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Danger in the British Isles

Icy conditions in the fell country lead to seven trekker deaths on Wales' Mt. Snowdon and the English Peak and Lake Districts.

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Editor’s Choice tent testing in Wales. Crib Goch and Mt. Snowdon in background. photo: Steve Howe

We tend to pooh-pooh the low elevations and pocket wilderness of Great Britain, but it’s all too easy to forget the brutal mountain weather that makes the U.K.’s small but often steep and stout peaks such a perfect training ground for the Himalayas.

Take Mt. Snowdon (3,460 feet) for example, the highest peak in Wales. It’s easy to reach, very steep, and rises only 12 miles from the Irish Sea. We learned just how volatile the weather can be there during our Editor’s Choice trip to Wales last November. (Stay tuned for videos from our testing and a scramble of the Snowdon Horseshoe, probably next week.) Snowdon’s combination of easy access, steep terrain and changeable meteorology makes for a host of accidents even in the height of summer, but when a warm spell this January was followed by a hard freeze, the fell country of Wales, England and Scotland turned to ice. At least four hikers died over a 12-day period on Snowdon alone, with the mayhem mirrored in other mountain regions further north.

[] 2-01-09: Two brothers, Christopher, 29, and James, 35, McCallion were training for endurance adventure races by hiking the 7km Llanberis Path to Snowdon’s summit, when they slipped and fell from a notorious icy spot on the upper track. Neither had ice axe or crampons, which are recommended for hiking the area in most winter conditions. They fell a thousand feet. Both were killed. At the time weather consisted of 45 mph winds and windchills of -20C. Rescuers found them the morning after they were reported missing.

[] 2-09-09: Matthew Jagger (20), and William Brooks (26)  both took 300-foot falls at the same spot where the McCallions fell. They were part of a four-person group hiking the Llanberis Path. Brooks was mildly injured, Jagger more so. The accident was initially discovered by three climbers who heard shouts for help. While assisting the party they found the body of another man nearby, Gwyn Norrell, 27, a solo hiker an avid nature photographer. Jagger was evacuated by helicopter in the dark. The pilot found him by spotting sparks from a lighter Jagger was striking as a signal. When the pilot arrived, Jagger had fortunately come to rest above a 600-foot cliff and was digging himself into a near-vertical slope. He suffered only minor cuts and bruises. “We were completely prepared with warm clothing,” Jagger told reporters at the hospital. “But we did not have an ice axe or crampons. We went up an easy track but on the way back there was ice.”

[] 2-12-09: Rescue authorities found the body of a 70-year-old trekker in the Clogwyn Valley on the west flank of Snowdon. They said the man was very well equipped, with full crampons and ice axes. He apparently fell from near the summit region, and was alone at the time of the accident.

[] At least six other people were rescued in the immediate Snowdon area during this time, including a married couple out on their first ever ice climb who decided to continue up after darkness had fallen. Rescuers were dispatched when their baby sitter called police at 11p.m. They were branded as “irresponsible” after being airlifted to safety. While the couple didn’t require rescue, their haphazard contact plan led to a needless call-out.

[] Widespread icy condition led to several other deaths and near misses in the Lake District and Peak District of England, and the Cairngorms of Scotland. In the Cairgorms, two young climbers barely survived a horrendous night out by crawling into their bivy bags and sheltering in the lee of a boulder on the unprotected Cairngorm Plateau. In the Lake District of northwest England, two 60-year-olds died in separate falling incidents, one from the Climbers Traverse in Bowfell, another on Pavey Ark in Great Langdale. And in the Peak District north of Snowdon, yet another hiker died, and one survived, after falling in icy conditions.

The lesson here? Easy is all about conditions. When the slopes and trails are wet, or muddy, or icy, or the lightning’s flying and the wind’s howling, your easy hike just turned into a big deal. Whenever you go into the woods in winter, never scrimp on safety and travel equipment like poles, crampons, axes, skis, snowshoes, gaiters, goggles, bivy gear and clothing.

You have two choices out there: If you’re ready for the conditions, have fun. If you’re not, turn around. It’s a simple decision, but one that people often have a hard time making. If you let desire pull you onward when you’re not prepared….well, you can learn from the examples above, or learn it on your own. Always do your suffering vicariously.

Hike safe. –Steve Howe

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