As his backyard is transformed into a winter playground, Martin Chester is one happy man
Living in the sleepy Snowdonia village of Brynrefail, it is only a short walk to Pen Llyn or the head of the lake. Looking up the Llanberis Pass to Snowdon, this single view contains memories of scrambling, running, walking, road and mountain biking, kayaking, swimming, rock climbing, ice-climbing and, once in a decade, some skiing.
These locally accessible adventures have seen my body and soul through cancer and Covid; and with the latest lockdown came one of the most unusual winters any of us can remember. The volume and quality of the local sliders made it – as much as the snow.
It was a white Christmas over the modest (900m+) summits of Snowdonia. Over the next days, the snow line crept down and fluctuated around 300m as the wind filled the hollows and the snow pack built in depth above.
In the summer, on bike and on foot, our local summit of Elidir Fawr is a sub-two-hour adventure from the door. In winter, it would not be the obvious choice for North Wales’ premier ski resort, as it is a rocky and rugged affair, but the service road to the hydro scheme makes it amazingly accessible. It also forms an enticing horseshoe (the Pedol Elidir) with Carnedd y Filiast and Mynydd Perfedd (the ‘perfect mountain’).
Discovering that my 15-year-old son Joe and I could ‘pop out’ after home school, bike to the snow-line, ski Elidir Fawr, and be back home within three hours, was a lockdown revelation!
So ‘Big Saturday’ was the culmination of a fortnight of build-up. With a fresh dump of snow over the summits and a calm day forecast, this was a chance of a lifetime for G’dad. Now 77 years young, David had become part of our household throughout the pandemic lockdowns.
Setting out from the front door we excitedly strapped skis to bikes and poles to packs. Cycling in ski boots really is not as tricky as you might expect. Riding up the icy cycle path, I questioned the impact of a sideways fall on David’s artificial hips but, barring one walk around a patch of ice, the ride passed without consequence. Getting up into the snowline, we got improving grip and were soon doing better than the cars…
Lots of cars! Despite the lockdown, there were crowds of people kitting up at Marchlyn. It is fair to question whether this is kosher, but it was inspirational to see (and we all have to run our own risk/benefit analysis and interpret ‘how local is local’ when travelling to exercise).
Bikes locked up, it was skins on. The antics on the dam road were hilarious, watching as people realised that stiles, cattle grids and kissing gates are hardly regular alpine obstacles – and none of us had a strategy for negotiating them with skis on.
Passing the construction site, I had to chuckle at the sign and at the crowds. I have never seen so many people out skiing in North Wales!
David and I quickly reached the Dam, and the literal ‘end of the road’, just as the atmospheric mists swirled in. A quick bite and a drink in the tunnel entrance (enjoying the funky echo) and we were soon questing up across the slopes of Elidir Fawr. The mist wrapped us in our own world for a while, as we felt our way up to the summit ridge. With wind-sculpted snow and poor visibility, it was easier to stash the skis at the col and boot the last, horizontal, 200 metres.
The views were spectacular. Holes in the mist drifted gently past, framing views out to the Menai Straits and the whole of Anglesey far below. The bi-lingual banter (in Welsh and English) reminded us this was no ordinary ski peak, as eight more skiers appeared out of the clouds.
Back at the skis, we stripped skins and clicked into bindings. You don’t come here for the quality of the snow, but this was surprisingly good. Once off the wind-battered ridge, we could let rip into the mist – no chance of hitting rocks here, and plenty of space for everyone. A quick check of the altimeter, before we got too carried away, and it was time to head left to the col.
Rime ice had transformed the netting fence into a one-foot-wide (but only a foot high now) barrier to straddle as we entered the surge pool bowl.
Dropping out of the mist now, the full Snowdon panorama opened up before us. A vista that had delivered so many stellar sunsets in recent days. The grippy wind-pack under foot held up particularly well as we cruised down the ‘Elidir Blue Piste’ to the surge pool enclosure. A group of local kids with snowboards were happily lapping a jump.
A quick boot and a skate, and we were scoffing the remainder of our picnic at the road-head. Marvelling that we had not hit a single rock, nor a single turn in crust. We savoured the expansive view across sea and mountains before us, before the final descent of the hard-packed service road to the bikes.
Saturday 12 January 2021 will be etched in the memory for so many local riders. There must have been some 50 people out sliding on this one hill – and just as many over the valley between Moel Elio and Snowdon.
There is something amazing about having your backyard transformed into an unexpected winter playground. The combination of familiar hills and familiar faces are an everyday pleasure. But seize the day that frequented rocky slopes become magical ski fields, and you capture the sheer joy of self-propelled adventure. Here’s to the next time…