Tuesday, February 03, 2009

A weekend away

Oh my thumping head. I've spent the weekend in Bangor, attending the UCNW Stage Crew 25th birthday bash and going up a mountain. I went up by train last sunday: I was going to hire a car, but after working out costs and petrol, it worked out cheaper to go by rail. Besides, it allowed me to have a drink or several. And, when I got to my destination, to have several more, and then some. I stayed at the Eryl Mor Hotel, which conveniently enough was directly opposite the pub. It also boasts, as I found out the next morning, a spectacular view across the Menai Straits, Bangor Pier and harbour, and the wide, snow-flecked sweep of Snowdonia.
It was great to meet up with a few old faces - I wasn't sure that I'd recognise anyone, or whether they'd recognise me. In a couple of cases, it took a bit of intent peering behind fading hair and wrinkles to work out who was who. Besides, alcohol was involved, which didn't exactly help things at times. I'd half-expected that we'd be meeting up at the Student's Union, but no: apparently, it's hardly open anymore, it's losing money and it's about to be pulled down. It was a bit of a shame, because I would have liked to have seen the old place one more time. However, its failing state suggests that its heyday had been when I was a student there, in the times when a room with a fire safety limit of 125 persons was regularly filled with more than 4 times that amount, where the air was thick with cigarette smoke and cheap 80s perfumes and body spray and beer fug and a frantic joy. Whether this is a good or bad thing, I'm not sure. I did walk past the place as I went home, and I could see the toll of the years - if it didn't get pulled down, it would fall down. Some things hadn't changed: the faded Welsh graffito on the wall of Jock's bar, the signage painted by green algae, the curtains on the upper floors in their half-open, half-torn, mostly stained state - even a half-drunk bottle of Newcastle Brown, placed behind a pillar and visible through the floor-to-ceiling windows, could have been there since 1989. Overall, though, I think we did best to stay in the comfort of the Tap and Spile.
On Saturday morning, nursing an aching head and a stomach full of a Full Welsh Breakfast (that's an English Breakfast, coooked in Wales), I took the bus up to Llanberis for a climb up Snowdon. My intention was to get the Sherpa bus to Pen Y Pass, then go over Pyg Track and down the Llanberis Path. Once I'd arrived at Llanberis, however, I quickly revised my plan. First, there was an awful lot of snow on the mountain: second, there was a freezing cold hard wind blowing gale strength. I realised that meant my original plan would be impossible to undertake because of the wind direction and strength and because the snow on the Pen Y Pass side would probably make any Snowdon ascent extremely difficult, even if well equipped. Instead, I took the Llanberis path, which is a tedious, dull, hard and very long slog up the mountain. There were plenty of other people going up the path, and it didn't cease to amaze me how poorly equipped some of them were. I went up with my trusty Berghaus boots, waterproof trousers, winter jacket, walking poles and a backpack with map, lights, food, medical pack, water and other useful bits; One chap I saw, while wonderfully coordinated in his clothing choice, had skimpy pixie boots, a lightweight summer jacket, a tastefully chosen bandanna and a jaunty little knapsack. Others were plodding up as though they were just popping back from the shops, including carrying a plastic shopping bag with a few bits and pieces in.
After getting past Clogwyn Station, the snow appeared, but it was deep snow that had been lying for quite a while and had turned into a very hard crust, with soft and rotten snow below. It had blown into drifts in some areas higher than my head, and left only very thin paths up, especially at the point where you walk under the rail line and look over Pen Y Pass towards the Glyders. I trudged on up, fighting my hangover and the wind and the cold, until I go to the point where the path deviates higher up from the rail line, under Carnedd Ugain and towards Clogwyn Coch, and saw a few groups of people sitting on the snow. Some where shuffling gingerly upwards on their bums, while others were shuffling gingerly downwards. After a few more steps, and not without a slightly rising sense of horror, I realised why: the snow had turned into an extremely dangerous sheet of ice, pointing down towards a sheer fall. I tried probing the snow, but it was quickly obvious that it was a solid icy crust. I also realised that I would have to be extraordinarily careful in order to turn round and get the hell out of there. It was brought home to me how you need crampons and ice axes whenever on the side of a snowy slope like that. Amazingly, some idiots with minimal equipment were still trying to get higher up. I decided to turn back, with lots of very small, careful steps and judicious use of walking poles. I wasn't helped in this by the wind, which was doing its best to unbalance me. What was also worse was the wind direction - from the south, meaning that it was relatively warm, meaning it was melting the snow, meaning that it was a rapidly increasing avalanche risk - if not that day, then later. Anyway, as you can tell, I made it off safely.
The next day, two brothers, in their 30s and both married, fell and died, less than 100 metres away from where I reached.

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