“Seriously Del, we have to hurry up. The sun is setting and I have no idea where the start of the path down Devil’s Kitchen is.”
I left him to bumble about with his gloves and ice axe while I tentatively began a hasty and very steep descent of Glyder Fawr, a 1001m high mountain in Snowdonia, Wales.
The grey cloud that had enveloped the summit earlier had lifted somewhat showing off excellent views of the surrounding valleys and snow-capped mountains. But it also showed a brilliant orange orb hovering a little too close to the horizon.
We still had an ankle-breaking descent of about 300m to get to the little lake Llyn Y Cwm and from there we faced a craggy cliff face and vertiginous slope (Devil’s Kitchen – there is probably something in the name there) before finding relative safety in the valley. The only problem was it was starting to get dark and I didn’t know where exactly the path down the cliff face was.
The first part of the day had been grand: a scramble up Y Gribin, where we had to don crampons so as not to slip off the ice and snow-covered rocks, and then a fast-paced stroll along the grassy yet rocky top of Glyder Fawr. The scramble, though enjoyable, was borderline hairy for a winter-climbing newbie like me. And that, coupled with the icy conditions and swirling cloud that shut us off from the other mountains, slowed our progress as we had tentatively picked our way over boulders.
Now here I was in the gathering gloom, pelted by a keen, icy wind, hobbling down a mountain (I’d already sprained my ankle) bemoaning our nonchalant slow-poke approach to mountain climbing. “We’ve got to hurry, we’ve got to hurry,” I kept mumbling, as I looked back again at Del, who might as well have been strolling through a rose garden given his obvious lack of urgency at getting off the mountain before darkness.
Jesus Christ, it was cold. I pulled my beanie further down over my ears.
Finally, after what seemed an age tiptoeing down the mountain, I reached Llyn Y Cwm just as the sun disappeared from view. I knew if we could find the path before it got too dark we would be home and dry (and warm).
But before my eyes, the landscape took on a muted form in the dying light as tussocky outcrops became mere shadows and boggy ground seemed dry until it wasn’t.
With weak torch light we peered at the cliffs, unable to say for sure whether it was the path or just a series of rocks divinely placed to lure hill walkers with salvation but which would instead result in death. We scratched our heads, contemplated our options and wished the howling cold wind would please bloody stop.
The dark closed in – almost a total blackout without the white shine of the moon. A descent down the cliff face was clearly now out of the question. Panic started to set in.
What followed was a good half hour of blindly walking back and forth through bogs, cursing the wind (and Del), wiping tears from my eyes, fearing hypothermia and generally being a very unhelpful psychotic twat.
As realisation dawned that being benighted (stuck out in the dark) was inevitable, we discussed erecting the emergency shelter. Pissed off and freaked out by this point, I sulked that this wasn’t what I imagined my first wild camping experience to be like. But with the wind still blowing, we decided to move inland to try and find a more sheltered spot.
And low and behold we found another path, going in the opposite direction away from the cliffs and the car but closer to our accommodation. What did we have to lose in following it?
So follow it we did. For about 10 metres that is, and then we lost it; a carpet of snow rather inconveniently putting pay to our progress. I stamped my feet, frustrated, looked at the map, took a compass bearing (gave up when North couldn’t decide which direction it was in), thought stuff this, and stormed off in the direction the path was supposed to lead and hopefully towards civilisation.
When we came to the fence and river I almost cried with joy. I could pinpoint where we were on the map and where the path should be – and what’s more we could handrail the fence and river and pretty much guarantee getting out without having an uncomfortable and cold night in the emergency shelter. I was no longer a psychotic twat; I was in business mode.
A scramble over the barbed wire fence and a leap over a snow-covered river followed, and there, right where I expected it to be, was the path. The glorious tiny path of trampled grass and bare dirt. The path that would take us back to a roaring hot fire and a tasty steaming dinner. The path that stuck two fingers up at the mountain and said ‘hell no, we ain’t staying the night here’. I practically skipped along.
Two hours later after we had power walked, zigzagged, clambered down over rocks, climbed over stiles, and crossed a bridge, we finally reached a road with a golden street light. To say it was beautiful was an understatement.
A pick up from our mountaineering buddy (and hero) meant we could collect the car and we were soon back in the warm confines of the hut hugging a hot cup of tea and regaling our adventure.
Sure we hadn’t found the right path (that’s a nemesis that will have to be conquered in the future) but we had succeeded in getting out without a night on the mountain. It had been touch and go but we had lived to tell the tale.
NOTE: Don’t attempt a mountain climb without the right experience or kit, make sure you always let someone know of your plans and always check the weather conditions. This situation could have got dangerous – do not underestimate the mountains and mother nature.