Welcome to "On Belay With..."! This is a series of short interviews with all sorts of folks involved in mountain medicine. Joining us at the belay today is Dr Ffyon Davies. Ffyon is an Emergency Physician based in North Wales...
What was the last mountain you climbed?
Snowdon in winter conditions - it was epic. It was the first winter ascent of any Welsh mountain I have done solo. I was so lucky to be able to make it out in Dec 2020 just before the latest lockdown, in beautiful winter conditions. I have never experienced Snowdonia in such fine winter form! Crampons and ice axe were essential from about 400m upwards on the Pyg Track. Also a first winter ascent for my little welsh collie - I was a little concerned about how she'd do in winter conditions, but her claws were brilliant little doggie crampons! I usually avoid Snowdon - it's always busy and crowded, but on this particular day, only the hardcore were out and about on the mountain. My original plan was to ascend the Watkin Path and down the Clogwyn Du ridge, but due to a late start and the weather forecast set to deteriorate earlier than expected, I changed plan to avoid being caught in poor visibility on the ridge.
What does the perfect mountain day consist of?
I like some challenge to be involved in a good mountain day - whether that is the conditions, navigation, length or difficulty of the route, sometimes a little scramble. A bit of challenge makes you feel like you learn something every time you go out on a mountain, and that you deserve that summit (and a pint in the pub)! I love getting to a summit, especially if it's by way of a ridge/scramble with a great view.
-Not many people. For me the mountains is all about getting away. I try to avoid routes/times when I know there will be lots of people on the mountain. I guess you could say I don't like sharing my mountains! That being said, sharing it with friends/family is especially rewarding.
-I try to select days/routes that are dog friendly. I was so lucky to get my welsh collie Foxy back in July 2019, and she's been my companion on mountain adventures ever since she was a few months old - a short walk up Y Garn and down Devil's Kitchen - even if she did have to be tucked in a jacket to reach the top! She's great company, and is happiest in the mountains. Sometimes I have to leave her behind if I fancy doing more of a scramble or climbing adventure, and always miss her company! I do find it sometimes limits the routes or expeditions you can plan with a dog, but she remains the best foot warming device on the market and my best mountain pal!
Foxy's first mountain - Y Garn, The Gliders, Snowdonia. A quick drink out of my helmet on the way up!
On our way back from a round trip to Cae Amos bothy, along the Nantlle Ridge and Mynydd Drws Y Coed
Jan 2020, Aran Fawddwy. She is the absolute queen of epic mountain hero poses!
There's a balance to be found between a little challenge, being out and about in nature and the outdoors, doing some physical exercise, calming the mind and forgetting whatever is worrying me in my life at that time. My perfect mountain day involves a little bit of all these things.
I have recently been developing an interesting in flora and fauna - particularly mushrooms! No, not those kind of mushrooms. As part of working towards my Mountain Leader Assessment, I started developing my knowledge of mountain flora and fauna, and have become something of a fungi fanatic ever since. I haven't worked up the confidence to eat them yet ... but it has lead to presentations on the toxicology of fatal flora and fauna of the UK in my local hospital and at mountain rescue training sessions. Being an A&E doctor, I am of course most interested in the 'exciting' stuff - i.e. the stuff that can kill you!
Purple Russula's on Moel Hebog. The Russula family of mushrooms are the only one that you can do a 'nibble test' with - but be 100% sure that you have a Russula before nibbling to see if it is edible!
A dung roundhead in the Lake District. Found growing in dung, known for its hallucinogenic properties!
A very deadly Fly Agaric on Cadair Idris - one of the most impressive poisonous mushrooms!
Ptarmigan, The Cairngorms
Orchids in the Pyrenees, Carros de Foc route
Chamois on the slopes of Mont Blanc
What's been your worst mountain mishap?
I'm very lucky not to have been involved in any serious mountain mishaps. One day springs to mind that could have gone badly wrong, but luckily it didn't. Me and a friend were spending a weekend walking in the Western Fells. We spent the night in Dob's Hut, after walking over Great Gable the day before from Wasdale. We arrived in the rain and dark, and we were welcomed by a family of four who had already ensconced themselves for the night and had got a roaring fire going. The father of the family recommended a slightly different route up Pillar to what we were planning to do, and described the route taking us over Haystacks into the valley, then up the North side of Pillar. He said it was easy navigation, well trodden paths and a nice route, highly recommended.
The next day we attempted the route and became hopelessly lost on the northern side of Pillar. Navigation and conditions were very difficult, as the weather was cold, wet and windy. We couldn't find the path we needed to traverse Pillar and take us up to the ridge. After a miserable hour or so, two dogs and two humans nearing hypothermia and a sense of humour failure, thoughts of calling mountain rescue crossed our mind and tensions ran pretty high. Unfortunately, calling for help wasn't an option as both of our phones had run out of battery. At this point, we thankfully stumbled upon Robinson's cairn, which was marked on the map and we regained our bearings.
I learnt a few things from this experience: don't trust the word of other people and only rely on your own skills and knowledge, bring a battery pack or ensure at least one phone is switched off to maintain battery power for emergencies. More careful navigation was needed in this situation, and is needed in the Lake District in general. Often paths that are marked on the map are not obvious, particularly when visibility drops. On that particular side of Pillar, it becomes fairly featureless and needs careful, accurate navigation and tracking in order to know where you are.
What's been your best mountain day?
Carros de Foc route, Pyrenees. I spent a week walking a circular route in the Spanish Pyrenees with my Dad. Every day there was glorious sunshine, perfect temperature for walking, gorgeous mountains and lake views with stunning mountain huts and a 3 course meal waiting at the end of every day. What more could you ask for really? There was golden eagles galore, wild orchids in the alpine meadows and even the occasional glimpse of an Ibex on the rocky crags. The lakes were the perfect temperature for a quick dip and wash off at the end of the day. Made all the more special by the fact that I could do it with my Dad, who keeps reminding me he won't be flogged up mountains by me forever!
River crossing in the Pyrenees
Sunset over the lake at one of the huts
Quick dip at the end of the day
Anyone else get 'Yosemite' vibes?
What mountain changed your life?
A tricky question. I'd probably say a trip my and my sister took with a 4 day guided trip up Mount Toubkal, Morocco. We had never climbed a mountain with a tour like this before, we had never climbed a mountain this high (2nd highest in Africa), and we had never climbed a serious mountain abroad. Looking back, I think this trip gave me the belief and motivation to want to go and climb bigger more exciting mountains. Part of me doubted if I was capable of this before I did this trip. Additionally, I had fractured my clavicle 6 weeks earlier and my sister was still having difficulty with an awkwardly healed broken ankle, so between us we could just about carry all our kit!
I was sort of snobby about doing 'guided trips' up mountains, and didn't think that it was 'proper' hiking. It was different to what I expected. Still a physical challenge at times, with long days and a bit breathless towards the top, but not technical at all, and we didn't have to do any navigation or logistics, which was quite relaxing and meant we just got to sit back and enjoy the scenery. We met some fun people that we are still in touch with as well, and Morocco was an interesting place to explore.
Summit of Mt Toubkel
What's been your best bit of kit?
Waterproof phone case. This probably sounds like such a millennial bit of kit, but I swear its not just for taking pictures of my dog/mushrooms. I invested in an OS maps subscription (only £29/year for all the maps you could ever want), and it's so useful to be able to whip out your phone in any conditions and get up a detailed OS map of your location, without having to worry about your phone or rummage in your backpack. Additionally, phone compatible merino base layer gloves are really useful.
Recently when I was walking with my parents, the zoom function came in particularly handy when their reading glasses fogged up in the Welsh rain (much to their annoyance at middle age).
What makes a great climbing partner?
I was very lucky to meet my boyfriend just as I was getting serious about mountains. Although I didn't know this when I met him, he has the unusual accolade of being the youngest Welshman to climb Everest. As such, he is significantly more experienced and confident than me! Normally, I pester him most weekends to go out climbing or hiking with me. For someone who has spent a lot of time in the mountains, he is always surprisingly reluctant to tackle anything involving significant uphill! He is patient, knowledgable, a good teacher, and we trust each other with our lives (as any good climbing partner should when they have you on the end of a rope). More than that, we have a great laugh together - and a sense of humour has been crucial at times!
What's been your biggest mountain disappointment?
Mont Blanc 2020. Attempted via the Gouter route, my boyfriend and I attempted to summit Mont Blanc last summer. It was his third attempt, and my first. We spent a few days in Chamonix beforehand, before ascending to the Gouter Hut on Day 1. Unfortunately we didn't have much choice due to availability in the huts, so we ascended just over 2800m on day 1 (from Chamonix to the Gouter hut), and subsequently I had a banging headache and some mild mountain sickness (my first experience of this!). We woke at 2am feeling much better and ready to start towards the summit, however then my boyfriend developed altitude sickness! So we spent an extra day acclimatising, practicing crevasse rescues, digging snow anchors and a small ascent up the Dome Du Gouter. The next day the forecast was not ideal, with strong winds, snow showers and poor visibility forecast for our summit window. We slogged our way up to the Refuge Vallot in the dark against the wind, and took a short break there. I was pretty cold and miserable at this point, shivering and struggling to remember why I thought this was a good idea.
The Gouter Hut on the right hand side. The Dome du Gouter on the left
A slightly embarrassing photo - me completely miserable in the Refuge Vallot, 500m below the summit, wolfing down some chocolate and trying to remember why I'm here! Cold has an amazing effect on energy and motivation levels....it taught me that it's really important to understand your motivation very clearly before you get to a low point, so that when you are feeling like I am here, you remember why you are here and why you are doing this.
After some chocolate, a pep talk and warming my feet in my boyfriend's armpits (a definite low point), we decided to head up to the next summit, and assess the conditions further. We knew we had around 400m of steady ascent up snow slopes, and a final narrow ridge to the summit of Mont Blanc. We stepped outside the refuge to be blown to our knees by a strong gust, worrying close to the cliff edge that the Refuge balances on. The sun had risen but visibility had not improved to more than about 10m ahead. It just wasn't our day! We looked at each other and nodded. We headed down. Disappointed but also slightly relieved.
Every step down the mountain felt easier, and the way down felt so much shorter than the way up! We later learned that no teams had summited that day. Although very disappointed, we knew we had made the right decision. We also knew that we would be back, but better prepared, better acclimatised, having learnt from our previous experience and we will likely try a different route up Mont Blanc - perhaps the Tres Monts Route.
On our way down from our failed summit day. You can see the Tete Rousse glacier, hut and campsite far below me
Our basecamp near Chamonix - a borrowed Mazda Bongo camper van with a great view
What is your "dream'' mountain objective?
It's really hard to pick one! I am taking an 'FY4' next year to gain some expedition medic experience, and to hopefully tick some of these 'dream' mountain objectives off my list. Listing from ultimate challenges at the top of my list to more achievable challenges at the bottom. All COVID dependent of course!
The UCLAN Diploma in Mountain Medicine
Island Peak, Nepal - a technical route which should be a scary challenge, but hopefully not too far out of reach!
Mera Peak, Nepal - perhaps as a training peak on the way to Island Peak, or as a challenge on its own. Slightly more accessible, more of a trekking peak.
GR 11 Trans Pyrenees Route. A 45 day trek from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean across the Spanish and French Pyrenees.
Kilimanjaro, Tanzania. This would be my first 5000m peak!
Mont Blanc (not giving up on that one!) - I wouldn't go up the Gouter route again. It's not particularly technical, quite rapid ascent and not particularly interesting, plus crossing the Grand Couloir is not at all fun!
Cuillin Ridge, Scotland
El Anillo de Los Picos, Picos de Europa, Spain
Give us a mountain tip!
Don't just know the weather forecast - know a little bit about the weather and what it looks and feels like on the ground. My dad is an oceanographer and meteorologist, as well as my earliest mountain mentor! He would always point out weather/cloud features and how it compared to what we thought the forecast had predicted. This is something that has been highlighted to me as particularly important when sailing or paragliding, both sports heavily dependent on reading the conditions. For example, noticing the change in the wind direction, slight rise in temperature, lowering of the cloud base and far off clouds building up that signals a warm front (and showers) approaching - a good time to do a navigation check and get off high ground if the weather looks set to deteriorate earlier than the forecast predicted. Subtle changes, if you are aware to them, can tell you a lot about what the weather will do next.
Don't be too proud to turn around. Stubbornness to achieve a goal leads to stupid decisions and accidents!
What do Karen Greene, Stuart Allan, Edi Albert, Abigail Forsyth, Jon Morgan, Tom Yeoman, Marika Blackham, David Cambray Deakin, Jon Ellerton, David Hildebrandt and Chris Sloan all have in common? They have all taken part in "On Belay With...". If you would like to join them please get in touch!
The Birmingham Medical Research Expeditionary Society (BMRES) and the British Mountain Medicine Society (BMMS) have joined forces to organise the 2021 Altitude Research Conference. The face-to-face event will take place in Birmingham on the 11th September. Speakers will include Peter Bartsch, Jo Bradwell and Chris Imray. There will also be presentations from members of the UK's leading research groups as well as ample opportunity for researchers, young and old, to present posters and short talks about their work.
Further details can be found here.
If you would like to find out more about mountain medicine why not join the British Mountain Medicine Society? See this link for details.