We pull up in the Pont Bethania car park near the start of Mount Snowdon’s Watkin track, and stare doubtfully at the thick cloud. The forecast is bad. The four of us pull on waterproof trousers and Gaiters, and fasten zips and poppers; one other group doing the same at the other end of a slowly flooding car park. There’s a general sense that this may not be a brilliant idea. We head up into ancient woodland; the rain soaked trees quivering with brand new leaves; fresh and spring green. The waterfalls that bisect the path give us some idea of the levels of rainfall this week: they are small, but full and fast.
For the next few hours, we will walk only up. The path is gentle for this part of the Watkin trail. It climbs out of the woodland after only ten minutes, and opens up into the first obvious slopes of Snowdon. The mountain disappears into the cloud ahead of us, and the beautifully clear waterfalls of Cwm llam tumble from pool, to blue tinged pool. We say we’d love to come back and swim in summer, then remember it’s already May.
We pass the first of several slate buildings (the homes of slate miners, a farm house, and the remains of copper mines) now roofless and crumbling, but still imposingly solid in the low cloud.
The climb slowly becomes steeper. There is little view: maybe 20’ visibility. We fall into a row, one by one placing foot in front of foot. The cloud envelopes us, and the rain begins in earnest. Walking is most often for me, an outward experience; the landscape lets me loose to fill it. Here, blanketed, soaking and climbing, the land forces me inward. I can see little beyond the end of my dripping cap, and we stare only at our feet as we pick our way up glassy slate steps, past steep drops we know are there, but cannot see. I think about the mechanics of what we’re doing: the repetitive action of step, step, and step. I imagine a Fantasia line of us walking up into the cloud forever. A line of plastic penguins, climbing a plastic mountain. I think about family trips to Wales. I occasionally find myself talking out loud, into the driving rain. “It’s fucking wet” I say. My words are whipped away (perhaps they’ll startle someone down in the valley in an hour or two), and I realise I’ve been grinning, wild eyed, and stop it.
The path has become a river, inches deep in places. Our waterproof clothing is proving to be ineffective, and after nearly a thousand miles walked in the past year, the front soul of my left battered walking boot, finally flaps off. We stop, for the briefest shivering moment to eat, and then move again as quickly as we can, exchange a few grinning words as we marvel at the ferocity of it all. The cloud swirls around our soaking bodies as we move upwards through it; the only concession the mountain is willing to make.
Other walkers pass us when we rest, and in turn are passed. Each of us slides upwards in this way, huddled inside our own worlds. The enveloping land wraps me up, pushes and pushes in to my head, until I am just a weather battered body, walking upwards, filled with clouds. Staring at my feet. Lifting my knees. Step. Flap. Step. Flap.
We finally reach the last ascents of the trail. Exposed on the top ridge, still gently climbing, the ferocity of the weather is breathtaking; we are pummeled by stinging rain and 70 mph winds. I try to cover one side of my face to protect it from the needling rain as I walk, becoming increasingly aware of the cloud filled void below us. When I stop to wring out the gloves I’ve kindly been lent I finally notice that Lee isn’t looking well. He’s slowed down to a crawl, is stumbling, looks a little too cold. We each ask him if he’s OK. He says he is, and none of us believe him, but we press on; closer to the summit and the hope of a running train or open shelter.
We reach the final ascent. Here the path is easily lost as it becomes steep scree. This is the most challenging part of the Watkin path, and by far the most dangerous; it is a steep, sliding scramble alongside dizzying drops. Unable to see the open space to our left, we are at least saved the vertigo as we push for the summit.
This is slow going. The three groups of us who have swapped position during our ascent now walk in one continuous line; roughly twelve people. A girl in a blue coat stops in front of me, says she’s never been so frightened in her life. A German girl in a yellow jacket says she didn’t know it would be so fierce. A man ahead, slides backwards in the shale, yells, grabs a rock. My flapping shoe catches and I stumble momentarily close to the edge, and let out a high pitched giggle that is not born of mirth. Lee, shivering, passes me: “ I’ve stopped enjoying myself”. I notice Lee is walking like someone who is slightly drunk, and that his jacket isn’t fastened. I shout at him to do it up, and when he replies that he isn’t cold anymore, I begin to worry in earnest.
I tell the others that I think that Lee is en the first stages of Hypothermia. We stay close to him, force ourselves forward, and feel the land becoming less steep. Finally, we see the outline of the cafe, a faint squat shape in the dense cloud. We’re at the summit. There’s little sense of achievement today, just urgency. We’re worried about Lee, and without the view of the land below, it’s difficult to place our walk, or measure our achievement. We have been bodies walking on a circle of rock, floating in white without context, for hours; there can be no moment of awe today.
At the cafe, a forlorn group of climbers are huddled in the shuttered doorway. We knew in our hearts it would be closed, and that the train would be motionless in its shed. The weather is too bad for man or machine.
We agree that the now extended group of us will head down the Pyg track together. The route will offer more shelter and get us to warmth more quickly. We are all unreasonably cold, so we move off, trying to generate some heat. I wrap Lee in extra layers, make him jump, keep him moving. He performs a little drunken, circular stagger that should be funny, but isn’t Walkers group together, begin talking now, offering support and help, forced out of our bubbles. We cross the narrow wind battered ridge, pass the train tracks and step down again onto the slopes. The wind is cut off, and as we descend Lee warms up, stops behaving so oddly. Relief floods through us: Lee is OK and we’re heading down, dropping by the second.
We start to enjoy ourselves again, scrambling over soaking rock and saturated earth, and splashing through waterfalls. Steve helpfully stoops to remove a rock that has lodged in the gaping toe of my stricken boot. Everyone sings Iron Maiden songs for Blod. Lee’s soaked trousers have begun to foam extravagantly at the knees. Walking ahead, I grin at explosions of laughter as we descend.
Finally, as we reach the lower slopes, the cloud begins to lift and we do get our moment of awe after all: a view down the winding Llanberis valley, and distant glacial lakes. The clouds scrape their bellies across the highest peaks, and we stand in the rain, watching them go.
We join the other walkers at a small cafe at the base of the Pyg, swapping stories, and hot coffee. People offer lifts and help each other find their way back to cars and other routes, relieved now, and united now.
The land isolates us, and the land pushes us together.