The greatest enemy on Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon) is undoubtedly erosion, but which do you think causes more: people or the weather? Well, the worst is not actually caused by people, but by extremes of weather – and this has always been the case.
In a way we can’t say that erosion is all bad. After all, the landscape we see around Yr Wyddfa today is clearly a consequence of millions of years of continuing and interchanging erosion, rock formation and earth movements, though is actually dominated by relatively recent activity, particularly glacial erosion. It was ice that created the cwms and ridges around the summit, giving the mountain its distinctive and attractive shape, and it was ice that over-deepened the peripheral valleys into their characteristic profiles.
Whilst natural weathering processes alone will happily cause erosion, given a chance, the effect of man will not only worsen it, but in some cases encourage it. Walkers in the numbers which use Yr Wyddfa’s main paths will always have the potential for damage, namely to destroy any grass (which may include rare habitats), expose any surface soil, break up the surface of the path, and small stones too start to become loose, ready to be washed away by rain. And as visitor numbers increase, so the problem potentially worsens.
Eroded paths are not just a threat to the mountain habitat, they are also less safe to the walkers using them. Improved footpaths will lead to greater safety, and by keeping walkers on them, the surrounding areas will be allowed to recover.
A serious path maintenance programme started on Yr Wyddfa in the 1970s, when a couple of reports revealed the state of the paths on Yr Wyddfa. Erosion at this time was appalling, and parts of the mountain were described as looking like a lunar landscape; the paths were particularly bad in winter. Esmé Kirby, in the annual report of the Snowdonia National Park Society in 1971, wrote:
Every year more and more people use the paths up the mountains. The Rhyd-ddu and Snowdon Ranger paths are now cart track-wide, the Watkin Path is so scoured that in many places it is unusable and in wet weather can be a miniature stream. The zigzag is becoming a scree …
The report did, however, also concede that, with the help of volunteers, the National Park wardens had done some excellent work on the Pyg and Miners’ Tracks, but that this was only the tip of the iceberg, and much more was needed.
Meanwhile, in March 1976 The Illustrated London News wrote dramatically that “Snowdon … is wearing away”:
Snowdon, highest mountain in England and Wales, crown of the National Park that bears its name, is wearing away. This symbolic fact emerged from the Snowdon Summit report prepared last year for the Countryside Commission on the problems of the mountain, particularly of the erosion of its paths by 120,000 pairs of feet a year and its summit by another 92,000 brought up by rail. (These figures are today much higher, of course.)
All of Yr Wyddfa’s main paths have now been ‘engineered’ to a greater or lesser extent, and by keeping to these paths very little erosion is caused by people themselves. It’s therefore annoying to see people, for instance, taking ‘short cuts’ (which often aren’t) and dislodging all manner of stones and rocks as they go. Similarly runners on the mountain will on occasion take short cuts. One runner might not do much damage, but they are often followed by a string of walkers who blindly follow. Bikes too can cause erosion, and one has only to watch bikers descending on the Llanberis or Snowdon Ranger paths, their back brakes dragging a lot of the mountain down with them, to realise that a single bike can do more damage than several thousand walkers.
But to return to weather-related erosion, there’s little we can do to control this. Certainly, general erosion can’t be seen on a daily basis, but we have all witnessed natural rockfalls, a part of this process, or seen the erosive effects of floods. On an annual basis, particularly heavy downfalls of rain will wash scree and rocks down hillside gullies, and evidence of this can most regularly be seen in places on the paths. Elsewhere culverts are regularly blocked by small stones and gravel which is continuously washed down.
Rocks and scree washed down by heavy rain onto the Pyg Track near the Intersection
And one day, I guess, the elements will win. It’s a sobering thought that just as Yr Wyddfa was once so much taller, erosion by the elements – albeit slow when measured in human years – is an unstoppable fact of life. One day, long after we are all gone, so too Yr Wyddfa will disappear.