Scrambles in Snowdonia – Interview with Carl McKeating and Rachel Crolla
Steve Ashton’s ‘Scrambles in Snowdonia’ (Cicerone Press) is a book well known to keen scramblers up and down the country. A new edition is to be released this August, revised by climbers Carl McKeating and Rachel Crolla. I met both Carl and Rachel a couple of times last year as my kids and I joined them for a photoshoot on the mountains. More recently, I managed to get in touch with the pair of them in the hope I could persuade them into contributing towards a question and answer session about the new book. They were only too happy to help…
Q1: Why was it felt that a new updated revision of the hugely popular Scrambles in Snowdonia book was needed?
Rachel: We were huge fans of the groundbreaking original work and had massive respect for the book. I mean, here was a guide that had invented the UK scrambling grades as we know them and had pretty much defined scrambling as a pastime. It was the authoritative text in its field but it hadn’t been touched since the second edition in 1992, so an update was long overdue. In the intervening quarter of a century things had changed a fair bit, both on the ground and in what was expected of modern climbing guide books. The original author, Steve Ashton, had retired from climbing and guide book writing, so the mantle ended up been passed on to us.
Q2: Is there a reason why those who already own the older edition should go out and buy this one?
Rachel: Yes, lots of reasons. First up, there are 16 new routes which lovers of the old guide will be excited to check out. While we have tried to keep as much of the original text as possible, there have been significant updates in order to ensure scramblers have the best possible experience out on the hills. We re-climbed all the routes – often several times – and added more detail where we felt that things had changed or where people could go wrong. There is no question the guide is the authoritative text in the field and indispensable for any enthusiast of the Welsh hills. The book is now even more user-friendly – with OS mapping included and detailed colour photo topos for every route. There are also great colour photos of scramblers often on key parts of routes that are both inspirational and helpful for orientation.
Q3: Have any new routes been added?
Carl: In total 16 new routes have gone in, while 5 routes of lesser quality have been taken out and put on the book’s supporting website (they too have nonetheless been updated – we were definitely thorough!). So originally the book had 69 routes, but now it has 80 of the best scrambles in Snowdonia. We have been careful to ensure the new routes are fully in keeping with the premise of the original book. A lot of different route lines were checked out and we only considered adding new routes in if they stood up well against the classics that are already in the book, or fitted in terms of difficulty and so on. Some routes, like Cyfrwy Arête on Cadair Idris, we added because they are classics in areas of the National Park that weren’t covered in the original book. The Cyfrwy Arête was one of the first things we discussed with Steve when we took the project on because it’s such a fantastic much-loved route that has attracted generations of scramblers. Elsewhere we had a sense of Steve’s work in other guide books to help give us a sense of his perspective that could inform our decisions on route inclusions. Steve had included the Moel Siabod Ridge Circuit, for example, in his Ridges of Snowdonia (Cicerone) – although we wrote a new description for it to fit the scrambling guide. Some routes that we added, like Notch Arête on Tryfan’s West Face or the Penmaenbach Arête near Conwy, had become more well-known over the years since the original guide. One route has not been described elsewhere – Esgair Felen Direct. This was a route I designed in response to the fact that the only route linking the Pass of Llanberis and the Ogwen valley was Bryant’s Gully. While Bryant’s is awesome – indeed one of the longest and best scrambles in Snowdonia – after periods of heavy rain it can be an absolute epic! The nearby Esgair Felen Direct offers a dry alternative. Steve had often hunted out lost or long-forgotten easy climbs from ancient guide books that had hardly been described and then brought them to life. A route we added really paid homage to that approach, although we came at it from another angle. The South Ridge Variant, Rhinog Fach had once been known as the Hywel Ridge – a ‘Mild Difficult’ rock climb. Over the years it had been refashioned into a contrived Severe grade rock climb. We have simply taken it back so it is closer to the original; it is a great route that gives scramblers a superb option in an incredibly picturesque and less-frequented area of the National Park.
Q4: Have any of the existing scrambles been changed in terms of the actual route?
Carl: Yes, quite a few have. Often the tweaks will not stand out to readers, which is how it should be with an update. Steve’s routes are absolutely amazing and we were keen to avoid any unnecessary changes. One of the bigger changes that springs to mind is Broad Gully Ridge in the Carnedds. The route almost didn’t make it into this edition as the start had become hopelessly greasy and the middle section was now far too precarious for its grade. We worked out a new start that has greatly increased the amount of scrambling on the route and resolved the middle section with a tricky but pretty satisfying sequence. The route is a much more enjoyable proposition now. One of the funniest changes was to the rarely ascended Tregalan Couloir. Steve had altered the middle section for the second edition but described that change as ‘scruffy’. When we went back to look at the route, we found the line he had described for the first edition was now in excellent nick and really a highlight of the route. So we’ve changed it right back to Steve’s original route of 1980! The use of the 3S grade for this edition allowed us a bit of leeway to add some of the trickier lines that had become quite popular for – usually roped – scramblers but that were not in the original guide. Often these take us onto a short pitch of Diff rock climbing (as you would expect on a grade 3S scramble). For the Clogwyn y Person Arête, for example, we’ve added the front line on the Parson’s Nose (3S/Diff) as well as clarifying the grade 3 line to the top of the nose which is – in my view – considerably better than both the 3S line and the Western Gully approaches. Another substantial change is a major description expansion. The Porcupine Ridge on the upper Braich Ty Du Face had quite a limited description in the last edition – hopefully now the expanded description will encourage people to make it up there because it really is an impressive and adventurous place to be scrambling on a sunny afternoon.
Q5: Have any of the scrambles been re-graded?
Carl: Yes, but to be honest people will find fewer changes than might be expected after 25 years and a fresh perspective. We climbed every route for the new edition – often several times – and really thought long and hard about all the grades. Likewise we had our ears open to other scrambler’s feedback on routes. Grades are always the most hotly debated area of climbing, which is healthy. While consensus can be reached, you’ll never please everyone. We found Steve to be pretty much spot on most of the time. In fact, it was a really reassuring thing to be out soloing hard scrambles for the guide and find the holds exactly where they should be at the grade. We didn’t make changes for the sake of it and were careful not to succumb to grade creep – which really is a problem at the moment in British climbing. I think the route that received most attention was Main Gully on Glyder Fach and whether to upgrade it from grade 1 to grade 2 because of its tricky chockstone. Some people find this chockstone to be really inexplicably awkward, while other scramblers find it a total breeze. In the end we settled on grade 1+ but added more detail and have given any perplexed scramblers a more conventional and easily accessed alternative in the form of the East Gully. We are happy with this decision; it just wouldn’t have been responsible to put Main Gully in the same grade band as Bryant’s Gully, North Buttress Variant or Bastow Buttress Variant, for example. We did adjust the grading system slightly by using a + and – system, in addition to the 3S grade, and therefore tightened and clarified a lot of grades. This was most important at grade 1 where there was often a considerable appreciable difference between the lower and higher ends of the grade band. The Southern Ridge Circuit at 1- is a really very different outing to Milestone Gully at 1+, for example. Another change is that we’ve got rid of the 1/2 and 2/3 grades after concluding it was probably more helpful to avoid ambiguity and state which side of the grade border they were on.
Q6: Scrambling can be quite dangerous; did you have any close calls?
Rachel: Yes – there was one significant close call, but not how you would expect. Keen to get scrambling, Carl had bolted down a cheese sandwich at the bottom of a route on Glyder Fach. His friend Anna saved his life with a Heimlich manoeuvre! Carl has another story about clinging to the ground on the summit of Crib y Ddysgl because the cross winds were too strong to stand up…
Q7: Classic and well-known routes aside, are there any hidden gems you would recommend?
Carl: Too many to name, really. Every route in the guide is worth doing and should offer scramblers a rewarding experience. The Devil’s Kitchen is a classic – usually wet – outing that would have been popular in the 1930’s but very few people these days ever dare undertake it. The Eastern Terrace of Cloggy at 1+ is well-known to higher grade climbers who use it as a descent from Cloggy’s sinister dark cliffs and don’t pay too much attention to it. But for the scrambler, it really is a great atmospheric outing at an amenable grade. Combine it with one of the Llechog routes and you’ve got an awesome way to the summit of Snowdon. The Eastern Terrace was first climbed in 1798 and is a contender for one of the oldest recorded recreational rock climbs… but I’ll stop there before I get too geeky!
The new edition of Scrambles in Snowdonia is due to be published on the 15th August 2017, and will be available directly from Cicerone Press themselves, or alternatively from any number of other book retailers.