Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Tryfan's game of ghosts

The news last night that a daughter in her early 20's watched her father fall to his death on Tryfan yesterday, was a terrible reminder of the perils of descending unfamiliar ground on a mountain. Although the circumstances haven’t been made public yet, North Wales Police have revealed that the man in his early 60‘s, fell when he was descending the East Face’s North Gully. For those unfamiliar with Tryfan-and there can’t be many walkers and climbers who haven’t set foot on the mountain- the east face of the 3000‘ peak above the Ogwen Valley in northern Snowdonia- is essentially five buttresses. Each separated by a gully.

The main summit is situated on the Central Buttress where the monoliths, Adam and Eve stand proudly against the skyline. Tradition has it that a true ascent of the mountain involves leaping from one block to the other, although the consequences of a slip here, high above the Central Buttress doesn’t bear thinking about. Separating the Central Buttress from the neighbouring North Buttress is the deep defile of North Gully. For those familiar with the mountain and with experience, it is a tempting quick way down to Heather Terrace. Providing you locate Little Gully with is an offshoot of North Gully on the right-facing out-and approximately two thirds of the way down.

Even if you do locate it, it is still a steep and polished down scramble which requires care and confidence. Problems arise if you miss this deviation as the continuation of North Gully is lethal. A steep drop which at the very least requires an abseil descent. Several years ago when I was helping out with the CC’s Ogwen guidebook, I got to know the mountain as well as anyone. I seemed to be up there all the time. Checking out the West face climbs and scrambles. Often on my own- and helping the guidebook author locate and climb many of the East Face’s ‘lost’ routes.

Usually a day on the East Face involved coming down North Gully. One early evening after we had reached Heather Terrace we noticed a middle aged couple coming down after us. Despite being warned that they were heading for a potentially catastrophic section of gully and being directed back up to the start of Little Gully, macho man decided he knew what he was doing and ignored all warnings with the inevitable consequences that saw his wife fall and smash herself up quite badly and requiring being airlifted off the mountain. Luckily she survived.

Not that I haven’t been similarly cavalier myself on Tryfan in the past. About twenty years ago I found myself on the summit with my young son one late afternoon in late November. At that time of the year, late afternoon turns into night before you know it. Nothing for it but to come down North Gully. Unfortunately I missed the start of Little Gully and in the gloom decided to pick a line across the North Buttress. Weaving across rock climbs, scrambles and unfrequented terrain. Going down carefully then helping the laddo negotiate the frequent rock steps and awkward passages. We made it to the terrace as night was really setting in. Even then, its an awkward descent getting back down to the A5 in the dark and little wonder every year walkers get benighted or phone the MR Team to bail them out.

I was once told that more people have been killed on Tryfan than on the Eiger. Whether this is true or not I cannot say, but the mountain certainly features heavily in the MRT incident stats. For those with experience both faces can be  wonderful playgrounds. From the lonely multi pitch mountaineering routes and scrambles on the rarely frequented West Face, to the hustle and bustle of the east buttresses. Don’t believe all the scare stories you hear about Tryfan. After an incident on the west face several years ago, a MR spokesman said it was so dangerous..’even the mountain goats don’t go there!’ . Well that’s a bit over the top and once again, if you are an experienced outdoor person who is familiar with technique on steep terrain and who is properly equipped then you’ll find your way up or down the West Face. The East Face though is a different proposition.

Because it is generally steeper and rockier than the west face, those descending the mountain-if they are not experienced rock climbers- will inevitably be restricted to the gullies and as you’ve been reading. Unless you have your wits about you, it could be the last descent you ever make. Take care.

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