It may have been a fine morning for running at the Berghaus Dragon’s Back Race, but the afternoon could have been better. So could the timing as dense low cloud and stronger winds blew across the Snowdon range and Crib Goch ridge just as the runners were passing through.
Having crossed the Glyders and descended to Pen-y-Pass, where a checkpoint was set up at the roadside, the competitors faced the most difficult part of a long day – the ascent of Snowdon via Grib Goch. This is a rocky and steep ascent to a knife-edged ridge, followed by a prolonged rocky scramble to the summit of Crib-y-Driscol, after which it’s a climb to Snowdon summit, the highest point in Wales.
The approach on the east ridge of Crib Goch, Pen y Pass (17:00 cut-off) behind at 359m ©iancorless.com
For many runners crossing Crib Goch was a concern. They’d heard the stories of its difficulty and the precipitous drops, seen the photos (which emphasise the drops and are taken at the most scary point), and knew they had to cross. Some were excited, some scared, and most didn’t know how they’d react until they got there.
Vassos Alexander was one of those who was worried. “My wife got it into her head it would be the end of me and into my head a bit too. It took ages and I was hanging on for dear life, but I was careful and I did it! Once across I texted my wife and I could feel the relief coming back over text.”
The ascent to the ridge was like a cross between a rubble heap and a rock wall, gradually becoming more and more like a sheer rock wall with extended periods of climbing. Much of the last part of the climb to reach the ridge was four points of contact, and some were clinging on more tightly and less comfortable than others. A few were muttering nervously to themselves but there were marshals placed along the ridge for guidance and encouragement. (They were all local guides and said everyone was very sociable and got on with it really well, even if they were not too happy to be there! They were quite surprised how smoothly the day had gone.)
James Harris leads a pack across the knife-edge Crib Goch ©iancorless.com
The checkpoint at the start of the ridge was in thick mist and not easy to find, and not everyone did find it. There were no clear tracks, just different ways through a jumble of rocks and pillars. Even with a marshal in high vis vest beside it, there was still the opportunity to bypass it.
This is what race leader Jim Mann did, telling the marshal at the other end of the ridge that it was missing. (He maintains it was not placed as described.) He continued and was later given a 15 minute penalty and a ‘strike’. The race operates a ‘three strikes and you are out’ policy, because they’ve found in the past that some races just keep on bending the rules\ ...
(They are strict too on other things, weighing all kit bags, asking to see wrappers at the end of the day to ensure rubbish is not dropped, and checking mandatory kit, sometimes on the route during the day.)
Mann won the day, but 42 minutes, so was still a clear winner, but felt hard done by. Race Director Shane Ohly was keen to point out he’d not been involved in the penalty decision, which was left to other staff as Mann is a close friend of his. He said, “There was no intent to gain any advantage and there was a technical error on the map description, so the penalty was an acknowledgment that he’d made an infringement.”
The approach onto the Snowdon horseshoe with Llyn Llydaw below and the close of it (CP20 - Gallt y Wenallt) beyond ©iancorless.com
There were others who missed the same checkpoint and had to go back for it. One, Dutch racer Jonathan Van der Krogt, didn’t realise until he had scrambled the full length of Crib Goch ... so he went back and collected it, traversing the precipitous ridge 3 times! Vassos Alexander saw him coming back and said, “He was sprinting along the ridge – it was incredible!”
Even after clinging to the narrow ridge the difficulty continued, trying to find a way in very dense mist, though looming rock towers on loose scree and boulders. Most of the competitors simply stayed high and clung to the ridge. One who passed me said, “Upwards, always upwards,” and another commented, “This is definitely not a trail race!”
With a 17.00 cut-off at Pen-y-Pass no-one was allowed up onto the ridge if they were moving too slowly, and this worked very effectively, though those who missed it were naturally disappointed. They had time to get used to the idea as they crossed the Glyders, and won’t be ranked or receive their Dragon trophy for a completion and that will hurt. They can however continue tomorrow and through the week.
One of those who did complete was Alexander and he was a different man to the one I spoke to on the start line. He was bubbling with enthusiasm now, after a successful day. “The scenery is amazing! I’d never done Crib Goch before and it was eye-opening, brilliant, exhilarating and exhausting. I got dizzy from hunger, took a few proper tumbles, cursed all the false summits and felt as though wild jagged rocks were attacking me. But I did it!” He’d been doubting himself this morning and scared by what lay ahead, tonight he’d come through the other side, and answered his internal questions. He added, “I think we’ve been thrown in the deep end today ... at least I hope we were!”
Jim Mann arrives first at day 1 finish ©guillemcasanova.com
At the time of writing runners are still coming into camp, and although there were some problems earlier the trackers are now working so friends and family can see where everyone is and the updated results are available on the race website.