Andrew Terrill

The outdoor diary of a writer, photographer, and wilderness wanderer

Character building adventures #1

Calm evening and clearing clouds, seen from the summit of Snowdon, North Wales.

WHAT A WEEK! One could despair, very easily. But honestly – what would that achieve?

Or one could head outdoors…

The year’s second night out took place a modest six-mile walk from home. I’ve been outdoors every day of the year so far, loping in shorts over sun-kissed hills, but finally on the year’s ninth day winter shook itself awake, powdering the foothills white. It wasn’t something I could resist.

The walk to camp was uneventful – just peaceful, unhurried, and achingly pleasurable. For some reason, it got me thinking about the first night I spent outdoors without a tent, but not because I wanted a similar experience. Only someone unhinged would want that!

My first tentless night occurred three decades ago in North Wales, beneath the mountains of the Llanberis Pass, late one wild February night. Tentless had NOT been the plan. I was nineteen at the time and new to backpacking, but completely obsessed by it, consumed by ambitious plans. Unfortunately, my ambitions outstripped not just my capabilities but also what my gear was capable of withstanding. As I soon found out.

I’d traveled to North Wales with my college mountaineering club. The club planned to sleep in an abandoned mining hut – four solid stone walls and a dependable slate roof – but I wanted to camp and do my own thing. I was dropped off close to midnight near an official campsite, and only felt the full fury of the gale as the college minibus motored away. Gulp, I thought, as a savage gust almost knocked me over. Well this’ll be interesting…

A burst of sunlight within the Llanberis Pass (photo from another visit).

Getting the tent pitched was a battle. For some strange reason there were no other campers, so I had free reign of the sloping field. I chose what I hoped was a sheltered spot beside a drystone wall, but even here the wind blew with inconsiderate violence, one moment trying to squash my tent flat against the earth, the next trying to tear it clear away into the night. Somehow, I managed to get the shelter pegged to the earth without losing it, but as it thrashed and bucked like an enraged beast I was concerned it wouldn’t stay pegged for long.

To be clear, my tent at the time wasn’t a top-of-the-line backpacking tent designed for year-round mountain use. Instead, it was practically a play tent; a heavy ridge tent better suited to back garden sleep outs in summer, which was what I’d used it for as a child. But it was the only tent I had – the only one I could afford. It would have to do.

Unfortunately, it didn’t do…

The tent a few weeks earlier.

With the tent pitched I retreated inside, but hesitated before unpacking my rucksack – just as well, as it turned out. From inside, the wind seemed even fiercer. Each blast came roaring down from the mountains like an avalanche of solid air; each blast caved the tent inwards when it struck. Repeatedly, I threw myself against the walls, using my body to keep the tent from being crushed. But it wasn’t a fair contest. There could only be one winner, and the decisive blow (if you’ll pardon the pun) came after ten traumatic minutes. A roar so loud I couldn’t hear myself think approached from above. I tensed, the wind hit, and in an instant chaos reigned. I heard tearing, the tent’s walls burst open, and not where they were designed to, torn fabric writhed and flapped, and the savage night spilled in.

But a least it wasn’t raining. Yet.

I gathered up the two halves of my now useless tent and left the campsite. Instead of turning downhill to join my college club mates in their hut, I set off up the Llanberis Pass. My map showed a youth hostel three miles distant at Pen-y-Pass, and it seemed better to sleep there than reveal my failure to my peers. Plus, I wasn’t certain where their hut was anyway.

The walk to Pen-y-Pass felt far further than three miles. In the blackness of night, in the full force of the gale, and soon in lashing rain, the distance stretched out. But with shelter ahead it was bearable, just. I reached the hostel at 1:30 a.m., a cold, black hour. My headlamp revealed a small circle of stone wall, gray and streaked with water. Salvation! Hooray! Relief blossomed, but it didn’t last. It began fading when I tried the front door and discovered it was locked. It faded further when I realized there were no lights visible either, or cars parked outside. And it vanished entirely when I noticed a sign taped to the entrance. CLOSED FOR RENOVATIONS. OPEN MARCH 1ST.

Perhaps you can imagine how creatively I cursed!

Rough weather in the Llanberis Pass. (Photo from another visit).

I spent the rest of the night outside – my first mountain night without a tent. For six and a half hours I paced to and fro outside the hostel, swinging arms, stamping feet, trying to keep warm, sheltered from the worst of the wind and rain by the hostel’s overhanging eaves, but never fully staying dry, never truly achieving warmth. No cars passed, and I couldn’t face walking another step to find a better location – conditions beyond the shelter I now had were too intimidating, too wild. I spent the first few hours cursing the hostel owners, then the weather, then my tent, and finally (and more appropriately) myself, but then entered a state of mental numbness, enduring the ordeal by turning off thoughts altogether. But even doing that, the minutes passed like hours, and the hours like days. I’d never experienced a night like it.

Snowdon seen from Crib Goch, with the wind howling. (Photo from another visit.)

I was practically dead on my feet when the night finally ended. Daylight came: gray, sopping-wet and blustery. At 8 a.m., the Pen-y-Pass café across the road from the youth hostel opened, and I’d never appreciated a café more than I did then. Bacon, eggs, and two pints of hot tea helped thaw me, and positivity eventually returned. Outside, the wind lessened, the rain ceased, and Yr Wyddfa – Snowdon – rose above: rocky and savage, truncated by dark clouds. Weary I may have been, but the mountain called. As I began climbing I made one vow, however: that I’d never spend another night in the mountains without a dependable tent. Never!

Which, perhaps, proves a great many things…

January 10, 2021. So who needs a tent, anyway?
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