By James Ottery
I’m glad I didn’t opt for the lie-in. It’s never a chore to greet a clear day by pulling on a pair of boots and yomping up a Welsh mountain, but an early start always seems to heighten the experience. It’s nudging 7.00 am – a time, by rights, when sensible folk should be rolling over in bed and turning their thoughts to tea and toast – and I’m striding steadily up the Pyg Track. Deep-green valleys are spilling away to the northwest, and up ahead are the silent crags and cols of the tallest peak in England and Wales. That extra hour in bed can wait.
I’m walking the Snowdon Horseshoe, the looped, six-hour hike that lays strong claim to being the best one-day walk in the country. The mountain itself means different things to different people, partly because there are so many ways of getting to and from the summit. From the less-than-exerting trundle of the Mountain Railway to the upper-reach scree-scramble of the Watkin Path, it lays on options for walkers, and indeed non-walkers, of all abilities. It’s best seen as a world to itself, an ageless, 360-degree spread of rocky clefts, gnarled precipices and long spurs of sheep-roamed land fanning out into the wider range.
The classic route of the Horseshoe makes its ascent initially via the Pyg Track, then across the infamous Crib Goch ridge. This is resolutely never an option to be taken lightly – serious accidents can, and do, happen – but this morning’s conditions are benign and, once I’ve hoiked myself up to the buttress, crossing the knife-edge arête is a moment of thrilling aloneness. (Sticking to the scenic Pyg Track throughout is a fine alternative ascent for those who wish to avoid Crib Goch, and it still allows the Horseshoe to be walked.)
After negotiating the airy and jagged ridgeback across to the top of Garnedd Ugain – where the trig point marks the second highest peak in Wales – my trail then converges with the Llanberis Path, generally the busiest of the mountain’s trails, for the final stretch to the top. When I run out of uphill, I look down and see the country outspread. It’s taken me about three hours, all of them hard on the legs but deeply enjoyable, and the choughs and wheatears that have kept me company have put a lie to the claim that Snowdon is always over-crowded in summer.
Yr Wyddfa, as the peak is known in Welsh, is a hill rich in stories, a strong and immoveable alp with countless different paths and countless different moods. Legendary mountaineering names like Sir Edmund Hillary and George Mallory both trained here for their Everest expeditions. Lots of hillwalkers have an issue with the fact that there’s now a visitor centre and café at the summit. I have some sympathy with this, but would also be lying if I said I disliked the novelty of being able to order a slice of cake after hacking up a mountain. I settle at a table and tuck in, fortifying myself for the descent.
Over the previous hour or so, low white clouds have been threatening to draw in, teasing the summit then furling away. Now they settle in for good, cloaking the kilometre-high top of Snowdon in a familiar fug of white. It means a slow descent just to reach my downward route, the handsome fin-like outcrop of Y Lliwedd (another stretch not to be walked with overconfidence if the weather’s iffy). When I’ve clambered low enough for good visibility to return, however, it makes the clarity and scale of the landscape all the more raw and imposing.
From here, the trail curls its way down and round to the east, granting a yawning, falcon-flown view not just of the region but of the first half of the route. After snaking down to the banks of the brooding blue Llyn Llydaw – a lake bound up in Arthurian legends – it leads easily to Pen y Pass, where ales and armchairs await. At only around seven miles in duration, the Snowdon Horseshoe is more of a work-out than its modest length might suggest. It’s also an unforgettable walk. There are countless ways up and down the mountain, but I know of none more exhilarating.
– The historic YHA Snowdon Pen-y-Pass, which has benefited from a recent refurbishment, sits at the start and end point of the Snowdon Horseshoe. There are also four other YHA hostels in direct proximity to the mountain.
– Never underestimate the mountain. Stick to the paths that match your experience and ability, know where you’re going and always carry adequate clothing, a water-proofed map and a compass.
– Check the weather outlook. Wind, rain and cloud can makes things very dicey very quickly. MWIS gives detailed Snowdonia forecasts, and the Met Office also has updates from the summit.
Six Other Great Snowdonia Adventures
Zip World Velocity – Soar high above the Penrhyn Quarry on the longest zipline in Europe, and the fastest in the world. You’ll reach speeds of more than 100mph.
Bounce Below – Like the idea of walkways, slides and giant trampolines in a slate cavern? Head to the subterranean grown-ups’ playground at Bounce Below. There’s also a kids’ area.
Biking at Coed-y-Brenin – Whether you’re a beginner or an expert, Coed-y-Brenin has some of the most pulse-raising loops and trails in the country.
Rafting at Bala – The National White Water Centre makes use of the wild River Tryweryn – and a dam-controlled system means the rapids are strong even in summer.
Horse-riding – Snowdonia’s not just for hikers and bikers – it’s also beautiful terrain for slow days on horseback. Various operators offer trips.
Rock-climbing – There’s good reason why Sir Edmund Hillary and his team trained in Snowdonia for their 1953 Everest ascent. It’s a superb place to (literally) learn the ropes.
Exclusive hire in Snowdonia
A large number of YHAs are available for YHA Exclusive Hire, including 21 in Wales. Six of these properties are in and around Snowdonia.
YHA Llanberis: hillside venue close to town. Sleeps 30.
YHA Snowdon Ranger: one-time inn on the western edge of the park. Sleeps 30.
YHA Idwal Cottage: our longest-established Welsh hostel. Sleeps 36
YHA Conwy: this modern property has different bed options. Sleeps 40, 60 or 80.
YHA Rowen: a characterful old hill farmstead. Sleeps 20.
YHA Bryn Gwynant: a beautifully located former coach house. Sleeps 30.