A new trial system of managed access is to be introduced on Snowdon later this year. The Walk Wyddfa scheme, backed by a consortium of safety bodies and local authorities, will bring in ticketing and basic competence requirements in an effort to cut down ill-prepared walkers and improve the environment on Wales' busiest mountain. If the two-year trial period proves a success it could represent a step change in upland management, with lasting implications for the right to roam and health and safety in the outdoors, but critics say the plan has not been properly thought through.
Upwards of 700,000 people climb Snowdon every year, and as the numbers increase so too do mountain rescue incidents, often involving the poorly equipped or inexperienced.
The Walk Wyddfa scheme aims to tackle the problem by capping numbers and testing for proficiency.
To allow the new powers to come into effect CRoW access laws will be temporarily waived on Snowdon for the period of the trial.
Under the scheme, gates will be set up at the start of each of Snowdon's six popular named paths - the Pyg Track, the Miner's Track, the Watkin Path, the Rhyd-Ddu Path, the Snowdon Ranger and the Llanberis Path.
Here day tickets will be issued on entry, on a first come first served basis. Each group will be asked to fill out a card detailing their planned route, estimated return time and emergency contact information. Walkers will then sign back out on descending from the mountain.
"Mountains are serious, not places just to have fun"
One aim, says Walk Wyddfa, is to provide the emergency services with reliable details of exactly who is on the mountain, and where.
'At present it's simply a free for all' explains Walk Wyddfa's Isa Pratt.
'The situation is in no one's interests. Mountain rescue have no idea who is up there, at least until someone calls them. And by then of course it's too late and an incident will have already occurred. Meanwhile the general public has to take pot luck on how they find Snowdon on the day. Will it be desperately busy, with crowds literally jostling for space on precarious narrow trails, or will the mountain be dangerously deserted with no one around to help in the event of an accident?'
'The solution is to control everything that happens on the trails. This is nothing to fear. After all, managed access is already commonplace elsewhere in the world, from the backcountry permits of America's wilderness areas to the trekking peaks of Nepal. It has been proven time and again on safety grounds, and can serve as a useful revenue stream too, though I'd prefer you didn't make a big thing of that.'
Initially there are no plans to levy a permit fee on Snowdon, though Walk Wyddfa are said to be keeping options under review. Insiders suggest that a possible future fee might include a small charge for compulsory insurance to offset any rescue costs.
In addition to the ticketing regime, each designated group leader will have to demonstrate a minimum level of hillwalking ability. This might be a course certificate or a logbook of previous walks signed by a qualified third party.
'But we don't want to be too prescriptive or bureaucratic' insists Pratt, 'so if you lack the relevant paperwork our rangers will be happy to conduct an assessment of your skills before signing you in. This might be a simple multiple choice questionnaire or a quick hands-on test of navigation in the car park. It's not something we've fully explored yet to be honest.'
At the point of entry walkers will also be quizzed on gear, with a system of random 'stop and search' spot checks to ensure that the correct equipment and clothing are being carried. In time there might be room for a commercial partnership, suggest Walk Wyddfa, with gear retail at the trail head so that walkers can stock up on anything they've forgotten from the list of required items.
'The stereotypical image of a Snowdon walker is someone in high heels and jeans, with their sandwiches in a carrier bag and no idea how to follow a bearing or dig a snow hole' says Pratt.
'They'll just be out for a bit of a laugh, and a selfie or two jumping off a rock with their tongues out. They've little respect for the surroundings.'
'This sort of casual enjoyment cheapens the image of the mountain and leads to all sorts of headaches for rescuers.'
'Well enough is enough. Mountains are a serious business, not places just to have fun, and these unprepared visitors would be better off riding up Snowdon on the train.'
"This undermines hard-won access rights and makes a dismal box-ticking exercise out of a lovely day in the hills"
Walk Wyddfa's ambitions don't end at safety; there's an environmental angle too.
As the highest peak in Britain, overcrowding is common on Snowdon. The weekend hordes bring environmental problems from path erosion and unsightly accents to water course pollution and littering. The situation has got so bad that mass litter picks have had to be organised in recent years (see UKH news here for instance).
In a move that would probably outrage outdoor groups, Walk Wyddfa aims to solve Snowdon's environmental problems through a quota system, assigning a daily limit on the overall number of users on each named trail. Once the day's ceiling has been reached further access will only be permitted on a one in, one out basis. The figures they have in mind are yet to be confirmed, though sources suggest that on the Llanberis Path the limit will be kept very low in order to preserve the wilderness atmosphere.
'In addition to safety improvements, Walk Wyddfa will help the fragile environment by giving us a powerful tool both to monitor and to control the numbers of people on the mountain' explains Isa Pratt.
'It's two birds with one stone. Who could possibly object to that sort of smart local government?'
Well surprisingly, given its obvious benefits, critics are lining up to pick holes in the scheme.
'Litter may be a problem on Snowdon, but this project is a worse mess by far' complains Rich Seam of the Grumbler's Association.
'What they are proposing is a grotesque attack on walkers' basic freedom. It undermines hard-won access rights and makes a dismal box-ticking exercise out of a lovely day in the hills. Worse still, there's absolutely no evidence that it will help improve either safety or the environment on the mountain. This is PC health and safety gone nanny state mad. Someone's just dreamed it all up on the back of a fag packet in the pub; they've really not thought through any of the implications. Seriously, you could not make this stuff up.'
'It's a joke.'