For just over 110 years the little train has chugged its way through sunlight and storm, from its home in the old slate mining town of Llanberis, to the end of the line just beneath the stony peak called Yr Wyddfa – better known as Snowdon – which at 3560 feet or 1085 metres is the highest mountain in Wales.
The summit is – quite rightly – a popular goal with views extending across half of Wales and as far as the Wicklow Mountains of Ireland on very clear days – or more normally for between 10 and 20 metres into the mist that surrounds the peak. Most ascensionists reach the summit by steam power with many not straying far from the cafe and the train is a great day out if you have a young family or are infirm but we are not concerned here with train journeys.
Trains aside the path from Llanberis is the easiest – if not the most interesting, being long – over 10 miles for the return trip. The other most popular routes are from Pen Y Pass, the Pyg and Miners’ Tracks which converge at Glaslyn beneath the summit are almost as crowded as the Llanberis side in summer. Braver souls climbing from Pen Y Pass will venture across the exposed arête of Crib Goch (not recommended in icy or windy conditions) to reach the summit by an altogether more exciting route. The path I’ve chosen here however is neither the easiest nor the hardest, but perhaps the most varied way up.
The tiny village of Rhyd Ddu just north of Beddgelert is as an idyllic spot as one could wish for. Here the high peaks of Snowdon and Moel Hebog are tempered by the soft valley greens and swathes of coniferous forest. The place has neither the rugged harshness of Ogwen nor the pastoral tameness of Glan Conwy yet seems to combine the best of what North Wales has to offer.
Arriving here on a clear and sunny morning in April, the only sound in the air was that of the birds and I was pleased to count just 7 cars on the car park including my own. In the light of the fact that the previous day at Pen Y Pass, the car park full sign had already seen some use, this route was boding well as a crowd avoidance technique. Passing the station of the Welsh Highland Railway which goes to Caernarfon from here, I crossed the line and followed the marked trail past a curious stone ruin on the left. In front Snowdon rose 3000 feet above, its outline oddly unfamiliar from here.
After maybe half an hour the track forks by a large rock on the left where the shapely peak of Yr Aran appears directly ahead. We take the left fork through a gate signposted to Snowdon. The way here is obvious and meanders gradually uphill in the direction of our objective, the views behind expanding with every bit of height gained. The end of the Nantlle ridge appears across the valley while the prominent peak to its left is Moel Hebog. On its other side, Mynydd Mawr falls steeply to the blue waters of Llyn Cwellyn. Crossing a stile and climbing more steeply brings the sea into view sparkling beyond the encircling mountains.
Pausing by some ruined stone buildings I realised that I hadn’t seen one person since starting the walk and as I drank my water, hardly a sound broke the silence of the hills.
Resuming my upwards journey, the path became rougher and steeper and after a short while arrived at a newish looking iron gate through a stone wall. Beyond the path curved more gently up to the right to reach a broad ridge known as Llechog. Here the ground to the left dropped away in spectacular fashion revealing the summit across a rocky cwm, disappointingly still at least 1000 feet above.
Following this wide ridge, the slope eased again and I re crossed the same wall higher up before it was time for a break again. The ridge climbed steeply again to Bwlch Main which was a good place to pause before tackling the last part of the climb. I was encouraged to see that I was now level with Moel Hebog – past 2500 feet – and could see over the top of Yr Aran. These things are always good progress markers when you can at last see over a peak that’s been above you all morning!
The path to Bwlch Main became incessantly steep and climbed beside a fence straight up the ridge at first and then in wide zig zags before its final ledge-like traverse across the steep slopes leading to Snowdon’s South Ridge. Reaching the ridge opened up the view to the eastern side of the range over Y Lliwedd to Moel Siabod, its familiar shape marking the end of the high summits in that direction. Snowdon itself was now much nearer but before the final ascent I turned right and walked up to the top of the Bwlch Main ridge which looked interesting. The path from that side skirts the top but climbing up a few feet revealed a crest of grass and rock a couple of feet wide seemingly suspended in the sky. There was not a sound and far below the Watkin path could be seen winding up from the valley near Beddgelert while across the void the sharp peak of Y Lliwedd thrust up to just below my position.
Returning along the path I began the last section. The ridge, narrow in one or two places though always safe and without difficulty, rose steadily towards Snowdon’s pyramid-like summit now only 15 or 20 minutes away. The sound of voices increased as I neared the summit and reached the inevitable throng who had gathered here.
Yr Wyddfa though is a fine spot – no wide boggy field this. The trig point stands on rocks overlooking the 1500 foot drop to the mountain tarn of Glaslyn and the view, when there is one, never fails to impress. There were however just a few too many people so I continued on the main path following the railway down the far side and at the col set off up neighbouring Crib y Ddysgl.
The second highest mountain in Wales, the 3495 foot Crib y Ddysgl – also known by the name of Carnedd Ugain – is probably as hard to pronounce as the Crib Goch ridge is to climb and it is normally only climbed by survivors of that ridge continuing their way around to Snowdon. That and antisocial walkers in search of peace and quiet for lunch!
Back again to the tranquillity of the hills then and some spectacular views down to the Llanberis Pass road over 3000 feet down. Even the seagulls took their time in spotting a solitary figure perched on Crib y Ddysgl eating salami sandwiches.
My journey down returned to the col before crossing the railway and heading towards distant Moel Eilio picking up a path descending in a roughly north westerly direction. The descent began easily, becoming more knee jarring as it became steeper and rougher lower down. Following the crest of the ridge would provide better views down the cliffs of Clogwyn du’r Arddu towards Llanberis but time was getting on now.
Passing the small lake of Llyn ffynnon y Gwas I joined a fairly level path across grass leading back towards the Snowdon Ranger Youth Hostel. The last part was down wide zigzags and led past the railway station where I checked in vain if a train was due to avoid the 2 miles on the road back to Rhyd Ddu. In the summer you’d probably get a train here at this time. A timetable is displayed on the platform revealing that I was a bit late midweek in April. Equally I’m sure a bus would have been along had I the patience to wait but there are far worse places than this to do a road section. Just over half an hour brought me back to my start point where there were still only 7 cars – including my own – and the only sounds were still the birds and a distant river.
Pete Buckley May 2011
For another good mountain walk in Wales here’s my Cadair Idris post.