Hiking Snowdon Now and Then

photography by Conan Burke

Now

We crossed the border mere minutes ago, but a sky that has been threatening all afternoon is now fulfilling its promise. I wonder whether the rain is also falling in England a few hundred feet behind us. I imagine a cartoon cloud, like the one that hovers over Charlie Brown when he is sad – a clear-cut line between ‘wet’ and ‘dry’ next to the sign that says Croseo y Gymru. Welcome to Wales.

I am not Charlie Brown and the rain gently pixelating the window is not a pathetic fallacy of my mood. Huddled in the backseat, I feel a simmering inside me that the weather cannot quench. My friend Kate is navigating with her phone, having fulfilled her share of the driving, and her boyfriend Conan is behind the wheel, navigating the increasingly sharp turns in the road. The further we drive into the mountains, the more we move away from my regular life.

Snowdonia Mountain Weather Mist by Conan Burke 2018-86-small

"I imagine a cartoon cloud, like the one that hovers over Charlie Brown – a clear-cut line between ‘wet’ and ‘dry’ next the sign that says Welcome to Wales"

Then

We drove from our home county in the South – my mum and dad in the front sharing the driving, my older sister and me in the back with our rescue dog between us. We filled the day of travel with cassette tapes and car games as the landscapes outside became increasingly wild. The border brought a new language and we would chuckle at the Welsh word ARAF painted on the roads, teasing the dog with the bark-like word for SLOW. For three summers in a row, we worked our way into a land of mountains, mines and magic. And Snowdonia worked its way into me, taking root somewhere to be forgotten, but never gone.

Now

As we arrive at Pen-y-Pas, I feel unduly guilty at the yawn that works its way out of me. Learning to drive is one of the things that I have let my epilepsy stop me from doing (even seizure-free I have anxiety about getting behind a wheel) and relying on driver friends sometimes frustrates me. But I have been travelling since pre-dawn – taking a bus, to catch a train, to get on a coach and meet my friends at Bristol – and I remind myself that my tiredness is acceptable.

"The view is the wilderness equivalent of a brick wall... tracks of clear glass through the condensation meander top to bottom on the pane, mimicking the mountain path we will take tomorrow"

Window_in_YHA_Snowdon_by_Francesca_Turauskis_600x600

When I open the door, the air chills my car-warm skin. It is April, but I can feel the truth in the rumours that there is still snow further up the pass. Walking through the drizzle, I pause just long enough to take a photo or two. I can point and shoot anywhere, and the landscape is so bold, even my amateur photos are pretty passable. My instinct to upload the photo is thwarted by the lack of phone signal.

Inside, I speak to the woman at the desk, exchanging my ID for our keys. We have a room for three with a private shower and a view that is the wilderness equivalent of a brick wall, giving me just a glimpse of the mountains’ bracken and rock roots. Tracks of clear glass run through the condensation, a meander from top to bottom on the pane that mimicks the mountain path we will take tomorrow.

Fran and Kate Hiking Snowdonia 2018-13 by Conan Burke

"The trackway is a strip of well-tended grey gravel that cuts through the landscape... the tufted grass on each side rarely pours over the edge"

Then

There was a small toilet inside the caravan, but we showered outside in a concrete block. A hedge of dark yew trees next to the showers separated us from another caravan park – a more affluent one with swings and roundabouts. My sister and I would often try to route-find the entrance to that playground, but it always eluded us.

The mountain that was visible from the caravan site had a pull on me. Although it was flattened by age, it was taller and more imposing than the landscape I was used to. I stood and stared at it through the surrounding vehicles and drew childish sketches – a pencil line  that ran in a smooth gradient from one side of the page to the other, with a slight bulge like an eyebrow on a face. Looking closely, I could see the path that wound around the side, so gently there was no need for zig-zags. I’m sure if I returned to it now, my age will have flattened that mountain even more.

"There is a freshness that I notice with all of my senses... as we approach the lake, I can smell the water and the sheep that slip behind a tussock"

Sheep in Snowdonia by Conan Burke -small

Now

I pack my food and store my water in a manner that is satisfyingly familiar, enjoying the puzzle of balancing the bag correctly. Kate and Conan have had their eye on the forecast. The grey has not brightened since yesterday, and there is a question of whether the clouds will sit above or below Snowdon’s shoulders. But there’s no walking around the weather. We cross the carpark to the official start of the mountain. There is a map Kate’s bag, but the trackway is a strip of well-tended grey gravel that cuts through the landscape very clearly. The tufted grass on each side rarely pours over the edge of the path.

We talk little. The rain taps on my hood, a cacophony that seems unbalanced with the relatively light rain, and I lower it. I came here to avoid claustrophobia. The light filtering through the clouds is soft on my eyes, and I marvel at the clarity of the air. There is a freshness to it I notice with all of my senses. The muted mountain colours are bright. Noises are sparse, just the scritch of boots on gravel and the consistent tap  of my walking stick, Magda.  As we approach the lake, I can smell the water and the sheep that slip behind a tussock.   

Miners Track in Snowdonia 2018-33 by Conan Burke small

"We are passing the places that give the Miners track its name. Layered walls and tumbles of stone, cast iron contraptions and signs of lives long dead."

We are passing the places that give the Miners track its name. Layered walls and tumbles of stone, cast iron contraptions and signs of lives long dead. I feel a childish need for exploration and bound a short distance to stand king-of-the-castle on top of one wall.

Then

The lake reflected the clear sky, and was framed by rain-watered summer grass. The peak clearly beckoned us forward. Different types of path emerged as we went higher. The maintained stones steps were large for my small legs, but easy to follow. The short section of scree felt much longer as we stepped up and slid down. We stopped for lunch – fatty pork pies, oatcakes and some Kendal Mint Cake – and looked at how far we had come. There was a glamour over the lake far below and a single ‘v’ rippled on the water turned into a llyn monster. As a wise eight-year-old, I was almost certain my dad was joking. But we were in a land of legends. Snowdon is the place where King Arthur slayed a giant and buried him under the rocks, giving the mountain its shape and its Welsh name, Yr Wydffa – the Tumulus.

"There was a glamour over the lake far below and a single ‘v’ rippled on the water turned into a llyn monster. As a wise eight-year-old, I was almost certain my dad was joking."

Snowdon 2018 by Conon Burke

I saw the micro representations of this tale in the cairns that kept me on track. We added a stone to some of the smaller ones as we passed, honouring a tradition and helping the hikers to come. As the route became determined more by the formation of the rock than by the path builders, we needed those weymarkings. Like a baby, I used my hands as well as my legs to carry me forward, a type of walking that came naturally to me. My footing was sure as I worked out the way, and the calm weather made me confident.

Now

We have found the people. The scramble slows everyone down, and some of the rocks channel us like a mountain stream. I choose the wrong time to sip some water, and am suddenly overtaken by a flood of backpacks that separate me from Kate and Conan. I find them again at the start of the zig-zag, contemplating the path ahead. The grey way is topped with snow: crystalised, stepped on and slippery. We do not have grips for our boots, but I wonder how many of those above us do.

Snowdonia Wilderness Pyg track by conan burke

"There is some fresher snow to the right that we walk in for a bit. I can’t help but feel that each hiker is wearing away the integrity of the mountain."

I follow Kate. We kick our toes in with a slush, taking much more time on each step than we did before. When I place my boots in the footprints of those I follow, my soles slide forward.  I steady myself with Magda, and occasionally a gloved hand too. There is some fresher snow to the right of the path that we walk in for a bit. I can’t help but feel that each hiker is wearing away the integrity of the mountain. Despite  – or perhaps because of – the masses of people around me, I doubt I would attempt this by myself.

The peak is hidden now, but the top of the track is in sight. I know that where the Miners track breaches the ridge, five paths join for the final, gentle ascent. There are only a few steps to go, with deep footprints in the snow that everyone seems to have colluded in carving out. They are slightly longer that my natural stride, but they are solid.

One.

Two.

Three.

Four.  

Then

I stepped onto the top of the track and I was no longer sheltered. The wind hit me in the face – and I hid behind my mum. I remembered my attempt on the mountain a year earlier: we walked in low cloud with wolf-wind in my ears, cracking our coats and, in my mind, threatening to push me over the unseeable edge. I turned back in tears, minutes from the summit, dragging my mum with me through the fog.

"We walked in low cloud with wolf-wind in my ears, cracking our coats and, in my mind, threatening to push me over the unseeable edge"

Snowdon Summit by Conan Burke

This was a second chance. The sun was shining. I could see how high up I was, and I could see how close to the top I was as well. With my parents sheltering me, and my sister ahead, we ascended step by step.

Now

I feel the wind nibble at my cheeks. Breathe in. Breathe out. And match my pace to those in front of me. There is nothing to do but go with the flow of figures heading for the summit. There is a girl, a few years older than I was when I first followed this path, frozen in front of an icy section. Her friend beckons her, and now her trainers are sliding across the surface towards the final part.

I pretend that I don’t need to stand at the top, having been there before. But the pull is strong and I know the hike will be unfinished without it. I slip between bodies like I would at a bar, and we take turns touching the trig.

As we admire it, the view begins to disappear. The clouds are lowering and we start to head lower too.

Crowded Trig Point on the top of Snowdon by Conan Burke small

"I pretend that I don’t need to stand at the top, but I know the hike will feel unfinished.I slip between bodies like I would at a bar, and we take turns touching the trig"

Then

We stood at the top with pride and picked out where we had come from, retracing the zig-zag with our eyes. Above it, motes of colour moved along the ridge. The jagged hogs back of the Horseshoe drew my eye and dropped my stomach.  

We walked down the opposite side of the mountain. The land was more sloped, but I began to drag my feet, tripping on stones in tiredness. ‘Ambush rocks’ we called them, because they seemed to appear from nowhere just to make you misstep. We walked as quickly as our tiredness would allow, needing to catch the sherpa bus back to the car, where I could rest.

"We walk directly over the exposed mountain rock. I can pretend for a moment we are pioneers, with Conan documenting the journey"

Snowdonia Pyg Track by Conan Burke 2018-small

Now

The Pyg track is tougher, quieter. We are walking alone again and can go at our own pace. The pathed way disappears every now and then, and we walk directly over the exposed mountain rock. I can pretend for a moment we are pioneers, with Conan documenting the journey. He focuses his camera on one of the stones that stands out like a sugar cube dropped in the grass. “Quartz” I tell him, echoing my parents in the past.

My thighs are aching – I have not stretched my legs like this is months – but I am still disappointed when our hostel creeps back into sight around the last bend. We have come full circle.

Quartz on Snowdon by Conan Burke - small

"One of the stones stands out like a sugar cube dropped in the grass. 'Quartz' I tell them, echoing my parents in the past"

Then

I put one foot in front of the other, following the bus route back to the carpark. It was late in the day, and we missed the Sherpa shuttle. The tarmacked road led me by the hand, and my head nodded. The car park was visible all the way, a perpetual promise of rest. The sun set somewhere behind us and a clear day became a clear night. The starlight was sharp. Occasionally, the monotony was broken by one of the stars shooting across the sky and a heartfelt wish for the end of the road.

After seemingly staying the same size for hours, the destination suddenly zoomed in. We were back in the car, the bright headlights sore on our dark-widened eyes and our feet sore to our souls. And I was suddenly awake, and aware of what I had just done. I had walked up, down and around a mountain. There was nothing I couldn’t overcome.

stars in Snowdonia by Conan Burke

Now and Then

The cloud that settled earlier has cleared, and Conan has gone outside to photograph the moment. Lenses open more than our eyes can, and will pick up the pinpricks across the night sky. The light from the nearest one has been travelling for four years, and we see a bright shadow of a moment in time that is gone.

I stand by the doorway. Just like my flat back home, the road is directly in front of the hostel. But unlike my home, the only cars around are parked up for the night. I close my eyes, and listen to the quiet. It has been twenty years since I was last here, and I think about how time has shortened the Snowdon path for me.

Today slowly slips away to join those years in the past.  

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