Rhyd Ddu — “rrrr-eed thee”
Well, you know, I’m writing this now so clearly I’m OK, but I did not enjoy this walk.
OK, back on Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon), I decided to take the kids up Rhyd Ddu path (pronounced Rrr (roll the r) eed thee), partly because it’s supposed to be a really pretty (but still easy) ridge walk, partly because we haven’t followed it to the summit yet but have done all the prep work (and walked the lower third), and partly because when Snowdon gets busy (and oh, is it busy this year…), the routes on the western side of the mountain have better parking so I can get up at 0730 and still find a space!
All good. The forecast was for murky drizzle till 11am, then sunshine – which I figured could burn off most of the damp on the path by the time we reached the ridge at Bwlch Main – but most of all, it wasn’t windy. (Last year, 25mph winds at the bottom meant 50+mph winds further up, so we moved over to the nearby, much flatter Ranger path). Today, it all looked fine. Up we went.
Now, Rhyd Ddu is a pretty walk – you start off at a little station, watch out for the little train as you cross the line, then potter up a clearly visible (unmissable) path for the first 3km – no brain required, enjoy the rolling lower slopes and great vista-views. We baa-ed at the sheep (parenting rite of passage) and bimbled up.
Are there any tricky bits on the first half? Mmmm nah, not really. There’s one bit to watch when you come back down, which is a little spot called Rhos Boeth – on the way up, you head up and turn right towards the ridge walk – on the way back, it looks as if you go straight on into a drop-off because the left turn is masked by bog reeds. Basically, look out for a rock shaped like a Wagon Wheel biscuit turned on its side (!) and remember that it’s a corner (or pick any other landmark of choice). It was a useful moment to teach the kids that whenever you go up a mountain, turn around and mark the way back A LOT.
So we walked up following the obvious and fairly straightforward route which became slightly less well-defined in parts, as do most routes higher up, but was still clearly marked by cairns and then a fence – in any kind of decent weather with a good idea of the route, you’re unlikely to get lost. And then you reach Bwlch Main, which for us was where it all unravelled.
On the way up, we’d seen the mist burn off as hoped and predicted and we emerged from the morning mizzle with some clear views and gorgeous cloudscapes, but as we approached the start of the ridge walk, Bwlch Main, the cloud came down again and the wind picked up. This is normal up near the top and we weren’t phased – it wouldn’t be the first time we’d made it to the summit only to see each other and… a lot of grey air.
The approach along the southern ridge follows a fence, and the wide, clean path is set on a gentle slope which makes for easy walking, but just as you approach the western end of the ridge, the fence ends and to the north, there’s a steep slope vanishing down into the mist/cloud. The path narrows and becomes filled with jagged little rocks, set hard into the rock, whose ends face up as little vertical ridges – it’s a path to watch because it would be easy to trip.
I don’t often trip up — I think I’ve fallen over maybe once, twice in ten years? I’m fit, light and agile — and practised. It’s easy for me. But not this year — I wobbled on the little jagged rocks, once, twice, not stumbling but not comfortable. We were walking in single file (no other option) and my youngest child saw me hesitate. The eerie mist-hole disappearing into the abyss to my left started to look scary. We carried on. I had never felt so wobbly.
Perhaps it was the COVID lockdown fat I’d put on — suddenly carrying an extra stone of bodyweight was throwing me off? Perhaps it was the loss of fitness from January’s 200km run challenge to May’s barely-running-at-all (in June I made a panic effort ?) or perhaps it was lack of sleep… surely this couldn’t be turning 50?
I got myself together and ploughed on, picking up my feet and trying not to panic. We reached Bwlch Main, the ridge looming out of the mist, and my brain went into complete spasm and one huge, clear, absolute knowledge — it wasn’t even just a thought — filled my mind:
If you go onto that ridge, you’re going to die.
“I want to go home,” said my youngest. My kids can read me. I turned around and led them right back down to the nice, safe slope with the fence, where I sat down to freak out in a safe spot.
“We are literally about 600m from the summit!” squawked Eldest, correctly.
At which point I freaked out more.
We sat and ate. The wind was up a bit (still safe) and we were now clammy. I wrapped up Youngest in more clothes, and figured, we may be better heading over the ridge and reaching the summit, and Ranger path down, than sitting in the wind getting cold. Let’s go back and take another look, I said. There was a steady stream of other walkers, including kids in trainers and people who looked like they’d never walked before ever, even on the flat — not exactly a recommendation, but still, this is just a walk (the ridge isn’t even a scramble).
We stomped back up, and as soon as I saw the slope down to the left, all the blood left my legs, and as soon as we reached the ridge, my brain shrieked inside my skull,
If you go there, you will fall off.
It was weird to be worried about myself — I’m always watching the kids, worrying about their safety, desperately needing to keep them safe and well, but today it felt like I was the one in danger, and I pictured them staring down into a grey abyss wondering if their mother was now just a splat on a rock. I’ve always said to them, like a parrot on repeat, be prepared to turn away from a summit at any point. The moment you don’t feel safe, leave. You don’t even need a reason — just go. The mountain will wait for you; it’s what mountains do.
We turned around and walked all the way back down.
People dragging tiny kids in barely any clothes wandered up past us. One woman stopped to ask where she was and whether the lump in front of her was the summit. “How far is it to the top?” If these idiots could get up, why the hell could I not walk onto the ridge? (That’s not how it works; these idiots shouldn’t be up there.) The kids were disappointed and despondent (except Youngest who was deeply relieved, because I’d scared the crap out of him). None of us was having a nice time.
Walking up mountains is the one thing I’m quite good at. Like most people, I sometimes worry that I might not be the best mum, or wife, and I worry about whether or not I’m any good at my job, but I’ve always been fit — although now obviously I’m fat and unfit and can’t even manage a summit walk on a nice day… by the time we’d gone down 2km, I’d stripped myself down to being the worst human in the world, a poor parent, useless adult, and wobbly waste of air. This can happen on mountains — they open me up, give me the best of everything, but also leave me open and bare. (This is also why I love them.)
My feet carried me down on autopilot, they knew the route, I didn’t check my map, or look at anything, and — thank you, experience — they just carried me. I sat on a rock to let the kids rest, peered down at my boots, and that’s when I noticed that the sole had come a bit loose on the toe of my left boot. I poked it with my index finger, and two seconds later, the entire sole was hanging off, dangling like a reversed flip-flop.
The right boot looked fine, but 1-2km later, the same thing happened to that. (What the hell just happened to my boots?! Never seen this before.) I now had a pair of weird, chunky, booty-flip-flops and had to walk down the last 3-4km using a strange, uncomfortable knee-lift walk, like something out of Monty Python.
Part of me was relieved — perhaps my fear wasn’t entirely irrational; perhaps I’d felt the looseness in the boot before it became obvious. Perhaps turning back hadn’t been a waste of time. If I’d caught a loose sole on the Bwlch Main ridge, I could’ve fallen.
On the way down from the mountain, we set to clearing up after the other tourists. I’ve walked around here for years and practically never seen any rubbish, the place is pristine – but not so this year. The Brits are here in force and we scooped a trail of plastic crap – bottles, wrappers, and bags, which we took down to the little railway station and placed in the recycling bins by the hut.
Some days, the mountains give you everything you ever wanted and needed, and you feel like you’re in heaven just at the thought of them — other days, you give back to the mountains and they let you live.
It’s a fair trade.
Rhyd Ddu – do we recommend it? Yes, absolutely — it’s gorgeous. Although in fairness, I can’t speak for the ridge, but I hear it’s beautiful!
Fancy a go? Read this: Walk Up Snowdon – Rhyd Ddu path
Tips: check your boots aren’t falling to bits and don’t even think about it if it’s windy. Otherwise, enjoy! (Honestly, it’s better than I’ve made it sound — we’ll go back and try again and I’m thinking it might end up a favourite.) Oh, and don’t leave your litter up there, please. Some of us love this mountain, it’s made of rock and souls. Treat it as if I were walking behind you, explaining how much I love it.