Our day trip to Snowdonia started with the worst possible news. On leaving Hathersage we heard that the bodies of the climbers Andy Nisbet and Steve Perry had been recovered from the slopes of Ben Hope*. I had climbed with Andy on a BMC Winter International Meet in 2016 and remembered him as a very gentle and generous man, keen to share his unique knowledge of the Scottish mountains. During a previous gathering, Andy had been put in charge of a team of Mongolian climbers, who with barely a word of English, travelled thousands of miles to get a taste of Scottish winter mountaineering. Appreciating this, Andy went to great lengths to help. Whilst some of the world’s best climbers stayed inside to avoid the heavy snow and blustery gales, Andy and his team drove hundreds of miles in the search for good conditions. By the end of the week his guests had seen most of Scotland’s road network and completed a string of first ascents.
As we circled around Manchester we became stuck in early commuter traffic. Sitting in silence, thinking about Andy and Steve, my mood began to sink and I considered turning back. Sensing this, Paul chipped in with climbing stories and bits of gossip. We started to laugh and my mood eventually lifted. Soon we crossed the border and the first flakes of snow started to fall. As we passed Conwy, the cliffs of the Black Ladders emerged between the clouds and revealed threads of snow and ice. We made it to Bethesda and parked high above the village. Since the car thermometer registered zero there was a chance that the ground would be frozen higher up. We packed the rack and ropes and headed towards Carnedd Llewelyn.
Craig y Cwm Glas Bach hidden in the clouds
Our plan was to follow the path to the Black Ladders and explore the cliffs above Craig y Cwm Glas Bach. As we climbed up we soon realised that the turf was far from frozen. Ice was peeling away from the rock and slushy snow was collecting under our crampons. It looked like our original plans were going to have to wait. We would need to try something different.
Setting off over snowy turf
From the guidebook it was clear that easy ground lay above us. To get there, Paul set off across snowy turf and overcame a short awkward step that gave access to a narrow ramp that headed away to our left. After forty or so metres Paul found a large block and belayed from it. As I joined him the mist started to break and our options became clear. Off to the left the snow ramp widened and stretched away to the upper section of Crib Lem. Directly above us we could make out the turfy upper sections of Central Trident and Right Fork. Whilst both could be climbed they looked far from frozen. All that was left was the rock buttress to our right. A belt of flakes led to a series of steep corners that were sprinkled with hoar frost. That was all the encouragement we needed. Moving together over steep turf we set up a belay amongst the flakes.
Starting the third pitch
Paul led off and promptly disappeared behind a large block. Eventually he emerged caked in snow and set up a belay in a left facing corner. Joining him it was clear that he wasn’t pleased. “I don’t like it”. He shook his head. He looked above and glared at the steep corner. Whilst it had no shortage of cracks, the thick seams of turf were soft and dry. Were there any other options? A possibility lay ten or fifteen metres to the left but looked like nothing more than an escape route. Could we do better? Just a few metres from the belay there was a series of steep turfy steps. Fortunately these were damper and more frozen than those above the belay. Generously, Paul decided that I should give it a go. Starting off I felt like a small child climbing the stairs. I planted the axes in the turf above my head and pulled. Somehow they held and my feet quickly followed. Three more steep steps led to a narrow slot between an enormous flake and a wall. Happily, I wedged myself inside and set up a belay. Using thin ledges and clods of frozen turf Paul made light work of the wall above and quickly found a belay. Easier ground lay ahead and we continued up to a narrow ridge before escaping onto the plateau.
Cutting loose on the fifth pitch
A later search of guidebooks and websites confirmed that our seven pitch route had not been previously reported. After much thought we decided to call the route “Tank Commander”. Many of the route names in the area have a military theme and we wanted to respect this. But more specifically, "Tank Commander" was one of Andy Nisbet's nicknames. Over the years Andy had gained a reputation for a somewhat cavalier approach to driving. Of the many stories that back this up, one in particular stands out. On a cold winter morning a group of guides had spent considerable time defrosting their windscreens prior to a day of instruction. Ignoring their example, Andy quickly gathered his clients together, cleared a narrow slot in the glass and drove off. The nickname "Tank Commander" quickly stuck.
Easy ground on pitch six lead up to a narrow ridge
As we drove home from Wales that night I thought of Andy and his time with the Mongolian climbers. There's no doubt that the combination of a strange country, terrible weather and the "Tank Commander" behind the wheel would have led to one or two moments of anxiety. But with Andy in charge there's a good chance they would have had the time of their lives.
A fascinating article celebrating Andy’s 60th birthday can be found here.
Tank Commander IV 5 (pitches of 2, 1, 4, 5, 5, 2,1)
Paul Winder and Jeremy Windsor
7th February 2019
We wish to send our condolences to the family and friends of Andy and Steve.