Crib Goch – Snowdon
What I like about venturing out with the company “Adventures with Heroes”, aside from their trips being very reasonably priced, is that their boss Anthony ‘Evo’ Evans is very flexible. A hiker can request trips to specific places and routes, and so long as Evo can provide a suitable number of Mountain Leaders on the day then the chances are a day (or longer) can be organised.
Jen and I had both been umming and ahhing about the possibility of a Snowdon trip, so when Evo suggested a hike along the Crib Goch ridge it just seemed hard to turn down… or as I stated on my Facebook post at the time: “It would be rude not to!”.
However, with Jen’s work commitments it seemed that I’d probably be heading off on this little adventure without her. In fact it wasn’t until the eleventh hour that I decided to travel down to Wales the evening prior to the hike. I had no overnight arrangements in place and it seemed that sleeping in the car would be my only last-minute option. To do this rather than risk oversleeping on an early start, getting caught up in Bank Holiday traffic, or simply getting lost on the way seemed like a sensible approach. I made my mind up pretty late in the day, though… 8pm. So you might call it a literally “thirteenth-hour decision” since the morning meet-up was scheduled for 9am!
So, around 8pm on D-1 Jen and I arrived back from a trip out and I went straight into car-packing mode. I’m a bloke so this doesn’t take long. Anything and everything I might possibly need was thrown into the boot (that’s the trunk, Kim!) of the car and I said my goodbyes to Jen. The route would probably take around three hours. I remain unsure whether it was due to roadworks or accidents that several sections of motorway were closed, but the journey turned into a nightmare… In fact I probably should have realised, when I crunched down on a tooth filling whilst eating a chocolate-covered raisin, that I was in for a long weekend. Having spat out the remainder of the filling I realised that several more chocolate-covered raisins had dropped between my legs. Not at all helpful in a warm car when one needs to concentrate on the road. It wasn’t until the next service station that I was able to stop and extricate said gooey raisins from the crotch of my trousers. Things were off to a not-so-good start!
Having left at just after 9pm it was around 1.30am when I finally reached the car park at Pen-y-Pass, where Evo had also parked up in his campervan for the night. At the rear of the car park there was a car in which three or four lads in their twenties were booming out club music. Who does that?! I tapped on Evo’s window, and after a brief chat returned to my own car to make ready for some sleep. We would be up around 7am and time was already moving on…
Finally, snuggled up in my sleeping bag I was just beginning to drift off when something quite odd happened: the driver’s door opened…
Before the car’s internal lights came on I had glimpsed the silhouette of a man outside… then as the sudden light flooded my vision I don’t mind admitting I shouted some unrepeatable expletive very loudly in the direction of the steering wheel. The man poked his head around the door and muttered some form of apology about being at the wrong car before closing the door and sauntering off. Well, my night was over. I looked around for a suitable weapon to have handy in case he came back, and waited for my night vision to be restored. Half an hour or so later a fight erupted in the car park. It was said twenty-somethings. Things eventually calmed down… An hour later said twenty-somethings walked across towards the public toilets, passing Evo’s… wait a minute, why haven’t they passed Evo’s van? They soon reappeared and went back to their car. Five minutes later they were heading towards the loos again, and again didn’t reappear the other side of Evo’s van. Very quickly they reappeared and wandered back to their car. Did Evo know them? I doubted it and watched on. At 4am, having done several tours of the car park with torches, they finally left. No doubt I wasn’t the only one who then relaxed a little.
I think I was just about to get off to sleep when about a dozen more head-torch lights appeared, bobbing around outside… This time it was the “three-peakers”, all clock-watching and getting ready for an early start to the summit. I think I managed about an hour of sleep before the noise of day-trippers’ cars arriving at 7am-ish finally made me give up. I hauled myself out of “bed” and went over to Evo’s camper to say good morning… well, morning anyway! As I’d suspected, Evo had also received a visit from an unwelcome stranger, and he had subsequently spent the night with a rather large, sharp deterrent tucked under his pillow. We discussed the antics of the irksome twenty-somethings before returning to the day’s priority: time to get on with making breakfast.
Having kept an eye on the Mountain Weather Information Service for several days before the trip I was expecting a day of sunshine and awesome visibility. However, as I walked back to my car the rain came down, and I wondered whether or not I had remembered to pack a full complement of waterproofs? Thankfully I had. Things were looking up.
I sat in the back of the car and fired up my camping stove. You’ve got to love porridge before a big hike… and I did. I then prepared a flask, completing my daysack, and returned to Evo’s van. His guests for the hike were arriving, and we grouped together for the introductions and a pre-hike briefing. Our route in brief: up from Pen-y-Pass to Crib Goch ridge, along said (very high and exposed) ridge to Snowdon summit, and then back down the Pyg Track to the car park.
Dressed in full waterproofs the nine of us finally set off up the mountain. The weather looked as though it might lift, and so a good day’s hiking could be imminent. I had been up Snowdon before, but so far in the distant past that I would treat this outing as a first visit. I certainly hadn’t been up Crib Goch before. Some of you may have read my blog about hiking Striding Edge and Swirral Edge on Helvellyn… well, Crib Goch is similar, except steeper, longer and more exposed.
We would essentially be summiting Wales’ two highest peaks – “Garnedd Ugain” at 1065 metres, and Snowdon itself or “Yr Wyddfa” (Welsh for “the Tomb”) at 1085 metres. In order to reach either we would first have to negotiate our way along Crib Goch ridge, which has sheer sides in places and starts at a height of 923 metres. It is not for the faint-hearted.
We stopped several times on the climb up to Crib Goch, and Evo reiterated safety instructions and regularly checked we were all ok. Our group of nine included three Mountain Leaders in total, so we had a good mix of experience for such an occasion. Whilst I’m a fairly experienced hiker, this is not a route I would have felt comfortable on in poor weather conditions, and probably not even in perfect conditions if I had been a first-timer on Snowdon tackling this ridge on my own.
On several occasions we came across individuals who were clearly not prepared for the psychological effect of scrambling along high ridges. It was a UK Bank Holiday weekend and the whole spectrum of hikers was out in force. The scantily-clad, the ill-equipped, the adrenaline junkies, even a few families with young children… I may be wrong, but it certainly seemed to me that well organised, well-equipped, suitably experienced people/groups were in the minority on Snowdon’s most dangerous ridge that day. That made me nervous…
At one point, about halfway along the ridge, I was climbing ahead with another group member and we came across a couple, the girl seriously distressed. She was clinging tight to the rocks, trying to figure out how to move herself forward but struggling to cope with the height and the almost sheer drop below. It was all I could do to hold back a few people approaching fast from behind us, to try and give the girl more space and time to work out her next steps. I could feel impatience building behind me on the ridge. One couple wanted to forge on past the girl regardless, so I suggested that they take a lower path, which was just visible and usable. Thankfully they took it, and we slowly inched on behind the struggling pair until we reached a safe and pressure-free place to pass them.
I don’t like crowds at the best of times, and I have to confess I probably won’t return to Mount Snowdon – certainly not on a busy bank holiday weekend – except in the context of a professional outing I may have the opportunity to lead once qualified as a Mountain Leader. I prefer the solitude one finds in the Scottish Munros, or among the lesser-visited peaks of the Lake District and the Howgills. This was like being a pedestrian on a motorway.
We soldiered on for another 20 or 30 minutes and I complimented one of my group companions, Jim, on how well he was taking to this scrambling experience. The man was like Spiderman, clinging on and confidently scampering ahead on the ridge. We stopped together as a group perhaps once more, as Evo was taking the welfare of one young group member very seriously. We all discussed whether it was in fact feasible to keep moving forward, and after much deliberation decided to forge ahead. One of our MLs Lee, plus Jim and I, had just begun climbing behind a group and were waiting to move upwards, when the unthinkable happened. I heard a female voice yelling “Oh my God!” The voice wasn’t at first panic-stricken; I think perhaps the woman’s eyes were unable to comprehend what she had seen, was seeing… I saw someone falling. The woman’s tone became even more terrified, her screams becoming louder the further her companion fell… and then about 30 metres below, the rock face broke the person’s fall. Suddenly all hell broke loose.
An experienced climber from above was yelling at people to get out of his way, everybody’s way. I looked for a quick way back down to the flatter, wider spot we had just left, and in doing so I saw an upturned boot sticking out between the rocks dozens of metres below.
I knew it would take a miracle for a hiker to sustain such a fall and remain unscathed. I heard Evo shouting from below for people to move back, and I pointed across to where I could see the boot. Evo and Paul (one of our other MLs) were quick to reach the fallen climber. I knew with absolute certainty that a Search and Rescue helicopter would be required, and that it would need a fix on our position, so I reached into my daysack for my Personal Locator Beacon (PLB). But I was fumbling, my hands covered by my gloves… I asked Lee to help me open the case, which he did, and the moment he handed it back to me I set off the device, instantly pouring my own personal information across multiple emergency frequencies around the globe… there was little else I could do. Evo, a very experienced first responder, and Paul were both with the casualty, a lady in her early thirties. All we could do now was wait for the Emergency Services Response to unfold.
The first helicopter that arrived was fairly small. It hovered for some time just metres away from me before setting down precariously and balancing in position while a paramedic jumped out and attended to the casualty. Lee, an ML who has previously worked as a Search and Rescue operative, reminded me to turn off my PLB now that rescuers were on the scene. As I did so, the helicopter was already getting airborne. It remained in the area, flying overhead until its bigger brother arrived: the UK coastguard helicopter.
The Coastguard couldn’t land, as there were hikers still on the ridge above the incident, and the downdraft might literally have blown them off the mountain. There were frantic shouts for people to move away and back to areas of safety, but as the helicopter made a second attempt to land, a dog ran out and the helicopter had to pull back. On the third attempt the Coastguard helicopter was able to lower a medic down to the scene. He headed our way, informing the rest of us waiting hikers how long he and another medic would probably be working here with the casualty, so that people could decide whether to turn back or wait. Even without the helicopter downdraft, high winds were gusting across the ridge and the chill factor felt close to freezing…. and most hikers on this section had now stopped moving, so we were no longer generating much body heat. The Coastguard medic shouted to ask whether anybody had activated a PLB, so I went over to let him know mine had been activated and that it was now off. The medic then climbed down to the casualty.
Free from any further obligation, I pulled out my phone. It had occurred to me that as a result of my pressing that PLB button, the protocol for those remotely managing my safety would have been set in motion. It had. My phone showed several missed calls and voicemails, none of which I could access as network reception had since vanished. There were a couple of texts from Jen, too… she had received a barrage of calls regarding my whereabouts, and she was worried because all she and the Coastguard/Mountain Rescue knew at this point was that while walking along a highly dangerous ridge, Simon Duringer had activated his emergency PLB and now could not be reached. They knew about the female casualty, but perhaps I was in a second, unrelated incident? I had no signal and couldn’t answer anybody. The next time the winchman ventured over I asked if he could contact his control centre to let them know why I’d activated the beacon, and ask that they in turn call Jen. He agreed and they did.
For the duration of the rescue, aside from stopping people trying to get past me into the path of the waiting helicopter, I simply tried to remain warm. From start to finish, the entire incident and rescue took over an hour, and the wind was bitter at times. My appetite for summiting had all but disappeared, and my thoughts were with the poor lass who had fallen, and her friend who had been with her when she fell… who was still on the ridge, waiting anxiously with a couple of others. I was also, of course, preoccupied with thoughts of the injured lady’s family, who had probably by now been informed of the incident but were unlikely to know the extent of her injuries.
According to the Daily Post’s reporter Sarah Hodgson (01 May 2017, 14.59hrs), “The woman suffered two broken wrists, smashed two vertebrae in her back, and suffered a fractured skull and facial injuries during the traumatic incident.”. Evo took a video of the helicopter from the scene:
The woman was finally airlifted to hospital, but for the hero of the day – Evo – this incident was not over. As he looked around him on the cliff, his rucksack was nowhere to be seen. For a moment we thought that maybe somebody had walked off with it, but then I saw a hiking pole on the ground. It was Evo’s. I offered up the idea that the helicopter downdraft might have blown it away – unfortunately it had! Evo picked his way down the mountainside as far as it was safe to do so, but came back having recovered only two rather trivial items: a Spork and a spare top. He had lost everything from GPS to maps, ropes, first aid kit, bothy shelter, waterproofs… and worse, his wallet, money and of course his prized rucksack! Thankfully this had little impact upon the group’s safety, as Evo’s other two MLs had both brought similar gear.
The number of people stranded during the rescue had increased as time went on; Crib Goch is a long ridge and many had climbed up as far as the incident point while the rescue was under way. Now, as people started moving off again, we opted to wait a few minutes before starting again ourselves. The fact that they were about to reach a point where a serious accident had just happened probably gave people sobering pause for thought, and no doubt made them take things more slowly… which may have prevented another fall, who knows? Anyway. It wasn’t long before we were on the move again.
Even though the summit of Snowdon was in sight when we reached Garnedd Ugain at 1065 metres, by then all I wanted to do was head straight down the Pyg Track back to my car. It was getting late; I was cold, and emotionally drained even though my direct involvement with the incident had been minimal. I was also physically exhausted, having barely slept during the previous evening’s car park escapade. However, with the most challenging part of the ascent completed and Snowdon’s summit only a few hundred metres further after the junction with the Pyg Track, I did eventually agree to go on.
In retrospect I’m glad we did reach the summit that day, although I must confess I didn’t enjoy the rest of the hike. I was so preoccupied, lost in thought about the day’s events, and it occurred to me that if this was the effect on me, how must Evo be feeling? He had spent over an hour on a cliff face with the casualty, seeing her injuries, making her as comfortable as he could, trying to reassure her, withstanding that almighty helicopter downdraft, losing his rucksack, and all the while thinking of the welfare of the group he had brought here… how was he holding up? I asked him if he was ok, and of course he replied in the affirmative. A leader has to…
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