Monday, May 2, 2011

Route finding on Snowdon

Snowdon from the Deiniollen quarries - it was sunnier last week.
On Friday, when half the nation was watching 'that wedding' I walked up Snowdon. It wasn't so much an act of protest as a simple opportunity to climb a great mountain on a fabulous day. Hundreds, possibly thousands of others, had the same idea.

Snowdon (or Yr Wyddfa) is of course the highest mountain in Wales. The massif consists of three distinct summits, arranged in a horseshoe formation, but it's the central peak that most climbers aim for. From the summit there are some of the most spectacular views in the UK.  I realised it was fifteen years since I'd last stood there.

My route took me up the old Miners Path, returning by a variant known as the Pyg track. Both are now scars on the mountain; their routes passing the industrial detritus of a lost age, as well as the disgraceful hydro electric pipes that are today's equivalent. On the final slopes is an incongruous and yet somehow not inappropriate funicular railway line, and to top it all is a dull, box-like, summit cafe. It must be one of the ugliest mountain tops in wales.

Snowdon then, is a magnificently flawed mountain. It has sweeping views and hidden corners that leave me breathless, yet within yards there's as much that brings me to rage; huge tracts are untouched wilderness, a small proportion so tramped that the rock steps need replacing. It reminds me of what a colleague said about Wales when I first came here, the ugliest and most beautiful place on earth.

Friday had its share of diversity too. I passed a man travelling barefoot, another in a ceremonial kilt; there was a lady whom, I assume for reasons of faith, was wearing an ancle length black hessian dress and matching headscarf (notably her husband wasn't burdened with this inappropriate garb). Finally, there was a couple carrying golf clubs to play pitch and put on the summit.

Actually, that finally isn't correct.  For there were hundreds more walkers in fleeces, families in shorts, lads in hoodies and girls in not much but tattoos. There were Welsh and English and Japanese and Dutch and Eastern Europeans and Americans. A toddler was having a strop because she wanted the picnic now!; a chap who looked at least ninety was swaying in the wind - he gave the impression that if he stopped he wouldn't start again.

And yet amongst all this it was someone else who was in my mind.

Almost thirty years ago, on the day that Charles and Diana were married, I walked with my grandfather up Windy Gyle in the Cheviot hills. It was the last proper mountain we'd climb together. I remember us arriving at the summit cairn to find a group of about half a dozen disaffected blokes all smoking pipes, you've escaped as well, they said.

We saw an adder on our way down and I recall my grandfather explaining how to use the intersection of the horizon as guide to your height on the mountain. I showed him where I'd camped wild when walking the Pennine Way and how I'd found water in a hidden gully. We had a shared love of the landscape that transcended other differences; obvious ones like age, but also attitudes to politics and ways of seeing the world. He was scientist; I'm a... well at that time I was probably all of a muddle.

And it was walks like those that helped me become a little less so. Twelve years later, when my grandfather died and soon after I first climbed Snowdon, I asked for his compass; it couldn't be found. No matter, for in a sense I'd already inherited it.

They say we don't change much beyond our teenage years, at least not our  personalities. It's the experiences we have as young people, what we are given and what is taken away, which fundamentally shapes our inner self. And thereafter, no amount of life's wear and tear can make much difference.

I'm not sure if that's scientifically correct. But sheltering under Snowdon's trig point on Friday, it felt about right.  And as I looked across its scarred slopes, over my half adopted country, towards the north and east, to the land of my father, it felt as true of this place as it was of my granddad, and ultimately of me.


  1. Thanks for this fascinating, reflective post, Mark, especially your recollection of your grandfather.

    I've lived in Wales for nearly 40 years, yet have never climbed Snowden, contenting myself with the lower, but emptier hills of Mid-Wales.

    Not sure I concur with the idea that our personalities are fixed by the time we've been through our teens. All the really life (and personality) changing events - university, marriage, motherhood, faith, cancer - have happened to me after the age of 19 and I don't see many resemblences now to the girl I was 50 years ago.

  2. Mark...I was so moved by this wonderful and touching post. The 'shared love of landscape with your grandfather' and the warm description of your last climb with him...

    "A Wedding" also defined as "The act or an instance of joining closely". I think it was a wedding day of a different sort then..but still, a wedding day, remembering and joining closely to him.

  3. I am always touched by reading of special connections with grandparents. There's a place I go once every few years where my grandparents' voices still whisper to me. I believe my "inner child" hasn't changed much since my late teens, maybe even long before then. I admit I did lose touch with my inner self for a few years when life was particularly tough but I give thanks that a visit to 'that place' put me back on track.

  4. I 'legged' it up Hay Bluff in the Black Mountains on Good Friday, between balloon launches, whilst my crew and pilot slept on the grass car park below. Hills/mountains are my favourite places to chat to my late parents. You are so right about Wales being both ugly and beautiful!.

  5. It's an interesting theory but one that rather reduces the impact of later life events. I do think that childhood can cast a long shadow though (or light haze) whose edges touch you for a very long time.

  6. I would be worried if my personality had been permanently formed by my childhood and teenage years.
    That the experience of that period weighs heavy is true....but I think that the preponderant influence on me has been my job...the contact with people with differing experiences and the attempt to make a link between us to make something work.

  7. I enjoyed this very much Mark, complemented by the smashing photos.

  8. Your description was a good read. I enjoyed the words strung together like clothes, on wash day, hung out to dry on the line.

  9. I caught a train up Snowdon once but I suppose that doesn't count. I walked up Bog Hill the other day, maybe that counts.

  10. you went past us if you navigated the a55!!!

  11. Great post Mark......

    I think that there must have been a complete sub-culture of escapees all over the country on Friday.......

  12. Lovely post, Mark. So much has happened since my teens that I bear little resemblance to the girl I was then.

  13. As always, Mark, you have a lyrical way of building a narrative, imbuing it with humour, insight and poignant sentimentality. Your observations of people and nature are beautiful in their simplicity, and yet they invite deeper consideration. I'm surprised there were no Aussies on that path. I too would have wanted a picnic and joined in the pitch and putt.

  14. Last time I ventured up Snowden was about fourteen years ago to chair a sales meeting in the café at the top. Thought it would revitalise the whole sales meeting process and stimulate some fresh and creative lateral thinking. Worked like a dream too. The twelve of us attracted a lot of strange and curious looks as we took over a corner of the café and produced a pile of paperwork and reports. Headed back to a hotel in Manchester that night. The beer up after the meal was an epic.

  15. That is a lovely post, a beautiful comparison with your experiences 30 years ago.

    I am now going to put a lot of thought into what ways I have changed since my teens! Maybe I am set in my ways; maybe those were the most formative years. Quite a scary concept!