What is Winter? / by Joe McCarthy

I do not claim to be an expert in winter travel. In my last post I shared with you my naive introduction to snowshoeing at the tail-end of a Canadian winter. My travels since then have taken me to some far away and wild locations, but never have I undertaken a true winter epic. With this in mind I headed for Snowdonia in early December hoping to gain cold-weather experience and to test out some equipment before a snowshoe trip planned for 2017. My plans were thwarted when I arrived to find only a meagre dusting of snow on the summit slopes of Snowdon. Where are you winter!?

Equipped with a borrowed ice axe and some piss poor crampons (just in case) I ascended up and into the Cwm Tregalan. The sun was setting as I came across an old ruin from the long gone days of a slate mine. Man's influence had created a bizarre setting of slate piles spilling out from the hillside, separating like giant fingers upon the wild scrub; with a scattering of rough shelters and caves that swallowed my torchlight. After some home maintenance, including laying a new stone floor free of sheep shit I bedded down in my bivvy with a hot chocolate and my latest read: Jack Kerouac's On The Road. If it was calm when I went to sleep it definitely wasn't when I first awoke in the night. A chilling gale launched itself in bursts through the large opening at the shelter's front, whistling eerily at a thousand pitches through a thousand gaps in the stonework. My night was a restless one, filled with dreams and visions as I continuously drifted in and out of a wind induced stumour. "I do this to myself" I said to my porridge in the morning. My porridge looked back, silent and grey.

I walked where my boots led me, my spirits lifting as the sun rose. After undertaking mostly well planned day-hikes in Scotland in the summer (thanks to walkhighlands: a delightful website of detailed hiking routes!) I felt that a lack of route planning and direction would help to keep my navigation sharp and my journey pure for the next 3 days. The only constraint was the daylight hours and I pondered on how different the situation could be if visibility was poor and conditions tough. But for now the weather was truly beautiful, with sun drenched peaks to climb and a wind-buffeting scramble on Mynydd Drws-y-coed. That sent the pulse racing (and the nose running)!

After 3 days in the hills I descended through a mist into Bedgellert. The sights and sounds of structure returned. A farmer driving his pick up down a tree-lined dirt road, passing me with a no nonsense nod as he went about his daily routine. The 9 o'clock bell rings shrill as I descend further into the town; the school children stood to attention in the playground like miniature soldiers. I hear the mother tongue of Welsh spoken by neighbours outside terraced houses. The normalities of village life seemed foreign and strange after my isolation with nature.

So my borderline-obsessive pursuit of winter had honed my senses, not just on my return to civilisation but also on the hill. I was constantly reading the landscape, searching for the elusive traces of cold in this mild December: frost and ice accumulating in the shadows of drystone walls, the whipping cracks created by frozen grasses clashing at the lakeside, the half frost-clad pine trees showing the arcing movement of the days sun, the bitterly cold westerlies on the windward slopes. With these subtle reminders of a winter yet to come I left Wales having been blind to the warning signs. Maybe there is yet hope for my snowshoes!