Sudden Solitude on One of the World's Busiest Mountains
Our writer was looking to find solace on the congested slopes of Snowdon in Wales when COVID-19 shut it down. He soon realized that a mountain devoid of humans isn't the vision he thought it would be.
The first mountain I ever climbed was Snowdon.
I can close my eyes now and see the view from its peak. Ireland floats far away across a silver sea. Cliffs swoop down to glacial lakes, where the reflections of clouds live in the cold fathoms. Snowdon’s summit has the magic properties found on all true mountains: Immortal rock. Infinite air. The brief, happy delusion that you are sovereign over all you see.
But if you have been to the top, you’ll know I’m kind of lying. Because much of the time, the view is of people. A river of people flowing uphill. People posing for Instagram. People queuing for 40 minutes to stand on the summit. People who climbed up here to look out at the heavens and the earth but who ended up looking at each other instead.
At 3,547 feet, Snowdon is the highest point in Wales, higher than anything in neighboring England, and it is believed by many to be the world’s busiest mountain. This is almost impossible to prove—there is no exact criteria for what counts as a mountain, nor for what counts as busy. But as many as 750,000 people of all abilities stand on Snowdon’s half-acre summit every year. For context, Mount Fuji sees about 300,000 and Mont Blanc 30,000 (both of which are much taller and far more serious undertakings). And though tourism on Snowdon is certainly nothing new, its number of visitors is believed to have almost doubled in the past decade.
On certain days, Snowdon presents a frightening vision of humanity’s relationship with our landscape. Humans can be a force of erosion here, like a river or a glacier, carving false pathways, smoothing rock holds, leaving deposits of litter in their wake. According to national park authorities, the volume of human ashes scattered from the summit was having an effect on the local ecology.
In January, I set off to write a story about seeking solitude on Snowdon. The mountain has always been a part of my life: my grandparents lived nearby, and a great-great-great grandfather was a shepherd on its slopes. Up in the loft of my grandparents’ home was a tiny window—like the porthole of a ship—from which you could see the mountain, rising tall behind a narrow sea strait. Most childhood holidays were spent somewhere under Snowdon’s gaze. There were summer evenings, when the last beams of sunset lingered late on the peak, and the villages and beaches below sank into warm shadows. And winter mornings, parting curtains to see that the mountain had been turned a brilliant white overnight. I remember being on the summit, age eight, watching birds far below and feeling like I was on the roof of the world.
There were always people there, but not the crowds you see today. Over the past decade, I watched as the numbers increased. I started wondering if that feeling of solitude here would become extinct in my lifetime. There were quieter summits nearby, in the surrounding ranges of Carneddau, the Moelwynion, the Rhinogydd, but none were as beautiful as Snowdon, and selfishly, I wanted to find a corner for myself, in a place I had loved for so long.
In February, I spent a few winter days hiking in the mountain’s valleys far beyond cell-phone reception, where the cold cliffs glistened like the ramparts of an immense castle of ice. One evening I wondered how long I could go without seeing someone. I checked my watch. I followed a trail over meadows to a lonely lake I knew of, concealed among the cliffs. The breeze riveted the surface with little waves. A raven soared from the crags and was gone.
Like thousands of people, Snowdon is the mountain where I served my apprenticeship in the outdoors. I’ve slipped in its streams, fallen into its bogs, slept under its rocks. In those years, its greatest gift were the dead ends: places you stumble into semi-lost. This lonely lake was one such gift. It’s on the way to nowhere, so it sees few visitors, especially in the winter, while the snow still lies on the ground. In one sense, Snowdon is an upside-down mountain. Its wildest places exist far below its highest point.
By the time I returned home to London in March, the UK began to enter lockdown. And something extraordinary happened. With no restaurants, pubs, or shops to go to, people flocked instinctively to Snowdon, in greater numbers than ever before. Photos on social media showed queues snaking to the summit. People had come the peak to find isolation and breathe clean air—but found thousands of other pairs of lungs doing the same thing. The overtourism problem had long threatened the tranquility of the mountain. Now it had the potential to threaten human life.
On March 25, authorities took an unprecedented step and shut the mountain down. It stood empty and untrammeled, as if it had just emerged from the last ice age. I looked at webcams, called up local contacts. The solitude I sought was now abundant. Just a month before, I had set out hoping to get a sense of a mountain before people. But now that they were gone, it felt strange, wrong even. It seemed more like a premonition of a world after the people had departed.
In simple terms, Snowdon is a mountain by the Irish Sea in north Wales. It is the highest point of the Snowdon massif, which covers about 25 square miles and lies within its namesake national park, the largest in the country. Six paths wind to the summit, through a mosaic of farmland, woodland, ridges, lakes, and subsidiary peaks, along with a few abandoned mines. Anyone of average fitness can get up and down in a day or less. The mountain is a short drive from the big cities of northern England, including Liverpool and Manchester, hence its popularity.
But what tourist-information signs will not tell you—and what I have come to believe—is that the mountain has two very different selves, each with their own name.
The more familiar character is called Snowdon, the mountain’s English name, meaning “snow hill.” Snowdon is less of a mountain and more of a tourist attraction. On Tripadvisor, it is ranked third on a list of attractions in the region. (Critical reviews include: “no areas to sit” and “no fences against sheer drops” and complaints that there are no McDonald’s.) Anyone can get to the top riding little steam trains on the Snowdon Mountain Railway, a small miracle of engineering dating to 1896, which unlocks the landscape for people for whom it would otherwise be out of reach.
Snowdon’s summit has the magic properties found on all true mountains: Immortal rock. Infinite air. The brief, happy delusion that you are sovereign over all you see.
Perhaps because it has a steam railway, a gift shop, and a café at its top, Snowdon has not been taken too seriously by those who climb it. People regularly ascend it wearing sneakers or sandals, in some cases dressed as imperial storm troopers or ballerinas or even in the nude. They have climbed the mountain pushing strollers or blind drunk. One person posed with a bag of cocaine on the summit, another drove his SUV up the slopes (and was put in prison for it). One of the most memorable ascents in recent years was Stuart Kettell’s. In 2014, Kettell pushed a brussels sprout to the summit, using only his nose, to raise money for charity. It took three days. He temporarily lost the skin on his knees.
Snowdon is therefore viewed by purist mountaineers as a joke, like a band that sold out long ago and now does stadium tours. With its moderate height, it invites snorts of derision from those who frequent the Alps or the Rockies. In some places, they wouldn’t bother naming it, let alone climbing it. But this is only half the story. With the sudden change of the weather from the Irish Sea, Snowdon assumes its other self.
Yr Wyddfa is Snowdon’s original name in Welsh, which is the primary language in the surrounding landscapes, and I have come to think of it as the name of the mountain’s truer, wilder character. Yr Wyddfa (pronounced “urr with-va”)—which translates into English as “the tomb”—is the mountain of the winter, when the railway is closed and the steam engines lie cold, when numbers on the peak can dwindle to under a hundred a day and ice conquers the paths. Yr Wyddfa can emerge in sudden summer storms, too, when sonic winds thrash about the summit, when lightning forks from the sky.
Yr Wyddfa claims some of the hardest rock climbs on the British Isles. The crags of Clogwyn Du’r Arddu, located on the mountain’s north side, are holy stones of the British climbing scene. Pilgrims still come from afar to tackle the serious routes, some pioneered by local Joe Brown, the first person to summit Kanchenjunga, the world’s third-highest peak, in 1955. Both George Mallory and the successful 1953 Mount Everest expedition trained for their ascents on Yr Wyddfa’s cliffs. In tribute, part of Everest carries the Welsh name for valley—the Western Cwm, a glacial basin at the foot of the Lhotse Face. And at certain points in time (partly because it sees a great many more visitors), Yr Wyddfa has claimed more lives than Everest.
In the summer, when the sun is shining, Yr Wyddfa can be unassuming for months on end. During the other seasons, Yr Wyddfa can ambush you at a second’s notice. As one of the first high points met by weather fronts advancing from the Atlantic, gales and torrential rain can arrive suddenly, with the undimmed rage of a churning sea. Peril arises when people think they are climbing Snowdon but the weather changes and they find themselves on Yr Wyddfa instead.
And lastly, Yr Wyddfa teems with legends. Its meaning comes from an ancient story, recounting how King Arthur came here to slay a giant and buried its corpse on the summit. Another story goes that somewhere else on the mountain—in a secret place far from the crowds, in the crags that no one has ever Instagrammed—Arthur’s knights sleep today, waking only in their people’s hour of need.
As a school boy, Twm Morys climbed Yr Wyddfa to shout the name of King Arthur to the cliffs, to try to raise those knights from slumber. Morys is the son of the writer Jan Morris, the reporter on the 1953 Everest expedition who first broke the news to the world that its greatest mountain had been climbed. Morys fondly remembers family trips to Yr Wyddfa’s own summit, when “all of Wales stretched beneath you.”
Today he is a 59-year-old poet who lives not far away, albeit at a distance from which he can see the mountain but not the hordes of people. I met him one day in February at the Penceunant Café, at the start of the mountain’s busiest trail. It was midday, and a few people were beginning their ascent. The mountain, Morys said, was historically a muse: a symbol of steadfastness for Welsh-language poets like him. He no longer visits now because of the crowds.
“In the last 20 years, things have changed so much that it really is not the same experience. You have to leave the path behind to find the wonder that was there before,” he said. “You can never see the mountain—the meaning of the mountain, the significance of the mountain—clearly if you’re in a crowd of other people.”
Snowdon is a cornerstone of the Welsh tourism industry, and it has boomed in the age of charity challenges, wellness, and social media. As has been the fate for mountain communities across the globe, this tsunami of visitors has had consequences for locals in the neighboring villages of Llanberis and Beddgelert: Traffic-clogged roads. Holiday rentals forcing up housing costs. Of the hundreds of thousands of annual visitors to Snowdon, the vast majority are from England. Morys suspects few have any interest in Welsh language and culture.
He wagers “about three” visitors a year know they are standing on the tomb of a fallen giant.
On some mountains, popularity brings an illusion of safety—on Fuji, on Kilimanjaro, on Mount Hood. We know death stalks the slopes of Annapurna, Denali, and Mont Blanc, but we sometimes forget it inhabits these lesser peaks. However, it also lurks on the molehill that is Snowdon. On this vertical Disneyland, where you can buy stuffed toys and key rings at the summit, a misplaced foot can still send you on a lethal fall into a lonely place.
Llanberis Mountain Rescue Team is responsible for Snowdon: its base is an old church hall set under shadowy cliffs on the mountain’s northeastern edge. It, too, is feeling the impact of surging crowds. While visitor numbers are believed to have doubled in the past decade, mountain-rescue callouts have quadrupled.
“We are regularly doing 200 incidents a year,” said Phil Benbow, a team volunteer. “Last August we responded to 40 incidents alone. That is too many for a bunch of volunteers to sustain going forward.”
Over a cup of tea in the church hall’s kitchen, Benbow explained to me the hugely diverse range of callouts the team has to field. “Wait around on Snowdon long enough,” said Benbow, “and you’ll see the full spectrum of humanity in all its glory.”
There are callouts from inexperienced mountaineers and others grumbling of sore knees, headaches, and being late for dinner appointments. Among the most memorable cases was that of 19-year-old Nathan French. In September 2017, French set out to scale Snowdon wearing only a pair of superman underpants to raise money for a dementia charity. (His grandmother had developed the condition.) When he reached the summit, he unfurled a banner and, thinking about his grandmother, burst into tears. As he descended, French began suffering from hypothermia. His eyesight started failing. He started going deaf. He was attended to by a paramedic and fortunately survived.
There are also deeply serious incidents, sometimes involving well-prepared mountaineers. Benbow spoke about the toughest case of his career. High above the Llanberis Mountain Rescue base is the satellite summit of Crib y Ddysgl, reached by a sharp ridge. It was around here that a young woman began to slip on thin ice while crossing a gully on a hiking trip some years ago. Her companion quickly grabbed her hand, but he had to let her go to save himself, and she fell to her death. For Benbow and the rest of Llanberis Mountain Rescue Team, while the various incidents on the mountain have ranged from the mundane to the misguided, the hardest task is escorting a bereaved soul back down to earth.
Other dangerous areas appear close to popular paths. One of the shortest routes up Snowdon is the Pyg Track: near the start of it, a small route branches off to the right, to what can look like a shortcut to the summit; instead it leads to Crib Goch, a knife-edge ridge dropping into thin air on both sides, a challenge for even the most capable mountaineers. Lost, frightened hikers are frequently rescued from Crib Goch, and those who fall are likely to die. In winter conditions, the so-called killer convex sometimes appears on the busy Llanberis path north of the Snowdon summit, a slope of hard snow over a railway cutting where four people died one season sliding off of the cliffs of Clogwyn Coch.
Benbow said fatalities are unpredictable. A good year sees only a handful of deaths, the worst sees up to 13 or 14. The team’s work can be especially hard, he explained, given that the traditional fellowship of mountaineers is sometimes absent on Snowdon. The swarm of annual hikers may be eroding paths, but in certain cases they are also eroding the mountaineers’ ethos: a code of helping others you see on the trail, of arriving prepared, of respecting the hill.
There are accounts of people obstructing the search-and-rescue helicopters and assuming genuine emergencies must be training exercises. Benbow recalled seeing one group step over a rope winching a body bag, so impatient were they to reach the top.
When eyes are trained on Snowdon’s summit, both the beauty and danger of Yr Wyddfa can sometimes slip out of focus. Despite the best efforts of Llanberis Mountain Rescue Team, fatalities have gone undetected for months on end, yet within sight of a path trodden by thousands, if only someone knew where to look.
I expected Benbow and his team to be irritated by the crowds, but they are optimistic. I expected them to call for the national park to impose visitor restrictions on Snowdon, but they do not.
“The more people engage with the environment we’re in, the better that is for all of us,” said Rob Johnson, another volunteer. “If we’re all hermetically sealed in glass and steel boxes in a city, then why does it matter if glaciers are receding, if sea levels are rising?”
In the last weeks of March, before the mountain’s official closure, a homemade sign appeared on a picnic bench in Snowdonia National Park, addressed to tourists:
“SNOWDONIA IS CLOSED! FUCK OFF HOME!”
It didn’t work. On the weekend of March 21, masses of people descended on Snowdon. It sent a shock wave to the local community: Llanberis Mountain Rescue Team said it could not guarantee it would respond to all incidents. Doctors and locals warned of the single nearby hospital being overwhelmed. The national park authority considered the possibility that—like a concert or sports event—Snowdon itself could become a transmission hot spot, with countless hands touching the summit stone. It took emergency legislation from the Welsh government to shut the parking lots and bolt the gates.
Before the lockdown, I had planned to return to Snowdon over Easter weekend, when I expected to see the summit at its busiest, but I stayed in London. As the walls of my house seemed to shrink, so the landscapes of my daydreams expanded. Knowing that just outside—at that precise moment in time—you could see Machu Picchu as the Incas envisioned it, without a tourist in sight. You could trek the Grand Canyon and not pass another soul. You might see places as they might have looked in the first morning of creation, flowering for your eyes alone. Naturally, I pictured the mountain of my youth. It wouldn’t be hard, I thought: Three hours on the train to Wales, stations where no one got on or off. And then ascending the lower slopes, scaling ridges to where Snowdon’s summit lay within touching distance.
But, of course, I stayed at home. My claim to the mountain is no more valid than anyone else’s. I am a figure in a crowd, a pair of transmittable lungs. On Snowdon—with a few individual exceptions—people stayed away. Rangers reported wild daffodils blooming in greater numbers and more swallows darting about the skies. For years the mountain had felt millions of footfalls and been under the constant surveillance of social media. Now it was left to itself, to shepherds and rangers on the lower slopes, to ravens and mountain goats in the high places, to King Arthur and the giant in the clouds. Snowdon has a kinship with Everest. But now it also captured a fragment of the magic of Machhapuchhre, the peak in the Nepalese Himalayas believed to be one of the homes of the Hindu god Shiva, which no one has ever been permitted to summit. In this sad time, Snowdon has attained a strange sanctity.
But one day soon, the crowds will return. The story of Snowdon is a story of superman underpants, Everest expeditions, life and death. But it is also the story of our planet: an increasing number of people, a finite amount of space. The more I think about its future, the more I come to understand how Snowdon’s contours had long been shaped by humans: its copper mined, its slate quarried and transported to rooftops across the world. But the mountain shaped people, too. For thousands like me, Snowdon is a gateway, the first summit in a range of mountains that stretches through a lifetime. Chasing solitude is, in some ways, to ignore that people are an inextricable part of Snowdon’s story.
The story of Snowdon is a story of superman underpants, Everest expeditions, life and death. But it is also the story of our planet: an increasing number of people, a finite amount of space.
In 2018, Snowdonia National Park launched a partnership, consulting with locals, businesses, and landowners on the future of the mountain. The action plan included more robust paths, use of public transport to ease congestion, promoting Welsh language and culture, and a “visitor-giving scheme” to encourage tourists to donate. At the current trajectory, Snowdon will be a million-person mountain in less than a decade.
Perhaps surprisingly, almost all local voices oppose ticketing or limiting access to the mountain. On the crowded island of Great Britain, national parks are intended to not only offer a rare taste of tranquility but also a rare taste of freedom: to roam unconstrained spaces, to climb up and transcend the certainties of the world below. It is widely accepted they should remain open to all, free at the point of use.
On Snowdon, this tranquility is under threat. But the freedom endures—be it to dress up as a ballerina, to push a brussels sprout to the summit with your nose, to queue with the crowds on Snowdon, or to chase the last vanishing pockets of silence on Yr Wyddfa.
Writing this—during the solitude of lockdown—a breeze from an open window makes me think of the lonely lake among the cliffs there. When this is over, I’d like to go back. It won’t matter too much if I find other people on the shore.
At the time of publication, the mountain remains closed. While England has controversially eased restrictions in light of the coronavirus pandemic, Wales is in a tighter lockdown, and police have issued fines to tourists crossing the border—some of whom are bound for Snowdonia.
Throughout the pandemic, we'll keep publishing news to help you navigate the state of travel today (like whether travel insurance covers the coronavirus), as well as stories about places for you to put on your bucket list once it's safe to start going more far-flung.