This has long been one of my favourites! A spectacular location, rife with solitude and character. Complete with interesting climbing for over 300 metres! What could be better?!
It is apparent it is late autumn, the wind blows ever more frequently from the North, the trees are almost completely stripped of their leaves and the days are becoming shorter and shorter. Outdoors, this evokes a mixture of emotions that generates an atmosphere that is synonymous with this time of year. One of excitement, yet anticipation for what lies ahead. Nowhere is this more true than in the mountains. An early start at the back of the Carneddau saw these expectations met in abundance.
Upon parking the car after an early morning start, we emerged into the dim morning light of exactly one of these days. The lack of visible snow on the surrounding peaks filled us with confidence that our chosen route should be climbable without the relevant winter apparel. We set off in the sharp morning air in the direction of Cwm Eigiau. Not before long it soon became obvious that the wind was biting cold, thumping us relentlessly in the face. The only rest-bite was the natural turns and twists of the trail that led us into our mountain amphitheatre.
Out of the wind the still air seemed warmer than expected and the inevitable perspiration soon became a threat from the combination of winter layers, uphill trekking and a heavy pack. The silhouette of Pen yr Helgi Du and the ridge that forms the top of Craig yr Ysfa was soon visible, yawning in a hat of clouds perched above the vast empty Cwm. The trail took us through an atmospheric quarry. Derelict for many years, subject to the harsh Welsh mountain weather. When we emerged from the ruined outbuildings and large crumbling doorways covered in moss and damp, the great cleft in the cliff above could be seen for the first time. The amphitheatre.
We followed the rough trail that headed up to the base of the crag, hopping over small rivers, two insignificant specs, dwarfed by the expanse of the surroundings. As we neared the cliff, a distinct sense of foreboding fell over us as we looked up at the imposing cliff swallowed by dense cloud. The dramatic landscape could not be more intimidating almost seemingly impassable and yet such an inviting excursion for the climber that boldly holds the route through.
At the beginning of the route it was immediately apparent that the rock was almost like ice. Friction would be no use today, the wet, greasy rock questioning us, almost challenging for access. And cold, wow – so cold! After about 10 metres of climbing I began to realise I was stuffing my hands into cracks I could not feel. Pulling on holds as if there was nothing in my hand. Complete numbness. This sensation was an alien one but one that I had to trust, the only other option – one of danger, the danger of falling.
I finished the pitch and hastily pulled my gloves on at the belay. Finally, some feeling. As my hands gradually warmed I looked up – the overcast greyness of the day had began to lift and the beauty that surrounded me appeared to shine all around me, as if trying to highlight to me the reason why we do this. All worthwhile. As we progressed from pitch to pitch, the sun poked out fleetingly from the misty clouds above, gracing us with a momentary glimpse of strong autumn rays pouring down on us. I was in my element and I could not be happier.
Higher and higher we continued until retreat was almost not an option. The climbing although only low in grade, becoming ever more challenging while we ‘big boot bashed’ our way up the greasy rock. Until, finally, the crux pitch. The jaws of the amphitheatre dropping away immediately to the right and the left offering an impassable vegetated slope – we only had one option. Up.
“Completion was a necessity.”
The move to gain the crest required a left side pull on a rounded piece of rock and a smear of the foot on a sloping right-hand slab. Improv time! I cautiously headed round to the side above the amphitheatre and gained a dubious looking thin ledge for my right foot instead of the smear. With a push of my right and a left toe hopefully sticking to a rounded nobble around to the front I could probably reach the side pull.
No good. I came off, the left toe slipped off and I managed to stop a fall by grabbing the rock with my right. Back to the drawing board. Perhaps it was possible the conventional way. I had to try. Retreat at this stage would mean leaving quite a bit of gear behind and something I would rather not do. Not only this, we would be past the difficulties of the crux and just have the scramble pitch, the magnificent knife edge pitch and the upper terrace pitch left to enjoy. Completion was a necessity.
I couldn’t even gain traction on the rock to get on the move, the smear definitely not the way to do it. After a repeat of plan ‘A’ around 4 or 5 times, I finally made the side pull which allowed me to gain height to get a good hold above me. The next thing I needed a foot hold to get the next move. Fail. The wet rock would not allow it. Down climb and lower off the last piece of gear was the only option. However, I had learned from this. I now knew what I needed. A foot placement.
I managed to jam a number 4 wall nut in higher up and attach a sling to it which fell in about the right position I needed my foot placement. Finally, after several attempts again, up I get, to where I need to be, puffing and panting reaching the top of a pinnacle. Realising my arms were significantly pumped at this point, I quickly dropped a sling around the spike, clip, Tom took in the slack – ahh rest. We got there in the end,
Or did we…
The way ahead to gain the ledge, required another sequence. Having used all my energy to get up this far and the ever-greasy rock we were faced with. The seriousness of the very real possibility of falling off this thing which was not only out of sight from the belay but awkward for gear placements. Tom made it known he was concerned at the amount of light we had left and the fact he also had to get up this thing. He opted for the retreat. Secretly, I wanted to continue thinking one more final push and the wet crux would be done. Then the enjoyable and most rewarding part of the route could have been followed up to the top. But nevertheless, I have a policy, if there is a conflict of interest about a decision when someone isn’t comfortable with continuing, I will always support the most conservative option.
He lowered me from the sling over the top of the pinnacle and with great difficulty we managed to ‘whip’ it off the pinnacle with the rope once I was back at belay ledge. From here, I down climbed a section to a good ledge on the amphitheatre side and peering over could see a ledge part way down in the amphitheatre that looked easy enough to scramble down and walk round to the bottom. The rope should just about reach. There was only really one place to abseil from. A large chokestone. Result! looks like someone had a similar idea, there was already a sling and krab around it. I inspected the gear, all seemed to be intact. I inspected the anchor – vibrations and movement of the rocks surrounding the boulder. Not a chance was I abseiling off this thing!
In the end, with fading light and, well, no other options. We made a multi-pitch abseil back down to the base of the crag leaving the gear as we went. The next climber on this route with get a nice early Christmas present, the ‘crag swag’ included:
- four 120cm slings
- three snap gates
- locking karabiner
All things considered, we were safe and had a great day out of solid climbing. Tom was so relived he whooped and hugged me when we were down. I joined in the celebrations as we gained level ground and had a warm brew of hot chocolate before the hike back to the car park.
As we made our way back in the fading light, the mood of the surroundings changed with the blackness swallowing the peak tops and distance features to make us alone and isolated in the gathering night. As I looked across the reservoir in the valley I felt happy and privileged to be out in nature. For the whole day, we had been treated to searching views, dry weather, unrivalled solitude and been protected by the cliff from the prevailing icy wind. One of the most magnificent places that really helps to connect with your inner spirit and plugs in to all of those values I hold meaningful. Completely, at peace.
We arrived back at the car, and despite our retreat, I felt I had satisfied my frequent urge to come to the mountains and climb. Later I learned ‘Ysfa’ translates to roughly ‘craving’ or ‘itching’, very apt I thought, as this place always seems to scratch my climbing itch, but keeps on inspiring me to return time and time again craving more adventure!
Video of this day out available here.