Snowdon – Mountaineering, great pub food and helicopters.

This weekend a dozen of us went to Wales to climb Snowdon. We had booked a bunkhouse at Snowdon Basecamp close to the pub Cwellyn Arms. We knew that if the weather was so bad that we couldn’t make the ascent, at least we could spend the time in the pub that carries the ambitious slogan “9 real ales 9 days a week”. Most of us set off from Cambridge Friday at about 14:00 after half a day’s work, but didn’t get far before we ran into serious traffic. I took us several hours to get out of Cambridgeshire! Luckily after that the traffic wasn’t too bad, and we made it to the pub for 21:50. Fortunately, we’d called them and asked if they could keep the kitchen open until 21:30 as it normally closes at 21:00, and even though we arrived even later than that, they were still happy to serve us and the food was amazing. The last couple of mountaineers arrived just after midnight, so some of us had to stay in the pub and sample the real ales, poor us.

Saturday morning we had a quick breakfast in the bunkhouse and managed to get started on our walk at 9:00, as we had hoped. It was a very grey and rainy morning, but spirits were high as we set out to conquer a mountain several of us had never actually seen, as it was shrouded in a massive, rainy cloud. Maybe this helped keep the group going as it meant we weren’t able to see how long a journey we still had ahead of us. Soon after the ascent started we entered the low-hanging cloud and weren’t able to see further than a dozen metres along the path. We had to keep alert to stay together and avoid anyone disappearing in the clouds behind or ahead of us.

Gill on the cloudy path

Gill on the cloudy path

About half way up the mountain (at least that was our estimate though we couldn’t see anything) the track suddenly disappeared in a wet, grassy plateau. We had a break while trying to make out which way the path continued, but we noticed a couple of other groups continuing up a steep bit where there seemed to be something like a path. The other groups had proper maps and compasses, and one of them looked like a leader guiding the others. So we followed them up some increasingly steep and very wet bits of grassy ledges before they suddenly stopped in front of us. After a while it was clear that they also didn’t know where the path was. They decided they had to backtrack a bit and try a different way around some very steep bits. We followed them together with the third group. After another failed attempt we all decided we’d have to go way back down to where we last knew we were definitely on the track and attempt to find our way from there. It was mentioned that if we couldn’t find a proper track from there the only safe thing was to give up and start heading back down. Morale was not as high any more and while the group with a leader headed downwards, we and the third group had a bit of a break. A few minutes later when we were heading down ourselves and were just about to start backtracking the first and steepest bit of our uncertain ascent, one of the members of the group with the leader came running down to us from a different direction to tell us they’d found the path. We got the third group back up to where we were, and we were all guided round a flat grassy bit to where suddenly we could see a clear path with rocks and stones and we were finally on our way towards the top again. It was a joy to feel how sudden camaraderie and solidarity had developed between us three groups of strangers.

We were now certain the summit would be just around the next boulder or over the next scramble. However, it stayed hidden in the cloud as we continued upwards, and suddenly the path changed character significantly. It was now no longer winding it way up the side of the mountain, but had turned into a narrow path along the sharp ridge of the mountain. We knew this was a good sign as it signalled the last part of our climb, but it also brought on some moments of vertigo for some of the members of our team and once again it was probably for the best that clouds were hiding the otherwise beautiful but also scary view below the sharp drops on both sides. One thing that made us feel safer through it all, was the omnipresent sheep that seemed to watch over us.

A sheep on the ridge

A sheep on the ridge

Finally we recognised the top of the Watkin path merging with ours from the right, and we knew that there were only a few minutes’ walk left. It was a few steep climbs, but shortly after we could make out the roof of the cafeteria building on the summit. After the mandatory touching of the triangulation point we quickly huddled in the busy cafe and tried to get rid of as many wet clothes as possible while we enjoyed some hot drinks.

When we had all eaten and rested a bit we set out again. We wore more clothes as the descent was expected to be colder, though some extra clothes had been soaked by the rain already. Off we went, back into the cloud. After missing our path, but quickly recovering (thanks to Androids and Google Maps), we were well on our way down the mountain. Then the miracle happened that made the whole journey worthwhile. First it felt like it was just getting slightly brighter. Then we saw small patches of blue sky. Then suddenly, like curtains drawn aside, the clouds opened up to a magnificent view and a warming sunshine. It’s hard to describe in words, so instead here are some photos:

Clouds spreading

The clouds starting to spread

Clouds spreading

Katie and I with the spreading clouds

Clouds spreading

The magnificent view revealed by the clouds

On the way down we met Katie’s parents and their new dog Callum who live just next to Snowdon in the lovely country of Wales. We all had a rest and chat with the dog, who was very excited to see so many people. Not as excited as he was to see the sheep and get to drag Katie the last bit of the way down the mountain, one of the fastest descents ever seen. After we got back to the bunkhouse and had a shower, we headed to the pub. Here we enjoyed a well deserved feast and lots of lovely lovely ales and Winter Warmer.

Sunday we had a relaxed start to the day with cooked breakfasts at the pub and after checking out we headed to Caernarfon to see the castle. It was interesting enough, and we enjoyed scaling the many walls and towers to get some nice views. However, we didn’t expect the excitement that this old castle had in store for us. Upon arrival we saw an ambulance parked outside and we gave up on one of the towers, as there were paramedics on the stairs. Later we also saw some firemen, but didn’t give it very much thought. While we were busy admiring the many medals in the museum tower, we heard the sound of a helicopter that didn’t seem to just fly by, but the sound was hanging close to the castle. We quickly went outside to see a massive, yellow RAF rescue helicopter hanging over the castle grounds. It was an impressive noise and it seemed surreal hanging over the old castle. After hanging completely fixed for a long time, like some oversized insect, it hovered to one side where a man was lowered onto the castle wall as seen in the video below:

I’d like to mentioned that we at this point knew that it wasn’t anything too serious, but “merely” a broken ankle. It was a relief, as I would have felt bad about having filmed and photographed it all if someone was dying, even if there were scores of other people doing the same (just count the number of videos on youtube). After the guy had introduced himself to the firemen, paramedics, the injured person and their companion on the wall and had spent some time preparing the hoists the companion was lifted up into the helicopter. This can be seen in the next video below. Katie was saying as she was ascending towards the big bug in the sky, that she probably hadn’t expected that when she was having her breakfast! In the end the rescue man was lowered up together with the injured person in a stretcher.

Before leaving for home we went to Black Boy Inn in Caernarfon for lunch. This is one of the oldest pubs in North Wales, and to my joy they seem very fond of the Purple Moose brewery, which happens to be one of my favourites. Also, the food was amazing and was served in very large portions.
That’s all from a wonderful holiday in Wales. It was a great contrast to when Katie and I climbed Snowdon in June where we had sun all the way up and could see our goal ahead of us. It was much more of an adventure with the uncertainties and the possibilities of getting lost and the rain and cloud made the revelation of the view when the clouds parted so much more breathtaking. I recommend it! And I recommend climbing Snowdon, Cwellyn Arms both as a pub and for a place to stay either in the bunkhouse or just camping and I recommend going to Caernarfon, both for the castle which is worth a visit even without helicopter rescues taking place and for the food of the Black Boy Inn.

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