Tuesday, 12 January 2010
"Frozen Excitement" Nant Ogwen © Glyn Davies 2010
I had been looking forward to this day since the snows began. This was the day when I'd do a proper winter mountain day with my camera, possibly with a friend, but planned and a full day out. I'd even bought a new walkers axe to be properly prepared, dusted off my crampons and adjusted them to fit my boots properly.
Two friends finally peeled by the wayside before the day even arrived, which did heighten my trepidation about being alone in winter conditions somewhat but equally meant I'd be alone to be with my thoughts and my camera.
Of course what happens to best laid plans ? I woke up early (ish!) expecting the usual orange glow over the bungalows at the back of our house, watched upon by beautiful pink skies, but on throwing back the curtain there was GREY, in fact a dark grey, almost like I'd got up an hour too early. I checked the Met Office forecast for the Snowdonia hills and it said fog down to 400m or lower with freezing from valley level upwards, increasing to -6ºC at the higher levels with gusts of 40-50mph over exposed ridges adding serious chill factor :-( I looked out of the kitchen window and couldn't even see the base Carneddau we usually admire each morning. Aaaarrrggghhhh. I didn't like the sound of the forecast and as the kettle bubbled way flurries of snow patted the window, I couldn't believe this one chance of mine was drifting away with the dark clouds.
I made my flask anyway, prepared my peanut butter and blackberry jam sandwiches, stole a flapjack and yoghurt bar from the school dinner cupboard and edited my camera kit down to basics. I took one more look out of the window and just thought "Sod it, I'm going anyway". I knew where. I had originally planned on being on the north east side of the hills so that I'd catch the early morning rays on Carnedd Dafydd and I was going to summit via the lake at Cwm Lloer. I decided to at least go to the lake and reconsider my route/options at that point.
"Crossed Lines in the Cold" Nant Ogwen © Glyn Davies 2010
The roads were clear as the van delighted in the corners up the Nant Ffrancon pass, not even a hint of slipping or ice, all good I thought! However, it was already quite clear that I couldn't even see the Devil's Kitchen above Cwm Idwal as a dark fog had already descended the hillsides. My cwm was even higher than Idwal :-( I became quite hesitant about what the hell I was doing, not so much for the walk itself but because I would be carrying a load of tiring weighty gear around on a day where it was just SO dull and flat, not even a drop of light amongst the clouds, hmmmpph!
I remember my Day Skipper instructor saying about plan the sail, sail the plan and I applied the same rationale. I had mentioned to Carol where I was going and in this light one place was as good as any! I parked up in thick snow alongside the A5 and donned my winter boots and crampons. I can't believe how sharp these things are when your weight is above them, after puncturing the floor lining of my nice van !
"Glyn's new hat from Carol" Nant Ogwen 2010
I also had my new hat which Carol had bought as a pressie so I proudly pulled it over my head and off I set. I was immediately into thick slushy snow but there was already ice under that so I'm glad I was finally using crampons. The snow was so thick I could even walk over the cattle grid without worrying about the gaps! It was lovely and quiet, and within 15 minutes I was on the hillside up above the road and starting to get a great view over a completely frozen massive lake, Llyn Ogwen. I had rarely used crampons before so this was a real blast from the past but it was much easier than I'd remembered, and for those who know the route up to Cwm Lloer, what are normally very wet, spring and stream ridden hummocks were now sheet ice, mostly covered in snow from 1-3ft deep. I couldn't see the streams but thankfully others had fallen into them :-) leaving big holes where you could hear the dark water running underneath and try and take avoiding footsteps yourself!
"Old Crampons, New Use" Nant Ogwen 2010
Progress was quite slow, even for me, as I felt quite tired today, and am generally quite unfit these days, my lithe muscular toned body deceiving all but myself and the bathroom mirror :-)) I was also fascinated by the frozen, or at least snow covered river which on closer inspection had quite a torrent of water carving out shapes from the snow above it, forming fantastic patterns and formations.
"Frozen Motion" Nant Ogwen © Glyn Davies 2010
I was quite soon at the fog base, from where you could just about see down into the valley, across the black base of Tryfan opposite, but there was seriously thick heavy and freezing fog just above me, the white snow and occasional rocks just disappearing into nothing. Just when I thought I was alone on the hill, a young couple suddenly appeared, laughing and taking pictures of each other on a buttress up above me. I waved but there was no response. They chased off down the hill and left me in the company of two raucous Ravens circling overhead, landing on crags then circling again. Now there really was nothing. I moved up another 100 ft or so to have lunch and then I was completely in the fog, the valley had disappeared and there was this dead sound, you know where nothing penetrates the blanket, and even when you speak to yourself it sounds muffled ? The journey up had made me hot but as soon as you removed hats or jackets you felt really cold really quickly, a striking contrast. I sat and ate my peanut butter sandwiches and poured a hot sweet coffee, the steam billowing out from the cup and turning instantly into frozen little clouds, terminated immediately :-)
I considered my options. The light levels at this height, in this fog, were extremely low. I had made the decision to leave my tripod in the van and shoot hand held, to save weight and the danger of not being free handed should I slip somewhere. I didn't want to explore any closer to this steep river gorge because the thick snow was covering a multitude of potholes, deep troughs, and rocky fall-offs. One minute you are walking in 18" snow the next you are up to your neck in it with your legs in the river! I felt much happier after my hot coffee and although I could see anything above me, I thought I'd at least find the lake a few hundred feet higher up. I put all my camera kit away to ease progress and went for it. The terrain was steeper, the snow deeper and I followed a set of two footprints along the steep gorge side.
Before long, the footsteps crossed the river and again two holes had sunk straight to the black water below. I made a calculated guess and jumped as far as I could, fortunately landing in snow but on firm ground ! I would remember this on my return. I walked further into deep snow and suddenly I felt VERY strange and very vulnerable. I haven't felt like this since one occasion on Crib Goch as a child, when the clouds we were walking in suddenly parted and the huge void on either side became truly apparent, leaving you suddenly aware of your position, size and vulnerability. I had reached a sort of large bowl, I mean VERY large bowl of solid white. I was finding it hard to see anything BUT white. The fog meant I could really see more than 30 feet on either side of me but it was hard to even see the footprints I'd just created. It was total silence, even the streams had stopped and the ravens had died. I was directionless. I didn't know which way was up or down, save for logic telling me where the lake must be. I felt watched, ready for an ambush - totally blind. And then it happened, just the vaguest shift in the fog and I could just make out something huge and dark beyond, I mean massive! Of course it had to be the jet black head wall beyond Ffynnon Lloer but it just appeared as a dark face in the brilliant fog, for a fleeting moment, and then it was gone. The thing is now I knew it was there, all around me was a vast mountain, sheers rocky cliffs and a cold black lake but I was in this white bubble in the middle of it all and not sure when the bubble would burst and drop me in it :-( I am rarely freaked by anything by this was a sense of vulnerability I didn't even get extreme climbing, well different to normal exposure to a void anyway. I stood in the white silence as long as I could bear then retreated down to the river, retracing my footsteps.
And then a brain-wave! I used my new IPhone Maps application, which creates a satellite terrain impression of my location, and pin points exactly where I am, well to within a few feet at least. Amazingly it found reception and there I was, looking at a bright sunny picture of the valley, the cwm and the mountain, the dark lake sitting quietly in the midst of it all, I was within 100 ft of the lake shore. But when I looked up from the phone, nothing had changed, still absolute whiteness. Nevertheless I pushed on for the lake, crunching over sheets of slippery ice, now making my own route because I found no other tracks. I arrived at the lake, well I think I did according to the GPS, but now things were whiter than ever and I was getting quite quite freaked by the blindness, and the notion of falling into a dark river underfoot at any point. Here is the video I shot just before the lake edge, it doesn't really show you how I felt, but you can see what I saw. The freakiest moment was still when I went off course into that white bowl, but this was a close second.
"My first ever ice axe" Nant Ogwen 2010
Heading back down the hill was much easier, and more comforting, with me picking up some speed. I also used my ice axe for the first time, nit so much as a break but as stabilisation alongside the steep gorge. Wish it was marginally longer now as I think I've reached the age for one walking stick LOL! The fog base was now lower again, but the valley gradually re-appeared though much darker now it was 4.15 pm. I trudged easily and happily back to the van but not before taking a final shot, of the main feeder river running into Llyn Ogwen from the valley itself. I've always fancied photographing this but the ice and snow made for a much more satisfying picture than the prettiness of summer light. I struggled to rock the van back and firth to escape the clutch of snow at the roadside but finally the tyres made purchase and the engine powered me off down the dark valley road.
"A Frozen Moment" Nant Ogwen © Glyn Davies 2010