Yr. Wyddfa, the highest mountain in Wales, a mountain which happens to be higher than any mountain in England. It attracts crowds. Yes it is, without doubt, the busiest hill in the UK and I’m sure there can’t be many busier ones anywhere else. The national park has counted well over 600,000 people on the hill annually. The path from Llanberis carries upwards of 240,000 people and the PyG and Miners path carrying a similar number between them. But there are very few hillwalkers. Hillwalkers have learnt to avoid the summit area and the main paths, certainly at busy times.
I was privileged to lead a lovely group of people on their ascent of the mountain yesterday, a Sunday of an August Bank holiday weekend. I knew it would be busy. We actually had very quiet ascent. We went up to Bwlch Maesgwm, there was no one else on the path at all. We cut across the open hillside, using sheep trod’s to join the Snowdon Ranger Path avoiding the need to descend and reascend. There were barely a handful of people on this path. And then, the summit ridge. Busy, very busy. The summit had its queue, which has now become a bit of a feature of Yr. Wyddfa. I do find it rather fascinating. People arrive and stand in the line to get their summit shot. It’s actually quite lovely, a well-mannered, patient line of people all, in a very British way, waiting to take their turn on top. Of course this is an anathema to hillwalkers and mountaineers who have to resist the urge to just walk round the other side and disrupt the whole system. We resist the temptation out of respect for others. We also know that the summit is artificial, and by just standing next to it, you are on the highest bedrock in the land. Nip round the back, eat your lunch, surreptitiously take your summit photos next to the summit cairn and head back down.
We descended by the Llanberis path, with a little detour from Clogwyn Station to the Halfway café, and then another through the woods to avoid the steep tarmac at the bottom. We had a lovely day, a long day, an eight hour day, but my group were chuffed to bits with their ascent of Yr. Wyddfa.
What of the crowds? The crowds of people mainly ascending from Llanberis or Pen y Pass are a fine cross-section of Britain today. People of all shapes, sizes and colour. For many it’s their first, and probably, their only mountain. They were polite, engaging and clearly enjoying the challenge the ascent gave them. The vast majority of them left no litter either. They will remember this day for the rest of their lives. So what if there’s a queue for the summit cairn? It doesn’t really affect us. So what if all the other mountains are empty,? That’s better for us, Snowdon will always be the draw. This is not about spreading the load, it’s about catering for public demand. The paths need investment, the parking needs managing, the transport around the mountain is stretched, local taxis, are filling the voids, free enterprise is working here. I do think we need to shift some highways money to the paths though. It’s ironic that local B roads have recently been resurfaced, allegedly because the Tour of Britain cycle race will pass through the area, but we can’t find the funds to make the paths on Yr Wyddfa more sustainable. Snowdon is not a problem, it’s an opportunity. Llanberis is sitting at the base of the biggest tourist attraction in Wales, it needs to work out how it can capitalise on that more effectively, not moan about the hoards.
It’s the same for us. We can have Yr Wyddfa in the winter, we can climb, walk or scramble between the main paths. It’s a brilliant hill. It has Cloggy, Lliwedd, ‘the Pass’, it has rare arctic alpines, its own beetle and a community of hill farmers. I love Yr Wyddfa, we need our governments to do so too.
And the tourists? Yesterday was perfect. We had just enough cloud cover to stop us burning, it wasn’t cold, it wasn’t windy and it didn’t rain, perfect walking conditions. It might be that the tourist walkers had worked this out and knew they didn’t need to carry anything. They probably laughed at my rucksack containing things they knew nothing of. I’d made my group get more water, thinking it’d be a hot one, the cloud saved us. What if it had rained? What if the tourist walkers had come on another day at another time of year? They do. Yesterday there were three of four rescues. Not surprising considering the number of people the mountain. Slips and trips were inevitable. The accidents I heard about were minor and could have happened to any of us. The Coastguard helicopter flew around in the perfect weather. Volunteers from the mountain rescue team did give up their own time to help, I wonder for how long they want to do that? I think the biggest concern is the complete detachment from the environment of many of the tourist walkers. The complete lack of understanding of how the weather can change. Yesterday was forecast blue skies, if it had been people would have struggled without sufficient liquid with them. If the cloud that rolled in had brought rain, people would have got cold. If someone does trip and needs assistance for how long can they keep themselves warm? It is a worry that on a poor weather bank holiday, or one on which the weather changes abruptly, there could be a collection of incidents that then might lead to a bit of a disaster. The resources are there to help people, the Adventure Smart website is frequently referred to and it contains good advice. How can we engage better with the tourist walkers? How can we look after them better? How can we care for them better when they come on the trip of a lifetime to ‘do’ Snowdon?
Yr Wyddfa needs a staff team. People to help, to manage and to care for the visitors. It needs toilets on the main paths. It needs investment in its footpaths. It needs to continue to improve the parking arrangements. It needs investment from both the Welsh and the English governments. It’s a precious resource, a valuable commodity, it needs special care. It needs landowners, local business and government organisations to work together. This is not ‘over tourism’ it is a poorly managed (due to lack of funding and political commitment, not those who are currently busting a gut to get it right) golden opportunity.