ravenous. Stuck in snow
on top of a mountain. If I have learnt nothing else this year, now I know
what it feels like to be a Welsh sheep.
Perhaps I had better explain. High Trek Snowdonia is run by Ian and
Mandy Whitehead, an enterprising couple of escapees from the big city who
took a three-month camping and walking sabbatical from their jobs in the
Eighties and never made it back. now they live in a white-painted farmhouse
called Tal y Waen where paying guests are offered the chance to don their
rucksacks, tie on their crampons and go striding around some of the most
beautiful scenery this land has to offer.
At this time of year you can reasonably expect a winter wonderland,
though the extent of it depends on that capricious substance called snow.
The week before it had been heavy enough for the sheep to be moved off
the mountains and the farmer had come along to the hill behind Tal y Waen
to dig 12 of them out of the drifts. By the time we arrived, Snowdonia
was shrouded in a benign, sunny fog and if it was snow we wanted we were
going to have to work hard for it. That meant a five-hour trek up a 3,000ft
mountain called Glyder Fawr, which sounded positively lyrical until you
found out the English translation was Big Lump.
The checklist that Ian rattled off before we set out reminds you that
winter wonderland has its lethal shadow. Untrained, ill-equipped people
die on Snowdonia each year. First into our rucksacks went the survival
bag, a human-sized bin-liner which is what you get into when all else fails
and you are stuck on the mountain.
High Trek also provide you with all those other things you hope you
aren’t going to need, like a whistle to blow for help, an ice axe to break
your fall in case you start sliding down a snow banister and a compass
and map for when you have absolutely no idea where you are. You just need
to bring along basics like warm clothing, for which they will give you
a list of suggestions including the reminder always to pack one more layer
than you think you are going to need. The snow might come and go, but it
is always very cold up there.
We circled the skirts of Big Lump at an undemanding lope, hopped on
stepping stones across a stream and after a gentle climb reached Cwm Idwal
nature reserve, where the breeze made zig-zags in the water of a grey lake.
Mysterious little patches of land had been fenced off. Ian explained that
they were part of an experiment to find out what would grow if the sheep
were unable to eat it. Further up, fog was blowing over the hills like
drying sheets. If you turned and looked down you could see a valley carved
out by a glacier and glimmering in the most extraordinary light.
By this time, the undemanding lope had become a near-vertical yomp.
The path we had been treading, which had been so carefully laid out of
smooth stones, had turned into an assault course of boulders, spongy lichen,
little waterfalls of melting snow and rocks like sharks’ teeth. Ice axes
doubling as walking sticks, we plodded on learning how extremely hard it
is to climb uphill for hours on end and also how incredibly hungry and
thirsty you get. I was practically seeing mirages of hot dog stalls.
|I was also very grateful to Field and Trek
for providing me with proper winter-walking boots. These were a pair of
Scarpa Ladies so comfortable it felt like walking on marshmallows, despite
the fact that I had committed the first no-no of hill-walking
by allowing myself 24 hours to break them in rather than the five weeks
advised by the experts.
Near the top of Big Lump, we sat down for Big Lunch. A day of winter
walking uses up something like 5,000 calories, most of which seemed to
be contained in Mandy’s power picnic: slabs of fresh cheese in locally
made bread, bars of this, bags of that, slices of Christmas cake the size
of small cars. Ian said that mountain picnics used to be rather unsocia-
A fog was blowing over the hills like drying
sheets. If you looked down you could see a valley glimmering
in the most extraordinary light
-ble affairs with everyone cowering’
under individual rocks in a’ gale. Now they have been transformed by
the Group Shelter, an item which is the size of a beer mat until you unleash
it in a gale, then get everyone to duck under it and use their bottoms
as tent pegs.
I spent an entertaining 10 minutes trying to climb into my water-proofs
while keeping my end of the Group Shelter anchored to the mountain, then
set off with Ian for’ Cwm Cneifion, the English translation of which is
‘fleeces’ and in all languages means ‘snow’. A final steep climb and we
were thigh deep in the white stuff.
I don’t mean this frivolously, but it is only when you get so high
up that you realise how so white everywhere is. Landmarks you were in sight
of only moments ago have gone without trace. You reel around and cannot
see the people you were with. This is where it comes in handy to know how
to build a snow hole, Ian gave us a quick, efficient demonstration, reminding
us that if you are stuck in these conditions the most
important thing is to get out of the wind. Incidentally, if the idea
of being a part-time Eskimo grabs you, High Trek will organise a night
in a snow hut.
Halfway back down the mountain, the snow decided to come to us. The
straps of our ice axes were furred with white flakes and I had visions
of having to be dug out like a sheep. I was also very tired. Walking with
crampons for long periods, kicking snow and sinking into it,
takes it out of you.
When you. walk in winter you have to carry more and you can't take too
many breathers; you have to keep going because of the elements. But half
an hour later all the discomforts were forgotten We thawed out by the fire
at Tal Y Waen, replenishing our depleted glycogen stores with what nutritionists
stuffing our faces with mince pies.
The peace and loveliness of The mountains stay with you a lot longer
than the aching muscles, and on Christmas Eve as I fight for the last Yule
Log in Tesco I know my thoughts will turn to Big Lump, where I could be
getting away from it all in a snow hole.