Toby Archer chases 'the very bloody ephemeral' in an homage to Simon Richardson's Scottish winter bible, by examining potential winter route options in England and Wales for those living further away from in-nick Scottish classics...
I've never met Simon Richardson but I have to say, I'm a fan. What follows is not meant as a parody of Simon's wonderful book on Scottish winter climbing: Chasing the Ephemeral, but rather an homage to it; a paean to his approach and philosophy.
Back in the mid 90s when I was a Glasgow-based callow youth, Simon wrote an article in High magazine arguing for reducing the use of pegs in winter. I obviously took this to heart because a few weeks later it was on my mind as I slithered and clattered down an un-iced ramp pitch on The Sting on Creag an Socach, hoping the RPs I had placed in the perfect knifeblade crack above were going to hold. They did and we retreated chastened, but I had proved Richardson's point – who needs pitons? Skip forward 20 years, most of which I had spent living outside of the UK, and I received Chasing the Ephemeral from my wife as a Christmas present. I devoured it, so much of Simon's advice clicking with my own memories of Scotland and the limited Welsh and English winter climbing I had done since moving back to the UK. If Simon's arguments against pegs hadn't killed me back in the 90s, how far wrong could I go applying his ideas from this great book, the Cold Climbs for a new generation, now?
Clearly the best strategy for going winter climbing in the UK involves moving to Scotland if you're not there already, and staying put if you are. After many years in Finland, I had recently moved to Sheffield, admittedly closer to Fort William than Helsinki, but not in a good way. Hmmm. Secondly, for maximum winter climbing performance, having virtually no family commitments is clearly optimal. Go where you want, when you need to. I have a family I love very much, my youngest child being one of those wonderful little surprises that we very much hadn't been expecting and was still well under a year old last winter. Again, hmmm. But Richardson explains he gets one day a week away from his family and demanding job to climb, and if he can do 600 new routes on that basis, surely I could get a few routes ticked. Nevertheless, even the Southern Highlands are a bit much for a day trip from Sheffield, so the ephemera I was to chase were going to have to be south of Hadrian's Wall.
The modern world gives us almost endless sources of information to help us plan where there might be "conditions." The Met Office summits forecasts are great but do seem to tend towards the overly optimistic in terms of snow and ice. MWIS gives great general forecasts for all the UK mountain areas. The Lakeland Felltop Assessor reports are invaluable, the assessors know what they are talking about: if they say the turf isn't in, believe them. The BMC now has both a Lakes and Welsh turf sensor – these are also invaluable but a bit pessimistic in terms of telling you when turf can be frozen on exposed cliffs. Facebook is a mine of conditions info; some of it gold, some not. The "Ground Conditions in the UK Mountains" group has loads of reports from people mainly out walking – they might not really know what climbers need but the photos will reveal much: where does the snow start, are rocks rimed up, etc.
UKC reports are also very helpful in showing which routes have been climbed. Nevertheless, approach all this info with a critical eye: "great conditions!!!" to a newbie with only a couple of routes under their belt might be ridiculously poor to a more experienced climber. I'm still having trouble considering ankle deep powder over rubble in, say, Parsley Fern as being "excellent!", but accept that this might make me an outlier in some overly enthusiastic Facebook groups. In all seriousness, read and absorb the BMC White Guides to the Lakes and North Wales. Every regular climber has probably hit a patch of unfrozen turf at some point, but doing it a lot really isn't cool and doing it on a cliff where there is incredibly rare flora just makes you a bit of a knob.
An odd quirk of geography means that, for me, Llanberis and Ambleside are virtually equidistant. Snowdonia and the Lakes are both about 3 hours away for Sheffield climbers, so the one-day warrior must prepare for 4am starts. Winter climber of Manchester, I'm jealous of you – you get another hour in bed. Winter climbers of London, I feel for you - #vanlife, or maybe a nice B&B, might be the solution. Leeds climbers I guess will favour the Lakes, while Brummies will get to North Wales faster. Geordies are virtually in Scotland anyway, while Bristolians and those further south should probably just sell their ice tools.
Once you've decided where you are going to go, you need to get a target route. There are relatively up-to-date winter guidebooks to Wales and the Lakes, but there is a lot in Wales that isn't in the book – the Welsh Winter Wiki, while visually a bit 2004, is a fantastic resource. Club journal new routes records, sometimes findable online, have more in.
If you can only climb one day at the weekend, get prepared for climbing in crap weather. Crap weather is quite different from crap conditions; indeed to get good conditions you may have to go out in crap weather. Back in the 90s in Scotland I remember being quite scared of being in the mountains in bad weather; more experience and better gear have lessened that fear somewhat for me. Never underestimate the winter mountains, but don't underestimate yourself either. I've seen terrifying avalanche debris in the Lakes, and a skier got avalanched in Wales last winter – fortunately without serious injuries, they do happen so know how to avoid them. My navigation is pretty good but confirming my pacing and bearings with the blue GPS spot and OS mapping on my phone is great and helps me operate in poor weather. Modern belay jackets and bothy bags, along with phones, also make it easier to both look after ourselves and look out for others in the hills.
Lastly – yeah, it really isn't much of a strategy - keep your fingers crossed for more winters like the winter of 2017/2018.
Tactics – before you go
4am starts require organisation. Oddly, IKEA bags are central to this. Once you've packed your rucksack put everything else – boots, tools, ski poles, clothes you'll actually be wearing on the hill, in the IKEA bags. Perhaps you live in a crime-free rural nirvana and can pack the car the night before, but slinging it all in as you leave the house in the wee hours seems safer to me. One other important job for the night before is filling flasks. I've perfected a three flask system – my two small flasks are filled with scalding hot coffee, one to take on the hill and one for concentration on the drive. I fill the big flask with tea. I might have a few cups on the drive up but it will still be acceptably warm once I'm back in the car after climbing - and all the more heavenly for it.
I also strongly recommend religiously reading ScottishWinter.com, Richardson's clearing house for all new Scottish winter routes. This of course is of no use at all to the English and Welsh winter climber in terms of conditions info, but I've found that the dull sense of jealous rage it provokes in me helps me get up at 4am to drive to Llanberis.
Tactics – getting there
Last thing before heading to bed, check the AA and Google Maps for road closures particularly if there has been snow anywhere beyond the mountains. Living east of the Pennines meant last winter that the crux of a number of days was just crossing the Pennines to get to the Lakes or North Wales. One night in March every trans-Pennine route was closed by snow, or accidents due to snow, even the M62. I ended up 'ski touring' on the moors above Sheffield instead.
After driving through 14 Finnish winters, normally including the 3500 km round-trip up to the Norwegian arctic to ski and climb, I have extensive experience driving on snow and ice. What this experience tells me is that experience doesn't matter, only good tyres do. Getting all-season tyres was a revelation last winter. They're not quite as good as the studded tyres that are the norm in Finnish winters but, surprisingly, they nearly are. During the Beast from the East week last February, with just a new pair of Michelin Cross Climate Plus on the front wheels of in my very average car, I was driving up Sheffield hills in the snow that proper 4WDs were completely failing on. In past winters we have made it over the Snake Pass using snow socks, which worked well for a short distances but, really, all-season tyres are the key. Beyond that, drive sensibly, think ahead, try not to skid but if you do, don't panic, you aren't automatically doomed and a bit of sideways action adds a touch of spice to life.
Crowden Clough (Winter) (II). I could see snow on the Eastern moors while driving home from work. Early December? In the Peak District? Surely there couldn't be winter climbing yet. But, if it feels possible you're never going to know if you don't go and look. On Saturday night I packed some kit and drove over to Edale. Snow on the road towards the head of the dale was a good sign, but without winter tyres I failed to get up the little hill before the parking at Barber Booth, so slithered back to the village and parked there. I had my tent up and was inside high on Kinder by midnight having walked up through cold winds and snow. The next morning dawned wilder – and I set off around the plateau rim to Crowden Clough, dropped down the path next to it, headed into the clough itself and was amazed to see ice. Yes, there was plenty of water running too, and the ice pitch that can form there wasn't in. But I scrambled up on ice covered rocks, crampons biting well on snow and ice covered ledges with enough ice in places to swing my tools into and pull on. The next week stayed cold and Sunday found me meeting Tom in Patterdale. We hiked up hoping to do Scorpion (IV,5) on Hutaple Crag but found the buttresses quite black, so instead we did East Hutaple Groove (II/III) which had a long sustained pitch of snow-ice – if I hadn't been climbing Derbyshire ice the week before I probably wouldn't have even chanced the drive up to the Lakes.
Golden Girl Ali (IV,5). January arrived; back to work, back to weekday staring at weather forecasts and conditions reports. The weekend is reached and Simon's willing to trust my conditions logic and head over to Wales. It's still dark as we park in Ogwen, but dawn breaks as we walk up to Llyn Idwal. There's ice on the puddles but no snow, but as the sun hits the highest crags of Glyder Fawr they gleam in a coating of white. We head up into the Nameless Cwm full of hope. Tower Gully is full of water ice, there is some snow but not much. Far more importantly, the steep rock is doing its best impression of Coire an Lochain. Enthusiasm gets the better of us. We fail to read the guidebook description carefully and solo the first guidebook pitch up the ice-filled Tower Gully. The meat of the route itself is just wonderful – positive, steep, well protected hooks and torques. Much more fun than Lakes teetering-about-with-poor-protection. I decide I love Wales.
Downfall Climb (II/III but IV,4 realistically). The Beast from the East is coming! Hide! Stockpile tinned food! Prepare to defend yourself as civilisation collapses! Alternatively, head into the loft and find your ice screws.
Wednesday morning, Sheffield is covered in snow and more is falling, but with my new tyres I have no excuse, so get in the car and start driving to work on almost empty white roads. My phone beeps. Could that be the text? I pull over, like all the local schools mine is also closed. I write a text to Simon: "Is your school closed? If so, Kinder Downfall?" A quick reply: "Yes and yes". No problem getting a parking spot today – no one else has made it up that little hill. Tyres, see, told you so. Up the Pennine Way and Jacobs Ladder into a maelstrom. Bearings set, GPS checked, normal gloves upgraded to defend against the Siberian gale, we battle north across the plateau. We drop down Red Brook and out of the Beast's roar, but find where all the snow from the plateau was going. We stumble through huge amounts of powder round to the Downfall amphitheatre. There's ice everywhere. Simon blasts up the main pitch, steep ice up the corner, but lots of features for feet and lots of ice for screws. I haven't climbed 'proper ice' like this since leaving Finland 3 years ago. I do the big traverse left and head up some shorter and worryingly soft ice up onto the top. I hide in the boulder cave to belay before we pack up and head back to confront the Beast.
We navigate south across the plateau in about 5 metres of visibility. We know where we are, where we are going; that the pubs of Edale are only 5kms away; Simon's house 15 minutes beyond that, but still this is as bad weather as I have ever seen going on three decades of mountaineering, including an accumulated several months north of the arctic circle in winter. Taking a glove off to adjust a compass bearing or check the GPS is difficult and my hand requires clenching inside the palm of my glove to take away the numbness from 30 seconds of exposure. We walk in our big belay jackets; not cold but not overheating either and with the knowledge that there isn't any more warmth still packed in our rucksacks. It's a strange thing, knowing you're only a few miles from home, half your mind on things you need to do for work tomorrow, what the kids will eat for tea, the mundane reality of life. The other half unable to ignore the knowledge that if you stop walking your life would quite likely be over. We kept walking.
Christmas 2017 came and went with a big thaw. Colder weather returned towards New Year and I managed to snatch an ascent of Viking Buttress (IV,4) on Helvellyn with my old friend Dave who was visiting from Finland. It was a good day, but like on Hutaple we came across the same interesting phenomenon of the valley floors being frozen iron hard whilst the high crags were still soft in places. The exposed buttresses and ridges were frozen, but it wasn't a day to be in the gullies due to the vulnerable flora. Viking Buttress or the other buttress routes on Red Tarn Face are amongst the most reliable winter climbs in England, being high (you top out on Helvellyn's 950 metre summit) and further from the sea than the big hills in the Western Lakes, but as the BMC Lakes White Guide clearly shows, it is also an ecologically sensitive area. And sheets of ice and rock hard turf while walking up is NOT a guarantee that the face 2000ft higher will also be all frozen.
February saw a further thaw then quick refreeze. High above the Llanberis Pass lurks Crib-y-Dysgl. It makes sense that there should be good winter climbing there, but the guidebook reveals little. Poking around on the internet uncovered the Fallen Block Climb (IV,5), a summer moderate that probably sees few ascents – this seemed likely as anything to be in condition after the thaw and re-freeze. The first pitch turned out to be steep but positive mixed climbing tucked away in the back of a wide gully feature that kept this climb cold and very snowed up. Not even the regular spindrift avalanches that poured over my head whilst I climbed stopped this from being one of the finest pitches of the winter.
Reade's Route (Winter) (VI,6), high on Crib Goch's north face seems to have quietly gained the reputation as the Welsh Savage Slit – a high snowed-up rock route that comes into condition very easily. But I don't think I can climb VI,6 so my attention had been grabbed by a route to its right, Crazy Pinnacle Face (Winter) (V,5) mainly on the basis that I might be able to climb it. I've seen some pictures since of people on Reade's and on Crazy Pinnacle Face in, at best, "marginal conditions", but when we went to try it in late January it was anything but.
There was snow at Pen-y-pass and more as we trudged up Crib Goch: doing the first half of the classic ridge traverse is one of the more exciting "walk ins" of the winter. At Bwlch Coch we dropped down and soon had traversed to the base of the route. The route was blooted with snow and all the steep rock rimed. The first pitch was long, sustained and with slightly fiddly gear – but superb, proper mixed completely reliant on frozen turf. The second pitch was steep and burly; hooks, torques and jams up a groove above one of the pinnacles that give the route its name. Topping out into a wintery maelstrom we got to do the Crib Goch traverse for a second time that day before the long descent. Done in full-on conditions, Crazy Pinnacle Face felt the equal of classic Southern Highlands mixed routes like Menage a Trois (V,6) in all but length.
Idwal Stream (II/III,4). The Beast from the East roared and the nation ground to a snowy halt. Months before this icy blast was even being forecasted I had booked the weekend to meet my old mate and climbing partner from Glasgow in North Wales for a weekend of "something depending on the weather". Little did we know that the "something" would be many hundreds of metres of pure ice climbing. On the Friday we both had relatively epic journeys to get to Betws-y-coed on snow-covered roads through blizzards. Saturday, and the Goretex-clad, twin-tool-carrying hoards are heading up into Cwm Idwal, us amongst them. Immediately the competitive urge kicks in. Before we even get to Idwal Slabs I notice a continuous line of ice coming down the hillside below Cwm Cneifion with no one on it: the The Nameless Stream (III). We reach the base just as another team does, but the ice cascade is wide, or multi-stranded, and we have an enjoyable and sociable morning climbing pitch after pitch of chewy, friendly ice.
After, we descend and walk further up into Cwm Idwal. The mist is down on the higher cliffs although we can hear climbers' shouts echoing around the cwm. On the bits of Idwal Stream that we can see, leading up into the mist, there are no climbers, but the stream is frozen solid all down to the lake. A quick calculation suggests that we will need to be fast to be off the route before dark. The route goes in a blur, running the rope out to its full 60 metres, 300 metres or so of pure ice, including some decently steep pitches if taken straight on. Most runners are solid screws, some belays also. It's wonderful and no one else is around, despite how busy it must have been in the morning. We top out into the now greying murk and set bearings to get us to the top of the Devil's Kitchen descent.
Beta Hammer Belter (III). Beta Hammer Belter on Green Gable isn't a particularly great route, but I include it because we did it on Easter Monday, which, this year, was 2nd April. We actually went to try something on the north side of Great Gable, but despite wading through deep snow and blizzard conditions on the walk-in, that north-facing crag wasn't particularly wintery looking, whilst the west-facing Green Gable was white and only getting whiter with the waves of blown snow cascading down it. It was a day that showed how being flexible on route choice along with being able and willing to operate in poor weather helps to get routes done. At the top of the climb we actually hid in my bothy bag whilst setting the compass bearings that would take us down from the maelstrom.
You might think that chewy ice under a pure blue sky and topping out onto the Nevis plateau in the setting sun is the right way to finish a British winter climbing season, but for the English and Welsh winter climber, you can't have it all. Crouched in a cramped bothy bag, soggy to your thermal undies, wearing multiple layers of clothing and a belay jacket, giggling with your mate at the screaming wind outside and plotting the bearings that will take you to the open fire and hot coffee at the Honister Mine café is certainly a valid alternative.
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