Mountains are not a thing in southern England. I grew up on the south coast of the UK in a small village/town at the edge of the New Forest. Now a National Park, the New Forest is a great place to get outside and explore with its superb network of footpaths, as well as the ability to roam pretty much anywhere in between. But mountainous it is not. It could perhaps be most charitably referred to as “rolling” although even that’s a stretch with most of the land undulating between just a small number of contour lines on the Ordnance Survey maps.
However, my heritage is Scottish, a land of many mountains. Family holidays often entailed two weeks of touring from one set of relatives to the next, with only the occasional glimpse of mountains in between. But I could see the Grampians from my grandparents’ house and I longed to get out there and explore. Alas we only managed that on rare occasions.
My chance to explore some real mountains came through a school trip when I was 16. Two of the geography teachers were organizing a week-long trip to Snowdonia and our school minibus had room for about a dozen of us. I signed up immediately, which is something I never did. (Or do to this day. I’ve always had somewhat circumspect tendencies.) After a few practice hikes in the New Forest to gauge everyone’s fitness and preparedness, we were ready to go.
The drive up to Snowdonia was long, especially in the 80s when there were fewer dual carriageways. Plus we were in an underpowered Ford Transit minibus. Still, I remember arriving in the late afternoon, and stared in wonder at the peaks above us as we neared our first destination, Ogwen Cottage. After dinner I walked up the marshy ground behind the hostel to Llyn Idwal and, in the rapidly descending gloam, just stared at the imposing grey cliff faces that surrounded me.
Our first summit was to be the mighty Tryfan, a mountain not to be underestimated. We’d all seen news reports about a rescue just the previous week where members of an army team out training had to be helicoptered off its slopes; it was a big topic of conversation on the drive. After a night’s rest, we all set out in high spirits the following morning, walking the road to the base of the mountain.
I began to get nervous. I couldn’t see a way up; no footpaths, just lots of grey, broken rock. And it looked steep, almost vertical. Did I mention I don’t like heights? I was about to be introduced to scrambling, though I didn’t know it as such at the time. Somehow we found something we could walk up, even though it was steep, occasionally needing hands for clambering up a few particularly rocky sections. Up and more up we went. It was cold, and getting colder: my first introduction to real mountain weather, which would get even more real a couple of days later! (Spoiler alert: it snowed as we attempted Snowdon.) Our progress was quite slow which meant we weren’t moving quickly enough to stay warm.
The steepness didn’t seem to really register with me at the time. I don’t remember looking behind me, probably because we were on a one-way hike through to the next valley, and I was somewhere in the middle of the group, but I’ve looked at the route since and wondered how I made it up there given my dislike of heights. I think if we’d had to descend as well it might have been a more nerve-wracking experience.
The gradient eased as we reached the spine of the mountain, and it was easier going over grass, heather, and shattered rock. I remember quite enjoying this section, marvelling at how we were all just picking our own routes over the rocks when there was no path to follow. We made it to Adam and Eve, the pair of rocks marking the summit of Tryfan, and could take stock of our achievement, admiring the views all around. No one in our group was tempted to make the leap from Adam to Eve, least of all me!
More fun awaited; we descended off the south-west ridge and climbed up a steep scree slope to the Castle of the Winds and the Glyders. One of the few vivid recollections I have from that trip was the “two steps forward, one step back” nature of a scree treadmill. We made it over the Glyders and descended steeply into a long valley and down towards Llanberis where we met our other teacher, who picked us up in the minibus and drove us to the Pen-y-Pass youth hostel.
This trip has stayed with me for over 30 years now. Looking back, I had a fantastic few days in Snowdonia and would love to return with more experienced eyes to get some perspective on what exactly I had achieved as a teenager. I think I can safely say that this trip laid the foundations for my love of mountains and wild country.
But that first day resonates most strongly with me. We’d climbed Tryfan and it felt amazing! Not a bad choice for my first mountain!
I don’t have any photos of that trip (I think they’re stashed away at my parents’ house) but I found a couple on Unsplash that may give a sense of how forbidding Tryfan can appear.
Photos by Drew Collins and Izaak Baxter on Unsplash.