PlantFear Editor's Blog, January 2010
When questioned about the resilience of his forces against the advancing French army during the Napoleonic Wars, the Russian General Kutuzov quipped that "January and February [were his] best generals". The General's remark reflected the fact that thousands of French conscripts had frozen to death on the icy march east - far more than had been shot by his own cannons. If there is a moral in that unfortunate story, it is that the power of winter can never be underestimated.
A very wintry Cwm Idwal in early January 2010
I was out climbing in North Wales for the first two weekends of the new year; I can't recall seeing so many people out enjoying Britain's mountains in winter. There was a surreal, festival atmosphere in Cwm Idwal in the Ogwen Valley. Scores of climbers and walkers were out making the most of this miraculous alpine wonderland. I'm a rock climber at heart, but there are two ice climbs in North Wales that have always held a particular allure: Cascade in the Llanberis Pass and The Devil's Appendix in Cwm Idwal
It was with a degree of shock that I drove back home last Sunday having done both these great routes on consecutive days. Cascade was something of an afterthought: Gruff Owen and I had retreated from Black Ladders due to the extreme cold (it must have been about minus twenty up there with the wind-chill) and didn't get to the base of the route until 2pm, possibly a touch late to be setting out on a three pitch icefall. I'll never forget finishing the final section on thin, sketchy ice, in the dark, with just a single short ice screw in the entire pitch. Jim Perrin once wrote about descending Bristly Ridge on nearby Glyder Fach in a winter gale and of how "the real, memorable mercury of experience was off the scale, and brimming from the glass". Climbing in the mountains in winter often throws you into the heart of your own life, which is what makes it so addictive.
Robins cruising the first pitch of the Appendix - his third ice lead!
On Saturday, local legend Pete Robins and I stomped up into Cwm Idwal to have a look at a few things. The Devil's Appendix was high on our agenda, but we half-expected it to either not be in climbable condition, or - if it was - to be festooned with tooled-up heroes eager to get a slice of the action. To our great surprise, the crucial icicle was in excellent shape, and there was only a single party ahead of us. Pete was so keen for the lead of the crux first pitch it would have been rude to refuse, and he promptly stormed up it - not a bad effort for his third ice lead!
I linked the second and third together into a beautiful, long 60m pitch - the best way to do the upper section of the route, avoiding the poor and uncomfortable second belay on the left. At the top, I was greeted by a gale blowing spindrift avalanches over the rim of the wall, and looked like a half-frozen Yeti by the time Pete arrived. We scampered back down and finished the day off with a blast up the Devil's Kitchen, a wonderfully atmospheric icefall in the apex of the narrow chasm at the back of Cwm Idwal. On Sunday, I woke up to snow and a Force 8 gale rattling the window. But it hardly mattered. I found it difficult to recall a better weekend of winter climbing in Britain.
The author enjoying the otherwordly environment of The Devil's Kitchen (V, 5) in Cwm Idwal in early January 2010