EDITORIAL: Recent Deaths on Snowdonby Jack Geldard - UKC Chief Editor Feb/2009
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Recent Deaths on Snowdon
Snowdon, the highest mountain in Wales, sees more than its fair share of accidents. It is a popular walking and scrambling peak, with over 500,000 people atop its cafe-covered summit each year.
Recently, the usually benign mountain has been renamed in the media as the 'Killer Mountain', following a succession of falls and several deaths from the railway path near Clogwyn d' Arddu (Cloggy). The area from which walkers have slipped has also been renamed as the 'Killer Convex', referring to the convex nature of the hillside, which has sped fallen walkers over the broken cliffs of Clogwyn Coch.
Clogwyn Coch is basically the left side of the famous cliff 'Cloggy'. There are no named climbs on the buttresses of Clogwyn Coch, as the rock is poor and vegetated, but the broken cliffs do rise in height to around 150 metres, and have several steep rocky outcrops.
The main problem with the 'Killer Convex' seemed to have arisen from a banking out of snow (thankfully now melted). The railway at this point is dug in to the mountainside, creating a flat channel on which people walk. This channel had become banked over with snow, which had frozen in to hard neve, making for a difficult to cross slope, with ever steepening neve and rocks below.
The area in question looks quite safe, as from the railway it isn't possible to see the cliffs below, due to the angle of the hillside, but without an ice axe to perform a self arrest, a slip here has proven to be fatal. The slope increases in angle, meaning that if you don't stop immediately, you are going to accelerate in speed and quickly get out of control.
On the weekend after four successive deaths, I heard reports that due to freeze-thaw, the neve slope had actually turned in to a patch of sheet ice. This would have been almost impossible for even the most competent climber to cross without crampons.
I was climbing on Cloggy myself that weekend, and saw large areas of water ice on Clogwyn Coch, as well as witnessing lots of thawing during the day. In fact, on the route I was climbing, I encountered a running stream. At that point I beat a hasty retreat and I have since suffered merciless joking from friends in Llanberis for 'backing off'.
On my way back from climbing, I joined the main Llanberis path somewhere above the halfway house, and saw lots of walkers and climbers.
We were descending the path at around 3pm, and we passed many people heading up. They were less than half way to the summit and it was drawing toward dusk. They had the 'Killer Convex' above them.
One group of people, who were well equipped with waterproof jackets, hats, gloves, rucksacks and normal walking equipment stopped and asked us for advice.
They asked us “Where does this fence end?”
Thinking it was an unusual question, I enquired as to the nature of it. The party told me that they had been stopped by a warden (who exactly this was I have failed to find out, despite knowing most of the wardens personally), and had been told not to go any higher up the mountain than the end of the fence.
This was actually sage advice, as the fence stopped before Clogwyn Coch, and also shortened their route enough to see them down in the valley before nightfall.
The park warden had stationed himself at the base of the main path and offered advice to walkers heading up the hillside. I have no idea if this was a formal policy or whether the warden in question had just thought it a good idea. Either way, he may have saved several more lives that weekend.
The group we spoke to had no crampons or ice axes, but did have sturdy leather walking boots, albeit of the normal non-rigid variety. They were not 'climbers' but did seem competent 'hill walkers'.
Interestingly, they struck me as young professional types, certainly not out of place in usual British hill conditions, with adequate clothing and not a pair of jeans in sight. I wondered if they knew just what the British winter can really throw at you when it wants to.
As we came closer and closer to the valley, our clumpy rigid boots, extreme looking clothing and rucksacks adorned with technical axes and crampons seemed more and more out of place. The temperature had probably warmed up to +4°C, and I'm sure I sensed a smirk on the face of a few less-equipped mountain goers.
With Snowdon viewed as a short walk in the country, complete with tourist railway and cafe, who can blame people for getting caught out in what, these days, could be termed 'freak weather'. The people I met, and those who unfortunately had accidents, were clearly not mountain novices, but the onset of proper winter conditions can really show that summer and autumn hill walking experience may not suffice, even on the well trodden paths of Snowdon.
I have noticed a trend recently in mountaineering. A trend for pushing on, even in hard conditions. A trend for climbing in the Alps in winter, an arena that used to be saved only for those most experienced. Is this happening or am I just imagining it? Are we really losing respect for the mountains of Britain and beyond?
I can see Clogwyn Coch and the railway path clearly from my house. This tragic site, this killer convex, looks as amiable and beautiful as it ever has, but now I look on it, and the whole Snowdon range, with a little more respect.
Is it time to take stock, at all levels of our sport, from walking up Snowdon to speed soloing the north face of the Grandes Jorasses? To walk before we can run? To make time to build the basic skills that one day, without us even knowing, might save our lives.
As Clint Eastwood said - “A man has to know his limitations.”
I drove home that Saturday night to the view of Helicopters buzzing and search lights sweeping over Clogwyn Coch. My heart sank.