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On Top of the World in Wales

In Snowdonia National Park, scaling mist-shrouded peaks and soaking up lush scenery

August 04, 2002|JAMES GILDEN

SNOWDONIA NATIONAL PARK, Wales — The Welsh mountain fog mesmerized me with its surreal beauty, whipping over the craggy peaks and ridgelines, riding the constant winds that sculpt the bleak rock face of the mountains.

But it is more than the constantly shifting fog that shrouds Snowdonia in mystery. Its very name evokes images of the fairy-tale castles and legends that inhabit the lush landscape of northwest Wales, the home of Snowdon, the tallest peak here or in England. The legendary King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table are said to have fought their last battle on the saddle of a ridge of Lliwedd, a peak near Snowdon, and Arthur's sword Excalibur is supposed to have risen magically from the waters of Glaslyn, a lake at the base of Lliwedd. Legend has it that the knights are buried in a slanting gully on the face of Lliwedd, where they await Arthur's return.

At 838 square miles, Snowdonia National Park, which draws 6 million visitors a year, is the second-largest national park in England and Wales. Unlike other "wild" national parks elsewhere in the world, this one has residents--about 26,000 of them--surrounded by emerald green peaks, lakes and waterfalls.

It was not an ancient myth or glorious scenery I was seeking when I came in April, but insight into another legend nurtured in these hills. Since the early 19th century, these craggy peaks and rock faces have been a training ground for some of the world's most renowned mountaineers. I came here to learn more about George Mallory, who may or may not have been the first person to climb Mt. Everest.

Before he made his name as a legendary mountain climber, Mallory was closely associated with the Bloomsbury group, the bohemian intellectuals of London known as much for their artistic and intellectual achievements as for their varied and creative sexual entanglements. He knew many of them from his college days at Cambridge and continued his friendships after graduation. A wistful picture of a shirtless young Mallory, which hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London, is one of many Mallory portraits painted or photographed by Bloomsbury artist Duncan Grant. He captures on canvas Mallory's grace and beauty, admired by men and women. "Mon Dieu! George Mallory! the body of an athlete by Praxiteles, and a face--oh incredible--the mystery of Botticelli," Bloomsbury writer Lytton Strachey proclaimed breathlessly.

I first saw that Mallory picture at the portrait gallery three years ago and became fascinated by this man whose life existed at the juncture of art and adventure.

Despite the stack of books I had read, I was still having difficulty understanding his ultimately fatal attraction to mountains. Nearly every biography mentioned the important role his visits to Snowdonia played, so I decided a visit might give me insight into him. It certainly made more sense than trying to climb Everest.

One need not be a mountain climber to explore parts of Snowdonia. There are several roads that cross the mountains, permitting easy access to trail heads. For the price of a short walk, you can enjoy stunning views of mountain peaks, waterfalls and lakes. In season, you can even take a train to the summit of Snowdon.

I was determined, however, to experience Snowdonia in as Mallory-like a manner as possible, despite a lack of mountain climbing experience. On the Internet I came across High Trek Snowdonia, a mountain-climbers' bed-and-breakfast at the base of Snowdon. This mid-19th century stone farmhouse is named Tal y Waen, Welsh for "top of the rough pasture." Husband-and-wife team Mandy and Ian Whitehead live in the cottage next door and lead groups and individuals on organized treks and climbing expeditions.

I made my reservation for one of their "Welsh 3000s" long weekends, during which I was scheduled to climb 14 of the 3,000-footers in three days.

Mandy picked me up at the Bangor train station after my four-hour journey from London. After we exchanged pleasantries, I asked how many others were scheduled for the weekend's trek. "Well," Mandy said, "none, actually. We forgot that you were coming, and there weren't enough others, so we canceled the weekend."

Nothing makes the heart sink faster than traveling 5,500 miles for a canceled adventure. Mandy, however, had everything in hand and had booked private guides for my first two days; Ian would lead me on the third. My long journey was salvaged.

After Mandy's hearty home-cooked dinner of Welsh lamb and nut loaf, I retired to one of the three bedrooms on the second floor. It had a double bed and a view of the hills rolling gently green down to the sea. The two other rooms, both empty, were equipped with bunk beds.

"Hearty," I discovered the next morning, is the theme for all meals at Tal y Waen. After a breakfast of eggs, bacon, sausage, cereal, fruit, juice, toast and coffee, I felt fueled up enough to conquer all 14 peaks in one day.

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