Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Welsh Interlude

So, from time to time, I could escape from the war to the hills, and early in the winter of 1943 there were a few glorious days spent at Ty Gwyn farm in the Nant Ffrancon Valley with Charles Marriott and other friends. This valley has the reputation of being the coldest in North Wales. As we sallied forth from the shelter of the farm house an icy blast, such as I have seldom encountered in the Alps, buffeted and tore at us. But it was fine, fine as I have rarely seen it in Wales. The hills looked treble their normal size with the detail of the lower slopes still indistinct in the early morning light, while the summits gleamed, snow-capped, far above. The sky was a uniform pale steely blue, the ground hard as iron, so that we walked dry-shod where normally one would sink into marsh.

Along the old road to Ogwen we passed many stone strongholds of the same grey as the mountain, but with oblong slits striking a sinister note and reminding us that this was wartime. We climbed the Sub Cneifion Rib, above Llyn Idwal, and decided it was too cold for pleasant rock climbing. So we made our way up the nameless Cwm towards a likely-looking snow-gully. Mist came swirling down, unaccountably, from a clear sky, and whenever there was a break we looked quickly up, spotting and trying to memorize landmarks to guide us. The snow was ice-hard and gave out a peculiar hollow treacherous sound to the blows of the axe. We roped up. It was already late, for we had spent too long on the icy rocks of the Sub Cneifion Rib. By good luck we hit on the base of our gully, but decided to keep to a steep grassy rib bordering it on one side, thinking thus to gain height more rapidly.

I was now to learn something quite new. We found ourselves on frozen turf at a steep angle on which the axe made not the slightest impression. Only an automatic drill might have been effective. We left that rib just as quickly as we knew how and dropped back into the gully with a sigh of relief. Progress here was slow for quite a lot of step-cutting was required, and when the slope curled up steeply into a small cornice I could almost imagine myself back in the Alps.

It was 4 p.m. when we scrambled out on to the summit plateau between Castell y Gwynt and Glyder Fawr to find a scene of unimaginable beauty before us. Castell y Gwynt, the Castle of the Winds, was transformed into a fairy fortress with the snow-plastered rocks glittering in the golden-red light of the setting sun, while the snow on the plateau was frozen into a brilliant sea of ripples shadowed now by the low sun and thrown into relief.

Back by the shores of Llyn Idwal we were under a clear evening sky, though mist still hung on the mountains. The wind had dropped and the stars appeared like so many pin-pricks into infinity. Ty Gwyn and its clump of pines made a dark blotch just visible from the road. We had been out for more than ten hours and the welcome of a blazing fire and a generous farmhouse meal heightened the feeling of escape from reality.

Chris Bonington's nephew Liam climbing Nea Morin's eponymous route on Clogwyn y Grochan.Photo:Berghaus

Another glorious and this time absolutely cloudless day, saw us clambering up the yellow bone-dry grass slopes of Mynydd Perfedd. Sheltered from the cutting wind, we were soon perspiring in shirt-sleeves; but for the frosty nip in the air it might have been a summer's day. From the summit plateau we looked up and across to Foel Goch and Y Garn and thought the gentle slopes on this side would make admirable practice ground for skiing. Snowdon was unaccountably missing from the landscape, and recollecting loud rumblings in the night we wondered if the Germans had dropped a bomb on it. But the summit peak was only playing hide and seekbehind Carnedd Ugain and its sharp point soon peeped out reassuringly as we made towards Y Garn.

We glissaded down the snow and peered over into the Devil's Kitchen. Normally there is a sizable waterfall here, but this was now frozen solid and a more awesome, gloomy place one could scarcely imagine. Somewhere I had read that "Several attempts to scale the Devil's Kitchen had ended in disaster" and I could well believe it. Still, what was visible of the finishing traverse at the top seemed fairly clear of ice and we decided to go round and have a look at it from below. The cliffs were festooned with enormous icicles, and with a queer formation that I don't remember ever having seen before; it looked as though water had frozen solid in the act of shooting out fanwise over the edge, forming something like half an open umbrella with extra long spikes and deep-cut bays.

The Devil's Kitchen was blue ice from top to bottom, and we had to cut steps right from the start. Oddly enough it seemed less cold inside the cleft, but how nightmarish it would be to be transfixed by one of the gigantic icicles hanging over our heads. The large jammed boulder gave us some trouble —it was just a huge lump of ice, and in the end we had to use combined tactics. Below the steep crack beside what is normally the waterfall, we paused. At the best of times this is an impressive spot — the guidebook says of the climb: "Severe, owing to its character." On this occasion, though a magnificent sight, it was frightening enough to conjure up the mythical afanc (abominable Welshman?) from the cavernous depths of the frozen waterfall.

I had climbed it before and knew that the pitches were not really difficult, but nasty little thrills of apprehension kept running up and down my spine. I moved slowly over the ice-covered rocks towards the foot of the crack, and the nearer I got the steeper grew the walls. How cold it all was! Would there be much ice up there? Once I had started, I shinned up as though the Devil had indeed come out of his Kitchen and was at my heels. For some unknown reason I felt impelled to go all out and style went by the board, as my shins and knees showed later.

Perched up on the first stance I looked straight down between my legs into the dark cleft below. Charles, who had watched my frenzied antics with some amazement, now came up slowly and deliberately in perfect style despite his rucksack and two ice-axes. I felt I was being silently though nonetheless effectively, reproved,

and since some explanation seemed called for, I remarked that had been afraid of my fingers getting numb.

This announcement met with polite, but quite obvious incredulity, and the reply that his fingers were beautifully warm, in fact he was altogether too hot. I was now thoroughly warmed up and feeling capable of tackling anything, but there was no need for any heroics; curiously enough the actual pitches were almost free of ice and, barring the cold were scarcely more difficult than under normal conditions. When we reached the top the sun had gone. Once again we made our way down the now rather worn steps, which we had cut two days before.

The shadows were already deepening as we ran down to Llyn Idwal and Ogwen. On the road to Ty Gwyn I paused time and again to look back at the delicate crests of Tryfan and the Glyders and to the black mass of Y Garn and Foel Goch outlined against the pale, starry sky. Peace reigned over all and some of that peace we took away with us. 

These were the last days when I could still look forward to telling it all to Jean [Morin].

Nea Morin: First Published in her autobiography 'A Woman's Reach' 1968