Saturday, 9 June 2012

The Highest Mountain in England and Wales

We are back!  Though the week was a bit of a washout due to poor weather, we did have a lovely, relaxing time, well, for the most part!  My legs are aching badly and from Tuesday, the prospect of completing the 30 Day Shred was a distant memory!  As I mentioned in a previous post, one of our objectives in going to Chester was to travel to nearby North Wales and climb Snowdon.  Snowdon, for those reading this who don't know, is the highest mountain in England and Wales (3,559 feet, to be exact).  For my American friends reading this - yes Snowdon is a bit of a small lump, but mountains don't get that big here on a small island and what she lacks in height, she makes up for in beauty, interest and pure mountain walking challenge.

When we arrived in Chester on Sunday, we looked dismally at the weather forecast for the week - which was not good.  Rain every single day except for Monday.  Monday came and instead of setting out to climb the mountain, we headed for Chester Zoo instead.  We were tired from the journey up on the previous day and didn't want to do another long drive again on Monday, only to get out and climb a 3,500 mountain!).  The zoo was fantastic - I had taken our kids a couple years earlier and was really impressed with all the animals and the whole set up.  Plus, we had blazing sunshine, so it was a good day!

On Monday evening as we were eating in the hotel restaurant, we decided that Tuesday would be the day we would climb the mountain! All of the guidebooks I had read suggested our route takes in the region of 6 hours to complete, and that the carpark at Pen y Pass got very busy quite early, so best to arrive there early.  We had to drive 1.5 hours from Chester, so we left the hotel at 7:30am, having fuelled our bodies with a very large full English breakfast!  The journey was an interesting one for me because although I've lived in England for 17 years, I have never set foot inside Wales!  I hadn't realised how quickly after leaving Chester that you actually drive into Wales - so I was very excited to see a sign with a red dragon welcoming us to Wales!  We drove along the coast for a significant part of the journey, passing Colwyn Bay - this area really is beautiful and I would certainly visit again when I have more time. 

I had decided we would tackle Snowdon using the Pyg track - this was one of the shortest paths to the top and also one of the most interesting.  You have an advantage in starting at Pen y Pass, which means that you drive up a bit of the altitude, leaving you less overall altitude to climb.  This is a map of our chosen path.  Pen y Pass can be seen in the lower right hand corner.  Our track, the Pyg track, is the higher of the two featured.

I probably should have mentioned that the weather was awful.  It started raining pretty much as soon as we set off from Chester and continued in a constant, annoying misty rain pretty much the whole day.  When we arrived at Pen y Pass and managed to snag literally the last available parking space, the whole area was covered in mist - but there was no shortage of people willing to climb the mountain, even in these conditions!  The Pyg path from Pen y Pass is excellent - it is clearly signposted, easy to follow and very well maintained.  The Welsh obviously take this sort of thing seriously and all credit to them.  Having followed a multitude of paths in the Lake District (some equally as well sign posted, some not sign posted at all!), I'm quite well versed with pathfinding now, but thankfully for Snowdon, all I literally needed do was put one foot in front of the other.

After leaving the car park and the short tarmacked section at the end of it, the path turns to stones and climbs steadily.  I was amazed how well my legs were holding up, because you're basically climbing stairs for 3.5 miles.  Not only did my legs manage the journey, but my lungs were also coping remarkably well.  The rain was an annoyance, more than a hinderance.  I hate walking with my mac hood up - it drops right down over my eyes and won't stay where it's told, so I tend to keep it off mostly and just have a wet head!

Me with the kids on the decent - mist behind!
After nearly two hours of hard slog - steady upward climbing, we reached the summit ridge.  I can't say that I have ever climbed a mountain in such conditions and it was very confusing not being able to see the summit you're striving for.  We were literally placing one foot in front of the next with no idea when we might reach our target.  The summit of Snowdon is unique in this country because it is the only one to have a rack and pinion railway that goes to the summit.  In fact, the only indication that we were nearing the summit, was purely being able to hear the choo-chooing of the train in the distance!  As we neared the true summit, there were a serious of very well laid out stairs - more like a building than a mountain top, before we reached the actual trig point.  Just below the last set of stairs, my legs officially checked out.  Three and a half miles of climbing and they had given everything, but had reached their limit.  I have absolutely NO idea how I made it up the final stairs to touch the summit marker, but I did.  I had done it - I had climbed the highest mountain in England and Wales and when I got to the top I couldn't see a thing!  The only joy I found was knowing that I had done it by my own steam.

Another benefit and unique feature of Snowdon is that there is a cafe at the summit!  I cannot tell you how wonderful it is, having beaten yourself senselessly getting up a mountain, to be able to get into a warm building and enjoy a hot cup of coffee and a well earned cookie!  We stopped for about half an hour at the cafe, had a sit down, rest, used the toilet (wonderful not having to squat behind a boulder!) and went back out into the cold to begin our decent.

We retraced our steps to a tall stone, which marked the path's decent into the valley below and the whole time I'm feeling very nervous.  Nervous because I know my legs literally can't cope with much more, and also nervous because I know at various points on the decent there will be a sting in the tail.  Rocks make me seriously nervous - clambering over them to get to the summit is one thing because I'm using forward momentum to get up and over and I can't see down.  Approaching from the opposite direction is another thing altogether and it was at this point of the journey when I really started to worry about what was coming up!  One section in particular on the ascent required us to grab a hold of two metal pins that had been fixed into rock, use our hands, knees and feet to pull ourselves up a tall section of rock - this was quite steep and I didn't fancy trying it on the way down.  Miraculously, however, it never appeared!  Somehow, we must have gone past it and found another route and for that I was incredibly grateful.

Rob and I on the decent, both wet and totally exhausted!
The main difficulty with the decent was purely going down 3.5 miles of rock stairs.  Every time I stepped down all of my weight pounded on top of my knees and at the end I was reminded, despite my elation in reaching the summit, that I still weigh 200 pounds.  The encouraging thing, however, was that my six hour workout had just burned in the region of 3500 calories!

I had originally planned to continue the 30 Day Shred while we were in Chester, however after the mountain climb, I literally couldn't walk the following day without considerable pain.  My legs have now nearly recovered, but I've decided to start again today as if it were Day 21 and see it through to the end.  The good news is that despite the high calorie dinners at the hotel, all of the walking (both on Snowdon, at the Zoo, and generally), I only gained 1.8 pounds!  It is literally the best post-holiday weigh in I've ever had!

So that's my climb up Snowdon!  It was certainly a goal of mine to be fit enough to tackle it.  What are some of your fitness goals?

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