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Carl McKeating worked with Rachel Crolla to update Steve Ashton’s classic guidebook Scrambles in Snowdonia. He reflects on some memorable experiences in the Welsh mountains shared with the people who appear in the photographs for the new book.
Both Rachel and I had truly inspirational days out with the many volunteers who were willing to pose as photo subjects and offer feedback on routes for Scrambles in Snowdonia. Many of the volunteers were the result of spontaneous opportunities. For example, on one of my solo outings to Snowdonia to check routes a fellow camper, Ali Lee, borrowed a phone charger from me one morning and made the mistake of asking me about the Heather Terrace on the east face of Tryfan. Before she knew it, she was returning to the campsite by starlight having spent the entire day accompanying me on a variation of the Cwm Bochlwyd Horseshoe (she can be seen in Nor’ Nor’ Groove in the new guide). Ali was great fun and there was something magical in our late evening ascent of Bristly Ridge followed by a sun descending into the sea potter over Glyder Fach and a benightment before reaching the valley floor. Rachel was bemused to find me returning home with over sixty photos of Ali, who is a somewhat striking 6’ 1” blonde. “How do you manage it?” she asked. “Not sure” I replied, “I may have mastered hypnotism without realising it.”
The first people to succumb to my hypnotic powers and volunteer to be photo subjects were Rob and Laura. They arrived with me at Gwern Gof Uchaf campsite at the foot of Tryfan in the Ogwen Valley in the late afternoon on the Saturday of a May bank holiday weekend. It had been a dreadful drive down from Yorkshire; grindingly slow bank holiday traffic jams had plagued us the whole way. With tents set up and blessed with the long days of May, we were keen to purge the busy hum of road miles from our systems and get out in the hills. Rob and Laura had never done any hikes or scrambles in Snowdonia before and Tryfan seemed an obvious place to introduce them to the delights of the range. The sun had long moved round to the west, leaving the mountain’s striking east face in shadow which towered darkly above us.
‘So, we’re heading up there then?’ asked Laura, as all three of us stared at Tryfan.
‘Yep – should be good fun,’ I replied.
‘Well, it’ll be interesting to see how Rob gets on,’ reflected Laura absently, ‘especially with him being a bit scared of heights.’
‘What? You’re kidding, right?’
Now let me explain – I had only met Rob about a week earlier. We had both happened to be climbing together on a gritstone wall of the Henry Price building at the University of Leeds. The wall, now of historical importance to local climbers, used to belong to a Victorian graveyard but was incorporated into the structure of the halls of residence in the 1960s. It is about 150m long but only 3m high. By making extremely difficult acrobatic moves look effortless, I could see that Rob, on a wall at least, was a much stronger and far more technically proficient climber than me (although that is definitely not saying too much!). We got talking and I wondered if he would be interested in a spot of scrambling. Before I knew it, I was picking Rob and his girlfriend, Laura, up in Leeds and heading down to Snowdonia for a photo shoot…
Rob’s fear of heights was news to me, but we were heading to Tryfan’s North Ridge and this route never gets overly exposed, so I figured we would be alright. And, indeed, we were.
As we made our way up the North Ridge, Laura, who had done a little scrambling in the Lake District before, proved to be a natural on the rock, flowing effortlessly and elegantly up any obstacles and short steps like a mountain lion prowling her terrain. And if Rob did not look quite so at ease with the surroundings, his fear of heights was hardly holding him back. Both Rob and Laura ventured to the end of the Cannon Stone. This famous rock jutting out of the North Ridge demands passers-by to creep to its end. When you do so, it can feel surprisingly airy and unnerving.
Despite its popularity, nothing can detract from the brilliance of Tryfan – it truly is one of the greatest of British mountains. The summit is adorned by two somewhat unbelievably natural monoliths called Adam and Eve. Laura and Rob each climbed one of the standing stones and, as they faced each other, appeared like star-crossed lovers. I took a photo of them that features in the new guide.
After giving up on waiting for the weather to improve the next morning, we set out for the Snowdon Horseshoe in rain and thick low cloud. As we reached the summit of Crib Goch the poor conditions had reduced visibility to twenty metres or so, which promised to add difficulty to the famous knife-edge traverse of Crib Goch. Here both Rob and Laura made their way methodically. Meanwhile, my attention was turned as I came to the aid of two cragfast young men who, huddling in a notch, were telephoning for a rescue helicopter. (It really is astounding how so many people find their way up to Crib Goch who have almost no understanding or experience of mountain terrain and are surprised to discover the description of a ‘knife-edged ridge’, means just that.) After physically guiding their feet onto ledges using my hands and pointing holds out for them, I led them safely to the end of the traverse. They proved grateful to have overcome what for them was an ordeal. It was, I must confess, with some amusement that I noted during this process we were passed by an Irish scrambler who was merrily plodding effortlessly along the crest in shorts and a pair of Crocs – not recommended attire, but then the traverse of Crib Goch really is a funny old place on a summer weekend.
Rob, Laura and I had a fantastic day on the Snowdon Horseshoe. The rain ceased, the clouds lifted and the sun broke through as we made our way over Crib Y Ddysgl, leaving a fresh late afternoon of deep blue skies. After a late meal out, we returned in the dark to the campsite and retired to our respective tents. Unbeknown to both me and to Laura, Rob had been plucking up courage the whole time he had been in Wales. Standing on the Cannon Stone, jumping across Adam and Eve, doing the Traverse of Crib Goch – all this for someone who is a little uneasy with heights must have been like labours of Hercules. Now, having tested himself, he was clearly ready for one final test. That night, while huddled together under canvas, Rob proposed to Laura. She said ‘yes’.
The next day Rob confessed, ‘I had the ring in my pocket all the way round the Snowdon Horseshoe. I nearly proposed to Laura while you were rescuing those cragfast lads on the Crib Goch traverse – but I was too busy concentrating on hanging on to the rocks to go down on one knee.’ Rob and Laura are married now.
There is always an element of risk in the mountains – nothing more so than that posed by a packed lunch. A friend of mine, Anna, volunteered to come along for a photo shoot on Glyder Fach. Anna was perfect for the outing in two ways. Firstly, she was a climber and therefore comfortable with the steep terrain of the trickier Glyder Fach scrambles. Secondly, it turned out Anna knew exactly what to do when a deadly thick slice Warburton’s cheddar cheese sandwich struck…
We were on the small shelf of rock at the top of Alphabet Slabs below Main Gully Ridge and about to move on to tackle East Gullly Arete – one of the more difficult lines in the book. I had one sandwich left. I did not really want it, but, hey, there is no point wasting it right? So I bolted it down my gullet in my usual greedy fashion. Then the sandwich turned vengeful on me and blocked my throat. For a few moments I did not think too much of it. After all, this sort of thing had happened before; all I needed to do was to keep swallowing and I would be okay. Wrong. The food would not go down. The more I swallowed, the more it became lodged. In this fashion I calmly allowed the best part of a minute to elapse without breathing.
Then it got scary. When Anna noticed me choking she stepped in – it is all a bit of a blur on account of the oxygen deficiency. She began giving me the Heimlich manoeuvre. There is no doubt it would have made a very odd sight for anyone watching from below or on a parallel crag to see Anna with her arms tucked under my diaphragm violently hoiking me over and over again while we were perched on the edge of a cliff face. On about the tenth lift I suddenly found myself breathing again and realised I was saved.
Later Anna informed me that the villainous cheese sandwich had ‘shot out’. I cannot remember that at all, I was so close to passing out.
It really was a near miss. And I am forever grateful to Hero Anna. Nonetheless, there was a scrambling guide that needed to be updated. So we climbed East Gully Ridge and followed it with Shark Buttress – both excellent, if hard routes. So I came away from the day with photos of Anna that have been used for those routes in the new edition, and the frontispiece… oh, and still alive, so quite a good day in total.
Early the following morning after the cheese sandwich incident, I met up with an assorted group of scramblers who had connected online through a UKHillwalking forum. I found Luke, Mark, Dom, Big Dave and Ged to be a really inspirational group. They were happy to suffer me photographing them – indeed, Mark and Luke especially proved gluttons for punishment and came out a few times with me – even on routes that did not make it into the book. Just after taking the Milestone Gully photo that is used in the new guide, I told my tale of the close call with the cheese sandwich. Big Dave, who had nodded as he listened, returned a tale of a colleague who had choked to death on some steak in a restaurant. It really brought home how close a call my choking had been.
As Luke led the team on exploratory terrain over Tryfan, I chatted to Ged, one of the more senior members of the group. He explained in a rich Liverpudlian accent that he had discovered hiking and scrambling only relatively recently. In remission from cancer he had decided on a lifestyle change: “To be honest mate, the cancer probably saved me; I was one burger away from a heart attack. And now I’ve discovered this,” he said, casting his arm over the majestic line of the Glyders summits, “and what a world it is.” I could not agree more.