A Winter Traverse (OR NOT!!) of the Welsh 3,000s: Saturday 20th January 2007

­NOT REALLY THE TIME to be playing in the mountains is it? Middle O’January? Not if you feel the cold, can’t read a map, run on roads, have an ounce of common sense or are jus­t­ plain soft. No, it’s more the time to be knocking out road sessions on the dark nights, racing cross-country, thinking about the challenges of the coming summer, or just thinking bugger it and staying inside! But then I think we’ve always liked to set ourselves apart in Mercia haven’t we? And ever since that legendary run from Ogwen Cottage in January 2003 it seems now to be entrenched in modern Mercia tradition that we should head of to the mountains in January, be it to Wales or the Lake District, long day or full weekend. There has never been a set agenda, other than we do proper days in the mountains (weather permitting) and everyone enjoys themselves. Despite pioneering this tradition I confess to doing no more this year than suggesting the date, following an e-mail by Rob Woodall (I think?) trying to generate some interest. Being the only Saturday in the month I had off work I was banking on everyone falling in with me, so when it was suggested we attempt the Welsh 3,000s route, what could I say?

Not exactly known for my exploits over the long rough stuff, listening to some of the comments by more seasoned campaigners brought home to me the enormity of the challenge. Without ever thinking about it too deeply I’d always looked at the stats (22ml / 10,000’) and put it in a similar ballpark as Wasdale, Ennerdale or the Welsh 1000m Peaks. On closer inspection I realised that though the distance may be similar to those races, the record of 4:20 is about an hour longer (by none other than Colin Donnelly so hardly a soft record) owing to the fact there’s more climbing and a sizeable proportion of terrain far too rough to have people racing over (I’d always wondered why there was no Welsh 3,000s race, now I know why) and the other thing folk often forget is that the timed route is taken from summit to summit (you still have to climb Snowdon before starting the route, then get back to Bethesda or Aber after the final summit). It suddenly dawned on me we’d be attempting a mini ‘ultra’ and just to finish would be a worthy achievement in winter, not only because of the likelihood of adverse conditions but also the limited daylight. If Donnelly, I reasoned, did it in 4:20 in summer, going flat out, then he’d have taken maybe 5:00 in winter, say 6:00 if he was just training, plus the time to and from the 1st and last summits, he’d probably have taken about 7:30. And that’s one of the all time greats of fell running, so on that basis we were going to be out on the hill for at least 8, possibly 9 hours.

For the uninitiated there are fifteen 3,000-foot summits on the route, beginning with Snowdon and finishing with Foel Fras, and split into 3 sections, the ‘Snowdon’ section, the Glyders and the Carenddau. “I like a challenge” declared Pete Vale, although “we must do this properly, you know, organise it” said Paul Cadman “you don’t just go and ‘do’ the Welsh 3’000s in winter!” Well I was confident in my fitness although coming off the back of quite a troubled 2 weeks training I did ask myself questions. As long as I was OK on the day, I told myself, then the reduced training would make me fresher (the tapering effect, as if I had deliberately eased down) and I usually have the mental strength to see me through tough challenges even if it means a slow time. Lets hope the weather would be kind…

For me anyway, there’s something about getting up at 4 a.m. that’s not nearly so painful if it’s for the benefit of running than if it was work I had to rise so early for! Saturday 20th was no exception as I gobbled down a quick bowl of porridge and set off to meet David Waide, Pete Vale, Gavin Stewart and Tom Owens at our usual rendezvous, the Burger King bar by Junction 9 of the M6. Our plan was to reach Pen Y Pass at 0700, run up the Pyg Track in the dark and be on Snowdon for daybreak at 0800. Despite being treated to some impressive cornering by David, on the section of A5 from Llangollen to Betws Y Coed to reach PYP on schedule, by the time we’d fumbled in the dark gathering our kit out the boot and chased half of it across the car park by head torch after the wind had blown it, we were to hit the Pyg Track slightly behind schedule at 0715. We weren’t going to rush things at this stage before starting the ‘3,000s’ route itself, and were treated to an earlier than expected sunrise with glorious views of the Liewedds to our left as we climbed. Snowdon was reached at 0828, 28 minutes later than planned, but this was no real problem. The only thing that struck me was how bitterly the cold wind was on the Snowdon railway path, in our faces as we climbed. The plan for the group at this point was for Tom, Pete, David and myself to attempt the full traverse, meeting Paul Cadman and Matthew Clewes at Nant Peris. Gavin to run back down the Pyg Track, drive David’s car to Bethesda to meet Keith and Pauline, who would then drive him to Glan Dena where he would rejoin.

Off we went towards Crib Goch via the short gentle rise of Garnedd Ugain and I for one was glad to be sheltered from the wind. Not quite sure what to expect as I’d never been along this ridge before, the rock was comfortingly dry. With many a ‘best line’ tried by each of us at various points, the speed which we kept regrouping suggested we were going to run well together; were there to have been a particularly fit ‘runner’ who was no good on rocks, there’d have been the inevitable problem of waiting around for each other. We seemed a reasonably well-matched bunch in that respect. On reaching the summit of Crib Goch I didn’t have much of a clue how to get off, however the consensus was to retrace our route to Bwlch Goch before dropping off the ridge. Hereafter David’s route to the road proved better than anyone else’s, owing perhaps to previous experience (a 5hr 55 summer clocking). Our ETA at Nant Peris was 1½ hours from Snowdon and we did it in 71 minutes. Not intentionally fast, in fact not fast at all compared to Colin’s record split of 39. But anyway. There was Paul waiting for us at Nant Peris (but no Matthew incidentally) another Welsh 3,000s veteran with a PB of 5hr 02. If ever I was to struggle I told myself I was in good company (two of the top 5 from last year’s British Championship race at Peris and two ‘5 hours something’ performers over this course – quite an ‘elite’ gathering). Beginning the climb of Elidir Fawr Tom remarked he had cold hands, which I didn’t think boded too well for him at such low altitude, but read on… Before I knew it he and Pete had pulled away from the group. Caught ‘napping’ talking to Paul I made what was possibly a foolish move, spurting away to catch Tom and Pete halfway up the climb. Although it wasn’t a race, the competitive juices still flow when runners you (like to) think you can beat get away from you. I still felt good and we sat in the shelter at the top for a couple of minutes for David to arrive, meeting Paul (who hadn’t gone to the summit) at the col on the way down. Just before this rendezvous was an unfortunate moment for David who after what seemed like nothing more than a careless slip, was to injure himself, ironically whilst recounting to us his horrific experience in the Dolomites when he was bitten by a wild dog!

Climbing Y Garn Paul seemed strong. I guess he should have been, seen as it was his first summit and our 5th, but nonetheless good to see. Over the Glyders and the weather was holding up (being relatively sheltered from the cold wind) and no one showed any visible signs of weakening, even though it later emerged David was in pain. The descent off Glyder Fach reminds me of the path from Bowfell to Three Tarns on the Langdale (only longer) and the Ben race (only shorter). Paul continued to show why he’s run close to 5 hours for the route, not only with his route knowledge but by setting the pace on the rough stuff. Although again, despite David’s injury and Tom nursing a dodgy ankle, all 5 of us were intact as we began the scramble up Tryfan. This is where I began to flag, and as ever on steep rough climbs, my lower back began to hurt. Just about holding everything together my instincts told me to eat a banana on the summit rather than follow the group and wait till I bonked. Rather than tell anyone I was stopping I went off on what I thought was the right path, only to quickly be surrounded by cliffs. Silly me had to climb back 100’ or so (as if the there’s not enough climbing on the route anyway) costing the group best part of 5 minutes. Never mind, no real harm done. Someone said Colin descended Tryfan in 7 minutes. Lord knows how long it took us, although one presumes this was the (slightly) more runnable version to Ogwen rather than Glan Dena, which felt more like an abseil than a descent. Method in this madness was an ‘easier’ route up Pen Yr Ole Wen, if there is such a thing, to begin the final leg over the Carneddau. I wasn’t quite so knackered going downhill and so again the group was together as we met Keith and Pauline. David meanwhile decided enough was enough and reluctantly pulled out.

A few quick hellos and goodbyes and off we were up Pen Yr Ole Wen, which in my mind was the one which would break the back of the round. Either that or break my back! The pain from which I was just trying my best to block out as I trudged up the mountain with Paul. Pete and Tom were off in front and for me it was now a case of finishing rather than try and keep up with them. This being the point at which Gavin rejoined the party it was impressive to see him hang onto Pete and Tom for the majority of this brutal climb. Fresh legs, yes, but strong climbing from ‘Mr Montrail’, make no doubt about it. I commented to Paul how I was in mere survival mode but to stop me finishing I “would have to have both legs chopped off” such was my motivation and single-mindedness. Reaching the top was a huge relief to my lower back, as I was able to run pain free again across the undulating ground that followed up and over Carnedd Daffyd. Turning right onto the Carneddau ridge in the direction of Llewellyn then brought us right into the wind once again. Yes the same bitterly cold wind that I was glad to be sheltered from after Snowdon. Here there was no escape. At this moment in time I was totally convinced I was going to complete the round and thought nothing of how cold it was. By now we had caught Gavin, who had arranged to regroup with Pete and Tom at the wall shelter on Carnedd Llewellyn. The wind really was savage, blowing sideways from the left. There were pockets of snow about and when I opened my backpack some leaked water had frozen onto my spare clothes! We estimated the temperature to be –1C with a ‘chill’ factor of about –15C! Realising the severity of the elements Paul stopped to put on some spare clothes and given the strength of the wind this was no easy task. Gavin by this point was behind us and I was torn between waiting for both of them, or pushing on to keep warm. By the top I was in the wall shelter like a shot, where there was no Pete or Tom who had sensibly decided to plough on, again to save getting cold.

Sitting in the shelter I knew only too well that the next summit of Yr Elen was in the same direction as the biting gale that was beating into the wall I was so gratefully now sitting against. The prospect felt a tough one, but my resolve was still as strong. On went the fleece jacket I had deliberated whether or not was worth carrying, on went a dry pair of gloves and in went a cereal bar and some jelly babies on the insistence of Gavin. Next to come out my sack were my waterproof over-trousers. Numbness in the fingers is enough to make an almost impossible task out of something a small child can do. It was at this point I watched in horror as my legs shook and quickly realised it was actually more than just my legs that were losing temperature. My body just wasn’t warming quickly enough to the increased layers, shelter and food intake I’d frantically applied to it. My heart sank, as I knew it was too late. Paul and Gavin agreed I needed ‘getting off the mountain’ and I didn’t need any convincing, despite how determined I’d been as recently as 15 minutes prior. You can’t ‘think’ yourself warm unfortunately. It’s a case of realising what’s happening, and accepting it. There were 4 of the 15 summits I hadn’t done, but the frustrating thing was how little climbing there was left. It was all ridge running. But never mind, things could have ended up far worse if I had carried on. That was my consoling thought.

So it was a ridiculously steep (but fortunately not too rough) descent off Llewellyn towards the head of the valley we would follow all the way to Bethesda. Not the sort of descent you’d normally choose to do, but we needed to lose height ASAP, and it was amazing how much warmer the air felt the further we descended. Almost like the mountain was centrally heated, although in reality I’m sure it was still mighty cold. Paul and I both experienced symptoms of the more we rubbed our fingers together to warm them back up, the more they hurt! It just felt like the right thing to do, we agreed, to promote circulation and I’m sure it was. It was one of those boring flat runs (dare I say boring with the views around us?) where the destination never seemed to get any nearer, although we were moving very slowly – indeed at one point I told the others “sod it I’ve had enough, I’m walking back”. I didn’t see the point in any more pain just to ‘not’ do the round. It was to prove a popular suggestion on my part, one of those occasions where it just takes one to be brave enough to admit he’s beaten, and they all follow! The best part of this never-ending trudge was turning round to see Pete and Tom on top of Llewellyn having returned from Foel Fras and a successful completion of the Welsh 3,000s. Their time was 7 hours 8 minutes. Gav was a keen observer of properties in Bethesda as that is where he hopes to live when his job moves him to the area in June. A couple of streets later there was David waiting for us, having walked back to Nant Peris over the Glyders to fetch Paul’s car, very good to see in view of his injury. And even more importantly (from the viewpoint of hungry souls who’ve been running for 8 hours that is!) Auntie Pauline’s scrummy cake that was worth every step of it. Thanks Pauline. It was just about light still, I forget the exact time but we must have timed it pretty well. And to add to my indignity of not finishing we were caught in the last street by Pete and Tom who had obviously not decided to walk back like we did. The day belonged to them.

Or should I say the day belonged once again to the Mercia machine? Although there were only 8 of us (including 2 supporters) everything ran as ever like clockwork, which wouldn’t have been possible without Keith and Pauline, not to mention those not attempting the full traverse. It all worked out just right, well, almost. What next? For no sooner were we eating chips in a Betws Y Coed café than there was talk of a summer attempt SO WATCH THIS SPACE…

Tim Werrett