Thursday, 24 October 2013

How to climb Snowdon

For a start, you don’t use the railway. Who would dream of travelling on a train that’s given to falling off the mountain? All right, it fell off on the opening day in 1896 and has never done so since, but never mind the safety issue, it’s just cheating. Snowdon is a mountain and you climb it. Or you claim to have climbed it. George Burrows claimed to have climbed it in a couple of hours in 1862, accompanied by his daughter wearing a crinoline (it was his daughter wearing it), and to have seen magnificent views from the summit, whereas anyone who has climbed it knows that there’s a high probability of not even being able to see the summit when you’re standing on it, let alone anything else.

What you do see at the top is the café, which used to be dire, and is now far far better – unless you arrive in lousy, windy, wet weather, exhausted and longing for a hot drink, only to find it shut. In which case, it’s worse than dire.

I‘ve been climbing Snowdon once a year since about 1978, primarily to convince myself I can do it. Haven’t managed for the last couple of years due to arthritic knees, which is very depressing, but I’m going to do it again if it kills me.

My first attempt, from Llanberis… no, it wasn’t really an attempt. I and my sister set off from Llanberis wearing skirts and sandals, because we were passing through and thought a stroll was called for. We did miraculously reach the half-way café (is it still there?) before turning back, but seeing the mountain, a real mountain, rising up before us, and a footpath showing us the way, we decided we’d return with proper boots and rain coats. For years, we continued to climb from Llanberis, because it seemed so obviously safe. If a train could do it, surely we could.  Eventually, we discovered the other paths, and, after trying them, concluded that the Llanberis path is not only unnecessarily long, but also slightly boring. Matched only, in this, by the Snowdon Ranger path.

The best path, if you want to have a scenic walk and cheat, is the one that starts at Pen y Pass. Cheating, because the car park which is the start of the path is already halfway up the mountain.  This is really a double route. Take the left hand fork for the Miner’s track, via the lakes, or the right hand fork for the Pig (or PYG) track, and if you make it to the top, you can return by the other route and make a round trip of it (who wants to retrace their own steps?). Back in 1984, going Up the Miners and Down the Pig was, of course, a political statement, but it has probably lost some of its meaning by now.

One of the benefits of the Miner’s Track is that it takes you past the lakes, Llyn Llydaw and Glaslyn, and if you can’t cope with the thought of carrying on, but you are embarrassed at the sight of small children frolicking past you as you wheeze and pant and clasp your sides, you can always pretend that you only intended to walk to the lakes, and never had any intention of going any further.

If you do decide to go on, you have to cope with The ZigZag. Our coping mechanism for this was Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut. You get two squares at each turn. This ensures that you are actually heavier by the time you reach the top, instead of several pounds lighter.

The paths from Pen y Pass are very popular. So popular that we’ve had to give up trying to park there on several occasions. The Rhyd Ddu path, from the other side of the mountain, is usually a lot less cluttered with people. It benefits from a great pub at the bottom and a spectacular ridge at the top, and it was also just about within walking distance of our Beddgelert campsite. Within easy distance at the start, that is, but it seemed like a million miles away by the time we got back to the bottom and realised that we still had a couple of miles to walk before we could collapse, groaning, on our deflated lilos.  I would say that the Rhyd Ddu path is not the most interesting, at least on its lower sections, but it was on the Rhyd Ddu path that I first saw my Brocken Spectre. In fact the only time I saw my Brocken Spectre. It’s something you can go through your whole life and never see, so if you want to know what a Brocken Spectre is, it’s your shadow cast onto the top of clouds that are below you – except that it’s a shadow only you can see. Three of us were standing on the Llechog ridge, looking down on clouds, and each of us saw our own shadow, but nobody else’s. Very weird, very enchanting.

The most challenging of the listed routes is the Watkin path, starting from Pont Bethania between Llyn Gwynant and Llyn Dinas, the lowest starting point of any of the paths, so you have the highest climb. After all, if you’re going to climb a mountain, you might as well climb it all. It’s a route that has wonderful views throughout, up towards the summit and back down into the Gwynant valley, taking you past beautiful waterfalls, with pools where sweaty walkers can’t resist swimming in the summer. It’s a stretch that always reminds me of Gerard Manley Hopkin’s Inversnaid; ‘Wiry heathpacks, flitches of fern and the beadbonny ash that hangs over the burn,’ and it leads you to Plas Cwmllan, an old house wrecked by war-time target practice.
 The route then passes the Gladstone rock , where a plaque commemorates an address given by an elderly Gladstone on the subject of the rights of small nations. As he had climbed a good way up Snowdon and was addressing a crowd of local Welsh, you can hardly blame them for assuming he was referring to Wales, although he was actually talking about the Balkans. An easy mistake.
After the Gladstone rock,  the path climbs – seriously climbs – up past  and through abandoned mines and slag heaps, to the ridge, Bwlch Ciliau, between the sheer cliffs of Y Lliwydd and the summit proper of Snowdon. A note about this ridge. Climb in thick cloud, as we did on our first attempt, and you don’t really appreciate where you are. Whatever the weather, sometimes you really need a pee. Modestly clambering behind a rock when you’re on Bwlch Ciliau in order to relieve yourself might seem like a good idea, except that clouds on Snowdon can lift as quickly as they come down, and you can find yourself, knickers around your ankles, in bright sunlight, facing across the lakes to a group of boy scouts climbing up the Miner’s Track. It is worth the embarrassment however, because after Bwlch Ciliau, you have to climb the last slippery slithering scree slope at the top of the Watkin path and if, like me, you’re not very good with heights, sheer drops and balance, you may very well want to wet yourself.
This is why I no longer take this route up the Watkin, much to the relief of all boy scouts. What I do is follow the lower part of the path, past the waterfalls, up to Plas Cwmllan, and then head off across the valley – admittedly, you do have to wallow through a couple of acres of bog – and scramble very satisfyingly up the ridge beyond, to join the last section of the Rhyd Ddu path, taking in the narrow Bwlch Main ridge (don’t attempt it in a high wind). The best of all possible worlds.
What you do not do is take the route via Crib Goch. I did. Once. Mostly on hands and knees, and at one point I did decide just to freeze and wait to be rescued by helicopter. Don’t do it.