Dates: 23 – 26 January 2020
It is a glorious day and I am sitting on my favourite rock in the world, gazing across Llyn Idwal at the slabs opposite. My eyes trace the familiar scramble up to Devil’s Kitchen and my hands turn pink from tracing elaborate circles on the frozen rock beneath me. There is moss under my fingernails. My bare arms are icy to the touch but my muscles and my ribcage feel thawed by the sun. I am blissfully, utterly at peace.
My phone rings.
Well- it vibrates on the rock somewhere behind me. My shoulders tense. I turn reluctantly to silence it, utterly disturbed. But when I see the name on the screen, I answer it.
It’s a landmark event: I blow my most of my short life’s savings on a car and the insurance which enables me to drive it.
I blow town immediately, motor running west.
The drive up the A5 is euphoric. I love this road; I love this journey. It takes me to my favourite place and my favourite self. I’ve waited to drive this route solo for two years. It’s one I have taken with many people over many years. I have done things I didn’t want to do and said things I didn’t believe and put up with people I couldn’t stand to be on this road, headed this way.
But now I am here alone. I know every bend and straight of this route, every sign post, every town and landmark. I am unwavering. The map in my mind sprawls out in all directions, to places and people and rocks and selves I don’t yet know. But this morning, I am going in the only direction I need to go. I am going.
Two years ago, I made another first solo journey to this place. That time it was by train, and a good and kind friend collected me from Llandudno Junction and spent the next three days taxiing me around the hills, dropping me off each morning at the bottom of a new mountain and collecting me again in the evening. I was still reliant on others, but it was a far more comfortable dependency than I had previously experienced. And it was a truly formative trip. An Awakening, certainly. It would serve as the one rock onto which to cling when I got home to a loved one wasting away and began to falteringly slip back in time.
Two years later and here I am again, expecting something formative. I am back of my own volition, camping rent free in the same good and kind friend’s back garden. The freedom is thrilling and intoxicating. I drive straight to Ogwen and run up to my favourite rock and have a good cry. Laughter comes easily, too. It is a quiet Thursday morning, and I am alone.
I am here alone. Solo. I can stay as long as I want. I may never leave, I think. No one’s schedule to keep to but the one I set myself. No one’s needs, needs, needs to accommodate. No one to answer to at all.
But I do answer my phone. Something in me tells me it will change everything if I do and I am in the mood for landmark events. I make this one exception. I don’t know then that I will make this one exception every day for weeks to come. If I’d known that, I probably would have put up more of a fight. Resisted. Feinted and feigned. I would’ve been very silly, indeed. Change is never painful, only the resistance to change is painful, said a good man once. And people are fickle creatures, said another.
The next morning, I wake up and drive back to the valley before dawn. As the sky lightens, I set up a steep and grassy slope. I point a group in the right direction (not the one I am going in) and beg the murk of low Welsh clouds to disperse. By the time I’ve panted and puffed my way up to Ffynnon Lloer, it is dreary daylight. I gaze steadily up at the east ridge of Pen yr Ole Wen, a promising rocky buttress made ominous by the gloom. My fingers twitch, ready to feel rock.
The scramble is joyous, as most easy scrambles are. I stick to the drop-off on the right, wanting the exposure, enjoying the vulnerability. I teeter on the edge, feel the lake now far below singing up to me. I am once again acutely, achingly conscious that I am alive and young in a beautiful place. I continue on and emerge onto the final walkable path to the summit.
The gust hits me like a freight train roaring over the mountain top. It is deafening and I lean into horizontal rain, continuing up and over the top of Pen yr Ole Wen. I am not stopping here. On the other side of the gentle zenith, the wind becomes yet more relentless. But I am not stopping here. I continue on into the Carneddau.
I settle into Bwlch ye Ole Wen and begin striding my way around the top of Cwm Lloer. Gusts periodically try to persuade me towards the edge of the Cwm. I remain dogged. The rain is continual, and soon my gloves are soaked through. I stop to peel them off and put on warmer, waterproof ski gloves. In the short time they are bare, my hands go rather numb. Everything is soaked, and I fight to get my wet hands into the dry gloves. In the minute since I stopped, I have gotten very cold indeed. The temperature itself ,at just under 1000m, is not terribly cold- just about freezing- but the windchill is bitter. I get walking again. Quickly. While beating my hands together to encourage and relish the pain of resumed warmth.
I reach Carnedd Fach, the second (let’s-definitely-not-)stop on my Carneddau circuit. I am almost blown right past the famous cairn by the gust and my zeal, but I hesitate in passing and decide to stop in for a minute. The Carnedd Fach cairn is a Bronze-age burial cairn, now embellished to serve as a walkers’ shelter. I take shelter. The cairn gives me pause and the sudden, eerie quiet and calm within its circular walls gives me the headspace to remember.
Two years ago I had my first winter mountaineering experience on Snowdon. Solo. In 50-70mph wind gusts. Borrowed crampons in the bottom of my pack. I’d set off up the Rhyd-Ddu Path with absolute tenacity. When I hit horizontal rain, I kept going. When I hit incredible, merciless gusts, I kept going. When I hit ice, I put on my borrowed crampons and I kept going. When the gusts threatened to rip the contacts out of my eyes, I put on my ski mask and kept going. When I reached Bwlch Main and the final 100m of ascent and the wind rushed at me unsympathetically, forcing my lungs open, skidding my crampons over thick, hardened ice, reducing visibility to a close world of grey, I ducked down off the ridge, got on one knee, leaned on my ice axe and half-crawled my way to the steps of the summit. Once there, I huddled behind the marker for a couple of freezing minutes. I regretted nothing. I began the descent by way of the Pyg.
The Pyg Track is an easy way up and down Snowdon. It’s only difficulty for some is in the suddenly steep final zigzag up to where the path meets the train tracks on their way to the summit caf. I have since run up and down this path in the summer, dodging dogs and grandmas and reluctant teens. It’s great fun and easy to follow- unless there’s snow underfoot.
In a good Welsh winter (if you’re lucky enough to ever witness such a thing!) you see why they trained out of the Pen y Gwyrd for Everest’s first ascent. It’s no joke. You certainly need winter gear and winter skills and solid navigation… and I barely had any of this.
By the time I got down to Glaslyn, I had changed entirely. The snow line finished and I took off my crampons. 400m of descent was all it had taken to alter something so fundamental in me that I have since changed almost everything about the way I position myself in-the-world. I regretted nothing. I still don’t.
But I was much changed and since am much changed and here I was again, not on the Snowdon Massif, but just across the Llanberis Pass and over the Glyderau, crouched in a Carneddau cairn, thinking, I should turn back. The thought was unbearable, but as I left the cairn and continued along the steep drop-off, eventually peeling off and up to Carnedd Dafydd, I realized with no small amount of astonishment that it was to be my final stop on my tour of the Carneddau that day.
I reached the summit cairns, looked out into the white-grey world all around me, and turned back.
Row Conway does not turn back. I have followed paths of all manner with the dogged, pig-headed commitment of both the enlightened and the delusional, both aware and unaware of the consequences. This has served me very, very well at times. I owe a lot of good and beautiful and powerful things to this drive. I also owe about a decade of self-destruction to this drive, and countless opportunities lost because my vision had so greatly narrowed to the minutiae of the process directly ahead of me.
Here was my landmark event: the Turning-Back.
I did so initially with great bitterness, berating myself for going soft, for being so fucking weak, for chickening out, for overthinking the cold and the rain and the navigation. I’d done less than a third of what I’d set out to do that day. I seethed at the wind, pricked with angry tears and hurt pride.
And then I laughed. I laughed hard, suddenly filled with glee. By the time I reached Pen yr Ole Wen again, I was filled with absolute joy and contentment.
I knew I had done the right thing. I had recognized the opportunity that had been presented to me that day. Not the opportunity to complete the Carneddau loop- continuing on to Carnedd Llewelyn, perhaps taking a detour to Yr Elen, and then following along Y Braich all the way back to my beloved A5- a route I could surely do with ease another day, and again and again. No, I’d been presented the opportunity to learn when to turn back, to learn the fine line between moxy and self-destruction- a finer line than you might think. And I had.
And I knew I had made the right decision when, having thoroughly enjoyed the scramble back down the east ridge of Pen yr Ole Wen, the rain stopped and the wind fell to nothing and the sky cleared to a gorgeous bright blue, full of late morning sun. I sat at the edge of a green lake and giggled along with the ironic sun, getting the joke completely.
I spent another three days in North Wales, away from a half-packed up house full of tape and chunky felt-tip pens and the recently omnipresent whiff of cardboard boxes. I had become a bit bitter in the days before I left for Wales, but in my time there some things happened and strange music seemed to play in the valleys and tectonic plates seemed to shift underfoot. And yet the mountains still stood and I could have sworn the volume of the world got a little bit quieter. Things changed in a way so magical and beautiful that their very contemplation leaves a big I’m-on-a-mountain-grin on my face and new words on my lips and a new taste on my tongue. Something like blueberries, hot and sweet.