Written by: Mark Reeves
Photography by: Eilir Davies-Hughes
The Snowdon Horseshoe is one of the most sought after Grade 1 scrambles in the UK, both long and sustained, the route offers some of the most exposed scrambling in the British Isles along the mind-blowing knife-edge ridge of Crib Goch. It is one of my favourite mountain routes, which I get to share with many people in the course of my work.
Eilir and I had a three day window to try and get the near goldilocks conditions you need to attempt this route, dry weather and low winds. The initial plan to get up for sunrise was shelved at the last minute because of cloud, and whilst the bed loving part of me was delighted, the adventurer in me was disappointed as sunrises in the mountains are simply stunning.
Our later start gave us our own logistical problems which are associated with parking for all routes at Pen Y Pass. We decided not to risk it and used the park and ride and took one of a fleet of local taxis that now frequent the Park and Ride in Nant Peris, so you don’t have to wait for the Sherpa Bus.
Arriving at Pen Y Pass, the average person would be taken aback by the number of walkers heading up either the PYG or Miners’ Track up Snowdon. Having commuted past Pen Y Pass for many years in the past I know that this car park is often full and heaving with people by 8am. We joined the PYG track and headed up toward Bwlch Goch with the many walkers simply heading up Snowdon.
"There is a mental and physical strain that comes with keeping people safe in these types of places."
I love this initial walk up the PYG track, as no sooner have you left Pen Y Pass the path rises and traverses around the top of the Llanberis Pass, with simply fantastic views down towards the twin lakes of Llyn Peris and Llyn Padarn, steeply framed by some of the most famous rock climbing venues in Snowdonia.
The path rises gently at first allowing you to ease into the day, however it soon rears up into a long flight of steps. It is here we meet the typical log jam on the PYG track, as a team of 30 plus guided walkers are brought to a near stop by the effort of this first steep section; the reality of climbing the highest mountain in England and Wales starts to dawn on them, and they are barely 500m from the car park.
"This is where the fun begins as we start to get hands-on with the mountain."
Making our way through the congestion and up to Bwlch Y Moch we pass another large group of walkers who are also catching their breath. Here our route diverts away from the hustle and bustle of the PYG track and heads up and right towards the base of the East Ridge of Crib Goch.
As we head up from the col the alpine grandeur of the mountains start to hit you, with views out across Llyn Llydaw to Lliwedd and Snowdon. Above us rises the triangular buttress of the East Ridge of Crib Goch; for most people the trepidation of heading up here will build with each approaching step. Having done the route many times before I am just filled with excitement, because for me, this is where the fun begins as we start to get hands-on with the mountain.
The hardest part of the East ridge is the initial three moves, as they are steep and thuggy, a quick few pulls and you are on a much easier angle, but gone is the grass and gravel. You are now on bedrock from here to the top. There are many routes you can take and I find myself moving away from my usual line and onto the true rib to enjoy the best of the exposure as I head up.
It would only dawn on me later in the day that I was about to really enjoy the day in a way that I have not for a very long time, as I was not leading a group over the ridge. It is not that I do not enjoy guiding this route, but there is a mental and physical strain that comes with keeping people safe in these types of places; where I’d choose the safer route to manage risk rather than the more exposed route to ascend. Add in the hustle of getting from the back of the group to the front again and again to manage different steps, and my focus is on leading people. Today it is different, I am simply enjoying myself and the company of Eilir who is snapping away as we make our way up the final exposed rib to the start of the knife-edge section of Crib Goch.
"Imagine walking along a narrow uneven bench - now suspend it hundreds of feet in the air and you get the idea."
We stop for elevenses in a little bay just prior to the knife-edge section of Crib Goch before we continue up to the Plait de jour; a simply exquisite rocky traverse in the sky. It is routes like this that give the shock and awe that the original renaissance mountaineers sought. A fall to the right is definite death, whilst to the left it is 50/50.
I love this section. It is to me the finest part of the Snowdon Horseshoe and whilst the brave might walk boldly along the crest, the risks are immediately apparent and you need impeccable balance to manage it. Imagine walking along a narrow uneven bench, now suspend it hundreds of feet in the air and you get the idea. For most people, they use the top of the ridge as a banister and traverse with their feet just below the crest on the left side. About 100m along you reach the true summit of Crib Goch, an isolated rise on the ridge that has stunning views across to Snowdon, along to the Crib Goch Pinnacles and beyond to Crib-y-Ddysgl and Carnedd Ugain.
As we approach this point a couple of plucky Eastern Europeans join us, one is happy with where he is, the other is not so at home and wants out of here. As we stop to let them pass to get a photo they continue, only as we head on to traverse the Pinnacles I see them trying to ‘escape the ridge’ by descending to the left. They are heading to a cliff that is hidden from above . Knowing what they are doing I have to shout down at them to come back up and I then try to explain to them that there is no escape until Bwlch Goch. Whilst they head on, I traverse over the first and second pinnacles. As they are not the high point, I have not headed over these for years. The main route heads below and left of these to reach a narrow cleft between the second and third pinnacles. As I descend to this col, I see the two climbers descending too early and call them back up again.
The Llanberis rescue team gets called out to many hill goers who are ‘cragfast’ or worse on Crib Goch every year. It always surprises me how many people will head up here with little knowledge of what is involved.
"I am in awe of all members of rescue teams who still put themselves at physical and mental risks to rescue people from the mountains."
For me it brings back some memories of my time on that rescue team, when I was involved in the recovery of a body from a fallen scrambler who was well equipped and, by all accounts, an experienced mountaineer. It was incidents like this that lead me to suffer from some form of post traumatic stress and, to this day, I am in awe of all members of rescue teams who still put themselves at physical and mental risks to rescue people from the mountains.
Today I do not dwell on those times and continue over the final obstacle on Crib Goch, a narrow ramp line that leads up the exposed right side of the third and final pinnacle before it descends down to the Bwlch Goch. From the col the ridge opens out and you can walk along and enjoy the situation a little more as you wander along to the initial bad step on Crib-y-Ddysgl.
The bad step is only bad if you try to avoid it to the left, as a pseudo-path heads below it and leads nowhere but to a smooth and very difficult corner. Instead we take the bull by the horns and head up a short 3m step to reach some blocks that allow you to traverse to the right end of the step and ascend a hidden ramp line up to where you can traverse back left into a bay. You can then climb a short step juggy groove to regain the ridge.
No sooner are you on this ridge, then things start to get exciting again as you hit a second knife edge section of ridge that starts to ascend towards Carnedd Ugain. As we ascend a bank of cloud rolls in and masks the drop from either side as we weave our way up the crest of the ridge. Small breaks in the cloud reveal the reality of the situation and give the whole experience new depth; for me, the mountains are just as beautiful, if not more so, when shrouded in cloud and mist. Like a film set garnished with dry ice, it helps to bring out the layers. When we snatch glimpses between the mist we’re able to focus on the immediate surroundings before being threatened with a choking claustrophobic crush as it draws in once again.
From the top of the Crib-y-Ddysgl the scrambling is all but finishes for this section, but despite appearance from afar, the distance to our second summit of Cranedd Ugain is much further than you think. The clouds dance around us and give glimpses across at the summit of Snowdon, where we can see the crowds starting to accumulate around the summit cairn. We descend a little off the summit to a sheltered spot to have lunch where the clouds continue their majestic display and we are joined by a lone seagull hoping for the scraps of our packed lunch.
A short descent leads to the finger stone at Bwlch Glas where the PYG Track, Miners’ Track, Llanberis Path, Snowdon Ranger path and Crib Goch all converge. Making the final steady rise back to the summit of Snowdon is a much more busy affair. The summit is one of the busiest places in Snowdonia and it can feel like a bun fight as you make your way up to the trig point, complete with brass plaque with one of the finest and now seemingly permanent typos of Snowdownia!
We do not linger too long here, the peace and tranquility of our walk so far makes us continue on. The best route down from here to continue the Snowdon Horseshoe is to descend the South Ridge for 100m to the finger stone at the top of the Watkin Path and take this down to Bwlch Y Saethau, or the Pass of the Arrows, named after a mythical battle between King Arthur and his son which resulted, in part, to the legend of the Lady of the Lake and Excalibur being found in Llyn Glas below. We opt for the more direct and challenging East Ridge descent; this is a loose and at times awkward scramble down to the same spot. I cannot recommend it in any way, as it is a notorious accident blackspot.
"A fall to the right is definite death, whilst to the left it is 50/50."
Lliwedd, our final peak looms in the distance and we follow the Watkin Path across to where the ridge starts to rise up. Given the scrambling at the start of the route, it is best to head to the crest of the ridge that overlooks some of the biggest cliffs in Snowdonia. Whilst generally not as exposed as Crib Goch, the scrambling here is good and you can pick and choose your line up to the West Peak before wandering across to the East Peak, which was to be our final high point.
We continue down the ridge of Lliwedd to the top of the final short rocky descent. It’s here where you get amazing views of the whole Snowdon Horseshoe and make the descent to the Miners’ Track. As we descend, I start to reflect on one of the finest days out you can have anywhere in the UK. I feel lucky to have this on my doorstep, lucky to be able to share this with all of you and lucky to get to guide people round this and other mountains. Above all though, It is that warm inner glow at the end of a long and adventurous mountain day that, to me, is a key part of why I love the mountains. They ground me on so many levels, cleansing my soul and washing away the day to day worries of an otherwise ordinary life, and today was no exception.