Not for the first time in my life I decided to ignore what I read in the mainstream media. Good weather was forecast in the Welsh hills last weekend, so I headed up to Snowdonia, where I completed a fine circular walk of Snowdon, with a run up the Llanberis Path and a long extended ridge walk along the whale-backed summit of Moel Eilio. I expected it to be busy, but not as busy as some people would have you believe.
Snowdon was in the news last week. A sunny bank holiday weekend here in the UK meant that quite a few hill walkers decided to spend the day climbing the highest mountain in England and Wales. Here’s what it looked like on the summit:
As you can see, there were all sorts of funny looking people up there and there was even a man wearing a wedding dress.
“Photographs show the peak crammed with more than 30 people,” seethed a news item in the Telegraph. “The photographs of the national nature reserve, known as the busiest mountain in Britain, resemble those taken on Mount Everest,” the item went on to say.
Do they? Let’s have another look at the now legendary photograph of climbers on the Lhotse Face of Everest taken by the German mountaineer Ralf Dujmovits, which sparked such a tabloid frenzy when it was first published last year:
Yes, I suppose you can see what they mean. There do seem to be rather a lot of people trying to do the same thing at the same time. On the other hand, you could also say that about this photograph of Londoners trying to get a photo of the Olympic torch during the torch relay last year.
Not surprisingly this particular torch relay attracted more sightseers than one, for example, involving an ordinary Maglite flashlight, and it should come as no surprise that the highest mountain in England and Wales attracts more visitors than other mountains. Not to the BBC, however, who claimed that walkers had to stand in line for two and half hours to climb the mountain, a statement that is such patent bullshit it makes you wonder why we pay our license fee. They even thought the story warranted a live radio interview with the great British mountaineer Sir Chris Bonington.
“It’s not just Snowdon, though, where obviously you have walkers … on serious mountains that only serious mountaineers would attempt it is becoming an issue isn’t it?” said the interviewer, grasping a link as slender as the whiskers in Sir Chris’s beard.
“On Everest … there’s a real element of risk because you could be caught by a storm and people die. On Snowdon, well there isn’t. It’s just a big crowd and they’re having a wonderful time,” the great man replied.
It’s unclear what point these journalists are trying to make: that on a sunny bank holiday weekend, thousands of Brits like to get outdoors and walk up hills, that the highest mountain in England and Wales gets a disproportionately large number of visitors compared to other mountains, that wearing bridal attire up a mountain is just plain wrong? Or perhaps they think we should be sitting at home watching Celebrity Big Brother on the telly like they do rather than climbing hills, or buying a four pack of Special Brew and heading down the local park to get drunk? Whatever it is, they don’t seem to have grasped that hundreds of people choosing to spend their holiday in an active way is actually quite a positive story.
“The Mountain Rescue group warned that visitors may not be aware about heat-related injuries and that there are a great many younger youth groups operating independently in the area,” said the Telegraph, which in using an argument as powerful as Barack Obama sending a battalion of cleaners to invade Syria armed with feather dusters betrayed they actually knew nothing about the real issues.
In a withering if scarcely necessary riposte on the BMC website, the mountaineering journalist Ed Douglas argued that viewing tourists on busy peaks like Snowdon as a nuisance misses a great opportunity to educate people about living healthy lifestyles. He picked up on the point of inexperienced walkers wearing inappropriate clothing, and interviewed some mountain rescue volunteers and professionals who look upon walkers very differently.
“If all of them want to stand on top of this mountain, then I’ve no doubt that some of them will want to stand on top of another one. It’s an immense opportunity. These people are there to be inspired,” said one mountain training officer.
What none of them mentioned is that one of the reasons people queue for the summit of Snowdon wearing inappropriate clothing is because since 1896 it’s had one of these:
Yes, that’s right – a train going all the way to the summit. Heaven knows what the Beeb and Telegraph would have said had they known about that. They may even have drowned in a frenzied outpouring of bilious sputum, which some people might argue would have been a good thing.
Anyway, enough of this tabloid nonsense, let’s get to the real reason for this post, an account of my little hike up Snowdon last weekend. Obviously I ignored the dire media warnings of overcrowding, and went there anyway. In fact in one respect Snowdon was busier than I’ve ever seen it before. My original intention was to scramble up to the summit from Cwm Glas and traverse across the ridge of Y Lliwedd, but when I arrived at the Pen y Pass car park at 8.30am it was already full, something I’ve never encountered before. I decided there and then to walk up the Llanberis Path, a much easier route that ascends parallel to the railway line.
The most northerly of Snowdon’s main routes is the longest route in terms of horizontal length, and consequently also the gentlest as it gradually rises up the Llechog Ridge from the village of Llanberis. It’s also the route most likely to make the more irresolute hill walker stop and consider “why am I bothering?” as a train crawls slowly past them. However, those train travellers leaning out of their carriages making obscene and abusive gestures as they pass are more likely to be aiming them at the barking mad rock climbers making their way up the 200 metre rock face of Clogwyn Du’r Arddu, affectionately known as Cloggy, across which the Llanberis Path gives a dramatic grandstand view. Halfway up it’s even possible to stop at a tea shop, the appropriately named Halfway House, and top up with a few light refreshments before the really refreshing pint of beer on the summit.
I left my car at 9am and reached the summit a little over two hours later. As you might expect, it was busy, but I have news for the Telegraph and BBC. The route follows a very broad stone-lined path, and contrary to being held up by these people, I raced past them. As I climbed I could see the gentle whale-backed peak of Moel Eilio to my right, and decided it would make a nice circular walk to descend across its top rather than coming back down the Llanberis Path.
There are a number of stations on this side of Snowdon where trains moving in opposite directions are able to pass one another on the single track line. As the Llanberis Path takes a straight line up the ridge, the railway alternates its route, starting below the trail, then crossing a bridge to continue on the ridge line about 50 metres above. After an hour of walking the trail reaches the base of Cloggy, where it turns to the left and rises steeply to pass under the railway again at Clogwyn Station, the most spectacular of Snowdon’s stations, perched on top of a shoulder overlooking the Nant Peris Valley.
You may still be scratching your head about there being train stations up a mountain, so let me pause to explain a little about them. There had been proposals to build a railway to the summit from Llanberis as early as 1871, when a bill was presented to parliament to incorporate a Snowdon railway company. Nothing ever came of it until 1895, when the station at the small village of Rhyd-Ddu on the west side of the mountain was renamed to Snowdon Station. Although Rhyd-Ddu lies at the bottom of the valley, it’s the starting point for one of the more straightforward routes to the summit, known appropriately enough as the Rhyd-Ddu Path.
As soon as the station was renamed, tourist numbers to Rhyd-Ddu rose significantly, and residents of Llanberis sat up and took notice. They reacted immediately, forming a company, the North Wales Narrow Gauge Railway Company (now known as the Snowdon Mountain Railway) and buying the necessary land off a local landowner who had originally been opposed to the idea. Work progressed remarkably quickly. Navvies were given ‘height bonuses’ for labouring at higher altitudes, earthworks and viaducts were built and they started laying the track. Five stations were built at intervals along the route: Llanberis, Hebron, Halfway, Clogwyn and Summit. The very first train journey was completed successfully on 9 January 1896, but it wasn’t until three months later the line was opened to the public.
Two engines, Ladas and Enid, set out from Llanberis Station on 6 April 1896 bearing the first 80 commercial passengers. Despite the quaint old-fashioned names of the engines, this journey was to be more like an episode of the Keystone Kops than Thomas the Tank Engine. They both reached the summit without mishap, but on the way down, Ladas started accelerating uncontrollably just above Clogwyn Station. Luckily the railway manager happened to be on the train, and because the engine and carriages were not coupled he was able to apply the emergency brakes. Ladas the engine hurtled off the line and over cliffs beneath Cwm Glas, but the carriages ground to a halt. Climbers have to endure many hazards, including rock fall and avalanche; it’s not known whether there were any rock climbers in Cwm Glas at that moment, but if there were then they would have been surprised to look up and see a train come flying over the face.
Ladas didn’t survive her maiden voyage, but her work wasn’t done when she left the tracks. She hit a telegraph pole that was carrying electricity for the line. This caused a short circuit, and a bell began ringing at Summit Station. This was the signal to Enid‘s driver, who was waiting there, that it was safe for him to move off. Luckily he started out very slowly because of clouds reducing visibility. He was unable to prevent the train crashing into Ladas‘s detached carriages above Clogwyn, but he did manage to apply the brakes. Had a honky-tonk piano started playing at that moment, and a bunch of incompetent policeman arrived pumping up and down on a manual railroad car, then passengers may have imagined they were unwilling extras in a Charlie Chaplin movie. Sadly for Mr Ellis Roberts, the owner of a nearby hotel, this wasn’t fictional. Imagining himself to be an early prototype for the Dukes of Hazzard, he dived from Ladas when he saw the driver jumping for safety, and suffered serious injuries. He was the only fatality, and miraculously all the other passengers, who remained obediently in their seats, were unharmed.
The Snowdon railway closed after this accident and didn’t reopen until the following year, but it has operated continuously ever since. There haven’t been any trains flying overhead since the opening, but strong winds and low-sided open carriages meant that residents in the Nant Peris Valley often saw a few hats coming over, so many that they even renamed the valley Cwm Retia or Hat Valley. By the end of 1897, 12,000 people had travelled on the Snowdon Railway. In 2005 the figure was 140,000. By contrast around 360,000 walk up. These are surely figures to make any self-respecting journalist splutter with indignation.
I had been pleased with my pace until now, but as the path steepened above Clogwyn Station, I was passed by a silver haired fell runner. I knew he was a runner because he was wearing shorts and a tee-shirt but at this moment in time the steepness of the trail had reduced him to speed walking instead of running (known in runners’ parlance as cheating). I didn’t have to watch his shoe heels for too long, though, and this wasn’t only because he was much too quick for me. A little above this I reached the summit plateau and entered cloud. At the col of Bwlch Glas the Snowdon Ranger Path joins from the west and the Crib Goch route and Pyg Track join from the east, and all four paths converge and ascend the last 50 metres to the summit alongside the railway line. The Telegraph stated there were at least 30 people on the summit at the same time last weekend, but they only arrived at that by looking at a single photograph. Today there were hundreds of people up there, milling around the summit cairn, and wandering in and out of Hafod Eryri, the summit visitor centre. Even so I would probably only have had to wait one minute to get onto the summit platform to have my photo taken. Two hours my arse. I walked beyond Hafod Eryri and ate my lunch in the shelter of a rock locking out over the dramatic ridge of Y Lliwedd. I was only about 20 metres from the visitor centre, but I was undisturbed by the people and the noise, and it was actually pretty quiet. Snowdon is a big mountain, and it’s not difficult to get away from the crowds.
Which brings me to the second part of the walk, my descent across Moel Eilio, a total contrast to the busy Llanberis Path. I retraced my steps back to Bwlch Glas, where I turned left to descend the Snowdon Ranger Path, a route I took in its entirety last year. It was chilly on the summit, but it wasn’t long before I descended beneath the cloud again, and thereafter it was a glorious sunny day. The upper part of the Snowdon Ranger Path is a slanting escarpment which crosses the top of Cloggy, although this is not evident as you descend. I studied the gentle curve of Moel Eilio in the distance ahead of me, and could identify a splendid ridge walk across three cols. I descended steeply to the first of these, taking a shortcut across the zigzags of the main trail on grassy banks. At the col I left the Snowdon Ranger Path to climb up the smaller outlying hillside of Moel Cynghorion, a great viewpoint which not only provides a fine perspective of Snowdon right across Cloggy, but also looks out across the unpronounceable Cwm Brwnynog to a line of Welsh 3000ers (the fourteen peaks in Snowdonia over 3000 feet in height) on the far horizon: Elidir Fawr, Y Garn, Tryfan and the Glyders. In front of them the Snowdon Mountain Railway slid slowly down the Llechog ridge alongside the Llanberis Path.
As I turned away from these sights to continue along the ridge, it occurred to me that I was doing this walk in the wrong direction. Snowdon was now behind me, and to my left the smaller peaks of Moel Hebog and the Nantlle Ridge would provide a pleasant backdrop for anyone walking this way from Moel Eilio. The long ridge I was walking back along would make a fantastic ridge top walk all the way to Snowdon’s summit, from where you could speedily descend the busy Llanberis Path to the start of your walk. I now had an extended ending to my walk as I continued along the ridge, and although the view ahead of me to Moel Eilio and the North Wales coast behind it was pleasant enough, I was constantly stopping to look behind me. Snowdon was in view all the time and its perspective evolved as I worked my way around the hillsides.
What didn’t surprise me, but would stagger anyone who believes tabloid headlines, was that this part of Snowdon was extremely quiet. After leaving the Snowdon Ranger Path I saw only 11 walkers in the 3½ hours it took me to get back to Llanberis, compared with the many hundreds I had seen during the first three hours. In fact it’s possible to say you could count the number of walkers on both hands, but only if you’re from Norfolk. Four of these were a young family I met beside the dry stone shelter on the broad summit plateau of Moel Eilio. The children were screaming wildly as their father bowled a tennis ball at them, and I resented the noise. It disturbed the peace and solitude I had been experiencing since departing from the main trail, but it paled in comparison with the bedlam on Snowdon’s summit. I stopped for my second lot of sandwiches here, and this time I turned my head away from Snowdon and looked north. I was on the last hillside of the range before the land dropped away to the coast. I was only about six miles from the Irish Sea and before me were villages and farmland. On the coastline I could see the town of Caernarfon and its castle, and beyond it the Lleyn Peninsula stretched out into the sea.
The descent from Moel Eilio back to Llanberis was also a pleasant surprise. All the clouds had lifted off the summit of Snowdon during the course of the afternoon, and the footpath looped around to the north before doubling back on itself. This meant that as I descended into the village Snowdon and the entire length of the Llanberis Path I had ascended in the morning loomed before me. The whole walk took me 6½ hours. The three cols meant there was quite a lot of additional ascent and descent, and I worked out my extended walk up and down Snowdon involved around 1500m of ascent in total. I recommend the Moel Eilio Route as a peaceful way up Snowdon. Of course, it will be busy on the summit, but no matter. You will encounter few people on the way there. Don’t believe all you read in the papers. I intend to complete this walk in the opposite direction some day.
I stayed at the campsite in Nant Peris that night, far below the elevated platform of Clogwyn Station. I’ve not stayed there before, but it was blessed with the obvious benefit of being located directly opposite a pub, the Vaynol Arms. In true Welsh tradition I enjoyed a succulent lamb shank that evening, and a couple of Dizzy Blondes.
You can see the rest of my photos from the walk starting in p.2 of my 2013 photo album.