Head to Snowdonia in the footsteps of heroic mountaineers, for whom Welsh hills were the training ground for the ultimate adventure.
In the early hours of 2 June 1953, guests sleeping at the Pen-y-Gwryd Hotel (pyg.co.uk) 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 nineties.
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 did 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's 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.
Though they may never have been here, millions of people around the world live in the presence of the Snowdonian mountains. Welsh slate roofs adorn buildings and homes from Manchester to Melbourne, Australia. Little shards of this landscape keep the rain off MPs debating in the Houses of Parliament, and the corgis dry in Buckingham Palace. Much of it has been taken from the foothills of the Ogwen – a treeless valley of stark, melancholy beauty east of Snowdon, where vast slate quarries flank the entrance, in place of the absent mountainside.
I take a hike along the valley in the afternoon sunshine. Craggy escarpments loom like castle ramparts above. Giant boulders lie strewn across the path, deposited by mighty glaciers that long ago melted into a puddle and joined the Irish Sea. Only a few lonely cottages and farmhouses punctuate the immensity of snow, heather and open space. In character, the Ogwen feels like a rogue glen from the Scottish Highlands that got lost, marched south, took a right turn and ended up in North Wales.
Rising to the northeast are the contours of the Carneddau range – mountains named after the last Welsh princes who fought English invaders to the death, on whose summits hikers from Coventry now eat cheese sandwiches and Kit Kats. To the southwest is the Glyderau range, their silhouettes mirrored in Llyn Idwal, a cursed lake across whose waters, legend tells, no birds will fly. And ahead rises Tryfan – the peak that disobeys the symmetry of the Ogwen, jutting out like a middle finger between the two ranges. If you know where to look on its buttresses, you will find scratches left by hobnailed boots just over a century ago, long before the 1953 Everest expedition, when an earlier generation of mountaineers came to North Wales.
A few of these scratches were likely left by George Mallory, a vicar’s son from Cheshire who as a boy would climb up his father’s Norman church for practice. Mallory made his first British rock-climb on Tryfan’s north ridge. As a young man, he would often cycle 40 miles west to Wales with climbing ropes slung over his shoulder, sleeping in barns on balmy summer nights, and conquering vertical rock faces by day.
The long winter night descends over the Ogwen Valley as I pitch my tent in Cwm Tryfan (Cwm is the Welsh word for a glacier-formed valley). The rumble of traffic on the road turns to the sound of faraway waterfalls. The glow from Liverpool street lamps colours the easterly sky, and winter constellations appear and vanish with gaps in the passing clouds.
Mallory’s mountain story began in Wales and ends, of course, on the highest reaches of Mount Everest on 8 June 1924, where he was last seen alive ascending into mists near the summit. Not long before he disappeared, he had climbed the saddle of Lho La at 6,000m on the Tibet-Nepal border, and beheld a vast windswept valley reaching down into the world below: a place not before seen by European eyes. It is not known whether Mallory was thinking of summer days in Wales long ago when he gave this part of Everest the name it carries to this day: the Western Cwm.
In 1991, Eric Jones found himself hovering hundreds of metres above the Western Cwm, thin Himalayan air stretching into oblivion under the soles of his shoes. Unlike Mallory, Eric did not have time to admire the view, because he was clinging unharnessed onto the outside of a hot-air balloon basket. The balloon was on a course to crash into the upper slopes of Everest and Eric was busy trying to repair a broken burner.
‘Everybody feels fear,’ says Eric, holding a cup of tea. ‘Anyone who says they don’t feel fear is lying or crazy: fear is your safety valve. I do these things because of a fire that burns inside me. When you come home at the end of the day alive, you feel as if you are almost floating on air.’
Eric fixed the burner, and subsequently became part of the first team to fly over Everest in a hot-air balloon. Today he runs Eric Jones’ Climbers’ Café (ericjones-tremadog.co.uk), a roadside eatery near the town of Porthmadog, amongst the western ranges of Snowdonia.
Inside the café, hanging over ramblers and climbers eating jacket potatoes and beans on toast, are posters detailing Eric’s other mountain adventures. One shows him as the first Briton to solo-climb the holy grail of the Alps: the north face of the Eiger (he was struck by lightning). Another shows him base-jumping from the top of Angel Falls, Venezuela. Still climbing aged 80, Eric, like Mallory, began his career with an ascent of the north ridge of Tryfan as a young man.
‘For the first few days when I’m away on expeditions, I don’t think of Wales,’ he says, clearing plates. ‘But then I remember the mountains. The pubs, the walks, the bad weather. When I get off the plane, get in my car and pass the sign at Chester that says “Croeso i Gymru – Welcome to Wales”, I feel elated.’
By late morning, many of Eric’s customers have set off on their own mini-expeditions in the Snowdonian landscapes: a short walk on a puddly path to the pub, a scramble up some crags, a bike ride on a B-road. These may not be world firsts, but their essential ingredients are the same: lungs full of mountain air, boots clogged with mud and rain, hearts fired by adrenaline. For some, it will mean the modest triumph of scaling a Welsh mountain only slightly taller than the tallest skyscrapers in Dubai. But still coming home feeling on top of the world.