Apologies to Gerald for the plagiarism, but his expression coined in response to Mike GW0DSP’s “Easy SOTA” post was just too apt not to pick up on. In fact our conversation on the climb was eerily pre-emptive of the post – something along the lines of “what are we doing here – we could just book a week’s holiday in DL and complete our MG’s in comfort!” Well, a dose of humour does help morale when fighting adversity…
Plans for this expedition had been fermenting for some time, the intention being to take in NW-001 and NW-008 in a circular tour, ascending Snowdon via the Pyg Track, then down the top section of the Watkin Path diverting to take in Y Lliwedd before descending to the Miner’s Track to complete the walk out. Operation was to be different to our normal joint activation MO, in that Gerald planned to use 70 and 23cm while I used his usual mode of 2m SSB, eschewing HF in deference to the anticipated hordes crowding the small activation area on the summit of Snowdon.
In the week before the activation, a close eye was kept on the weather forecasts, which changed from dire to fine and back seemingly at least twice a day. Alternative plans were discussed by e-mail, including swapping to a pair of SW summits, where the forecasts were more consistently favourable; and a number of lesser NW’s. Eventually the decision was made to travel to the intended starting point at Pen y Pass and make a decision there as to how to proceed in the light of prevailing conditions.
On Saturday morning Gerald arrived at my QTH with his customary exemplary punctuality to find me finalising my catering arrangements, and after a quick coffee and transfer of his equipment to my car (my turn to drive!) we departed on schedule into a fine if slightly breezy morning. The journey passed uneventfully, if somewhat slowed by several sets of temporary traffic lights. As we approached the Welsh border at around 0640, we saw the grey fingers of dawn clutching at the dark sky and noted the lengthening of the days; be warned chasers, those 0700 activations are not far away now!
By the time we reached Llangollen cloud was abounding, and by Betws y Coed we had proper rain blown on a steady breeze – not what we wanted at all. At Capel Curig, the Satnav didn’t know about the left turn from the A5 onto the A4086 – watch out for that one if you’re not familiar with this route! To the left, the anticipated views of Moel Siabod were completely obscured by cloud, suggesting that the more pessimistic of the forecasts I had checked earlier that morning were likely the more accurate.
On arrival at Pen y Pass at 0756 on a grey miserable morning we were surprised to find the car-park already half full. We were greeted by a steady drizzle with occasional gusts of wind, although the cloudbase seemed to be reasonably high. It was make-your-mind-up time; conditions though not ideal were not ridiculously bad, so bearing in mind that several chasers had shown interest in Gerald’s 23cm operation we decided to go for it, with the decision on whether to go for Y Lliwedd to be made once we had achieved Snowdon.
We kitted up in short order, and were ready to start the ascent 15 minutes ahead of schedule at 0825. A short discussion ensued as to which was the correct path to take; fortunately both Gerald and myself had our maps, compasses and GPS units with us, and we soon discerned that the more westerly path was the one for us. It was very reassuring to note that when we actually looked up from our technological marvels there was a large blue sign with a big white arrow on it in front of us, proclaiming “Pyg Track up Snowdon this way”.
Gerald did me the honour of allowing me to lead for the first section of the walk – quite a leap of faith in view of my recent performance on Great Rhos, where I missed a turn-off and ended up walking an extra 2km; allied to my having dispensed with my glasses, preferring limited vision to the dual misery of misting up with each breath, and peering through multi-faceted prisms of rainspots on the lenses.
The first section of the Pyg track is quite steep, and in places consists of giant steps of rock – ideal if your inside leg measurement is about 50 inches, but quite a stretch for us mere mortals particularly when constrained by long johns, trousers and waterproof leggings. Both Gerald and I had climbed this path several times around 25 years ago, but it seemed to have changed almost beyond recognition since then – presumably due to stabilization works to mitigate the erosion caused by hordes of walkers making their way up the mountain, and torrents of water making their way down – more of which later.
The path levels out as it crosses the hillside above Llyn Llydaw, and the mist added an other-worldly beauty to the view of the lake below. The Miner’s Track could clearly be seen crossing it’s causeway, giving a sense of satisfaction that we were a good 100m above where we could have been. It was as we traversed this section that the real weather hit us. The rain that would lash us for the rest of the expedition started in earnest, and out of the shelter of the hillside gusts of wind that nearly knocked us off our feet made climbing over the rock slabs higher up an interesting experience. Before long water was running down our waterproofs in continuous streams; and I discovered the folly of omitting my gaiters when my leggings rode up, neatly channelling large quantities of icy water into my boots, giving me the first dose of severely wet feet since I started doing SOTA.
As we passed the confluence of our path and the Miner’s Track we were in the clouds, and Glaslyn was lost to our view. The wind-propelled rain stung our cold faces and found it’s way into cuffs and down necks, making progress slow and miserable. Nominally “waterproof” gloves were saturated, and were regularly rung out! As we approached the zig-zags and the final climb up to the shoulder that would take us to the summit, I was tiring and was very grateful that Gerald slackened his pace to match my own. The wind whipping across the ridge above us roared like an approaching express train, giving us an inkling of what awaited; despite this, sight of the marker at the top of the Pyg Track, and then the railway line, was very welcome and a few minutes and a vicious fight with a fiercely gusting wind later saw us huddled in the lee of the summit outcrop in the company of a few other hardy souls that had made the trip. Drifts of snow were still in evidence in sheltered hollows; Gerald paid a brief visit to the trig point, but soon descended when he found it impossible to stand without hanging on to it! Amazingly enough we were spot on schedule, having made the ascent in around three and a quarter gruelling hours.
In our relatively sheltered location, the wind was a lot less but the rain was equally intense, just more vertical rather than horizontal. While I donned an additional fleece, Gerald got straight into operating on 23cm handheld, purposely to try to work Myke DDQ (long gone!) and after a couple of calls was called simultaneously by John MW1FGQ and Steve GW7AAV/P who was at the parking spot for Moel Famau NW-044 (dedication award no. 1). After a minute of confusion, he worked John (11:51) which gave Steve time to sort himself out (11:54) and then the third QSO was with Mike G4BLH/P (11:57) who was romping in from near Longridge Fell (22 mile drive for him from home just to bag a contact with me - dedication award no. 2). Steve posted him using his mobile phone! Gerald then hitched up the 15/15 and called for Ray GM4CXM, but didn’t hear him though apparently he did call - path 340km, so maybe a bit long. He couldn’t call Chris GW4DGU in South Wales as the trig was in the way. I later noted that calls from the South were singularly lacking in my 2m log too – apologies to all those on the “wrong side” of the hill! At 12:15 Gerald assembled the 6 element 70cms yagi and put a call out on 432.200 a few minutes later. At 12:21 he was called by Stewart G0LGS who said he had noted no SSB operation – probably a misunderstanding based on my own announcement that I would only be using FM on 2m - and he kindly posted the necessary spot. A couple of minutes more and the spot worked with G4FUJ, GW4BVE, G3OHC and finally G7CDA in the log. Several calls after that were made for G3RMD, but to no avail. QRT at 1240, Gerald emptied the water from his pockets and start to dismantle the kit.
Meanwhile, given the unfavourable conditions, I decided against deploying the full kit and went for the “easy” option of an FM activation using a SOTABeam Rucksack Special and FT60R. A call on S20 at 11.55 immediately brought back Roger MW0IDX, who kindly gave me my first contact and spotted me; that was the beginning of a continuous run of 34 contacts over the next 50 minutes, punctuated by the painful process of removing my gloves to change the pages on the Waterlog (which was living up to it’s name – I was writing through a continuous film of water on the page!) Highlights of the activation were a summit to summit with 2W0KPO/P on Corndon Hill, a contact with Mick 2E0HJD at 5/9 both ways – a welcome change from our usual epic struggles when I have been on far flung Southern summits; and the number of recently-licensed M3’s, many of them YL’s, calling in. Thanks to all, particularly for keeping the contacts brief. This was not the occasion for rag-chewing!
At this stage Gerald had finished and packed up, my feet were numb and I was getting very cold; time to be going. I sadly announced my QRT knowing that there were still people out there calling me, but staying longer was not an option. Continuing to Y Lliwedd was out of the question; we may be considered barmy by some, but we are certainly not suicidal. The sensible way forward was straight back down the Pyg Track with all haste, which we did without even stopping for lunch. (Well, we’d probably never have got the barbie going anyway in all that rain, and Gerald had forgotten to pack the patio heater…)
Rounding the summit, the full force of the wind hit us again. The descent was going to be as challenging as the ascent. Huddled behind the new Café building a few bedraggled walkers were chewing on their Kendal Mint Cake and a new challenge for us became apparent. Everyone we encountered (and there were increasing numbers of people making their ways up now) had to know just why we were carrying TV aerials and fishing poles!
Several hours of continuous heavy rain had started to have it’s effect; small rills we encountered on the way up were now roaring torrents throwing themselves down the hillside, and the Pyg Track we came up had now turned into the Pyg River on the way down! I never tire of the beauty of the sight and sound of roaring white water cascading down waterfalls, but by now we were both wishing rather less was cascading into our boots and down our necks. The trip down was a long cold and increasingly wet slog as the driven rain penetrated my waterproofs and it was a relief to arrive back at the car some two and a half hours after our departure from the summit. Once out of our wet clothes and in a warm car, we finally enjoyed our lunch in relative comfort and mulled over the events of the day. In a nice finishing touch, Myke ‘DDQ texted Gerald as we drove home explaining he had to leave his summit before we arrived on ours due to adverse weather – thanks Myke that was much appreciated.
It had most definitely been a hard activation; stamina, equipment and clothing had been tested to the limits and we have many lessons to learn about foul-weather operating. Had we been less well prepared, we could have been in real trouble. Though not really enjoyable in the conventional sense of the word, it was an incredible experience – but hopefully one that will not be repeated in the near future!
Thanks again to all our contacts, and apologies for my rapid departure from 2m. We look forward to working you all again hopefully under less trying conditions!
73 de Paul G(W)4MD(/P)