Return to Ogwen Valley

Dates: 15-17 November 2019

Last week saw preparations for another weekend away with the club. Early on, HJ offered me a ride which I immediately leapt at as she’d taken the day off work to get there hours before anyone else, allowing us to beat Friday evening traffic and fit in a short walk of some description before nightfall. Motoring along the A5, HJ and I both confessed, with initial embarrassment and then mutual enthusiasm, that we’d been packing since Wednesday, the entrance hallways to our homes becoming increasingly cluttered with the paraphernalia of a weekend in North wales in pseudo-winter conditions.

The instability in weather forecast and ground condition projections created an air of excitement- anything was possible! Crampons and ice axes went into gear bags alongside water shoes and a dozen or so micro-layers. I gleefully packed my new Mountain Equipment Firelite sleeping bag, Quarrel GTX WP Jacket and Ama Dablam Drilite Pants- about £970 worth of gear RRP that I’d snagged for less than £450 in the three days previous. I was determined to put it all to good use and so when on the Friday we set off to walk up above Llyn Idwal, I was severely over-layered. The unnecessary warmth didn’t detract from the glory of being in the valley again, however.

The beloved new ME Quarrel GTX

The drive in is so familiar and yet it never disappoints. We passed through a reassuringly quiet Betws-y-Coed and scootered on past Capel Curig. As per the norm, small glimpses of sky disappeared in deference to low-lying cloud as we entered Ogwen valley. Tryfan rose on the left, glimpsing mischievously out from under tails of mist. The Glyderau declined a viewing, pulling the cloud layer stiffly up to their necks, only the start of more and less precarious scrambles visible at their feet.

View of Idwal Slabs from Llyn Idwal
Looking back down into Ogwen Valley

We were staying at the MAM Glan Dena hut in the valley, a right turning off the A5 shortly before Llyn Ogwen. It was my first time there and I was impressed by the size and –are those motion-sensor lights?!– facilities. We claimed bunks and were soon working our way up above Llyn Idwal further down the valley. Setting out at 15.30 on a grey November day, the light was poor from the beginning, but it soon began to fail in earnest, making for impressively moody and atmospheric views each time I paused to look back over my shoulder and sneak in a few deep breaths before returning to HJ’s relentless uphill pace. Eventually I quietly muttered something about not having checked the batteries in my head torch before setting out and we turned around to descend.

A moody Tryfan in the failing light
Last photo before dark

It was an obvious lie as no one’s gear is ever more prepared than mine, but I felt a bit shaky and oddly not enthused about doing the descent in full darkness. It’s likely I was already unwell as within 24 hours I would be shaking and shivering with a fever. I got an early night and was warned not to set any alarms before 7.00 amidst threats of my bed being dragged out of the ‘ladies’ bunks in the middle of the night.

I awoke on Saturday with that tell-tale gravely tickle at the back of my throat and my heart momentarily sank. However, with a good measure of ibuprofen, hot chocolate and oats I was soon raring to go. The 30-some member group fractured into its various parties and I aimed for a comfortably mid-range adventure for the day, well aware that I was not 100%. I joined MH, JD, LT and HE on a scramble up the ridge of Moel Siabod and we set out to park outside the conveniently located Moel Siabod Café just outside Capel Curig. The ‘walk in’ was a long but pleasant one. Light rain and mist meant rucksacks were immediately soaked, but my new jacket proved well worth it’s cost. I’d ditched the mountain trousers in favour of lightweight waterproofs and gaiters and trotted on ahead, ‘bright eyed and bushy-tailed’, feeling positively healthy. The low gradient allowed for plenty of catch-up and a warm and genial spirit kept the grey gloom of the day at bay. The lakes of small, disused and nameless quarries demanded to be swam in and I made a mental note to return in more appealing months.

An unnamed disused quarry lake on the way to Moel Siabod

Eventually we reached the promised Grade I scramble up the ridge, which in reality was a very easy and sporadic mix of rocky path and light scrambling. Relatively low wind and above-freezing temperatures allowed for the joy of bare-handed scrambling and my fingers quickly became deliciously chilled and pink, rough skin on my palms from the month’s indoor climbing sessions gently sanded down on the relatively slick volcanic rock. Keeping right to the most severe of the drop-off of the ridge provided some excitement and hoots of ironic delight went out at the first sighting of what could just about be called snow. Patches of snow became more frequent and it must be noted for posterity that LT threw the first snowball. As the ridge levelled out and the danger level dropped to approximately zero, the snowballs began to fly in earnest. Newcomer to the club HE quickly earned himself a reputation which was only partially mitigated by a couple well-timed hand-rounds of the biscuit packet and I suspect in future he will be regarded with some suspicion when in the vicinity of fresh snow. A few photos were captured on top of Moel Siabod, though the poor visibility was of that classic Welsh sort that no amount of vibrant GORE-TEX can quite evade.

Approaching the summit cairn of Moel Siabod
JD searching for the shot in the mist
Selfie on top of Moel Siabod

The descent was easy, though rocky and thus incredibly slippery. Poles helped, but most of us returned to the car with muddy smears up the backs of our waterproofs which caused a frenzied  flurry of plastic sheeting to be produced as JD desperately attempted to save her car’s upholstery. A quick hot drink in the caf and we were back to Glan Dena early. The party dispersed to sneak in hot showers before the final groups returned and I began to feel very unwell. By dinner time, all but two of the club had returned and I was feverish and shaky while serving my contribution to the group meal.

The communal meal was a great success. The meet was a joint one with the MAM, another local club, and it afforded me the chance to meet a few of the names I’d heard spoken frequently down at the local walls. Opportunities opened up and abounded for 2020- talk of return trips to Scotland, Spain and the Alps circulated. I clung to the edge of the table and choked down a few bites of food, attempting to absorb it all despite feeling a bit faint with the combination of period cramps and flu. Each shred of knowledge and advice and every anecdote which passed across the table between the experienced mountaineers in the clubs was filed away as research into the possibilities of my future..

While shivering next to the fire, I was leant a down jacket and then told to keep it as it matched my blue hair. I attempted to go to bed early but after a couple hours of lying miserably in my sleeping bag, alternately sweating and shivering, evaded totally by sleep, I slunk out to the kitchen once again where the remaining few were nearing the bottom of a bottle of whiskey and playing cards. There was a whip-round for drugs and I quickly reached a helpful blood-level of ibuprofen, paracetamol, et al. The compassion of the club never fails to impress me. There is never a shortage of gear on loan, lifts across the city or country, or members going out of their way to ease the participation of all in the club’s activities. In such a diverse group (age, gender, occupation, beliefs, etcetera) in any other circumstance, you’d expect much greater tensions than I’ve ever witnessed. Indeed, I’ve been away with other outdoor groups and not found the same comradery, the group psyche all too often infected with sport-preference or skill-based snobbery, social cliques, excessive omnipotence of seniority and/or plain-old testosterone-fueled sexist conversation and uncomfortable rides home.

As it neared midnight, the cards fell still and people began to wonder towards their sleeping bags, leaving a young group behind. The last two boys on the mountains regaled us with their experience of abseiling off Bristly Ridge by the light of head torches earlier. We spoke of where we’d been and where we wanted to go; and when we all wanted to go to bed, we finally did. I spent a horrific night on the sofa upstairs so that I could toss and turn, cough and groan to myself without bothering anyone in my bunk room.

By Sunday morning I could barely croak a ‘hello’ to the early risers and I initially didn’t bother to change out of my base layer pajamas. But the power of a hot drink and Day Nurse is a persuasive thing and I began to talk myself into joining a short low-elevation walk near Betws-y-Coed. Half an hour of packing up gear quickly dissolved my illusions and I resigned myself to a miserable morning spent slumped in the corner of a Betws caf. To my astounded relief, MP offered me an earlier ride from the hut and I was instead able to wait a few short hours out by having the longest hot shower I’ve ever had the gall to take in a mountain hut and getting some writing and reading done. (I am currently rereading Robert MacFarlane’s Mountains of the Mind for inspiration that the academia-mass publication divide is crossable.)

At home among Glan Dena’s reassuring collection of back copies of Alpine Journal

Everyone was out the hut by 15.00. After a quick stop at the bakery in Betws for an obligatory  pasty and Bakewell tart, MP and I made good time back home to Birmingham, only hitting traffic once in the city. We chatted and got to know each other in the way only people carpooling to and from the mountains so- it always promising to find people similarly swayed by risk and devoted to the call of high and far places. I am always thrilled to find people to potentially coerce into joining me on adventures in the future and I’d seemed to have found several this weekend.

Although illness made the weekend something other than what I’d had planned, it was a good one. It has been a very long time since I went on a weekend meet with the club, due to a variety of reasons ranging from moving house, to increased anxiety, to dependency on my ex to be able to do anything or go anywhere. I was welcomed back and had a fantastic time. It was a reminder that there are people like me in the world: people of determination and intensity, people who aren’t afraid to suffer to witness something beautiful. Words mean different things to people like this. ‘Travel’ is no longer synonymous with ‘holiday’ and it becomes a necessity of life: the currency of adventure. ‘Intense’ isn’t an insult and ‘risk’ means much more than just submitting a CV optimistically, investing money prospectively or asking for a girl’s number. These people, like the mountains they summit, necessarily measure things on a different scale and it’s a calibrated system of scope and altitude on which my passion and ‘too-muchness’ places me, for once, favourably.