In an attempt to make the most of the brilliant conditions up in North Wales at the moment we took Friday off work and headed up for a long weekend winter climbing in North Wales. It was great to only spend 4hrs in a car and be at a winter climbing destination, rather than the normal 9 hours it takes to get to Scotland.
Today we headed up into the Black Ladders to climb the classic Western Gully, a route which Nick had unfinished business with. After a reasonably leisurely start we set off just as it got light and made the seemingly never ending walk up towards the crag.
Not knowing much about the conditions of the Black Ladders we were pleased when it came into view and was suitably white. Eventually we got to the base of the crag and had to make the long slog up the approach slopes, which was incredibly tedious thanks to unconsolidated snow on top of rocks.
Eventually we arrived at the base of the climb and geared up. In an attempt to save some time we started by soloing the easy initial ice pitches, however about half way up we decided to get a rope out due to the ice being fairly cruddy in places.
Far too late in the morning we were at the base of the first proper pitch of the route. We worked out the pitches so that Nick lead to tech 6 pitch. As it turned out this was great for me as I ended up with 3 brilliant pitches. I set off up the first pitch which is given 4/5 in the guidebook, in the current conditions it certainly felt like a good 5 as the snow was entirely useless. The pitch was very bold with gear at around 10m, and then there was a good wire before the crux at 20m, however I managed to lift this out which certainly made me focus! After some easier climbing I was soon at the belay and admiring the fantastic view out to the sea.
After some deliberation we decided to stay on the classic route, rather than taking the direct line at tech 6. Nick made quick work of the traverse pitch and it was soon my turn to warm up and climb the pitch. The pitch was entirely naturally protected, so Nick had taken the rack for a nice walk across the traverse. After quickly re-racking I set off up the tech 5 pitch that followed. This turned out to be a very bold pitch, with some pretty hard moves. The hard climbing was all in the first 10m, which also had no gear! I was very glad when I found a good peg! The remainder of the pitch also had no gear, and should have been an easy snow traverse up to a really comfy belay in a cave, but due to the appalling condition of the snow it was a terrifying, insecure traverse 15m away from my gear.
While I was belaying Nick up I was trying to work out where the crux pitch went, as there appeared to be an entirely blank slab with little in the way of snow or ice on it (apart from useless rime ice and verglass). Nick read the description, looked at the route and we decided that the pitch was in pretty lean conditions which according to the guidebook made it closer to tech 7 than tech 6. Nick set off on the pitch and made slow but steady progress up the pitch. For a change this pitch was reasonably protected, which was a relief considering how hard it looked! Eventually Nick reached the belay and it was my turn to climb, the start of the pitch went really well and I was enjoying the tenuous hooks, but unfortunately while pulling off the slab and into the groove above my foot blew and I took a bit of a hang on the rope.
At this point there was one more pitch left, the guidebook described it as an easy snow slope to a chockstone with a stiff tech 4 pull to pass it and end the difficulties on the route. Looking up was a different story, due to the lack of snow there was an awkward mixed pitch up an icy ramp, with no gear. I was soon at the chockstone and after a few hard pulls was up at the top of the difficulties, looking up to the sun kissed rock a hundred meters above us.
We quickly soloed the final two easy pitches and were soon in the sun on the plateau. The views across Snowdonia were just fantastic. At this point we looked at our watches and realised it was quite late as it was already 4pm and the sun was starting to set.
We decided to descent by climbing Carnedd Dafydd and then descending the obvious ridge. The ascent up to the summit was pretty hard going with lots of windslab around, however this was nothing compared to the descent with soft snow on top of rocks which was murder on our ankles.
Eventually we were back on the valley floor and it was rapidly getting darker, but stubbornly we refused to stop and put our head torches on. We got back to the car at 6pm, roughly 11 hours after we set off.
The route was absolutely fantastic, but really hard and leading three bold, hard pitches certainly took it’s told on my body both physically and mentally. By the time we got back to the car I was feeling knackered and am now enjoying sitting in front of fire while planning for tomorrow. I am very pleased to have climbed my first grade V mixed route, and pleased with how I coped making technical moves a long way above crap gear. It’s just annoying to have rested on the rope while seconding the tech 6 pitch.