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Snowdonia | The Independent



The Independent | 27 February 1999

Stairway to Welsh heaven

Snowdonia may be very cold and wet in winter, but it's a magnificently desolate and invigorating place. By Laura Ivill

[Read online at The Independent newspaper]

As we pulled into the deserted car park opposite the end of the Watkin path leading up to Snowdon, I pulled on my layers of winter walking gear. As my Brasher boots went over fluffy socks, I thought back to the last time I was here, in 1993. I had hobbled down the path after climbing Snowdon in complete agony, my Nike so-called walking boots (which I'd bought to go clubbing in) having rubbed my heals raw. Unbelievably, I then took them to the Lake District the following New Year and twisted my ankle leaping across a snow-covered stream. It was at this point that I invested pounds 100 or so in a pair of boots that are so light and comfortable you'd hardly know you had them on.

I decided to try them out on an off-season weekend break to Snowdonia with my boyfriend, Tim. At this time, the roads are almost empty, and the countryside is not jammed with day trippers. The weather can be unpredictable, but when you end up in a hostelry with a blazing log fire and a glass of good stout after a day in magnificently desolate, wild terrain, you'll vow never to go in summer again.

Our first day's climb to the summit of Yr Aran at 2,451ft (747 metres), was a delight. First the gentle stone Watkin path led upwards past a stream and a waterfall; then, in an instant, we were into the barely lifting, thick morning mist. We had springy grass underfoot all the way and suddenly, at around 1,500ft, we popped up through the mist to witness stunning views of the Snowdon Massif, right across to Crib Goch; a rare treat since Snowdon is almost invariably shrouded in clouds.

The next day's walking couldn't have been more different. We were promised rain, rain and more rain, with 35 knots of wind, and sleet on higher ground. Undeterred, we planned to climb Glyder Fawr at 3,278ft (999 metres). Thanks to an EU-funded enterprise to create a nature reserve here, some kind souls had laid a granite path around the lake and part-way up the mountain. Although you get a good grip walking on granite, it hurts like hell if you bang a shin or an elbow on it. An elbow? Well yes, the path gets so steep in places that you have to clamber up and down great stone steps in whatever undignified manner you can. In this lonely landscape we were both reminded of the stone stairways in The Hobbit.

We approached Glyder Fawr via a steeply rising pass: waterfalls on either side cascaded down the sheer cliffs like great weeping wounds. Standing on huge boulders with the water crashing down around us we paused to admire the drama of the moment - and, more unexpectedly, the smell of toast. Even in such a wild sort of place as this, the smell was so distinctive that we knew it must really have been someone making toast. Sure enough, further on a huddle of walkers had found a cavern, and were sheltering from the wind and rain enjoying a snack.

As we ascended higher, past another tiny tarn, the ambience quickly changed as we found ourselves in thick, eerie cloud. In fierce conditions such as these, with bitter cold from the extra height, deteriorating visibility and the possibility of exhaustion, you suddenly become a winter mountaineer. The danger of getting separated and lost is a real threat and I had to call out to Tim to slow down before he disappeared into the swirling clouds. I was struggling; the mountain was steep and featureless; the wind was driving freezing rain right through my ancient Gore-Tex jacket and stabbing at my exposed face. We passed a few anonymous waterproofed bods, and I thought that if couples enjoy this kind of leisure activity together they're probably very well suited.

Tim and I are incompatible walkers in this respect; I like to spend a little time, at least, looking around at the view, whereas he measures the success of a trip by its time-to-distance ratio. Mostly he remains just within shouting distance ahead. But, to be fair, today there was no view, except of his faint outline.

The worst thing for me about climbing in cloud is not just that you can't see where you're going; it's that you can't see how far it is to the top. As I became exhausted on Glyder Fawr, determination was the only thing that kept me going - that and the fact that Tim had the compass, the water and the chocolate. Dragging myself up through the driving rain, I knew that the summit must be near. For the last half an hour I'd been wondering how much further it could be. Surely it must be here? Then I saw a huge dark object looming out of the cloud, and my heart sank. "No." I gasped. "It goes on and on. I'm not going any further." "We're here." Tim shouted back. And so we were.

A great jumble of boulders marked the dramatic top of the mountain. As I poked my head up over the top, the clouds roared in my face like the steam from a great boiling vat. Huddling behind these rocks we finished the water and crunched on cold chocolate. That evening we dined in the Ty Gwyn restaurant. I felt I had spent the better part of the day inside a washing machine, but it had certainly been invigorating.

Laura and Tim stayed in the Snowdonia National Park at Aberconwy House in Betws-y-coed (01690 710202, B&B accommodation costs £20-£26 per person per night. The Ty Gwyn Hotel & Restaurant can be contacted on 01690 710383. For information, call the Wales Tourist Board on 01222 499909