Last year, I returned to the UK for a bit of a break. Being a complete knob, rather than opting for a nice restful time I decided to go hiking in Snowdonia, spending 4 days lugging an 18kg pack up and down mountains, whilst being rained on and blasted by gale force winds. In case you’re thinking me rather dramatic for August, I would point out that a) Snowdonia is in Wales, and b) the remnants of a hurricane Bertha had blown in across the Atlantic just a week before my visit, thus ensuring a thorough workout of both equipment and sense of humour. Both elements – alas – were to be found wanting over the next few days.
The first clue that things weren’t going to go completely to plan occurred about 15 minutes from Euston station, when the high-speed train carrying me on the first leg of a rather complex series of connections, ground to a halt; remaining motionless for the best part of 2 hours. This was due, apparently, to a broken train further down the line. It’s quite amazing that here in Japan, the land of earthquakes, typhoons, tsunamis and mountains that explode suddenly, this kind of delay is unheard of. Yet the collective sigh from fellow passengers upon hearing the words “Virgin Trains regrets to announce…” suggested this was an all-too familiar occurrence. But anyway – all credit due to Mr Branson as after totally screwing all my connections, he did pop me in a cab for the last leg of my journey to Llanberis which was very thoughtful.
Things began to look up upon arriving at the campsite. After establishing basecamp, I set off in search of liquid refreshment. Finding the local watering holes both convivial and reasonably priced, I wobbled back to my tent quite content and clutching a tin of HP Big Breakfast feast with which to fuel my assault on Snowdon the next morning. As I watched the sun sink over the mountains, and the skies fading from blue, to pink and thence to starry velvet black, I began an alcohol-assisted muse on what had brought me to return to this, the Land Of My Fathers. For, yes, there is Welsh blood in my veins and I have always had a great fondness for Wales. With the scent of sheep shit and woodsmoke in my nostrils, I recalled my last expedition to this very mountain some 25 years before.
Why had I returned? Bloody good question, as it turned out, and one that – surprisingly – I discovered I didn’t have an immediate answer to.
My last visit to Snowdon had been on a solo 4 day hike when I was in my twenties. Before that, it had been with the MoD where I trained in engineering, accompanied by about 50 of the best mates anyone could ever wish for. The week we spent hiking and drinking (and in one notable case, shagging) our way around Snowdonia, lugging backbacks and army radios, was one of the best weeks of my life. I’d never done any hiking before that time, and it’s no exaggeration to say that Snowdonia set my feet upon a path that, so to speak, has taken me up mountains and across desserts from Asia, the USA and North Africa. Coming back here was special for me, but on that first night I couldn’t quite put my finger on exactly why that should be.
The next day dawned clear and bright. The brand new Gelert Solo tent I’d purchased for the trip had survived the night albeit with a worrying little rent in the inner. More on that later.
Having stuffed myself full of tinned crap, I broke camp and got underway. About five minutes later, recollections of my previous trip and the effort required to lug a fairly hefty backpack up to the start of the Llanberis path came sharply back into focus. I had been 25 last time I was here, but a smoker. I was quite pleased to find that a 52 year-old non-smoking version of me was able to set a pace that I think the younger man would have struggled to keep up with.
On I trudged, over stream, across rock and tufted grass – the latter under the disapproving stare of a rather large bull, which added a certain zing of energy to my already tired legs. After I while, I connected with the Llanberis path proper above Hebron Station and began the long climb to the summit in earnest.
The Llanberis path is said to be the easiest of Snowdon’s six routes. That’s probably true in the sense that it maintains a steady gradient all the way to the top. But with a heavy pack, the relentless climb saps energy no less effectively than a more erratic ascent. By the time I reached Clogwyn, about 2 thirds to the top, I’d got to the stage of counting out a 100 steps and then pausing for breath. The weather, which had been fine down in the valley was clearly going to be a bit more challenging the higher I climbed. The summit of Snowdon was shrouded in low cloud, which didn’t bode well. But this had been expected – Snowdon’s proximity to the sea and its elevation mean that it if often cloaked in cloud, even in summer.
The last section of the path as it passes Clogwyn gets a bit steeper and more rugged. But the reward for the knackered hiker is an increasingly impressive selection of views. The section of path where it crosses under the Snowdon Mountain Railway is particularly fine. The A5 snaking its way far below gives some impression of the elevation gain.
By now, the summit was within striking distance. I was pretty tired but I’d made good time and the weather had held this far. I was in no particular rush, so I just focussed on maintaining a steady pace. Before too long, I passed the point where the PyG track joins the Llanberis pass on the ridge that runs to the summit. It was about here that the clouds closed in and it was waterproofs and gloves time. Even in August, the windchill at the summit can be quite severe. Later that day I passed a group of muppets attempting to ascend to the summit in shorts, t-shirts and flip-flops. It is amazing that despite all the warnings, some people just seem determined to become statistics. Hopefully in this case the cold wind and rain would have turned them back before they came to any harm.
The climb to the summit and lunch in the crowded cafe there, proved uneventful, if a little damp and cold. Unfortunately the summit cafe has a very high Twat/m2 ratio, so I didn’t dither too long before getting back on my way down the Snowdon Ranger Path to the next camp site. About half way down, I passed the spot where I had wild-camped as a 25 year old. On that occasion, the weather had been glorious, but at about 1am a vicious thunderstorm blew in from the Irish Sea and, eying my aluminium tent poles, had become a bit nervous of my rather exposed position. But after brewing up a cuppa, things hadn’t seemed so bad and I’d drifted off back to sleep.
After a couple of hours of quite gentle walking, I hit the road and walked the short section to the next campsite, run by the nearby pub called the Cwellyn Arms. Actually it was about a mile walk away. I’d heard that the food there was good but given the fact that it was the only pub – indeed eaterie – for miles in any direction, I didn’t really hold out much hope. But I’m glad to say I was pleasantly surprised, nay astounded – the standard of food was incredibly high. Probably one of the best gastro-pub meals I’ve ever had. Once again, suitably anaesthetised I wobbled back to my tent. By now, the rain had set in and it was clear that waterproofs were going to be a feature of the remainder of the trip.
The campsite was well equipped, but busy. Nobody was being noisy and even the many children seemed well behaved, but I kind of felt myself craving a bit of solitude. I began to regret opting to stay in a campsite rather than wild camp on the mountain. The small rip in the lining of my tent had now become a major tear. The fabric of the inner had been so poorly manufactured that it just ripped from top to bottom, causing the inner to sag almost to face height and clogging everything with fine nylon thread. That, and the thrumming rain, did little to lighten my mood. I passed into a fitful sleep.
I woke next day to rain. Solemnly I packed up and hoisted my pack onto tired shoulders and headed to the start of the Rydd Ddu path. I had originally planned to climb Snowdon again, this time crossing the Bwlch Main, a fairly narrow ridge with steep drops on both sides. At the point where Rydd Ddu takes a sharp turn towards the summit, I decided that the rain, low cloud and blustery wind made the idea of climbing back to the summit and returning via the Watkin path perhaps not such a good one, particularly carrying such a heavy pack. So instead, I opted for my standby route, aiming to cross the southern ridge of the mountain above Yr Gueallt and pick up the Watkin at a lower elevation.
Alas my ideas of solitude were once again thwarted by a pack of about twenty school kids clearly planning on going the same way. The leapfrogging of me catching them up, and then being passed again when I stopped for a breather became irritating and embarrassing after a while, so I resolved to stick my foot down and try to outrun them. I managed to stick some serious distance between us before hitting the final steep ridge and ascending into cloud once more.
It was on this last section that I nearly came unstuck. I’d spotted the school kids taking a slightly different path over the ridge while I was eating my lunch. when I came to continue, I began to have serious doubts as to whether I’d strayed off the path. The route I was taking had become very rocky and not at all obvious. Climbing across a derelict dry stone wall, the path appeared to head over a steep scree slope and I couldn’t see what lay beyond. Earlier that summer, two young lads had made just such a mistake, descending what they thought was a scree slope, only to discover that it was in fact broken rock atop a very high cliff. Once on the slope, they had no escape route. One guy was rescued but the other was sadly killed. And this was in good weather conditions. I was alone in wet and misty conditions, carrying a heavy load. In the end, I opted for a safety route – following the path I’d seen the school kids take. So the encounter had worked to my advantage in the end.
The rest of the descent was uneventful, if soggy, and I eventually arrived at the next campsite. I was raining relentlessly by now and my mood had really sunk to quite a low ebb. I was really questioning why I had made this trip. What had I hoped to achieve? As I ruminated in my now disintegrated Gelert tent
that evening, I was still no closer to the answer. I had set a blistering pace, completing a harder route than I had when 25, in half the time. It was good to see that I was still in reasonable physical shape, even after the health problems that have plagued my recent years. I am quite a competitive character and it felt good to have beaten the me of yesteryear. But that wasn’t the reason I’d come here. I had been looking for something;
But what? a new direction, a new insight? So far, as I noted in my video diary, all that I’d discovered was that Gelert Tents are shite, as are Mountain Warehouse sleeping bags; that it rains a lot in Wales (hardly a revelation) and that I didn’t like happy campers very much. None of which was particularly earth-shattering.
I was still pondering the question as I brewed-up the next morning. It had been an experience; but then, so is falling off a ladder. I did feel good that I’d done something with my time back in the UK rather than sit around in the pub all day. I felt the fresh air and physical challenge had done me some good, but I didn’t feel in any way elated
or even particularly satisfied by the experience. I packed up and trudged down the hill to wait for the bus to take me back to Betws y Coed, the train and ultimately home. After an excellent bacon butty at the equally superb Pen Y Pass Caffi
, I caught the last bus on my journey to the station. And it was on this bus, that it finally hit me.
The bus took me past Capel Curig and the camp where I had spent that riotously happy week all those many years before. I had come back here not as a challenge but as a pilgrimage. In a sense, I was trying to close the circle – to get closer to discovering myself. There have been many very difficult times in the intervening years since I last saw this place. But in a very real sense, it had been this place and the context in which I’d been here, which had defined the fundamental building blocks of my character and enabled me to survive the knocks. It was those foundations on which my life had been built, and unconsciously I had returned here to pay homage to the people who had shaped them. I remembered my close friends; friends that I don’t see so often now that I’m so far away, but to whom I still feel deeply bonded by the experiences we shared. I remember our instructors and their seemingly inexhaustible patience and rough kindness that shaped the youngsters in their charge. Most of all, I remembered our “Comrades in Capel Curig” who had already seen most of their short lives by that time. One of whom, Chris Knight had been voted “Man Of The Match” after our week in Capel Curig by bedding the barmaid from the local hotel bar, only just making it back to camp in time for the roll call next morning. What a legend.
So with that revelation, I finally felt satisfied. Satisfied that I’d made the trip and made the effort to get my fat arse up that hill one more time. But mainly satisfied with who I’ve turned out to be. Not perfect, of course. But someone who has been blessed with some priceless friendships, opportunities and experiences, and, like a vintage wine, has come to savour them more and more with every passing year. Talking of which, I think I need a glass after that epic post