A month or so ago I happened to be on Tryfan, that wonderfully shapely mountain at the head of the Ogwen valley, twice within the space of a week or so. On both occasions I came across people who were very much in the wrong place, lost, and likely to become a mountain rescue statistic.
The thing with Tryfan you see is that, unlike most UK mountains, the bulk of what we see of it is rock, rather than grassy slopes, heathery ledges, or moss filled hollows. That’s the challenge. It’s an amazing mountain to be on.
On the first occasion I’d gone out for a bit of easy ridge scrambling on my own. There’s a classic rock route up the North Ridge of Tryfan that all the outdoor magazines rave about, so whenever you go there there are likely to be at least another hundred folk scrabbling around looking for the correct route. On my ascent I wandered about the ridge a bit, looking for the most interesting pieces of scrambling. A couple from Surrey latched on to me – they were clearly quite competent, but admitted that they’d never done Tryfan before. This was all good, and the pair stayed fairly close by as we ascended.
Once the summit had been reached I left them behind along with the hoards, and I was soon down on the col between Tryfan and the next mountain, Glyder Fach. I sat on the col, known as Bwlch Tryfan, to have my lunch and to watch, what felt like, half the world go by. Shortly my two new friends arrived and set off up Glyder Fach via another superb scramble, Bristly Ridge. Only they didn’t. They somehow missed the start of the route, known as Sinister Gully, and took to the long scree slope over to the left.
A family group of six walkers, ages ranging from about mid-twenties, to 70s, it later transpired, had by this time come up directly to Bwlch Tryfan from Ogwen, having missed out Tryfan altogether. They set off up the wrong route up Bristly Ridge after my two new friends.
Now obviously there’s no such thing as a ‘wrong route’ in the mountains. That’s what scrambling and rock climbing are all about. You take on the challenge of exploring where walkers dare not, and should not, go. So to say that these eight people where on the wrong route is a bit of a nonsense really.
As I sat, still on Bwlch Tryfan, watching their ascent, I could see that the first couple had now cut back across the scree, and were tackling a gully to gain Bristly Ridge. The other six followed them. I decided that it was time to finish my lunch and head off up the ridge itself.
Sinister Gully went easily, and was remarkably dry, and as I neared the first of the pinnacles that guard the ridge, I came across the family group, all quite jovial, and seemingly having a good time. One of the younger lads was clearly acting as leader, so I quizzed him a bit about his route choice, and then without actually saying I was doing so, set off ahead of them, slow enough so that they could follow me without feeling like they were being guided.
On the last pinnacle the ‘group leader’ had caught me up, but there was no sign at all of his family. “This doesn’t feel much like a path,” he confided. I explained that Bristly Ridge isn’t a path, it’s a classic mountaineering route. The path goes up the scree slope way over to the east.
“Where’s the rest of your group?” I asked.
“They’re not sure whether to carry on or not, so I left them down there.”
I suggested that he should go down and make sure they were ok, and possibly think about getting off the ridge. He set off back to find his group, and I, keeping my distance, followed him down a short way to the pinnacles. When he got to them I could hear their conversation. Two of the women thought that they were way out of their depth and should go down, the two youngest lads were busy having an argument about the correct route, and grandma and grandad were rowing over whether she would be ok just left there on the ridge on her own.
I went down to them, explained that I’m a mountain leader, and told them in no uncertain terms that I thought they were being incredibly foolhardy coming onto a ridge such as this. I offered to lead them up to the summit plateau, as they were already very close. One of the lads told me that he didn’t see why they should follow me, and went round a corner overlooking Cwm Bochlwyd to look for a different route – any route that I hadn’t suggested. Grandad said that he’d been up here before, but it wasn’t quite how he remembered. He even showed me on the map he had hung around his neck where he thought he was – heading up the North Ridge of Tryfan. I explained that they were not on the North Ridge of Tryfan, but were in fact on Bristly Ridge on Glyder Fach. And then it all got messy. Accusations and some very colourful language were hurled, at each other, and then at me! I tried to calm them down, and told them they had two choices – either go back down the way they had come, or let me guide them (fee-free, I should add!) up to the summit. “Why should we trust you?” they asked. To which I said they certainly didn’t have to do so, and that I was making my way up the mountain, and they were welcome to come along if they wanted. I got about 100 metres higher, and looking down could see that they were all in exactly the same place as when I’d left them. Still arguing. I sat on a rock, where they could see that I was waiting for them. Twenty minutes later they set off back down Bristly Ridge.
At the end of the day, as I dropped off the end of Y Gribin and followed the path out of the lower reaches of Cwm Bochlwyd, I caught sight of six familiar figures walking along the shore of Llyn Bochlwyd just a short way away. One of the younger women saw me, turned to her family, and pointed. They all had a glance, then looked away, I assume embarrassed. She looked back, gave me a wave, and yelled “Thank You!” I gave her a wave back and left them to negotiate the easy path down to their cars.
This is a good example of why it is important to have at least one person in any mountain group who is the clear leader, and who can navigate and who can make decisions about the safety of the members of the group. I’m just very glad that they made it down safely, and hope that it will either spur them on to learn how to head into the mountains without putting themselves or others at risk, or failing that, just never go near the mountains again.
On the second Tryfan occasion I’d met up with Scott Corbett, a friend who had come over for a day’s rock climbing. The weather was foul – lashing rain, high winds, cold. We’d had plans to do all sorts of exciting routes, but given the conditions decided to have a ropework day on Rowan Route, a low-grade slabby thing on the side of the Milestone Buttress, low down on the slopes of Tryfan. We spent the morning looking at placing leader protection, belaying techniques, setting up multiple anchors and the like, then as the rain had eased a bit, set off up Rowan Route. We didn’t really know how the climbing would go, as the slabs were very wet, but as Scott had not done that much climbing outdoors before, he was keen to see how multi-pitch abseils worked, so that become the focus of the rest of the day.
We struggled up the first two pitches, then found ourselves on the chimney pitch which was oozing. Time to call it a day. And a great day we’d had too. We’d both got loads of practical experience – Scott learning new techniques, and I practicing my teaching technique. So now to set up the first abseil. That achieved, and with Scott backing up his abseil with a prussik for the first time in his life, he headed off down to the stance below. The rope become slack once he’d clipped in to an anchor below, then I put my own belay device and prussik on the rope and prepared to step off the ledge. I heard a shout.
I called down to Scott, but it was difficult to make myself heard against the rain and wind. However, I could see him tucked into a little niche at the back of the large ledge he’d just descended to. At that point he looked up, smiled, and gave me the thumbs up, so I knew the sound hadn’t come from him. Checked my anchors again (yes, I know!), then stepped back to the edge of the ledge.
“CAN YOU HELP ME PLEASE!”, came across the face. I pulled back onto the ledge, took my hood down so I could hear more clearly, then saw, about 35 feet above and to the left of me, a cold, wet man, high up on another climb (The Direct Route).
I asked him immediately where his mate was, and was told that he was on his own. “So you’re soloing Direct Route in the rain?” I asked in astonishment. “No, I was doing the North Ridge of Tryfan, got lost higher up, so started to make my way down. I caught of a glimpse of my car down in the valley at one point, so made a beeline for it, and found myself on this buttress.”
He looked very cold, and was soaked to the skin.
“OK”, I said, “give me a couple of minutes to sort the ropes out and we’ll soon get you down. In the meantime put your waterproof jacket, and hat and gloves on.” He didn’t have any.
I know that there is a big spike of rock on the ledge that he was on, still 35 feet and a vertical wall of slime above me. I threw a sling and karabiner up to him and told him how to put it on the spike. I could see that he’d done that, then threw the end of the rope up to him with a sliding loop of rope and a stopper knot tied in it. He soon had this around his waist, and clipped in to the karabiner, and I could then lower him directly down to the ledge were Scott was sitting comfortably in his little cave.
Once I’d abseiled down there myself I put a spare harness on him (which just happened to be in my bag), but he wouldn’t take my spare hat and gloves. He said he’d been stuck on the ledge for about an hour, had tried to find an easy way off and failed, had sat there daring himself to phone for a mountain rescue, and had time and again decided not to, then to, then not to. Then, just as he’d finally made the decision to make the 999 call, he’d heard our voices. Two minutes later and I’d have been down at the bottom of the abseil pitch and we’d never have known that he was stuck up there.
A quick lower to the ground, and an abseil each for me and Scott, and it was all over.
“Had you called for a mountain rescue they’d have given you a real bollocking,” I told him, thinking of how he’d started out that morning in torrential rain with no waterproofs, hat or gloves, map, or knowledge at all of the route he was trying to scramble up.
His response floored me completely, “I know. I was only out doing a navigation course with one of the members of the Ogwen Mountain Rescue Team a couple of weeks ago!”
To his credit, he was incredibly grateful, and full of embarrassment for his catalogue of mistakes on the mountain that day. Exactly the sort of person who you don’t mind rescuing, but of course you’d much prefer not to have to. Still, it gave me a chance to practice more techniques, and gave Scott the opportunity to see it all in action for real.