Tryfan and Bristly Ridge - A Winter Ascent
Updated: Mar 26, 2020
Bizarrely, considering the superb winter conditions, there were only four of us on the February London Mountaineering Club Fronwydyr meet. There was Will: LMC’s musician extraordinaire (as we discovered a couple of weeks later in Torridon) and abseil enthusiast. Always talking about when he “abbed off” somewhere or other. Andrew: winter mountaineering aficionado with a penchant for enthusiastic indecision on route choice the night before a climb. Like a kid in a sweet shop who has only limited funds and has to choose between cola bottles, flying saucers and the giant snake. Pamela: club veteran and mountaineering legend armed with tales of avalanches, The Matterhorn and tree surgery. And me. Relentlessly enthusiastic and just happy to be along for the ride.
Friday night sees the usual route decisions that resemble a boozy gathering of battle commanders around the war table. Pamela is going to head up the back of the Glyders. Andrew, on this occasion, is oddly decisive. “We’re going to do some roped scrambles,” he tells me. This is a problem for someone like me, someone who doesn’t have a harness, or any clue what to do with rope. “Well I’ve got a helmet now,” I reply. But it’s fine, Andrew and Will have their eyes on Tryfan and Bristly Ridge, both grade two winter routes. I’ve done them in summer with no rope, how much worse could it be?
We pull up by the shores of Llyn Ogwen and all is winter. The snowline doesn’t exist. We are already above it as we exit the car and rapidly add layers. Now let me get this out of the way. I adore Tryfan. It is more visually arresting, more entertaining to traverse, more airy and more sublime than any other British mountain south of Scotland. It is a scrambler’s dream. It was good enough for John Hunt and the team from the first ascent of Everest, so it is good enough for us.
One of Tryfan’s many qualities is that the climb starts almost directly from the car. We are only twenty minutes in and the time for crampons is already upon us. With spindrift being blown up the mountain, axes are out and the whole thing feels rather splendid. Full on winter adventure. The way it should be.
We hit upon a tricky rock step and Will whips out the rope. After trying to fashion a harness from two slings, I decide that will find an alternate route and arrange to meet my harness-clad companions at one of Tryfan’s most distinctive features, The Cannon. This is one of the great features of Tryfan’s North Ridge, there’s so much route choice that you never do it the same way twice. Yet the navigation is without difficulty: up being the operative word.
As it turns out, ten minutes later Andrew spots me further up the climb and hollers my name. I’m lucky to hear it over the howling wind. The team reunited and ropes stashed away, we continue. The ascent is superb. Some proper ice axe action and many a “power move”, meaning when you really have to use your strength to surmount obstacles. It’s a fully involved climb.
At one point we end up ascending the top of Nor Nor Gully, somewhere I had not been on my previous Tryfan scrambles. Then it is not long before we top out on the north summit and the main summit stands before us like a grand palatial tower, with Adam and Eve, the twin monoliths, crowning all. Menacing the backdrop of all of this is Glyder Fach and Bristly Ridge, our next objective.
We don’t idle on the summit. The jump between Adam and Eve looking less tempting in winter with crampons and the like. Besides, a particularly vicious looking seagull is perched on Adam looking ominously territorial. There’s enough objective danger on a winter mountain without inserting seagull beak into the equation.
We descend the south ridge to the bwlch and start eyeing up the gullies that cut into the lower ribs of Bristly Ridge. Sinister Gully is the one we are looking for and it was to live up to its name - it was a gully. Route knowledge at this point is essential on Bristly, as some gullies lead to horrendously eroded exits that have the potential to send suitcase sized rocks hurtling down the cliffs, as members of the LMC (me included) found out on a more recent visit Fronwydyr meet. Fortunately, on this occasion we located Sinister Gully correctly.
There are roped teams ahead of us and roped teams behind us. The waiting game begins. As a burgeoning mountaineer who came into all of this through hill walking, I am not accustomed to waiting whilst pitches are completed above. I begin to grow a respect for the winter climber who has to wait to climb, who has to wait in the cold, as still as the ice and rock of the mountain. Despite all this, I’m still going unroped, after all, I have not magically acquired a harness between the summit of Tryfan and here. I justify this with the fact that I have done Bristly in summer. Winter... No big deal right? But shivering in the cold, looking up at the team ahead struggling up with ropes, I begin to feel that tingle of apprehension. Is it just the cold making me shiver?
After some effort, the team ahead are out of the gully and Andrew and Will let me go first. The climb soon steepens and the steps are manageable, until I am faced with a ledge that feels too high to get to. In summer, with the precision of bare hands, trail shoes and without the extra weight that a winter ascent begins, perhaps this was much easier. But now it feels much more serious. My crampons are fairly useless agains the rock and there’s nowhere decent to gain purchase with my axe. Eventually I haul myself up and plant my knee on the platform. I am sure it is not what one would call graceful, but I was up above the step. Crux done? Not quite.
After a little more easy climbing, I come to the part of the climb that I recall the most vividly. It is an awkward step across perpendicular narrow ledges, with the gully gaping below. The upper ledge slopes horribly downwards, but it unlocks the rest of the gully and it is clear that plain sailing ensues from there on in. However, to attain this requires something of a step of faith across the void, throwing all my weight onto the downward sloping ledge. Perhaps there is no danger. Perhaps it is all a head game. But at this moment, I really wish I was attached to something. After a couple of tentative false starts, I commit and launch my weight towards the upper ledge. Thankfully my crampon clad foot holds for long enough to get the rest of my body onto the upper traverse and that is it. Sinister Gully unlocked.
Will climbs next, placing gear as he goes. He also battles with the ledge crossing, using his rock climbing experience to make it look more straight forward than I had. Joining me on the upper traverse, he sets up a belay and calls down to Andrew, who steadily makes his way up the gully, taking out the gear as he goes. The tricky ledges also give him some pause for thought and when he joins us on the upper part of the gully he asks me: “How did you climb that without a rope?” “With my heart, in my mouth,” is my reply.
The upper part of the gully is straight forward fun, with no more need for ropes. Once out of the gully, Bristly Ridge is like Tryfan North turned up a notch. It is a superb mountain ridge with angular rock everywhere and superb situations. This is Glyder Fach, after all. If there’s a British mountain that has the personality of the Iron Throne - spiky, angular and bristling with gothic malice - it is Glyder Fach. Today it feels as malicious as ever what with sunlight fading and much work still to be done before the summit can be claimed.
We come to a tricky gap in the ridge, a mini version of the Great Pinnacle Gap yet to come. We have a choice here, rope up or avoid. With daylight waning, we decide the better course of action would be to avoid and rejoin the ridge further up. The ground to the right is banked with snow and progress is fairly easy. Having cheated the ridge somewhat, we find ourselves back on the crest. We might yet make the top before it turns dark. However, the main obstacle is yet to come…
The entertaining finale that is the Great Pinnacle Gap is the climax of Bristly Ridge. A place of great atmosphere, it is the section that I remember best from my original summer traverse. To get down into the gap, there is a small downclimb onto some sloping rock above a sheer drop. In summer, it does not really give you second thought. Today, coated with ice and snow, it looks horrendous. It would have to be a roped descent. But we are running out of time. The climb back out of the gap and onto the summit plateau also looks tricky in these conditions. We simply do not have time to tackle all these obstacles.
As previously mentioned, Will loves an abseil. Secretly I suspect this is the moment he has been waiting for all day. So the plan is to abseil of from the gap down to the more amenable ground to the right. The problem, I still am without a harness. However, Will has a plan and “abs off” first, before sending his harness back up on the line. I hastily pull on the harness, Andrew shows me the ropes (literally) and I’m off. I have abseiled before, but never in a “real” situation and I find the experience positively thrilling. I get to the safer ground below and unfasten. We also let the team behind us use our lines, as they are in a similar predicament and finally Andrew comes down last.
The upper part of our descent is steep and a little bit tricky, but we soon find ourselves glissading merrily with glorious twilight views over to the Northern Glyderau. When we eventually reach flatter ground we take a break and take stock of the day’s events. It had been a fantastic adventure on two iconic Welsh mountains. Certainly up there with the best days I have had in Snowdonia. We end the day with head torches donned, and the snow glistening like so many diamonds. By the time we get back to the car it is almost pitch black.
The weather is not perfect on Sunday, so we opt for the classic expedition to Pete’s Eats. Yes, there are still glorious winter conditions on the mountains but, as we pointed out, Torridon was awaiting on the Scottish Winter Meet only a week away. Little did we know that an evil, unseasonable, disastrous thaw was about to descend on the entire UK, melting all the snow off Liathach, Beinn Alligin and Beinn Eighe. Regardless, after Pete’s Eats, we pop to V12 and I buy a harness (after some cajoling). Probably a wise decision…
If a mere hill becomes a mountain in winter, then Tryfan becomes one of the must do winter adventures. However, underestimate it at your peril.