Phil Upton’s Snowdon Diary 2019
As we release tickets for University Hospitals Birmingham Charity’s Snowdon Challenge events for 2021 we are taking a look back at previous Snowdon Challenges. Phil Upton, UHB Charity Cycling Ambassador and BBC Coventry & Warwickshire radio host, took on the Snowdon Challenge in 2019 and wrote up his experiences.
Go up a mountain you say?
Been up loads of those…
Alpe D’Huez, Col du Galibier, Col du Tourmalet, mostly in the Alps and Pyrenees and ALWAYS on my bike.
So, when Mike Hammond, Chief Executive of UHB Charity, asked if I fancied ‘walking’ up one I had to pause. That previous weekend I’d led a peloton of 500 cyclists raising over £100,000 for the Charity and we were sat in his office in Nuffield House thinking about what to do next.
Walk? Up a mountain? Which one?
“The highest one in England and Wales” he replied.
I’d cycled the Peak District, climbed up through Winnatts Pass, Mam Tor, Curbar Gap, and In Wales had been through the Snowdonia National Pa…. Ahh.. hang on… Snowdonia….
Snowdon…? You want me to walk up Mount Snowdon?
“Yep…with me and a load of other hospital workers and fundraisers… whaddya say?”
Now, this presented a problem. Cycling anywhere was no worries. I had a really good road bike, all the gear (and some would say no idea!), and I’d had been the UHB Charity Cycling Ambassador for Velo Birmingham & Midlands. So giving out tips and sharing my expertise for that was easy.
But I didn’t have the first clue about taking on a ‘serious’ walk and Mount Snowdon IS a serious walk.
At 3,560 feet (1,085m) it is the highest point in all of England and Wales – there’s a handful of higher spots in Scotland - It receives 500cm of rain per year and in winter it can experience temperatures of minus 20C!
“When are we going” I asked nervously.
“Four weeks” came his reply.
Four weeks? That’s 28 days (see I’m no fool). I can’t be ready to walk up Snowdon in 28 days. Can I? Well, it turned out I could and I didn’t have to do any ‘training’ at all.
Helpfully, the UHB Charity website had a link which told me all I needed in terms of clothing and preparation. I’d got a pair of ‘proper’ walking boots, somewhere buried beneath about four sets of cycling shoes. The boots were slightly big (I’m a size 10/11 and these were ‘inherited’ from a friend who had marginally bigger feet than me), but I figured with two pairs of thick walking socks, they should be perfect. I did need to purchase waterproofs (top and bottoms), walking up in your jeans wasn’t allowed and as I later discovered not to be advised.
In the four proceeding weeks I took walks along the nearby canal tow path 3-5 miles each time to wear in the shoes and get a feel for the layers. It was July, it was warm, I must have looked like a right plonker going past the coffee shop at the locks to all the casually sat families enjoying their ice creams.
But they didn’t know about me. They didn’t know that now, I was a Walker!!
So, the day came.
Alarm at 4.30am, and meet under the entrance to Selfridges in Birmingham at 05:45 for a 6am departure. It was a clear morning in Birmingham, everyone was in good spirits, hopeful, a slight nervousness in the laughs and smiles as pictures were taken and then onto the coach.
(5.45am Charity CEO Mike Hammond with instructions for the day, either that or he’s encouraging team morale with a version of ‘The Timewarp’ – “It’s just a jump to the left…”)
Three hours later – it was a bit different.
9am at a damp coach park in Llanberis and there was a very different mood.
We’d all be consulting our various weather apps for days in the run up to ‘Snowdon Day’ and had all been encouraged by a dry if cloudy forecast. But this was Wales, where the weather can turn in an instant and the Crowded House song “Four Seasons In One Day” was playing on the in-coach radio as some kind of cruel metaphor of what was to follow.
9.00am in the coach park at Llanberis – you can see it’s raining and I don’t like the look of that cloud either! But that’s why they’re called ‘waterproofs’ I suppose!
Our guides met us.
‘Guides’ is a bit of a misnomer. These were hardened walkers who knew every inch of the Snowdon paths (there are several ascents of Mount Snowdon), they’d trod these rocks and stones hundreds of times and some had even ‘competed’ in races up the mountainside, because clearly walking up it isn’t hard enough!
But it was reassuring to know we’d be safe and in experienced hands.
By 9.30am we were walking. Not much of an incline at first as we took the Miners Path that lead gently at first past a lake and around its side. Up ahead the skies were grey and cloudy but at least the rain had disappeared.
Everyone was getting to know each other – it’s one of the joys of these collaborative experiences. I’d been a ride leader in the run up to cycling the Velo and hearing what brought individuals together and finding out the connections they had to the Charity or the hospitals was always enlightening. Mark had been helicoptered in from a road crash in Worcestershire, he was now raising money for the trauma units that had saved his life. Had he been 30 minutes later arriving at the QE he’d now be dead. Louis was a cancer survivor, Claire an A&E triage nurse and Rob was walking because his wife couldn’t – she was still in recovery from brain tumour surgery.
Here was I – perfectly fit. I felt grateful.
At that precise moment, almost as if the gods had arranged it, the clouds literally parted.
The skies grew brighter and where, only minutes before a greyness had covered the skyline to obscure the peaks, now stood, like a child’s drawing an image I’d only ever previously seen on screen or in photographs – the pointed peak of our ultimate destination - Mount Snowdon.
The clouds part and there it is! Mount Snowdon!! I’m slightly more impressed than Mike!
And, again right on cue, so the path began to climb. Past trickling brooks that gathered pace through the rocks, filling the lake we’d just passed before. Then a wall – a proper ‘step-up’ onto a further path that now narrowed and with it grew a bit steeper. The guides, all the time, one up front to point out the best way of avoiding the rockiest outcrops, and others scattered through the group back to the tail – no one was left behind, whatever the level of fitness or expertise.
Up The Miners Path… up, up past lakes and rocks and looking back from whence we came.
Walking up a mountain uses a very different set of muscle groups to cycling.
In fact elite level cyclists try and avoid stairs completely, in case they pull or tear the wrong muscles! But I needn’t have worried, after all, I’m not exactly an ‘elite’ cyclist but, anaerobically I was fit. I never felt out of breath and only ‘rested’ to allow the groups to join-up so we might all get to the summit together. This again is quite important to me.
In the training rides we’d done for the Velo, the sense that ‘as a group’ we’d all started that year doing 20/30 mile rides, pushing out to be ready to complete a hundred meant that we’d all got a shared experience. We’d all crossed the line together. We all shared a drink and a slice of pizza at the end to compare stories of our day and
I’m still in touch and ride with many of those I’d got to know through that process.
I sensed this would be the same.
For some, it would be quite emotional. Jo was aware she had a life-limiting illness. This might be the last time she’d do anything like this and was eager to stand with her son Sam, at the top together as a moment shared, mother and son.
Three hours after setting out from Llanberis we turned left joining the other paths that met up alongside the mountain railway line that bought those passengers who’d taken the much more sensible decision to let the train take the strain. My brother knew I was walking up that day and had called me just at this point. He along with my step father had taken the train up before and thought I was “mad” to want to walk up when there was a perfectly good train service that did that for you!
Almost There! Looking back down the Miners Path and the Pyg track, from the left (another route up Snowdon), as they meet towards the top.
At this point, you’ve pretty much climbed Snowdon.
But for the purists (and I now counted myself among them), you had to join a ‘queue’ that went up to the actual tip of the summit where a granite rock is centred with a brass stone pointing in compass directions out across the various points, North, South, East and West.
This was definitively “it” – THE highest place you could stand in England and Wales.
THE highest point in all of England and Wales – 1,085m the summit of Mount Snowdon
Out across Cardigan Bay the sun showed the clear beaches to the East, to the south, the valleys below and then the flat plains back towards the English borders with Shropshire, to the north and West, Anglesey, the Menai Straits and then across towards Llandudno and Rhyl towards the Wirral and Cheshire – I could see it all!
From the summit looking west towards Cardigan Bay
Looking East with the mountain railway in the foreground out towards the the Menai Straits and Anglesey top left.
We were blessed – the sun had shone for the most part, it was breezy, enough to want a hot drink from the café at the top but not so cold as to shiver.
All that was left after the big ‘team photo’ was the walk down. But which way?
The return was via the Llanberis Path.
It effectively followed alongside the Mountain Railway.
As a boy I’d read the Rev. W Audrey’s “Thomas the Tank Engine” stories and one of them is dedicated to “The Mountain Engines” – there’s a scene which depicts the engine and it’s carriages cresting the highest point before going into the lone platform at the summit. I turned and looked back up and it was like I’d gone back into my childhood.
Down below the noise of the strain of the next train climbing with its’ smoke billowing from its’ chimney, filled the otherwise silent air. It echoed up the mountainside and for a second, I stopped and watched it. Longer than a second – for a few minutes.
The Mountain Engines – for real!
This was much more than ‘just a walk’ and Snowdon is much more than ‘just a mountain’.
The descent was just as taxing as the climb. Your calf muscles take the strain of the walk down an incline much more. This can be relieved I found out, by occasionally turning around and walking backwards – try it!
A friend had suggested I cut my toenails a day or two before. “You don’t want long toe nails digging into the front of your walking boots coming down” I was told – good tip! The sun was lower in the sky now and our shadows had started to lengthen from the path as the town of Llanberis came into view.
The descent down the Llanberis path – not much further to go now!
Our guides had served us well. Everyone made it back safe, fulfilled and with some 25,000 steps in our legs - a real sense of achievement spread across our group. I’m sure the coach journey back to Birmingham was full of stories and comparisons of each other’s day.
I don’t know. I was asleep!
A good day's work!