In a break from my usual New Year’s Eve tradition of necking champagne as fast as possible and then trying to catch a glimpse of some fireworks, this year my brother and I took a trip to Wales to climb Snowdon (which, dedicated readers will recall, is one of the things I want to tick off my to-do list before the end of 2017).
Time constraints being a significant factor, much of our plan was based around the ‘most mountain in the least amount of time’. Snowdon is actually a relatively quick walk, we therefore planned to drive very early from Oxfordshire to the Pen-y-Pass car park at the foot of Snowdon, hike the mountain, stay overnight, and then drive back the following day. That would only necessitate one night away, and let us do the whole thing in 36 hours or so, door to door.
The plan actually worked relatively well. We set off at 5am on the 31st and drove the four hours or so to Snowdonia (stopping briefly for coffee and at a convenient Cotswold Outdoor where I bought a belt. Long story.)
When we arrived the first flaw in my plan immediately became clear. Even with our early start, a combination of the coffee stop, the belt stop, dense fog, and my extremely safe driving meant that we weren’t there until 10am by which time Pen-y-Pass car park was full. 100% full, with cones and tape and a totally uninterested man blocking the entrance. I hadn’t really factored that in, and for future it is well worth remembering that Snowdon is a popular mountain and I reckon there is space for no more than 80-100 cars at the car park. We drove on down the road while we planned what to do, and about 1.5 miles further on found a lay-by with space for about 10 more cars, where we parked. The shortness of the hike, the conservatism of our timings and our extraordinary levels of resilience and fitness meant that adding 3 unexpected miles to our hike wasn’t really an issue, but for anyone whose plans were slightly more knife-edge, this could definitely be a problem.
Anyway, we strolled up the road back to the car park, and then set off on the Pyg track (or PYG track, depending on how you think it got its name).
The Pyg track is a mix of well-established path and rocky scramble. It is steep in places, with parts that are like a staircase, and a few bits that are pretty much a hands-and-feet climb, but overall is not particularly challenging and certainly much easier underfoot than the Presidential Traverse. As you gain altitude the views become absolutely incredible, particularly down to the lakes on your left hand side.
Most of the way up the temperature was actually pretty pleasant and I was very comfortable in my merino base layer and Rab fleece. It was only as we approached the summit and the track became more exposed that the wind really picked up, and I chucked on my Arc’Teryx Squamish windbreaker, which was perfect for the conditions and did an absolutely sterling job. I really couldn’t have been more pleased with it.
We passed a lot of people on the way, and the track was relatively busy without being crowded. As is often the way, I was staggered by what some people were choosing to wear up the mountain; lots of people seemed hugely under-equipped and one or two were massively overdressed, but that is their choice I suppose. It had a friendly atmosphere, with most people wishing us a cheery good morning, and a few exchanging a joke or comment about the weather or spectacular views.
Eventually the Pyg track reaches the railway line and becomes what seemed like quite an exposed ridge although since by that point we were in dense cloud I could be wrong about that. At this elevation the wind was incredibly strong, and I was really grateful for the windbreaker. We battled on to the summit, taking a brief moment to stand up on the summit platform where the wind was so strong that I honestly couldn’t stand up without holding on.
On the summit we paused for 20 minutes or so to grab some food, and I heated up my lunch, which consisted of an American MRE-style ration pack, with its own water-activated heater. Given the shortness of the hike and my desire to save weight I’d elected not to take my jetboil but I’m still a sucker for a hot meal, and I was pretty impressed with my lunch. The only disadvantage is that it takes about 12 minutes to get properly hot, and I didn’t really leave it long enough, but the pasta bolognese was still warm enough to be pleasant, and it’s certainly something I would happily use again in future.
After that, we headed down pretty quickly; initially back the way we had come, until the path divided and we were able to take the Miner’s Track, an alternative route back to the car park. Whereas the Pyg track ascends at a relatively steady pace the whole way, the Miner’s track has most of its ascent/descent in a single fairly steep and scrambly section about a mile from the summit. From there on back to the car park it is almost entirely flat and on a well-surfaced pavement/footpath that clings to the edges of the very pretty lakes. Although this isn’t exactly serious mountaineering, it makes for a very nice return journey on tired legs (and especially if it was getting dark, though in our case we were back well before dusk) as you don’t have to think about the terrain underfoot but can enjoy the stroll, the scenery, and a chat. For that reason I tend to think that doing Pyg on the way up and Miner’s on the way back is a nice way round, although I’m sure there are advantages both ways.
The Miner’s track is slightly longer. I believe that if you do an out-and-back from car-park to summit, the Pyg track is about 7 miles and the Miner’s is 8. In our case, doing it as a loop and adding on the extra to and from the car we ended up with a 10.8 miles walk, which was about right, as I’d actually been worried that it might otherwise be rather a short walk for so much time in the car.
We made it back to the car well before dark, and then headed off a short distance (15-20 min drive) to the Bryn Dinas Camping Pods provided by Red Dragon Holidays. I booked us a pod on a bit of a whim, in an effort to find something cheaper than a hotel but more comfortable than a tent. I have nothing against camping, in fact I bloody love it, but there’s a lot to be said for coming off a hike and not having to assemble a tent, try to get out of your wet and muddy kit in the tent, and then sleep on a roll-mat while listening to the wind and rain and wondering if you tent is going to leak or blow away. The camping pods are sturdy and cosy, with comfortable beds and warm bedding (if you request it and pay a little extra) as well as electricity, wifi, a kettle, a shower block with warm and high-pressure showers, and a communal area with books and a microwave.
I cannot recommend them highly enough to anyone hiking in the area – they were absolutely perfect for our requirements.
One final point; as I mentioned many of the people we passed on the way up were, in my opinion, rather under-equipped. Now, sure, I’m a bit of a gear-head and take an absolute delight in having exactly the right kit plus plenty for emergencies. I didn’t even touch my heavier down jacket, and my Atom LT was only worn briefly at the summit, so you could argue I had too much kit, and no doubt most of the people we passed in lightweight jackets and no backpacks had a perfectly good hike and never thought twice about their kit. That’s fine, but equally people do get into serious trouble on Snowdon, and the fact that it has good paths and a steady flow of hikers shouldn’t blind people to the potential dangers.
I am guessing that most of my readers are fairly experienced outdoors-people already so don’t need this advice, but on the off-chance you have got here through Google and are a novice hiker, please bear in mind a few tips. All of which are intended to keep you safe and not to put you off doing what is a brilliant hike that is highly accessible to people of all ages without a great requirement to be incredibly fit.
- Wear appropriate fabrics: cotton gets wet fast and dries slowly, and 99% of the time is not suitable for outdoors activities. Jeans are made of cotton. Jeans are not suitable for hiking.
- Wear appropriate shoes: they don’t have to be heavy leather ankle boots (in fact I’m not a fan of those, and I did my ascent in hiking shoes with no ankle support, about which I’ll do a post later) but they need to be reasonably supportive, capable of being firmly fastened, and have decent grip. Much of the walk may be an easy track, but there are plenty of bits that are a real scramble, and coming down that in bad weather, perhaps in the dark, will not be fun if you’re wearing plimsolls or deck shoes or something equally inappropriate.
- Be prepared to get hot: don’t just chuck on a heavy jacket and think that’s you sorted (consider a lighter option such as the Rab Phantom). Even on a very cold day, if you’re hiking hard you’ll get hot and sweaty. Overheating will tire you out fast and can be extremely dangerous, sweating heavily will dehydrate you, and soaking your clothes with sweat will cause you to chill dangerously when you stop moving, especially on a windy day.
- Be prepared to get cold (and wet): don’t just pack for the weather you expect to have. Pack for the worst weather you could reasonably get if the forecast is wrong or you get stuck on the mountain longer than you planned for. You should be carrying kit you don’t intend to wear – that’s your safety buffer.
- Be prepared for things to go wrong: don’t be fooled by the accessibility and popularity of the mountain. If you get delayed and end up descending in the dark, or if you get injured (bearing in mind there is little to no phone signal on the whole mountain), things can look very different. Be familiar with the route, take a map, take a torch, take a first aid kit, and take some extra food and water.
Edit 09/01/2017: In case any of you thought I was being melodramatic or overly critical of other hikers in my comments above, I’d suggest reading these two articles which describe various incidents that occurred the same weekend that I hiked the mountain.
Fun contrasting quotes:
In one instance on Sunday night had the group of four carried proper torches rather than depend on a single mobile phone light between them they would not have required the assistance of 10 team members for three hours.
Unfortunately, the greasy rock delayed progress so by dusk they were only part way up the route, just below Yellow Slab.
As the two were safe, well equipped including a shelter and spare batteries for their torches, they agreed to bivvy for the night and extract themselves in the morning.