frozen that I, with the sturdiest boots on, lead the way by kicking steps into the ice that were shared by the rest of the group. It was definitely scary and one ice axe and no crampons shared between a group of four didn’t feel like enough, but we did get to the top and nobody died.
What kit do I need?
Each of us had quite a different approach to kit. We were staying in hostel accommodation so we only really needed day walk equipment and something clean and dry for overnight.
Bolton went heavy, like a guy who enjoys a good outdoor shop sale and can’t bear the thought of not having something he might need. He had a big bag so that he had enough room for anything he might need. For him, comfort is everything. The pursuit of this philosophy made him the most uncomfortable of the lot of us. He knew it would be cold so he packed a couple of extra jumpers. He knew we were away for three days, so he packed three t shirts, three pairs of pants, some ‘arrival shoes’, some ‘arrival jeans’ complete with chunky leather belt, pyjama top and bottoms, towel, large wash bag with shampoo and conditioner etc. His bag was so heavy and he was so shagged by the time it was pub ‘O clock that even a generous spray of his aftershave couldn’t cheer him up.
Carry that lot with you if you like but you won’t be able to enjoy any of your comforts in the evening, and will resent every snowy incline.
Martyn went very light indeed. There are plenty of people out there who enjoy this idea of going ‘fast and light’ and it certainly does have appeal. His arrival clothes were one t-shirt and one very sexy pair of running shorts. His backpack was smaller than most eight year old’s school bags and he only really ate satsumas stashed in the mesh side pockets. He wore trainers and every item of clothing he had, all of the time. He said he was comfortable but every time I looked he was either shivering or sweating. Remarkably he still found space to pack half a litre of brandy which was, unlike Bolton’s electric razor, excellent for arrival.
You can enjoy relative comfort without making major sacrifices. Here’s what I took and would continue to take for a few very cold days in the UK mountains.
- Merino wool. It’s incredible. One longsleeve top and pants for walking in, the other for carrying and arrival. One set of socks for arrival and one for walking in. You can wash them in the shower, wring them out, hang up and they’ll be dry by the morning. I’ve worn the same one pair of merino socks for over a week’s walking without any issues. I’ve even ridden from Holland to Norway with only one pair of merino pants. But that’s more of a lifestyle thing.
- Waterproofs, top and bottoms. If you don’t take them then you deserve all you get. You don’t have to spend a fortune, I didn’t.
- Down jacket. So light, so packable, so warm. As good as two hoodies and half the weight. My life has changed since I got my first one. Don’t get it wet though. Incredible value at Decathlon
- Buffs, these things are indispensable. Hats, scarfs, wrist bands, pot cozies, bandages, balaclavas. The more the better. Also see below.
- Don’t bother with a towel – you can use any of your clothing, especially if it’s merino, use one of your many buffs, or if you have to, you can just use paper towels, anything. Once you realise you don’t actually need a towel your life is so much better.
- Solid soap. Liquid soap is so heavy for what you get. And it often leaks all over your clean clothes. A bar of soap is super light, easy to just cut off however much you’ll need and can be used for everything. Hair, clothes, cooking stuff, not to mention your feet. It’s great. Just get a little plastic food bag to put it in and keep it’s slime away from everything else. If you like carrying pointless weight you could put your lightweight soap, toothbrush and toothpaste in that nice FCUK washbag you got for Christmas. Or you could just put a couple of rocks in your backpack. They’d be more useful.
- Stove and dried food. Boil up some snow, pour it on some couscous and you can avert on-setting hypothermia in minutes. If you’re out for several days, even including the weight of the stove, dried food is lighter. Never underestimate the power of a cup of tea on a snowy mountainside. It can reverse the sort of shiver-panic morale troughs and associated bad decision making that really ruins trips.
- Two pairs of gloves. One pair WILL get lost or wet through. Really cold hands are dangerous. If you can’t operate zips you’re in trouble.
- Head torch. Once you need it you’re in trouble but a lot less trouble than if you needed it and didn’t pack it. Affordable and good from Alpkit
- Garmin Etrex 30 for peace of mind, but a complete map and compass for each member of the team. After getting lost before I wasn’t up for it again.
- It’s okay to look a little bit scruffy when you arrive. You never pull on these sort of trips even if you do take your aftershave.
As for the more technical kit – we had one ice axe between us and no knowledge of how to use it. There was a greater risk of taking someones eye out with it than arresting a fall. If you think that the slope you are intending to climb is too steep, don’t climb it. There is an easy way up most mountains in Wales.
We didn’t have any crampons. Lots of other groups did but we could get to the top of all the mountains without them, we just took an easier line. Two of the group had some Yaktrax. We found them to be really helpful for most frozen ground. But again – if it looks or feels to steep, don’t go there.
We didn’t take any ropes and wouldn’t have known what to do if we had them. Then again, none of the guys in the motivational posters have ropes or crampons either. That’s because they just took the easy way up the mountain and took a picture of the hard route. That’s what I’d recommend.
On the hills, we ate Ainsley Harriott’s couscous from the packet, available from all good expedition suppliers (ASDA) and in the hostels we ate Ainsley’s rice and then porridge in the morning. I think that the hostels have food you can buy off them now but it’s best to check in advance.
We stayed in Conwy YHA (not bad), Ogwen Cottage YHA (good), and St Curigs B&B in Capel Curig (incredible). The B&B is simply excellent – beautiful and hospitable. A great breakfast was served so I am told, I was too hungover to eat anything.
The whole four days cost less than £130 per person, all inc.