Wandering the World Part 8
The Three Peaks
Less than one week after returning from my trip around Australia and New Zealand I was off again for the long Easter weekend on another adventure. This one was to form part of a colleagues stag party, and would be the Three Peaks challenge — but spread over three days instead of the traditional twenty four hours.
The weekend started with driving 420 miles north to the town of Fort William in Scotland. Our first peak would be the largest in the British Isles, Ben Nevis. We’d heard the weather reports saying that it would be under heavy snow so our first task upon arriving in Fort William was to find somewhere we could hire crampons from.
After visiting a number of places that had run out we were given a telephone number of a small company who might still have had some left. The problem was with the amount of snow on the mountain it wasn’t really possible without the correct equipment which meant most places had hired all theirs out. This last company fortunately had enough crampons left for the seven of us to hire out.
When we got back to the hotel we made sure we had a rough idea how to fit the crampons to our walking boots — of course, the following day when we climbed the mountain we found we’d done it wrong. We’d also hired a guide for the day who met us in the morning.
Where the previous day had been nice and sunny this day was already cold and wet. We didn’t let this dampen our spirits though — we were about to climb a mountain! The other guys had some experience from doing some minor peaks around England, but nothing this high over the previous weeks. Although I hadn’t been able to join them on these practices, I felt that the weather conditions on Mount Tongariro the week before had helped me to prepare for this.
The start of the climb is quite easy and can be done in normal walking gear such as walking boots and gaiters. Eventually we got to places with increasingly more snow. After about an hours walking we finally got to a point where we needed crampons to proceed any further. My first attempt at fitting them wasn’t too bad, but my mistake was in what to do with the excess material from the straps when they’re pulled tight. The guide recommended that it was tucked away inside the gaiters as it would hold them tighter. It’s a little strange walking in them at first, but as we reached deeper and deeper snow it became more comfortable to walk in them.
At some points the path did get quite narrow but with the crampons on it didn’t really worry us as they do provide decent grip. Along this path we took stops every now and then so that the ones who were lagging behind could stop and rest. It meant it took us longer to do the ascent, but the positive to this was it gave the sun time to break through the clouds. It was kind of an eerie atmosphere — it was predominantly cloudy but you couldn’t feel any wind so it was actually quite warm despite all the snow.
After we’d been walking across snow for some time there had been instances where it wasn’t clear where the path was, and stepping off the path meant you’d suddenly find yourself at least knee-deep in snow. It was around this time when the guide started to show us a few basic skills for climbing mountains in the snow. The first one was an avalanche test.
To perform the avalanche test you use an ice pick to dig out a square area in the snow as deep as you can, making sure to leave part of the snow and ice in the middle standing. The idea then is to gradually put more weight onto the snow and see how much strength you need to use to break it. If the snow breaks easily then there’s a real chance of an avalanche.
The reason this test works is because when the temperature warms slightly it will start to weaken the bonds between snowflakes on the top layer. As it freezes again it will not be as strong as it was previously so will not take as much weight. When snow falls on this weaker layer of ice it becomes a risk that the weight of the snow, or people walking on it, may then cause the sheet to move.
What was fairly off-putting at this time was that it did break suggesting that an avalanche was possible, but the guide merely shrugged his shoulders and exclaimed that he hadn’t seen it do that before. That didn’t inspire confidence.
Moving on we eventually got to the halfway point where there is a narrow passage with steep, snow-covered sides — this is where he decided to demonstrate a few more skills such as the various ways you can stop yourself from sliding in the snow. When you’re wearing crampons you have to be extremely careful about sliding as they can easily get a grip without warning whilst you’re falling, and will then break your leg from the force.
As we neared the top the snow got heavier, and we encountered frequent changes in the visibility. One minute you could be shrouded in fog that stopped you seeing more than about ten metres in front of you, and the next you’d be squinting from the sun reflecting off the snow. The climb does get harder near the top and it’s wise to stick to the area marked out by chevrons due to the number of gullies and cliff faces that are not easily seen.
As we approached the summit there was one last gully which apparently I almost walked off when the guide got mixed up about where the “hidden” gully was located. Apparently he has fallen down it once before, and was saved only by his quick thinking and having an ice pick to stop himself. This guide may have seemed a little careless, but he got us up there safely.
Upon reaching the summit of Ben Nevis it still felt like an achievement despite it not being the highest I’d climbed, it was more of an adventure having an incredible amount of snow and having achieved it with some friends. At the top it was deathly calm with no wind whatsoever which actually made it quite warm. There were quite a few others around the trig point, and one group even had some champagne which was offered to us after they’d had the fill of it.
After about 30 minutes at the summit pausing for a drink and a bite to eat we begun our descent. It was of course far quicker to get back down, but in places this also made it more dangerous due to how easily you could slip despite the crampons. The extra strain this put on our feet and knees made it gradually more and more uncomfortable despite having “blister proof” socks. Eventually we got back down below the majority of the snow and removed our crampons.
What came next is probably the part which was the most fun. To avoid the icy path that looked quite dangerous we cut across the side of the mountain by sliding on our backs down the slopes. After several of these I finally decided I should be recording this on my iPhone. I made sure I went down the next one first and stood off to the side slightly so I could record those that followed me.
Sadly when I landed I found myself buried up to my waist in the snow, but it was a good position to get some video of the slope. It wasn’t as steep as the previous two, but it was still fun.
About half an hour after that we finally reached the bottom having completed our first mountain. After a quick meal at the nearby pub we were back on the road and on our way to Scafell Pike in the English county of Yorkshire.
The start of the day was cloudy and damp, although not raining. As it looked like it could rain at any moment we’d decided to start off in full waterproof gear. It’s a fair walk from the car park until you actually start to climb, and involves crossing streams with fast, rushing water. Obviously crossing these streams is something to do carefully as you wouldn’t want to slip over before starting the actual ascent.
It didn’t take long before we reached snow — but this time we didn’t have a guide or crampons. We would have to rely on ourselves to get to the top, and so we decided we’d take the “easier” trail which is a relatively gentle climb which winds around the far side of the mountain. The more direct route is up through a gully, but without crampons and an ice pick it would have been dangerous — though in the distance we could see two people with a dog attempting it.
This slower, winding path is still hard work — as the snow gets deeper it becomes harder to tell which route is the best to take. The wind and fog made this climb a lot colder than Ben Nevis, though the fog was the bigger problem. Those of our group that were walking quicker found ourselves about ten or twenty metres in front of the others, and looking back we thought we could see the others through the fog.
What we could see wasn’t the others from our group however. The rest of our group was further behind and we’d got the map — this was creating a problem. We reached the summit without realising the others were still five minutes behind us, and when they arrived they were initially furious at us for leaving them behind.
I think they realised we never meant for it to happen, and soon after we were all enjoying being at the summit. Sadly the conditions at the top of this mountain weren’t the same as Ben Nevis — this mountain had a biting wind which meant any lengthy stay at the top would have been a bad idea. We took our photographs from the summit, and made our way back down.
Having had the opportunity to slide down Ben Nevis we decided we’d try and do the same down Scafell Pike. Sadly the snow didn’t have the same smoothness to it which meant it didn’t really help us get down the mountain any faster. It was a fairly uneventful descent getting down past the snow, over the rocks and crossing the stream. However we somehow managed to take a wrong turn and ended up walking across a farmer’s field, and along a bridle path. It was a slightly longer route, but it was a pleasant walk.
Once we made it to the pub at the bottom to get some warm food I also had to attend to a blister that had formed from my feet getting wet on Ben Nevis. The last part of this descent was a little uncomfortable because of it, but I hoped the special blister plasters I’d bought would do the trick.
That afternoon we drove to the Snowdonia mountain range in Wales for our final mountain. When we arrived it was already raining and continued to rain into the morning when we began our ascent. The first thirty minutes of the walk were uncomfortable due to blistered feet, but once the rough path gave way to waterlogged fields it was easier.
The ground being easier on the feet did however soon start to slow our progress as the track got worse. In some places the mud was so bad it was like the mud wanted to suck your feet from you so it could keep them for itself. It didn’t really bother us though, this was the last mountain and we weren’t about to let some bad weather stop us.
As we got higher up the mountain the wind started to pick up, and eventually was strong enough to tear something from one of my friend’s hands. Thinking we needed to get out of the wind for a bit we left the path behind and started to climb directly up the side. This was a mistake.
Once we got off the track the wind changed from being a gale force to one that started to remind me of the wind on Mount Tongariro in New Zealand. It was only a fraction of it’s strength, but it was enough to make us take shelter in an alcove in the mountainside to catch our breath for a few minutes.
Having caught our breath we were ready to continue our journey, but that’s when the wind got even worse. The strength of the wind now was such that we were struggling to stay on our feet — a few were even swept from their feet, and blown across the long grass into a wire fence. Those that had more or less stayed on their feet clambered over the fence, and whilst keeping low made a run for cover behind a large rocky outcrop. Once there was a big enough lull in the wind we followed suit, and joined the others behind the rocks.
It was whilst sheltering behind the rocks we realised that in winds like this it was not safe to climb a mountain. We knew the higher we got the worse it would be, so with much regret and consideration we decided to abandon the mountain climb and to start heading back down. Part of me wanted to continue though, just to get it done as I thought I could do it; though I was also drenched and cold and wanted to be warm again.
Unfortunately our first attempt to leave the mountain wasn’t to succeed. We tried to run back to the fence, but the wind was that strong we couldn’t move. Giving up on this attempt we returned to the shelter of the rocks. It was becoming obvious at this point that the question of whether to complete the climb or not was no longer relevant, it was now a case of how we’d get back down. With the wind picking up in speed it meant the temperature was dropping — one of my friends was seriously considered using a survival bag at this point to try and conserve heat.
Our first thought was to take a different route down through a gully which was out of the wind. A quick check of the map made us realise though that we wouldn’t get anywhere going that way. Our only choice was to fight the wind, and to make it back to the other side of the fence.
We finally had some luck as the wind started to reduce a little in strength. It wasn’t much, but it was enough for us to fight it’s almighty force. Every step we took was a cautious one, and we were constantly checking to make sure everyone was still safe and keeping low. After what seemed like forever we eventually made it below the level of the wind and got off the mountain.
Mount Snowdon was supposed to be the easiest of the mountains we’d be climbing, but it defeated us. Although disheartened in this defeat we vowed to climb Mount Snowdon again when the weather wasn’t so challenging.
About a year later we did finally return to Snowdon, and once again we faced rain and wind. This time however we didn’t turn back, we pushed on and made it to the summit. We took shelter at the top to warm up a little before heading back down, after having finally conquered the mountain.