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  • Alex Rambles

A Weekend in Snowdonia


I'm Cumbrian. I am from Carlisle. My formative mountain experiences were in the Lake District and it is the place I return to again and again. So Snowdonia had a lot to live up to. It would be a bit like asking me to go to the Emirates Stadium and then compare it to my beloved Old Trafford. Bias would always play a part. Wouldn't it? Surely I wouldn't leave Snowdonia and favour it over the Lakes?

I had been plotting my plan of attack for a couple of months. I had the OS map. I had watched the British Mountaineering Council videos on the north ridge of Tryfan, Bristly Ridge and Crib Goch and was suitably excited (and a fair bit apprehensive). I had a pocket sized book of the ten best scrambles in the Snowdonia area. The hostel at the Pen-Y-Pass was booked for three nights and the trains were booked. Eighteen hours after waving goodbye to the year sixes at my school, I was boarding a train from Euston to North Wales. I was ready. How would these Welsh Dragons compare to the mountains of Cumbria? Would Crib Goch wipe the floor with Striding Edge? Would Tryfan knock Blencathra off its perch as my favourite British mountain? The result was emphatic...

 

Saturday. Train arrives into Bangor just past lunch. I need a taxi to get me close to my first mountain of the weekend: Tryfan (918m). Voted as Britain's favourite mountain by the readers of Trail magazine, Tryfan was an easy choice for my first foray. It was certainly the one I was most excited about. Tryfan is a crest of rock that rises like the back of a stegosaurus above the Ogwen Valley and a scramble up its north face is said to be something to savour. And so, from outside Bangor station, I google taxi firms and - lo and behold - "Tryfan Cars" appears on my phone.

"Get me as close as you can to Tryfan for fifteen quid," I say.

"Tryfan the mountain?" replies my driver in a wonderful northern Welsh accent. It turns out he can get me as far as Bethesda. Not a problem. I am here to walk after all. We converse about Wales' success in the European Championships and the correct punctuation for the mountains of which I was bound (Gli-der Vach) and my driver soon has me on the outskirts of Bethesda next to a Welcome to Snowdonia sign.

So I wander down the pavement of the A5 as, slowly, I am introduced to my first taste of Snowdonia's peaks. Foel-Goch and Mynydd Perfedd rise to the right: green and inviting. Though my eyes are drawn forward, where - in the distance - cloud is moving across a towering rocky wall. This is my first glimpse of Glyder Fach, the one thousand metre behemoth that Tryfan is effectively a long arm of. It is not until I reach the waters of Llyn Ogwen and turn the corner that I am greeted by the unmistakable, undulating ridge of Tryfan. I walk on past the farm and campsite of Gwern Gof Uchaf to view the mountain from its east-facing and trademark flank. If Tryfan looked impressive from Llyn Ogwen, it looks absolutely majestic from the east: a daunting, crenelated battlement of a peak.

Tryfan's east face as seen from the A5.

The climb starts back at Gwern Gof Uchaf and I soon pass climbers on Little Tryfan, a rocky spur shooting out of the hillside that offers easy rock climbing. I do not linger long, there's nothing little about the north face towering above me. It's up an easy rock chimney and I come to where the heather terrace path skirts around gently to the left. There is no path where I am going though: that is the beauty of Tryfan. I am reliably informed that it does not matter how many times you climb the north ridge, you never climb it the same way twice. The scrambling is about to begin in earnest, it's up to me to choose my route. I revel in this sense of freedom.

The first landmark of some repute that I meet is the Cannon: a long splinter of rock that juts out at a forty-five degree angle, hanging over the Ogwen Valley with sumptuous views of Llyn Ogwen and Y Garn - the armchair mountain. After carefully propping my iPhone against my sack and pressing record, I crawl along to the edge and take in the scene in front of me. I defy anyone to reach this destination and not take some kind of photo.

Clambering up the Cannon on Tryfan.

Once off the Cannon, the choice of routes are many and varied. It really depends of how confident and adventurous one is feeling. This is not walkers' territory. I am truly climbing a mountain, using my hands just as much as my feet. It's exhilarating and a fall could be serious, but at no point do I feel in real danger: the handholds are generous and the choice on offer means that I never have to commit to anything that I am not comfortable with.

It is up and up. It's a lot of effort but I am having too much fun for it to be tiring. The fatigue only hits as I top out onto the boulder strewn, airy summit ridge. There's a drop of thousands of feet to my left, the clouds are streaming past and ahead I can see Tryfan's most famous features, Adam and Eve: two six-foot monoliths standing upright at the very summit of the mountain. To jump between them is said to give "the freedom of Tryfan", though I am not sure what this means. What I do know is that I am not leaving the summit until this feat is accomplished. I am totally alone, which is normally a blessing on a summit but today means that there will be no leap-of-faith photo. After hoisting myself up onto Adam (or is it Eve?) I take in the scene. The jump is not that far: it is not Greg Rutherford territory in the slightest. Having said that, beyond Eve there is that drop of thousands of feet, so now is not the time for complacency. I ready my camera and jump! It is done. The freedom of Tryfan is mine! As a bonus, a lone trail runner suddenly arrives on the summit ridge. My camera man had arrived!

Jumping between Adam and Eve on Tryfan summit.

No time to waste. It is around five in the evening and I have another serious ridge to conquer and two more summits to make before I can descend to the youth hostel at Pen-Y-Pass. From the summit of Tryfan, Glyder Fach (994m) is seen close at hand: not as shapely as its slightly lower neighbour but just as rocky and just as serious looking. My route is Bristly Ridge - a classic grade one scramble just as challenging and even steeper than the north face I have already conquered.

Glyder Fach from Tryfan summit.

After a quick descent into Bwlch Tryfan, I follow a brick wall up to the start of Bristly Ridge. From here it's a series of narrow, steep gullies and rock steps. Again, the holds are generous and the scrambling fun, though looking down is not overly recommended. Unlike on Tryfan north face, there is not much choice of route, however this is more assuring in terms of finding the correct way. The view back to Tryfan is immense.

Tryfan from Bristly Ridge.

Eventually I come to a split in the ridge called the Great Pinnacle Gap. The gap is obviously too far to jump and looks ominous. My first thought was something along the lines of: "Right. What now?" After a short and careful descent to the flat slabs below, it's just a case of finding a sensible route back up the rocks and onto the crest of the ridge once more. After a few more pinnacles, I find myself on the main summit plateau.

At first sight, the summit plateau of Glyder Fach puts me in mind of Scafell Pike's boulder strewn wastes. But the Glyders Fach and Fawr are more striking than Scafell in their highest ramparts. Jagged rock formations are everywhere; jutting out at weird and wonderful angles; grouping together to form gothic natural sculptures. The whole landscape is like something out of a child's lunar-landing dream. Things get all the more atmospheric as the mist sets in, reducing visibility to between five and ten metres. Moments before the summit, I stumble upon one of Glyder Fach's most famous sites, the Cantilever Stone: a huge, long, flat piece of rock that juts out, six feet above the ground like one end of a seesaw. Just like with the Cannon, I prop my iPhone against my bag and press record.

After the summit comes another of Glyder Fach's landmarks: Castell Y Gwynt (Castle of the Winds). By this time, the mist was really setting in and I am not able to truly take in its grandeur. On a clear day, it is the ultimate foreground to a stunning panorama of the Snowdon group. Oh well, that will have to wait for another visit. All I can see today are the castle's jagged towers, almost perfect parallel columns, reaching skyward. I scramble to its top and carefully make my way back down and find the path onward to my next summit of the day.

Glyder Fawr (1001m) is the tallest in the Glyder group, though not as dramatic as its little sister Fach nor as striking as cousin Tryfan. The descent and ascent between Fach and Fawr seemed negligible, being connected by an easy path. I find myself on a summit plateau much like Glyder Fach's, minus the more astounding rock formations of the Cantilever and Castell Y Gwynt. Nevertheless, the jagged towers are still in abundance and it takes a score of minutes to make sure I have found the true summit. The evening gloaming is setting in, adding to the mist, and after some time given to correct navigation, I start my descent towards the Pen-Y-Pass. Dropping below the cloud, I see the lights of my home for the next three nights some five hundred metres below in the valley. Imagining that first beer, I quicken my steps and hasten down the slope. By the time I reach the youth hostel it is almost fully dark.

 

Sunday. The forecast is not great. Rain I can live with. Gale force winds I consider a personal challenge. Poor visibility though, that's a killer. I decide against any strenuous mountain adventures for the day. I spend a leisurely morning in the hostel. A full English breakfast fills the gap that no evening meal the night previous had left. I have my Tryfan episode footage to put together but, crucially, no wifi in the hostel. I decide to don my waterproofs and check out Llanberis. It's about an hours walk down the A486, but I'm surrounded by mountains and I've got my iPod. I'm happy.

Llanberis is smaller than I expected. I had envisioned a sort of Keswick of Snowdonia, but this was a much smaller town. Having had a quick look around the Snowdon railway station and the high street, I gravitate (as I am sure many do) to Pete's Eats - something of a Llanberis institution I believe. Taking advantage of the free wifi, I eat a lovely panini and drink a massive tea, whilst I put together my film of the day previous. My thoughts then turn to the next day: The Snowdon Horseshoe. Snowdon is the highest mountain in Wales at 1085 metres and an obvious draw, much like Scafell Pike and Ben Nevis. But size is not everything: the mountain I was most looking forward to getting to grips with was the infamous Crib Goch and its narrow ridge. How would it compare to the likes of Sharp Edge and Striding Edge in the Lakes? I could not wait.

I pass the afternoon in a frenzy of video editing and caffeine before grabbing some chips from the chippy, buying tomorrow's provisions from the Spar and catching the bus back to the Pen-Y-Pass. That evening, the rain clears up and so I set out for a stroll along the Pyg Track, mainly to get some signal to call home. Decent phone signal is scant reward compared to the beautiful sunset I am treated to, as the suns rays reach long and molten-red across the whole valley. I think how lucky I am to be here at this hour and that I should try to be in the mountains more often at the beginnings and ends of days. It's an early night for me: tomorrow is a biggie.

Sunset across the Pen-Y-Pass.
 

Monday. Snowdon. From my breakfast table, the window perfectly frames Crib Goch (923m). Strange how such an inhospitable place can be seen from such comforts. The full English is devoured quickly and I make as early a start as I can. I follow the Miner's Path from the car park, which is already getting busy. After one hundred yards, I bear right onto a faint grassy path that leads away from the tourist routes and firmly onto the route that contains warning signs: the path to Crib Goch. I fight my way onto the top of the small grassy hills known as The Horns and take in the view. Directly ahead is the pyramidal form of Crib Goch. Below this, to the left are the waters of Llyn Llydaw and (further up) Glasslyn. To the very left are the twin peaks of Y Lliwedd (898m) - the steepest rock wall in Snowdonia. Snowdon is hidden by a layer of cloud that floats at around 950 metres. The whole system is a staggeringly huge natural amphitheatre that puts any of the Lakeland horseshoes in the shadows.

Caution - Route to Crib Goch says the sign as I hop over the stile. I am not alone. Ahead I can see others also seeking out exposed terrain. The clouds are licking the peak above, as the path disappears and the upward scrambles begin.

"Which way is it?" asks a couple getting to grips with the scramble.

I shrug. "Up." Like Tryfan the day before, the scramble up Crib Goch is up to your inclinations. However, once you top out, the choices narrow considerably (narrow being the operative word).

There are few times when your breath is taken away, but being faced with Crib Goch ridge for the first time is surely one of those moments. The character of the walk switches in an instant. The cloud billows ominously across the ridge and Snowdon herself is still shrouded. Leading into the layer of cloud was a knife sharp arete that rose and fell like giant waves cast in stone. Ahead, three distinct pinnacles throw down the gauntlet. It is easily more intimidating than Striding Edge. It is one of those places where you have to remind yourself you are still in the United Kingdom.

Crib Goch ridge and its pinaccles.

Crib Goch is a challenge in beautiful weather. Of course, just as I was approaching the crux of the ridge the heavens opened and the wind hit. This is no place to be caught in inclement conditions and if this weather had been forecast I would not have attempted it today. I consider turning back but figure that I am already committed. A fellow hiker, named Steve, that I had passed on the scramble up was now at my back. We exchange some concerned words, but he has done the ridge before and says that the real difficulties are almost over. He leads on and I follow. But it is a knife edge of jagged rock. The weather masks the fall on either side. I crouch and slowly pace along slightly to left of the crest, right hand on the top of the ridge. Next come the pinnacles. Steve and I watch each other over, as the sodden conditions have made matters somewhat treacherous. After the last pinnacle is negotiated, things calm down and for the first time in a while there is a path beneath my feet.

I negotiate the last of Crib Goch's pinnacles.

I leave Steve and power on towards Crib Y Ddysgl (1065m). As the second highest peak in Wales, it is as high as it is weirdly spelt. The scrambling is not over though; there are more rock towers to negotiate. I meet another solo rambler trying to find his way. He is also called Steve.

"I'm not sure which way is best," says Steve Mark II.

"Up," I say, without a shrug this time. I'm getting used to the ways of Snowdonia scrambling. Steve Mark I has caught us and the three of us decide to head for Snowdon together as conditions are not improving. As we pass the dilapidated summit column of Crib Y Ddysgl, it is cold, it is windy, it is raining and visibility is poor. And I still haven't seen Snowdon.

Out of the swirling gloom comes a bizarre sound to hear on a mountain ridge one thousand metres above sea level: the sound of pistons, steam and great mechanical effort. With a jolly whistle, as if it was the most normal thing in the World, the Snowdon Mountain Railway train comes chuntering past on its way to the summit of Wales, not too far distant now. The closer to the summit we get, the busier it becomes, even in these conditions. In fact, Snowdon (1085m) is the most summitted of all the mountain peaks in the United Kingdom. I walk up the steps to the summit and the giant metal plate that shows the direction of all the other peaks I should be able to see from this fine vantage point: a tease in the poor visibility. I find the whole thing slightly jarring: to have come from such a wild place as Crib Goch to find myself on a higher mountain, surrounded by tourists, a cafe and a train station. I imagine if something similar were to befall Helvellyn or Blencathra and am glad it hasn't yet. However, one day, when my legs pack in, I may be glad to be able to get on a train in Llanberis and visit the highest summit in Wales.

The Steves and I discuss whether to continue the horseshoe, given the conditions and potential difficulty navigating. My glass is usually half full, so I suggest we should continue because the cloud line had been hovering around 950 metres all day and most of the route was below that height once we were off the main peak. I must have been persuasive; as a three we continue by taking the Watkin Path from Snowdon summit.

We descend for some time before we drop below the clouds. In the distance to the south, we can see the Moel Hebog group and ahead our next target looms moodily behind the shifting veil of clouds. Y Lliwedd (898m) is undoubtedly impressive. Its eastern flanks are the steepest cliffs in Snowdonia and its twin peaks require a small amount of scrambling to gain their airy ramparts.

Y Lliwedd emerges from the clouds.

Having descended down the to Miner's Path, on the shore of Llyn Llydaw, the Steves and I go our separate ways. The Snowdon Horseshoe had been completed, though I still have not seen Snowdon herself. I arrive back at the hostel and reflect on the day, before having a bit of a nap.

Sunday evening. My last evening in Snowdonia. Had the weather cleared at all? Remembering the sunset from the previous night, I decide to head back into Snowdon's amphitheatre once more, mainly to see if I could finally catch a glimpse of Wales' highest peak. So with head torch at the ready (just in case), I stride out onto the Pyg Track for an evening stroll and find myself in the centre of the horseshoe I had completed earlier in the day. I gaze up at the clouds licking Crib Goch's ridge, the stillness of the two waters below and the sheer cliff faces of Y Lliwedd; all are incredibly atmospheric in the fading light. Yet still Snowdon hides her secrets. Having found a small rocky outcrop above Glasslyn, I spend a long moment taking it all in, knowing it will be some time before I return to Snowdonia. But return I certainly will...

I take one last look towards Snowdon.

 

I believe I have only scratched the surface of what Snowdonia has to offer, though I did make a beeline for its headline acts: Tryfan, the Glyders, Snowdon and Crib Goch. It is immediately obvious that this part of Snowdonia is a scramblers paradise and I had an immense amount of fun on my two main outings. Where Lakeland peaks are graceful and green, Snowdonia's are rugged and rocky. Both hold their own unique charms and it would be foolish to say that one area is better than the other. Tryfan is undoubtedly spectacular and compares favourably with any Lakeland mountain, even Blencathra - which I do have a bit of a soft spot for. As far as exciting ridges go, Crib Goch is more exhilarating than Striding Edge and Sharp Edge. It is a ridge that I would return to time and time again. My advice to anyone thinking of heading to Snowdonia instead of the Lakes this year would be: go! It is a mountain arena full of charm and excitement. As the bus pulled away from Pen-Y-Pass towards Bangor station, a sombre feeling grew inside me. I can not wait to get back amongst these Welsh Dragons.

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