19 August 2019 by Paula Renzel
Having never undertaken a long-distance hike and in need of a challenge to overcome a fear of solo adventuring, Ramblers Cymru’s Paula Renzel took on the 134km Snowdonia Slate Trail. What she wasn’t expecting was the reaction from fellow walkers to a lone woman walking.
Having never done a long-distance hike before and needing a challenge to overcome my fear of solo adventuring, I decided to take on the challenge of a 5-6 days long walk the Snowdonia Slate Trail. The trail takes you in and around Snowdonia National Park on back roads and little-known paths, showcasing the incredible legacy of the slate mining history of the area. Of the many things I learned from my trip, the most important ones are that walking is an incredible way of gaining greater self-confidence and that I am capable of pushing my boundaries beyond my comfort zone.
- Paula Renzel, Paths for People Advocate at Ramblers Cymru.
I like to believe that I am a strong, independent and confident young woman who does just fine at adventuring by herself. I left home at 17, have lived in 3 different countries, 3 capital cities, have travelled in and across several countries by myself by plane, train, hitchhiking or in my camper van. But nevertheless, I recently had to confront myself with the harsh reality that I often feel extremely anxious and scared when doing these things. Holding the sole responsibility for organising, planning, navigating and making the most of a trip always looks to me like a nearly impossible challenge.
In this same way, I have always loved walking, the great combination of physical effort and challenge, exploring nature whilst being able to get lost in my thoughts. But walking has always been something I do with at least one other person, and if possible, a person I can rely on for all the above. Reading descriptions, maps, navigating with a compass, watching the weather, having all the necessary gear in case of any eventuality or emergency, I’d always rather leave that to somebody else who knows what they are doing. Or at least somebody who I believe knows what they are doing.
About a year after starting to work at Ramblers Cymru, surrounded by passionate adventurers and walkers, I decided that it was time to take on a challenge. I decided to throw myself in the deep end and take 5-6 days to walk the 83 miles and around 15 000 feet of ascent of the Snowdonia Slate Trail. The route was set up a couple of years ago to celebrate the slate mining history of Snowdonia and to attract a little more attention to its incredible legacy and culture.
And what a journey it has been!
The trail takes you through and around Snowdonia, in a loop from Bangor to Bethesda, through valleys, forests, gorges, over moors and along lakes and rivers. Most importantly though, it takes you through disused quarries, in between high towering slate tips and through towns and villages that were at the centre of the slate mining history of the area. The trail was set up as a long-needed celebration of those magical landscapes formed in the industrial era when Wales was exporting its renowned slate internationally. It showcases the incredible hard labour, as well as the ingenuity and creativity of workers of those mines and quarries and gives them the place they should have within the unique landscape of the Snowdonia National Park. Whilst I was walking, I felt unbelievably lucky to be taken on an adventure to admire this grand Welsh history and having the feeling that I had it all to myself for a few days. The trail reminded me why I have fallen in love with and chosen to live in Wales, and that there is something particularly unique about not going 1000 miles away for a holiday but going on an adventure discovering the beauty of one’s home country.
The views, the buzzing fauna and flora, the unique geology, the smells and sounds; Snowdonia has it all. On day 1, the best feeling was to be walking away from Bangor, right into the countryside and seeing the mountains getting closer and closer. Day 2, on the section between Waunfawr and Y Fron, the views of Snowdon, Anglesey and Holy Island, the Llyn Peninsula, Mynydd Mawr and the Nantlle Ridge were breath taking, followed by explorations of Dorothea Quarry and a refreshing dip in Llyn Nantlle Uchaf. Day 3, I had beans on toast in the sun at Caffi Colwyn in Beddgelert, saw the Ffestiniog railway, had interesting encounters on my way over to Croesor and surprised myself finding the long, hot and strenuous ascent to Croesor and Rhosydd quarries particularly exhilarating. On day 4, I discovered Roman inscribed stones in St Tudlud’s Church in Penmachno coincidentally by following signs to the church’s coffee machine. On day 5, it was a joy to have a bit of rain and the tops of Tryfan and the Glyders being overcast made them look all the more intimidating.
Of all the stories I heard and read during my trip, my favourite one remains the one of Mrs Kate Hughes, school teacher at Rhiwbach Quarry in the early 1900s. She travelled up to the quarry from Blaenau Ffestiniog in an empty slate wagon every day no matter the weather and at the end of the day, she travelled back down in a “wild car”, akin to a skateboard on rollers with a wheeled outrigger running along the tramway tracks.
Now for the question I heard the most during my trip; “and you are doing this all by yourself?”. Almost every single time, if it was a man asking, his reaction would be “Amazing! Solo adventuring is great, I love doing that kind of thing!” and if it was a woman, it would be “You are so brave, I could never do something like this!”. What this confirms to me is that a woman with a big backpack with all her gear trudging alone through the mountains of Snowdonia for several days is not a common sight.
Whilst I am well aware that walking or hiking isn’t for everyone, I refuse to believe that the reason behind much fewer women being out walking or hiking by themselves or outspoken about their passion for solo adventuring is just a matter of personal preference and different hobbies.
This is not only the case with hillwalking. I am surrounded by many inspiring women, at home and at work, but way too often I hear “Oh but I just don’t think I am capable” or “I am not brave enough or too stupid for that”.
That fear of not being fit enough, not being fast enough, not being clever enough, not being prepared enough, the fear of what could or might happen when out on your own as a woman I can very much relate to. This is exactly how I have felt for as long as I can remember and until very recently, every time somebody told me about their solo hillwalking adventure. And to be perfectly honest I was unsure if I was capable of doing something like this until I was already several days and over 50 miles into my own first solo hike.
But even with these doubts, I did of course choose this adventure because I knew that my goal was in the realm of the achievable. Although I had never walked above 15 miles in a day or even several days in a row, I do walk regularly. I have also gained a lot of relevant experience through working for Ramblers, have explored Wales quite a bit over the past 18 months including paying regular visits to Snowdonia and finally, I have very good friends in Llanberis. I wasn’t doing something entirely new or unknown, I chose to upscale massively something I was already relatively comfortable with.
The Slate Trail was the ideal choice for this very personal challenge.
I chose it after Ramblers Cymru president Will Renwick recommended it as the perfect introduction to long distance hillwalking. The Slate Trail was set up only a couple of years ago and with the help of dedicated volunteers, including some of our own Ramblers path heroes, the trail has been thoroughly waymarked. For me, as someone who is new to trusting herself with descriptions, a map and a compass, this was a particularly welcome reassurance. The trail also goes through a number of villages and settlements, by far the longest section from one house to the next being about 7 miles. Despite having all my gear including an emergency blanket and a survival bag, knowing that in the worst-case scenario I could just keep walking and it wouldn’t be long before I reached civilisation again contributed to my peace of mind.
This is exactly what happened on day 4 as I panicked and I ran out of water.
Last month, in preparation for this trip and after many discussions around how safe it is to drink water straight from the source, I bought myself a water filter. Before leaving Cardiff, this same filter fell out of my bag, which meant that during my hike I ended up mostly relying on the kindness of strangers accepting to fill up my 600ml bottle.
Day 4 started with a walk through one of my favourite parts of the trail, the magical Nature Reserve of Cwm Cynfal with its stunning gorges and waterfalls. This was followed by the wildest section of the trail with miles of moorland ending in a steep descent into the impressive, now disused quarry of Rhiwbach and into Cwm Penmachno. At this point the hardest parts of the trail were behind me and for that day all that was left was beautiful forest walks to Penmachno and Conwy Falls. I could have asked for my water bottle to be filled at Conwy Falls Café, but instead, feeling inappropriately sweaty and underdressed and anxious as a result, I decided to walk on. And then I panicked. I was planning on finding a camping spot between there and Betws-y-Coed, but that suddenly felt impossible. There were too many houses everywhere, the road and general civilisation were too close, and my water was running too low. I made an executive decision to walk another 5 miles to Betws and check into a B&B. This was most definitely one of the best decisions I made during my trip. Accepting that there was nothing wrong in allowing myself a break from wild camping and enjoying the luxury of a shower and a pub meal. That night I had to sit down in the shower because of how painful me feet were. But the next day, refreshed after sleeping in an actual bed for a change and having a beautiful breakfast with scrambled eggs, smoked salmon and fresh fruit, I started my final day of walking in particularly good spirits.
I finished the trail in just over 5 days, which was setting the bar high for a first trip of this kind, but not only did I achieve my goal, I also learnt a lot. First of all, the beauty of Snowdonia taught me that besides that final achievement, the experience of the journey is the most important part of any trip. What I also learnt is that walking is an excellent way of gaining greater self-confidence when feeling low, particularly in the way it reminds you of how resilient bodies can be, especially feet. I learnt that I can trust myself with organisation, planning and navigation. I learnt that it’s alright to have moments of panic and stress, and that when nobody else is around, I am perfectly capable of dealing with difficult situations on my own. But the greatest learning of them all was that being by myself isn’t actually too bad.
To conclude, I am not saying every woman should get up tomorrow morning and walk 83 miles in 5 days. All I wish is for more women to feel like they are capable of stepping just that little bit further than the artificial boundaries imposed on them. Society teaches boys that they should try and reach for the stars no matter what, whilst girls should be satisfied by looking at those stars because something might happen to them if they tried.
Pick your challenge wisely, play to your strengths and plan accordingly, and very importantly, do not let yourself be overawed by the many people who will worry about you ahead of and during the journey.