Welsh Mountaineering: Winter Skills Course

Besides my heritage of ancestors who worked the mines north of Cardiff, my personal connection to Wales began with my first trip across the Severn on 14 Feb 2015. Since then, I have tired to spend as much time as possible within the borders of my ancestral homeland. I could dedicate many pages to this enigmatic land, but I’m focusing on two days spent in the highland area of the north called Snowdonia.

As walking is the favourite British pastime, so climbing is a favourite British adventure. My interest in geography, climbing, and adventure was stoked by weekly lectures at one my favourite places in the whole word: The Royal Geographical Society. Through this, I learned about Plas-Y-Brenin (PYB). Although I had driven past dozens of times, I had never known what it was. It is the The National Mountain Sports Centre where anyone can be instructed in many outdoor sports but specifically in hiking/climbing.

While researching PYB, I looked into their courses, and within 5 minutes I had booked a weekend of Welsh Winter Skills. I counted myself lucky, because was able to book with only 3 week’s notice. Excitement was elevated during Christmas knowing I would be in the Welsh mountains first thing in January.

Alone, I raced cross country in a 1.4L Yaris towards Capel Curig. Arriving near midnight, I was shown my humble room, complete with roommate. My bunky turned out to be a young London police officer who left his wife and children at home to find both peace and excitement in the mountains. He and I became fast friends after confessing that neither of us knew if we brought the right kit and felt out of our depth by just crossing the threshold of PYB.

Meals were included, so the early morning meant a full breakfast then quick off to the conference room for induction and instruction on winter skills. On our knees, we gathered around an OS map while our two leaders pointed out the routes our two teams of 6 would undertake. We talked about kit, and headed off to the stores.

I needed to borrow almost everything from the Centre: boots, crampons, helmet, ice axe, and even rucksack. Most people did, so I felt less like an imposter. Each person haggled with the storemen to find the right size. We loaded up our kit and wedged it all into transit vans for a 30 minute drive to our starting point below the Marchlyn Mawr Reservior.

We spent the next 4 hours gaining elevation, stopping every 20 minutes or so for instruction in winter climbing methods. Sadly there wasn’t much snow, but enough for crampons to be a necessity. The frigid wind whipped us on the exposed mountain, but the warm joy of excitement glowed inside me. At the peak of Elidir Fawr, we rested and watched the sun as it hung in the expanse between clouds and horizon.

After showers and dinner we had a surprise. One of the kayaking instructors had just returned from 30 days in Greenland and he gave a presentation of his kayaking tour. Normally these trips are fraught with danger, but this turned out to be a wonderful adventure holiday. It made my interest in Greenland increase immensely. Later, I found out that Ollie, our climbing instructor, has claimed many first ascents in Greenland and was a leading figure of climbing around the world. With all of his climbing accolades, Ollie was spending this weekend training me and other novices. It was a humbling experience.

welsh winter skills

Early the next morning meant breakfast then more learning. This was focused on weather and avalanches. There is so much to learn about snow science. Even the names of snow were new to me like névé and firn. It was really interesting to learn with seasoned climbers who drew from real experiences.

Our hiking would start from Pont Pen-y-benglog, which many climbers are familiar with. This took us up a steep Cwm Clyd which required relying on our ice axes to get us to the top. Near the peak of Y Garn, it was difficult to stand due to the wind. We walked to the next peak of Foel-Goch, then repelled down some cornice snow. During our descent we practiced sliding and stopping ourselves using our ice axes in Cwm-coch.

After the short drive back to PYB, the weekend was over. Please understand that this was truly a weekend to remember. I would highly recommend finding a free weekend in your diary and booking whatever they have available. The entire weekend (including two nights, meals, rental kit, transportation and world-class instruction) cost an easy £245.00. I cannot recommend Plas-Y-Brenin more highly.

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