What to wear when climbing Snowdon – you’ll need more than just your underpants!16th Jul 2018
Snowdon is a liberally accessible mountain nestled in the spectacular Snowdonia National Park in North Wales. It’s so accessible that it is threatened to be overrun by enthusiastic hikers, walkers and day-trippers with over 600,000 people estimated to visit its peak in 2017. At 1,085m high, its mountain environment needs to be respected, and the appropriate clothing worn – certainly you’ll need more than just your underpants!
Snowdon – what to wear?
As I opened my car door at the Pen-y-Pass Car Park I was hit by an icy wind that came very close to freezing my core. I slammed the door shut as quickly as I’d opened it and was immediately warmed by a sense of smugness that I had indeed stopped off on the journey to buy myself a thick pair of gloves.
It was November and I’d left the relative comfort and warmth of the homely Totters Hostel in Caernarfon to drive the 30 miles up through the endlessly scenic Nant Peris valley to my start point at the foot of the Miner’s Track. I had packed good boots, walking trousers, several layers, a light waterproof and a hat but, having a modicum of mountain experience, I knew that protecting my extremities would be key, hence why I had stopped at a local store to purchase some gloves.
Snowdon climbing routes
The number of people that climb Snowdon is becoming a bit of a problem. The Llanberis Path is a gently sloping 9 miles of consistent climbing. The relative simplicity of this endeavour encourages plenty of people to attempt it, sometimes oblivious to how quickly conditions can change at the summit. Having to wait to pass at the narrowest points during the summer months is not uncommon and a virtual conveyor belt of punters queue to touch the brass plaque at the peak.
It was for these reasons, along with my desire to choose a route full of challenge and interest, that I decided to climb the Miner’s Track. Also, it was this path that I ascended as part of the Three Peaks Challenge – a race to climb the UK’s three highest peaks in 24hrs – back in 1999. Setting off before sunrise, we somehow managed to miss a turning and were forced to crawl up several hundred metres of loose scree before re-finding the path. I was keen to see if I could work out where we went wrong.
My car was toasty warm inside but I knew I had to brave the biting wind again if I was to get up the mountain. Trouble was, I hadn’t put all my layers on before leaving Caernarfon. They were in the boot of the car along with my hiking boots. It would be a race to get dressed before frostbite set in!
Getting dressed for Snowdon
I took a deep breath, braced myself and with all the bravery of a timid mouse opened the car door to the wintery wind. Oh, my giddy Aunt! Right, keep going, like a cold shower, it becomes bearable once you’ve acclimatised. I zipped round to the back of the car and with the speed and dexterity of a Firefighter getting ready to go on a shout was dressed, booted and back in the front seat of my car in no time.
My strategy for climbing mountains is set in stone. I like to get up there as quick as I can, stopping only briefly for the odd photo, enjoy the spectacle from the summit and then run back down. These weather conditions were great for my mountain tactics. I think if I were to go any slower there would be a serious risk of being frozen to the path.
Snowdon – The Ascent
And so it was that I hiked spiritedly along the initial incline of the Miner’s Track. I was generating plenty of body heat from my exertions as the icy car park was left behind. It was a typical winters day, clouds covered the peaks like ill-fitting toupés and it felt like rain was always on the cards. I didn’t have too much hope for good views at the summit.
The path flattens out around the three lakes of Llyn Teryn, Llyn Llydaw (which the path crosses via a man-made viaduct) and Glaslyn. This area was sheltered from the elements and as the sun shined through some broken clouds it almost felt summery. I peeled back the layers and took some snaps of the lakes and derelict mining buildings before heading on.
Snowdon – The Miner’s Track
The far side of Glaslyn is where the route turns from a leisurely stroll into a concerted climb. Marked by a huge rock, the path turns right – and viewed from the bottom – appears to go vertically uphill. I have no idea whether this huge rock was in place back in 1999, but if it was, we somehow managed to miss it in the pre-dawn light. I could also clearly see, some 50m further on where it became impossible to continue around Glaslyn forcing us to start our scramble up the scree slope.
It was treacherous climbing. We’d clamber a couple of feet up, then often slide back down further then we had moved upwards. It was equally tough and dispiriting, however, in our highly fatigued, sleep-deprived state in the years prior to GPS we could see no other way. Our desire to reach the summit overcame our slow progress and with burning thighs and raw hands we somehow made it back onto the Miner’s Track directly above. I drew huge inspiration from my climbing partner that day who led the way even though he was well into his 50’s.
As I steadily made progress up the steep path, I thought back to that morning in 1999 and took comfort that in comparison, this was very easy. I turned left to join the Pyg Track and continued my ascent.
One of the many reasons that I like climbing mountains is the friendliness and helpful nature of fellow climbers. Admittedly the conversations are all very similar but it’s good to get an idea of ‘How much further?’ and ‘What are the conditions like at the top?’. Of course, these are just the best guesses of the individuals you ask, so at one point I was somewhere between 30 and 90 minutes from the top and it was either ‘baltic, mate’ or ‘not too bad’. Perspective and expectation are personal things.
Still sheltered from the wind, it was now almost balmy as I made my way up towards the cloud layer. Despite my desire to get to the top as quickly as possible, I’m always careful to turn around and make sure I take in everything around me. The vistas are constantly changing and sometimes, especially on days like these, the light can be quite spectacular.
Climbing Snowdon – Into the cloud layer
I was well up into the cloud layer now, the altitude, lack of sun and the wind which was whistling down the valley meant that I needed to deploy all my layers. The word from people coming down was that I had about 30 minutes of climbing before reaching the ridge, where I would join up with the Llanberis Path, and that the gusts there were ferocious.
Even though I had prior warning, the force of the wind as I made my way over the ridge was a bit of a shock. I turned sideways on to the gale so as to reduce my sail like qualities which were threatening to launch me back down the Pyg Track to Glaslyn. I decided immediately that the less time I spent up here the better and turned left to follow the Llanberis Path which runs parallel to the Snowdon Mountain Railway.
Snowdon – Clothing advice
It was here that I bumped into three young lads from Liverpool.
“Alright, our kid. How long do you reckon it’ll take us to get back down? We want to get back in time to watch the footie.” The first one asked me.
They seemed like active chaps, but all were wearing classic reeboks and trackie bottoms tucked in socks. Not ideal gear to be monkeying around at the top of Snowdon in the arctic conditions. The first two were waiting for my reply whilst the third was standing back trying to roll a cigarette. He wasn’t successful.
My advice was to make it down safely, especially as they’d have to traverse a part of the Llanberis Path known as the Killer Convex. Sadly, this innocuous section has claimed many lives over the years during the winter months as walkers slip and – unable to halt their momentum – plummet over the Clogwyn Coch cliffs.
These chaps from Liverpool may have been underprepared, but they had nothing on another Merseysider who decided to tackle Snowdon in just his Superman underpants. In September. He was quoted as saying he was “surprised how cold he got”, whilst taking the Snowdon Mountain Railway back down to the bottom. A trip to the hospital to treat his hypothermia was probably a little too high a cost for the £1,000 he raised for charity.
Snowdon is the highest mountain in England and Wales. It appears highly accessible due the Snowdon Mountain Railway and the Summit Visitor Centre which was designed by Clough Williams-Ellis (most famous for designing Portmeirion) but it is a mountain. Snowdon weather can change rapidly and it’s highly advisable to be prepared for all eventualities.
Snowdon – The Summit
I bid the lads good luck for a safe descent and then motored on to the summit. Conditions on the ridge got steadily worse, visibility was at about 10ft, so when I reached the top, I touched the brass plaque, got my photo and then started on my descent immediately. I took five minutes of shelter from the increasing squall at the rear wall of the visitor centre to have a quick snack and a drink before quickly making my way back down the Pyg Track and importantly, away from the gale force winds on the ridge.
Rather than turning right down the tricky Miners Track to Glaslyn, (the way I had climbed up) I continued along the Pyg Track which maintains a higher elevation and affords fabulous views of all three lakes. With the lakes down to the south, the foreboding Crib Goch, one of Britain’s most popular ridge walks overlooks you from the North like a scary school teacher with impossibly voluminous eyebrows. Crib Goch is a tough scramble and is not for the inexperienced – especially in winter conditions.
Tunnocks’ Top Tip
If you want to tackle Crib Goch, do it when the conditions are good and with an experienced mountaineer.
As I descended to the lower slopes, the vicious winds at the mountaintop slipped into distant memory. I got down promptly and even made it back to Caernarfon in time to watch the football, although I didn’t see my Liverpudlian friends in the pub. My choice of appropriate clothing ensured that I didn’t return in need of hospital treatment for hypothermia either. Be prepared – Snowdon is hazardous, especially in the winter – see below for my kit list.
These Merrell Boots are the most comfortable, supportive and weatherproof boots I’ve ever owned. They have a stiff sole and a tread that grips well on all surfaces including wet rocks. Highly recommended.
I don’t go anywhere without my Bear Grylls trousers. They are stretchy, water repellent and incredibly comfy. They breathe well and dry incredibly quickly. Get some.
It’s important to have plenty of clothing layers available when conditions can change in an instant. I like having a base layer, then one or more intermediate layers. Maintaining your core body temperature is key to staying safe.
The waterproof I took on this trip wasn’t really up to the job. I wish I had my Helly Hansen with me which always keeps me bone dry, whilst remaining breathable.
I like to wear this reflective running hat when hiking. It is warm around my ears but allows moisture to evaporate through the top. Being reflective is helpful if things go wrong and people are searching for you at night.
Keeping the extremities warm is essential. I like these gloves from Berghaus.
Staying hydrated is paramount. I like taking collapsible water bottles with me, as they can fold flat to save space after you’ve drunk the contents.
Totters Hostel in Caernarfon was a very comfortable place to rest after a strenuous day on the mountain. The owners are very friendly and the place was kept spotless. If you’re after budget accommodation for Snowdonia, then you’ll struggle to do better.
What else is around?
For the adrenaline junkies amongst you, Zip World – which has the fastest zip line in the world, and the longest in Europe – is within Snowdonia National Park. The historic Caernarfon Castle and the wonderful oddity – Portmeirion – are also worth a visit.
Ultimate Travelist Challenge Sum up
Snowdonia appears in the Ultimate Travelist Challenge at number 181. As impressive as Snowdon is, the area of Snowdonia has plenty more going for it. There are many lakes, peaks and stunning valleys to hike. It’s an adrenaline junkie’s dream with zip lines, white water rafting and an inland surfing lagoon amongst other attractions. The natural beauty of the landscape is hard to beat. Snowdonia is well worth a place in the Top 500 and I think its spot at 181 is well earned.
Have you been to Snowdonia? Did you tackle Crib Goch? Do your experiences match mine or do you think it should be higher or lower? Do you think it is rightly in the Ultimate Travelists Top 500? Would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
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