The weather forecast for the weekend was not optimistic: winds 45 to 55mph, possibly 60mph, gusts up to 90mph; widespread rain; extensive cloud with 10% chance of cloud-free summits; little, if any sunshine – widely poor visibility; 7-8 degrees celsius at 900m.

I was anxious: my first ever ML weekend with a group of friends and the recent ML Training course fresh in my mind. I felt the weight of responsibility keenly, and it did not sit comfortably with the meteorological havoc being wreaked in the mountain areas of the UK, especially Cumbria. However, I was equally keen not to disappoint the party or myself by admitting defeat to the elements without having faced up to the conditions in Wales.

Smiles all around

We set out into the Friday night traffic, taking the available window of opportunity to access our accommodation, and I resolved to balance our adventure with a full understanding of what we would face out on the hills.

Given the extremely high winds at altitude, I decided that Snowdon was not an option, and that the keen ones amongst us would not suffer from leaving it for another day. Instead, I investigated low level alternatives that could be accessed easily from our accommodation in Nant y Betws. Options included a portion of ridgeline from Moel Elio to Foel Goch; a section of the Nantlle Ridge; or a local walk, including Mynydd Mawr.

Wet, but spirits unquenched

Over the two days we tackled Mynydd Tal-y-mignedd via Beddgelert Forest and Mynydd Mawr. Little did I know that we were in classic Welsh hillwalking territory, which was unsurprising given that I was often concentrating on protecting any exposed flesh: the wind whipped up the rain into a raging fury akin to sandblasting. As such, local knowledge would have helped us, as well as a willingness to ignore the overly visited haunts of the Glyderau, Carneddau and, of course, Snowdon massif.

Despite managing the risk of high winds by staying relatively low and avoiding exposed ridgelines, I was undone by the narrow notch in the ridgeline between Mynydd Tal-y-mignedd and Trum y Ddysgl. What would normally be a straightforward obstacle to surmount in good weather was now a funnel for a howling gale. This was the point where the line between adventure and folly lay. We turned back.

Sheltering in between rain showers

I was disappointed, mainly for the people in our party. I rebelled inwardly against the capitulation of retracing our outward steps, having hoped for the satisfaction of an aesthetically pleasing and physically challenging circuit. I knew that by myself or with equals, the bad step could have been dispatched, accepting the calculated risk. However, our responsibility was for the party, and to attempt an exposed ridge in gale force winds was to become a hostage to fortune.

I was gladdened, though, by the high spirits and unfettered enthusiasm of the young men I was with who had been hankering to get away from their environment of institutionally minimised risk. Moreover, their spirits were not the least dampened by the elements. Indeed, something in the raw nature of the elements complemented our collective, sub-conscious need to shake off the parameters of normal life. The highlight for me was turning to look over my shoulder on descent and witnessing the guys bum-sliding down grass slopes with glee!

Our perseverance was rewarded towards the end of the weekend when, having scrabbled to the top of Mynyndd Mawr, the sun made a brief appearance, briefly allowing us views of the Menai Straights, Anglesey and Caernarfon Bay. Snowdon, however, was cloaked with dark clouds, and after a brief lunch-stop heavy rainbands scudded towards us at summit-level. We beat a hasty retreat.

Trying not to get blown away

Overall, it was a great weekend: we learned much, had an adventure, enjoyed good company, came away wanting more and, most importantly, stayed safe. Don’t forget: the summit is optional.

P.S. Apologises for the poor quality of photos. Inevitably I had trouble using a camera phone in high winds!


Prelude to Snowdonia

Here’s the first part of the report of last weekend’s trip to Snowdonia:

I woke up, the rain pattering against the window panes, like the finger tips of spindly hands eager to insinuate themselves; the winds whistled in the tree-tops. I half imagined the four horsemen of the apocalypse, sallying forth into the shires of England, dragging me from my bed and throwing me off the dark, desolate cliffs of North Wales.

Hyperbole, I know, but I started to wonder what exactly we would meet in Snowdonia that weekend. Where do you draw the line between valour and folly? Where does an adventurous spirit turn to become sheer stupidity?

Later, I read Sectionhiker’s post, ‘The Summit is Optional,’ weighing it against the bleak mountain area forecasts and synoptic charts that were virtually groaning beneath the weight of the deep depressions buffeting the British Isles.

We needed to be safe, but we also needed tactics. Nothing ventured, nothing gained…

The Team

Here’s a photo of the team from the end of our Brecons trip.

Myself and Jon

Gale force winds, constant rain on Saturday, 12.5 hours of walking over two days and about 35km… Sweet times to live happy ever after!

ML Training Highlights

Carol has kindly forwarded me a photo of the team from last week:

L-R: (standing) Geoff, myself, Carol (instructor), Jonnie, Alastair, Ian, Gary, Richard (instructor); (kneeling) John, Rhys, Katie; (photo) Carol; (dog) Sam

Other highlights of the week were our instructor, Richard’s, interesting memory aids for navigation:

  • Who was the best navigator in the history of Star Fleet? Mr Chekov, of course.
  • Remember to put ‘Fred in the Shed’ when using a compass
  • Everything in front is mystery, everything behind is history. We want no surprises!

My humble addition (which I kept to myself, not surprisingly, as my wife informs me, because it is atrocious) was in relation to Red Fescue grass found in boggy ground, easily avoided by remembering ‘Red is for danger’.

Simple pleasures.

ML(S) Training, Lake District

Image courtesy of tromig

I have just spent the last week on a Mountain Leader (Summer) Training course run by Carol Emmons of Carolclimb, staying at Wast Water YHA. It has been a very wet and windy week – apparently 87mm of rain fell during the first half of the week alone.

The course was not without drama, as one of the instructors, Richard, slipped and fell off a rock step just above Dore Head during the expedition. Fortunately, he walked away virtually unscathed. However, in contrast, a diver, who could possibly have stayed at the YHA during the ML course, perished in Wast Water during the week. The two incidents emphasised the apparently arbitary division between life and death in the outdoors.

In terms of the course, we covered a whole swathe of the ML syllabus, including, navigation and map reading (of course!), ropework, safety on steep ground, night navigation, weather interpretation, kit and packing, route planning and conservation and access. Much of the content was familiar, but I felt that by the end I had learned to bring together many elements that I had previously treated separately. For example, I began to weave together contour interpretation, pacing and compass work, which made for more accurate navigation overall.

The ropework section was a particular delight. We went back to the ‘old school’, abandoning slings, karabiners and passive protection (nuts, wires and hexes) for the joys of the Marshall and Thompson knots. It was mountaineering as it used to be, although technically ropeworks belongs in the emergency remit of the ML scheme – scrambling is covered under the more advanced Mountain Instructor Award and so the rope remains very much in the first aid kit of an ML.

In fact, I had expected to learn more about soft skills on the course, but in hindsight felt that it was more appropriate that my technical skills had been deepened. Nevertheless, one of the joys of the course was the incredible breadth of backgrounds of attendees: driving instructor, Army officer, mountain bike instructor and prison officers among others. The ML scheme was set up in order that leaders benefit from the diversity of the participants, and this was certainly the case. However, all were feeling the effects of being cooped up in the rather clautrophobic confines of the hostel after a week.

Although I do not share the same passion as some for lightweight outdoor gear, which often becomes obsessive and unhelpful, I kept an eye on my kit to assess how it coped in the adverse weather conditions. In general, I was very impressed. Here are a few selected comments:

  • Scarpa SL M3s boots were as solid and dependable as ever
  • Patagonia Shelter Stone jacket was very good, but to my dismay the front velcro patches on the storm flap began to rip away from their stiching in places
  • Berghaus Storm overtrousers were tough and adaptable with their venting zips
  • Rab Hipar gaiters were generally good, but tended to slip down on my long and slim calves and the under-foot stirrups need either to be trimmed or rethreaded through the ladderlocks

As for routes and tops, we spent most of our time in and around Seatallen and Middle Fell, and on expedition took in Scoat Fell and Red Pike. Much of this area is familiar to me, but with the level of detail of navigation involved, I soon felt intimately acquainted with the ground. I had also written off Middle Fell in the past as insiginificant because of its lowly stature, but on closer inspection it has many hidden scrambles and areas for investigation, and would provide many hours of fun exploration.

So to finish with, I am very grateful to Carol Emmons and Richard Sagar for their tuition and input throughout the course. Funnily enough, I was with Richard for the majority of the week, and was not placed in any of Carol’s small groups! It was a pleasure to be with instructors who have such a deep knowledge, respect and love for the outdoors. As such, I am hoping to return to do my ML Assessment with Carolclimb sometime next year. For the moment, thought I’m excited to be able to implement my new skills with friends when we visit Snowdonia in a couple of weeks. Practise makes perfect, as they say…

Unfortunately, I took no photos, but I am hoping to upload one of the group, courtesy of Carol Emmons.

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