The problem with weather in the UK is not that we get the extremes that occur in some parts of the world, it’s more of a case that we get such a lot of it! I generally avoid the hills when it’s ‘blowing a hoolie’ as there isn’t much fun in being buffeted around a mountain top, but eventually things calm down a bit and it’s time to get out. A fair day in February gave the opportunity, so the question was where to go – it didn’t take long to decide on Snowdon, or to use the correct Welsh name Yr Wyddfa (The Tomb)
I know mountaineers and walkers who avoid Yr Wyddfa because of the crowds, caused in part by the rack and pinion railway to the summit. In winter, however, the railway line is blocked by snow, and the only way to the top is by one of the paths. My favourite way up changes every time I go there, but today it was the ‘PYG Track’ on the menu.
The path is a great warm up, with a steady height gain to Bwlch y Moch (Pass of the Pigs) where the track runs underneath the East face of Crib Goch (Red Ridge). Things level out for a bit, with great views across to Y Lliwedd (The Colourless Peak). A bit further on I decided that the view would be much improved by the inclusion of my ugly mug, and Border Collie ‘Mist’ had to wait patiently while I had got to grips with the ‘selfie stick’ that was one of my Christmas presents.
The final section of the PYG Track runs up to a junction of paths at Bwlch Glas (Blue Pass) – this section holds snow when the rest of the mountain is bare, and is a notorious accident black spot. There wasn’t much snow on this trip, but it was worth using crampons on this section if only to speed up progress – I actually caught up with a military party whose members had blasted past, being younger and fitter than me, but who were now scrabbling about on the icy path. At least they had ice axes, unlike several other walkers who were slithering their way down.
The final slope up to the summit has also seen a fair number of accidents over the years, but the snow was pretty sparse – I kept the crampons on as the conditions were variable, but ‘microspikes’ would have done the job just as well. Summit views were superb, and there must have been less than twenty people at the top, unusual conditions for the most popular (and populated!) mountain summit in the UK.
Having grabbed a couple of summit photos, it was time to head down. I had decided to take the Llanberis Path back down, as it gives a completely different aspect of the mountain – in descent it’s fine but it must be one of the most tedious ways to go up a mountain in Wales or anywhere else for that matter. It’s also probably the most popular ascent in summer as it is a non-technical, stony kind of path which is comparatively safe – in winter it can be the most dangerous part of the mountain.
The snow was sparse as I descended, but with a heavy accumulation the broad ridge heading roughly north can be a death trap for the ill-equipped – under these conditions the snow thaws by day and freezes by night, leaving icy convex slopes that become steeper as you descend them. The most hazardous section is by the railway line, which paradoxically is the easiest to follow for those who don’t know the mountain. Nowadays warning signs are placed to point people away from the danger.
The slope crossed by the railway line drops down towards the cliffs of Clogwyn Coch – after days of freeze-thaw conditions, the snow here becomes as hard as ice, and the only way to cross it safely is by using crampons. There have been several serious accidents here over the years, many of them fatal – the low snowfall this season has kept the accident count down, but as I write Easter is three weeks away, and more snow is forecast.
In early March 2013, Chris and I looked across to Yr Wyddfa from Moel Eilio and had seen hardly any snow – three weeks later a massive snowfall brought disruption and chaos to North Wales, and turned the Welsh mountains into a winter wonderland for those who have the experience and the right gear. Here’s hoping for a safe Easter for all this year.
Text and images © Paul Shorrock