Snowdon - by Stephen Cooper
Photo: Yr Wyddfa & The Moon
“How high, exactly?” asked Sam, 13. “Snowdon is 3560 feet in old money, or 1085 metres.” “Why are we climbing it?” I resist Mallory’s famous ’because it’s there’, as Snowdon hardly compares to Everest. The true answer to Sam’s teen incredulity is my own boyhood. My first assault with Dad at age 10 on the highest point in England and Wales dissolved in the drizzle that bedevilled Welsh ‘sixties holidays. After crossing three fields towards an invisible goal, constant rain and glistening slugs the size of baby seals drove us back to the Cortina. Forty years on, I was determined to summit and Sherpa Sam was coming too.
The A5 approach road, carved through North Wales by Thomas Telford, affords our first glimpse of the Snowdon range as we pass through Capel Curig. This time the weather and the view are perfect. On a hot July Sunday, at Pen y Pass car park, the early bird catches the last parking space. We leave Base Camp on the shores of Llyn Gwynant at 630am, and pull on our boots at 0700 precisely. There are six established routes up Snowdon, and the Miners’ Track and the PYG track both start from Pen y Pass. As novices, we had been advised to take the Miner’s Track, a flattish road to work for the long-gone local miners. In our befuddled morning state, we instead found ourselves heading steeply upwards on the PYG track. Named after the local Pen y Gwryd Hotel which served as training base for Sir John Hunt’s 1953 Everest team, the PYG track offers no sight of the ultimate target but gave us sillier jokes, so we persisted despite the gradient. Somewhat disconcertingly we met descending climbers who had strapped on their head torches at midnight and climbed to watch the sunrise from the summit. Memo to self: get up even earlier next time.
The rapid rise proves to be an unexpected blessing. We are still fresh, and stride the rocky slopes with energy and enthusiasm, stopping for surreptitious breathers while ‘surveying the scenery’. And there is the magic. You can kind of imagine that this is the feeling you get when you are doing things like playing games at PartyPoker or anything else like an extreme sport that is so exciting it almost takes your breath away. For the higher you go, the better the view – obvious, really. The Llanberis Pass is treeless, austere and gloomy, but then we reach Bwlch Moch where Crib Goch hurls a vertical challenge to the more experienced climber. We stick to our PYG and enjoy the reward for our efforts. We look down on a magnificent mirror-calm lake – Llyn Llydaw reflecting the surrounding bowl of slopes and peaks. The sky is cloudless, the air still and warm, the colours already bleached by the sunlight. If we had any breath left, it would be taken away.
The PYG track
By now Sam has mastered the walker’s greeting – “Morning” - to everyone we meet. An Aussie couple are wearily jubilant having cracked the Three Peaks challenge – Ben Nevis, Scafell Pike and Snowdon in 24 hours. Second memo to self: do next year. As we traverse the side of Crib Goch, moving ever upwards but not exhaustingly so, we congratulate ourselves on our accidental choice of route. We have gained height early. The Miner’s Track snakes below, crossing the green copper-tainted lake, while our eagle eyes soar across the receding waves of Snowdonia peaks. On the far side of Llyn Llydaw, the cliffs of Lliwedd, where Arthur and his knights lie entombed in myth.
Lliwedd & Lyn Llydaw
Ahead looms the pyramid bulk of Yr Wyddfa, Snowdon’s Welsh name, which means burial place. Legend suggests that the cairn at the top marks the grave of Rhita Fawr, a fierce giant who made a cloak from the beards of all the kings he'd killed. The moon still hangs in the blue morning above the summit. Sam is suitably impressed. Fortified by breakfast of bagels and mintcake, we forge on, past the even more photogenic Glaslyn and into the serious ascent. The air is noticeably cooler despite the sunshine. This is genuinely tough, with some occasional scrambling and takes a solid hour before we reach the finger stone on the ridge. From here, we can look back at our path, pat each other manfully on the back, and gird loins for the final push.
Sam & Llyn Glaslyn
Chugging past is the cog railway with its red-and-green toy engines and ‘soft option’ passengers. It’s a steady path – the last stage of the easier route from Llanberis - and then a final hike across well-worn rocks, steeply up the summit platform, and we are there. On top of Wales, Ma! So too are dozens of Russians in sandals and flip-flops, and swarms of midges. We take our photographs and hastily descend. We note the staircase is embedded with fossil shells of marine animals – proof that once the very summit was deep under the sea bed. The grim café block, christened "the highest slum in Wales" by that acerbic architectural commentator, Prince Charles, is to be bulldozed and in 2008 a new glass and slate creation will crown the peak more fittingly. We descend via the Miners Track, and it’s hard going on the knees. To cool down we drench ourselves in water from the streams and falls. The long walk past the lakes and ruins of the Britannia Mine copper crushers is blazing, dusty and wearisome and we yearn for the vistas of our PYG Track. Sam is at the point of rebellion when we finally sight the carpark.
We deserve a home-made lemonade (or six) at the atmospheric Pen y Gwryd. Hobnail boots hang from beams, we lounge on high-backed oak settles and the panelled ceiling of the Everest room is signed by mountaineering greats from Edmund Hillary and Wilfred Noyce to Doug Scott and Don Whillans, as well as Sirs Roger Bannister and Anthony Hopkins and, oddest of all, Bertrand Russell.
At our spectacular campsite, we walk 60 yards from our tent and immerse ourselves fully-clothed in the cool waters of Llyn Gwynant. We have conquered Snowdon, bring on Ben Nevis!
Walking on Snowdon can be hazardous at any time of the year. Plan your route beforehand, go properly equipped and ensure that your experience and fitness matches what you intend to do. Check the weather forecast on www.metoffice.gov.uk.
The main access points are: from Llanberis on the A4086, Pen y Pass at the top of the Llanberis Pass, on the A498 Beddgelert Road at Bethania and on the A4085 at Rhyd Ddu and the Snowdon Ranger path. There are bus services from Betws y Coed, Llanberis, Bangor and Caernarfon. In Summer a regular "Snowdon Sherpa" goes around the mountain meaning that you do not need to start and end at the same place.
During construction of the new cafe, the summit will continue to be accessible to walkers and, except in the winter months November to mid March, the Snowdon Mountain Railway will take passengers as far as Clogwyn (weather permitting), 45 minutes walk from the summit. There will be no public facilities at the summit between September 4th 2006 and early summer 2008.
High Trek Snowdonia offers accommodation, guided walking weekends and a hugely informative website www.hightrek.co.uk High Trek Snowdonia, Tal y Waen, Deiniolen Gwynedd LL55 3NA Tel: 01286 871232
Snowdon Lodge, the birthplace of Lawrence of Arabia, on the A5, in Nant Ffrancon, 15 minutes from Capel Curig or Bangor: 22 ensuite rooms plus dorms suitable for groups of climbers/walkers. Drying room, cycle & kit storage, Sauna & steam room, internet & email. Tel: 01248 600500 www.snowdonlodge.com
The Pen y Gwryd Hotel, Nant Gwynant, Gwynedd LL55 4NT www.pyg.co.uk Tel: 01286 870211. B&B from £35.
The Royal Oak Hotel in Betwys-y Coed, Conwy LL24 0AY offers Lazy Weekend specials until 21/12: 3 nights accommodation, Welsh breakfast and Sunday lunch, plus pool, steam room, Jacuzzi and sauna from £110 pp. Tel: 01690 710219 www.royaloakhotel.net
Palé Hall, Llandderfel, near Bala. One of the finest buildings in Wales, stunning interiors include the boudoir with hand painted ceiling, magnificent entrance hall and galleried staircase. Queen Victoria’s original bath and bed are still in use. 17 bedrooms, 17 ensuite. B&B from £57.50 pppn min, £100pp max (based on two sharing) Tel: 01678 530285. www.palehall.co.uk
Lyn Gwynant campsite is open Easter to October Tel: 01766 890 340 www.gwynant.com A perfect base, with walks up Snowdon accessible directly from the site, swimming, boating, orienteering and abseiling.
Stephen Cooper is an adman turned cabinetmaker and freelance travel journalist. When not climbing mountains with his son, he can be found on the pages of the Sunday Telegraph and British Airways High Life. Anyone wanting woodwork or words can contact him on 07946 531139.
Article and photos © Stephen Cooper 2006.