It seems strange that I’m finally getting round to writing about the midsummer sunrise at the Autumn equinox, but life keeps rolling out under my feet like a gorgeous carpet and given the choice between writing and walking… well, how am I supposed to sit still long enough? Since I’ve finally found the required sitzfleish, I’d better get on with the task at hand.
The evening of our hike was clear and beautiful with a vibrant, never-ending sunset. We ate a huge dinner, prepared lavish supplies, and as we called the cab that was to take us to the start of the track a delicious sense of anticipation made my stomach flip. Snowdon, or Y Wyddfa, is an easy hike especially by the track we were taking, but I’ve never climbed a mountain in the dark before. The cab driver dropped us at the end of a quiet lane right on the start of the track.
As his headlights receded and the darkness enveloped us I was tempted to switch on my head torch, but it didn’t take long for us to get our night vision. The best way to see in the dark is NOT to use a torch – it’s surprising how much light there is in the night sky, especially on midsummer night when the moon is full. In fact the higher we climbed on the shallow trail, the more light there was. Despite being way past midnight the sun was barely below the rim of the horizon, and a strange red gloaming hung in the northern sky. More eerie by far however was the moon, wreathed in high cloud ahead of us, a silver lantern at the summit of Snowdon.
The silence was absolute, and as we strode through the foothills the twinkling lights of Llanberis winked at us miles below.
Then, they winked out. The point at which we had walked so far into the hills that all signs of human life abruptly vanished was one I will never forget. Now it was just us, the moon and the mountain. Or was it? Ahead, a bright light would abruptly appear and jerkily vanish; other walkers ahead of us on the trail and using their torches to see the path. Curious, I tried my torch and the mountains simply vanished, the only things left were stones lit by the narrow beam. I switched it off and revelled again in the dark shapes of the mountains. Walking without light can play tricks on you though. A jumble of pale granite rocks that I was eyeing as a good place to tighten my bootlaces stood up, shook themselves, and bleating indignantly trotted off the trail in search of a quieter place to sleep; a pale shimmering band of river metamorphosed into the shining metal tracks of the mountain railway. All felt mysterious, changed.
The last section of the hike became steeper and the trail a little more challenging, but even so it was clear that we were going to do it in less than three hours. We’d be at the top well before sunrise, and the higher we got the colder it became, the still air enlivened by a freshening breeze. We would have a chilly wait; I thought with relish of the hot drink and flask of good Scotch we’d packed earlier.
The track became tame, paved with carefully hewn stone slabs. We topped the wide ridge leading to the summit and a bracing gust of wind pummelled us awake. The horizon glimmered red, the herald of a new day. Ahead of us on one side of the Snowdon horseshoe the knife edge ridge of Crib y Ddysgl glowed dully.
To our right rose the summit of Snowdon, and after drinking in the view of the mountains and hills of Snowdonia receding into the haze we climbed the final few metres.
Others had got there before us; some had camped within view of the summit and were beginning to stir – making tea, brushing teeth. We almost walked into some men who were huddled at the base of the triangulation point on the summit itself until one grinned and spoke and I saw his teeth gleam in the pre dawn light. The summit itself is not a particularly wild place – the accessible climb ensures a steady stream of walkers and the Snowdon mountain railway carries hundreds more visitors to the top. It can be as busy as Piccadilly Circus up there, but on this early morning there was still plenty of room to find a quiet place. The colour in the sky intensified, spread; then miraculously about twenty minutes before it was due, the sun appeared – and quite high in the sky!
We were seeing a mirage – an upside down reflection of the sun projected onto the clouds from below the horizon line, a sneak peep at the beauty that was to come.
The colour strengthened, intensified, the mirage dissolved. We clambered to the top of the triangulation point just in time to see the sun hit the horizon and the bowl of the Snowdon Horseshoe catch fire.
Crib Goch flared in the burgeoning ruby light like a blade in a forge. Lakes and mountains marched out toward the horizon, a tapestry of indigo, crimson and gold. We were cold, we were tired, but neither of us noticed.
We had climbed the easy route but Snowdon is deceptive; from the peak of the mountain there is a dizzyingly sheer overhanging drop, and peering over it makes you feel as though you are flying. As if to add to this illusion a single herring gull joined us, hanging perfectly still in the jaws of a shrieking wind, lit underneath by a delicate rose light.
The brilliant flush of sunrise subsided quickly into a pale and watery dawn, and we noticed with consternation that clouds were gathering swiftly at our backs. No time for dallying, we needed to get down from the mountain as fast as we could, and chose the Miners track which is steeper but faster.
We paused briefly to look back at Snowdon’s immense shoulder. Just then, whirling grey cloud boiled over the ridge and obliterated the summit, leaving the dawn hikers above us with zero visibility.
We continued our descent as fast as our tired legs would allow us. We kept just ahead of the cloud, which billowed and swirled and poured into the passes above us like a pursuing demon.
The fine drenching rain became a stinging torrential downpour, and the steep track of jagged rock became a shallow rushing stream. Our way afforded no shelter for miles, and we ate breakfast sat in the open, overlooking a storm whipped lake Glaslyn and watched closely by a herring gull. No longer the transcendent flyer of the summit sunrise, its savage yellow eye regarded us balefully as it tried to find the courage to steal our sodden celebratory chocolate cake. I cursed at it cheerfully and waved my fist, and it backed away, hunching its shoulders. Normally I will leave a little something for the wild inhabitants to enjoy but R and I were ravenous as dogs so by the time we set off again there wasn’t a single crumb left.
We tottered the remaining few miles like exhausted drunks, with magnificent views all around obscured by cloud and lashing rain. Every so often a party of Three Peaks Challenge walkers would loom through the fug, but I have to say I did not envy them their drenching, viewless climb.
By the time we reached Pen-y-pass and the safety of the youth hostel bus shelter it felt as if we were being water cannoned from above; the rain was making the gravel dance as if shot and the din it made on the wooden roof of the shelter was astonishing. A hapless Three Peaker, arms windmilling furiously, chased his waterproof trousers as they flew across the car park, whipped out of his hands by the wind as he’d tried to don them; then the bus appeared and we scrambled still dripping to our seats. Midsummer day was about as filthy as can be, but I wouldn’t have missed welcoming it in for anything in the world.
At midsummer we paid a visit to our friend C who is currently training to be a climbing instructor in Snowdonia. On midsummer eve we went for a gentle stroll around Llanberis, a climbing village of some fame and colourful home of equally famous Pete’s Eats, a climbers café renowned for the fact that after you’ve climbed your fill in the landscape outside, you’ve yet to conquer the gigantic servings that emerge from their busy kitchens.
The day was hot and vivid, and as we planned to make a night climb of Snowdon in not so many hours we limited ourselves to a slow meander around Llyn Padarn towards the slate museum and up into the woods beyond it. At the foot of Elidir Fawr, the horribly ruined mountain from which the slate was torn, we found a beautiful and secluded spot where a quarry pit overgrown on all sides by tall shady trees was filled with the most beautiful clear water, coloured vividly by the raw blue green stone that made its sides. The scarred flanks of the mountain reared up all around us raw naked and exposed, and inexplicably, a small rusty freight truck that must have been used to transport the quarried stone hung midair on rust reddened cables. The still majesty of the spot was sublime, but we were not alone, nor was it completely silent. Deep below us in the turquoise waters, members of the local sub-aqua club were exploring, and fairy rings of bubbles danced in the water as the divers shoaled below. After our quiet appreciation of the cool air and gorgeous water we left Vivian pool to explore the path up into the woods of Padarn country park, skirting the lower flanks of the mountain to eventually rejoin the lake and make a return to Llanberis. This view of the Snowdon massif was worth the walk, and reminded us of our aim to hike to the summit for sunrise.Llyn Padarn was glassy calm, and gave us another fabulous view.But would the weather hold up well enough for us to see the sun rise?