A Welsh Epic
Carbon Dave is a mythical beast. Lurking deep in Epping Forest he answers to those who seek in only the darkest of crevices; and when he calls its best to say yes, dig out the survival shelter and stock up on triangular bandages.
A month ago the phone rang and the plan was simple. Get to Wales, get on the mountain bikes and get up and down Snowdon. A change from the tarmac ribbon but a ride that had been on our bucket list for a while.
This was a trip that as a group we had been talking about for some time and because timing is crucial when planning it this had been a ride that had escaped us until now. Attempting this in the winter would have been foolish and finding a time that wasn’t in the height of the holiday crowds is similar. Indeed during the spring and summer cycling the paths to and from the summit come under strict restriction due to the conflicting traffic so finding the time that really suits is part planning and part down to being lucky with the weather. Cycling restrictions begin in May so the decision was to do it on the Friday before the bank holiday at the very end of April, hoping to miss both the weekend crowds and get in before the restrictions were put in force.
The laws of the land.
We made our base at the delightful Heulwen guest house in Llanfahreth. This would give us a base close to the Coed y Brenin trail centre should the weather be inclement. We have gotten to know Andy and Heulwen over the years and they have always made us feel very welcome. If the weather was really bad we knew there would always be a good supply of biscuits and tea. We made plans to go in the afternoon. The later we left the descent the fewer walkers we were likely to encounter so it made more sense that way round. Van packed we made our way to the Electric Mountain car park in Llanberis after a morning ride at Coed y Brenin.
Despite being a popular walking route a trip up Snowdon shouldn’t be taken lightly. Carbon Dave has years of climbing and ride leading experience and your scribe a similar but not identical skill set. We also had a paramedic in our group, although this provision isn't absolutely necessary, he is available for hire. To tackle a climb (and descent) such as this you need to be prepared and not blasé about your own preparation or indeed skill set as an accident up there has the potential to be very serious indeed. With those things in mind we made sure we had a good kit list. First aid essentials and emergency pain relief, a storm shelter, changes of clothes, spare gloves and the necessary bike spares. The descent was going to be rough, but then that was the whole point of the climb!
Big sections of fixed rock make up much of the Llanberis path.
We chose to go up the Llanberis path and descend the same way. That way we could see what we were about to tackle on the way up. The Llanberis path was rated as a black and another more challenging option was to to take the ‘Rangers Path’ back down a double black. Not sure where this information came from but it does sound quite impressive. On this occasion, and as it was our first time, we opted to take the “easier” graded route, cautious not to bite off more than we, as a group, could handle. The Rangers path might have to wait for later.
There is a train that goes up Snowdon but the train doesn’t take bikes. Your scribe had never walked up a mountain before, he’d cycled up a few, so the only way to do this one was to get peddling!
A lot of the Llanberis path is ridable in a sensible gearing, but not all of it. The big slabs of fixed rock and stairs are relentless and with the added weight of a bike, kit and flapjack you need to be fairly fit to manage it. The bonus is that if you have had enough you can just turn around and you can’t really get lost. But the climb, it being a mountain and all, is seemingly never ending especially when the summit is lost in the cloud.
A long steep stairway section. You'll need strong arms to get down as well as legs.
The views however are stunning.Taking in the valley and the scree slopes and fields around it. As you ascend up the path the trail steepens. We met only one group of riders on our way up amongst the dozens of walkers on their way down from the last train of the day. They were just negotiating one of the most technical sections, a steep stairway that was wet from the mist. Two of the three walked this section and we wondered whether it was ridable. It was, but the exposure down the hill was pretty severe and a loose moment or a clipped pedal needed to be avoided, or not thought about. From here the trail got even steeper still, with the last section between the final railway bridge and the summit being particularly hard but difficult to see its real pitch as by now the cloud was becoming a little disorientating.
It got murkier, wetter and pretty techy towards the top.
We reached the summit in a little under two hours and stopped in the doorway of the café (which was firmly closed) to change into something dryer and warmer for the way down. By now it was quite cold and damp. There was a little snow settled at the top and I had begun to lose feeling in my fingers so descending was a priority. It was however near white out conditions visually so there were to be no heroes. Fastest at the back making sure the slower in our group were not left at any stage.
The view from the summit. You can't win 'em all!
Braking is hard when you can’t feel your fingers but the fact that I wasn’t careering back down the path totally out of control meant that something was working. We stopped a couple of times to regroup with Dave entertaining a group of walkers with a virtually static over the bars cart-wheel that was caused by a stray rock and the sheer pitch of the slope we were on! We made our way down as a group, always keeping each other in view until we were out of the cloud. A couple of sections required a careful line choice through the vertical spines of slate but on the whole the big sections of fixed rock and stairs all made for good, albeit rough, riding. As the mist cleared the speed increased and the sections began to disappear under the wheels. It's important when riding this sort of thing not to brake hard (especially on the front), turn too aggressively and ride the positive space (don’t put your front wheel in a hole). Speed is your friend and with a bit of momentum you can carry over the holes and steps that looked so vicious on the way up.
At times line choice was crucial.
The riding here isn't for the feint hearted or inexperienced and that should be taken into account, its also tough on equipment so its important that that can be relied upon as well. The rewards however are fantastic and the descent is one that will live in the memory for a long time. We regrouped at the series of gates on the way down and marvelled at how some of the sections that looked so difficult when climbing up were negotiated relatively smoothly on the way down. As far as days on the bike go this was certainly up there and as something to tick off the bucket list. The ride (and the push up) is something to be proud of. The further you get from the summit the shallower the gradient although sections of fixed rock still abound and soon we were at the top of the insanely steep road that leads to the Llanberis path.
A great day, an awesome adventure and exceptional riding. Snowdon is certainly one to plan and execute. Our route is here should you want to take a peek and a guide is here should you want to read.
A master of disguise.