Jim Perrin says the colder months are best to experience the atmosphere and grace of our highest mountain
“Land of summer stars” — Bro ser hefin – is how the sixth-century Welsh poet Taliesin described the hill-country of his homeland. For me, the winter months bring out the best in the mountains of Snowdonia. These shapeliest of British hills, their physical forms so graceful that only musical notation can adequately describe the swoop and soar of their ridges, are then at their most atmospheric. The low light of autumn and winter rears them up to greater apparent heights than a high summer sun allows.
Wise photographers stow their cameras away in the warm months. The dark season most often affords defining, visionary glimpses of gleaming ridge against grey cloud; or peaks islanded by temperature inversions above the cloud-sea, all under a sky of palest blue. Nowhere’s more beautiful than Wales at times like these. Often when I have travelled to the Arctic or the Rockies, Saskatchewan, Sarawak or the Tien Shan, I would come back and know that my own little country was loveliest of all.
I’m reminded of the work of another Welshman, Richard Wilson, whose 1765 landscape, Snowdon from Llyn Nantlle, hangs in the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool. It’s suffused with a hazy, russet glow, exquisitely composed, the natural contours of the hill accentuated for harmony and balance. A group of rustics stand in the foreground, framed by a dome of light reflected in the still lake that leads the eye up to the peak of Snowdon, elegant and benignly grand.
Of all our hills, this one has the greatest wealth of cultural texture – a fact that argues its long attraction. Lack of height notwithstanding, it is one of the world’s defining mountains.
Neolithic and Bronze Age cairn-builders left their mark here. Ancient legends gathered too, out of which grew the Arthurian stories. The arduous industry of copper-miners; the travails, controversies and achievements of modern eco-management; poets and novelists and travellers and the accounts of sporting participants in Welsh and in English – all have inscribed the sense of their own passage down through the ages on Snowdon’s stones and crags.
No other mountain – not Mount Olympus nor Mont Aiguille; not the magical Basque peak of La Rhune, nor the Catalan one of Canigou at either end of the Pyrenees; not Shivling nor Bhagirathi above the source of the Ganges; not Kailash nor Uvayok nor any other of humanity’s holy hills – comes with quite such associative riches.
Snowdon’s paths may be worn, its summit marred for mountain purists by the railway terminus, but this complex and wonderful peak has so many other interests to attract the eye, exert the body and satisfy the mind.
In winter, at those admittedly infrequent periods when snow lies deep and scours away all detail (making the mountain railway track itself, incidentally, one of the most dangerous fatal-accident black-spots in Snowdonia), the mountain is a changed character. In truth it is too southern, too westerly, too seaward to offer reliable winter climbing in gullies or on frozen cascades, and you would always be hard-pressed to find good skiing or snowboarding conditions here. But when the right conditions – a wet autumn, a prolonged hard snap of frost – coincide, here are some of the British ice-climber’s ultimate aspirations.
There is Craig y Rhaeadr, the waterfall cliff on the Snowdon side of the Llanberis pass, where the picks and spikes of the experts come into forceful play on 300ft of verticality. At the other end of the spectrum, the relatively straightforward (to those with the right equipment, and knowledge of how to use it) snow-gullies of the Trinity Face, leading direct to Snowdon summit, have been the training-ground of aspiring Alpinists for a century and more. Best of all is the stupendous corner of the Black Cleft on Clogwyn Du’r Arddu – ascended in winter as long ago as 1963 by Martin Boysen, one of British climbing’s all-round talents.
This latter precipice (the name translates as ‘black cliff of the black height’) on Snowdon’s northern flank, magnificent and architectonic, is by general consent the finest in Britain. On its sheer walls, soaring crack-lines and hanging arêtes all the distinguished names of British climbing — Menlove Edwards, Colin Kirkus, Joe Brown, Don Whillans, Johnny Dawes — have left their mark.
There is more to mountain and cliff than the mere exercise of gymnastic expertise, however. Some of my most enjoyable days on Snowdon have been spent in the company of the pre-eminent Welsh field-naturalist Bill Condry (1918-1998), the author of two volumes in Collins’s magisterial New Naturalist series and a writer on nature whose work was distinguished by depth of knowledge in all aspects of his subject, an authentic long experience of and affection for the place itself, and an evocative plain style that never seeks to draw attention to itself (unlike that of most of our so-called ‘New Nature Writers’).
He told me where the rarest of Welsh plants, the Snowdon lily (Lloydia serotina) grows; took me to boulders one side of which, before the snows had melted, supported flowering masses of purple saxifrage (Saxifraga oppositifolia), while the other was adorned with moss campion (Silene acaulis). At the entrance to an old mine he showed me the holly fern (Polystichum lonchitis), which the Victorian collecting craze all but eliminated from Snowdonia.
Viewing these rarities and marvels one clear March day, we watched as a stoat stuttered and loped across the scree and broken ground at the foot of the cliffs. Nor was this exquisite small creature the only life to be seen. The whole majestic rock hollow rang and echoed to playful taunts of a pair of ravens, the best fliers of the bird world and tutelary spirits of the Welsh hills. They were mischievously harassing two choughs. The skirling high calls and tumbling flight of these rare and gorgeous little red-legged crows, that nest here in abandoned mine-workings, enhance the atmosphere of the mountain.
The atmosphere has stranger dimensions too. It’s an easy hour’s walk up here from Llanberis, along the path from that village and forking right by the old mine barracks before the steep summit ascent. The grand buttresses of silvery rock wrap themselves round a deep, dark lake beneath. This is one of the two most notable sites in Wales for fairy legends (the other is Llyn y Fan Fach in the Carmarthen Fan). A beautiful woman, it is told, emerged from the lake and was courted by a mortal. She married him on condition that if he struck her three times with iron she would disappear forever back into the water.
By accident, the husband did touch her thus, at which she and her dowry of cattle were gone forever. Some folklorists argue convincingly that the racial memory of intercourse between indigenous Bronze Age pastoralists and incoming Iron Age settlers is reflected here, the high locations of the legends suggesting the practice of transhumance.
Whatever the explanation, if you sit on the greensward across the lake from these astonishing cliffs — or better still, as the weather warms, sleep there through the length of the night and wake to the sun bringing out all the ochre and silver tints of the rock-face — you may not find a belief in fairies at all far-fetched; and you may even — as another legend that properly locates here suggests — wake insane or as a poet (if these two are not actually the same thing).
One thing is beyond all doubt: here at Llyn Du’r Arddu you will experience a scene as memorable as our British hills can provide.