With the Welsh Government promising to ease the restriction on travel to and around Wales on 6th July, Snowdonia is on something of a knife edge. Local feeling ranges from those desperate for the vital tourism economy to re-start, through to people who fear that opening the countryside could lead to a second wave of infections in the area. What can climbers and walkers do to ensure that they don't become part of the problem?
The proposed re-opening depends on continued progress being made against the virus. It is also reliant on Snowdonia National Park, who could arguably have kept the Park open throughout to those living within five miles, but instead stuck to the precautionary approach and kept much of the prime mountain area in full lockdown. We do not yet know to what extent and at what pace local facilities and hill paths will be re-opened: we will update this piece when there's more information.
Meanwhile it's clear that if we want to see the park open, and remain so, then we need to show we as hillwalkers, mountaineers and rock climbers can use the area responsibly, and do everything we can not to play up to the fears of local residents.
As a result of these concerns, it would be sensible to try to avoid the honeypots and potential flashpoints, because although the government are lifting lockdown restriction, COVID is still in our communities and social distancing is still a thing.
Avoiding the Hotspots
There are several obvious flashpoints in Snowdonia, and when the authority closed the park it was with these in mind. Uppermost of these is of course Snowdon itself.
Anyone who has been up Snowdon of a busy weekend will know that the summit will be a major area of concern when it comes to social distancing. Whether or not the main footpaths will re-open on Snowdon is still unknown, and it would not surprise me if the Snowdonia National Park maintained the closure on this peak even well into July.
We already know from that the Snowdon Mountain Railway are this year essentially abandoning the summit cafe, so it will be closed, which means no toilets or cafe stop on the summit.
If Snowdon does reopen my top tip to avoid the kerfuffle on the summit is to think outside the box.
First off, avoid the Llanberis Path and Pen y Pass routes (PYG and Miner's Tracks), as these will be heaving and the parking awful. Instead consider using alternatives like the Watkin Path, South Ridge, Rhyd Ddu and Snowdon Ranger, or the alternative Llanberis path. The routes that do not start from either Llanberis or Pen y Pass are much quieter and have reasonable amounts of parking.
Be prepared to accept that it may be best to avoid the peak rush on the summit, which usually occurs around lunch time. Consider an alpine start in the early hours of the morning, or wait until later in the day to start up.
Even just avoiding stopping at the summit to eat will reduce the apparent numbers congregating there. Instead, consider wandering back down a short way and finding a place to stop a bit removed from the main footpaths. The area below the railway, at Bwlch Main where the PYG and Miner's Track merge with the Llanberis path, is reasonably flat, although lacks the shelter offered by the summit building. Here it might be easier for you to maintain social distancing and not affect people who are walking on the mountain paths. Or consider Garnedd Ugain as the summit, it is only 20m or so lower and I can assure you it is a nicer summit away from the crowds, with an amazing view of Snowdon itself.
Snowdon must be one of the most congested peaks in Europe: do you really want to head there? As a nearby alternative why not try either of its satellite peaks - both favourites of mine - Moel Eilio and Yr Aran. Both have amazing views of Snowdon but a fraction of the footfall:
Another area to think hard about is the ever-popular Ogwen Valley, particularly Tryfan, Glyder Fach and Glyder Fawr. While the summits of the Glyderau are broad enough to allow plenty of spreading out, key paths could be busy and the car parking is always congested.
Instead, try starting the Glyderau from the less obvious south side:
Or look beyond the Glyders themselves to some of the other equally worthwhile summits in the range:
Luckily, if it is a just a good day out in the hills you want then there are dozens of quieter alternatives to Snowdon and the core Glyderau, and on pretty much any other Snowdonian peak, social distancing should be far easier.
Areas to aim for to avoid the masses will include large parts of the Carneddau, the Nantlle hills, the Moelwynion, the Rhinogydd, the Arenigs, Cadair Idris and the Arans.
There are several ways that you as a visitor can help ease the transition to the new normal. Generally it comes down to respecting the very environment you have come to enjoy, and thinking about what impact you have, or may be perceived to have, on rural communities.
Car parking is always an issue in Snowdonia. Facilities are stretched to the limit every sunny weekend, with car parks overflowing and spilling out onto the roads to cause traffic management issues. Add Coronavirus to the picture and it's a recipe for chaos and ill feeling.
Some walls or crags have very limited parking within small villages and are already flash points of contention between the immediate residents and locals travelling their five miles for exercise. In some places this has lead to vandalism, with cars being graffitied or screws placed under tyres. I now check my wheels before I drive away. If this happens the BMC have recommended that you report this as a crime to the police using a non-urgent number.
During the Welsh lockdown, police have been very visible at parking problem areas such as Pen y Pass and Ogwen, and it seems likely they will continue to be. When the parking at these popular spots fills up, motorists can be tempted to abandon their cars by the roadside. However in both these locations the road is a clearway, defined by a solid white line, meaning it is illegal to block the road. Unless all four wheels are off the road you will face a parking fine, and believe me there is no department as efficient in the local council as the parking wardens. In some areas poor parking has also been known to obstruct emergency vehicle access.
1/1 This is a time for isolation, not going on a jolly to North Wales. This could result in you being injured, that would put more strain on Mountain Rescue and Local NHS resources. https://t.co/W5RcZYdufv— Ysbyty Gwynedd ED (@YGEDBangor) March 21, 2020
If all the parking at your chosen destination is taken, think twice. No matter how far you've driven to get there, you have no divine right to park. Plan your visit with a few variations in mind - and it's worth having a plan B. Using Google maps to recce the parking will often give you an idea of the limitations in terms of the number of cars an area can sensibly take.
Overnight stays away from home are not expected to be allowed in Wales until 11 July. At that point only fully self-contained accommodation will be permitted - for example holiday cottages, caravan sites, and glamping sites with private toilet facilities. More communal accommodation such as campsites with shared facilities, B&Bs, hostels, club huts and outdoor centres will stay closed.
There is no sign that the area will be welcoming overnight camping in vans, in part due to the issue of toilets. Since the Coronavirus crisis began, all council run toilets have been closed, and look set to stay that way.
As visitors return to North Wales this will become an issue again, as it did at the beginning of the crisis with the number of vans in Snowdonia reaching epidemic levels just before the lockdown. The police started to move many people on as a result. On the weekend of the 27-28th June, the police moved on over 200 people from vans and wild camping in the Lake District, as like Wales roadside camping is technically illegal in many places.
Arguably done responsibly van parking would be fine, however the current issues surrounding the closure of public toilets and previous issues, like the Lagoons in Llanberis resembling more of a travelling encampment than a car park, will no doubt mean that the authorities will try to curtail these activities. They already have to a certain extent with new height restriction on some car parks, which only seems to push the issue elsewhere.
Some of the locals are very fearful of the inevitable issue with human excrement running off into the lakes and rivers may well lead to higher risks of catching the disease locally. Scientist have shown you can already track the virus through sewage networks so we know that human waste does carry COVID.
I'd recommend that for the time being you avoid van camping, as Gwynedd already has some quite draconian bylaws in place and combined with a heightened state of caution and the inevitable concerned local reporting vans to the police, it would be unlikely you will get a full night's sleep without being asked to move on.
The whole illegal camping situation, whether it is van or tent based, is likely to be made worse by the simple fact that only a limited amount of accommodation will be opening up in Wales. Over the last few weeks there has been a lot of focus in the media on irresponsible camping, with widespread reports of anti social behaviour, abandoned tents, wildfires, littering and toilet issues. It's as if all the frustrated festival goers in England are out, looking for places to abandon all those popup tents.
Of course in media circles, anyone with a tent by the road is a wild camper. Even before the pandemic wild camping was technically illegal across most of the England and Wales, and anyone camping by the roadside in the near future is asking to be moved on. However for hillwalkers wild camping is well, just a little more wild. We prefer sheltered high mountain cwms, away from the hustle and bustle of civilisation far below. What people don't see, they are unlikely to object to. Low key and minimal impact will be vital. Leave no trace - even on social media!
It is all too easy for locals to blame visitors for many things, litter being an excellent example. It has been shocking to see the way people have been treating city parks, beaches and other beauty spots during lockdown. Over the last few months, litter in and around Llanberis has not suddenly disappeared, so it can't all be visitors' fault!
Nevertheless, to help to keep all outside areas in the beautiful state you found them consider the maxim "take nothing but photos and leave nothing but footprints".
Rubbish disposal does require some forward thinking, as not all areas are equipped with bins, those that are can fill up in a matter of hours, and due to COVID the bins are being empties less frequently. Carry a rubbish bag and aim to take everything home with you. You might also consider having a two minute sweep of the area, and taking home any additional rubbish you find.
Mismatch in COVID fear
This is one of the biggest issues we face today. I have seen it at crags where some people's fear is non-existent and they will come up and chat to you, invading that 2m space. The person they are approaching still wants to climb or walk, but does not wish to break social distancing guidelines. Whilst hillwalking the risk of being forced into close proximity with others is greatly reduced, but there will still be choke points like parking areas, stiles, gates and summits where you are forced into closer proximity.
Wherever you lie on the spectrum of COVID fear, the best way to keep everyone happy is to be courteous to everyone and of course respect each individual's 2m of space. If someone asks you to give them space then do so, and try to do it with grace and respect.
The majority of people will have seen few hills or crags for the last few months, and whilst it is all to easy to set off like a dog with two bones, you will to a greater or lesser extent have some form of skill fade. Sound decisions won't come as easily, the body might not be able to cash the cheques your mind is telling it to, everything will be a little rusty and the first couple of trips out you really need to focus on what you might consider easier days to re-up those faded skills.
For me the best way to do this is on familiar routes, where you know what you are getting into. However this often means it will be the better more popular routes and you therefore end up in a catch 22, as the routes are safer but busier and harder to socially distance on.
Personally having been to some of the more esoteric venues during the local lockdown, my experience was that they are considerably riskier undertakings, due to loose rock, harder to follow lines and a greater sense of the unknown. This flies against the BMC recommendation of seeking out less popular crags and hills, although certainly for hillwalking the risk of being off the beaten track is minimal. The cautious approach really counts though for scrambling and climbing, where a well travelled route will often offer a safer day out because the rock is clean, the climbing line obvious and the gear easy to find.
Whilst there is now space for you in Intensive Care, remember that you stand an increased chance of catching COVID if admitted to hospital for a non-COVID-related reason. And if you happen to need ventilation due to a serious injury, then this may cause serious life threatening complications for you.
As well as keeping you and your friends safe a cautious approach is also important to keep the Mountain Rescue callouts to a minimum. Those rescue teams have a mix of volunteer instructors, climbers, walkers and often other key workers. Whilst they have some PPE, there is no doubt that if they face a return to pre-COVID rescue figures (especially for places like Snowdon, which during the peak months of the year can see one or more rescues a day) they may quickly run out. The Lakeland teams who saw the re-opening over a month ago had a dramatic rise in rescues after lockdown and due to the need to protect the casualties and the team members, their operating procedures now require the team members attending to all wear PPE, in case one of them or the casualty is an asymptomatic carrier of the vitus. As such they have warned of possible time delays in call-outs.
General advice on virus safety should still be followed
The BMC advise people to: maintain social distancing; be cautious of shared surfaces (such as gates and stiles); seek out less popular hills and crags; and think about scaling back your ambitions to help avoid putting strain on rescue services.
For more detail see here