News, views and guidebooks for walking, trekking and cycling
Alex Kendall, creator and author of the Snowdonia Way, takes some time out to tackle the Snowdon Horseshoe.
One of the benefits of being in a country full of once-glaciated mountains is that they throw up an excellent variety of narrow ridges. Some are relatively grassy, with paths down the middle, and views into the cirques on either side. Others are desperately narrow, exposed scrambles where bare rock warms in the sun and a head for heights is needed to keep focused despite the drops on either side.
Often it is possible to walk two of these mountain arêtes in a day, combining the ridges with the main mountain summit in a circular walk that has become known as a horseshoe. The most famous horseshoe of all lies on Wales’ highest peak, combines four different scrambles, four peaks, and is certainly one of the best mountaineering routes in Britain.
The usual route is to walk anti-clockwise, tackling Crib Goch (red ridge) first while you are still fresh. From Pen-y-Pass, follow the Pyg Track towards the striking pointed mountain ahead. This is Crib Goch itself, often mistaken by people for Snowdon, but a much more serious prospect. After half an hour, the Pyg Track reaches Bwlch y Moch (pass of the swine). At this point, leave the main track and head off right, on a well-trodden path. Shortly there’s a carved stone pointing the peak out as Crib Goch, and almost immediately, though still far from the main scrambles, short rocky sections appear in the way.
Getting over these steps is a good way of preparing for the main scramble ahead, and before long you will be heading up the East Ridge, a Grade 1 scramble and the direct continuation of the footpath. It is also possible before starting the East Ridge scramble to avoid it by branching off right along the flanks of Crib Goch, following the foxes path to scramble up the narrower but shorter North Ridge, also a Grade 1 scramble.
Whichever route taken, stick as much as possible to the crest and soon the top is reached. Ahead lies the narrow main ridge, undulating in pinnacles, with Snowdon itself a pyramid on the horizon.
What then begins is the total classic, the traverse of Crib Goch, also a Grade 1 scramble. The main concern most walkers have is the exposure on the first part, though at most points it’s possible to walk just left of the crest, with your hands on the rocks alongside for stability. Beyond the narrow section, interspersed as it is by ledges and veins of quartz, the traverse reaches a set of pinnacles. If you are enjoying yourself you can scramble over these, but if not then there is a path round most of the difficulties. At one point there is a move around a ledge where attention must be paid, but if the rock is dry there is no real worry.
With Crib Goch behind, and resting on the pleasing grassy col of Bwlch Coch, enjoy the view down into Cwm Uchaf and contemplate the next section, the scramble up Crib y Ddysgl (Grade 1) to the summit of Garnedd Ugain (Cairn of the Twenty). This is a fun scramble, where staying on the crest gives the most excitement, but where dropping down on the right leads to an easier route, and at some points a path. Be wary of dropping too far down as there is loose rock – the crest of a ridge is generally always the cleanest line.
From the summit of Garnedd Ugain, with views now West to the Llyn Peninsula and the Irish Sea, it is a walk down to Bwlch Glas (blue pass) and up to the summit of Snowdon (snow hill), possibly covered with lots of people enjoying the highest summit in Wales. Seeing the train, people drinking coffee, and the assorted guided groups, charity challenges and stag parties certainly feels strange after the hours you’ve been concentrating on the immediate rock of the scrambles.
Now begins the second half of the horseshoe; start by descending the Watkin Path to the Bwlch y Saethau (pass of the arrows). This long col was one of the mythical places King Arthur was killed, but may well have got its name as a place archers would hunt deer or boar.
Continue along the path to Bwlch Ciliau, and branch off towards the peak ahead, the impressive Y Lliwedd. You’ll have been looking at it’s colossal north face all day from the other side of the horseshoe; the traverse is an easy Grade 1 scramble, and a brilliant epilogue to the day.
Simply head straight up the ridge ahead, finding the best line considering how much scrambling is desired. In general the better scrambling is over on the left, and to the right lies a path, wiggling around but marked with cairns. Having crossed the twin summits, the descent is a clear path, and leads down to Cwm Dyli and Llyn Llydaw before joining the Miner’s Track back to Pen-y-Pass. During this descent, the scrambling now behind, look back round the whole horseshoe, the south wall of Crib Goch ahead and the pointed summit of Snowdon rising above it all.
The Snowdon Horseshoe should only be attempted by adventurous hillwalkers with a good head-for-heights and the confidence to route-find over rocky ground and use hands when needed. You should be fully equipped and know when to turn back if the weather turns. Navigational ability is essential, and the route is much more fun on a clear day with a gentle breeze. Heavy rain and strong winds make most part of the horseshoe slippery and hazardous; also you won’t enjoy it much if you can’t see anything!