Position: 53°04’28″N 3°56’39″W
The A(road)4086 runs east out of Llanberis and skirts Mount Snowdon, rising steadily until it reaches Pen-y-Pass. Mount Snowdon (Yr Wyddfa in Welsh) is the third tallest peak in the British Isles and the stuff of climbing legends. On one hand it is a tourist destination. Most fairly fit 60-year olds can hike the summit and back in six hours or less. On the other hand, Snowdon is also a training ground for much more ambitious climbers, including those attempting the Himalayas.
Edmund Hillary, the first white man to conquer Everest and survive, trained on Snowdon. As did George Mallory for his attempt 30 years earlier. Mallory may or may not have summited Everest in 1924. We will never know. He died in the attempt. Today, Mallory’s name in three-foot-high letters signifies a café in the Youth Hostel at Pen-y-Pass that invites you in for burgers and pizza. Nevertheless, it was a reminder that we were traveling in the footsteps of adventuring giants.
Massive outcroppings of bare, tan rock lie alongside the road up to Pen-y-Pass. But these boulders are old, weather-beaten, softened by centuries of erosion. This is not a new landscape. This isn’t the jagged heart of the Rockies where knife-edged shards point back at you 12,000 feet up the side of a mountain. Things here are much, much older. Volcanic, yes, but tamed by at least one glacial period that completely covered these mountains and tumbled it’s immense rocks like pebbles. Fingers of granite cautiously reach up, splayed apart by water and ice. Sheep graze precariously alongside the rocks. Daubed with a splash of colour that somehow distinguishes them, the sheep brightened the dun and green landscape. We decided that the color coding must indicate blue for Conservatives, red for Labour and purple for the undeclared.
On the other side of the pass, a river, the surveyor’s friend, picks its way alongside the road, tumbling over cataracts and falls with picturesque folly. Turning right at Capel Curig, we paused to get our bearings at the Moel Siabod Café just up the road. You see, we had started the week with every intention of climbing Mt. Snowdon, but everything we’d read about crowded, costly car parks filling up by 07:30am, followed by even more crowded trails, put us off. We were looking for another, less traveled peak. There is no shortage of them in Snowdonia National Park.
The Moel Siabod Café is, or at least looks like, a place where climbing pros get organized. The dining room is bare bones. There is lots of space between tables to sling your gear down and stretch out your crampons. Maps of the region are on permanent display, complete with spots rubbed bare by years of inquisitive fingers.
For a moment I felt out of place. What did I know about climbing Welsh mountains? Very little. Sure, we’d spent the hottest day of the year last week tackling the Brecon Beacons, but that didn’t seem like it mattered. Especially when the next person walking in for a cuppa might be practicing for an assault on K2. Then I reminded myself that we had crossed the Atlantic on our 40’ sailboat to get here. That’s adventure cred, isn’t it? Can’t we go anywhere bone fide adventurers go and play that wildcard if we feel the need to justify ourselves? I think we can. With that thought I pulled my shoulders back and puffed my chest out a bit. The small black and brown terrier rolling on the floor paused and looked up at me singularly unimpressed.
Over an Americano and a scone (with clotted cream and raspberry jam), we consulted All Trails, our go-to hiking app. Turns out, Moel Siabod was the name of the peak sitting directly in front of the café. Small world, eh? From its bald peak you can see 13 of the 14 highest peaks in Wales without even turning around. The trail we chose looped around the mountain for about eight miles and 2,600 feet of vertical gain, about 500 feet shy of trails up Snowdon – good enough for us this late in the day.
What wasn’t in the trail notes was anything about the remains of a slate quarry. About a third of our way around we found stone debris piled high like forester’s slash. Laying around like limbs and bark gave the flat grey rock a lightweight appearance, while the remains of a few 19th century miner’s cottages lent the place a domestic air. The quarry is now filled with dark, tannin-brown water that flows out over a small weir on its way down the mountain.
We crossed paths with a family out for a hike. Mum, dad, and two surprisingly happy children who couldn’t have been more than five and seven. The little girl proudly announced she had lost a tooth that morning and it had fallen out without any assistance.
Sheer rock walls towered above us. Grey crags struck out in columns, making for a satisfying six-fold echo chamber. Passing a small, glacial pond with an island, it was finally time to turn up the coarse ridgeline towards the summit. Our scramble began in earnest. Trail markings are extremely rare in this part of the country. With practice you make out footsteps and sheep tracks that generally lead you in the right direction. A phone with GPS makes things almost too easy. Treeless and utterly exposed, attempting the same trail in poor weather or visibility could be fatal. Crossing a fall of rocks that only felt stable enough, I began to appreciate how these relatively low peaks made for good Himalayan proxies.
Taking in the spectacular scenery at the top, we picked out Snowdon with its trails along either side. Lunch was our reward for the climb. An incongruous seagull joined us, his yellow eyes hoping for a handout. Confidently, he scarfed the few crusts we tossed his way, his webbed feet slipping on the smooth shale. Seagulls are poorly adapted for mountain climbing. Clouds moved in from the south and cut off our view of the mountain tops to the north. Unsure if weather would find us next, we snapped a couple of quick photos to prove we’d summited one of the better mountains in Wales and started back down.
After so much time at sea in the past couple of months, our feet and knees felt a little weak and tired. But we felt good about our five hours on the mountain. Moel Siabod is a nice climb, with some significant elevation and terrific views. If adventuring is a card game, then I guess we’d pulled the three of clubs from the deck. And if we feel the need, we could always play the “Hey, we crossed the Atlantic in our sailboat to get here” wildcard.