Thirteen stone pillars have recently been erected on Snowdon to direct walkers along popular paths. Have we reached a turning point where waymarking of mountains is now considered acceptable? Or is Snowdon a special case? We investigate the issues.
They barely come to waist height, and the only information on them is a name, a small arrow and a distance in metres.
But the 13 stone pillars recently erected on Snowdon have been enough to unsettle outdoor users in Wales, some of whom fear they could point the way to a more widespread waymarking of Britain’s hills.
Unlike in continental Europe, where waymarking is often commonplace, Britain has long resisted the idea of introducing signs and direction markers to its mountainous areas. Critics see them variously as an ‘urban’ intrusion on wild places, a dangerous lure for ill-prepared people, a blemish on the landscape, a ‘hand-holding’ measure which erodes the self-reliant ethos needed for mountain travel, and often all of the above.
But Snowdon is no ordinary mountain. Even without its famous railway and summit café, the 1,085m (3,560ft) Snowdon is still an exceptionally popular hill. More than 360,000 people were estimated to have walked up it in 2012 alone, compared to 100,000 people on Ben Nevis and 225,000 people (plus the odd octopus) on Scafell Pike. And those extra numbers mean more accidents.
The Snowdonia National Park Authority says its decision to put stone pillars at strategic points marking the main paths up the mountain – the Llanberis Path, Rhyd-Ddu Path, Snowdon Ranger Path, Miners Track and the Pyg Track – stemmed from observations made by Llanberis Mountain Rescue Team, which is often called to respond to accidents involving ill-prepared, lost or unwary walkers on Snowdon.
In recent years, the team had reported that many of these walkers seemed to be getting into difficulties in similar places, such as the intersection of the Llanberis Path and the Snowdon Ranger Path, and at Bwlch y Moch where a path diverges from the Pyg Track leading to the knife-edge Crib Goch.
The National Park Authority says the pillars will help prevent walkers tackling the wrong routes by mistake. Llanberis Mountain Rescue team has welcomed the initiative, saying it believes the pillars will succeed in nudging walkers away from potentially perilous route choices. Snowdonia’s MountainSafe Partnership, in which the BMC is closely involved, and the Northern Snowdonia Local Access Forum have also given their assent to the plans.
Thin end of the wedge?
Local BMC activists have debated the signs at length in Area Meetings. The members present at these meetings overwhelmingly voted not to object to the placing of the pillars on Snowdon.
But some remain opposed to them. Simon Panton, BMC member and publisher of the GroundUp series of guidebooks, is one of these. “It’s the thin end of the wedge,” he says.
“Snowdon is still really a special, special environment. Yes, there is a rail line and a café, but the Snowdon Horseshoe, with Crib Goch on one side and Y Liwedd on the other, is still an extremely wild and beautiful place.
“There are two different worlds next to each other on Snowdon – bits of it have been colonised and softened and urbanised. But I really don’t want that colonisation go any further. There are still lots of places you can go on Snowdon that are wild and remote and spectacular, that have that original character. My worry is, what we are going to be talking about in 20 years’ time? Hand rails on Crib Goch? Where does it end?”
Simon added: “I’m sympathetic to the Mountain Rescuers. They have to cope with a lot. But it won’t help to reduce accidents. The more you put things which belong in urban environments on a mountain like that, the more you make people feel as if it’s safe, when it’s never going to be. You’re almost tricking them. It will attract more people, and there will be more and more accidents.”
To an outsider it might seem remarkable that 13 pieces of recycled rock could be seen as having the power to fundamentally change the character of a mountain. But hill walking in Britain has always been defined by a spirit of self-reliance, an independent ethos that is incompatible with signposts, waymarks or any other guiding feature that takes responsibility away from the individual. Wild places should be left wild, both for people’s common enjoyment and their long-term safety prospects.
However inobtrusive-seeming, the Snowdon pillars represent something that doesn’t sit well with this view. The controversy around them stems as much from what they signify, and what they might herald for the future, as what they actually are.
Tom Hutton, chair of the North Wales area of the BMC, feels as strongly as Simon does about waymarking in mountain areas. “My personal view of any ‘dumbing down ‘of the hills is that I’m against it,” he says. “There is a risk that it could become a slippery slope, that it could spread to other mountains in the region. There is a worry that when people come here, they think ‘right, we’ve done Snowdon now, let’s go up Tryfan’, then in two years time you’re having the same discussion about waymarks there.
Where Tom differs from Simon is his attitude towards Snowdon itself, and the extent to which he thinks the consequences of such massive visitor pressure can really be resisted.
“Snowdon is the region’s cash cow,” he says. “If you look at some of the pictures of the summit on busy weekends, it looks like a football crowd. In order for signs to spread to other mountains the mindset of people would have to change from ‘I’ve done Snowdon’ to ‘now I’ve done Snowdon I’ll do another mountain.’ That doesn’t exist at the moment. Snowdon really is an exception. Once you’re outside the honeypot areas Snowdonia is really quite a quiet place. Overall I have a reluctant acceptance of the pillars.”
Tom expresses unease, however, with the way he thinks the scheme has morphed since its inception. “When they first proposed it I think the National Park Authority were talking of putting up about three pillars,” he says. “Then over time it grew and now there are 13. I feel there is a danger that because we were consulted we gave our consent to something that wasn’t what actually appeared. There’s a concern that they keep shifting the goalposts somewhat. I think that makes people more wary of what they’re planning.”
So are the Snowdon waymarks a sign of things to come? If the taboo around waymarking is broken on Snowdon, why not Scafell Pike or Ben Nevis? Or any other mountain, for that matter?
Simon, for one, feels the number of people willing to represent his stance is dwindling – and he dislikes being characterised as a hoary old ‘traditionalist’ for expressing a view he has always held to be common mountain sense. He says: “I never thought I’d feel like some sort of grumpy man, but I think it’s important that people like me stand up and say ‘this is wrong,’ because all you’ve got is people saying ‘let’s just go along with it.’
“Our kind of value system is not seen as important any more. I’m made to feel like I hold some sort of extreme view, but I think I’m just normal. It’s the National Park Authority that’s lost the plot. They should be putting money into educating people instead of trying to shepherd them around the hills.”
What do you think? To discuss the Snowdon pillars and issues like it affecting the mountain and crag landscape in North Wales, come along to the BMC Cymru North Wales Area Meeting, to be held next at the RSPB Cafe, South Stack, Holyhead, Anglesey, LL65 1YH on Wednesday 4 September, starting at 8.30pm. Find out more info here.
BMC Area Meetings are a forum for local BMC members, activists and people with an interest in the outdoors and mountain environment generally to come together to discuss and act upon issues in their locality. To find out about BMC Area Meetings in other parts of the country, click here.
This article was amended on Thursday July 23. The original version of the article stated that BMC members at local BMC Area Meetings in which the pillars were discussed had a "reluctant acceptance" of the pillars. This was changed to more accurately reflect the views of the members.
This article is part of BMC on Foot, a push to raise awareness of the BMC’s work for hill walkers and its stance on a range of topical issues affecting hill walkers. Please help us by completing our hill walking survey.
Want to get into hill walking? The BMC has teamed up with excellent Plas y Brenin centre in Snowdonia to offer a series of Head for the Hills starter courses. A great way to get the skills you need to be confident in the mountains, you get a discount of up to 50% with free transport from Llandudno Railway Station. For more information see here.