Sunday, 19 December 2010

Y Garn and Cwm Idwal

North Wales had a huge dump of snow last week. Northerly air flow combined with already freezing temperatures and weather fronts collected moisture off the Irish Sea, froze it and dumped it across Snowdonia. This therefore made it an obvious choice for this weekends walk. I spoke to our Northampton based friend Kelvin midweek who mentioned that he would be up that way this weekend too so we planned to meet up with him for an adventurous winter walk on Sunday. Kelvin being the hardened man that he is, slept in his van overnight in one of the A5 laybys in the Ogwen Valley. Temperatures dropped to minus fifteen that night! We on the other hand were nice and warm under a down quilt and electric blanket at home as I checked the weather forecast. The forecasts said it would be a very cold and sunny day, perfect conditions for a winter walk. So knowing we had to set off early to get there in time to make a proper day of it, we set the alarm clock for a quarter past six on Sunday morning.

Ogwen Valley from Y Garn's North East Ridge

We took an age defrosting the car as it was minus twelve degrees in Cheshire when we woke up. I have recently discovered that there is a problem with the heating system in my car too which the missus was not impressed with. Basically it decides when it will and won't pass through the warm air from the engine area so for the first hour of the drive we were freezing. To counter act the discomfort I knew the missus would be in I filled our Platypus water carriers with boiling water so she could use them as hot water bottles on the way. We got to Wales in good time as the A55 was clear. Amazes me how much time it cuts off the journey round Chester these days now it is continuous dual carraigeway from the end of the M56 to the A55. One thing I had never seen in my life until this moment was snow on a beach. I've been in Scotland when it snows but still never seen an actual beach with snow cover on it. The beaches along the North Wales coast looked great covered in snow and the Great Orme looked incredible. We came off the A55 near Bangor at the junction with the A5 and tried to use the services there, as we pulled in however all we could see was a car park covered in deep snow with abandoned cars strewn across its entrance and exit roads.

Afon Ogwen at Idwal Cottage

As we continued along the A5 towards Bethesda the snow got deeper and there were dozens of abandoned vehicles along the road. At Halfway Bridge we picked up a walker who was thumbing a lift to Idwal Cottage where we were heading. He was a cheery fellow and we had a good chat and laugh with him. As we approached Bethesda we could tell the place had clearly had a lot more snow than we had anticipated. Bethesda's pavements, cars and parking spaces were all completely buried under two foot deep snow everywhere. The village was surprisingly busy and locals with shovels were everywhere trying to clear their cars and pavements. We continued along the road with care until we got to Nant Ffrancon where a freak wind was blowing the snow from the fields on to the road. It got quite hairy in places but luckily a local farmer was on hand and was clearing away the drifts with his tractor and plough. We reached Idwal Cottage and had fun trying to find somewhere to park as all the laybys were feet deep in snow drifts. Nicky braved the cold outside, grabbed the spade from the boot and started digging out a parking space on the main road for us. The hitch hiking walker helped push the car in to place. With the car parked we got geared up ready for a proper winter walk. The day before I had been out to the fantastic Hitch n Hike gear shop in Bamford in the heart of the Peak District. I got Nicky some Grivel Monte Rosa crampons and got us both a pair of Kahtoola Micro Spikes which I had been craving for a long time. The Peak District drive the day before was awesome, despite reports of the roads being closed, in reality they were all open and passable. The Peak District looked amazing in surprisingly just a sprinkling of snow and the sun setting.

Myself, Nicky & Kelvin on Y Garn summit

We met Kelvin down the road at the Idwal Cottage car park toilets and cafe building. We hadn't seen Kelvin since we did the winter skills course together in the Cairngorms last winter so it was handshakes and hugs all round. We set off along the path to Llyn Idwal, passing through the gate and over the Llyn Idwal outflow which was covered in loads of incredible ice formations and of course as always with the backdrop above of Y Garn the target for the days walk. We chose Y Garn as the navigation is fairly straight forward, we've done it before and we know the going was going to be tough so had to choose something fairly short in distance. We soon reached the beautiful Cwm Idwal where monochrome snow and ice covered cliffs soared above a frozen Llyn Idwal, contrasted by perfect blue skies. From Llyn Idwal we could see fellow walkers on our route up the North East Ridge of Y Garn. It was obvious by their slow pace that it was going to be tough. We were soon making steady progress up on to the ridge itself via Pinnacle Crag. All the way we were extremely thankful for those who had broken the path and kicked steps before us. As we got around half way up the ascent clouds moved in over the surrounding tops and eventually covered us too. Visibility was not great but we easily made our way up the final ascent of the ridge to the summit plateau with relief and aching thigh muscles. The final part of the ridge is usually quite a narrow scramble but as is sometimes the case, with a wide area of snow packed on it the going was actually easier than normal.

Kelvin descending Devil's Kitchen path

On the plateau the visibility was so bad that we could only see around twenty metres in either direction. We turned left and used the impressive cornice as a hand rail to get us to the summit cairn. Trying not to step on the cornice itself at any point. At one point the white was so overwhelming it created an optical illusion that tricked us into not realising the snow in front of us was actually built up and at chest height to us. We walked straight into it, after expecting to walk just walk ahead and across it! The summit cairn provided a good shelter from the bitterly cold wind. We made ourselves some bucket seats in the snow and had lunch. All of us smiling and happy to be at nine hundred and forty metres above sea level in white out conditions with a bitter wind burning our faces. We felt alive! After trying to drink more of my frozen Lucazade, I took a bearing from the summit, for practice and just in case. The wind on the descent down the south side of the mountain was bitterly cold and stung all our faces. I was very glad of the Rab Balaclava I had brought from Hitch n Hike the day before. Kelvin took a few tumbles as we struggled through the deep snow towards Llyn y Cwn. After stopping to take a picture Kelvin suddenly realised he couldn't locate his camera. I started ascending the hill again following the path he took, with my thigh muscles starting to burn again. I turned round to hear "Found it!". I shot a disapproving glare at which they both laughed and trotted back down. As we got down to Llyn y Cwn on the col between Y Garn and Glyder Fawr the skies opened up to give us some pretty awesome and atmospheric views to the Carneddau on our left and Snowdon on our right. We played around near the frozen Llyn y Cwn where I landed face first in the snow and ended up falling down a hole to my waist at one point.

Nicky admiring the icicles

Our descent was via the Devil's Kitchen path. We struggled at first to find the proper path as others who had led the way before us had also gone way off course. We did eventually find the familiar wide open track that leads down to the small stone wall that crosses the path at the point where it turns in to a rocky scramble. The views from here looking over Llyn Idwal are always impressive, I'd say easily one of the best views in Snowdonia and today they were as impressive as I had ever seen them. We started to descend the slippery and steepening path. Nicky and Myself thankful at this point that we still had our Microspikes on our boots. We wore the Microspikes all day. Even when they are not necessarily needed you don't really need to take them off as they do not hinder your progress as crampons would. We had to be careful in places as the path was just like a slide in a playground but steeper, covered in compacted slippery snow and big boulders on the crags below. As I was carefully watching my own footing I suddenly heard a "Woah!"  from below me and looked down to see Kelvin at the bottom of one of these tricky slides lay akimbo across a boulder which luckily had stopped him in his path. Nicky and Myself skipped a heart beat and Kelvin just looked up and laughed and said "Phew that was close, maybe its time for crampons". Was a very funny and memorable moment. To get down Kelvin's slope I used a skill I learned on the winter skills course last year and chopped out several steps using the adze of my ice axe, I was extremely pleased with my skills.

The Moon and Tryfan

As the path skirts the bottom of the Devil's Kitchen itself we looked up to see a winter ice climber half way up the back wall of the huge dark and foreboding gully. Looking up at him I could only think two possibilities. He either has serious mental issues or gigantic balls. My legs were shaking just watching him. As the path turns right again a big buttress sticks out from the right, this usually has a waterfall down the side of it but today the water was spread across the buttress and had dripped off frozen and created probably the most spectacular icicles I have ever seen all in one place. I got a good shot of Nicky stood under them to give perspective as they were huge. We chatted to several fellow walkers and climbers on the final descent to the shores of Llyn Idwal. A short walk round Llyn Idwal saw us back at the path we left earlier. By now it was starting to get dark but a massive bright moon shone the path all the way back to Idwal Cottage and provided a stunning backdrop to a snowy Tryfan which looked even more grand than it usually would. We fed some left over sandwich chicken to a beautiful and friendly Robin at Idwal Cottage then left Kelvin as he went back to his van and Capel Curig for a Lamb dinner. Kelvin stayed over in Snowdonia for a few more nights as it was just too good to miss. Unfortunately we made our way home in the freezing cold car and went to work the next day as he was enjoying Moel Siabod.

I have uploaded the photos from the day here.

Route Map...


  1. Wow I really enjoyed your recollection of the day, scary and exhilirating for sure. Another wonderful experience, me thinks, for your life memory book! Luvya mum X

  2. Nice one, Jamie, and an excellent set of photos. That route is Bill Birkett's Great British Ridge Walk No 3. I enjoyed it this time last year, but I'm struggling to get away at present in these wonderful conditions!

  3. A great absorbing account Jamie, and terrific pictures of a classic route.
    Reading your report of the driving, you're a braver man than I. Talk about that climber having balls, I'd need them to make that drive in the first place - I'd find it harder on the nerves than the icy scrambling!.

  4. I thought I was the only one mad enough to go out in those conditions but it's nice to get up Y Garn in clear weather especially solo.Those Kahtoolas are great and I swear by mine but personally I swap to crampons for getting down the Kitchen.

  5. A very enjoyable account of a route I know well TB. I suggest you send the pic of The Moon and Tryfan to "Astronomy Now" magazine. If they choose it (and I reckon they will) as one of their photos of the month they will send you £25.
    Cheers PC