Winter Climbing: conservation impact

Posted by Elfyn Jones on 31/08/2010

With the winter of 2010 going down in history as one of the most frenzied periods ever of winter climbing in Snowdonia, concern was raised about the possible impact of winter mountaineering on some of the protected plants and habitats that are found on some of the most well used and popular winter climbing venues.

Winter climbing in Wales seems a strange topic for the end of August – but with the cliffs of North Wales seeing more winter activity in 2010 (probably more than the last ten years combined!), there was concern that some of the protected plants and precious habitats found at these locations would be an inadvertent casualty.

In early July, Elfyn Jones (BMC Access Officer for Wales) accompanied Dr Barbara Jones (Upland Ecologist for the Countryside Council for Wales and a keen climber) and Hywel Roberts (Nature Reserve Site Manager) to Cwm Idwal to investigate if there had been any damage caused by climbers to these important protected sites.

In the conservation world more attention is currently being placed on ensuring that features of conservation interest (such as arctic-alpine and montane plants) in our internationally important conservation sites are protected and in good condition. The arctic-alpine and montane plants in Snowdonia, in the main, conveniently grow on cliffs not used for summer climbing and so there is little conflict here. However, they do grow on the wet, cold, north facing cliffs which are obviously good for winter climbing. We do know which cliffs are important for arctic-alpines and where most of the important sites are and so which could be potentially be damaged by winter climbing, particularly in marginal conditions. However, it isn't just the gullies which are at risk. Mixed climbing on more open rock faces on these north facing cliffs, can result in frozen cushion plants, rosettes or bulbs growing in the cracks being prised out for a good axe or runner placement, particularly when ice/snow cover is thin.

Much has been written about this subject in recent years and an article on the BMC website in January outlined some of the issues and concerns.

However, the only way to assess whether there was any damage from last winter was to go and look at some of the sites which are known to be important for these arctic-alpine and mountain plants and also for winter climbing, hence the strange sight of three climbers eyeing the winter climbing guide on a hot, sunny day in June.

This initial visit was restricted to the basal areas of Clogwyn Du and Clogwyn y Geifr and scanning the cliffs with binoculars, but the locations of a number of rare plants and herb rich ledges are known on these cliffs, so they could be related to the lines of winter climbs and surveyed for possible damage.   Of course it is difficult to be precise with this, as ideally we would have surveyed these areas before last winter and then compared results with our survey this summer. Also, a detailed look at one or more of the most popular lines by abseil would also have helped, but again we would need previous data to compare.

However, with all these caveats in mind, the condition of the ledge and crack vegetation did not look to have been affected by last winter’s climbing on this visit

The tall-herb stands on the ledges appeared to be intact and in the cracks investigated, there was little evidence of vegetation having been cleared, despite them being on or next to known climbs. These sites are monitored quite frequently and so any obvious damage would be noticed.

This doesn't mean that we can be complacent though, if we do get more cold winters and if dry tooling and climbing on frozen turf becomes more popular, then it is possible that there will be an effect quite quickly on these vulnerable plant communities. So please be extra careful and avoid damaging any exposed turf, particularly on these cliffs where there is known botanical interest. It’s easy to say – don’t whack your axe into a crack which looks like it holds some interesting vegetation when you are teetering on front-points in a blizzard and just about to fall off backwards, but, we do need to think seriously about this as no-one wants to go down the route of climbing restrictions in 'lean' conditions. 

N Wales is in a marginal location for both arctic-alpine plants and for winter climbing. Cold winters are essential to both, albeit for different reasons. We can go to Scotland or the Alps for our winter fix, but the plants can’t. So if we have another cold winter, particularly if the snow and ice cover is thin, don’t make things worse for them, they have enough to cope with from sheep and climate warming as it is!

Download a free copy of the North Wales White Guide

This news item has been created from an article that was originally written by Dr Barbara Jones for the BMC Cymru newsletter.

WATCH Conditions Apply: Winter Climbing Ethics on BMC TV:

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