Wales is a small country whose landscape is dominated by the eroded ancient roots of vast mountains, some 450 million years old. In the north the mountains are higher and more rugged, here they are comprised mostly of volcanic ash, called tuff, interspersed with fine grained muds that have subsequently been metamorphosed to form slate.
The derelict remains of quarries and associated buildings can be seen throughout the area, a reminder of its industrial past. Today, tourism dominates the economy of North Wales, and the hub of this tourism industry is Snowdonia.
Snowdonia is the largest of three National Parks in Wales, it covers 2170 sq. kilometres (823 sq. miles), and is home to 26,000 people.
Hiking is the most popular activity, along with rock climbing and mountain biking, and the magnet that attracts so many here is a mountain, Snowdon. Mountaintrails run guiding hiking weekends to climb Snowdon and other mountains nearby.
Snowdon’s south ridge, rocky and narrow. March 2015
Snowdon (the name means snowy hill in old English); or to give it its Welsh name, Yr Wyddfa (meaning tumulus or cairn), is the highest mountain in England and Wales. It stands at 1085 metres (3560ft.) and is reputed to be the most climbed mountain in Britain.
There are a number of different ways up the mountain, some routes are harder and more exposed than others, but the easiest would probably be by the Snowdon Mountain Railway, a rack and pinion railway that was built in 1896 and runs from the village of Llanberis to the summit. It is here you will find the summit cafe, (yes, a cafe!).
With a railway and a cafe you would be forgiven for thinking that Snowdon was a very gentle mountain indeed, but this is not so. In the winter months the cafe and railway are closed, and the mountains’ proximity to the west coast of Britain means the weather can be changeable and harsh. Some routes up the mountain involve traversing narrow ridges, and accidents occur on a regular basis, with a number of fatalities in recent years. The local Mountain Rescue team is one of the busiest in Britain.
Snowdonia has three main mountain blocks, or massifs. The Snowdon massif, the Glyderau and the Carneddau.
Heading towards Carnedd Dafydd (1044m) in the Carneddau range. March 2015
The most northerly of these is the Carneddau, and here you will find two of the four mountains in Snowdonia over 1,000 metres, Carnedd Dafydd and Carnedd Llewelyn.
The Carneddau hosts the largest area of land in the British Isles over 1,000m outside of Scotland, and here you might find rare alpine plants such as the dwarf willow. On the lower slopes you may come across the Carneddau wild ponies, a breed isolated on these mountains for at least several hundred years.
Looking back towards Crib Goch from Crib y Dysgl on Snowdon. May 2014.
Across the Ogwen valley, and south of the Carneddau, are the Glyders. A range of hills and mountains running east-west with Glyder Fawr it’s highest point at 1001 metres.
The northern slopes of this massif are precipitous and rocky, deeply cut by glaciers 10,000 years ago. Here you will find the iconic cwm of Llyn Idwal and the Devil’s Kitchen, home of rare alpine plants and visited by Charles Darwin when he was formulating his Origin of Species.
This is also the home of a small flock of feral goats, believed to be the distant offspring of goats kept here by neolithic settlers.
On these northern crags you will find a number of stunning mountaineering routes, and here too is the unmistakable mountain called Tryfan. Shaped like a sharks fin, rocky and intimidating, Tryfan boasts a number of classic mountaineering routes, as well as the scrambly ascent route most hikers take, the North Ridge.
Between the Glyderau and Snowdon lies the Llanberis pass, a narrow valley strewn with huge blocks of fallen rock, boulder fields and vertiginous crags. This is the home of rock climbers, who come here in large numbers to climb the cliffs. It was here that Hillary and Tenzing trained for the first successful ascent of Everest in 1953.
The Daear Ddu Ridge on Moel Siabod.
The Snowdon massif has been carved by great glaciers into narrow ridges and steep crags, the best known of these probably being Crib Goch, a knife edge ridge with great exposure. Many an unwary hiker has become crag fast here, ‘frozen’ with anxiety, and unable to continue.
Snowdonia, however, is bigger than these three mountain blocks.
To the east there are the Moelwyns, a much less frequented area that has the lovely mountain of Moel Siabod at it’s northern end. To the west is the outlying mountain Moel Hebog, and the adjoining group of hills that make up the Nantlle Ridge, part airy scramble and part ridge walk, one of the best hikes in Snowdonia. Further south can be found the remote Rhinogau, a low ridge of heathery and rocky hills running north-south.
The start of the Nantlle Ridge, not as tough as it looks!
In all, Snowdonia has a lot to offer the adventurous hiker. The terrain is rocky and progress can sometimes be slow, so plan accordingly and be wary of over extending yourself. Be prepared for changeable weather, pack suitable warm layers and waterproofs, and don’t forget your headtorch, just in case!
I have been hiking and climbing in Snowdonia for nearly 40 years, since I was a boy, and each time I return I am filled with the stark beauty, ruggedness and grandeur of these mountains, which are so accessible to anyone living in Britain and Ireland.
Mountaintrails run several weekend trips to Snowdonia each year, including an introduction to scrambling weekend.