Thursday, 16 October 2014

Post Morocco: A Trip to North Wales

Having just returned from the stunning High Atlas of Morocco, I had a window of a week before term started for real. And with the weather looking pretty decent, what better way to spend it than to attempt the Paddy Buckley Round in Snowdonia, I thought! This seemed like a good idea at the time as I felt physically fitter from being above 3000 for a substantial period, however the reality proved rather different.

Summit of Moel Eilio 
The Paddy Buckley round is a 24 hour fell running challenge (I didn’t attempt to run it!) similar to that of Scotland’s Charlie Ramsey round and the more famous Bob Graham Round in the Lake District. The stats are similar too, with 65 miles and 8600m of ascent to complete, it’s considered tougher than the Bob Graham time-wise by about an hour. The challenge encompasses the three main Northern Snowdonia mini mountain ranges – the rolling yet high Carneddau, the mighty Glyders and the famous Snowdon Massif as well as some of the lesser explored Molwyn region and part of the gorgeous Nantle Ridge. More information and the full route can be found here:

Mist clearing as I reach the track
The plan was to start in Llanberis on Saturday 20th Sept and walk the circular route clockwise, finishing back on Wednesday afternoon (~4 days) I’d carry a backpack and camp. After a 5am start from Bristol the train somehow managed to become 20 minutes late on its travels up east Wales and along the lovely north coast (with the exception of Colwyn Bay that is) resulting in me missing my bus connection at Bangor by 2 minutes – next bus wasn’t for another 2 hours. Oh well, what better excuse to pop to the local spoons for a pint and a much needed pulled pork sandwich!

The Snowdon Horseshoe to the east

The first part of the route involves climbing Snowdon via Moel Eilio and descending to the South via Yr Aran, and the unpathed steep terrain beyond. By the time I got underway from Llanberis it was already 2.45 pm and my chances of reaching Rhyd Ddu by nightfall seemed to be slimming by the minute. The ascent of Moel Eilio was a shock to the system, with thick cloud and numerous sheep being totally different to the barren and scorching Moroccan landscape where mules reign supreme and the views can extend for literally hundreds of miles. Due to my walking boots coming to the end of their working life in Morocco we decided to ceremonially burn them using up surpass fuel in the large Atlas valley town of Imlil. Even though I had walked in my dad’s boots (which I were borrowing) many times before, I must have tried every combination of socks and blisters plasters in the first 2 miles of the hike making the start even more frustrating. After a sporadic slog top of Moel Eilio I finally found a rhythm and made swift progress along to the dip where the round meets the well-trodden Snowdon Ranger Path.

Nearly there!
The going was tough, I knew I had to persevere at a good pace up Snowdon if I was to have any chance of making Beddgelert forest by dusk, and the thought of descending the Yr Aran ridge in the dark was quite an unpleasant one, especially remembering the route finding problem’s I’d had on UBES Snowdonia 1 2013 whilst ascending it from the south. I was passed by some late starters returning towards YHA Snowdon Ranger as well as some extraordinarily fast mountain bikers, All but a few made comments on my sanity as I told them I’d be camping at 600m in a Snowdon col (I’d now resigned to this fact), I couldn’t help but agree with them!

High pressure system arrives
After a well-earned rest for some malt loaf 200 or so metres below the summit (this is a guess as it was still very cloudy!), and no longer being able to distinguish sweat from water vapour, I made the final push for the top. The weather continued to be poor but the absence of any wind filled me with optimism (a tell-tale sign that high pressure isn’t far away). And sure enough, after some rare glimpses of the Western Cwm to the south, the skies partially cleared at the top of Garnedd Ugain (1065), Snowdon’s sister peak, revealing spectacularly crisp views of Crib Goch and the Snowdon Horseshoe to the east and a beautiful yet hazy sunset to the west. The cloud covering the summit cleared minutes before I arrived and so after climbing Snowdon now 6 times, not once has the top been in cloud! Perhaps I’ve just jinxed it… On Ben Nevis it’s the exact opposite.

Backtracking after Garnedd Ugain

It was getting late now, and everything was beginning to ache, (not a good sign this early on). Descending Snowdon via the Southern ridge along seemed much harder than the previous times I’d walked it; the scrambly bits were much demanding due to a large backpack and tiredness was most certainly setting in. By the time I’d reached the col between Snowdon and Yr Aran I was knackered and it was almost pitch dark.  I’d like to say that I put the tent up in record time due to all that practice in Morocco but I wasn’t even close! After a boil in the bag pasta and some contingency planning for the next day, I was fast asleep by 10pm.

Not quite a summit selfie
Unzipping my tent next morning, I was greeted with the best weather I’d ever seen in Wales. Views of the Nantle ridge were impossibly crisp and as I reached the top of Yr Aran after a short, cereal bar fuelled climb, the whole of the Mowlyns came into view with the obvious mountain of Cnicht protruding into the deep blue sky. The next two days of my route were visible before me, and to say it was slightly daunting would be the understatement of the century. The sun was surprisingly hot for 9am, however I wasted no time in beginning what I thought would be a simple gradual descent towards the sprawling Beddgelert Forest. In fact, the terrain was annoyingly speed then gradual then steep, etc…  After over an hour and a half, I made it to the road and took great pleasure in purifying some fresh Welsh stream water, as I’d been out of the stuff since the Yr Aran summit.

View from the tent in the morning!
The walk through the forest should have been a simple one if I’d taken the new path, which must have been built in the last year as it wasn’t on the map or there last time I visited the area. Instead, I made a meal of it by getting slightly lost in some wet undergrowth. Nevertheless, I made it to the lower slopes of one of the numerous Y Garn’s, Snowdonia has to offer, and started the long climb which seemed far more than 400m in ascent.

Mowlyn mist
With the midday sun beating down on my back and the gradient seemingly ever increasing, I realised that I may have bitten off quite a lot more than, at the time, I could chew. On the one hand I felt that I could cope with the ascents much more easily than normal due to increased cardio-vascular fitness (from Morocco’s high altitude), yet on the other I felt physically drained, which was probably a result of not getting the normal quality of sleep for 2 and a half weeks – something which takes more than a few days to recover from.

My route for the day
Nevertheless, I continued upwards to the ridge, where the views towards Caernarfon and Anglesey were absolutely stunning, something that I had become strangely used to after the Atlas. After a quick stop for a much needed tuna wrap on the third peak, I descended the easy yet steep grassy ridge towards the Moel Hebog massif. In doing so I passed two fell runner who were ‘reccy-ing’ (how do you write that!?) the Paddy in the opposite direction. There encouraging comments and information about Mowlyn timings at first filled me with optimism, but alas this was terribly short lived.

Moel hebog
In my delirious, sweaty state, I almost forgot that the round included the pathetic ‘peak’ of Y Gyrn. After a slight detour and some serious off piste steep walking, I got to the top and gazed up in despair at the un-pathed boulder field that was to be my route up Moel Lefen. Perhaps on another day I’d have chosen a more accessible route but as it was, the subsequent scrambling broke me. After arriving at a fence 100m or so up, still not a path was in sight. Felling absolutely spent, and having toyed with the idea for a few hours, a combination of post Morocco fever, an increasing lack of determination, and the fact that I was very behind pace wise, meant that I decided to call it a day here. I simply couldn’t be bothered with all this walking and had a long, enjoyable rest. After descending a well-known forestry route to Rhyd Ddu, I set up camp in a lakeside campsite and had a pleasant yet seemingly sub-zero night.

The start of the Nantle ridge
Over the next few days I decided to explore north Wales and relax, for a change. Caernarfon Castle along with the walled town was pretty stunning, something that couldn’t be said for Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. After walking over the Menai Bridge, spending some time in Llandudno and buying a heavily reduced coat in Trespass, I walked to Colwyn Bay via the Little Orme in very pleasant conditions and hopped my very cheap, advanced train back to Bristol.

Caernarfon from Nantle
The challenge is certainly do-able, camping. But next time a much more stringent plan with predicted timings and distances is without doubt required, and five full walking days. Also a serious level of fitness is required so some training would come in handy. Before next time I’d try and explore the Mowlyns a bit as the nav there is apparently quite tough, in comparison. All in all it was a great trip with superb weather, and I couldn’t recommend North Wales in the summer more highly (just don’t forget it’s not the lake bagging season and camp high to avoid the midges!). 

Here are some more pictures:

Looking north towards Moel Eilio and the Glyders

Caernarfon Castle 

The Menai Bridge

The Menai Straits

The famous station house

Llandudno and the Great Orme

Little Orme Quarry

A very small charch

Monday, 6 October 2014

A short story from the Pyrenees, the short version....

I started writing this, 8 weeks ago, toned, fit and bouncy having just finished two months in the mountains. My enthusiasm was, perhaps, slightly sickening and I wrote a 3000word account. For the sake of the readers, I’ve shortened it up, to just give you a flavor of my experiences in the 3 mountain ranges I explored this summer. I now sit, fat and reminiscing and I’ll start at the end, in the Pyrenees.

Happy campers - sunny afternoons setting up camp and
swimming in lakes
If I were to brainstorm the Pyrenees. The first word would been GREEN, very very green. The second word, which ironically precedes green in the normal order of things, would be RAIN, lots and lots of rain. My friend and I started on what was supposed to be a 3 week hike, touching on the 800km Pyrenean Haut route, one of the toughest in Europe. It is apparently more of an “idea” than a way marked path, the idea being to traverse the length of the Pyrenees from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. Naturally, we started at the longest unsupported part; “a walk without compromise…in remote and inaccessible areas” (Joosten 2009) with the next supply of food 9 days away. It was 8.30pm, jumping off the bus at the end of the line in the low mountains that I had my first and only doubt “was this a good idea?” There wasn’t much going back, the bus driver settled in the lay by to sleep before returning to Perpignan the next day and we set off up out of the village to discover the isolated wonderland of green valleys and steep rocky cols.
Very green! Misleading low grassy valleys

It has to be said the first couple of days were perhaps a little misleading. We strolled happily in the sunshine up and down rolling green valleys capped in low rocky tops. Crossing over the back of valleys normally took an hour of scrambling on steep, loose rock for 2 - 300m (assent). The days were long and sunny, we covered just under 20k a day and normally finished around 4pm for a slouchy afternoon complete with paddling in the nearest lake/river and an early dinner. I was pleasantly surprised at my ability to carry a 15kg + pack, (10days of food, fuel and camping gear isn’t light), but the sunshine and friendly gradients didn’t last for long.

Getting steeper...
We passed into the higher mountains which consisted of steep, craggy valleys, marked with obstacles like glaciated slabs, large rivers or waterfalls. Ascending the valleys was followed by a 6-700m climb over a col/summit often taking 2 hours to painfully pace steep scree or thick forest. The weather shifted to match the scenery; thunderstorms are common in the mountains, favorably, they are often limited to short periods in the afternoons.

....and wetter!
Unfortunately this wasn’t the case, drizzle threatened every morning and often broke early in uncomfortably close thunderstorms which lent persistent rain to the rest of the day. Ever-cheerful I ignored my squelching feet and admired the great variety of slugs that seem to dwell in the Pyrenees. However there is little ignoring wet shoes at 7am in the morning and it took a great deal of persistence to compete the lengthening days to the next town and supermarket, Saladuru. 

Picture taken late afternoon, we had come from over the far
col that morning
Nothing however, not drizzle or rain or snow or wind takes away from the great satisfaction of reaching a summit or col as you pass over the dramatic scenery. A precipitous atmosphere gives a deep blue hue to the endless mountain tops that cover the world around you. That is your world: col after col and valley after valley, marked only by feint old paths and the square of flat grass left by our tent. Lakes are haunted by the occasional skipping fox or ibex and the woodland by snorting hogs. The overwhelming sensation of humility in the world is immensely freeing and the final decent through a flowery wet meadow to the town was surprisingly disappointing.

Snowy gullies, icy lakes
The advice from books and people for the next section was not to attempt it in bad conditions since it was characterized by steeper, higher cols, impassable in snow without crampons. Some of the cols we has passed before has been challenging, often we had avoided gullies of snow and had scrambled on rocks instead, the temptation was to go ahead, but checking the forecast (at least 6 different ones, several times each) there was no question, there was no way to go ahead on the next high section. I mention this with reflection, I am not a seasoned mountaineer, I am learning like many, but one of the most important lessons I can gain from other’s experiences, friends and famous book-writing mountaineers, is that is ok to say no.

Route climbs up the waterfall on the left
Timing and economics meant this was the end of our trip, we didn’t have the time or money to wait or move to a different part of the route. So bitterly disappointed my friend and I drank away our sorrows over pizza in Saladuru and made a tipsy Skype call to family saying we were coming home. We made our way home the next day, an adventure in itself, as we walked, hitched, bussed and trained to the airport. I can’t regret our early return and I remember the trip extremely fondly; there is no doubt I will return to the Pyrenees, for their isolated beauty, the secret villages and dazzling number of slug species.
I tried to keep it short, congrats if you made it to here, I wish I could write more as it was such a great trip. Feel free to get in touch for a more detailed itinerary/logistics in the Pyrenees which I won’t bother every reader with.

 Reference: Tom Joosten (2009) “The Pyrenean Haut Route” Cicerone Press

ps. We never managed to take a picture of the wildlife as it was normally very small and running away - but I did a quick sketch to give a rough idea what they looked like

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Morocco Summer Trip

From late August to mid-September, a group of 15 UBESters hiked, scrambled, swam and haggled in the incredibly beautiful and arid High Atlas Mountains of Morocco. After Arriving in Marrakech, we spent the first week hiking in a loop around the area north of Imlil (a large valley town in the centre of the Toubkal region) taking in the remote, non-motorised town of Tacheddirt and the high ski-resort of Oukaimeden. Sleeping in a combination of refuges and tents, we use this period to acclimatise to the altitude by slowly increasing our sleeping height day to day, and to tackle some beautiful peaks – Adrar Tamalaroute (2724m) which dominates the Imlil valley and the spectacular yet terrifying peak of Adrar Angour (3616m), all in preparation for the ascent of Mt Toubkal (4167m) and others the next week. The hot weather didn’t dampen our spirits and in fact the dryness of the air meant that it wasn’t all that unpleasant (mostly!), however finishing walking before 2pm was desirable.
The second week saw us at a higher average altitude, and as well as climbing Toubklal and Ouanoukrim (4083) in spectacular wall to wall sunshine, we visited a lake and another beautiful partly terraced valley in a demanding three day loop finishing back in Imlil. The valleys cultivated and terraced by the local Berbers provided a welcome break from the rocky, arid and exceedingly steep landscape higher up. After returning to Marrakech we explored the world famous Place De Jema (main square), visited some of the city’s lovely gardens (full of wildly different types of cacti) and haggled ferociously for gifts from the bustling, colourful, and seemingly never ending souks.

Highlights of the trip included experiencing an out of this world view from the Toubkal summit along the Spine of the 1000km Atlas and to the Sahara and beyond, climbing the two highest mountains in North Africa, meeting some very hospitable and helpful locals, and a hilariously fun evening by Lac D’ifni which included a limbo competition and some seriously hard core night-time photography!

A full trip report will be posted soon, but in the meantime, if anyone is thinking about going to the High Atlas, I couldn’t recommend it more highly! The area is very cheap and easily accessible from Marrakech and the UK for that matter, and with some of the highest mountains in Africa and landscapes, culture and weather different to anything European, this has to be a prime location for any keen expeditioner wishing to venture out of the continent.