While my the first hill was Moel Fammau, my first mountain was Yr Wyddfa, the name being a reference to a legend of it being a cairn thrown over the giant Rhitta Gawr after his defeat by Arthur. It’s English name Snowdon means snow hill in Old English. The surname Snowden is a habitation name taken from a village in West Yorkshire and is derived from snow and dun (meaning hill) it is not derived from the English name for the mountain. It does mean that in all probability all Snowdens can trace their ancestors back to that one small village. We played with the link between the two names: our last family home was named Four Peaks as there were four Snowdens living there.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I have climbed Yr Wyddfa but I’m pretty sure I have done it in all weather conditions. I remember the first occasion well although I can’t remember the exact date but I suspect I was around eight or nine years old. The whole family booked into a Bed and Breakfast in Llanberis for the occasion; in those days the roads and the cars were less amenable to such journeys than they are now. When the day dawned my sister and Nan (we used the South Wales name for Grand Mother, not the North Wales Nain, although my children used that for my mother) were dispatched to the summit by train after giving my parents and I a head start. We took the classic starter’s route up the Pyg Track from Pen-y-Pass and in those days there was no car park fee! It is a great starter track with very mild scrambling from the start, then the wonderful moment when you crest the pass and get your first view of Llyn Llydaw under the towering cliffs of Y Lliwedd, the third peak of the famous horseshoe scamble. AT that point Crib Coch is to your right with its knife edge. In those days it was easy to make a mistake and end up on that highly exposed route unless you were careful. Since then many feet have made the Pyg Track more distinct. From there the path contours around the slopes of Crib Coch and Crib y Ddysgl with views of Llydaw and then the perfectly formed Glaslyn. The miners track below is a constant reminder of the industrial past of Eryri; the welsh for Snowdonia which is probably derived from eryr or eagle but may also link to highlands in the title of Llywelyn Fawr Prince of North Wales and Lord of Snowdonia in the English Court Records. His main palace was at Aber Garth Celyn where the Carneddau meet the sea. You then mount the zigzags which in those days were a loose screen path but are now well-engineered and firm walking. The zig-zags are a little bit of an endurance test but once you reach the col it is a fairly easy walk parallel to the railway tracks to reach the summit and its cafe. Now an architecturally distinguished building it was then an unsightly blot on the landscape. We made it and despite my pleas, I was sent back down by train, placated with promises of ice cream. In retrospect, I think my parents wanted some time to themselves.
I’ve been up Yr Wyddfa many times since and the weight and effectiveness of my clothing have progressively improved the experience over the years, as have trekking poles. I remain ambiguous about the cafe. When you need it it is not open, when it is open it destroys the solitude which is so much a part of the mountain experience but I must confess to being a bit of a purist when it comes to the mountains. I have never really approved of downhill skiing where the debris destroys summer walking, My general adage is that if you didn’t climb up you should not be allowed to slide down.
The most evocative sound in the whole of Eryri is not an eagle or another raptor, but the raven, as it happens my own spirit animal. It’s a distinctive sound, especially heard through the mist, gives me a sense of being home, of belonging. I’ve heard it every time I’ve been up this particular mountain. The family’s favorite was to climb the Watkin Path and descend down the South Ridge (traitorous in snow as I can testify) and it is one of the longest especially if you add in Yr Aran, which I recommend. The railway path is to be avoided as it is tedious. A personal favorite is to ascend via the south ridge from Rhyd Ddu or the path of the same name and then descend via the Snowdon Ranger Path to just above the zig-zags where a clear ladder style to your left marks the track through an old quarry and directly into the car park. Everyone should do the Snowdon Horseshoe which is a grade one scramble, but you need a head for heights and dry weather. I haven’t done it since I was young so there is no link to provide. The best starter trail is up the Pyg Track and down the Miners – cheapest to park in Nant Paris and take the bus up. If you want to park in Pen-y-Pass get there early. Whatever you do take the mountain seriously, my last but one trip involved a mountain rescue and observation of dangerous foolishness in a school party.
Now I have spent a long time on Yr Wyddfa because it was the first and it has some glorious routes but there is much else to be enjoyed in the region. The Nantlle ridge is probably the best ridge walk south of Scotland but needs two cars or use of public transport: train to Rhyd-Ddu then the bus from Nebo or Penygroes. There is a circular walk from the Rhyd-Ddu carpark if those options are not on, or reverse the outward path which is just about possible in summer. There is one significant scramble but it is a grade one and short – keep to the ridgeline. I’ve done it solo and in the company of Iwan, Dai, Paul, and Brenda who are delightful but tend to stop frequently for Bara Brith and Tea so you have to allow more time! That ridge is a part of the Model Hebog complex a worthwhile walk of itself with the bonus of tracking down one of the reputed hiding places and the Welsh Hero Owen Glyndŵr. Moel Siabod has some of the best views in the whole park and one of the most enjoyable scrambles. Once on this walk with Chris Bolton, we had the best summit conditions and light I have ever experienced and as you will see from this link I went a bit overboard with the fisheye lens. Moel Siabod itself has a long family history. When young the habit of a birthday treat was instituted and for one of mine I choose a week in the mountains so by parents hired a caravan in the grounds of the farm which is the subject of I Bought a Mountain. I got to take my then best friend Nick Keeley. There is a story there in its own right. In Bryn Coch primary school Nick Keeley and George Strachan, David Blainey and I were a foursome or rather two linked pairs. But David was the son of a Methodist minister and in those days they were moved every four years. it took me a long time to recover from his leaving and I was always the third boy at the feast thereafter. That culminated in a boys-only pre-university holiday at Abersoch where we met two girls on the beach and their father was persuaded to take me sailing; the implications should be clear. So while Nick may have been my best friend I was probably his second and even though we went to the same University we drifted apart. I did con him into taking a massive Blue Gronk home as a present for my sister and his youngest sister was determined to marry me when she was ten but life moves on. Either way, to return to the birthday treat, this was one of the many attempts by the family to ascend Moel Siabod. Every time we did we got lost, bad weather swept in or something else happened. My sister’s verrucas (which were very painful and eventually needed liquid nitrogen) being one. On this occasion, we took the simplest route up namely the Pony Path from Capel Curig but the rain was lashing down, we were equipped, Nick was not. Result another retreat and my first exposure (sic) to the early signs of exposure was on that walk.
As a family, we often ascended Cnicht, known as the Matterhorn for North Wales for its southern ascent. We normally took the minor road to the southeast of Nant Gwynant as it was close to home That route via Llyn Llagi and Lay yr Adar is a lot of fun and a short walk that allowed you to miss bad weather in the rest of the park. It was a short winter’s trip but almost a walk to far when my sister and I (I think it was my fault) choose to descend the scramble to the south-west in icing conditions. I’ve had a few near misses in the mountains and that was one. One of the best walks in the area is to ascend Cnicht and then follow round the head of the valley to finish with Moelwyn Mawr and Moelwyn Bach. It is a little tricky in navigation in the central part but nothing too difficult. For me, it is also linked to the mountain training I did at the age of twelve with the Youth Hostel Association. We stayed in the Lledr Valley youth Hostel and were taught navigation and mountain safety for the week. It was a hugely valuable course and knocked a lot of arrogance out of a group of teenagers and pre-teens. Ending up snarled in brambles on the northern part of the Cnicht range because you trusted your instincts over the compass is a salutary lesson. It may be one origin of my dislike of Galdwell’s deeply flawed book Blink. The best walk we did in that week was the Moelwyns from Tanygrisiau and any walk on the Moelwyns is the best way to understand the role of slate on these hills. My best memory is swimming in the river at the end of the day. I stayed at the Youth Hostel many years later that the same leader was running the same programme, and had the same disciplinary issues. He warned them, as he had warned us, that he could choose how hard a walk to take them on the next day. We ignored that warning and lived to regret it, as I suspect, did they. The Youth Hostels were a major part of my breaks in the hills in those days. It was when I started to realise the distinct pleasure of walking by yourself. I’d simply move between hostels with a pack over four to five days allowing for linear walks over whole ranges. I like walks in company but it is different. One year I took my sister and one the best ever holidays we had. Day one was a traverse of Yr Wyddfa via the Watkin Path and Pyg Track to Pen-y-Pass. Day two we took the length of the Gyders to Capel Curig and then to the Idwal Cottage Youth Hostel in the Ogwen Valley. That walk is a lot easier now with a bus that runs between Pen-y-pass and Capel Curig. I last did it west to east and managed to break a rib on Glyder Fach. I’d recommend doing it east to west to Pen-y-Pass or Nant Perris although I have never done that.
All of that leads me to the most important area in Eryri, the place where I feel most comfortable and ironically have had the highest number of injuries. That is to say the two ranges that surround the Ogwen Valley: the sharp ridges and boulder fields of the Glyders and and magnificent panoramas of the Carneddau. This is where I feel most at home. From time to time they teach me a lesson to make sure I don’t take them for granted but I always feel safe here and it has the best walking. The classic circular of the Carneddau is a big walk with some of the best views. The direct ascent of Pen yr Ole Wen from Idwal Cottage is not recommended, not is the descent. On that Youth Hosteling holiday with my sister she got dust in her contact lens halfway up, in those days they were glass and difficult to manage. Creating a wind-free zone under my walking cape didn’t allow their extraction so I had to get her down with her eyes closed against the pain. The best way is to part the car at the eastern end of Llyn Ogwen and climb up the clear path that follows the Afon Lloer. Strike left for the ridge and you have an enjoyable ascent with some mild scrambling. From there you follow the ridge round to Carnedd Dafydd and then pass along the ridge over the Black Ladders (or Ysgolion Duon) before bearing left for Carnedd Llewelyn. Be careful not to approach the Black Ladders directly there are a lot of climbers paths that lead aware from sheer cliffs and can be tempting in and visibility. The classic circuit then goes on to Pen yr Helgi Du via a brilliant and easy scramble up but an often scary scramble down from Bwlch Eryl Farchog. From there a wonderful grassy ridge down and you cross the A5 to take the old track which parallels it – don’t get killed on the road. There are early exit routes via Ffynnon Llugwyr from the halfway point between Dafydd and Llewelyn and from Bwlch Eryl Farchog. The Cwm Eigiau Horseshoe is also strongly recommended and one of the wilder walks with more chance of being solitary. Both of those I have done with Euan Semple arguing about religion!
For my 60th Birthday, I did something I had always wanted to achieved and hired a taxi to take me from the Aber Falls carpark to Llyn Ogwen. Aber had changed since I was now there so I didn’t realise there was a car park further up the lane which was the normal pickup point so I almost missed him. I also didn’t check the signage and came back to a note on my windscreen that the car park had not been locked at dusk as a favour to me!. That walk follows the classic circuit to Carnedd Llewelyn but then follows the northern ridgeline via Foel Grach, Foel-fras and Drum to meet the old Roman road between Deva Victrix and Segontium. The Princes of North Wales had their “capital’ on that road adjacent to the dangerous tidal crossing of the Lavan Sands to Môn. It is one of those walks that live with you forever and I had perfect weather conditions but was only carrying the small Sony camera so I need to do it again with the Nikon and lots of lenses!. Some close friends don’t understand this but I prefer to spend major birthdays on the hills, on my own. My 65th was on Cradle Mountain in Tasmania which was similarity challenging.
Then we come to Tryfan and the Glyders. On the mountain training, we camped at Llyn Bochlwyd and the next day did the grade two scramble up the Bristly Ridge and back down Y Gibbin; which is serious work! I cured my sister of her fear of heights on that route as I trapped her into starting it and there was no going back. She was so angry that the desire to kill me overcame fear and I fled. Two paragraphs up you can see a picture of myself and my children on the summit of Tryfan with Y Garn in the background. We climbed in one glorious day, by the North Ridge with my sister Mary and my Mother. The north ridge ascent of Tryfan had one avoidable grade two but is an overall grade one. I did it in foul conditions during my 60th birthday week and it was good to be back: as in on Tryfan and as in at the car. There is also a perfect round of Cwm Idwal with many exit options. My children have been told that my ashes are to be scattered from its summit and in 2006 a fall might have left my body on the top for easy cremation! That was eight stitches but I walked into the hospital and I still think Red Dawn on Tryfan was one of my best tweets. I’m very grateful for the help in the Snowdonia Mountain Lodge where I was staying at the time. We use them now for events and retreats but they went out of their way to make sure I was OK. It’s not the only occasion I’ve made a mistake up there. I’ve already mentioned the broken rib on Glyder Fach but three times I have made the same mistake on the circuit up the Devil’s kitchen and over the Glyders to descend via the old Miners Track from Bethesda to Snowdon which I confessed to here. That track is impressive by the way to goes by way of the mountains to Llyn Llydaw a walk of over ten miles with a thousand feet of climbing and carried through before and after each Sunday in all weathers.
The northern range from Y Garn to include Elidir Fawr is also one of my favorite routes and that is so good is it worth going out and back something I normally avoid. There are multiple ascents and descent options to that and it is good in all weathers. I’ve taken a lot of conference groups up there with head torches to witness dawn and the view from Y Garn east is probably one of the best in the whole of the National Park. One of my greatest walks ever was from the Llanberis side with a Ramblers Group including my sister. Without crampons, you were lost and as on my 60th, I had the wrong camera! My first time up Y Garn was in the pouring rain on one of these youth hotel trips where my bright yellow cycling cape projected me. Interesting Rohan recently resurrected that means of projection for walkers.
One of the suggestions on social media was that I would write a walking guide and I’ve sort of done that in what I think will be one of the longest posts in this series. I’ve linked it with many memories of good times and difficult (but never bad) times. I am not enough of a poet to adequately describe how I feel about the mountains. A lot of it is just a sense of presence, of being there. I never use iTunes but just walk and listen as well as feeling the environment. I’ve focused on the heart of Eryri but one should not neglect Cadair Idris or the Rhinogs on any exploration of the region but they are not in the sacred space category.
We should never forget the human aspect of this landscape. I have already mentioned the miners and their impact and the uniqueness of their culture, in particular, the Caban. But there is another important group namely the farmers who have defined the landscape with the stone walls that trace impossible paths up the mountainside. One very specific meaning of Cynefin relates the knowledge of their habitat in flocks of sheep. I don’t think the English have any idea of how offensive their jokes are here and if anything reveals their own ugly obsessions. Sheep have defined this landscape as much as the mines or for that matter the glaciers. I said I was not a poet, but R S Thomas is, and one the greatest. I mentioned him in my second post in this series. So I will finish this post with a typically ambiguous poem for his savage, but also an empathetic pen.
Iago Prytherch his name, though, be it allowed,
Just an ordinary man of the bald Welsh hills,
Who pens a few sheep in a gap of cloud.
Docking mangels, chipping the green skin
From the yellow bones with a half-witted grin
Of satisfaction, or churning the crude earth
To a stiff sea of clods that glint in the wind- So are his days spent, his spittled mirth
Rarer than the sun that cracks the cheeks
Of the gaunt sky perhaps once in a week.
And then at night see him fixed in his chair
Motionless, except when he leans to gob in the fire.
There is something frightening in the vacancy of his mind.
His clothes, sour with years of sweat
And animal contact, shock the refined,
But affected, sense with their stark naturalness.
Yet this is your prototype, who, season by season
Against siege of rain and the wind’s attrition,
Preserves his stock, an impregnable fortress
Not to be stormed even in death’s confusion.
Remember him, then, for he, too, is a winner of wars,
Enduring like a tree under the curious stars.
Banner photograph is from the track to Pen yr Ole Wen via Cym Lloer, Tryfan in foreground take on my 60th Birthday. Intext photograph is of Own Idwal from the summer of Pen ye Ole Wen on a ‘Blustery Day” both by me.
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