Y Lliwedd had originally been scheduled to be done together with Snowdon on 23rd February 2008. Foul weather had however forced the curtailment of that expedition after the activation of Snowdon; this was thus a return visit to complete “unfinished business”!
Planning this expedition was a long and tortured affair. Gerald and I had three summits remaining to be done in Snowdonia – Y Lliwedd, Yr Aran and Moel Cynghorion. The problem being to combine them in the minimum number of visits to achieve maximum VFM. The legion alternative routes and combinations were studied at length – even the possibility of a marathon summer expedition taking in all three in a day via Snowdon – but eventually we decided the best approach to be Y Lliwedd as a single from Pen y Pass, and the other two from the West as a 2-summit day a bit later in the year when the days lengthened. With extraordinary prescience, Gerald prompted me to add an extra 30 minutes to the ascent time for Y Lliwedd to allow for winter conditions – the wisdom of which would become fully apparent later!
The first opening in our schedules was for w/c 18th January. Following our recent spell of “proper winter”, the weather would be critical to an attempt on Y Lliwedd, and we watched the forecasts closely looking for a suitable window of opportunity. Friday looked good, and continued to get better; so on Thursday we decided to “go for it”. Concern remained about the conditions on the mountain however. All reports indicated rapid thawing but would the summit and it’s approaches be sufficiently clear for a safe ascent? The several webcams in the area seemed to indicate the snow line to be around 750m, so a plan B was evolved, where we would divert to Yr Aran, starting from Rhyd Du, if Y Lliwedd looked questionable. This would leave Y Lliwedd and Moel Cynghorion as a long, but feasible day later in the year.
MO was also subject to considerable debate, given the uncertainty about the conditions we would encounter and the feasibility of erecting antennas on the very restricted and potentially busy peak area. We eventually decided on a “travel light” policy, where I would operate 2m FM and Gerald would take 2m and 70cm sideband; if necessary we could even take it in turns, one of us holding the antenna while the other operated! To avoid desensing issues in the event of simultaneous operation, Gerald would operate 70cm first while I qualified the summit on 2m. A further issue was that Gerald would only be using the FT817 barefoot on 70cm, following equipment problems on the previous expedition.
Being a single summit day, the start was comparatively relaxed and Gerald was able to lie in till gone 3am on this occasion, while my alarm was set for a lazy 0430; although as is often the case before a big expedition, we both slept fitfully only to be woken by our alarms just as we slipped into deep slumber. Despite the efforts of sleepy early-morning lorry drivers wandering to and fro on the M6 Gerald made good time to Stourbridge, and arrived slightly early, catching me finalising my packing up. My turn to drive, so we quickly transferred his kit to my vehicle, downed a restorative coffee and were ready to set off by 0536, a whole 4 minutes ahead of schedule.
The first part of the journey progressed well, despite several patches of dense fog. As we made our way North West, we passed through several bands of heavy rain which we interpreted as a good sign – the forecast for Snowdonia having indicated that Thursday night’s heavy rain would move out to the East early on Friday morning. However, turning onto the A5 at Shrewsbury we were confronted with a cryptic sign indicating that the A5 was closed ahead, followed by an irritating drip-feed of information on successive signs that finally told us the blockage was 8 miles west of Corwen. Consulting the road map, any main-road diversion would add a considerable distance to the journey – and none of the signs actually indicated what length of the road was blocked anyway – so we decided to get as close to the closure as possible and try to find our way around it on the multitude of lanes that we knew criss-crossed the general area. As it happened, that was the right call – arriving at the closure, we found a left turn which took us down a lane (albeit with a horrendously damaged surface, with rough stone repairs that in places scraped at the floor pan of the car!) that ran parallel to the A5 for a couple of miles, finally returning us to the desired route just after the west end of the closure. Despite the loss of six minutes in this diversion, we arrived at the Pen y Pass car park at 0808, two minutes ahead of our scheduled time.
As we travelled beyond Betws y Coed, we were increasingly encouraged by the high cloud base, lack of rain and freedom from mist on the hills. Approaching Capel Curig, we could see the summit of Moel Siabod was clear, and carrying much less snow than when we had activated it just a few days less than twelve months previously. A little further on, and our target came into view. The summit itself was just hidden within Snowdon’s cloudy cap, but enough of the approach was visible to see that tackling Y Lliwedd was a reasonable proposition. After a brief conference we ratified the decision and duly paid the £6(!!) parking fee. In a mood as bright as the morning sun that was now spilling into the valley, we kitted up and (after a short delay, the reason for which delicacy precludes disclosure) set off up the Miner’s track at 0835, five minutes behind schedule.
I realise it’s a cliché, but the first section of the track, up to Llyn Llydaw, was like a motorway – on this occasion complete with cones, piles of aggregate, roadworks signs and an excavator! Remnants of snowdrifts covered the track in places, but not enough to impede progress. As we rounded successive bends in the track, the full panorama of the Snowdon Horseshoe came breathtakingly into view. By the time we reached the point in front of Llyn Llydaw where the path up Y Lliwedd diverges from the Miner’s track, the mists had receded, only the summit of Snowdon itself now being obscured, and the jagged peaks of Crib Goch and Y Lliwedd standing out, starkly outlined against the bright sky. Patches of brilliant white snow littered the dark rock of the surrounding slopes, adding to the fairy-tale appearance of the scene.
After negotiating a deep drift across the path round the Llyn’s shoreline, we crossed the footbridge (still shown as a ford on the maps) and started on the climb proper. The lower parts of the path have been paved into a staircase of huge blocks of stone, and progress was rapid if tiring. As we ascended, a few stretches of the path were under deep drifts, some of which we trudged through and some of which we avoided by taking to the bare rock alongside. At around 640m we encountered the biggest challenge of the climb; the path ascends a steep narrow gully to the col below Lliwedd Bach, which was on this occasion packed with deep snow. It was however, being on a north-facing slope, still very firm and provided some excellent sport as we climbed to the col. Once there, the path opened out into a surprisingly good track that led, with a few nice diversionary scrambles to avoid snow-filled gullies, round the back of Lliwedd Bach and up onto the East Peak of Y Lliwedd itself. We paused here to take in the grandeur of our surroundings. Full sun was now shining, and the views from our lofty pinnacle were staggering. Snowdon had lost it’s misty veil, and all around light was glinting off the remaining snow. Surely Snowdonia doesn’t get more beautiful than this!
Focussing our attention more locally, the Peak itself was more expansive than we had expected, and appeared to offer considerable potential for antenna erection. However it is not clear whether this peak is within the Activation Zone – close inspection of the maps had given no closer an answer than “maybe”, the height of the col between the East and the West peak being indeterminable to a sufficient level of accuracy to be certain. Our true target was always of course the higher West peak, and I determined to take altitude measurements with my GPS along the way to resolve the issue. Our next challenge then became apparent; the section of path that ran across the very top of the East peak, right on the cliff edge, was a sheet of solid ice. The idea of assuming we were in the AZ suddenly became very attractive, but pedantry won the day and a combination of strong nerves and straddling a large boulder to gain safer passage further away from the precipice saw us on our way down to the col between the peaks, where a check on the descent indicated that the East Peak may well be in the AZ. Climbing to the summit of the West Peak, we discovered a smaller area with somewhat less opportunity for antenna erection. Our ascent time had been 2 hours and 43 minutes – two minutes short of the time we had allowed ourselves in the itinerary, and spectacularly justifying Gerald’s “winter bonus” extension to the algorithm we use to calculate our timings. While Gerald searched for a suitable rock to bungee his pole to, I took a further measurement of altitude, which indicated a 25m ascent from col to summit; not sufficiently conclusive to settle the AZ argument either way.
Having finished playing with my altimeter, I found a flattish rock just below the ridge and, with the addition of my foam mat, used it as a convenient seat. As I was only using the RSS antenna, setup was very quick, involving only standing the rucksack with antenna attached upright, and plugging the feeder into the radio! I was thus ready to go by 1128, two minutes ahead of our alerted time. A couple of calls on 145.500 soon brought back Dave G7SKR, who after enduring several minutes of me waxing my lyricals graciously spotted me. That triggered a very gently paced run of 11 contacts, including an unexpected but very welcome S2S with Richard G3CWI/P on Gun, SP-013. After a final contact with Bob, M3UHG in Skelmersdale no further calls were forthcoming so I went QRT at 1216.
Seeing that Gerald was still engrossed in his operating, I took the opportunity to take in the glorious surroundings. Snowdon was still clear, and I could make out the slightly unnatural shape of the end of the new café complex. The Watkin Path down the southern flank of Snowdon was highlighted in white – a crampon and ice axe job for sure! Several people appeared at the top while I watched, but none ventured down – probably very wisely. I had the surreal experience of watching a helicopter carrying out training manoeuvres in the bottom of Cwm Llan 500 metrs below me, while beyond on the other side of the valley stood Yr Aran, free of snow as predicted; and further south Moel Hebog. To the west, the Glyders, Y Garn and Elidir Fawr prompted memories of recent expeditions, and Crib Goch provided reminders of youthful adventure.
I was wakened from my reverie by whoops of excitement, and turned to witness Gerald performing a triumphant dance across the narrow peak, having just qualified the summit on 23cm! He had had considerable difficulty in setting up, eventually finding support for his antenna by bungeeing it to a rock and his rucksack. Calls on 432.200 and 432.222 failed to elicit any response, which prompted a check on the 2m beacons, many of which were audible despite desensing from my 2m FM operation. A return to 70cm eventually brought a response from Mike G4BLH/M at 1117, followed by Dave G7SKR who placed a spot. Stalwart chaser Don G0RQL was next in the log, followed by Reg G3WPF using his favoured mode of CW. Richard G3CWI then found Gerald, after an unfortunate mix-up over which band he would be on, for an S2S from Gun.
A move to 23cm brought contacts with Mike G4BLH/M, John MW1FGQ, Tony, M0ATV and finally Mike G4CPS/P to qualify on the band – the contact which triggered the aforementioned callisthenics!
Returning to 70cm, the true gentleman of SOTA Frank G3RMD was patiently waiting for a CW contact, having been heard calling during the changeover to 23cm. An ssb contact with MW1FGQ completed 70cm operation. 1230 saw a change to 2m, for which Frank kindly placed a spot. Mike GW0DSP headed an excellent run of 14 regular chasers, and Gerald eventually closed at 1258 a very happy man!
We packed up quickly, and left the summit at 1310, 25 minutes later than planned, having taken another summit height reading. Another measurement at the col again indicated it to be 25m below the true summit, and a further reading on the East peak corroborated this figure. On the strength of these figures I am happy to accept that the col is 25m or less below the true summit, and thus the East Peak is within the activation zone.
Having concluded our measurements, we commenced our descent in high spirits. The scrambling downhill and care on the snowy patches took a lot of concentration, but we made good time and soon arrived at the snow-filled gully below Lliwedd Bach. From above, a clear way skirting the gully could be seen, so we took this rather than risking a more hazardous descent on the possibly loosening snow. After this we still managed the occasional disappearance up to our waists in drifts, but the worst was over and we were very soon back at the car, having taken 2 hours and 3 minutes to descend. We had the unfamiliar convenience of changing into our “civvies” for the journey home in daylight, and after partaking of a soupy snack departed at 1545, just 15 minutes later than scheduled despite spending an extra half hour on the summit.
This was a magnificent expedition for many reasons, not least for the excellent support from the chasers, particularly Richard ‘CWI and Mike ‘BLH who went out themselves in awful weather especially to work us. So many thanks to you all, and we look forward to doing it all again from another summit very soon!
Vy 73 de Paul G4MD and Gerald G4OIG