I once read an article from Wales Online which, on a side note, claims to have won ‘website of the year’.. Seriously? Anyway, this article was written by an expert climber who stated that ‘Climbing Snowdon can be more dangerous than Everest‘. Now, we’ve all seen films and heard what can only be described as heroic stories of those who climbed Everest and not always returned. I still find it hard to believe Mr McNeish, who made the above statement, but if I had read the article before climbing Snowdon, I may have at least considered packing some gloves.
My friends and I had always fancied the idea of climbing a mountain – a real challenge and the sense of achievement that came with it. We’d start small and eventually work up to some of the big ones, Kilimanjaro has always been a personal aim of my own, but obviously gaining the experience and skills needed would be essential. So we set our minds on Snowdon, the second highest of the UK’s three peaks.
This is a lesson on how being under prepared can seriously jeopardise your safety
07:15am February 17th 2015. I seem to remember it being a fairly pleasant morning as I was packing the remaining pieces of my kit into my car with my dog, Pepper. Not half an hour later my friends, Dan and Olie, arrived at my house so we could make our way in convoy to Snowdonia National Park, North West Wales.
‘We should arrive in good time to get to the top and maybe find a spot to camp on the way back down.’
When we were coming to the end of our three and a half hour drive I spotted the mountains in the distance and, for some reason, was surprised to see they had snowy peaks. In February. I was so shocked that I called Dan (on my hands free set of course) to pass on my sightings, to which I received, to the best of my memory, nothing but abuse. We soon arrived at the small town of Llanberis, at approximately midday. We had prior knowledge that a train went directly to the summit of Snowdon. I’ll come back to that later.
We donned our rucksacks and hit the footpath in the general direction of the mountain. I can’t recall how many times the line ‘You didn’t tell me it would all be uphill’ was used, but it was one of those ones that, after probably the fourth or fifth time, would become irritating rather than funny. The closer we got to Snowdon itself, the more we realised exactly what we were taking on. The picture (at the top) doesn’t quite do it justice, but it loomed over us, partly hidden beneath the grey clouds, totally belittling the already towering hills below. We stopped for a moment to rest, somewhere we thought must have been about half way, and we noticed that we were actually the only people walking up the mountain. We saw numerous groups of hikers, but what should have started alarm bells but didn’t until it was too late, was that everybody was heading down the mountain instead of up. I clearly recall, as we started the steep ascend up the north face, a man walking down and, after explaining that we were going to the summit, all he had to say was, ‘Good luck.’ It must have been very clear that we were not experienced climbers.
From the time we hit the edge of the snow, we were alone, nothing but the building wind for company. I had done research into the weather around Snowdon almost constantly for two days prior, up until the moment we left home, and it had stayed moderately steady and fine. However, we all knew that the weather could change quicker than our minds up there and we would never know for certain what we would be in for until the last moment. We soon realised that the remaining ascend to the summit would be much harder than we expected when the stony pathway that we were walking on eventually turned into nothing but snow.
I love snow. For me personally, there is no better weather. It looks beautiful, rekindles childhood memories and in general, is just a bit of fun.
However, fun this was not. Because of the constant wind and chill, this snow was more like ice. Completely compact and, depending on how you’d place your feet, you’d be sliding off and hitting the ground fairly hard. As I have mentioned previously, I have never climbed Snowdon before, however, from what I could tell, the pathway runs fairly close to the edge of a very, very steep drop. Or it certainly did that day. For most of the time we were almost walking at a perfect 45 degree angle, if not considerably more, on nothing but ice. To the right of us was a sheer drop into the abyss that was just cloud, and within no time at all, our vision was cut to almost nothing. It must have been about 16:00pm but it was getting dark – very dark. The clouds thickened around us and visibility was minimal to say the least. Our experience had gone from a bit of fun, to being totally serious within a matter of minutes, maybe seconds. This should have been the time to turn around.
We were fairly sure we must have been getting close to the top, we had a tent and kit that could hopefully withstand a bit of wind and we had warm clothes. For now.
This picture was taken before we lost visibility, however the incline and path are both getting pretty bad. We also spotted one single man further up the path who was initially coming towards us but then turned and walked back up towards the summit. Eventually all those stones and rocks would soon vanish and we would be walking on only the compact ice and snow. As the path veered to the right, that was where the drop to our right was at it worst and that is where we lost visibility. We never saw that man again.
What annoyed me most of all about this trip, is how bloody well my dog was doing. It may seem cruel of me to have brought him along, however he is very fit and loved every minute of it. What annoyed me though was that I began to struggle keeping up with Dan and Olie and gradually fell further and further behind them, all the while my dog (Pepper) would be running up the steep path to walk with them, then run all the way back to me, and then back again. He must have climbed the mountain twice by the time we got to the top!
We eventually reached level ground, somewhere near the top, and at this time the only light was an eerie blue hue that glowed around us. We were well and truly in the cloud and it was all we could do to see each other when we were merely feet away. We were happy that the ground had levelled slightly, however the path was about ten feet wide with a sheer drop to the left and what I could only assume to be nothingness to our right. I quickly put the dog on the lead and held him close for the remainder of the ascend along the ridge. A few natural steps had been made that presumably were there to make the final few hundred meters easier, however these were iced over and were accompanied by two enormous drops on either side. I wasn’t having much fun anymore. At the top of the steps we were met by the railway lines protruding through the snow, and at the end of them a large building. Our pace picked up as we imagined what could only be the warmth and shelter of whatever this building was, however soon enough realised that it was locked down tight with multiple padlocks and shutters. The snow was deeper and went up to just below our knees in some places, which was a relief from the thought of sliding straight off the mountain, but still an annoyance when you get your leg stuck mid-stride, lose balance and either end up on your back or with a very cold, red face. To the rear of the building was the actual summit, a small pillar with steps spiralling around it and a directional plaque at the top. We made a point of still climbing it to complete our journey.
The weather on the summit was going from bad to horrendous as we dug away at the snow in a corner sheltered by the building and a brick wall that came off at 90 degrees. The only tool we had was a small saw, which made cutting blocks of snow away much easier than digging with our hands. We eventually got somewhere near the rocky ground and used the snow to build another slight wall to the side of us for more shelter, then it was a case of setting the tent up in the crater and bunkering down for the evening.
‘Why the hell didn’t you bring gloves?’ I remember Dan asking me as I had to borrow his to try and bring my hands back from a worrying shade of blue.
‘I wasn’t expecting snow,’ was the best answer I could give. At least I was honest. For some reason a part of me really just wasn’t expecting there to be snow at the top of a 3500ft mountain, in February. Idiotic. I did bring a hat though.
We finally got the tent up when we all noticed that Pep was curled up, amongst our rucksacks against the wall, almost asleep. After everything we had witnessed on our ascend, this was what worried me most. I quickly got him up and bundled him into the tent and threw my warm clothes on top of him then got him inside my sleeping bag. He warmed up and joined us eating flapjack and general rubbish to try and keep ourselves warm. For those who are interested, Dan makes a fantastic flapjack; I make a good one, but Dan’s is just magical. We positioned ourselves laying in a triangle with Pep in the middle, the warmest and almost certainly the comfiest of the lot of us. From inside the tent it was clear just how bad the weather was outside, the volume alone was astounding. The tent was being blown around so much we were all worried, although didn’t share this until we got off the mountain, that it would be destroyed and we would be out in the elements, and at this time, there would be no getting off the mountain safely. There was completely zero visibility past twenty feet, the risk of sliding down was even greater on the descent and we were concerned that we wouldn’t make it down if we had to try.
Luckily the tent held up for what felt like the longest night of my life, none of us got any sleep, there was a constant drip from the roof of the tent (I had forgotten to put the rain cover over the top and found it in my pocket the next afternoon) and the wind never died down at all. The prospect of just waiting for the train to arrive at the top to get us off the mountain in the morning kept us going, ‘only a couple of hours now, surely.’ One thing that surprised me at the top of Snowdon is that I found phone signal. I called my girlfriend to update her of our situation,
‘Oh everything is fine, we’re just camping at the top, we’re all good. Yes the dog is fine. Yes we’re alive. Yes Dan’s flapjack is amazing.’
So I thought I would check the timetable for the Snowdon Mountain Railway. Which was an awful idea because we discovered it wouldn’t be running until May. I also checked the weather forecast, as if our situation would be made better by doing so. It was -10°C with over 40mph winds. Fantastic.
So we had no choice but to walk. When the time came, we packed our kit, collapsed the tent and went on our way. We decided to follow the train line all the way off the summit into the clear because it was much wider than the footpath and offered the lines and sleepers as a bit of guidance, or it would have done if they weren’t covered in a couple of feet of snow and ice. The wind was so loud that we couldn’t hear each other trying to talk, so to have a conversation or discussion we would have to shout to one another at what would be a normal talking distance. Suddenly the wind stopped, visibility came back and an eerie silence returned to the surroundings. We had gotten out of the clouds and off the snow, back to the grass and rocks. I don’t recall looking back behind us, we were just focussed on getting to the bottom. Meanwhile, Pep was now back off the lead, running around, completely full of energy and looking like he could do it all over again.
Our journey to Snowdon was certainly an adventure. A story to tell but above all, a lesson to learn and to pass on. We found out that somebody had died, not too long before we climbed Snowdon, at the ridge near the top. They had, much like we had too, lost visibility and walked off of the edge into the darkness.
We tell our story with jest but we all know just how lucky we were and more than that, how stupid we were to even think it would be OK. We at least had some experience with hiking, making shelters and camping, which came in useful and may well have saved our lives when we got to the top. However anybody who attempts to climb it as just a casual jaunt, completely unprepared, could wind up in a lot of danger. Which links me back to Mr McNeish’s statement: ‘Climbing Snowdon can be more dangerous than Everest.’
And those are the reasons why.