Raising my game – running above the snowline

As I mention in my previous post, I’ve been winter mountaineering for 20 years, including mid-grade mixed climbs and – a long time ago – a couple of unguided ascents in the Alps, including Mont Blanc.   Most of my experience, though, has been in Scottish winter.

It’s obviously impossible to run in deep, unconsolidated snow, but I did wonder what it would be like to run on surfaces that have been compacted by heavy traffic – on the approaches to the most popular coires (Scotland) or cwms (Wales), or ridges and peaks.  I’ve noticed many a time that the snow gets trampled down very quickly, and often, water seeps through from unfrozen burns or rivulets, turning the approaches into snow-ice or even pure water ice in sections.

I don’t mean I’d want to really do this as an approach to a climb (that would entail carrying winter-graded boots and crampons, which would sandbag the runner completely)  but as an activity in its own right.  How would that feel and what distinctive skills and equipment would it take?  The trip would be research into these questions, and also an opportunity to run on the hardest-graded surface of my short running career.

Llyn Llydaw, by Alistair Siddons

Lllyn Llydaw. Photo: Alistair Siddons

I headed off to the Snowdonia massif to take a look.  And as luck would have it, there was snow down to virtually sea-level.   During the evening of my arrival and the following night, there were significant new accumulations of snow in the mountains, and as I headed out the following morning, I wasn’t sure quite what I’d find.

First, I headed for the Miner’s track approach to Snowdon, starting at Pen Y Pass.  A hundred metres or so up the route described by the track, I turned back, finding that I was postholing my way along knee- or thigh-deep snow in places, where the snow had blown off high ground onto what in summer conditions is a broad track.  This wasn’t what I was here for.  To get out of a postholed position, you essentially have to do a one-legged squat – energy sapping in the extreme, and a series of static positions that’s far removed from running.

I turned round.  The car park was filling up quickly, and I figured that if I waited a few hours, this route would get trampled down pretty quickly.  So I headed to the back of the youth hostel, where in summer a path leads up to Glydr Fawr, the first (or last) peak among one of the gentler ridges here.

Mt Snowdon, by Alistair Siddons

Approaching col on Snowdon summit ridge. Photo: Alistair Siddons

I was wearing  my normal trail shoes (Brooks Adrenaline ASRs), but over the top, I’d stretched my new acquisition, mini-crampons from Kahtoola.  I quickly found myself in deep snow, often knee deep, but this time I persisted and gained height by taking a line first west of Llyn Cwmffynnan, then north-west parallel to the course of a submerged high river draining into the Llyn.  This way I avoided the rockier option on the cliffs above the Cromlech boulders.

The footwear/crampon combination was absolutely fine, even on short stretches through gently-angled broken ground, but not cut out for passages of steeper  broken ground.  The shoes have a negative tread pattern, and the crampon spikes are only 1 cm long.  It would be interesting to try the same cramponlets with a trail-running shoe that has a positive tread, but this combo is not secure on icy rock.

I made my way to a little flat area at the 950 metre contour, then headed back.  In descent, the shoe and Kahtoola combintation worked very well.  All well and good, but I certainly wasn’t able to run on the way up, and on the way down,  managed just a few bounds here and there, in the footsteps I’d made earlier on.

Now I headed back to the Miner’s track.  As I’d suspected, there’d been a lot of traffic in the intervening few hours, and I set off again, this time on much-trampled snow.  There were still a few areas of deep stuff with the danger of postholing, but in-between, good, runnable stretches.   I walk-ran in incredible conditions – sunny and virtually windless – all  the way to the head of Llyn Glaslyn, where the route becomes a bit of a clamber.

Here, I continued more cautiously until I thought it unsafe, with my equipment, to go any further.  This was just beyond where in summer, the Miner’s track meets the Pyg track.  But the sun had  been softening-up the south-facing snow for a few hours now, and my footwear combo felt nothing like as secure as a winter mountaineering boot on its own with no crampons.   (And generally, the more expensive the boot, the more aggressive the pattern on the sole, I’ve noticed.)

I reminded myself that the purpose of this trip was to run as far as possible in safety, not to try to complete winter mountaineering routes with trail running kit.  Again, though, I do wonder if there is a trail shoe with an aggressively positive sole that could safely deal with broken ground and/or, soft snow?

I sat in the sun for more than an hour, relishing conditions of exceptional visibility and near-windlessness.   I reversed the steep section easily enough, and then, from the shores of Glaslyn, I was able to run back the whole way to Pen Y Pass without stopping for deep snow, in around 40 minutes.

As a novice trail-runner, I was very pleased with what I achieved that day: plenty of ascent, a technical equipment test and the opportunity to really enjoy my surroundings.

My laces were frozen solid by the time I got to the car-park,  and of course my feet weren’t dry, but didn’t ever get unbearably cold.  I quickly brewed up a litre of sports drink on my Jet Boil, smiling inside at the realisation that I’d unlocked a new way of getting deep into hills and back again – running light.

Lightweight winter trail-running kit

Kahtoolas (mini crampons), lightweight ice-axe and 32 litre OMM rucksack.

My pack for the day was the OMM classic 32 (litre).  In it, I carried: an old Trax top (similar to Buffalo in design), Dachstein mitts, a balaclava, a leg base-layer, a small Petzl headtorch and spare batteries, a cut-down map, a compass, 500 ml of isotonic drink, a double Mars bar and a packet of mixed fruit and nuts.  I was wearing a base layer on top, lightweight gloves, beanie hat and some old mountaineering leggings of a brand that I can’t recall.  I had a lightweight breathable Nike running top stuffed into my pack to start and worn during an extended rest.

My ice-axe: the Alpin Tour 50 from Climbing Technology, which is very light.  I don’t know in grammes, but it seems to weigh next-to-nothing and was heavily discounted in a local shop.  It’s perfect for general mountaineering but isn’t at all technical (and doesn’t have to be for this use). This slides through the bottom gear loop of the rucksack, so I fashioned a smaller loop out of tat to secure the tip of the shaft.

I could have done with ski poles on the steeper ground (to be honest, an ice axe isn’t going to stop you cascading over the broken ground above Glaslyn if you slip), but haven’t worked out how annoying it would be to carry them strapped to the pack.  That’s a test for another day.


About Alistair Siddons

I'm a London-based runner interested in getting the best out of my mind and body. I'm keen to read about what motivates others at all levels of the sport and practice of running.
This entry was posted in Beachy Head, Off-road, Snow, Snowdonia, Trail running, Weather and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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