Summary On a recent walk up Cadair Idris I needed to undertake a dynamic risk assessment – could I safely descend Fox’s Path with Carol, my wife? I would need to look at it from the ridgeline and make a decision there and then. This blog runs through some of the issues I needed to think about in order to make the right decision. I hope this risk assessment example for hill walkers will bring the whole subject alive and demonstrate that dynamic risk assessment is a vital tool in the hill and mountain walker’s toolbox.
It is so much more than a paper exercise to be undertaken before a walk and then forgotten about as soon as the walk starts!
What and Where is Cadair Idris? For those unfamiliar with Cadair Idris, it is a ridgeline in the South of the Snowdonia National Park near Barmouth and Dolgellau. Its peak is Penygadair (OL23 SH711130) and at 893 meters it is just short of qualifying as one on the Welsh 3000’ers but it is still big enough to have a heart and soul of its own – and it comes with its own volume of folklore and mysticism. The ridge line of Cadair Idris runs from Cyfrwy (The saddle) – to the West of Penygadair, along Eastwards to Gau Graig and is about 5km long. The photo on the left shows Penygadair on the left and Cyfrwy on the right. The Eastern end is far less popular with tourists and well worth exploring for more magnificent views. There are four popular routes up to Penygadair – the Pony Path, Fox’s Path, the Minffordd Path and Llanfihangel y Pennant Path.
After doing all the necessary planning (see below) I decided we would park at Ty-Nant (SH698153), ascend via the Pony Path and hopefully descend by the Fox’s Path or if I was not happy with that on the day, we would return by the Pony Path. Looking West to Penygadair from Mynydd Moel.
The Planning Some people think that I over-plan. I don’t think you can over-plan and those who know me also know that many years ago I placed Carol in reckless danger because I didn’t do any planning and I will never do that again (http://walkingcottagespembrokeshire.co.uk/hill-walking-skills/walking-skills/cautionary-tale/ ).
Anyhow, careful planning included: reading about Cadair Idris in several texts on the web and in my trusty Trail magazine to ensure that I knew the ‘pros and cons’ of each route and considering which options would be within our capability; daylight hours available; the use of Naismith’s rule to calculate the time the walk would take; and regular reference to the Mountain Weather Information System. Kit to carry, plenty of water, food, clothing for contingencies, bivvy bag, first aid kit, suntan lotion etc etc were all packed.
We were flexible in when to do the walk and so we chose Wednesday 7th September as the weather was favourable – light winds from the South/South West at 10 – 15 mph, no rain, 80% chance of cloud free summit and given an early start, plenty of daylight hours (sunset was 19:32) to complete the route.
The assent to Penygadair would be by the Pony Path on the Northern side of Cadair Idris so we would have shelter from the slight wind; we would have lunch on the top and then eyeball the Fox’s Path on our way to Mynydd Moel (another 2Km East). And the descent would be either by the Fox’s Path if I was happy having seen it, or if not happy, then we would come back down the Pony Track. Dynamic risk assessment – would be the order of the day.
The accommodation was booked (Barmouth is really handy if you want the coast but Dolgellau is closer if the sea is not for you). Barmouth can be seen in the distance – from the summit if Penygadair with Cyfrwy (The Saddle) in the foreground.
The final approach to Barmouth the day before the walk gave us our first opportunity to see Cadair Idris, albeit the very top was shrouded in light cloud. Regardless, it was impressive and a still little daunting even though the planning had ensured that I could identify all the main aspects. The hotel owner told me that Ty Nant car park was £2.50 for 4 hours and £5 for the whole day so we had plenty of change with us.
An early night and early breakfast was in the plan and while the latter did not happen(!) the early and full breakfast did.
On the Day We arrived at Ty Nant at 10:00 as planned. The car park ticket machine was out of order – bargain! Several other cars were already there which confirmed what the internet had told us – Cadair Idris is not a walk to undertake if you want to be on your own. Anyhow, the ascent up the Pony Path was very straightforward and you cannot help being hugely impressed by the scale of the human effort that has gone into creating and maintaining it. The bags with new stone to repair the path are brought in by helicopter and sit ready to be unloaded. The views, from the moment we climbed out of the woods, were as spectacular as we had been promised in the literature and the ascent was an absolute joy. Below, at the top and the customary photo to prove it.
We saw only a few couple on the way up and enjoyed the usual camaraderie to be found in the hills. That said, I was slightly deflated when, 10 minutes after we got to the top a sudden deluge of people arrived from the Minffordd Path. They came out of the thin mist and I thought a bus must have just arrived somewhere out of sight! (See the photo near the bottom of this blog)
After our lunch break we wandered along towards Mynydd Moel and on route had our first good look down the Fox’s Path. Having spent a few minutes eyeballing the steep challenge, we walked on to Mynydd Moel so I had plenty of time to undertake my dynamic risk assessment and think it through. About an hour later, having ‘bagged’ Mynydd Moel (absolutely magnificent views to the North East and worth the extra climb – see photo, right), we arrived back at the start of the Fox’s Track. It was decision time.
The Fox’s Path Challenge So what exactly was I looking at? First off it is difficult to capture the true perspective in photographs alone but combined with the numbers you might be able to gain a truer idea. The concern was only for the initial descent – a very steep, unstable scree field – which drops from the ridgeline at 830m to the edge of Llyn y Gadair at 560m. There is a quite easy-to-follow track which twists and turns and slips and slides all the way down and the distance across the ground is about 500m. Once down to the Llyn, the remainder of the track is a straight forward walk out to the car park. You can see the scree field in the distance in the middle of the photo above.
The Dynamic Risk Assessment The first action was to sum up the pro-s and cons of descending by the Fox’s Path.
The attractions of descending the Fox’s Path were: (1) we would then complete a circular walk rather than have to re-trace our steps thus we would see more of the area; (2) the descent itself would be a challenge which, if we achieved it at our age, would give us a huge buzz!; (3) and the walk-out back to the car, once we had achieved the steep descent, looked stunning and included a small hotel (and bar!) only 1Km from our car.
But there were downsides: (1) I might let my heart rule my head and succumb to two of the heuristic pressures which a walk leader should resist – I would be disappointed with myself if I did not have a go at it and I was picking up the vibes that Carol did not think it was a big issue and so she might think me a wimp if I said ‘No’; (2) the descent would take a long time with each taking turns to move down a few meters at a time and it would sap quite a bit of energy out of us – physically and mentally as the concentration would have to be full on every step; (3) irrespective of how experienced any walker is, a scree is unstable and inherently dangerous (see above photo) and it is to be avoided if possible – and it was possible to avoid this big one; (4) Carol had not tackled anything like this before; and (5) only by looking at the slab side of Cyfrwy (The Saddle) could you gain a true perspective of how far down we had to descend – and it looked an awfully long way! The vertical descent from the ridge line to Llyn y Gadair is put into better perspective by looking at side of The Saddle (below).
One final thought in my mind was the old adage “if you cannot climb back up, don’t go down” – and while I thought we probably could climb back up, if descending proved too difficult, I feared that to do so would completely sap our energy reserves and we would need to rest up for a good while before then coming back down the Pony Path. But there again we had a bivvy bag, extra food and water, spare clothing and two head torches so we could afford to take the time to recover even if we started to lose the light. And we had communications to tell the hotel that we would be late back. All of these contingencies are examples of basic good planning.
Weighing up the pro’s and con’s only took about 5 minutes but it felt longer – another good point to remember when undertaking a dynamic risk assessment is not to feel pressured into making a quick decision. Carol was happy enjoying the views and the sunshine so I did not feel pressured. Once I had the arguments clear in my mind and on the basis of what I could see, I decided that we could do it but on the strict understanding that we took our time and worked together.
Now it is also important that your group are happy with the decision and better still, that they feel part of the decision making process, so I talked through all the issue with Carol and she, also, was happy that we went for it. And so we did.
50 minutes later we were by the lake, safe and sound and feeling vindicated but our legs were burning and Carol had picked up a tiny scratch on one shin!! We sat be the lake and looked back at what we had just achieved with a great feeling of satisfaction.
The rest of the walk was stunning – mountain streams, heather and gorse starting to blossom, stone walling like something out of Lilliput Lane and all the while Cadair Idris towered above us. See the next two photos.
In total we were away from the car for 7 .5 hours and according to O/S Get-a-Map we had walked 8 miles and ascended a total of 855m (having also bagged Mynydd Moel). Using all the considerations provided for by Naismith (another blog one day!) I had calculated we would need 8 hours, so we were slightly ahead of the planned finish time and well within daylight hours.
Reflections We all know that the best part of a great day’s walking is reflecting on it in the pub afterwards and we did over a few beers in Barmouth that night. But for me, there was another satisfaction – knowing that the dynamic risk assessment had led me to the right decision for the right reason. I had not been rash as I had been the day I put Carol in danger, instead I had managed the factors and calculated that the risks were acceptable. The glow inside was matched only by the burn in the thighs!!
An absolutely wonderful day (despite the crowds on the top). Thank you Cadair Idris. You did not disappoint: somehow I am sure we will see this mountain again!!
If you want to learn more about risk assessments or dynamic risk assessments give me a call and come over to enjoy a day’s walking instruction, here in Pembrokeshire. (Call me on 01239 821631 or fill in the enquiry form on this website www.discoverwalkingpembrokeshire.co.uk )