The Mountain Rescuer: “Even experienced people can underestimate Snowdon in winter.”

Posted by Carey Davies on 25/01/2017
Aerial view of a winter Crib Goch and Snowdon at sunrise. Photo: Shutterstock / UAV 4

What’s it like to be a Mountain Rescuer on Britain’s most popular mountain over the wild winter months? Simon Verspeak describes some of the challenges of covering a mountain many misunderstand to be 'safe'.

Simon Verspeak is the training officer for Llanberis Mountain Rescue Team, covering the Snowdon massif, the Llanberis Pass and the surrounding hills. 

Rescues tend to be a lot more serious in winter. There are fewer call outs because there are nowhere near as many people on the mountain; the crowds you get in summer aren’t  there. But when they happen they are generally a lot more challenging. 

Last New Year’s Day, we had five people pinned down on Crib Goch in full winter conditions. Bad weather came in earlier than forecasted. That was one of the most involved rescues I’ve ever taken part in. 

Some people think Snowdon is a ‘safe’ mountain. It seems to have an aura of ‘easyness’. The average person might not really consider it to be a big deal, perhaps because there’s a train going up and a café on top. But they get up there and discover that it’s as serious as any mountain, especially in winter. 

Even relatively experienced people can underestimate Snowdon in winter. They recorded gusting winds of 93mph the other day at Clogwyn Station, and that isn’t even the summit or even approaching full winter yet.

The weather in Llanberis can affect the number of people on the mountain. If the weather’s really bad in Llanberis and at low levels generally, there are less people on the mountain. If it feels okay down here, more people go up, but in the upper reaches of the Snowdon massif the conditions could be radically different. That discrepancy sometimes catches people out. 

It isn’t just inexperienced people who need rescuing. There are a lot of rescues where a contributing factor is that people are inadequately prepared, equipped or experienced. But generally, when inexperienced people hit the snowline in winter they have the sense to turn around.  Often we can be going out to people who are properly well-equipped but just had a mishap. 

The summit of Snowdon is five miles from any road. If you put that into perspective, that’s quite isolated for Wales. It’s a big mountain massif and despite its popularity can still feel extremely wild and angular and remote, especially when it’s snowbound. 

Simon Verspeak of Llanberis Mountain Rescue Team
 
It takes us longer to get up the mountain when it’s snowbound. In summer we can drive in to the mountain up the Miner’s Track for quite a way. We can't do that when it's snowbound. Rescues also take longer because they can be logistically more complicated; often you can't just walk people down a grassy slope, you might have to put them on a rope and so on. And obviously because of the shorter hours of daylight, there are more night rescues. 

There are a few accident blackspots in winter. The section of the Llanberis Path above Llyn D’ur Arddu is a notorious one. People follow the railway because it's a clearly defined feature, but there is a section which often gets covered in hard snow and if you slip you're gone; it’s a long way down. It was a really big problem in 2009, we had multiple fatalities over the course of a couple of weeks. 

Another is above the intersection of the Pyg and Miner’s tracks. It’s very steep there and the snow is often hard, and it can persist into spring. It’s only a small section but people get that far and even if they don’t have crampons they think ‘I’ve come this far, I’m not turning back’. Quite a lot of people get halfway up it then lose their nerve and just can’t move. 

Generally we don't support the idea of putting signs everywhere. They risk fostering a sense that you don't have to take responsibility for your own safety because everything is signposted, and a lot of the time people don't read them anyway. 
 
Ground conditions reporting on Snowdon has really helped. It started a few years ago and was formalised last winter so they are delivered every weekend, and it's shared really well through social media. The more information people have, the better.
 
I think there needs to be more national media attention for mountain safety. There is only so much you can do locally or through mountain media. The readers of Summit or Trail or The Great Outdoors are already engaged with us. The challenge is to get information out to the wider public. How do you reach those people driving out from the Midlands who've never been on a mountain before? 

I look forward to winter more than any other time of year.  I have been all over the world but personally can’t think of anything better than Crib Goch on a winter day. I would love to ski a big line on Snowdon, straight off the summit and into Cwm Clogwyn. 

 

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