Head to Snowdonia in the footsteps of heroic mountaineers, for whom Welsh hills were the training ground for the ultimate adventure
WORDS OLIVER SMITH
PHOTOGRAPHS JUSTIN FOULKES
In the early hours of June 2, 1953, guests sleeping at the Pen-y-Gwryd Hotel heard an urgent knocking on their doors and were instructed by the proprietor to assemble downstairs. They were among the first to learn that mortals had stood on the highest point on Earth, finding out not long after Queen Elizabeth II, who was crowned later that day. Glühwein was served in celebration.
A version of this triumphant scene could have played out in a chalet in Switzerland or a log cabin in Alaska. However, the spiritual home of the British 1953 Everest expedition was a little pub in a blustery mountain pass in Snowdonia, which served as their training base. Staying at the Pen-y-Gwryd Hotel, these men tested themselves against the surrounding Welsh mountains – peaks that measured beside the Andes or the Alps as mere molehills. They can be ascended after a fry-up and descended in time for a pint before teatime. And yet these modest peaks have a long, unlikely association with humankind’s most heroic mountaineering feats.
“These are small mountains, of course,” explains the current owner of Pen-y-Gwryd, Rupert Pullee, leaning on the timber bar. “But they are mountains nonetheless, and they need to be respected.” He shows me cabinets full of memorabilia donated by expedition members. There is the rope that tethered Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary together. There are oxygen canisters with faded Union Jack insignia – tested on the Snowdonian peak of Tryfan (918m) before being put to use in the Himalayas (more than 8,000m). Over the fireplace is a pebble from Everest’s summit pocketed by Hillary. And there are yellowing pictures of expedition members attending reunions at Pen-y-Gwryd over the years – their hair whitening and their numbers dwindling with each photograph, until the series stops in the late 1990s.
The hotel itself has changed little in the half-century since the expedition members first came here. Walkers and climbers congregate by log fires after the afternoon sun sinks into the Irish Sea. Staying guests are summoned to breakfast by a gong, to eat boiled eggs kept warm in individual woollen hats. There are relics from the hotel’s past as a mountain rescue post, too: when barmen and willing customers would put down their pints and step outside to find lost souls on the mountain. And there is a guestlist of ghosts.
Rupert tells me about a 19th-century carriage driver he once saw smiling back at him from behind the bar. Other staff speak of a spectral runner on the A498 outside the hotel. And there is talk of a sudden chill in the games room, where the bodies of the injured and deceased were taken after they were carried off the mountainside.
One snowy January morning in 2014, Dan Arkle achieved a mountaineering first. He arrived at the top of Crib Goch – among the most treacherous routes to Snowdon’s summit – and set about traversing its icy knife-edge ridge. The feat was not especially notable, were it not for the fact that Dan it at night, completely in the nude.
Nor was Dan’s the only first on Snowdon in recent times. In 2011, Craig Williams made two trips to the summit in his Vauxhall Frontera. The Frontera was later put on eBay, and Williams put in prison. There are people who have carried fridges and ironing boards to the top of Snowdon. Others have climbed the mountain dressed as stormtroopers from Star Wars.
It is evidence that, for many, Snowdon (1,085m) is not a mountain to be taken seriously. Anyone can board the Victorian steam train that chugs to the summit café, where you can buy a sausage roll and an ‘I climbed Snowdon’ T-shirt. During summer, visitors in flip-flops queue to stand on the highest point in England and Wales. There are clear days when views stretch to the Isle of Man, the Wicklow Mountains in Ireland, the Lake District and (very rarely) the Scottish Lowlands.
And there are also days where you cannot see your own outstretched hand. Winter rain and fog close in as I follow the Rhyd Ddu path to Snowdon summit. Welsh rain is legendary for its unique properties – a capacity to reverse up a trouser leg and an in-built sensor to detect when you have left your anorak or umbrella at home.
The rain turns to sleet as I walk into the clouds. Snowdon in winter takes on a second self: wilder, emptier, more unforgiving. It feels more like the mountain of myth and sorcery, on whose slopes King Arthur is said to slumber in a secret cave, disturbed only by lost sheep and curious shepherds. In winter, the summit café is bolted shut. The steam engines of the Snowdon Mountain Railway sit cold and stationary for six months. In some remote hanging valleys, virgin snow can lie for days without human footprints. And sometimes, even on the most-visited mountain in Europe, the sight of another walker comes as a small relief.
“Mountains are sociable places,” says Ray Dimmock, a volunteer warden on Snowdon for the past 32 years, who materialises out of the fog. “Above a certain altitude everyone says ‘hello’ to everyone else.” A keen rambler whose business card reads “Free spirit, travellin’ man”, Ray first came to Snowdonia as a boy scout on the back of a lorry from the West Midlands. He moved to North Wales soon after, and still climbs Snowdon roughly three times a week, plus New Year’s Day (his birthday). “In Nepal, they laugh at the size of our mountains,” he says, his beard soggy with rain.
“But on a winter’s day, when it’s covered in snow, Snowdon looks just like a Himalayan peak. You look up and think, wow, that could almost be K2.”
Ray has recently returned from the Himalayas, where he has guided walks 31 times. As he turns to descend, I spot two badges sewn onto his backpack. One shows the all-seeing eyes of the Buddha; the other, the fiery tongue of a Welsh dragon.