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CIRCLING SNOWDON

Updated: Mar 14


Getting the naming controversy out of the way first, I'm using Snowdon here as the name of the range as a whole, with the main summit being Yr Wyddfa. The National Park Authority has recently replaced the English name with the Welsh one, but in fact they don't really refer to the same thing. Snowdon is an ancient name itself, first recorded in 1095, and in 1230 Llywelyn Fawr (arguably Gwynedd's greatest ruler) signed himself as "Princeps Aberfraw Dominus Snawdon". If the name was good enough for him then I'm quite happy to carry on using Snowdon for the whole mountain group, with Yr Wyddfa as the name of its primary summit.


Yr Wyddfa (snowdon summit)
Yr Wyddfa

There are six major cwms and another half dozen minor ones, with some parts ridiculously busy and others usually deserted. Only Cwm Dyli and Cwm y Llan have major paths in them, as most of the popular routes go up the ridges, so there's a lot of obscure corners. In his excellent "The Mountains of North Wales" (1973) Showell Styles suggests that the best way to get to know the mountain would be to girdle it, visiting all six main cwms, and he plots out a feasible route. He got the idea from RW Tomlinson, the Beddgelert ecologist christened "The Old Man of the Mountain", who made 500 ascents of Yr Wyddfa, the last on his 75th birthday. He wouldn't have called himself an ecologist of course, as the term wasn't common currency in his day, but his writings on various environmental and forestry issues are still cited in ecological studies. I've no idea whether either of them actually did the walk (though I suspect they probably did), but it's obviously a great idea, so when I went to live in Nant Gwynant I made it one of my first days out.


Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon summit)
Yr Wyddfa from the west

Obviously I knew that it would involve a lot of yoyoing up and down (there's 1450m ascent) but it was a longer distance than I had expected, around 18km. It took me well over the 6.5 hours that those stats would normally entail, largely because there's almost no path involved apart from at each end. I started and finished with the Watkin Path because it was close to my door but Showell Styles's version goes from Pen y Pass so saves 350m. The route is likely to get you a few funny looks as you cut straight across the built routes and obvious ridges. It includes one of the classic scrambles, the Snowdon Gribin, and you could easily include both Crib Goch and Lliwedd as detours if you were feeling keen. Another 200m of ascent is probably quite a disincentive given the amount already included though.


Crib Goch, Snowdon
Crib Goch, with Cwm Uchaf in front

Cwm y Llan is the most varied of Snowdon's cwms, more wooded in its lower reaches than the others, winding round the rocky thumb of Castell. The path slants up easily past the waterfalls into the barer upper cwm and the ruin of Plas Cwmllan, originally the manager's house for the mines. It was the Holiday Fellowship hostel in the 1930's, then was commandeered by the army for exercises during World war II. It wasn't useable afterwards so the HF (staunch teetotallers in those days) bought the village pub, Bryn Dinas, causing some local resentment. In the 70's they operated it as a youth centre, then it became a bunkhouse and it's now holiday lets and camping pods.


Nant Gwynant and Watkin Path, Snowdon
Nant Gwynant and lower Cwm y Llan, Watkin Path prominent

Just beyond Plas Cwmllan is Gladstone Rock, where the Liberal politician addressed a crowd of over 2000 people in 1892 to celebrate the opening of the Watkin Path. This was the first built path up Snowdon, although there was already a trodden route up from Llanberis. Sir Edward Watkin was a railway magnate and Liberal MP and had an interesting career. He was involved with some of the first parts of the London Underground, plus railways in Canada, India and Greece as well as Britain. He started work on a Channel Tunnel but was prevented from continuing by parliament, while his attempt to build a "British Eiffel Tower" also didn't get finished. Watkin was a long time campaigner for public parks and the park he set up around his tower hosted early football matches and later became Wembley Stadium.


Cwm y Llan and Watkin Path, Snowdon
Cwm y Llan and Watkin Path. Plas Cwmllan on left and Gladstone Rock bottom right

A little beyond the rock is the Gladstone Slab, which used to be a popular place to take climbing novices but these days it's seen as too far from the road. It's Moderate by the easiest line, maybe V Diff if you ignore the cracks. The rock is worn but very solid and it's worth a play when passing if you're that way inclined. There are similar slabs on the bottom left of Craig Ddu behind it which have rarely been climbed and the contrast in the friction is startling – the Slab must have been amazing if it was like this originally. Most of Craig Ddu is vegetated but there is a cleanish line up the main nose that's reputed to be about Severe, but hasn't made it into guidebooks. I never summoned up the bottle to solo it.


Gladstone Slab, Cwm y Llan, Snowdon
The Gladstone Slab. Pic by Nigel Brown, from www.geograph.org.uk

Once round the corner you arrive at the old quarries and abandon the path. Up to your left is the prominent triangular slab that marks the start of Clogwyn Ddu (more climbs that weren't in guidebooks for years, although they now are). Left of this is a steep grassy slope that used to be marked on larger scale maps as Bwlch Maderin, now shown as Allt Maenderyn ("steep height of the stone bird" – there has to be a story in that somewhere? Or perhaps the triangular slab reminded locals of a flapping wing?). The earlier OS name is obviously a mangling, and nobody in their right mind would use this as a pass, with the huge gap of Bwlch Cwmllan only half a kilometre to its left. Unless you're doing the Snowdon Girdle, of course 😁.


Clogwyn Ddu, Cwm y Llan, Snowdon
Clogwyn Ddu, 'Bwlch Maderin' is the grassy slope on the far left

250m of very steep grass gets you up to the ridge. On my first trip up this it was March and it was covered in sloppy snow. It wasn't fun, but I didn't have any sense of risk in those days and just did it anyway. Your reward is a gentle grassy ramp that slants round the south side of Llechog. Just after you cross the Rhyd Ddu track there's a small stone circle known as Mur Marianau (oddly not marked on maps any more). It's not very preposessing and easy to miss – it's just across from the remains of the old refreshment hut at about 470m.


Yr Wyddfa and Cwm Caregog, Snowdon
Yr Wyddfa and Cwm Caregog. The route traverses across right to left

The shelf continues round below scraggy bluffs to reach the lovely Llyn Nadroedd ("The Lake of the Serpent" – surely another story) in the mouth of Cwm Clogwyn. The latter is oddly named, as it's one of the least cliffy cwms on the mountain, with just the mostly vegetated slabs of Llechog on its south side and amorphous broken ground leading up to Yr Wyddfa at the back. There are three small lakes in a line across the mouth of the cwm, but at the middle one you head down the bank of the stream and alongside Llyn Ffynnon y Gwas to reach Bwlch Cwm Brynog. This is one of those passes that feels like a gateway to another world, Llanberis and Anglesey coming into view with real suddenness. Cwm Brynog is greener than Cwm Clogwyn and feels like a gentler landscape than the one you're leaving, that is until the leering monster of crag up behind your right shoulder makes its appearance.


Clogwyn du'r Arddu, Snowdon
Clogwyn du'r Arddu. Pic by Terry Hughes, from www.geograph.org.uk

Clogwyn Du'r Arddu is one of Britain's most impressive cliffs. As has been pointed out before, there's something architectural about it, with its clean angular lines of slabs and leaning overlaps. There are virtually no climbs on it below VS but above that it has classics galore. Tiptoe gently beneath it so as not to wake the demons then go for another steep pull up to meet the Llanberis Path. I did once try scrambling up the broken Clogwyn Coch to avoid the slog but it's horribly loose and it wasn't a good idea. Cross rail line and pedestrian motorway to reach the flattening at the top of the shoulder of Gyrn Las.


Llyn Glas, Cwm Glas Mawr, Snowdon
Llyn Glas, Cwm Glas Mawr. The described descent uses the middle of the sunny slope

In poor weather it's important to make sure you're in the right place here as there's only one easy descent into upper Cwm Glas. Go too far right and you're onto the shattered ground towards Parsleyfern Gully, while too far left you end up above the climbing crag of Cyrn Las - which should really be known as Diffwys Ddu ("The Black Steep"), a much more descriptive name.


Raven, Cwm Glas Mawr, Snowdon
One of the Cwm Glas Mawr residents

Once down into the cwm you have a choice to make. You can keep high past the tiny Llyn Bach, nestling below the pillars of Clogwyn y Ddysgl, then traverse close under the nose of Clogwyn y Person into Cwm Uchaf below Crib Goch. Alternatively you can get slightly easier going at the price of losing a bit more height and slant further down to Llyn Glas, then up into Cwm Uchaf. Both routes take you into some gorgeous places – Cwm Glas Mawr is the wildest and most beautiful cwm on Snowdon in my opinion.


Cwm Glas Mawr, Snowdon8
Cwm Glas Mawr from the top of Gyrn Las

A short pull up scree takes you to Bwlch Coch between Crib Goch and Crib y Ddysgl and if you can't resist including the former then you can do a quick out and back. It's more logically fitted in by cutting left in Cwm Uchaf and going up the north ridge before following the arete to Bwlch Coch.


Crib Goch, Snowdon
Crib Goch from Bwlch Coch

A steep pathless descent on reasonable ground takes you down past the Pig Track (more funny looks). This is often mis-spelled as Pyg Track on the assumption that it refers to Pen y Gwryd, but the climbers who named it were based at Pen y Pass not Pen y Gwryd and the name really comes from Bwlch y Moch ("Pass of the Pigs"), the saddle which it crosses early on. I suspect Pyg has currency these days just because it looks more Welsh. Even the OS map gets it wrong now.


Lliwedd and the Snowdon Gribin from Glaslyn
Lliwedd and the Snowdon Gribin from Glaslyn

From the shores of Glaslyn the Snowdon Gribin looks awesome, in both its modern and original senses. It's very steep and has a cathedral-like feel to it with the spires of Lliwedd behind, so fairly awe-inspiring, and it also looks like a hugely exciting challenge ("awesome, dude" 😁). If it's wet or snowy it can indeed be exciting, as the grain of the rock slopes steeply sideways, so it can feel very insecure. The first time I did it was in snow, after having had blizzard conditions on Crib Goch, something I'd never experienced before. At the top of the Gribin I was both very relieved and completely shattered and I collapsed behind a rock to get out of the wind. I lay there in the snow for some time and was on the point of dropping off to sleep when something inside me said "Exposure. Move NOW or you might not ever move again". I took notice and stumbled off down the ridge to Bwlch Ciliau. Below this the Watkin Path started to appear out of the snow and down in the cwm it was a different world. The weather still wasn't great but it was raining rather than snowing and the wind was far less. I've no memory of the rest of the walk, presumably I just plodded down to the Bryn on automatic, by then on familiar territory.


Lliwedd, Snowdon Horseshoe
Lliwedd. I was sheltering behind one of the boulders in the left foreground

I thoroughly recommend the route but would advise picking a better day than I did on my first round. I did do it again in good weather a few months later but it's the initial snow and blizzard day that sticks in my mind. The expedition deserves to be better known, so perhaps it needs a snappy label, "The Tomlinson Traverse" or the "Showell Styles Circuit" maybe?

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