Devils Kitchen Cwm Idwal

It was one weekend early in February and I had driven over to Wales alone since I was intending to stay for a week and I had arranged to meet Dave in the Glan Aber Hotel in Betwys y Coed. Arriving at the pub at about 10 o’clock with a thirst it seemed that that there was no bitter only lager or cider. To add insult to injury there were no crisps or nuts and after a pint of fizzy lager I was about to leave when Dave and Suzanne walked in. After another pint we drove up to the Towers Outdoor Pursuits centre where one of Dave’s mates was working. There were no students in residence because of the teachers industrial action and so we were able to stay in nice warm beds for the night rather than dossing on the floor.

In the morning we made a fairly early start and left the Centre at about eight o’clock. The plan was to drive over to Bethesda and do a route on Black Ladders. Our early start had its reward and we managed to squeeze into the last parking space by the waterworks saving a walk along the road. Gearing up we set off along the track but even in the shelter of the valley the wind was quite strong although the chief obstacle to progress was the condition of the snow. Although there had been a big rescue earlier in the week to recover the bodies of two unfortunate climbers caught in an avalanche all tracks had drifted over. This was knee deep with a thin breakable crust which resulted in slow floundering progress. After half an hour it was obvious that it was going to take about four hours just to reach the crag and any route would require a bivouac. Exchanging a few words we turned back towards the car with the intention of driving back up to Ogwen for a route on the Glyders.

Unable to park at Ogwen Cottage we pulled in at the layby below Bochlywd Butress. Our early start had by now turned into our more usual late start albeit after an early rise. However, this was a positive advantage in the present conditions and we were able to follow a well ploughed trail up towards Llyn Bochlywd. Carried away by enthusiasm we found ourselves at the front of the queue breaking the trail by the time we had walked round the lake. A strategic stop enabling a few people to overtake while we munched chocolate soon sorted this out and we were able to follow a well ploughed furrow again.

The rest of the crowd turned off towards Eastern Gully leaving us to break the trail up to the foot of Central gully ourselves. This required an immense effort as we quite often sunk into the waist and snow had to be packed down with hands then knees in order to make progress in places. Even worse another team were following us and to keep in front I suggested soloing the first pitch. Quickly fitting crampons and harness I floundered to the bottom of the gully. Once established on the first pitch it proved to have reasonable ice and rapid progress was possible.

Our rush to be first proved unecessary as the following team seeing the conditions decided to give up and go home. Once above the initial ice step conditions deteriorated again and upwards progress was made chiefly by swimming in the snow. After a short stop to warm lifeless fingers I reached the main pitch and waited on a ledge at one side of the gully for Dave. Often about 40′ high the crux was well banked up and only about 25′ high. Since it did not appear to hard when Dave arrived we decided to carry on climbing solo to save time.

I set off in front and was soon grappling with more unconsolidated sugar. The climbing was fairly easy but very insecure with the possibility of a giant glissade should you slip. In the true Scottish tradition frequent spindrift avalanches poured down on us reaching parts even well known lagers have difficulty in finding. Above the main pitch there is normally a slope of good neve but this time we found only more bottomless powder. Eventually we fought our way to the top of this section from where a narrow pinaccled ridge and short section of mixed ground lead to the top. The rocks on the ridge were decorated with fantastic coatings of ice crystals. Normally this would have been an excuse to stop and get out the camera but with the wind making even conversation difficult there was no desire to fumble with cold fingers to photograph these transient ice sculptures.

Eventually the angle of the ground in front fell back towards the horizontal and we were on top but in the wind and spindrift we could have been anywhere as our frame of reference was confined to the few feet around us. It is in such conditions that local knowledge of the mountains is invaluable. Looking at a map would be virtually impossible as it would have been snatched away and torn to shreds in an instant. However, we knew that by walking South for a short distance and then turning due East it should be possible to contour along the Northern cliffs of the Glyders and either descend alongside Bristly Ridge or if we failed to locate this descent continuing by East we would end up at Bwlch where a descent to the North back to Ogwen should be possible.

Even if we were unable to recognize any of these features walking Eastwards for long enough we would eventually descend to Capel Curig. Stumbling off into the spindrift in our own little world we set off towards the Bwylch. Snow conditions on the summit were completely different to those in the gully. The wind had blown away most of the snow leaving a hard polished surface ideal for cramponing.

Like characters in a cartoon we leaned sideways at an acute angle stumbling accross the summit plateau. Only the occaisional footstep frozen into the snow showed that others had been this way before. After some time the ground began to slope down and it seemed that we must have reached the slopes leading down to Bwylch. When the ground flattened out we began a descent down steep mixed ground to the North hoping that this would take us down into Cwm Tryfan. Dave lost his footing but braked instantly with his axe. This must be a reflex action in such conditions or an uncontrolled slide becomes inevitable. After a few hundred feet of descent we stood above a steep rock step which looked too difficult to climb down in the prevailing conditions. Unwilling to set up an abseil in the whirling spindrift we climbed back up towards the col.

Walking some distance further East we again began to descend the slope to the North. The wind was even stronger now and descending the slope which fairly steep we were leaning forwards at an alarming angle. Luckily the wind strength stayed constant or descent would have been even more difficult (but certainly faster) . Eventually we dropped below the cloud and luckily found a track which we followed for some distance. Even though we were now sheltered from the wind and visibility had improved our exact position was uncertain. If we had gone far enough East before descending it was possible that the road below was the A4086 and we would face a long walk back along the road via Capel Curig to Ogwen. However, a brief clearing of the clouds revealed the snow plastered East face of Tryfan on our left establishing our position in Cwm Tryfan and all we had to do was to flounder down to the road and walk a short distance back to the car.

The next morning we had reverted to our normal late start and I drove alone down to the Devils Kitchen to look at conditions. The snow was still deep and the wind had drifted over the tracks from the previous day, so the walk up was hard going. Just as I arrived at the bottom of South Gully the cloud lifted a little and revealed the crag plastered in crystals of hoar frost. The plan was to solo up Central Route and look at the main pitch of South Gully. Some time was spent wallowing in bottomless snow on Central Route before deciding to go and climb the bottom pitch of South Gully which looked in quite good condition and is quite easy. If the top pitch looked to hard it would be possible to escape into the upper reaches of Central Route or abseil back down to the bottom.

The ice was in good condition with the rubbery consistency which often prevails in a slight thaw giving solid first time placements and I soon arrived at the bottom of the main pitch. This was in a similar condition and although the ice looked quite thin it was good. On this day the best route lead under the overhang out onto a steep wall on the right and over a bulge to easier ground. Although this pitch is only about 80′ long it makes up for its lack of length by its steepness. Feeling very apprehensive I made a few tentatative moves. The act of climbing summoned the necessary commitment to continue and the discipline of stay calm, keep going and do not fall off asserted itself. The degree of commitment needed to climb such pitches on your own (at least for me) is far greater than with partner even when , as in the present situation, protection is non existant . Just the presence of another person seems to give a feeling of security.

Concentrating hard the pitch soon passed and I arrived in the easy upper gully which was full of more of the ubiquitous deep powder. Too lazy to trudge up the remaining easy but long snow slopes I abseiled from an in situ peg and sacrificing a peg of my own I made a second abseil back to the foot of the climb.

There was still plenty of daylight left and time for another climb so I walked over to the start of Chicane gully. Normally this starts up a snow filled chimney but today there was a fine water ice pitch with a party part way up it with another party already on the second pitch. I sat down to wait at the bottom but the leader of the lower party was having trouble with the steep section of the first pitch. Water was running down from a “Sword of Damocles” hanging down from the left side of the gully and giving him a cold shower. Unwilling to commit himself to climb over a bulge he was trying to work how to reverse down the pitch and I suggested that he placed he placed an ice screw to safeguard his descent. Although he managed to place a Snarg the ice was hollow and it was only of limited security but he was able to climb down safely. After he had arrived back on the ground I offered to take a rope up for them.

Tying on I climbed rapidly up to the bulge and placed another useless Snarg. Planting both the axes over the bulge I started to move up. Just as I was pulling hard on both axes one placement pulled out and I got a fine view of Llyn Idwal swinging first one way and then the other as I swung around on the one remaining axe. Sorting myself out and re establishing a few more points of contact I was soon over the bulge onto less steep ice. Somewhat shaken I looked round for some rock protection which of course was non existent. Although the climbing was no longer steep the ice was very hollow with large pieces dinner plating off and I was very pleased to reach the security of an in situ peg and nut at about 100ft. The leader of the party above was dislodging large chunks of ice and as I was partly sheltered I belayed where I was rather than climb the extra 20′ to a more comfortable but exposed stance. With the extra confidence of a rope Pete was able to climb the bulge easily and soon arrived at the belay. I then lead a short pitch to the proper stance and brought Pete up.

Although the second pitch is not hard I could see why I had been bombarded by ice dislodged by the party above. The ice in the initial groove fell off almost as soon as it was touched and progress was made by bridging on the rock underneath. The snowslope above this groove was waist deep in unconsolidated powder but fortunately I was able to follow the trench excavated by the previous party. The guidebook description of poor belays at the end of these pitch was indeed true and a prolonged search revealed only a poor flat topped spike. Pete followed swimming up the final slope and as I stood up to take the gear off him the sling around the spike slid off. The climb normally finishes up a groove above the second stance but not wishing to try this in the present poor conditions I traversed for a long easy but still worrying pitch to reach an easy ramp on the left. This lead into the final easy slopes of South Gully and to the top of the Kitchen. Traversing along the rim of the cliffs we were soon at the cairn which marks the top of the normal path and dropping down we were soon out of the wind and cloud heading for a well deserved tea at the Ogwen tea shack.