"Grandma just passed. My heart is breaking.” Three days later, these words continue to weigh heavy, discordant with the bright sunlight filtering through the late August foliage of north-west Wales. In Bangor, I fuss with shoulder straps one final time before embarking on the first afternoon of fastpacking the Snowdonia Slate Trail. The recently inaugurated 83-mile circuit trek loops through a staggeringly beautiful landscape that was designated a Unesco World Heritage Site only weeks before.
I’m travelling solo and ultralight, with a backpack that weighs under 9 kilograms fully loaded, sleeping in a tarp open to the elements, and generally omitting any indispensable creature comforts, touring with the bare minimum. I plan on running the downhill sections and fast hiking the rest to cover as much ground as I can.
Kicking out from Port Penrhyn, I jog the greenway hemming in the Afon Cegin and pass a young woman leading her two kids through a gentle patch of river. It reminds me of my infant daughter – at home with her mother in London – and the scene compounds the conflicted feeling I’m experiencing, having taken to the hills in the wake of a family tragedy.
The scenery distracts. Walking below the crenelated battlements of Penrhyn Castle, a muscular multi-turreted neo-Norman castle, one is reminded of the staggering wealth inequality between those that worked the slate mines and those that owned them. I follow riverbanks and cross bridges, threading glades and pastures pocked with bales of hay and recumbent sheep, to arrive underneath the canted steeple of St Llechid’s Church, where jackdaws squall from the belfry. For the first instance of the journey, with many more to follow, I experience a kind of extrasensory thrill.
Like many places in Snowdonia, the church is steeped in haunting folklore. In 1844, the builders who looked to replace a 15th-century chapel on this site found their efforts constantly undone and their construction materials moved to another site, presumably by paranormal forces. Eventually, the workers relented to the spirits and built St Llechid’s, where it currently stands – or so the story goes.
I crest the hill into the village of Bethesda soon after. Penrhyn Quarry and its slate tip rise into the foreground. Only 10% of stone extracted from the mine was sold, and its refuse beggars belief in its immensity. At hundreds of feet in height the tip is the size of a small mountain. Penrhyn was formerly the largest slate quarry on the planet, a mile long and 1,200 feet deep. Not one to sacrifice superlatives, it now boasts the world’s fastest zipline, and the longest in Europe.
Further on, the wild moor of Gwaun Ginfi broadens to expose views north to the Holy Isle of Anglesey and southeast to Yr Wyddfa, known to English speakers as Snowdon, the highest mountain in Wales at 1,085 metres, and the highest point in the British Isles outside the Scottish Highlands. The Snowdonia Slate Trail skirts the mountain, offering perspectives from all sides, as it does with many of the region’s famous peaks. I continue past abandoned stone smallholdings through the village of Dinorwig into its forest, which pitches sharply towards the navy waters of Llyn Padarn. The cries of teenagers flinging themselves into the lake reverberate with surprising clarity.
After supper in Llanberis I plod up the back of Cefn Du. The light turns crepuscular as the sun fades behind the rocky mound. I prepare my bed between the two remaining walls of a ruined slate cottage overlooking the valley. Whilst wild camping isn’t strictly legal in Snowdonia, I’ve spoken with a number of locals and the consensus is that it’s accepted so long as you set up after dark, leave before dawn, make minimal noise and, most importantly, leave absolutely zero trace of your presence.
Llanberis Pass darkens. I watch tiny head torches wend their way up Snowdon whilst calling my mother in Maine. There will be no funeral for my grandmother as per her request. Feeling morose, I think about how, like me and the mining families of Snowdonia, she leaves so little trace behind. There’s something ghostly about sleeping in the wreckage of a home – an awareness of lives lived before and, every so often, the sensation of being an intruder. When sleep finally comes it’s fitful. I wake to watery light emerging through low stratocumulus cover. Two intruders have breached my tarp. I tweeze off a pair of woodland ticks that have made a meal of my chest, hoping that they’re Lyme-free.
The next day I cover just shy of thirty miles, striding through heather bogs beyond sleepy-looking campervans to the tiny village of Waunfawr. I scale a steep, overgrown path, then continue past Moel Tryfan, hulking in a veil of mist, through the former slate quarrying hamlets of Y Fron and Nantle. Approaching the pub next to the Welsh Highland Railway tracks in Rhyd-Ddu I speak with a woman named Bethan about the next village I’ll reach. Beddgelert translates as ‘Gelert’s grave’: its name derives from the tale of a 13th-century prince named Llewellyn and his faithful dog. Llewellyn returns from a hunt to find his infant’s cot bloodied and empty and the hound’s mouth and whiskers covered in gore. He slays the dog and at the same moment hears his child keening from another room. He finds his son unharmed next to the corpse of a mighty wolf. Filled with remorse, Llewellyn inters Gelert in an imposing burial mound, from which, according to legend, Beddgelert originates its name.
The village turns out to be idyllic, stone- built in a verdant valley at the confluence of the rivers Colwyn and Glaslyn. I follow the latter south along a towpath constructed of honey-hued slabs of rock to the village of Nantmor, renowned for its poets and poetry, then continue on towards Croesor. A man huffing and sweating from the saddle of a mountain bike collars me for ten minutes’ conversation, instructing me to look out for tiny Roman bridges over the coming miles. In spite of my eagerness to get away, he is right. This stretch is devoid of civilisation, with bluffs of rhyolite wreathed in heather. They both show magenta in the sun. The ancient bridge I find is both brutal and beautiful in its plainness. I douse my head in a cold brook beneath it.
I begin a thigh-burning hike along a broad track, rising 400 meters along the Croesor Valley. On the opposite side of the basin is Cnicht, dubbed the Matterhorn of Wales. The air is open and clear. I start to question why I haven’t climbed more mountains yet, promising to veer off trail more often. At Croesor Quarry the towering, last-standing wall of an outbuilding emerges from a bend in the path, backlit by the setting sun.
There’s a stiff breeze whistling through the pass. Even though it’s summer, it’s enough to keep me cold and uncomfortable. I find shelter in the leeside of tumbledown barracks at the Rhosydd Quarry and pitch the tarp. Afterwards, I wander into the eyehole of a shaft leading to the Cwmorthin mine, nicknamed ‘The Slaughterhouse’. Its dark lungs gasp cold subterranean air as I skip across stones to avoid the water in its mouth.
Brushing my teeth, I’m disconcerted by the occasional clatter of slate skittering down the walls of a tip. There’s a sense of titanic forces washing up against the Snowdonian landscape. Nature remains largely in stasis, while human pursuits and individual lives are swept along by time, capital and politics.
I think of my grandmother, tumbled through the historical event of the pandemic in Rick De Santis’ Florida: a routine check-up for Vitamin D toxicity; exposure to Covid in a hospital ward; isolation for the final month of her life, removed from family; finally succumbing to a cascading series of health failures. A strange thought percolates: at one point, a living person will remember you for the final time. As I begin to nod off, I hear loud voices and emerge to investigate. Two teenagers climb impossibly steep terrain on their mountain bikes to the roof of the valley, then descend downhill in spectacular fashion, dropping ten-foot crags, hooting joyously. It’s comically at odds with my existential state of mind, and welcome.
The next morning I lope out of the mountains and into the slate capital of Blaenau Ffestiniog, which now caters very much to eco-tourism. The day passes in a blur as I segue off route to climb the unerringly straight cart track up the steep gradient of Manod Mawr. I poke around the gaping maws of mines on its flank. Gearing up, I motor through Penmachno and its surrounding farmland until I hit the leafy riverside town of Betws-y-Coed, which is inviting but aswarm with tourists. The din quickly recedes as I trip through Celtic rainforest and Atlantic oak woodland beyond Swallow Falls, where I inadvertently startle a young couple smoking a spliff.
By the end of the day my legs are radiating raw pain and I feel I can go no further. I find a storybook campsite in a clearing among ferns beneath a hawthorn tree, watching the sun touch down beyond the mountain range I intend to run in the morning: the 500-million-year-old Glyderau.
Waking early, I stow the tarp and sleep system and ensure there is no evidence of my passing, bidding farewell to one of the most bucolic places I’ve spent a night. From Capel Curig I diverge from the Snowdonia Slate Trail to begin the ascent of the Glyderau; roughly translating from Welsh as ‘heap of stones’. Hot sun evaporates the dew on the marshy ridge ascending 700 metres to Y Foel Goch. The dorsal-formed Tryfan hoves into eyeshot. Below it is Llyn Ogwen, the lake from Arthurian legend where Sir Bedivere failed to draw Excalibur.
I top out amongst the Tolkienesque tors of Glyder Fach at 995 metres. Immense splinters of dolerite rock look like metal scratchings manipulated by a giant lodestone. A group of hikers lunch on the famously cantilevered rock formation. The ridge ripples along before peeling up towards Glyder Fawr, the tallest mountain in the Glyderau at just over 1,000 metres. From here I zip higher and lower to Y Garn, then vertiginously down the aptly named Devil’s Kitchen, for a long lung-busting scramble up Carnedd y Filiast, the last major summit of the massif.
I ran out of water an hour ago and can feel the edge of dehydration closing in. There’s a dense, glutinous pain permeating all sections of the body but especially the distal: my marrow-sore feet and legs. Yet, above all, I feel a joy close to ecstasy running this ridge. It’s as near as I’ll get to closure. Pain and joy. Life and death. You can only admire the elegant manner in which opposites are twined together – how one makes you feel the other more keenly. As I near Bethesda and the end of the route, the Glyderau seem purpose-built for the experience, as does the Snowdonia Slate Trail. I have left no trace on it, but it has certainly imprinted on me.