Hillwalking by night, 1994/5

Ben Nevis by night, 28/5/94

J. Parkinson and I set off from Derby at around 5.30p.m. In spite of heavy traffic on the A516 near the Salt Box Cafe [this was long before the A50 Derby Southern Bypass was built] and on the M6, and road widening on the M74, we made it to Glen Nevis, with two stops to change drivers, by just before 1a.m – a little under 400 miles in a little under seven and a half hours.

After a beer and some curry at the campsite near the roadhead in Glen Nevis, we set off by car back to the Youth Hostel and set off uphill on a clear starry night. There was a good moon. As we started at 2a.m in late May, at this latitude we could already see the sky lightening in the north-east. I was very tired, and I found the first two hours, a seemingly endless moonlit slog up the shoulder to the Halfway Lochan, very tough going. As dawn approached the sky was a beautiful sight. A further 45 minutes uphill saw us onto a steep snowfield, up which my friend’s progress, without an ice-axe, was perforce somewhat delicate and careful. It was almost fully daylight at this point.

Very hard snow continued all the way to the summit. We gained the summit at 5.30a.m, just after sunrise. I could see that it was going to be stunning. I said to Jim, “you’re about to see a manifestation of the glory of God”, and he and I agreed that I was right. Visibility was perfect; it was stunning. Between us we shot over 40 frames of superb photographs. [This was probably ten years before the first primitive digital cameras became available at sensible prices, 13 years before Apple introduced the iPhone, and 16 years before I started carrying a camera-enabled smartphone.] Some of these photographs, and certainly the negatives, must still exist somewhere in our attic and one of these days I’ll dig them out and scan them in!

On the summit it was extremely cold. We started down at 6a.m. We met two people high up, vanguard for an oncoming horde of “Three Peaks” hikers. Further down, even so early, the onslaught came – apres moi le deluge. To be on the mountain and meet more than 500 people coming uphill before 8a.m is astonishing. Looking at the way some of them were clad and equipped, we reckoned that only a quarter of them were equipped for the de facto winter conditions at the summit. The summit of Nevis in late May was always going to be under winter conditions. The observatory was nearly buried – the summit plateau was several metres deep in snow.

We got back down to Halfway Lochan a little before 7a.m, and stampeded down the path, running a lot of the way, to arrive at the Youth Hostel before 8a.m. In this way we were able to say that we had climbed Nevis and come back down in less than six hours.

We drove from Derby to Ben Nevis and back in less than 24 hours and climbed Nevis in less than six – starting at the Youth Hostel at 2a.m, on the summit by 5.30a.m, and back down again by 8a.m. The drive of around 390 miles was taken in 7 hrs 20 minutes on the way up, and a slightly more leisurely 8 hrs on the way back. [Writing in 2022: given modern traffic cameras, even with the completed M74, I don’t think the journey could be made much faster today.]

Snowdon Horseshoe at night, 14/7/94

J. Parkinson and I, at this point in time busy people working for a living and raising kids, wanted to get away hillwalking, but we found that the time could not so easily be spared. After our successful overnight assault on Nevis of the previous year, we thought we might resolve this conundrum (and spend less time away) by the simple expedient of doing some classic hill-walking overnight. On this occasion we did the Snowdon Horseshoe; on another, we made a noteworthy attempt on Idwal Skyline, and bailed after rather too long spent on Tryfan – of which more later.

We left Derby at 7.35pm. We parked at Pen-y-pass and started up the PYG track at 11.30pm. The drive in along the coast road had taken 2 hrs 40 minutes. There was some moonlight on the climb up to Crib Goch. We had of course deliberately chosen a clear night as near as was practical to full moon. I walked in up the PYG track, and out along the Miner’s Track, in trainers, only using big boots for the actual route itself.

Unfortunately the moon disappeared behind clouds and our traverse of Crib Goch was accomplished in darkness without benefit of moonlight. It was windy; both of us found Crib Goch technically very demanding in the dark. Scary, in fact.

Up and over Crib-y-ddysgl, up the railway and onto the summit, which lost it’s cloud cap only while we were there, about 3a.m. We found that route-finding on the ridge was impossible by torchlight; there was no way of looking ahead. The light of dawn started to appear as we crossed from Snowdon (Yr Wyddfa) to Y Lliwedd. As we descended from Y Lliwedd, there was beautiful, transcendent morning light. We were back at Pen-y-pass at 6.40am. Seven hours on the hill.

The North Ridge of Tryfan at night

On another occasion – I can’t find any paper notes for this but I remember doing it – we decided on an attempt on Idwal Skyline in the dark. We picked a moonlit night of course, and set off from Derby, arrived in Snowdonia, parked up at Milestone Buttress, and set off up the North Ridge of Tryfan.

The North Ridge…what we hadn’t bargained for, what we had not implicitly understood, was some basic astronomy. The moon shines from the same direction, more or less, as the sun. It is never found in the north in the Northern hemisphere. I ought have known this, having worked at or near the equator and seen the rather odd spectacle of the moon being DIRECTLY overhead – something you’ll never see the UK. Ever tried climbing the North Ridge of Tryfan in the dark? Don’t. A fit party might climb the North Ridge from the road to the summit in slightly over an hour. I’ve done it many times, summer and winter, in between 70 and 90 minutes. It took us three hours. That was a salutory lesson. Wisely we opted not to climb Bristly Ridge. We descended to Bwlch Tryfan and from there straight back down to the road.