by Eleanor Harris
The view from the top is never the same, although I know every hold. One of the few things you can rely on in Snowdonia is, perhaps paradoxically, that it will always be changing; and yet, despite the dramatic seasonal changes, the ancient hills are consistently compelling.
All year, it is as if the mountains have their own kind of magic which decompresses your spine and lets you breathe easier and deeper. A snow-capped mountain, no matter how many times you have seen it before, will send a thrill through you with the promise it conveys of a place apart from the regular world, the unblemished snow making you feel like you have stumbled on a newly-created utopia.
After a spontaneous summertime swim in a cold sky lake with a dear friend, you’ll emerge muddy and half-frozen, but feeling exhilarated. Relationships accelerate with time spent outside, whether through looking after each other, or the heartfelt conversations that become magically easier under the wide skies and craggy views.
Little things, like a sachet of hot chocolate snaffled away in someone’s bag, a pair of dry socks, or the cloud breaking momentarily to show you how far you have come become immensely satisfying, and provided you all keep each other warm, you will sleep well, despite the sometimes miserable weather.
Spending time in the hills generally brings out the best in people, and you come away feeling privileged to have seen how generous and helpful strangers can be. People you meet outside or in equipment shops are a wealth of encouragement and advice for whatever excursions you fancy doing, and you get the sense that they take real pleasure in passing on their passion.
Generosity is at its greatest when things go wrong; mountain rescue, composed mainly of volunteers, come out in all weathers and times to risk their lives for the lost and injured. Teams even go and rescue sheep stuck on ledges, which really shows the deep care that people have for the area and its animals. *
But despite the friendship and the abundant wonder to be found, this is an imperfect place, and many of its problems have been worsening recently. Thousands of tourists are attracted by the beauty and adventure, but can be damaging in their numbers.
The shy animals and birds are distressed by the busyness, and rare plants get trampled. Mountain guides are pressured by the companies they work for into taking too large groups out, which increases the already considerable risks, and has caused serious accidents.
Tourists with little knowledge of the countryside’s rules trespass farms and damage ancient stone walls by climbing over them, thus turning what were once positive, educational interactions for both farmers and visitors into hostility from many farmers. The now-yearly battle between the new Snowdonia of adventure holidays and DofE expeditions, and the old landscape of hard graft and traditions worsens everyone’s experience.
Deaths and bad accidents are chillingly common in the hills; far more so than their relatively low height could lead you to believe, and several people are lost every year. The landscape is so unforgivingly hostile at times that this waste of lives can happen randomly; mundane issues such as ill-fitting boots, a lost map, or a unexpectedly loose rock can spiral into big issues for the inexperienced and the expert alike, especially when the weather gets bad.
For all the slate industry’s grave – and sometimes deadly – cost to its workers, their descendants are still plagued by poverty now that the quarries are shut. In villages like Deiniolen, over half of the community are still unemployed, and they have the poverty statistics to match.
Blaenau Ffestiniog, a town surrounded by so much waste slate that the mountains look like they have been turned inside out, is treated as a national joke for its otherworldly ugliness, but the reality of its situation is far from funny. In the statistics on child poverty, fuel poverty, unemployment and drug use, it is shown to be a town so neglected that it has become one of Britain’s most deprived places.
These problems may not seem particularly significant, given that they relate to one small corner of the country. They are, however, manifest across the rest of the world. Random, pointless loss of life can affect anyone, and prioritizing profit over people’s welfare, and the exploitation and neglect of communities and environment which results, is a rapidly-growing problem throughout Britain and the world.
A proper solution to these problems will probably prove a greater challenge than can be met in this century. But, I feel that the way we deal with the troubling situations we face would be improved by adopting into our everyday lives the mentality that being in the hills gives us; embracing an approach to life where we look out for each other, respect our surroundings, plants and animals, and, above all, make the most of whatever satisfaction and happiness we can create out of the occasionally hostile environments, be they natural or man-made, in which we find ourselves.