Winter in the UK can be very hit and miss. You blink and it's gone. Scotland usually does 'alright' but the mountains of England and Wales constantly tease you, leading you on like a school boy crush. A fall in temperatures, a dumping of snow, word on the grape vine that 'Route X' is in condition. The eyes begin to glisten, fingers tingle and stretch for the winter gear, a decision is made to go this weekend...then BAM! Thaw sets in, temperatures rise to double figures and that white gold we all crave is stripped from your grasp! UK winter IS gambling. It's addictive. It should come with a warning. Instead of pouring over the Financial Times and trying to decipher the stock market or working out this weekends winning lottery numbers (which by the way, is way easier then the following), we, as UK winter climbers, are looking with a vacant expression, at the cryptic lines and symbols on weather charts, pressing refresh on the Met Office Mountain Weather page, MWIS and that other weather website your mate Dave swears by because he saw it mentioned on an AD break while watching Bear Grylls repeats on...DAVE, to try and decipher the weather patterns criss crossing the UK to figure out...will Kinder be in this weekend?
Kinder downfall however, wasn't our intended route. Our aim was North Wales. The week leading up to the planned weekend was spent researching online. Not for climbing conditions, but for ski descents in Snowdonia. Such little information exists which was leading me to believe it wasn't a common winter pass time in Snowdonia. So I cut my losses and picked up the climbing guide, scrutinising the pictures and topos for possible ski lines and gullies. By the end of the week, I had a list. A list of possibilities. Some of which I knew were skiable, others were still holding onto their secrets of 'am I, aren't I?'. The conditions just weren't that great for climbing. The turf was still not frozen, minimal ice had formed and the rock buttresses still hadn't rimed up. But there was a load of snow!
My usual partner in crime, Chris, was keen for a weekend in the mountains, as well as another guy who had contacted me via Facebook, Matt. And so, here we go again, that long drive from Somerset to North Wales. We arrived at Pen Y Pass car park shortly after 1am and proceeded to set up our beds for the night. We woke at 0630am and started to get our kit sorted as it was just all strewn over the interior of my car. Nearly packed and with the coffee brewing, a fellow outdoor enthusiast walked by, heading for the Miners Track on Snowdon. We exchanged a passing greeting which soon became more personal upon him meeting the inevitable on a patch of black ice. A loud crack, followed by a scream confirmed the worst. Me and Chris rushed over to him as he was clasping his leg. To confirm what we all thought, we remove his gaiter and slowly start rolling his trouser leg up. My hand brushed over a bump in his lower leg. Matt went off to call an ambulance just as the casualty's friend arrived. We explained to him that we suspect a broken leg. The casualty was OK, well as OK as you can be, and we all exchanged banter and broke into conversation. Once the ambulance had arrived, there was nothing else we could help with so went on our way.
|My bed for the night!|
|Paramedics arrive to deal with our casualty|
Me and Matt started skinning immediately from the car park, where as Chris had to boot pack as he didn't have touring skis or bindings. The snow was quite hard but gradually got softer and deeper the higher we climbed. We arrived at Glaslyn about an hour after leaving the car park and set about eyeing up some ski lines above. The cloud was shrouding the summit of Snowdon and the imposing North Face, however the South Face of Crib Goch was just about visible, allowing us to see possible descents. We picked 3 lines, one for each of us and set about climbing up, crossing the Pyg track and heading for Bwlch Coch (SH 621 551). I was having issues with my skins when it got steeper, but then again my skins are for my old Elan skis at 98mm under foot, not for my new Whitedot skis at 118mm under foot (I haven't got round to buying new skins yet!) In the end, I resorted to boot packing and experienced the troubles Chris was having with post holing into thigh deep snow with every step!
|Skinning and boot packing up towards Crib Goch. Chris's line is just above Matt, skinning on the left|
|Transitioning from skinning to boot packing|
|The final steps to the ridge|
On the ridge, we were greeted by a few very surprised climbers who stopped and chatted about our intentions. Maybe it really isn't that common for skiers to 'slay some pow' in Snowdonia? Especially off the Crib Goch ridge. On the way up, we constantly observed the snow pack and dug a pit and a block test to calm our nerves about the snow conditions. We were confident in the conditions, a thin crust on top of soft snow with no noticeable weak layers that caused concern. Chris ended up dropping in down our ascent path as it was void of any obstacles like rocks and drops, wasn't that steep (about 37 degrees at it's steepest) and with a gentle run out to flat ground on a shoulder, away from any danger. Plus we could see the shoulder from our position on the ridge so knew when he was down and safe. Once we had visual of him, me and Matt started boot packing West up the ridge, towards Garnedd Ugain. My drop in point was about 100m along the ridge, where as Matt continued a bit further up. My line was a small 'Couloir' with steep sided rock walls, a small bend in the middle and a run out to the shoulder through rocks and steep slope.
|Our lines all visible in this picture: Matt picked a line through the rocks on the left. My line was down the small couloir in the centre of the picture and Chris's was down the snow slope to the far right of the image.|
|My line from below|
|Looking down through the couloir. It was at this point I realised there was an error in my judgement!|
3...2...1...dropping! My first turns of the season, above a couloir in North Wales off the Crib Goch ridge, perfect. But it's no Chamonix. I throw in several quick successive turns until I'm at the start of the couloir. It then dawns on me. I've massively underestimated the width. My skis, being 190cm long, are not going to fit side on. I had the vision that could jump turn down it. I side slip down and yep, sure enough, tip and tails don't fit between the rock walls. It's not far to the mid point but would I be able to scrub speed there? After all, I couldn't see round the corner and had no idea what I could run into. From the bottom, I could see a few rocks below the couloir and off to the side. These were playing on my mind. Shall I just straight line it and hope for the best? If I had bigger balls, I would have done. Instead I side stepped down the top half, scrapping the hell out of my tips and tails, until I was able to throw in a few jump turns in the middle. Being able to see round the corner now, I should have just straight lined the whole thing. So from the middle, I did and throw in a very hard and sharp turn to avoid the rocks out to the side then continued to carve down the slope below, between the rocks to join Chris on the Shoulder. Awesome!
I had a chat with Chris about his line and looked up to see his almost perfect tracks in the bottom section. Then it was time to see if we could spot Matt. The cloud had lowered slightly at this point and everything was starting to become a bit blurred. I saw him dropping in, but lost him amongst the rocks, until he finally appeared in the lower section and continued down to the Pyg track. We joined up with him and carried on down to Glaslyn, but not before Matt got a bit of unintentional air and nose dived into a snow bank ;)
Coffee on the go, Matt asked if I fancied doing some 'hucking'. Having only done one before in Cham on the Grands Montets, I was a bit apprehensive but thought I'd give it a go. He and Chris headed up hill with a shovel to prepare the predetermined exit point whilst I brewed up. A few minutes later and it was ready. I looked up to see Matt putting his skis on on the top of the approach track. He took a while to psych himself up, then pointed his skis down and dropped. It was pretty sweet, and a fair bit bigger than I was expecting. I headed up and stood on the exit point. It looked bigger from here! I stepped up to the top of the approach track and clipped in. Looking down to the drop, I ran through the steps. Small pop off the lip, knees bent, weight slightly forward, eyes fixed on landing, extend legs, land central, absorb impact, regain upright position, ski out like a boss!
|Matt on the lip of the drop. It doesn't look much but from the lip to the landing was about 5-6m (speed and pop dependent)|
|Matt mid air!|
3...2...1...dropping! Skis pointing down the fall line, I had committed. I approached the lip, popped and was air born! The feeling was incredible, I see why the Pros love doing this! But it was short lived as I now had to focus on the landing. I extended my legs so to absorb the impact, hit the landing and dropped into the back seat. I regained position and couldn't believe I had landed it, all I had to do now was ski out like a boss to the applause of the walkers below...But I had failed to see a small gully on my victory lap round and ended up doing a Matt and tip diving into it, getting ejected and face planting the bank. Oops.
Blood pumping full of adrenaline, I heading back up for a second run. Keen, excited and psyched, I was just too eager to Huck again. The ritual before, running through the motions, went out the window. Skis pointed down and once again I was committed. This time was different. As soon as I popped off the lip, I knew my weight was too far back. My legs still extended, I tried to counteract my weight and throw it forward, but to no avail. I hit the landing hard. I dropped right back onto my skis but lost all control. One ski ejected which put me into a spin and ended up head first down the slope. Once I had stopped, I stood and looked up at the drop. But behind me, I could hear the shouts from the crowd below: "Oh No, it's going in! Quick someone grab it!" As I turned, I witnessed my ski plunge into the Lake and disappear into the dark depths of a Welsh Llyn. I stood motionless. Did I actually just see that? Did that just happen? I unclipped my ski, just left it there and ran down to the shore. Gazing into the icy darkness, I saw nothing. It was gone. I took my ski boots, salopettes and socks off and waded in. The cold was biting! How can I go home knowing I'm a ski AND binding down? My season is ruined! I'd have to buy new bindings and can you even buy one ski? I gave up trying to look. It was -3 degrees with a slight breeze. I wasn't prepared to go for a swim so decided that we would come back tomorrow morning. Just before we left, Chris was convinced he could see it, so we drew an arrow in the snow to pin point where to look tomorrow, and headed back to the car park. Matt went off looking for another descent while me and Chris descended the Miners Track and waited for him. On the way back down to the car park, I did lighten up a bit after the Spice Girls song "When two become one" popped into my head. But then it started to piss me off as I couldn't stop thinking about it!
|My second Huck and the moment of realisation that I had fucked up!|
|It's all gone tits up!!|
The next morning, the snow line had retreated. The weather forecast had got it wrong. Instead of a cold clear day, we woke to low cloud and rising temps. Freezing level had risen to 500m with no change in temps at 900m. Plus it had started to rain, turning to snow higher up. We headed back to Glaslyn prepare: Sleeping bag, spare clothes, towel and Jetboil. We exchanged banter on the way up and upon reaching Glaslyn, Matt had decided that he was better off going into the lake for a swim, rather than me. After all, I did have to drive back and he was more experienced in cold water swimming (He is from Scotland after all). I actually felt slightly disappointed but also very relieved. But thanks to Chris's good eyes, he had in fact seen it the afternoon before! Matt pin pointed where it was and without hesitation, dived in. |No sooner had he dived in, he resurfaced...Ski in hand! What a sight it must have been for passers by: Guy stripping off in the snow, diving into a lake, resurfaces with a ski...Huh? Any way, thank you Matt, It was very much appreciated!!
SO there we have it, a starting point in Welsh freeride skiing. Now I await patiently for some more snow so I can head back up there and start making a name for British Back Country Skiing and possibly getting a few first descents and repeating others :) Oh and by the way, all the skiing was done on the new Whitedot Ragnarok 118 skis and Dynafit TLT Speed Radical bindings with Scarpa Maestrale boots.