Welsh 3000s

Welsh3000sStart.jpg

A year on and a second attempt at the Welsh 3000s. It felt a much more serious attempt this time not only had we learnt a lot from last year but we were a much smaller group, who not only knew each other but with a little organisation should be able to cross the terrain at a similar average pace. One of the three was Mel who having swore last year she’d never cross Crib Goch again was back to complete ‘unfinished business’ despite knowing how terrifying the early part could be. I know how determined she is so was prepared to be out for pretty much however long it takes.

We got down to Betws-y-Coed in time for dinner with our support crew – Lotte and Andy. Paul chose some rather too drinkable wine so after a mixed grill washed down with three bottles we hit the sack for 4 hours kip. Back at John and Gwen’s B&B we got the most amazing hospitality with John getting up to serve up coffee and toast at 2:30am.

3:15am Andy dropped Paul, Mel and I at Pen-y-Pas to head up Snowden. He dropped the car and then ran to catch us up. The first time I did this over 12 years ago I remember setting off from the same place on my own with no one else around. This time the car park was full.

Like last year I was wearing Vibram Fivefinger Spyridon LS for this challenge. They’d proved very comfortable last year and provided sure footing on all the terrain. They even surprised me with how good they were on scree. We got going just ahead of a group who followed us up for the first 30 minutes then cut ahead. It was dark, we’d climbed in to the cloud and soon this group was out of sight. Next I know is they’re up above us about 10 feet off the path with maps out and various comments about perhaps using a compass. Not sure how they were missing the massive rocks that had been laid down to form a path. Mel asked if I was on the right path ! Oh the lack of confidence in me. The group follows us, passes us and then yet again bear off right in completely the wrong direction again missing the purposefully placed rock suggesting the right route. I had a chat with them and was pleased to establish they were doing the welsh 3 peaks which involved heading down to Brecon after this. Very pleased to know they weren’t attempting the Welsh 3000s.

We had our summit photo and were on our way at 5am with the cloud clearing leaving great views with the remaining cloud sitting in the valleys. The descent off the second peak, Carnedd Ugain, is always trickier than I remember involving some reasonable scrambling. Paul was itching to get going. He’s a quick descender and much quicker than Mel on technical terrain. However she’s quicker than Paul on the ascents so we’d hatched a plan for him to get ahead and then we’d catch him on the long ascent of Elidir Fawr. I held him back thinking if he went here it’d be too far ahead. We got to Crib Goch and over the tricky down climb at the start before letting him off the leash. He hurried off with Andy leaving Mel and I mostly on our own to cross Crib Goch. A year on and she was moving a little quicker across the ridge. Cautious but not showing any real signs of fear! We could hear people scree running below. It sounded so close. I wondered whether it was Andy and Paul and how much they were subconsciously pushing each other to go faster.  We headed down the west ridge and had the first of the “V3K” runners come buy us.

V3K is the Vegan Welsh 3000s race which happened to be running the same time. It meant we had the fun of lots of others on the course initially passing us but later on crossing paths or moving at the a similar pace. At the end of the ridge we turned south on to the scree. Mel had vastly improved on this and was right behind me at the bottom.

Now for the first tricky bit of navigation in the mist requiring following a bearing to pick up the descent gully. Bearing too far right would result in hitting the top of very high crags and it seems that subconsciously when I’m leading someone I tend more left and miss the gully to the left. Every time I’ve done this on my own or with friends where I’m not the “leader” I hit that gully bang on. Last year and this year I end up hitting the tarn, Llyn Glas. This time is was a blessing to do this as it suddenly materialised in the mist and we saw a island with a few trees almost floating on the water, just in front were two birds silhouetted. Well worth the detour. We followed the gully down from the tarn and connected with the path down to the road. Having done this I do wonder whether in bad weather it’s the better way to go. It perhaps cost 10 minutes but it’s much more definite navigation given you know exactly where you are once you hit the tarn. It also keeps you well clear of the dangerous terrain.

On the road it was clear we were on a mission as Mel was more than happy to run down. We got close to park and ride and I decided to have a pee. A V3k runner just behind said “Thats a good idea” and stood beside me and struck up a conversation. I think I said something like “nice view for a pee”. Odd.

Coffee, smiles and encouraging words greeted us from Andy and Lotte. Also a time check on Paul. Just gone 10 minutes which meant I didn’t feel we had to hurry as we were far closer than expected. I’d said to Mel I felt he could be 30 minutes head but I thought it could have been 45 minutes. Turns out he and Andy took a few tumbles between them which made them a little more cautious so they didn’t get as far ahead as I’d expected.

We stopped for 10 minutes tops to have coffee and eat something before heading up the long climb up Elidir Fawr. Now we were amongst the V3K runners and chatted with a couple for part of the ascent. The cloud had also lifted giving us the best views we were to have all day. Able to see where we’d been and the next few summits ahead. This was a non stop slog with us not even stopping on the top just walking straight over and starting the run down and contour round the next two summits. It made me think about the arbitrary nature of these challenges. We were skirting two mountains that were probably not much work to go over and almost certainly would afford great views but having not broken the 3000 foot mark they were of no interest to us on this day.

Mel was going strong and this path as very runnable. With her new walking poles descending was quicker. We only walked for a section whilst she had something to eat. We were well ahead of last year and now it was very clear we had a serious chance to complete it. We’d not seen Paul yet so he was also going well. Coming down of Y Garn we saw Paul ahead and then spotted Andy and Lotte. We arrived at them within a minute of each other. They’d walked up through Devils Kitchen to bring us water, coffee and lots of encouragement. Mel commented about the pace of our previous ascent and that her legs were feeling a little wrecked. She needed to pace this carefully. I took note.

As we said our good byes the cloud came in and that was pretty much it for any sort of  views. We followed three guys as we started the climb up the Glyders. They went a different way to how I’ve ascended it in the past. I decided to follow as over the previous section I’d chatted with one of them and it was clear he knew these mountains very well. It was a great decision as the path he took us up was less steep and more sure than the steep scree we normally wind our way up. The top of Glyder Fawr almost always ends with a debate about which outcrop is the highest and often means we end up climbing both. My comment about this was heard by the V3K marshall on the summit who shouted out to us ending our debate.

The mist was pretty thick now and the Glyders Plateau is a tricky place to navigate. It’s one of the few places where I’ve got very confused navigating – this was over 20 years ago with Sarah on a camping trip. We ended up counting steps and following a few bearings to hit a path at right angles and establish where we were. It was a very successful piece of navigation and has stuck with me making me pay great attention now as we don’t have the time to be faffing.

There are several things that make it tricky. It’s not only the fact it’s a plateau but also that it’s covered in large boulders and it can start looking very samey. It’s also difficult to cross the larger boulders so following a bearing is made more difficult as you change direction to take the easiest line. There’s also an outcrop in the way which is often mistaken for the summit. It isn’t and if you go over it it’s a fun scramble but also quite time consuming. I knew to bear right to avoid this and initially we kept seeing V3K signs which was re-assuring. These soon petered out and we kept going following my bearing. Shortly I felt we were a little too right and seeing the land was higher left I moved back across to get to the high point. Paul then was absolutely adamant that we’d done a full circle. I’m not sure he was aware I was following a bearing but he was so convincing I was second guessing myself. I kept reminding myself how in this mist your mind can play tricks and stuck to my guns. Minutes later Mr “Eagle Eyes” Weinreich spotted the Cantilever rock. A unique landmark which placed us and allow us to attain the summit. At this point we met some of the vegan runners who weren’t too happy to have spotted the cantilever rock as it seemed to imply they’d missed their checkpoint.

Now the horrible descent towards Tryfan. It is massively eroded and pretty treacherous demonstrated by a dislodged rock that just kept going. Mel further demonstrated her improved confidence on this terrain which a much speedier descent than a year ago. I told Andy we’d be down in Ogwen between 2 and 3pm (last year it was 5:30pm despite starting nearly 2 hrs earlier!) and at this point I wondered whether we’d beat 2pm. We had a brief stop at the bottom as Paul had a little chaffing. Luckily Mel had some vaseline with her so Paul and I partook of a little chaffing relief. If you ever meet Mel ask her about this and I’m sure she’ll give a more vivid description of this moment.

Around this time we bumped in to more V3K runners who we’d last seen running by us hours before. They reckoned they’d been lost on The Glyders for 90 minutes ! No surprise to me as it’s a tough spot in the cloud but also the markers put out for that event suggested that some would be relying on that. I’d certainly not seen a single runner with a map out.

We followed close to the wall initially up Tryfan which with hindsight was probably a bad decision by me as it’s a much more involved scramble. Mel tackled it without comment. Tryfan was rammed. We didn’t stay long at the top instead heading off and down the steep descent to the West. Two guys, Jimmy and Matt, were near the top and a little uncertain about which way to go. I explained this was the descent and off they went. Before we knew it was were on to the prepared path and heading down towards Andy and Lotte who were laid against a rock lower down. We started catching the guys once we were off the technical ground. Paul spotted two fivers on the ground and shouted to them if it was theirs. It was – part of their cab money to get back from the end. They were doing the Welsh 3000s as well though one of them was struggling with his knee.

At the car I absolutely stuffed my face. Note to self – next time make sarnies with rolls not bagels. Paul decided to call it a day as he has “Four Trails” next week and his back was playing up. Though it wasn’t essential to have Andy join us it would certainly be good for moral to have an extra body along in the worsening weather. He went on ahead to the cafe to order coffee. Mel and I ran the road to join him. We sat and quickly downed our coffee head of the final big climb up Pen yr Ole Wen.

We’d all packed loads of food as I reckoned it would be at least 7 hours for the next section. Andy picking up his bag realised he had perhaps packed too much so pulled out a large bag of mixed nuts and raisins and offered it to Matt and Jimmy who were also having a coffee. We joked with them he was just getting them to carry it as he’d ask for it back at the top. Looking at them, though, their body language was suggesting to me they may not continue.

3:15pm (12 hours after we’d started) and we set off on to the final section. It wasn’t long before we were back in the cloud. This last section is probably the hardest to navigate in the cloud so I started steeling myself to be very careful with my navigation as it wouldn’t take much of a mistake for us to be finishing in the dark. About half way up Mel just said “I need to sit down and eat” and promptly sat down. Andy and I stood patiently, me wondering if I’d have to step in and hurry her up. Non of it … two or three minutes to eat something and she was back up and moving.

As we approached the top we stopped to put on an extra layer. The wind had picked up, the temperature dropped and the rain had started intermittently and would progress to being constant. Every top required a bearing to get off for which I’d been using my thumb compass so far. I continued with this but I was getting progressively less confident about it as at various times it seemed off and I was checking myself with the lay of the land. Later in the day I switched to my standard compass. Not really sure of my logic as I can’t believe the other wasn’t working and anything that was wrong was either pilot error or magnetic rock. neither would be fixed by a change of compass.

The first half or so of this section is not as easy as every one makes out. Yes it is rolling and the climbs aren’t long or steep BUT it is rocky and in wet conditions the early summits take care to avoid twisting an ankle. Added to this we now had very poor visibility, increasing wind and decreasing temperature. It was turning into an epic which was making me smile. I felt Mel was really toughing it as she was hardly saying a word, just trooping on. Andy and I were pretty much talking constantly aiming to keep spirits high. God knows what we talked about for 6+ hours but I’m pretty sure we solved a lot of the worlds problems it’s just ashame I can’t remember how.

As we descended off the high point, Carnedd Dafydd (1,044m) I started thinking about possible the trickiest navigation remaining – the contour round to Yr Elen. I was trying to judge the low point of the broad col as thats where we wanted to contour from. We stopped briefly where I thought it was when Andy spotted another V3K marshal. We went over had a little chat and then I casually asked if they’d marked the traverse. He told us they had and it was a few metres further on.

We found their arrow and started following a bearing whilst Andy checked we weren’t gaining any altitude as we went. By now Jimmy and Matt had caught us and one of them had a GPS. it was quite funny and made me smile when they commented that I was managing to follow the exact bearing ! I must admit to being old school with this. These GPS take all the skill out of navigation. On these summits it takes a bit of effort to find the top but with a GPS it would just tell precisely where to go. So for this traverse I didn’t want to just follow their GPS though I’ll admit it was reassuring when they said we were bang on.

We chatted with them and established that Jimmy had tried this challenge three times before and failed. We also established that they had no one picking them up. They planned to walk down to a village and get a cab. They wouldn’t be at that village till gone 11pm at my guess and god knows how they’d get a cab. Andy said we’d have two cars at the end and we’d give them a lift to Betws-y-Coed. Nearing the end of the traverse they said that they’d skip this out and back and wait for us on the summit of Carnedd Llewelyn. I said they shouldn’t  wait and imagining Paul would sleep in the car whilst Lotte walked out to meet us told them to just head down, look for the guy asleep in a Mercedes, wake him up and tell him Steven said he’d give them a lift.

It turned out they’d given up minutes before we hit the col. He was so close to doing the whole thing, I couldn’t believe it. We saw two guys coming out of the mist who said we were only 10 minutes away. I didn’t believe them but 10:30 later we were on the top. It was so much easier than I remember.

12k to go and only one real climb left up on to the broad plateau summit of Carnedd Llewelyn. It was a little bizarre up there with various groups being seen in the mist walking at all different angles and coming across a V3K marshal hoping we were three of the four lost racers. Seeing how minimally dressed most of their runners were and how little they were carrying I’d be very concerned about how any of them would cope with they were forced not to run in these conditions. We found the summit cairn and headed off on our bearing. No sooner had the summit cairn disappeared in the mist than a group came over to us and the guys asks “Where do you think you are?” His confidence took me aback a little and his tone suggested he felt we were lost. A short conversation soon established it was the opposite. They wanted to do the out and back but needed to know if the path was obvious (it is once you’re on it!) and then where the summit we’d just been was. We told him it was about 50m in that direction (pointing) and he confidently declared this to his group and headed off.

It was now really quite cold and pissing down, the going underfoot was tough and we just needed to get shifting and onto the more runnable terrain. The next summit was Foel Grach where there is a refuge. We’d provisionally agreed we’d meet Andy and Lotte there but now it was lotte alone Andy was slightly concerned about her getting there and just waiting as it would be so cold. Also, in these conditions and with the broad ridges it would be easy to miss each other. He left her a message to not come that far and not hang around as it would be cold. It was a straight bearing to the next summit and we ducked in to the refuge out of the elements to grab something to eat and for me to work out the next few bearings so we could just keep moving. We’d not seen Jimmy and Matt again. I’d wondered if they’d be in the refuge, they weren’t so hopefully they had gone all the way down.

Whilst inside a group arrived – looked like fathers with their sons and they asked if there was room for five more. We said there’s plenty of room. Turns out they were on a over night camping trip but on asking the younger lads if they’d prefer to pitch tents on sleep in there they quickly decided on in there. I chatted with one as I worked out my bearings (now on my regular compass) and he told me how the next bit was tricky because of magnetic rock. This made us laugh as I’d been blaming magnetic rock for every error so far !

Back outside and it was cold. I was shivering a lot. Luckily Mel decided to run to warm up so we just followed. It is so featureless and at the top of the next summit we had to bear right to get the last one. I know it’s always strange just trusting to a compass with your mind playing tricks. It was now Andy suggesting it wasn’t right but I stuck to my guns and the lay of the land seemed to confirm it. We kept going on that bearing and shortly we heard shouts of “Steven” – not sure why I didn’t respond, it’s not like there was another Steven around. Luckily Lotte heard my voice and out of the mist I saw Lotte and Paul approaching. But it wasn’t Paul it was Jimmy. Mel is saying it’s Lotte and I’m looking at Jimmy with Lotte mere feet away saying “no it’s not Lotte”. Bizarre.

I can’t tell you how reassuring it is to meet a familiar face in those conditions. I’m not sure it made us any safer, it was still cold, wet and misty but it was clear our spirits all lifted when we saw Lotte. She’d had the sense to follow the fence and wall out from the the car but not go further. This meant the navigation was now easy as we just followed this home bagging the final summit on the way.

FinalSummitAt the trig point Mel and I had a hug to celebrate an epic day before the final long descent. We heard shouts from Matt who’t been sheltering by a wall until we came by. He was very relieved to see us. We seemed to get a second wind now and felt like we were motoring. As we approached the final track the clouds cleared at last to reveal the most amazing sunset. We all stopped for photos. On the track Mel and I ran the final half mile to the car. It felt so much more comfortable to run at this point than to walk.

Paul had not come to the finish instead taking responsibility to ensure we had food to eat and booze to celebrate with. This meant we all had to squeeze in to the jeep. Jimmy and Matt were so thankful of our help and it made my day when they told us that our little group was so refreshing as we were so upbeat the whole time in the really shitty weather.

Back at Betws-y-Coed John and Gwenn had set out a lovely table for dinner. Paul and Lotte had sorted out booze, Paul had collected the takeaway curry which was being kept warm in the Aga. Quick showers before a great celebratory meal. A few beers later and we were all ready for bed.

img_0767-3We set off at 3:15am and finished at the car at 9:45pm a total of 18.5hrs. We left Snowden at 5am and arrived at Foel-Fras at 8:30pm giving a time of 15.5hrs for the challenge. It was fantastic fun, not just the challenge but the banter all weekend made for a great little trip. Looking forward to getting Paul round the full challenge next year.

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