Theres something about the scarcity of Welsh winter climbing that makes those early starts and long drives that bit more rewarding. Wales isnt a natural or a reliable winter climbing destination; over the last two winters you can count the number of days of ice and mixed climbing conditions on your fingers and toes. When the stars do occasionally align and winter takes its icy grip on the Welsh hills, the well-travelled cliffs provide fresh adventures for those climbers that find themselves in the right place, at the right time.
One has only to flick through Ground Ups 2010 North Wales Winter Climbingguidebook to discover the quantity and quality of winter climbing in Wales. Its true that Wales isnt the most reliable of winter climbing venues, but having climbed on many of the best crags and ice-falls in Snowdonia, I can honestly say that it compares very favourably to the best of Scotland in a good winter. In a bad winter you might want to take up kayaking though
I was fortunate when I began ice climbing in Snowdonia at 14. We had five winters of exceptional conditions which fired up something of a revival for winter climbing in Wales, as new crags were discovered and standards pushed. Some of these new routes were to get quite competitive; I remember making the first ascent of a new route near to the Devils Kitchen and as I descended, I received a terrified look from Jon Ratcliffe, who was convinced that Id just beaten him to the first ascent of his excellent hanging icicle The Devils Appendage, which he climbed the following day. This exciting period of development seems to finally have come to a close, but perhaps this has been dictated largely by the weather. Whatever the case may be, now is a great opportunity to take stock of the existing winter climbing in Wales, before the next chapter is opened to its rather erratic history.
Many local climbers love living in Wales because of the abundance of good climbing in such a close proximity. Its no different in winter, with stunning mixed climbs, ice-falls and areas only a short walk from the road and often less than fifteen minutes drive apart. Many of the winter cliffs have sea views and the longest approach to a route is little more than an hour, with a swift descent from the summits to escape to a caf or pub. Some great challenges exist in Wales such as the King of the Pass, a title currently held by James Mchaffie and Neil Gresham, where Central Icefall Direct, Lord of the Flies and the boulder problem Jerrys roof were climbed in a single day. One of my most memorable days climbing at Ogwen was an ice climb first thing, followed by a ski off Glyder Fawr, then a rock climb on Yellow Walls at Gogarth, before making it back to the Beacon climbing wall to run an evening kids club session how many other places in the world offer that kind of variety?
It was in Snowdonia that I took my first steps on ice, on the classic introductory ice climb of Idwal Stream. Little did I realise that that first week on ice, where I climbed nearly every day, was to be the spark that set the flame for my passion for alpine climbing and I think there are few better alpine training grounds, when it comes to variety at the least, than North Wales.
In this article Ive tried to highlight the best venues and the most interesting and famous routes. Of course, there will be some areas left out, such as the winter climbing in southern Snowdonia, but Ive aimed to display the best and most reliable of Welsh winter, as well as a list of the top ten routes that should keep most people busy for the next ten years and thats if the winters are good!
Cwm Idwal is the most popular spot for winter climbing in England and Wales, with many wonderful and varied ice lines descending from the rock walls above the lake.
Some of the most famous winter routes here include the mega classic Devils Appendix, South Gully and the Devils Kitchen all of which would be amongst the best routes of any ice climbing venue in the UK. The winter climbing in Cwm Idwal has become so popular in recent years that there is now a live temperature gauge, with readings taken at 600m and 850m, measuring the air temperature as well as the temperature of the turf at various depths.
The Cwm Idwal Winter Climbing Information Project appears to be very reliable, although the science does remove some of the mystique from the fickle game of winter climbing. https://www.thebmc.co.uk/idwal
For Introductory ice, Idwal Stream is often a popular choice at II/II with plenty of options to increase or decrease the difficulty. The nearby Idwal Staircase is also a popular easy ice outing. South Gully is perhaps the best and most sustained outing at grade IV and is one of the first ice routes to come into condition in the Cwm. The Devils Kitchen IV is a fairly unique single pitch of ice in the depths of the deep slit above Llyn Idwal and rumour has it that it was first climbed in the late 19th century when there was a winter so big that it was possible to walk up it quite something considering that in lean conditions it feels like a grade V!
The Devils Appendix is the best route of the Cwm and Ive been fortunate enough to climb it in three separate winters. At its biggest and fattest it tends to form in a very steep first pitch on immaculate ice, whilst at its leanest you have to negotiate with a hanging icicle and poor protection you may also have to negotiate with angry locals if you knock the icicle off when its still building!
Ysgolion Duon (The Black Ladders)
The Ysgolion Duon are perhaps the most revered of the welsh winter venues. The long routes on these cliffs are best enjoyed after a big snowfall with low temperatures in the valleys. The climbing feels a lot more like mountaineering up here with some difficult route finding, exposed cliffs and often large cornices to surmount to reach the ridgeline of Carnedd Dafydd. In summer time these cliffs consist mainly of grass, reeds and moss with the occasional section of rock poking in short, they are fairly terrible and provide interest for only the devout scramblers. In winter, however, they really come into their own.
The gully lines provide some of the best sport, with Eastern II, Pyramid III/IV, Central IV and Western V 6 all being memorable outings with plenty of characterful climbing. The Somme V 6 is a wonderful thin icefall that requires a good winter to form whilst Ypres VI 6 is rumoured to be the best icefall on the Ladders. Flanders Summer Line is the modern classic, said to be one of the finest winter routes in Wales by those who have repeated it, although it does have a chunky crux pitch bringing the route in at VII 8.
The locals in Gerlan and Bethesda, very fine folk if I say so myself (!), ask you to park sensibly in Gerlan when heading up to the Ladders and not to park along the single track leading out of the end of Gerlan as farm vehicles need to use the road regularly.
Clogwyn Du in recent years has become the in crag with the development of many test-piece routes from the likes of Nick Bullock and Pete Harrison two of the leading pioneers of Welsh winter climbing in recent years. Clogwyn Du is also one of the most reliable winter venues in Wales, lying as it does, just beneath the summit of Glyder Fawr. The climbing on this crag is steep and relentless although the hook placements tend to be very positive with plenty of frozen turf and moss to hold the axes in place. Before 2006 the crag only had a small handful of winter routes including the now classic El Mancho VI 7, but in 2006 Nick Bullock brought some hard modern mixed climbing to the crag with the additions of Travesty and Cracking Up IX 9 then the hardest winter route in Wales.
With the increased popularity of mixed climbing and a series of excellent winters the crag was rapidly developed with several tough additions as well as a variety of more accessibly graded routes. Many of the best top end additions come from Pete Harrison who has established the most difficult winter routes in Wales with two grade IXs and two grade Xs on this crag, two of which were climbed on-sight. Clogwyn Du is up there with the best and toughest winter crags in the UK it would be great to see some of the strong Scots coming to sample this mighty bastion of Welsh mixed climbing.
Craig y Rhaedr
Craig y Rhaedr is the most famous ice feature in the Llanberis Pass with Cascade, Central Icefall Direct and Chequered Wall being the classic and very fickle icefalls. In some ways there is little to be said about these classics that you cannot see in a picture theyre steep, sustained and fun in the purest sense. Ive had the opportunity to climb these three classics and a couple of them on more than one occasion. The first time I climbed Cascade I witnessed the biggest leader fall of my life a fall from the very top of the crag to several metres above the ground, it must have been about 100m and showed me that ice screws really do have some impressive holding power in good ice.
When I climbed Central Icefall Direct I was at a loss for a climbing partner until I persuaded (there wasnt much persuasion necessary) my then history teacher to make an after school ascent by head torch. It was a memorable ascent for several reasons, not least for one of the lead lines having the misfortune to snag on an icicle on the main pitch!
Whether you climb on Lliwedd in summer or in winter it has a fantastic aura to it and is one of the earliest rock faces to be developed in the UK. It may not have the steepest walls but they are certainly long and complicated which can be quite daunting on first acquaintance. It is home to the longest winter route in Wales, an unrepeated 23 pitch girdle through some incredible territory and a few very fine and worthwhile winter routes. Slanting Gully is perhaps the best grade IV in Snowdonia and Central Gully IV isnt far behind. The routes are best enjoyed after a good build-up of snow and ice and nowadays seem to have fallen out of favour with Welsh winter climbers.
Crib Goch Cyrn Las
High on the North West Face of Crib Goch lie a few of the most reliable winter routes in Wales due to their high elevation and requirement to climb on little frozen turf or ice. Crazy Pinnacle Face V and Reades Route VI are both particularly good outings and there have been a few more recent additions that make this a perfect early winter spot to get your eye in.
To the right of the NW Face of Crib Goch lies the classic Parsley Fern Gully, one of the best grade I gully lines in the UK. Beneath Parsley Fern Gully lies Sargeants Gully, an excellent and classic ice route of grade II/III which can be linked into Sinister Gully III above to make a day of it.
Clogwyn Dur Arddu
Cloggy may not be renowned as a winter cliff but does provide a few very worthwhile excursions as well as some good potential for the future. Unfortunately, the crag rarely rimes up and many of the gully lines make for poor winter routes. The route did see some early development from Mick Fowler, Martin Boysen and Tut Braithwaite of difficult mixed lined that even now are rarely repeated. Jubilee Climb V 6 is the best lower end mixed climb with varied climbing and five pitches to enjoy. The Black Cleft is the most sought after tick, rarely coming into condition, but when it is, it no doubt makes for a better route than the dripping wet and mossy summer E2 it follows. A superb couple of ice pitches is followed by some technical mixed climbing on small holds and thin veneers of ice.
Opposite Tryfan lies this quiet Cwm which has become popular with skiers and snowboarders in recent years, as well as being the classic grade 1 scramble up Pen yr Ole Wen. In winter the most popular outings are the wonderful and long Broad Gully I/II, as well as the shorter Y Gullies which are both grade II. The crags at the back of the Cwm have been developed in recent years with a few entertaining mixed and ice routes such as Moonlightning IV and Eastern Arte Direct V. Whilst the headwall beyond is a much ascended and skied grade I snow slope.
Snowdon the Trinity Face
Snowdons Trinity Face, also known as Clogwyn y Garnedd, is the jewel in the crown of Welsh gully climbing with a host of grade Is, IIs, and IIIs leading nearly to the summit of Snowdon itself. It does suffer from its popularity, particularly on weekends, but if youre open to climbing routes other than the main Trinity gullies, then youre likely to have a quiet day out. The Trinity Face is often the first venue for snow slopes to begin to consolidate into some good neve, due to the often high freezing levels of Snowdonia and the gully lines are often reliably in condition when the mountains have a good coating of snow on them.
Top Ten Routes
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|Add||Climb name||Grade||Height||Crag name|
|Cracking Up||IX 9 ***||60m||• 2||Clogwyn Du Ymhen Y...|
|Flanders||VII 7 ***||?||• 6||Ysgolion Duon...|
|The Black Cleft||VII ***||?||Clogwyn Du'r...|
|The Devil's Appendix||VI 6 ***||130m||• 3||Devils Kitchen (Cwm...|
|Central Icefall Direct||VI 6 ***||?||• 3||Craig y Rhaeadr|
|Western Gully||V 6 ***||?||Ysgolion Duon...|
|Great Gully (Winter)||IV ***||?||Craig Yr Ysfa|
|Slanting Gully||V **||250m||• 4||Y Lliwedd|
|Sargeant's Gully||II 3 **||?||Cyrn Las (Gyrn Las)|
|Sinister Gully||III 4 **||220m||• 4||Clogwyn y Ddysgl|
|Central Trinity||II 2 ***||?||Clogwyn y Garnedd|
Cracking Up IX 9
Cracking Up takes the best line on Clogwyn Du up the fiercely steep crack bounding the crags left hand end. Strenuous lay-backing and stein-pulling leads wildly upwards, the only question is if your arms are up to the challenge youll soon find out either way!
Flanders (Summer Line) VII 8
Said to be the best winter route in Wales by some of those that have climbed it (Im reserving judgement until I finally do!). This mighty offering is 11 pitches long as well as having sustained climbing in the central section. Make sure you get an early start!
Black Cleft VII 7
The best mountain cliff in Wales offers up surprisingly few winter routes, however the few there are more than make up for the lack of quantity by their quality. Black Cleft was first climbed in 1964 by Baz Ingle and Martin Boysen an astounding achievement considering the equipment of the time. This dank summer E2 forms a fantastic ice pitch leading into a technical mixed groove with thin veneers of ice. A classic!
Devils Appendix VI
The best ice-fall south of Hadrians Wall (Thats the Roman boundary and not the Ben Nevis ice route). The Devils Appendix tackles the line of Cwm Idwal, following a steep icicle on the first pitch and then some gloriously exposed ice flutings on the second and third pitches. The route is best climbed in two long sustained pitches, preferably ahead of all the other parties. Remember John Barrys advice in Cold Climbs, biceps not brains!
Central Icefall Direct VI
Companion route to the classic Cascade, Central Icefall is bigger and steeper culminating in an exciting pitch up a steep icicle. Take some time to look at the space below your feet and feel like a hero!
Western Gully Direct V 6
The Black Ladders have a big feel to them, much like Creagh Meghaidh in Scotland. Long sustained routes with a mixture of ice, mixed and an awful lot of grass climbing! In most lean winters Western Gully is certainly the line of the Ladders taking the central section of these somewhat complicated cliffs. The crux pitch can vary depending on snow and ice development but is generally a technical rock slab with some insecure hook placements the remainder of the route is considerably easier but has great atmosphere.
Great Gully V 6
Great Gully on Craig yr Ysfa in the Carneddau, is a horror-show/experience (delete as appropriate) in the summer time, but in winter the grass is frozen over, some of the boulder chokes are drifted over and the main Great Cave Pitch is a wild adventure tackling some exciting territory. Not your average winter adventure and one youre likely to avoid the crowds on.
Slanting Gully IV
Lliwedds main cliff is an amazing place to climb and Slanting Gully might just take the title for the best Welsh grade IV. This long sustained gully is normally filled with ice and snow and feel like a mini alpine adventure away from the crowds.
Sargeants Gully Sinister Gully III
This classic link up of two mighty fine ice routes provides a fabulous adventure with plenty of interest along the way. Sargeants Gully can be climbed in up to four pitches with plenty of options to choose easy or more difficult lines over the different ice steps in the boulder choked gully. From the top of Sergeants a short ascent leads you into Sinister Gully with the main ice pitch being the main event often a steep ice pitch at III, but thankfully short lived.
Central Trinity I/II
A top ten list of welsh classics couldnt be complete without one of the Trinity Gullies. Central Trinity probably takes the best line of them all, though the climbing is probably a little better on left and right hand Trinity. Other favourite Is and IIs include Parsley Fern Gully on Crib y Ddysgl, Banana Gully on Y Garn and the short but sweet Hidden Gully on Clogwyn Du.
When to Go
The wildly varying Welsh winter season can begin as early as late November and offer up good conditions as late as April. The best time is often between January and the end of March though with conditions coming and going multiple times over any given season. Check the forecast and webcams before coming!
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The Caban Cysgu above Bethesda provides self-catering accommodation with the possibility of booking rooms for larger groups and has easy access to the local amenities in Bethesda. In the Nant Ffrancon is the Ogwen Valley Bunkhouse which lies midway between Bethesda and Ogwen. For Climbers Club members the Helyg hut between Ogwen and Capel Curig and Ynys Ettws in the Llanberis Pass are both popular.
Food and Supplies
For the main winter climbing areas of northern Snowdonia the nearest bigger supermarkets are in Bangor and Caernarfon although there are small Spar, Londis and Tesco shops in Llanberis, Bethesda, Capel Curig and Betws which are well stocked with everyday items.
The nearest climbing walls are Plas y Brenin wall at Capel Curig, a small facility but often with some good boulder problems set. The Indy climbing wall in Llanfair PG roughly 15 minutes from Ogwen has an excellent bouldering wall with lead climbing facilities and the Beacon climbing centre in Caernarfon has a big lead wall, plenty of bouldering and a small caf upstairs.
Snowdonia has some good caf scenes with excellent spots for lunch as well as tea and cake. The Moel Siabod caf in Capel Curig serves hearty portions, Petes Eats in Llanberis is ever reliable, the newly opened Lodge Dinorwig near Bus Stop quarry has a lovely ambience with a good menu choice and there is a whole host of choices in tourist towns such as Betws y Coed and Beddgelert.
For evening meals some good spots include the Gallt y Glyn in Llanberis, The Vaynol in Nant Peris, the Bryn Tyrch at Betws y Coed and the more upmarket Tŷ Gwyn in Betws.
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North Wales Winter from ROCKFAX
North Wales Winter covers the best and most reliable venues for winter climbing in North Wales including the classic gullies of the Trinity Face ( Clogwyn y Garnedd) and the rarely-formed but absolutely essential ice climbs of Cascade and Central Icefall Direct on Craig y Rhaeadr in the Llanberis Pass.
Also covered are the major ice lines of Devils Kitchen (Cwm Idwal) - (Clogwyn y Geifr) and the modern mixed climbs of Clogwyn Du Ymhen Y Glyder and the huge cliff of Ysgolion Duon (Black Ladders) which rivals anything in Scotland and is home to long and committing adventures that give a full and tiring day out.
This App version has all you need to find and assess the best routes whenever they are in 'nick'. It costs £4.99 from the App Store.