Sunday, 12 February 2017

Cold Carneddau

It's February. My friend Chris comes up with the route, through Snowdonia.

As I pack, a couple of days ahead, Chrissie offers to take our Terra Nova Polar Lite 2 Micro outside to refit the inner. She finds two of the tapes, holding the eyelets in which pole ends sit, fraying. The tent is only a little over a year old. Our supplier, Cotswold Outdoor, give a two year guarantee to registered customers. We pack up the tent and drive to nearby Bakewell. There's a Cotswold store there. It's our local one. The staff are great.

They're happy to deal with the problem. Offered a replacement tent, we agree. But there are none in their entire network and a quick call to Terra Nova reveals they have none and can't say when they'll be back in stock. Along with the helpful manager we examine options. Eventually, we part with some extra cash (we're given a full refund for the Micro 2) and leave the store with a brand new Terra Nova Southern Cross 2.

At home we erect the tent in the lounge. Next morning we pitch it in the garden. This model has received good reviews since it's launch around a year back. It's a self supporting tent but light enough for backpacking. With our favourite MSR Groundhog pegs it weighs around 2.3kg. It's two person and fits our requirement for a four season shelter big enough for one person and a largish dog. With doors on either side of both inner and fly, and two porches it certainly looks versatile...and roomy.

Into my rucsac it goes, late on Thursday afternoon.

It's VERY early Friday morning and we're on the M56 aiming for Llandudno Junction. Once there, we leave Chris's motor on a quiet, residential street, shoulder our rucsacs and head for the bus to Llanfairfechan, a name I'm sure must once have been uttered by Father Jack.

We plod up through the little town to eventually, as 9am arrives, find a footpath sign where we leave the tarmac. It's cold. The ground is hard and frosty. We trudge upwards, pausing to gaze out over the sea to Anglesey. Having checked the forecast we agreed to leave axes in the car. There's a chance of some snow late on Saturday but nothing is visible from the coast.

Our plan is to climb, slowly (is there any other way?) to the summit of Carnedd Llewelyn, descend via Penywaun Wen, dropping of the bwlch to the reservoir for a camp. From here we'll head across lower country to Betws-y-Coed with another camp along the way. From Betws we'll catch a train back to the coast.

We gain a broad track on our ascent. There are scant views of the tops ahead. The cold has turned once-running water into miniature glaciers coursing down the track.

It's a very long slog up past the small top of Drum. Eventually we find snow and ice and stop to don microspikes. 

Chris is ahead. I hear a faint voice behind. As I turn, I catch sight of a figure...mist-hidden and weird. I look back at Chris again, puzzled. When I turn again, there's nothing.

I'm unsettled.

By around 1:30 we arrive at the refuge beneath Foel Grach. It's clad in ice. Other worldly.

We unbolt the door and enter. Stoves are lit and we feast greedily. I'm wearing thick, winter gloves but the inactivity quickly cools my finger ends. It's a problem I have to face whenever I'm out in the cold. A minor circulation issue which only surfaces in conditions like these. When we leave the hut for the final push to the summit of Carnedd Llewelyn I have fingers pulled out of the glove's digits and scrunched into my palms to gain heat. In this mode I can't use my poles. They hang by the straps from my wrists, clanking on the rocks. But the climb warms and life returns to my hands.

We gain the summit in gloom.

Checking the map and compass bearing we set off into the mist to find our descent route. We fail once and retrace steps. Our second attempt finds us still wrong and on steeper ground than either of us is happy with without an axe. A quick discussion and we return to the summit, deciding conditions are not safe for our planned route from here. 

Returning on our outward route we drop to the saddle between Foel Grach and Garnedd Uchaf. Finding level ground we decide to camp here for the night. We're at 3040ft but, despite the cold, it's a calm evening. Around 4:30pm, it's still light. I successfully erect the new tent for the first time, without removing my winter gloves. The six legs give stability and the pegs feel secure in the snow. My fingers are still warm.

There's no water around so it's time to melt some snow...

...and I'm soon supping coffee and snacking in the warmth of my Rab Expedition 800. Cosy.

There's room in the tent for my rucsac and all its contents spread about in one half of the tent. My boots are inside too and the copious headroom allows use of my Thermarest Compack chair kit.

Snow falls through the night. We reckon it's been around -4 or -5C. A couple of inches of extra snow lies on the ground and it's snowing and blowing. 

The door of the Southern Cross has small Fastex buckles near the bottom of the zip, allowing you to hook up the bottom to give increased ventilation near the ground. Combine this with the door zip opened from the top and you have a through vent, bottom to top. The worst of the weather is kept out as you use your stove in relative safety. Clever.

After breakfast we pack. The visibility is poor. I attach my compass to a clip on my Paramo Aspira smock and pull on my overtrousers.

As we leave our pitch the weather deteriorates to a whiteout, with no definition between ground and sky. Chris checks Viewranger on his phone. I set my compass. It's extreme, challenging but exhilarating as we head into the whiteness. 

The wind changes, driving snow into our eyes. Goggles are out.

With regular checks of map and compass we plough onward. The ridge we came up yesterday rises and falls as we crest each smaller top along the way. 

As we reach the track lower down snow covers the ice we saw yesterday. Lower, wetter snow balls up on our microspikes so we take them off. I carefully avoid the track as much as possible but, almost inevitably, I step on hidden ice and fall heavily on my hip. Thankfully uninjured, Chris helps me up. A few more paces and I slip again. Back on with the spikes which we scuff and and bang with poles in an effort to dislodge accumulating balls of hardened snow. 

By 2pm, we're back in Llanfairfechan. The bus drops us near Chris's car and in no time we're laughing, tucking into an all-day breakfast in a Tesco cafe. That strange feeling of the all-too-quick transfer from winter hills to "normality".

A mad, overnight adventure.

With hindsight yes, of course we should've taken axes. Probably would've been better with crampons 
too. But that, for me, would've meant my winter mountaineering boots as well. Can't remember the last time I used those.

Again, with hindsight, the proposed descent from the summit might not have been the best with a heavy backpacking sac, even with axe and crampons. My pal Chris would perhaps disagree, but we never got that far, so we'll never know. I've ascended via Penywaun Wen at least three times and it makes for an interesting fine weather. Descending it, heavily laden, in winter conditions, would be an altogether different proposition. But I knew the route before we set off and never questioned it. What matters is, we ascended safely and, once the situation changed, we reassessed and stayed safe. Carrying on could easily have seen one or both of us appearing in the statistics of the local mountain rescue team. Always best to err on the side of caution, especially in conditions like these. AND, we still had a good time.

The new tent? Well the jury's still out for me. I'm slightly unsure about the large doors, one on each side, which leaves a big area of fabric unsupported. The other two parts on each side have a pegging point in the middle, at the bottom. But it's the same with our Hilleberg Enan (and the Akto too; a highly regarded tent) so I'm probably worrying unnecessarily. Other than that, it's easy to pitch, light for its size and very roomy. And I like the double doors which mean you can shift use if the wind changes. One things for sure, it'll see plenty of use with Chrissie and me. She's already planning on taking it on this year's TGO Challenge.

May the fun continue.