Sunday, 26 February 2012

Snowdon The Llanberis Path

A few weeks ago Simon, an old colleague of mine who has become a good friend, asked me if I wanted to join him and a few friends for a walk up Snowdon. Simon is enjoying downhill mountain biking at the moment and wanted to check out the Llanberis Path as a potential downhill route. Being a hill walker I know that people may presume I will have a negative reaction to the idea of people zooming down the mountain sides on mountain bikes, but I don't. I think that by working together and sensibly, most outdoor adventure sports can live side by side. And why not, after all they are all just trying to enjoy the outdoors and live a healthy lifestyle. Simon told me about the Snowdon Voluntary Cycle Agreement, which I had never heard of before. Snowdonia National Park, Gwynedd County Council and several biking associations came together to agree a compromise to avoid a total bike ban on Snowdon. The agreement is that during the busy summer period from 1st May to 30th Sept mountain bikers can only use the majority of Snowdon's paths and bridleways during early morning before 10am or late evenings after 5pm. To be honest mountain bikers have got a good deal as they are the best times of the day as any experienced hill walker knows. So with all this in mind, Simon wanted to check out the Llanberis Path to see if it would be possible to downhill the path.

Snowdon Mountain Railway & Moel Eilio beyond

I had a busy week as I had either played or been to watch football every night this week. Friday was my bosses leaving party after work and unfortunately despite saying I would only have a few I ended up having a lot more and didn't get in until late on Friday night. I went straight to bed when I got in and was then up with a hangover at 7:45am to pack and drive to Snowdonia. The missus still has a broken leg and can't stand on it, so I felt a bit guilty as I had not spent enough time with her this week and had a mountain of house work to do. I walked outside the front of the house to get in my car, only to realise that I had left the car at the tram stop the night before as I was going to be drinking. I therefore started the day by having to walk a mile on tarmac just to get my car! Being in a rush when I left I was convinced I must have left something important behind. As I rounded the slip road to the M56 I looked up to see the silhouette of Shining Tor and Shutlingsloe beyond a plane rising out of Manchester Airport, all backed by a glowing sunrise. A mile along on the motorway a huge fat Buzzard sat and watched me drive by. As usual it felt good to be in the car heading to the hills at weekend, despite the fact my head was still hurting from the beer the night before. I bought a petrol station sandwich which was absolutely disgusting, but I knew I had to eat to make myself stronger, luckily the Snickers I downed soon after had a familiar taste. I passed the Helsby Man, an inland sandstone sea cliff near the Mersey Estuary, which when seen from the M56 heading west produces a shape similar to the outline of a mans face.

The Glyders from Clogwyn on the Llanberis Path up Snowdon

The A55 which takes you from the M56 across North Wales is my favourite road, yes I have a favourite road. The tunnels, sea scapes, islands, castles, quarrys and of course mountains, always make for an exciting eye opening journey. There is a very steep hill on the A55 known as Rhuallt Hill and from the top of this hill, just before it descends, there is a sneaky peak towards the mountains of Snowdonia. If you can see the mountains from here then it is a fairly good indication of a good weather day. The most prominent mountain in view is Moel Siabod which looks awesome from the east. I could see all the mountains so hopes of a good view from the top of Wales's highest today were high. By the time I got to Llanberis Simon was already there and the others turned up seconds later. We all shook hands and I was introduced to the guys who I hadn't met before. One of the lads was actually a driver on the Six Peaks Challenge I did for Water Aid a few years ago, so we had both met before in this Llanberis car park. We set off along what in my opinion is one of the toughest parts of the entire route, the steep minor road out of Llanberis. After the road and saying hello to some friendly ponies we headed through the gate on to the Llanberis Path. The views over towards the Dinorwig quarry spills below Elidir Fawr were as fascinating as always. It was here when I took my camera out of its case to take the first photo of the day that I realised what I had left behind in the morning. I didn't check my camera gear before I left and forgot to take the camera's SD card out of my Macbook. Ah well iPhone photos it would sadly have to be. I was way too hot in my winter combo of walking trousers over my Ron Hills so I zipped off my trousers to look like a bit of a wally, but didn't care as it was too damn hot. Ridiculous weather for a February walk up Snowdon.

Feathery Hoar Frost on grass on Snowdon

We soon realised that one of the lads wasn't wanting to storm up the mountain so Simon and myself stayed behind with him whilst the other two went at their own faster pace. Unfortunately one of them had his waterproof jacket so he wasn't best pleased when we got higher. Luckily I had a spare as I was using my wind shirt instead. I actually enjoyed the slow pace as the last time times I had come up Snowdon this way I was more or less jogging. We passed the half way house and then ascended the steep section to Clogwyn. All the way up admiring stunning views across to the Moel Eilio ridge. I have to come back one day and do the circuit of Moel Eilio as it looks like a great day out. The view over to The Glyders that hits you after passing under the railway at Clogwyn was amazing as it always is. This path gets a bad name and is often referred to as the Tourist Path, but it is a brilliant walk with stunning views. As we ascended away from Clogwyn we entered the cloud base and for the first time all day it finally felt like winter. Extra clothes now on we made our way up to the Finger Stone. Mark who was really buzzing off his first proper big mountain would have loved the views from here, I was really gutted he couldn't see them as all the way up the Llanberis Path he was really buzzing off the views. I love seeing people walk up mountains for the first time who enjoy it as much as he did. The rocks and grass were now covered in beautiful feathery hoar frosts. We also met the two other guys at the Finger Stone who were now on their way back down. There was the odd patch of snow though not much. We went up to the summit cairn and took the obligatory summit photo. When you stand on top of Snowdon, Ben Nevis or Scafell Pike you are literally the highest human being on land in the country at that time. That is something I love reminded people of as its a hell of an achievement to stand up there no matter what anyone says about Snowdon.

Simon, Me and Mark at the Snowdon summit cairn

No views from the summit, just freezing cold and cloudy. We checked out the summit shelter and used it as a giant wind break where we shared a triple pack sandwich that Simon kindly shared between the three of us. In a rush in the morning I also forgot the food I had brought with me. There were a few mountain bikers at the summit so Simon talked to them about the routes they had taken. We set off on our descent down the Llanberis Path. When we finally reached Clogwyn station, although we had finally come below the cloud base, we could tell that the weather had certainly come in. Surrounding hills and mountains were now shrouded in cloud. As we made our way down the steep section below Clogwyn a few more mountain bikers were coming down. I watched in amazement at how well their full suspension bikes descended down the steep rocky footpath. If you'd told me someone could go down that path on a bike I would never have believed it. But after seeing them come down it I could now see it was totally possible. Simon was loving it as this was exactly what he had come to see. The descent was straight forward back to Llanberis. I absolutely love Snowdon and love that so many people including tourists and first timers get to enjoy it. Many of these people go on to climb hundreds more and find an appreciation for the outdoor world forever. Those that end up in trouble through lack of the right gear or planning, which is a small percentage of those that actually climb the mountain, will learn important lessons. At the end of the day, if you want a quiet mountain, choose one of the other thousands of incredible mountains in Britain, don't whinge about this one. I have climbed this mountain more times than any other and I get very protective, can you tell? It was a great day out with new people and great to see Simon. Until next time Snowdon.

I have uploaded the photos from the day here.

Route Map...

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Mam Tor via Winnats Pass

Well since we got back from skiing in France all I have done is house work. Yes having a wife with a broken leg is making me appreciate the hard work she does around the house. There you go I said it! It has also been extremely difficult finding time to enjoy my hobbies including getting outdoors. So this weekend I had to get out of the house and go for a walk by myself. The criteria for this weekends walk was to do something local but also a bit different. So no guide book or popular routes. Scouring of a map is so much fun and I had lots of fun doing so on Saturday night. The Dark Peak is always the obvious choice for something close by when I haven't got much time. I couldn't stay away from the house for too long as I had a mountain of chores to do and a legless wife to look after. I decided to Tweet out on Saturday night to my many fans, sorry I mean followers of course, to see if they had any ideas for something a bit different. One of my fans, sorry I mean followers of course, Mike Beaumont who I met at the Monsal Head social meet this year said he was looking at a route involving the Winnats Pass. I think it was in one of the magazines this month and I had looked at it with some interest myself. However what I really wanted to do was see the Winnats Pass from above. I am always in awe of the Winnats Pass, I find it incredible that such a stunning ravine is situated where it is in the Peak District National Park. I often look at it when covered in snow and think it could easily be mistaken for somewhere in the Alps.

Winnats Pass below Mam Tor

So after Mike mentioning the Winnats Pass I had a look at the map. The map I have is several years old and doesn't have the open access land shading on it. I went online and found that the Winnats Pass and its immediate surroundings are in fact open access land. Looking on Bing Map's aerial photography I could see there was in fact a faint path that skirted over the southern side of the pass, this was the side I had wanted to walk along as I wanted to explore the pinnacles. Looking up at them has often caused me to almost drive my car straight into on coming vehicles when driving up the pass. As a National Trust member I am often on the lookout for National Trust car parks which are free to members. The one under Mam Tor on the road out to the Winnats Pass is just that, so this was to be the starting point. One of the reasons why the Winnats Pass is the busy route it is today of course is because the original A625 road to Castleton collapsed in the late seventies. I have seen the collapsed road from Blue John Cavern but never explored it or seen it up close. So with that in mind, the second half of the route would take me up to the collapsed road where I could also get a closer look at the iconic fragile south face of Mam Tor. I would then finish the walk by heading up to Hollins Cross on the Great Ridge and walk back to the car park via Mam Tor's summit itself.

The collapsed road below Mam Tor

The weather wasn't great, the forecast was for dull low cloud. They got it spot on unfortunately despite my hoping they could have got it wrong. Snow had fallen quite heavily over the last fortnight over the Peak District so I was really looking forward to hearing that familiar crunching sound under my feet. The first signs of snow came around Lyme Park and Disley. By the time I was coming off the A6 towards the Hope Valley it was a monochrome winter wonderland with a grey roof. As I passed the farmers field opposite the Chestnut Centre I could see hundreds of sledge lines in the snow. That poor farmer has been putting up with folk parking on the road side, jumping over his stone wall and using his field as a sledging ramp for decades. I could see the herd of Fallow Deer in the field behind the Chestnut Centre looking as beautiful as they always do. As the road got higher the snow got deeper on the higher moors. I reached the National Trust's Mam Nick car park where dozens of blue tits were foraging the ground for bits of food among the snow. With them was a tiny Wren who didn't seem too bothered by my presence as I opened the door to put on my gaiters. At least this time my gaiters didn't have a pair of my wife's knickers stuck to the velcro like they did the last time I put them on before a walk! I set off along the road and headed over the icy fields of Windy Knoll towards Winnats Head Farm. The paths were treacherously icy. I was however thankful of the ice when I got to the path behind Winnats Head Farm. The path here is a quagmire of cattle dung and mud, a quite pointless path in my opinion.

Grand setting for lunch under Mam Tor's south face

After rounding Winnats Head Farm I found myself at the cattle grid at the top of the Winnats Pass. I crossed the road and headed up the other side. A flat open area of grass above the road revealed what looked like an old mine area. I went to explore it and found dripping frozen water had created some fabulous looking ice stalagmites which I managed to get a good photo of. After exploring the hole I started the steep ascent to the faint path I had seen above the pass on the aerial photography online. Reaching the path was fairly straight forward and the path then just followed a simple route along the top of the south side of the pass. The only problem being the ice and at times when the path got close to the edge, the sheer drops to the road. At every chance I stayed as close to the edge as possible. At one point I put the camera down to take a self timer shot and run out on to one of the pinnacles. I didn't make it in time and when I turned and looked behind me I realised one step more and I would have been lying on the floor of the ravine like Wile E. Coyote. My legs shook like mad so I quickly got back to the path. The views back along the road had Mam Tor above them making a great photo. It was shocking just how high the ravines walls are, the cars looked tiny from up there. There was a walker walking through the grass area next to the road and it was only after seeing him for a second time that I realised he was a walker, at first I thought he was a dog as he looked so tiny. The path eventually reached the far eastern end of the pass and I then had to deal with the hardest terrain of the day. Here you can either take a safe long detour via Castleton or just head straight down very steep grass to the path behind Speedwell Cavern. I chose the latter and it was really hard going at times.

Fragile geology of Mam Tor's south face

I met a couple on their way up who were struggling with the steep ascent. They sat down for lunch looking over Castleton and the Hope Valley and I smiled and carried one. When I was near the bottom I looked back up to the couple and saw them pointing into the air. Only metres above them was a Kestrel flapping away. You make your own luck, and when you decide to clamber up a hill for stunning views while you eat your lunch you deserve such luck. I crossed the road at Speedwell Cavern and took a muddy path to Treak Cliff Cavern. From there I took a high path that eventually turned left into a quiet icy clough to eventually reach Blue John Cavern and the collapsed road under Mam Tor. The collapsed road is quite an eye opener. It has been left exactly as it was the day it collapsed. The tarmac with road markings looks like it has been torn apart by a huge monster capable of ripping apart tons of tarmac and foundations. The tarmac twists and buckles like nothing I have ever seen, the only comparison would be the scenes you see on the news after an earth quake. From the collapsed road I walked across to the bottom of the fragile face of Mam Tor. I decided that sitting on one of the many gritstone boulders that had fallen from the mountain would be an idyllic location for lunch. The term mountain is not often used for such smaller hills and certainly not used very much around the Peak District. However I dare anyone to sit in that spot underneath Mam Tor and deny it such status. With the huge south face covered in snow and ice I felt like I was sat in the grandeur a Scottish Highland corrie. The fragile strata up close showed layers of crumbling shale separated by layers of broken gritstone boulders. This was so much better than I had expected it to be, I'll definitely be back here again. I think a horseshoe walk around the edges of this miniature corrie would be a great short walk.

The icy Great Ridge path to Mam Tor

I then took the decision to follow a very narrow, muddy and icy path to reach Hollins Cross. If I did it again in the same conditions I would definitely just have headed back to the collapsed road and taken the road then bridleway route to Hollins Cross. This muddy path was awful and my boots doubled in size due to the mud caked all over them. I reached the gates just before Hollins Cross and turned left following the masses along the Great Ridge path. I say path but to be honest it was more like a tobogganing run. This is a very popular route and most people were not that well prepared for such conditions. As the path got steeper and more icy towards Mam Tor many people were turning back, while others stayed off to one side of the path, making an already over eroded path even wider. I of course being all smug and prepared slipped on my Kahtoola Microspikes and just plodded along crunching my way along the icy path. I often felt that smugness that a 4x4 driver feels when it snows and everyone else struggles to keep their car on the road. A few people stopped me to ask what they were or where I had got them from. Yes Hitch n Hike in Bamford you owe me big time! As I approached the summit of Mam Tor the clouds drew in like cold grey curtains and swallowed up all the views. The summit was surprisingly quiet compared to its approaches which I think was due to the amount of people who had given up before reaching the summit. I made my way back down to the Mam Nick car park. I opened the car door, removed my gaiters and entered the warm welcoming environment. I turned the engine on and looked at the windscreen to find it had started raining at that very moment. Great timing! All the way home it was low cloud and drizzle, but I didn't care as yet again I had managed to find the perfect weather window. It was a great day out, a short walk, but I took my time and managed to create a route with a lot of variety.

I have uploaded the photos from the day here.

Route Map...