When it comes to weekend leisure activities, I’d always put walking at the ‘grandparent’ end of the spectrum. Sure, a stroll in the countryside can be pleasant, but it’s hardly a physically demanding pursuit. At least, that’s what I thought before a weekend in Wales’ Snowdonia National Park.
Locals are used to people underestimating the Snowdonia terrain. It’s why they need a team of volunteers ready to rescue hapless hikers who are stranded in the elements. It’s also why, our guide Peter tells us, Snowdon, Wales’ highest peak, kills more people per year than Mt Everest.
Despite this sobering comment, I’m still full of false bravado as we set out on a day’s hiking. Traversing a well-marked path, I try to hide any early signs of heavy breathing from Peter – I don’t want to give myself away as a clueless, unfit Londoner. Before long, we’ve left the official route behind which, Peter says, marks our transition from hill walkers to mountaineers. Apparently, mountaineers use skills such as walking, scrambling and climbing, rather than man-made paths, to reach the peak. Inhaling the fresh air, I feel almost intrepid – at least until I go to step on a ‘shiny rock’, only to put my foot through an icy coating into a puddle of water. So much for the hardy facade.
Our surrounds, however, are as rugged as they look. Snowdonia covers 823 square miles of north-western Wales and in that are some 90 mountains of 2000 feet or more. The extreme scenery attracts extreme sportspeople, including mountain bikers, abseilers, kayakers, ice and rock climbers and, of course, mountaineers. It also attracts extreme weather, blowing in from the nearby Irish Sea. In winter, conditions can be particularly harsh, with frosty winds and clouds known to blow in without warning. It’s one of the reasons so many people get into trouble around here.
To be a good mountaineer, you’ve got to have a passion for the outdoor environment, but you’ve also got to respect the environment you’re in,” says Peter. “You can’t underestimate the difference in conditions between the summit and the bottom.” This is particularly a problem in summer, when walkers set out in a T-shirt and shorts, only to find conditions at the top not so favourable. At peak times, Peter estimates there’s one rescue a week in Snowdonia.
As we continue climbing, the scenery begins to take shape. Rounding the top of a waterfall, we come to a peaceful lake, with views stretch- ing out over the neighbouring valley. Also into eyeshot springs Bristly Ridge, the peak we’re here to tame, looming somewhat ominously above us. No sooner have I caught my breath than we’re back clambering over rocks, and starting on the challenge of scrambling.
According to Peter, scrambling begins when you start using your hands for more than just balance. We soon discover what he means, as the terrain steepens sharply and each step requires careful consideration and an extra effort to haul yourself up. Rounding a bend, we’re suddenly struck by a wall of wind. It comes racing in the valley from the sea and, with nowhere to go because of the mountains, gets pushed up along the face at great pressure. Looking for footholds becomes infinitely more difficult when your eyes are watering and snot is streaming down your face. Keeping your balance isn’t exactly easy, either. As I edge sideways onto a narrow sliver of a platform, my heart is beating furiously. The views no longer interest me – they’d require looking down.
Having negotiated the tricky ledge, we take respite in the welcome calm of an alcove, while Peter talks to a group of fellow walkers who are stuck. They’re unsure how to tackle the route ahead, but don’t really fancy returning the way they’ve come, either. Before long, Peter has a much bigger group to guide, as he shows us a route to safely progress further up the ridge. In these conditions, he tells me, it’s usually the people with some experience who get themselves into trouble.
“It’s not what you know that’s important, it’s what you don’t know,” he says, privately chastising our new partners for not even carrying a map. “Once you deviate off the footpaths, there are sure to be undefined problems ahead. You’re never sure what’s around the corner, and that’s part of the adrenaline. But you’ve always got to have an escape route in mind.”
A bit more physical exertion and we reach the top of Glyder Fach. The most striking thing is the calm. From where we are, the ridge protects us from the wind, and people sit happily on the snow munching packed lunches. The views are exceptional and, combined with the post-adrenaline comedown, give a glowing sense of achievement.
Unfortunately, though, there’s still the small matter of getting down. First we traipse across the exposed summit, enduring the worst winds of the day. Small pieces of ice whip across our faces, and the only thing that’s clear is how easy it would be to become disoriented in such conditions. After a prolonged stroll down through the rocks, we eventually return to civilisation of sorts – a rough set of stairs leading down the rockface of Devil’s Kitchen. The bad news is the stairs are covered in ice. Having nearly gone arse up twice, I soon revert to a crab technique, leaning back on my hands and scampering down the mountain on all fours. It’s not pretty, but it’s effective, in that it gets me to the bottom without any major injuries.
Even so, by the end my body still aches. But despite the weary muscles, I’m high on the feeling of conquering my first mountain. I head for the car with a slight strut, and a newfound respect for walkers.