Tom Fenton makes a horrible plan, some questionable choices, and wins.
Words Tom Fenton Photography Andy Heading
“Hang on a minute lads, I’ve got a great idea…” Hoping it would be more Michael Caine than Baldrick, I continued, “let’s ride all the bridleways on Snowdon in one go.”
Descending Snowdon on a bike is one of the best things you can do in Wales. It’s 850 metres of uninterrupted descent, varying from flat-out motorway to technical singletrack. Eight hundred and fifty metres of fantastic descending? Three times? That’s more than the Mega. That’s over 2,500 metres of down, on ace trails, in the UK, in one day. Definitely a great idea!
At least, I think it is…
Climbing Snowdon once is hard. Three times sounds really hard. And that much descending, no matter how good, is hard. By the time we roll off the top for the third time we’ll be knackered. We’ll just get phenomenal arm pump and crash in spectacular fashion.
Still a great idea? It must be, because when I tell everyone about it, they all want to come.
I decide to stop telling people before things get silly, and so it’s Andy, Steve and Richie who join me in a dark Welsh valley at an unearthly hour on a Thursday morning. Bags already packed, there’s no messing about, just excitement and anticipation and a quick nervous pee before we grab our bikes and head off. The wrong way.
The third way.
Snowdon has three bridleways to its summit. The most obvious is the wide and technically straightforward Llanberis track. Often dismissed as boring, that does it a huge disservice. It’s fast and fun and there’s loads of room to play around. Then there’s the Ranger – technical singletrack, loads of hairpins and incredible views. It’s the one everyone descends and for good reason. Lastly, there’s the Rhyd Ddu (Rid Doo?), described as ‘unrideable’, ‘death on a stick’ and ‘a six-inch wide track where you’re clinging to a rock with one hand and dangling your bike above a 200-foot drop with the other’. Intriguing, no?
After a quick U-turn, we locate the Ranger and begin to climb. The mountains lurk against a clear, star-filled sky. Ahead, Richie is climbing steadily – silhouetted against the brightness of his own light. Steve, invisible in the darkness, has set off without one. I turn mine off and ride with him by the light of the moon. It’s quiet. The only sounds are tyres crunching on gravel and occasional sheep moving lazily aside. I love these moments. Absolute peace and contentment, magnified by the excitement of knowing that the ‘storm’, the huge day of riding, is about to break.
Snowdon is a tricky hill to ride. Being a ‘proper’ mountain, you’ve got to be sensible with the weather. Ideally, you’d ride in summer, but that’s when the bike restrictions kick in. For a single summit visit that’s fine, you can start early and be down in time. Three times? No chance. Snowdon is so popular that weekends are dodgy. So we want a weekday outside the ban and that means time off work. And once you’ve booked time off, you’re going on that weekday. You’d better hope the forecast is good.
Despite its strength, it’s a warm wind and as light fills the valley, the view is stunning. A deep cwm, a couple of lakes in its depths, is framed by dark crags. Around it, grassy slopes merge into fields of grey rock. Ahead, the narrow track fades into the hillside. We’re really in the mountains.
Rhud Dee Hell?
As we climb we hit the first technical sections and have decisions to make. Attempt to ride or get off and push? Pride says go hard, but sense suggests we might pay later. Indecision reigns and we hit a wet rocky section with too little speed. Last-minute attempts at success are both strength-sapping and unsuccessful and we neither succeed nor save energy… Perhaps luckily, the trail becomes too technical to ride and we happily shoulder our bikes. Steve and Richie have a little debate about technique, with Richie bracing his top tube on his bag while Steve goes for the method everyone seems to use these days and flips his bike upside down, holding it across his shoulders by the cranks and fork legs. I’ve never quite got this – it’s comfy, but in the UK in autumn, it essentially means you’re smearing a mud and sheep shit combo across your back. It seems to work though, and undeterred by the climbing to come, or driven on by the smell, Steve powers off into the cloud.
The cloud… Snowdon’s upper slopes are now hidden by a dirty grey blanket. What’s more, the wind is strengthening. Is the storm coming early? Is this a dumb idea? Ignoring the thought, we carry on, arriving at the summit in typically Welsh weather. There doesn’t seem much point in hanging around, so we head off into the unknown.
Unable to see more than a few metres, we aim for what we think is the Rhyd Ddu, but the ‘trail’ disappears into a mess of jagged rock that plunges out of sight. “Are you sure this is right?” asks Andy. To be honest I’m not, but it looks fun so I tell him I am and drop into the mist.
What I find is crazily steep, loose and covered in pointy bits of mountain that I really don’t want to land on. Locked wheels need to be released to turn, but not so much as to send you hurtling to a jagged doom. You need good brake control or pot luck. I pick the latter and scrabble down, somehow upright and in one piece. I look back to see Richie come barrelling out of the murk and almost skid straight off the mountainside, grinning like an idiot. No change there. Steve and Andy follow in a more controlled manner and then, to my not-insignificant relief, we reach a stone marker with the words ‘Rhyd Ddu’ scratched into it. (“It’s ‘Read Thee’,” says Welsh Steve after I’ve mangled the name a few times, “like Shakespeare commanding you to check out a book.”)
It’s the next section of the Rhyd Ddu that everyone talks about – a ridge of jagged spires traversed by a narrow trail. It’s instantly technical, the sort of technical where you try to go as slowly as possible but also keep enough speed to bounce you over steps and off drops without tripping over your front wheel. Dangerous and unrideable? Only one way to find out!
Holding lines across wet, off-camber slabs, dropping through chutes lined with ankle-catching rocks and lurching awkwardly round corners with no clear lines, pure luck sees me through the first section. Richie, not the most subtle of riders, charges in with twice the speed I dare and forces a way through. Steve, on his second ride after a six-month break, is understandably struggling a little. But I’ve watched him attempt a huge drop, having never ridden anything half as big before, crash flat out and then jump straight up for a second go. He employs a similarly ballsy approach here and, despite a decent OTB and impressively bloody shin, he too cleans it after a couple of attempts.
We’re properly on the ridge now, the trail picking a narrow line along one side. As the wind whips the cloud around, sporadic breaks reveal spectacular rocky spires and breathtaking drops to the valleys below. It’s stunning. The amount of rideable ground is reducing fast, but we hop on and off every few metres, unable to resist attempting anything that looks even slightly like it’ll go. We ride some bits, bottle others and grab the brakes in terror midway through the rest. It’s not flowing trail, but it’s definitely an experience.
The madness soon eases and we’re blasting down an open hillside in a series of wide zigzags. The gusts mean it’s impossible to hold a line on each zig, but give spectacular bursts of acceleration on the zags. We drop lower and the heavens open as the storm well and truly breaks. We hurtle through torrential rain into seriously technical terrain.
A bewildering number of lines awaits. Some are dead ends, some allow passage through impossible-looking rock gardens. The rain hammers down and touching the brakes at the wrong time becomes a one-way ticket to crashing. Blinking into the storm, I guess my way down the trail. I slither down a rocky slab and have to force myself to let off the brakes. I hop a boulder and only just clear a smaller one behind it. A moment later, I’m funnelled down a narrow twisting gully, spray flying and feet out to stay upright.
We don’t attempt to ride everything. I stop before a rocky drop only to find Richie just behind me. Unable to stop in the pelting rain he hits my rear wheel, punting my bike out from between my legs and leaving me straddling air.
Rhyd Ddu done, we tag the bottom gate. Checking the time, we realise we need to get a move on. But the wet, traction-less rock and gusting wind means riding is impossible and pushing back up is the only option. Even that’s hard, with the bikes being tugged and pulled by the wind as we stagger and slip in their wake. The weather is worsening by the minute. The words ‘idiots’ and ‘mountain rescue’ spring to mind. Everything’s getting a bit serious.
Then Steve spots a farmer herding his sheep. Most are under control, but one’s got away and his dog is chasing it around the field. He’s trying to get the dog to heel, but it’s ignoring him. “Bob!” he shouts, “Bob! You f*****g t**t!”
Thanks to Bob, the mood lightens and after an hour or two of drenched buffeting, we’re back at the ridge. Richie shoulders his bike, which worries Steve and me as we’re convinced he’s about to be blown to his death, but he survives and we tag the summit cairn for the second time. Weather-beaten and worryingly cold, we decide to get down ASAP and stagger off towards the Llanberis track and the promise of a cup of tea.
The Llanberis track might be wide and motorway-like, but it’s a load of fun. Even in a maelstrom, you can take racy lines or playful lines. You can see rocks coming a mile off, set up in plenty of time and launch off them, or arc around them and berm off the trailside bank, just for the hell of it. Attempting to get warm I pick the latter, bunny hopping every rock I can and slaloming round ones I can’t. This sort of works, but my numb hands soon cause truly magnificent arm pump and so I switch to deathgripping the bars and straightlining through the rocks which, I’ll not lie, is terrifying, so I stop to shake out the pump instead. Steve comes by flat out, clearly back in the swing of things and hopping off slabs and landing way down the trail. By the time we tag the gate at the bottom we’re all a little sad it’s over. Two down, one to go.
All good things…
We’d planned on dropping down to Llanberis for lunch, but then remember the little Penceunant café, handily positioned between the bridleway and the stupidly steep tarmac lane into town. But we’re filthy. Will they let us in? We give it a go and the owner, Steffan, practically drags us in and sits us next to the fire, ignoring the growing flood at our feet. He’s quite a character and I’m not sure what to think when he labels me the ‘delicate one’. Turns out it means I get the extra big soup bowl and the ‘hot water stone’ from the fire, which is what it sounds like. Amazing. By the time we’re on our way we’re warm, full of food and I’ve got hot hands.
Our third and final ascent, the Llanberis track, is the easiest. Souped-up, we feel surprisingly good as we spin up the rock slabs and steps. We’re off and pushing as we near the second tunnel, but that always happens. Far from being knackered, we’re enjoying the climb.
And then it gets better. The sun comes out.
Our third and final visit to the summit is beneath a clear blue sky and above a spectacular cloud inversion. The wind has gone and the colours are vivid in the evening light. The Rhyd Ddu ridge is still, white clouds hanging off its eastern side whilst the western edge is completely clear. And as we stand by the cairn, Steve spots a Brocken spectre, encircled by a double rainbow. It’s sickeningly perfect.
We’ve nearly done it. Climbed Snowdon three times, and in all manner of weather. We’ve survived the wild Rhyd Ddu. We’ve hurtled down the Llanberis track to a warm café and we’ve come back up to a stunning view.
And then it gets better.
Dropping off the summit for the final time we’re chilled-out, hunting for the smooth lines and cruising through the evening air. But the Ranger works its magic and we speed up, hopping the railway track and carving imaginary lines around boulders. Down the fast straight. Through the big rock garden. A smile spreads across my face. An actual, physical smile. Past the line of cairns. Richie and Steve tear down the behind me, stones flying. Into the singletrack. Into the tricky corners. Richie speeds by with a massive grin on his face. Round the switchbacks. Down the tricky gully and over the drops. Steve blurs through the wet bit in a shower of spray and we race to the zigzags, sliding round them feet out and weight forward until we drop through the final gate and into the car park, ticking off our third, final and favourite descent just before the sun drops behind the hills.
All three Snowdon bridleways in one day?