Crib Coch, the sharp route to the summit of Snowdon, has a reputation that for many hikers does not precede it. Too often, mountain leaders like Rebekah Uden find climbers desperately hanging on, frozen in fear and wondering what prompted them to tackle this most daunting traverse.
They are the lucky ones. Others have died trying to complete a route that has been advertised on social media as the ultimate challenge and photo opportunity of Snowdon.
Rebekah, 33, won’t take anyone to Crib Goch unless they have previous jamming experience. On Easter, a mother expressed pride for her sons, aged seven and nine, who crossed the ridge on a ‘very windy, slippery and dangerous’ day. The mountain leaders shuddered at the thought.
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“Almost every time I have a party up there I see someone stuck on the ridge calling for mountain rescue to come and save them,” said Rebekah, who organizes trips across the UK through her company, Wilderness Wales.
“I certainly wouldn’t allow climbers to take their dogs with them: there have been cases of dogs dragging their owners off the ridge. It’s too easy for people to be lulled into thinking it’s a challenge worth taking on without understanding their limitations.
Mountain leaders and mountain guides are not just experienced climbers with a passion for cliffs, peaks and lakes: they are the eyes and ears of the highland tourism economies. As well as making sure you get home safely, they pick up litter, give advice, give instructions and act as unofficial guardians of the hillside environments. They are the ones who lighten the load of volunteer mountain rescue teams.
Rebekah, based near Denbigh, graduated as a mountain leader five years ago, having hiked the hills of North Wales for as long as she can remember. After witnessing the growth in visitor numbers and the problems this has caused, she believes the public’s freedom to explore the mountains of Snowdonia is a double-edged sword.
While she accepts that the National Park’s popularity underpins local tourism and provides a healthy outlet for people after the dark days of Covid, visitors should understand that they have a responsibility to themselves, to others and to highland environments. Too often people climb mountains ill-equipped for conditions that can change in an instant.
Rebekah estimates that 90% of hikers in Snowdon set out without a map, unaware of low cloud which can quickly obscure features and turn day into night. “It’s like driving a car without a seatbelt,” she said.
This point is echoed by Nia Lloyd, a mountain guide who runs Wild Trails Wales. She thinks everyone should have a chance to experience the mountain and that people can be too quick to condemn novices who stumble into trouble.
But visitors must learn to respect the mountain and understand its limits. For her, it’s a question of education. “What you don’t know, you don’t know,” she says. “Until they experience it, visitors to urban settings won’t know how different the conditions are on top of a mountain.
“Where they live they are probably used to having bins everywhere. In the mountains, there are none and people do not think of carrying a bag to carry their waste with them.
They also don’t understand the risks. At Easter a visitor wrote how he decided to climb Snowdon without food. Seven hours later, he was on the verge of collapse. “Overconfidence kills the cat,” he sighed.
A few years ago Nia and Rebekah both took part in a formation that came across a group of townspeople stuck on Y Lliwedd, a peak that is part of the Snowdon Horseshoe. Darkness was approaching and they were gazing at a January night on the mountain.
“They had no coats, no headlamps and were very scared,” Nia said. “They had underestimated the terrain and, being from an urban background, they were unfamiliar with mountain rescue. They were extremely lucky that we found them.
North Wales has a responsibility to treat visitors with courtesy, provide them with the right infrastructure and ensure they have the tools they need to navigate the hills safely. The region is not always right.
Take Crib Goch, for example. “There’s just a little red sign on a stile leading from the Pyg Track warning of danger,” Rebekah said. “People often stray too far and end up having to call mountain rescue.”
- Many mountain leaders and guides have their own websites and social media presences. A few online directories group them together, making it easy to find the right expert for the activity and location you want.
- Guide Base offers an easy search function and also looks the part. Another is the Mountain Training Association, which offers a wide range of activity options.
Nia would like to see pubs, shops and hosts play a bigger role. Some are already part of the Eryri Ambassador project, a program to promote special places in the national park. “It’s a good program, but it could be expanded to include things like Leave No Trace and Adventure Smart initiatives,” Nia said.
Knowing the pitfalls people face and how often they seem to find them places a weight of responsibility on the shoulders of mountain leaders and guides. Many find that they run two groups in Snowdon: one with paying guests, a second non-paying group that hangs on.
“It happens pretty much every time,” Rebekah said. “I don’t mind. I’d rather they do it than get in trouble. Last Thursday a group of five men got into a fight: none had ever climbed a mountain before. They followed us to at Crib Coch and I ended up having to coach them.
Why should mountain novices pay for a guide when they first go to the hills? For starters, they take a crash course in navigation to make sure they can get out of situations that are always in a downpour.
Often they receive advice on boots, backpacks and clothing – and are loaned equipment if they don’t have it. Paying guests also receive various tips on water safety, Welsh place names, local folklore and how to call for help. For around £60 per person – not far off the price of a day at a theme park – they can also return home in one piece.
“I’ll even drive people to the starting point to save them parking fees,” Rebekah said. “Most mountain guides speak Welsh, or a little Welsh, and we will teach people some basic phrases for them to use in shops and pubs.”
The end goal of every mountain leader is to equip people with the skills they need to hike solo the next time they venture into the mountains. Even the fittest people can run into trouble if they’re not properly prepared, Rebekah said.
Litter is a bane for anyone visiting or working in the mountains. Some of them are subtle, like microplastics released from outerwear. But often the litter left strewn across the hillsides is obvious and entirely avoidable.
The Snowdonia National Park Authority and groups like the Snowdonia Society regularly promote anti-litter campaigns. Nia said more needed to be done at the source, citing the UK Government’s ‘pitiful’ support for the Countryside Code: in the decade to 2020 it spent just £2,000 every 18 months to reprint the code to distribute it. In contrast, the government has spent £46million on the ‘Get Ready for Brexit’ campaign.
Rebekah carries a trash bag on each climb. One day last summer she brought a full bag to Snowdon and picked up two more along the way. She thinks too many Insta hunters trample the trails of the national park without respecting the well-worn mantra to leave no trace. “If I had my way, we would fine people for wild camping in places like Cwm Idwal, and for polluting an environment that we need to keep intact,” she said.
Mountain leaders and guides often see their role as adding value to places people will visit anyway. As the mountains are their workplaces, as well as spaces of personal sanctuary, they feel protective of them and their visitors.
“It’s rare that I go up into the mountains and people don’t ask me for directions,” Rebekah said. In fact, I really enjoy it, knowing that I’m helping them have a wonderful day and they’re less likely to venture into harm’s way.
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