Ice tools are being sharpened, the ice has formed, and for the first time in many years there are hordes of people climbing some seriously hard mixed routes. It’s great to see so many Welsh routes in nick for the first time in many years, and the possibilities of what can be achieved with modern tools are only limited by imagination (and possibly ability!).
And the great thing is that usually, in Wales at any rate; most of these new routes do not impact on existing rock routes. In Snowdonia, the ethical considerations of causing damage to existing rock routes are less of an issue than it might be in other areas, such as the Lakes. After all, who wants to go rock climbing on cliffs that are usually wet, north facing and vegetated, leaving the modern mixed ice climber free to wield his axes and crampons at will on these dark north facing winter playgrounds.
But, hold on a while - many of these cliffs, especially in Wales hold little interest to the summer rock climber for a reason. They are wet, they are vegetated, they face north and also because of this, they really are internationally important for some pretty special and rare mountain plants.
The cliffs of Clogwyn y Geifr (Devil’s Kitchen cliffs), Ysgolion Duon and Clogwyn Du (Cwm Cneifion) are home to some of the rarest plants to be found in the UK, such as Snowdon Lily, Arctic Mousear, Holly Fern, Alpine saxifrage and many more. The winter route “Travesty” on Clogwyn Du is a great example of really cutting edge mixed climbing, but did you know that it climbs through places where the incredibly rare Snowdon Lily (Lloydia serotina) grows in summer? It might not just be that axe placement that's fragile, but also the plants that could be growing in that turf!
With over- grazing and climate change all having a potentially drastic affect on these plants, the recent wet and mild winters could be acting as a “double whammy” for these plants. Not only is the warm and wetter conditions detrimental to the plants, but also climbers could be tempted out onto these faces in marginal conditions when the turf is not fully frozen, before routes are fully formed.
The Snowdon Lily only grows in very small numbers in five locations in the UK, all of them in Snowdonia, and in almost every case on some of the best winter climbing cliffs – Devil’s Kitchen cliffs, Clogwyn Du, Black Ladders, Cloggy and Clogwyn y Garnedd (Trinity Face of Snowdon). In winter its tiny bulbs remain in cracks and crevices and can easily be damaged or totally destroyed by someone looking for gear placements, or even by a single axe placement. Most arctic-alpine vegetation (as these very specialised plants are known as) don’t die down completely during the winter, so there will be cushion plants, rosettes or bulbs lodged in cracks and in turf which could be good axe or runner placements. These could easily be pulled out or damaged where ice/snow cover is thin and this could be much worse if the turf is not totally frozen, or if routes get multiple ascents, without allowing time for the vegetation and turf to recover.
The impact that climbing has on these plants is likely to be much less on routes that depend on well formed water ice, or in the traditional gullies that depend on well formed névé, but there is a much higher likelihood of damage to these plants on the modern mixed routes. Dr Barbara Jones is Upland Ecologist for the Countryside Council for Wales, and a keen and prolific climber herself. Her comments are well worth noting “...in most cases, winter climbing won’t be a problem, but if vegetation or turf has to be cleared out of cracks or removed from niches , for instance to excavate runner placements, then destruction of these plants is a real possibility.”
Some of the ledges on these cliffs are also critically important and unique sites for a collection of alpine plants. These so- called “herb rich ledges” are a wonderful riot of globeflower, water avens, ladies mantle, angelica and saxifrages. They are very uncommon now due to centuries of heavy grazing in the hills, and are very limited in their distribution, and we don’t want to be the ones who damage the remnants of what is left.
So, how can we minimise the impact of our activities?
The obvious no-brainer is to wait until the route is fully formed; the turf really does need to be fully frozen on mixed routes. If the route is primarily on ice, then wait until the ice has properly formed. Bad technique and poor axe and crampon placements can also cause more damage than is necessary – so again for those with less experience, it’s advisable to learn good technique on easier well formed routes, rather than by hacking your way up a steeper mixed route.
Cracks and crevices should not have the turf and soil dug out of them – this is probably the most destructive action of all, and should be avoided.
On approach paths, the path itself will often be compacted into ice, while the sides and edges are a mixture of melted snow and boggy ground. To minimise erosion, it is best to leave your crampons on and walk on the compacted ice, rather than walk alongside the path, which at these times is especially fragile and prone to erosion.
Finally, most climbers and mountaineers are sensitive to these concerns and will want to avoid creating any environmental damage, but not all will be aware that some of the very best winter venues are also some of the most fragile and damage prone conservation sites on our mountains.
So enjoy the winter while it lasts – but, please take care to minimise damage to some pretty special and rather fragile habitats.
Further information is available in:-
Winter Skills – Essential Walking & Climbing Techniques by MLTUK
The BMC Green Guide to the Uplands
The Plantlife of Snowdonia (2002) by Rhind P. & Evans D.
Nature’s Hanging Gardens ; the vegetation of Cwm Idwal NNR by CCW
The Nature of Snowdonia by Mike Raine (publication imminent)
Much of the information contained in this article is from comments, articles and conversations with Dr Barbara Jones, Upland Ecologist with the Countryside Council for Wales