Monday, 14 July 2014

Assynt Canoe-Camping Adventure

The far north-west of Scotland had so far eluded me. Assynt, in particular, with the majestic hulk of Suilven rising proudly amongst a patchwork of lochs was a place I'd long since dreamt of exploring.

Last summer, after having just purchased a Z-Pro Flash FL200 inflatable canoe I hatched a plan to spend a week exploring NW Scotland and visiting Assynt. Part touring, part exploring, the plan was use inflatable canoe as a new means of exploring and a quick glance at maps and web-research showed that Loch Sionascaig and Loch Veyatie were obvious options, the former having a number of small islands and also access to Stac Pollaidh and Suilven.

Loch Sionascaig, with Suilven to the north
There is no direct access to Loch Scionascaig, the easiest access with a short canoe portage is via Loch Buinne Moire just off the road south of Lochinver.  The other option being from the east heading up Loch Veyatie, into Fionn Loch and then heading overland into Loch Veyatie.  This would involve a fair portage and with an inflatable weighing 17kg it was not a realistic prospect.

A full days drive meant we arrived in Aviemore at 6pm on a Friday evening were somewhat surprised to find every campsite full due to a biking festival.  After trying several sites we managed to persuade one campsite to allow us on the last available caravan pitch.

We'd booked an intro white-water  instruction course with Ace Adventures on the Saturday and spent an enjoyable couple hours working our way along the River Findhorn in an inflatable canoe, learning the basics of reading the water, negotiating rapids and practicing crabbing.

It was over all to quickly and with Aviemore already behind us we decided to head north taking the A838 - which must rank as the longest single track road in Britain - following the shores of Loch Shin. The term 'range anxiety' is usually reserved for describing the fear of electric car owners being unable to find a charging point, but the distinct lack of service stations meant I was suffering my own range anxiety of a diesel kind.  Nothing prepares you for the sheer enormity of the wilderness in Scotland, the expanse of landscape and the distances involved.

Reaching the A82 on the north-west coast we continued to head north, rarely seeing another vehicle save for the odd camper-van with French or German number plates.  Some three and a half hours later we arrived at Sango Bay, Durness on the north-west coast, just a few miles from Cape Wrath.  It felt like we'd reached the end of the world - looking north the next piece of land would be the Arctic Circle.

We entered the campsite and found a fabulous pitch perched on the cliff directly overlooking the bay and were greeted by the beautiful sight of crystal white sand and clear blue-green water.  The view wouldn't have looked out of place in the Caribbean!

Sango Bay, Durness
The next morning we explored Smoo Cave and Balnakeil Craft Village before heading a little further south.  Sandwood Bay is reportedly the most remote beach in the UK, reachable only via four mile walk-in.  Parking in the tiny hamlet of Blairmore we trudged north along a clear path with darkening skies and a strengthening breeze.  Reaching the bay at around 4pm it was almost deserted - anyone else had clearly been blown away by the wind.  Sandwood Bay comprises a huge swathe of sand nestled between two headlands, the southern cliffs ending in the sea-stack of Am Buachaill, and a jumble of sand-dunes separating the sea from Sandwood Loch behind.

Sandwood Bay
Looking out to Am Buachaill sea-stack
After rock-hopping and taking some photos we decided to find respite from the breeze and find a camp-spot behind the dunes on the shore of Sandwood Loch.  As the evening progressed the wind-dropped and the inevitable midges confined us to our tent while I scoured maps of Assynt trying to plot the next stage of our mini-adventure.

Camp by Sandwood Loch
The next morning we returned to the car and headed further south, veering off the A894 at Unapool to take the coastal route around to Lochinver.   From there we would follow the single-track road that skirts the western edge of Assynt to check out the canoe access via by Loch Buine Moire.  As we wound our way around we would periodically catch a glimpse of the unmistakable bulk of Suilven.  We stopped in a small lay-by by Loch Buine Moire. It was smaller than expected and would likely take only a 10 minute paddle to cross and the small col over which we would then have to portage into Loch Sionascaig didn't look too severe.

Carryinh on I'd forgotten that we would pass underneath Stac Pollaidh, one of the most recognisable Scottish peaks.  We headed back north on the A9 to check out access to Loch Veyatie but parking and access seemed less straighforward and the route would involve a long paddle straight into the wind.  It was already mid-afternoon so we decided to head into Ullapool where we stayed the night in the town campsite before grabbing last minute provisions and heading back up to Loch Buine Moire the following morning.

Parking in a small lay-by we lugged our rucksacks and canoe down to the waterside.  I had that excited, slightly nervous feeling you get when you bid farewell to the car and an adventure begins.  Ten minutes later the canoe was inflated and the rucksacks strapped fore and aft.  It was only going to a short paddle across the loch, but as we pushed off I smiled as the adventure begun. We knew there was to be another portage to get across into Loch Sionascaig but were unsure of how long/high.
Setting off - ready to un-pack the canoe

Canoe loaded and ready for the off
Fortunately it was only 100m or so and didn't involve anything to steep and two shuttles and a muddy scramble saw boat and gear sat on the shore of Boat Bay at the western end of Loch Sionascaig.

Setting out from Boat Bay
The water was still in the sheltered bay but the ripples soon increased as we headed out into the main body of the loch.  There are numerous small islands dotted throughout, the majority of which are largely inaccessible and are in no way flat enough to camp.  Eilean Mor, by it's name the largest, was the obvious destination and a known destination.  Approaching from the west its rocky ramparts looked impregnable and only on reaching the far eastern tip was it evident where you could land and possibly camp.  Once ashore our excitement was immediately tempered by the presence of five or six tents already in-situ. The island was already colonated!  Judging from the large plastic storage barrels they were likely from an organised canoe tour.   Also evident were the midges, by the million. We beat a hasty re-treat onto the water and  as we departed we could see in the distance a trail of open canoes heading back towards their newly claimed home.

In search of a camp for the evening we headed north and scouted the shoreline but struggled to see anything remotely flat. Eventually, out of desperation, we pulled up in a small sandy inlet and after a quick recce, found a spot that was relatively flat and on which the tussocks of heather were sparse enough for the tent.  The rain started as we pitched but it didn't deter the midges which were out in force. Marooned inside, we whiled away the evening, tucking into a delicious Expedition Foods curry and squishing midges one-by-one against the inner (don't tell David as it was his tent we borrowed!).

Camp on north shore of Loch Sionascaig
The next morning the sun was peeking out from the clouds. From our camp-spot Suilven was hidden from view so we decided to head up the ridge to get a better view, and hopefully check-out Loch Veyatie and Fionn Loch. The next thirty minutes reminded me how trekking in Scotland is far more tiring than anywhere else in the UK. Tussocks of grass, heather interspersed with hidden big conspire to disrupt any rhythm and make every step an effort.  On reaching the ridge I was surprised that the lochs were still not visible.  Whilst the map was clear in my mind I'd underestimated the scale of the topography.  Suilven loomed large but from our vantage point appeared all but impregnable.  Between clouds that rose periodically rose from nowhere to shroud the summit, binoculars offered an occasional glimpse of the steep route up to the central col. Behind us lay the peaks of  Cul Mor and Cul Beag to the east, with Stac Pollaidh standing proudly to the south.

Looking back down on Eilean Mor we spotted a trail of canoes departing so we guessed our island sanctuary had been vacated.  We headed back down, quickly packed and paddled back across to the island to pitch our tent and stake our claim, before heading back onto the water to explore further.  We eventually made shore on the south of the loch and deciding to head up Stac Pollaidh. Again the heather-bashing and bog-hopping impeded progress but eventually, after one last steep slog, the summit was ours and we could look back on the expanse of Assynt before us. And what a sight it was!

After drinking in the views for an hour we descended back to our canoe and paddled back out to Eilean Mor to find the midges in full-force.  Scouring around I found a few small pieces of broken branches and twigs and although damp I managed to light a small fire, hoping in vain that the smoke would deter the midges while we had dinner.  T'was to no avail and despite the headnets I ended up covered in bites before another evening spent marooned in the tent.  A heavy storm appeared from nowhere during the night.  Lying awake my mind turned to thoughts of the canoe being blown away and us being stranded on the island, so around 2am I jumped up to bring the canoe further on shore, weighting it with rocks.

The next morning it was calm and misty with a slow drizzle.  Packing the canoe we pushed off to an eerie stillness to the loch.  The water was jet black, almost like oil and suddenly we felt just a little vulnerable afloat on a deep dark loch.  The mist lifted a little but it's surprisingly difficult to pick out shore features when on the water and we missed the entrance to Boat Bay.  A quick GPS check and we headed back north entering Boat Bay and landing with only a short portage and a 300m crossing of Loch Buine Moire to reach the car.

A murky trip back to Boat Bay
So we survived our first canoe-camping trip - a new adventure - and I'd scratched my Assynt itch! aside from the midge we'd had a great trip and the canoe added to the sense of adventure and exploration.

I'm not sure it quite qualifies as a packrafting trip - the canoe stayed inflated and you wouldn't want to lug 17kg very far, but it did open up a new dimension for exploring if you choose your route appropriately.  Maybe it's the first step on the road to a proper packraft such as an Alpacka raft.  Weighing it around 2-3kg they are far more luggable.  They aren't cheap but if watch some of the online videos of people tackling serious white-water in them, then you can see how robust they are.
There are some new lighter packrafts on the market, more suited to gentle river/loch crossings - the apaddleinmypack blog is a great resource if you want to investigate further.

And for anyone considering a similar canoe/camp adventure I can recommend the Scottish Canoe Touring guide book as a useful start point. 

Monday, 7 July 2014

Gear Thoughts - A Weight off my mind

You can't manage what you can't measure is one of my work mantras, and so it should be true when considering how to lighten my backpacking load.   Un-packing from my Lakes trip I decided to grab the kitchen scales and for the first time weigh my gear in a quest to save my my sore knees.

I had no obvious excess - no hefty 3kg tent, no behemoth of a sleeping bag to ditch. Friends often take the 'mickey' about my lightweight gear though of course it's all relative and they've clearly not heard of ultralight!   But when it comes to counting grammes the law of diminishing returns rules. The incremental ££'s spent to shave extra grams can be considerable, but so can the trade-off in terms of practicality, usability or plain old comfort - else we'd all save some weight and ditch the shelter!   So I figured that by actually understanding where my weight was, would at least let me make an informed judgement as to where I could shave some grammes if I chose.

Here are some initial findings and musings on the main areas of weight.

Camera - The first shock was my camera!.  Over the past couple years Ive enjoyed getting back into using my dSLR but a quick pitch onto the scales showed my Canon 60D and 17-85 lens with a couple of filters and a small table-top ultrapod tripod weighs 2kg!  Admittedly I could take a lighter lens, but it's a cracking lens and goes wider and longer than the much lighter stock 18-55mm lens.   As a comparison my Panasonic Lumix LX5 compact camera weight 300g.  The real question for me is the trade-off between the versatility, control and sheer joy my dSLR gives me versus a significant weight saving.  I knew it was heavier, though not by that much, but I can at lest now make an informed judgement decision on a trip by trip basis.   Ironically a camera is not always included in base weights - some would say that if your carrying it, its not in your pack-weight.  Semantic I say, my knees still feel it!

Sleeping - My PHD Minim 300 sleeping bag and Neoair inflatable mattress (regular length) at 615 g and 380g respectively are reasonably light and efficient in the performance/weight stakes. In fact I've been considering a new bag which is warmer (and heavier) for early spring and late autumn.  I know others have reservations about the comfort and robustness of the NeoAir but I'm happy with it. And I've taken to using spare clothes as a pillow after my Exped inflatable pillow sprung a leak. So no quick/easy win here.

Shelter - my new Luxe Hex Peak shelter is not the lightest option at an all-up weight of 1340g including pegs, stuff sack and pole extender.  My Laser Competition tent is nearer 1kg but the benefit of twice the space and extra stability of the Hex Peak mean I'm currently happy the extra grammes are worth it. The breakdown is 620g for the fly, 495g for the nest, with the rest split between pegs and extender.  I suspected the pegs would a quick win as standard supplied ones tend to be relatively heavy but the V pegs with the Hex are a paltry 10g each including the small tie loop.

On my first couple of outings with the Hex Peak I should really have counted an extra 320g as I only took the Fizan Compact walking poles because I needed for the shelter (zero logic, I know!). However, after the recent Lakes trip I have to confess I'm a convert to poles.....just don't tell anyone!  The downside is I'm now carrying the 320g in my hand rather than counting them in my pack (or maybe thats an upside as I don't need to count it in my base weight now).

Hex Peak without the inner
Tarping it! - on the second night of the Lakes trip I didn't use the inner, except as a groundsheet.  Many backpackers are opting for a tarp set-up such as the Trailstar which doesnt even have a door.  I'd always quite enjoyed the cosy confines of a small tent, particularly in bad weather when you could zip up and snuggle down. I found it ironic that many a Trailstar user would immediately seek out an inner or a bathtub floor and even how to fashion a door....doesnt that make a tarp a tent..!?!

Without the inner the extra feeling of space was immediately apparent, though a warm damp evening did mean a few inevitable midges.   I can see how in the height of a Scottish summer then a fly-only (no pun) option would would be midge hell, hence the number of tarp users who use a bivvy bag/nest.  I left the door wide open at first - pleased that my view across to the main Lakeland massif were as unimpeded - though it also meant that I could watch the midges home in and enter inside.   It was a pleasant evening without the inner.  Everything was easily at hand, it felt more airy, possibly a little more drafty, though I can pitch the fly higher or lower according to conditions.  I'm definitely open to leaving the tent inner at home for the next trip, that it's a viable option and I can choose to save 0.5kg if I wish and the conditions allow.

Midges aside, one concern of not using the inner was whether my sleeping bag would get damp from brushing any condensation on the inside of the fly.  The Hex Peak is long enough for me not to worry unduly about it (though maybe not if you are over 6').  I have been researching the bivvy bag as an option and have just ordered a cuben Borah Gear ultralight side zip bivy (a paltry 140g) to offer me some moisture and bug protection without the need to take the inner.

Pack - Of late, for backpacking, I've been defaulting to my OMM Villain pack with the optional MSC
pouch on the front, my other packs are more streamlined and climbing orientated.  When I bought it a few years ago the Villain at 1200 g was probably classed as fairly lightweight for a 45+10 litre pack and has several removable items (allegedly it can be stripped to 750g) but with a load of over 10kg I find it doesn't carry weight that well with the weight not transferring to the hip-belt effectively.  The back panel is a removable foam/polystyrene mat with an integral metal frame - weighing this I was surprised to see it is 233g itself.  It's designed to be removable and you can insert your own sleeping mat in its place though this would suit foam mats rather than my NeoAir.

Over the past couple of years manufacturers, especially some of the smaller ones like Gossamer Gear (Granite and Mariposa get good review, Mount Laurel Designs (Exodus) and ULA (various models), are being more creative in design and material choice to deliver lighter and more usable options.

I can see a new pack in the near future.  I've been narrowing down my options to the GG Granite or Mariposa - my only conundrum being which what volume pack to go for - smaller to incentive me to pack efficiently or larger to give more flexibility (though I do have an aversion to floppy half-empty packs!)

Sawyer filter in use
Water - at 1kg per litre it's heavy stuff but in fortunately in the UK you're never very far from it. I
tend to run hot in the hills so I find I drink a lot and am generous in the water I carried.  During the last trip I tried to limit the water I carried, filling up or drinking from streams during the day and boiling water from tarns in the evening. My Sawyer Squeeze filter is only 100g and if that's too much there is Mini version at only 65g.

Cooking - my current stove of choice is the JetBoil Sol (339g + 170g for small gas canister). It's speed, convenience and packaging for me outweighs any significant weight saving I could achieve with a lighter set-up. One click of the ignition and I'm boiling water quicker than it takes me to find my tea-bags!

Miscellaneous - a trawl through my ditty bag and other bits and bobs showed how it can soon add up. I also carried a Powermonkey Extreme solar charge which weighs 260g and also includes an internal lithium battery, but is probably overkill for anything less than a week. An Ipood trowel in largely unnecessary when I could use a tent peg.  The head torch was largely redundant in summer when a small LED keyring light would do. Multi-tool knives are small but relatively heavy and I've never used it.

So thanks to half an hour with scales I've a much better handle on where my weight is, the options I have should I choose to travel lighter should trip and conditions allow, and areas where I could still seek too lighten my load without too much sacrifice.

It was 30 minutes well spent and, if you haven't already, I can recommend giving it a go.  You may be surprised....and your knees will thank you for it!

Sunday, 22 June 2014

A Lakeland Escape

I should have been summiting Mount Triglav in Slovenia. Flights were booked, the route planned and huts contacted some months back but misfortune afflicted my travel companions - one was advised by his doctor not to go lest disrupt his ankle rehabilitation and the other fell foul of a hernia the week before.

At a loose end I made a last minute decision to head to the Lake District for a 2-day hike/wild-camp. For reasons unknown, but more likely the M6 traffic, I had yet to explore much of the Lakes, favouring the shorter hop to Snowdonia than the lottery of the M6 north.

Pouring over maps, and finding the OS Getamap tool surprisingly useful for route planning, I considered a linear north-south traverse of the Lakes but the limited public transport to get back to my car on a Sunday pushed me to looking at a circular route.

Leaving London on Friday morning I pulled into Keswick six hours later to pick up some last minute provisions and then headed down past Derwent Water to Rosthwaite where I would leave the car.   My first nights camp was to be on Thuncar Knott.  Low cloud obscured the fells and a short shower reminded me of the folly of stashing waterproofs at the bottom of my pack as I followed the Cumbria Way up towards Stonethwaite.  To the right I could see the start of Langstrath but my route kept me left, following Greenup Gill up to the head of the valley.

The route steepened as I reached onto Greenup edge and the broad col between Ullascarf and High Raise. Crossing boggy ground I headed right and pulled up onto the summit of High Raise.  Heading further south the path dropped gradually before rising again to the rather indistinct Thunacar Knott.  I was looking for the summit tarn by which to camp but I was on a path slightly left of the one marked on the map ended up being distracted by exploring a number of small pools above Pavey Ark. Eventually I headed back up to the true summit and found the small tarn I was searching for, and the one small flat and dry patch on which to pitch the Hex Peak.  I've gotten the hang of pitching it and the inner now.

By the tarn on Thunacar Knott summit

The sun was starting to break through the cloud, hinting a colourful sunset so after a rather delicious dinner I sat against the summit cairn to watch the sun go down.

Beautiful blazing sky

Sunset behind the summit cairn

The next morning the sun was out as I struck camp and headed west, dropping down to Stake Pass following the path round and up to Angle Tarn, nestled below Bowfell.

The morning view
By Angle Tarn I turned right towards Esk Hause, stopping by the stone shelter lower down for a mid-morning snack.  I decided to quickly nip up to the summit of Allen Crags where a 360 degree view meant it felt I was truly at the heart of the Lakes.

Dropping back down to Eask Hause I headed down past Sprinkling Tarn, nodding politely to the day-trippers on their slog up to Scafell Pike.  The cloud was closing in on the peaks as I reached Sty Head where I stopped to consider my route.  I planned to head over Green Gable and Brandreth towards Honister, so I could choose either the direct route up Great Gable, or drop down to Styhead Tarn and then ascend Aaron Slack to Windy Gap. The latter would save me around 100m of ascent but I decided to head straight up Great Gable where the poles were a god-send on the slog-up.  Visibility worsened as I gained height and I reached a cold damp and grey summit.  I took a bearing to head down to Windy Gap, taking care on the steep descent.  A quick haul up to Green Gable and I was soon heading down and up again to reach Brandreth.  Rain and cloud meant following a bearing north to Grey Knotts, with my thoughts drifting to the prospect of tea and cake at the Honister Mine cafe.

Dropping down off Grey Knotts visibility returned.  The descent was taking its toll on my knees and feet dampening enthusiasm for the looming prospect of heading up Dale Head across the pass. Thankfully the cafe was still open as I reached it before 5pm.  In a moment of weakness I considered heading down the valley to find a campsite and a pub in which to watch England vs Italy match, but re-energised by tea and cake I headed straight up the flank of Dale Head.   Using the altimeter on my Suunto Core watch I veered right at around 600m heading towards Dale Head tarn.  As it came into view I could see the tarn was occupied by another couple of tents so I kept right heading to the higher Launchy Tarn.  Exploring more boggy ground I opted for a higher mound away from the tarn which also afforded wide views across to the central fells.

Saturday evenings camp-spot

I decided not to pitch the inner on the Hex Peak and see how I got on, using the inner as a ground sheet on which to plonk the NeoAir and my sleeping bag.  The first thing I noticed was how much space I suddenly had. The next thing I noticed were the midges!  Closing the door to stop the midges meant losing the view but a heavy shower mean the view disappeared anyway so I spent 20 minutes stalking the midges one by one.

The next morning, rather than drop straight down to Roswthwaite I headed up to High Spy and its impressive summit cairn. Visibility dropped once again and I resorted to compass and pacing in order not to miss the path east, dropping down to the small hamlet of Grange. A pleasant jaunt along the Derwent took me back to Rosthwaite and the car.

Re-tracing my route back at home, for the first time I felt I had grip on the Lakes. I still have plenty to explore but I've finally found my feet and my bearings.

Monday, 19 August 2013

Trekking in the Tatras

Southend Airport?!?  There was incredulity in my voice as my fellow chaps advised they'd booked their flight to Krakow.  Our annual boys weekend cum pilgrimage to the mountains was fast approaching and this years destination were the Tatra Mountains, straddling Poland and Slovakia.

The main highlight was to be Orla Perc - a kind of extended Crib Goch with a never-ending succession of peaks spires, ladders, chains with a forecast time of 5-6 hours along the ridge, together with a 2-hour ascent and descent either side.  The other objective was Rysy - at 2,499m the highest peak in Poland, and which straddles the border with Slovakia.

Orla Perc - the destination we never saw
A trawl on the web revealed frustrating little info on routes, huts or conditions.  Eventually tracking down a list of the mountain lodges I was concerned to find the main huts were already full on our planned dates. This called for a more open-minded and creative approach to the route planning, but attempting to piece together a practical route, given the limitations of accommodation was proving to be rather difficult, not aided by the time delay between sending a mail and receiving a response.  Added to the mix was that contact with the hut on the Slovak side of Rysy was via text message - I placed enquiries and questions in English and received random ad-hoc responses in Slovakian!  Eventually after much persistence we had a plan of sorts, which did involve potentially having to sleep on the floor at one of the main huts.

Southend Airport was as painless as can be expected for an airport where the long-stay car park is 20 yards from the main shed...sorry terminal.  David made things more interesting by attempting to get through security with a walking pole strapped to his rucksack with the sharp end protruding in the air.

We hadn't booked any onward travel but were reliably advised that there was were buses aplenty to Zakopane, the Polish equivalent of Chamonix.  So on arrival at Krakow airport we jumped into a taxi and headed straight for the hostel that we'd booked for the end of the trip, and dumped our posh change of clothes.  The bus station was around the corner where we found there were 3 or 4 buses an hour depositing us in Zakopane some 2.5 hours away.

We walked up to Krupowski, Zakopane's main street, for a quick look around some shops and as the heavens opened we found shelter in a bar and sampled our first Polish beer.  We needed to crack on as we still had a couple of hours walk to reach the first hut.  Another 10 min bus-ride deposited us at Kusznice from where we would make a 2-hour ascent up to the Murawaniec hut for the evening.   The trudge up through the forest was uneventful save for the un-ending rain and we arrived to a warm welcome and were quickly shown to our surprisingly spacious bunk-room for four.

We ordered dinner and a beer and quickly noticed that most people had brought their own provisions. Unlike many Alpine huts there were cooking facilities and hot-water for those guests who wished to be self-sufficient.  We also quickly established that there were no slippers sandals - people brought their own spare footwear, which we hadn't. It doesn't take long to work out the local routine but it was too late for us to do much about it so it was bare feet and purchased meals for us.

After a day of travel we slept soundly and the next morning our plan was to climb up the pass at Zawrat, to gain the infamous Orla Perc ridge and head eastwards along its peaks, troughs and spires. The map suggested it would then take around 5 hours along the ridge till we would reach Kryzne, where we could then descend for another 2 hours into the next valley and reach the Dolina Piech Stawow hut where we had provisionally booked a floor to sleep on.

As we left Murawaniec the weather was rather grim with low cloud obscuring the views and a constant drizzle soaking us more than it should.  As we ascended by a large lake and waterfalls we were sure the usual summer views were spectacular, but alas not today.  The route steepened as we gained height, the remnants of snow became more frequent and chains and the odd ladder and chains protected the more exposed sections.  We had no idea where we were but as we gained height the rain started to turn to snow, with the occasional halistone!!  The sensibility and appetite of traversing Orla Perc in such conditions started to evaporate as we reached the col at 2158m.

Visibility was poor, the rock was wet and it was now snowing.  The prospect of 5 or 6 hours on an unknown route, with no views together with wet rock, ladders and chains didn't seem like fun, and potentially an unnecessary risk.  So despite my protestations (well I pretended they were all wimps and we should just do it) the group decision was made to press on over the col and descend directly to the next hut.   We were heading down into Dolina Pięciu Stawów, the valley of the Five lakes, which is allegedly rather stunning but there were no lakes to be fact there was nothing to be seen!  We reached the hut around 3pm with the one benefit of the poor weather being that the hut had several cancellations, so at least we had a bed for the evening.

The plan for Saturday was to head up and over to the next valley, dropping down to Morskie Oko lake and then commencing the long 1,100m ascent up to the summit of Rysy, before descending into Slovakia and the newly re-built Chata Pod Rysmi hut.  

Once more the rain meant a damp start and the low cloud obscured any views as we ascended a few hundred metres before David remembered he had left his mobile on charge at the hut's reception desk. Two hours later and we were descending to Morskie Oko with a break in the clouds gave us our first view of the beautiful lake.   The lodge at Morskie Oko was already rather busy with the day-trippers who had braved the damp weather to walk the 9km from the car-park in the valley. We stopped for a quick coffee and headed around the lake and climbed 150m up to Czarny Staw pod Rysami, a beautiful blue/black lake nestled in a cirque.   

The rain stopped briefly and the cloud lifted just a little, enough to see impressive cliffs and rock spires towering all around us.  A glimpse of our route ahead included a surprising number of snow fields as the path dissappeared into the clouds.  The summit remained out of view and as we skirted the lake and traversed the first snow-field the rain started in earnest once more.  The path was largely manufactured steps from stone and boulders, winding its way relentlessly upwards.  We crossed a few more snow-fields but with visibility so poor we still couldn't work our where we were or how far above was the summit - our only reference points being the red and white markers painted on the rock and the altimeter on my watch.

As we gained hight we could feel the temperature dropping and the cloud closing in.  The snow-fields became more regular and then the ground steepened as we reached the first chains.   The climbing was probably no more serious than scrambling the north face of Tryfan and the chains in some ways made things tougher - rather than thinking and picking your way up with careful hand/foot placement it was easy to just grab and haul on the chains, except this method was actually more tiring.   Thirty minutes later and we suddently reached a sharp ridge with a sheer drop straight in-front.  This took us by surprise as we were expecting to drop down the other side into Slovakia but this didn't appear to be the summit with higher ground to the left and right.  Pausing for breath we guessed we needed to move right across a scary ledge with huge exposure.  After a couple of careful steps we found a welcome chain on the far side of a block and we traversed a ledge to gain higher ground and the summit blocks of Rsys proper.   Enveloped in cloud we didn't hang around but were debating the route down onto the Slovakian side and checked with another group coming up.  Confusingly they appeared to be coming up the same route as we had come from but they confirmed they had come up from the Chat Pod, our destination.   So we headed off, still unsure of our route, until half an hour later we reached a col and looking right we could just pick out roof of the hut - a welcome sight.

The Panoramic WC without a view
The hut was completely re-built a couple of years ago after being hit by an avalanche.  Just by the door we passed a sign pointing towards the panoramic WC some 100 yards up a rocky path, so clearly the re-build didn't include sanitary facilities.  The hut was already busy with drying jackets and other clothes strewn everywhere. We relaxed over a beer and claimed our pre-booked bunks.  There was no chance of a shower as the hut doesn't have running water except for the well-equipped kitchen. The goulash was particularly tasty as was the dark Slovakian beer which aided the slumber which pervaded our tired group.

After an unventful night in a full dorm, we awoke to a glimpse of sun through the window and our first view of the valley below.  The WC already had a decent queue from people who'd crossed their legs all night rather than brave the trip to the loo during the night.  Indeed the WC shack was rather well-equipped with a sit-down loo albeit over a hole, a tap fed from a stream and a full height double glazed window providing particularly fine views while one contemplated.

The Panoramic WC with the morning view
The last view looking into Slovakia
After a quick museli breakfast we left and re-traced the previous evenings route back up to the summit of Rsys. We we were looking forward to our first views of the Tatras from the summit but we could see the cloud rising up the valley and 15 minutes later we were once more enveloped in cloud. 

With little visibility the descent from the summit into Poland was still as confusing as ever as picked our way down, alternating between a path and chains.  
The chaps descending from Rsys
At the first sight of running water we stopped for a welcome brushing of teeth and freshen up.

Hygenie stop
After a couple of hours of descent the cloud broke and provided a wonderful view straight down to the two lakes ahead of us.  Alas it was just a tease with normal weather resuming as we trudged down and finally reached Morskie Oko and the sanctuary of a celebratory beer.  

We still had a 9km walk down the tourist path to catch a bus to Zakpopane where we wasted no time and tramped straight to the bus station.  Three hours later we were enjoying a welcome hot shower in our Krakow hostel and shortly thereafter we were strolling through the crowded streets and market squares of Krakow before our flight home in the morning. 

So Orla Perc lives to fight another day.  We were all agreed that the peaks/views we had glimpsed were indeed worthy of a return one day and we can recommend them for anyone looking to visit further afield.  And, as if by magic, normal weather resumed as soon as we left and Zakopane has bathed in a constant 29/30 degrees ever since.

Saturday, 6 July 2013

Osprey Mutant 38 pack - Long Term Review

Sometimes it takes a while to truly appreciate things and so it has been with my Osprey Mutant pack. Like a trusty old pair of boots the Mutant has been my default go-to pack for the past two years.

Whether its backpacking through Vietnam or Cuba, wildcamping in Wales, scaling a 4,000 peak in the Alps or a climbing weekend on the south coast, the Mutant has taken it all in its stride - quietly, efficiently.

I must admit it was the looks of the Black Diamond Speed 40 that led me astray briefly last summer, but it's the Mutant I returned to.  Osprey have managed to straddle that rare mix of being simple yet functional, including the features that matter yet minimising excess, focusing on stuff that does the job as intended.

It's large for its purported 38 litres - probably nearer in size to a 45l pack - and more as the floating-lid extends to add a further 10l if necessary. Two lid pockets, outer and inner, give a degree of practicality but if you like pockets and faff then this pack's not for you.

Under the lid is a rope strap which as well as being handy for, erm, holding a climbing rope or helmet,  helps secure any load when the pack is full and when the lid is removed.

The shoulder straps and hip-belt are high-density foam, slim-profile but comfortable. Inside is the obligatory bladder pocket and a removable 3-fold bivvi pad. The EVA foam back panel is relatively flat but this helps with stability with a heavy load, but does mean it's prone to giving you a damp back in hot weather.  There are no outer pockets, but there a couple of small wand pockets - so small in fact I forgot they were there - but they do help secure walking poles.

The Z compression straps work well in pulling the entire sides of the pack inwards to reduce volume - far more effective than two separate compression straps as the whole volume is pulled inwards.   Twin re-inforced axe loops and 3 hauling points betray the packs climbing credentials, as do the hypalon loops on the hip-belt - which take a carabiner or ice-clipper.

The material strikes a great balance between being lightweight but reassuringly robust.  It's a bit stiffer/sturdier than lightweight packs such as the Talon, so it doesn't flop around when empty (one of my pet hates with many lightweight packs.  I'm happy to cram in climbing gear without the worry I'm going to puncture it. And it's shrugged off numerous airport baggage systems without any real signs of wear.

The pack's versatility is aided by the fact that its strippable with the lid, hip-belt and back-pad removable, which reduces the weight down from 1.3kg to a more respectable 900g.

A two-day ascent of the 4,000m Gran Paradiso meant starting in a hot valley with all my winter gear stowed in a full pack. On reaching the overnight hut I stripped off the lid and and removed the bivvi pad to shed weight for the summit ascent, the Z compression straps collapsing the volume effectively when I wore most of my gear for the final summit push.

Niggles are few and far between.  Perhaps the back is a touch too long for me, though Osprey do three different sizes, so blame me. The closure buckles are a little small for handling with gloves but that's about it.

It does what it's made for and more - simply, discreetly and reliably - a great all-rounder pack which I can highly recommend.

Saturday, 15 June 2013

Eastern Fells Wildcamp

A recent trip to the Lakes had reminded me of how much of it I still have to visit so it seemed an appropriate destination for a bank holiday weekend trip.  Most of the UK population seemed to have the same thought and faced with gridlock on the M6 I almost diverted to N.Wales, but I persevered and eventually arrived in Kentmere at 6pm on Saturday evening.

Parking.  A simple act, but one which gives disproportionate amount of stress when trying to find somewhere to leave a car for a few nights. Driving into Kentmere there was but a single car park with a clear warning of no overnight parking.  Knocking on the door of a nearby cottage I was directed to 'Christine' whom I sweet-talked with hard cash to allow me to leave the car for a couple of nights.  

The loose plan was to head up to Harter Fell and explore some of the Eastern Fells for a couple of nights, re-acquainting myself with Haweswater, which is one of my favourite lakes.  Packing for two meant taking my North Face Tadpole tent - all 2.4kg heft of it - and it instantly seemed to fill my OMM Villain pack.  Replete with my new Sawyer filter I eschewed my usual 2 or 3 litres of water, opting to save weight and fill up as I go.  I also decided to bring my Canon SLR along with and a spare lens, together with a small tripod, intending to make more of an effort with my photography. With a full-pack I was resigned to carrying my camera in a separate shoulder holster.

Making our way up eastern flank of the valley the streams looked a little low and as we were intending to camp high this evening I decided to stock up on water early. Plodding upwards, my camera bag swinging with each step, a fierce looking ram stood proudly on an outcrop, looking a good candidate for a quick shot in the evening sun.  After the satisfying click of the shutter, I dropped the camera from my eye to quickly review the shot and saw the immortal words on the screen "No Memory Card".  Bugger wasn't quite the word I uttered as I realised I was now going to be lugging a kilo and a half of Canon ballast for the weekend.  I tried to console myself by thinking the extra weight be good training for the trip to the Tatras in June.

The wind was blowing a little harder than expected and I decided that camping higher would likely be too exposed, so we scouted around the outcrops of Shipmans Knotts, finding a flat spot with views straight down Longsleddale.  The days are noticeably longer up north so after dinner we climbed on the crags and watched the sun slowly dip behind the the peaks to the north-west.

The night was uneventful and we woke to a beautiful morning. Having eaten through some provisions I at least managed to fit my camera bag into my main pack so was less encumbered by the swinging mass as we headed up Kentmere and on to Harter Fell where the view opened out.

It's a splendid spot looking out over Haweswater, the ridge of High Street to the west and the undulating peaks on the west side of Kentmere valley behind us. It seemed opportune to enjoy a snack and soak up the sun.  We turned to find a huge bank of dark low cloud almost upon us, donning wind proofs before heading down to Nam Bield pass.  I had already picked out Small Water below as a possible camp spot for that evening.

The cloud closed in on us as we headed up Mardale Ill Bell and on to High Street, breaking occasionally to gives wonderful views of sun-kissed summits,with the odd glisten from a far flung tarn.  Ambling along High Street and the cloudy lifted to allow uninterrupted views across to Helvellyn to the west.  Perched behind a wall we broke out the Jetboil for a cuppa and some lunch.

We decided that we’d wonder a bit further north admiring the views before heading down to Haweswater then making our way back up to Small Water to camp.  We de-toured to The Knott before heading along to High Raise then back to Kidsty Pike, before heading down the ridge.

It was just after 4pm as we approached Haweswater by Bowderthwaite Bridge.  It was a beautiful spot and someone already had a tent up by a stream.  We decided that we'd stay here for the evening and detoured off the path to explore the shore amongst old ruins and found an ideal camp-spot underneath some pines. It was early so we relaxed in the sun, bathing feet in the lake and freshening up with a cool wash. 

As the sun gradually descended over Kidsty Pike it lent a warm glow over Riggindale but as it set the wind increased.  It was pretty blowy during the night, but the Tadpole held firm.

The morning was complete contrast from the night before and it soon started to rain as we struck camp.  Rounding the southern tip of Haweswater the rain became more incessant as we worked our way up to Small Water.  A few metres on and we were in the could, unable to see the pass above us.  The path and stream were near indistinguishable as we trudged upwards. The stone shelter eventually appeared as a dark shape in the midst as we finally approached the head of Nam Bield pass.  The wind was funnelling through the pass, driving rain into our face so the wall gave some respite and an ideal spot to break out the Jetboil for our remaining cup-a-soup. 

From here it was all downhill, though the driving rain meant it was rather more of a chore for the 6km or so back to the car. True to form the rain stopped just as we entered Kentmere and the sanctuary of the car and dry clothes.  I'd just about dried out as we arrived back in London.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Good Service Deserves a Mention

It's good to see some businesses still responsive to their customers so I'd just like to say a quick thanks to the following suppliers:

  • Sawyer Europe for prompt delivery of a new water filter and for answering all my questions
  • First Ascent (UK Thermarest distributors) for the prompt replacement of both my faulty NeoAir mattresses - and replacing them with the newer, lighter X-lite version
  • Mountain House - for contacting me after reading my earlier blog post commenting on a poor experience with one of their meals and sending me some free samples for me to try.

In an age where we seem to hear only about poor customer service it's great to see and experience good service.  Hat's off to those suppliers who are making efforts to listen, engage with and respond to their customers through new social media channels such as Twitter.

Sunday, 28 April 2013

Wet and Wild in the Carneddau - First camp of 2013

A check-up at the Royal Marsden is always a time for reflection/contemplation and with a hint of spring in the air I made a last minute decision to head up to Snowdonia.   Guessing the majority of the snow would have melted from two weeks earlier I hastily grabbed some gear, chucked it in the car and headed north.  Arriving in Capel Curig in the dark I ducked into Dolgam campsite, pitched the Laser and headed for a late dinner at the pub.

The night was rather chilly and I woke to frost on then tent and the realisation that packing my lightweight sleeping bag was a mistake. With 300g of down the PHD Minum is a great 2-season bag but I definitely needed to wear the extra layers.

A quick breakfast and I needed to plot a route.  I wanted to explore the northern Carnddeau and ideally  would have liked to camp on the plateau but whilst the forecast for Saturday was good, rain and wind was forecast for Sunday, so I decided that I would need to camp lower down.  The twin reservoirs of Dulyn and Melyllyn were options but heading further down to Maeneira would give more shelter and a shorter walk-out in the morning.  

I parked by Joe Browns, succumbing to a Rab Vapour-Rise Alpine jacket I'd had my eye on for a while and grabbed some last minute provisions including a Reiter de-hydrated meal.  I decided to  thumb a lift down the A5, jumping out by Tryfan and heading north up to Cwm Lloer and cross the Carneddau from the south.

It was a beautifully fresh day - blue sky, fluffy clouds and cool enough not to work up too much of a sweat.  Turning to head up the eastern spur of Pen yr Ole Wen I found myself picking out the scrambling line before remembering that scrambling with a full-pack is not the best idea.  I arrived at the summit to spectacular 360 degree views across to the Glyders and Snowdon beyond.

Heading north into the col I was soon heading up to Carnedd Dafydd.  The cool breeze was definitely more noticable and I sheltered behind the summit wall, grateful for a quick cuppa courtesy of the JetBoil. Looking across the ridge to Carnedd Llewelyn the last remnants of winter snow could be seen clinging to the northern reaches of the Black Ladders.  It was pretty gusty heading over the col, the wind being funnelled down Cwm Llugyy and the cold beginning to find its way through my new Rab top.  Heading on I was soon warmed up by the slog up the scree slope to the summit of Llewlllyn.

I was following the foot-steps of a fellow back-packer and we chatted at the summit as we both pulled out the same Panasonic LX5 camera.  We were both headed further north so ambled along together.  Clive was of the lightweight school - I should have guessed when I noticed the lid and rear-pocket both having been surgically removed from his pack.  We stopped for lunch by the bothy past Foel Grach and he pulled out various gear neatly packaged in home-made cuben fibre stuff sacks.  After purchasing a cuben Laser, Clive had bought a sheet of fibre and had experimented with different shapes and jointing techniques and had fashioned bespoke sacks for his pot and caldera-cone stove.

The sun was still out as we headed further north to Carnedd Uchaf and Foef-fras, with deserted rounded peaks and valleys stretching out infront of the sea. It's a beautifully quite and remote corner of Snowdonia and I looked forward to return to camp on one of the remote summits in the near future, but now it was time to start heading down.  Turning east before Drum we hogged the side of the valley and slowly dropped height toward the confluence of the water-courses by Maeneira.

The sun was about to descend behind the peaks to the west as we searched for a suitably flat and sheltered spot, eventually settling by a stone wall not far from a stream.   As the light faded it was 4 degrees and I knew I was in for another chilly night.  I remembered my Osprey Mutant pack had a short bivvy mat inside the back so placed it under my NeoAir mattress for extra insulation.

As Clive sparked up his Caldera-cone and coke-can burner I felt rather guilty (or mildy smug) as I nonchalantly lit the JetBoil and within a couple of minutes was offering him a cup of tea as waited patiently for his water to boil.  He did have the last had the last laugh though as I was faced with a chemically-enhanced Reiter dehydrated meal, while he was tucking into a home-made de-hydrated three course meal!

Retiring to my sleeping bag I decided to keep on my lightweight down jacket and my trousers.  A toasty night was punctuated only by having to top-up my NeoAir mattress three times and a natural break made easier by the introduction to the 'convenience' of Pour & Store bags.

Stirring at 7.30am I could hear the first drops of rain on the tent as I leaned over and ignited the JetBoil for a morning brew. The breeze was up as we struck camp and within minutes the rain became stronger.  The downside of my planned route was that the trek back was directly into the wind and rain and in my un-planned haste I hadn't packed any over-trousers.  For  the first 20 minutes I watched the droplets bead nicely on my new softshell bottoms, but in the constant driving rain they quickly wetted-out, the water gradually dripping down inside my gaitors and into my boots.  We trudged on to Llyn Eigau and then headed up and over before dropping down by the northern end of Llyn Cowllyd reservoir.   The lee of a stone ruin gave some respite with the JetBoil once more demonstrating its convenience as a hot-chocolate and the last remnants of food temporarily lifted spirits.  Walking down the edge of the reservoir the path was a constant torrent of water as the rain cascaded down the mountainside.  Finally we reached the head of the reservoir and were faced only with a wet and boggy trudge back down to Capel Curig.

Arriving at the sanctuary of the cafe I can quite honestly say I've never been so thoroughly drenched!  It was my first camp for a while - a few lessons learned, a few more remembered and some tips swapped with a fellow backpacker.  I eventually dried out by the time I'd arrived in London after the 5 hour drive, but my boots took another 2 days.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

First Winter April!

The un-ending cold snap that embraced the UK had one unexpected benefit in that the mountains were still snow covered in April.   I was headed for the Tatras in Poland this Easter yet I looked on in envy at the fabulous winter conditions across the UK mountains being reported on Twitter.  I was probably in a minority in willing the weather to remain cold for a further week and offer a final chance of a UK winter climb this year.

Early morning sun
I was checking the forums on for updates all week and as Friday arrived reports suggested winter conditions were holding.  My climbing partner, Phillipa, picked up a N. Wales Winter Climbs guide book and we left London at 6pm for the journey north, punctuated by a quick curry-stop in Llangollen as knew we'd arrive in Capel Curig too late for dinner.  It was 11.45pm as we checked in to a quiet Plas-y-Curig Hostel, tip-toeing  around in our room trying not to disturb those already fast asleep in their bunk.  In fact we never met our room-mates, they were still asleep when we left at 7.30am to grab a car-park space at Pen-y-pass.

The previous night's late arrival meant we hadn't had chance to sort through the climbing gear I'd hastily thrown  into the car before leaving, so after a quick cuppa in the cafe we began to sort our gear in the car-park.  Unsure of what we needed, but guessing there wouldn't be too much scope for protection on easier routes, we packed a 60m half-rope, slings, a rack of nuts and an ice-screw as well as the obligatory ice-ace (pair) and crampons which were conspicuously missing from most people setting off for a weekend able up Snowdon.

Our chosen route was Central Trinity - a 220m grade I/II winter climb that ascends an obvious line on the mighty north face of Snowdon, just above Llyn Glaslyn.   We set off up the Pyg Track and within a few hundred metres we found we were already plodding through the snow.  It was clear it was going to be a beautiful day with early sun glistening off the snow.

As we reached Bwylch y Moch, where we would normally detour up to Crib Goch, we were greeted with a stunning snowy vista and blue sky that wouldn't look amiss in the Alps.

Looking over Llyn Llydaw to Y Lliwedd

Ignoring the lure of Crib Goch we continued along the Pyg Track, stopping before the junction with the Miners track to fit our crampons.  Just past the junction with the Miners Track we diverted from the Pyg Track and headed left into the cwm.  Stopping for a bite to eat at the base of the slope we donned our harnesses and helmets and racked some protection and slings.

Heading along the Pyg Track  - the slope up to the Spider in the centre

We could clearly see the central 'spider' ahead (not to be confused with the iconic 'White Spider' on the Eiger's north face), the obvious snow-field were a number of climbing routes emanate.  It was a straightforward calf-busting slog up to the spider, though it was already 11am and small lumps of ice periodically cascaded down from above.  As we entered the shade of Snowdon the temperature dropped a little.  This combined with the increased altitude mean the snow was firming a little.  We stopped in the 'spider' to catch our breath and check our bearings. Central Trinity gully was pretty obvious, exiting top-left, with a father and son ahead of us having just stopped at the base of the climb to sort their rope and some protection. We waited a while but it was getting chilly and we were being bombarded by ice from climbers above,  so we were relieved when the pair asked to us proceed ahead of them. 

Exiting Central Trinity gully
As the gully narrowed and steepened we settled into our thud-thud, stamp-stamp rhythm, alternatively engaging both ice-axes and then stepping up on the crampons. We were confident soloing without rope or protection and half way up the gully we encountered an ice-ramp.  Pausing for breath and checking for any obvious protection we decided to press-on, the ice dictating a more thoughtful and deliberate  placement of axes and feet. We were soon past and it was only when looking down we became apparent of the steepness (there's a lesson there...!).

Before we knew it we were out of the gully and the route opened out onto a wider slope.  After another  calf and lung-busting 70 metres we topped out on the ridge about 50m down from Snowdon's summit and joined the throng who'd headed up the Llanberis and Pyg/Miners tracks.  
We'd earned our lunch and the panoramic view from the summit was to be savoured on such a wonderfully clear day.

After replenishing our energy levels we decided that Crib Goch looked far too enticing to miss out on so we set off up Garnedd Ugain from where we could look across and see our earlier route up Trinity.  If you look closely in the photo below you can just about see two climbers on our route (just down from the top of the route and just below the orange line).

Looking across to Central Trinity, our ascent route

Crib Goch tends to be a little harder in the south to north direction as the main obstacles on the pinnacles have to be down-climbed.  And so it proved, with the combination of mixed ground, axe in hand requiring careful footwork with the crampons.

 Crib Goch ridge

We met another party being shepherded with ropes around the third (our first) pinnacle but we decided to go up and over and faced a hairy down-climb on a snowy ledge, above a steep drop into Cwm Bach.   Safely into the gap we headed straight up the second pinnacle, which I remembered has an awkward climb in ascent that didn't appeal in descent while in crampons, but we managed to avoid it with nifty move to the right.

Stopping for a quick drink and to savour the views we were approached by a party of around 20 students coming off the first pinnacle.  Moving with trepidation, with neither axes or crampons, they were clearly making slow progress.  It was about 2pm and they were only half-way along Crib Goch and were clearly heading for the summit of Snowdon terribly under-prepared.  The stragglers of the group seemed distinctly unimpressed as their 'leader' gleefully pointed out the summit in the distance.  It had all the hallmarks of another MRT statistic in the making!

Crib Goch ridge

Pressing on up and over the first pinnacle the ridge narrowed considerably.  The snow actually made it easier to walk on the ridge proper although I was acutely conscious of the need to not to catch a crampon on my trousers and trip, as I had done earlier!   Finally we stood on Crib Goch summit - we'd traversed the ridge but we knew we still had to descend from 900m down the north-east face,which is distinctly easier in ascent.

We finally arrived back at the car about 4.30pm, exhausted but exhilarated, our first winter climb completed and we couldn't have asked for better conditions.  The rope and our climbing gear had been un-touched but it's better to be prepared than not!

The forecast for the next day wasn't quite so splendid but with heavy limbs we decided to get up and out and head to Ogwen valley.  The forecast was for it to be a little warmer but it was  overcast as we headed up to Llyn Idwal.  We guessed we'd have to gain height to get decent snow conditions so veered up and away from the lake, trending towards East Wall Gully which leads up to Cwm Cneifon.

On reaching the gully we decided gear up and practice rope-work and placing protection in winter conditions (and in gloves).  Though there was no real need, we pitched/belayed some of the gully, then moved together placing running belays as we went until we reached a bowl that sat below Cwm Cneifon.

Consulting the guide book* we tried and failed to reconcile our current position with the photos and diagrams. We concluded that we would need to move higher into Cwm Cneifon proper and rather than a snow plod around we decided on a more direct route up a narrow gully.

My first ice-screw placement!
The gully was rather steeper and icier than it first appeared but we managed to find a couple of spikes to place slings and on reaching some solid ice I placed my first ice-screw.  As we entered the cwm proper we could see the dark crag of Clogwyn Du on the right of the headwall, but struggled to make out the climbing routes marked in the guide-book.  It became clear that the diagram was drawn from a different perspective so we slogged up further into the cwm searching for Hidden Gully, a 60m grade II route behind the main crag.  As we ascended and passed beneath the main face of the crag the other climbing routes became more obvious and then Hidden Gully finally revealed itself.  The route was peppered with snowy steps from earlier ascents which made it more of a plod save for a few icy sections, protected by slings over spikes.

We stepped out onto the Glyderau plateau but with a biting wind apparent we headed straight for the top of Y Gribin, a summer grade 1 scramble which would be a little more difficult in the snow.  We stayed roped up to practice moving together, flicking the rope over rocks and spikes as we descended but the difficulties were short-lived and we were soon onto easier ground, making our way back down to Ogwen before a quick cuppa and the prospect of a long drive home.

On the Glydereau plateau with Hidden Gully to the left of the main crag

So a hastily arranged and opportunistic weekend turned out as great as we could have hoped - I'd never have believed we could have found such great conditions in April!  Our first winter climbs were ticked and more importantly experience banked and lessons learned.  Rope-work and handling gear with gloves on, moving over mixed ground, reading the ground and conditions, handling axes, when to use the leash and when it gets in the way - stuff that only comes with practice and experience.  We'll be more confident in tackling some steeper stuff next winter.  I was going to say 'I can't wait' but I'm sure we'd all prefer a bit of summer first!

* the guide book we used was 'North Wales Winter Climbing' by Ground Up and is highly recommended.