Desert Island Peaks: Toby Archer

© Toby Archer

If you were marooned alone, with only a few hills for company, which would you choose? For a bit of lockdown fun we've posed this question to some UKH contributors. Here star gear reviewer Toby Archer sharpens up his winter tools for some of the greatest snowy adventures in the British Isles...


I'm not even 100 percent certain when I first got to the top of Helvellyn, I think it was on an endlessly sunny and fun week backpacking with school friends, Mark and Rich, 30 years ago. We got the National Express from Birmingham, via the brutalism of Preston bus station to the sublime beauty of the Lakes. We bivvied, camped and youth hosteled our way from Keswick over High Spy, Great Gable, the Scafells, Bowfell, the Langdale Pikes and Helvellyn before camping in Glenridding. The week finished going up Fairfield and down to Ambleside to get the coach home. I'm still mates with Mark so asked him recently if he remembered if we came down Striding Edge, and like me he couldn't actually!

When it comes to desert island favourites, you can't argue with Helvellyn  © Toby Archer
When it comes to desert island favourites, you can't argue with Helvellyn
© Toby Archer

I have since been back numerous times, mainly to winter climb on Red Tarn Face or to enjoy a snowy traverse of Helvellyn's fabulous ridges that drop down to its east: Striding Edge and Swirral Edge:

There's no doubting Swirral and Striding's popularity, although by picking your times and weather you can miss the worst of the crowds. But they are popular because they are superb and, from a winter mountaineer's perspective, more likely to be in acceptable winter condition than probably any other routes in England. Possibly the only time I've been up Helvellyn when I haven't done a route on the face, or climbed or descended the edges, was a few years ago when I skied up via Stybarrow Dodd and Raise. On telemark gear and alone I didn't feel brave enough to try the bowl down to Red Tarn, but now I've made the move to skiing with my heels locked down, I might have to give it a go some time!

Striding Edge is the greatest winter ridge in England, hands down  © Toby Archer
Striding Edge is the greatest winter ridge in England, hands down
© Toby Archer

It's quite possible I haven't been up Helvellyn in summer since that first time three decades ago, it is very much a winter mountain to me. But another thing that Helvellyn is well known for is the network of bridleways that meet at the summit. Riding my mountain bike up the mountain remains an unfulfilled ambition, and sits as a seed of plan for a future summer visit.

Garnedd Ugain

Garnedd Ugain has to play second fiddle to its bigger and oh-so-popular sibling - Yr Wyddfa/Snowdon. Most of us aren't even really sure what this mountain's name is. I know I have often referred to it as Crib-y-Ddysgl, as do many others, but I believe that is really the name of Carnedd Ugain's wonderful eastern ridge, not the mountain as a whole. For most people Garnedd Ugain's summit is just a brief waypoint on the way to Snowdon's summit and perhaps onwards around the complete Snowdon Horseshoe. I think the first time I reached the top was on a sunny Easter traverse of the complete horseshoe; fit from a season of Scottish winter climbing, I was back at my car in Pen-y-pass late morning so, after a mooch around the shops of Betws y Coed, I drove up to Ogwen and did the Tryfan, Bristly Ridge and Gribbin Ridge horseshoe that afternoon!

Garnedd Ugain is magnificent in winter!  © Toby Archer
Garnedd Ugain is magnificent in winter!
© Toby Archer

I remember the flow of movement, and the confidence and speed of being young and fit - along Crib Goch and those other great, airy ridges of high Wales - far more than I remember any of the summits I passed over that day. But my love for Garnedd Ugain isn't about the summit, although there are fine views from it, rather, it's about the adventures to be had on its ridges and the faces below them. "Doing Crib Goch", despite all the hype and often crowds - youtubing-drone pilots and go-pro heroes, terrified-looking beginners, or highly competent fell runners in nothing but their vests and flappy shorts - remains one of the finest days to be had in the British hills. I've done it alone and with friends, in warm sunshine and screaming blizzard and the second half, on Garnedd Ugain but that I guess we should really call Crib-y-Ddysgl, has probably better scrambling and climbing even if it lacks the fine soaring arete leading from Crib Goch's summit.

But Garnedd Ugain is far from a one trick pony like, say, the Munros on the Aonach Eagach. It's northern ridge, Clogwyn Y Person, is a fantastic easy climb in it's own right and the face below holds some climbing gems, both summer rock and winter mixed. The base of this great cliff, Clogwyn y Ddysgl, must be amongst the highest in the land, outside of Scotland and winter can lurk long there in its shady crevices. For those seeking less technical winter adventures, Parsley Fern Gully takes you from far down below to almost the summit of Garnedd Ugain. I've used it as a quick descent in recent years, but don't underestimate it - I've climbed it once after a big thaw then a deep refreeze, and it was a silver strand of steel-hard water ice until the final hundred metres where snow below an old cornice had survived and was now rock solid névé.

On Garnedd Ugain, the best bit of the Snowdon Horseshoe  © Toby Archer
On Garnedd Ugain, the best bit of the Snowdon Horseshoe
© Toby Archer

Ben Nevis

Yes, it's a cliche. What British hill-goer isn't going to pick Ben Nevis as one of their desert island peaks? [Now you mention it Toby, you're only the second in this series! - Ed.]. It's so obviously a cheat because clearly it's a library of mountain experiences, not just a single volume. I suspect if you pick Ben Nevis you are probably going to get all the crag climbing in Glen Nevis with it, or at least all of those cliffs north of the River Nevis anyway. I'd even make the argument that Ben Nevis probably includes Carn Mor Dearg and Carn Dearg Meadhonach because the Ben isn't really Ben if you can't finish a day on the North Face by coming down and traversing the CMD Arete too.

At 19, I packed up and moved north to start university in Glasgow, my head more full of thoughts of winter climbing in the Highlands, than it was of living in 'the big city' for the first time, or my studies. Winter came early that year and by October we were doing our first snow climbs. We felt brave enough to try something on the Ben that February - Number Two Gully was ascended, relatively smoothly for total punters, on a brutally cold day. Olly, Ed and Alison became climbing partners for the rest of my time at uni and friends ever since.

Tower Ridge above a sea of cloud  © Toby Archer
Tower Ridge above a sea of cloud
© Toby Archer

With Olly and Ed I went back the next June to climb Tower and Observatory Ridges in the summer sun but alpine conditions with snow on the approaches and on the final slopes to the plateau. That summer was the last time I would return to my parents' house and I kept myself sane while picking fruit and veg on local farms running through Alan Kimber's guide to the winter climbs on the Ben in my head. I had read it so many times that, from the Little Brenva Face to the North Face of Castle Ridge, I could mentally recite almost all the routes in order. Subsequent winters and summers I went back to many times to the Ben: 'guiding' the manager and assistant manager of the Glasgow outdoor shop I started working in up Tower Ridge; cruising ice routes in Coire na Ciste in the April sun; with Ed fighting for our lives down a powder choked Tower Ridge, into the night and storm, after a terrifying ascent of a very icy Italian climb that we were completely under equipped for with three rubbish ice screws and a rack of useless rock gear!

I almost certainly would have stayed in Scotland and become a 'Ben regular' if I hadn't met a Finnish girl after uni and followed her yet further north. Over the next two decades I only made it back to the Ben a couple of times on flying visits - most memorably on one of the first "UKC winter picnics", unofficially organised meet ups of some of the earliest forum-regulars. A late night chat in the Clachaig led to plans for a very early meet up and two of us headed up the Ben for an exciting ascent of a thin Green Gully in 'proper' full on winter conditions.

It's the grandest, most complex north face in the UK  © Toby Archer
It's the grandest, most complex north face in the UK
© Toby Archer

Moving back to the UK in 2014 has allowed me to reacquaint myself with this greatest of British mountains - even if the distance from Sheffield and family commitments has made this less often than I would like. I've rock climbed (in rather cold!) summer conditions to meet the hordes of happy hikers on the summit, but found just by heading down to the CMD arete that we completely left the crowds behind.

Then just a couple of years ago we went at New Year chasing rumours of the only possible winter climbing conditions in the UK at that time. The top of the Ben was hidden in a thick mantle of cloud and its lower slopes looked grey and forlornly absent of snow. We slogged upwards and into the murk staggering around on just scree in the lower reaches of Corie na Ciste. But above us through the mist were some strips of old snow. As we cramponed up them suddenly perfectly rimed and icy buttresses loomed out of the cloud. We climbed two mixed routes before popping out onto the summit plateau. It was Simon's first visit to Ben Nevis so we started walking up to bag the summit. The mist seemed to be thinning above us, glimpse of blue overhead, and then suddenly we were out of the cloud - almost alone on the summit and above a sea of clouds that stretched away as far as the eye could see in all directions. In 30 years of going to the mountains, that moment remains one of the most special.

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23 Feb, 2021

Great read, much there is relatable. I'd have to throw in the Old Man of Coniston as a wildcard. Scrambling up the Low water beck waterfalls to the top ridge and abseiling down through the underground mines and their historical debris on the way down is a great day.

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