Tom Hill and the Sidetracked team chase the summer solstice to the summit of Snowdon, Wales’ highest mountain, on a purposeful adventure with Trash Free Trails.
Words and Photography by Tom Hill // Drone Photography by Tom Laws
Sunsets, waterfalls, vistas, hidden corners of woodland, and wildflowers blossoming all have the power to bring us immense joy. But if I was to describe our collective relationship with the outdoors, I would see it as one way. We take so much more than we give back, even during the moments that we feel most connected to where we are. And like all relationships, it will ultimately fail unless we create a mutually sustainable solution.
The last of the solstice sun’s rays glint off the perfectly parallel railway tracks. Winding their way between Yr Wyddfa and Llanberis, as if they are still hot from the forge, the glowing girders guide my eye down and towards the sea far below. I have spent much of my walk up so far pondering my – our – relationship with Wales’ highest mountain. The more I looked, the more it felt defined by human touch. Snowdon is a towering symbol of the Anthropocene, with that railway up one side, a constructed path running parallel and a literal staircase twisting up to its summit marker. These deliberate acts enable access to a “wild” place that now sustains 700,000 visitors every year. I should make it absolutely clear that this is not necessarily or wholly a bad thing, it is simply an observation of our collective impact on a single place, and one that in some ways has become a symbol for “accessible adventure”. It is a reflection on the constant tension between our (and I really do mean “our” – me, you, and each and every one of us) use of the outdoors for recreation and the pressure that is placed on those destinations that lure and nourish us.
Our impact on this mountain – and our wild and natural places in general – goes far beyond the immediately obvious though. From centuries and millennia of agriculture to the ancient pathways linking long-forgotten communities, there is an inevitable impact of our interactions with the landscape. Our passage through the land is never agnostic, as much as we would like it to be. The classic leave no trace mantra of “leave only footsteps” is itself contradictory when scaled up to a whole population. Each footstep and tyre track and chalkmark is precisely that: a trace. Then of course, there is our wider impact on the planet. From micro-plastic pollution to climate change, we are directly and indirectly altering our environment.
The weight of eco-grief and anxiety can hang heavy. The sense of something incredibly precious slipping through our fingers is tangible; and the moments and places that we seek and find solace are perhaps most at risk.
Yet, as I stand here, among friends, faces turned to the golden afterglow of a spectacular sunset over North Wales, my mind – no, my heart – is transported, lifted, recharged. The power of nature, in its widest possible definition… planets, stars, and the interaction of solar radiation with our atmosphere through to the swaying of blades of grass in the breeze, catching the glints of those last rays… is no less spectacular than it ever has been, or ever will be.
As Dom and I make our way to Llanberis and a date with Team Sidetracked and a few of the A-Team of Trash Free Trails ambassadors, I ask him why his research matters.
“Very simply, we have no idea what the environmental impact of litter is. Thanks to programmes like Blue Planet, the wider population now understands how detrimental plastic pollution in the sea is – but no one has done any equivalent research in our woods or on our mountain sides. We inherently know, and have anecdotal evidence that it’s a bad thing, and our initial research backs that up [Trash Free Trails volunteers regularly report teeth marks and other signs of animal interaction with the pieces of litter they find]. We live in a world where evidence and data can drive change. I don’t want Trash Free Trails to be out doing trail cleans in 15 years time. I want to tackle the issue at source, from the micro, individual level (why do some people drop litter?) to the macro, societal level (such as the long awaited introduction of a deposit return scheme). My research, and the wider work of Trash Free Trails, is the first step towards that.”
Llanberis is already quiet when we arrive. It’s 6pm on a mid-week afternoon, before the summer holidays have got into full swing. A few hikers are making their way down the tourist path as our almost complete group begins to make their way up. Dom has already briefed us, in front of the mountain railway station. The plan is a simple one: make our way to the summit, recording every piece of single-use pollution (Trash Free Trails’ more accurate definition of litter) we see and collecting as much of it as possible. Team Sidetracked is made up of Alex and the two Emilys, while Team Trash Free Trails are midlands-based duo Emma and Sam, with Tom planning to join us by bike later in the evening.
We move up the mountain slowly, and my lasting impression isn’t one of a path drowning under the weight of dropped litter. At any one location a passing glance was unlikely to reveal any rogue items, but looking a little harder we rarely moved far before pausing to record and pick up the inevitable sweet wrappers and drinks bottles. In fact we removed 300 pieces of single-use pollution on our journey to the summit, settling into a rhythm as we did so. Two people were on counting duty and another two took photos of each item, using komoot to record its exact location. Finally, each piece was plucked off the hillside. The recording is almost as important to Dom as the litter removal. This is a journey that he’ll be repeatedly making over the coming months, using the data to feed into his research.
We arrive on the summit not long after the sun has set, enough light still in the sky to allow us to make the final few steps up the spiral staircase to Snowdon’s trig point without the need for head torches. We have the most popular mountain in the UK to ourselves as we roll out sleeping bags on the south-eastern edge of the summit cone, facing the imminent sunrise. We sip from hipflasks and heat water and chat into the darkness, before embracing a few short hours of rest in the silence of a completely still evening.
The summit isn’t quite as quiet the following morning. A few dozen people have made the early trip to watch the sunrise on the longest day of the year. But once the sun has tipped over the horizon, all make their way back down to the valley, leaving us alone once more. As the burnt umbers and reds of the earliest hours fade and buttercup rays reach into the bottoms of valleys, we carry out a final trail clean around the summit cairn. A thank you to the mountain and a simple act of care before we continue our journey southwards to the Watkin Pools to swim and dive bomb, and joyously lark around.
It is a message that Trash Free Trails is always keen to press home: having fun and leaving a positive trace are not mutually exclusive. We gain our sense of connection and love for the outdoors through having fun, playing, (re)discovering a sense of adventure. We should never forget what draws us to the mountains in the first place. Because, ultimately, we will not take care of where we love because we feel like we should, we will do so simply for that love.
The quirks of Dom Ferris, number two: no human can find more hours in the day than Dom. Or at least, no human can plan to get so much done. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always correspond with what is actually achievable. Our aim for the second day of our adventure is to reach Porthmadog and complete a final clean up, this time on the beach at nearby Borth-y-Gest. We wave goodbye to Sam, Emma and Tom, who have real life to return to. Team Sidetracked will hike along the Nantgwynant valley, while Dom and I will mountain bike above Beddgelert before finally dropping down to the coast.
Dom and I set off with high hopes and ride all of half a kilometre before we are off and pushing our bikes through tussocks and bog. That first half a kilometre was genuinely lovely though… For the rest of the way, we are taught a lesson that I’ve managed to learn and forget on multiple occasions in the past. A line on the map doesn’t necessarily mean the existence of a trail on the ground, and if you are in Wales, it is actually probably a good indication that there definitely isn’t a path there.
The ride may not be a classic, but in all honesty it matters not one jot. We giggle as we get front wheels buried in bog, curse as we misroute ourselves to the top of a cliff. We scratch our heads as the seemingly well defined path we can see in the distance always disappears as we approach.
This hillside feels like the antithesis of Snowdon. At some stage in its history, the route we are on was clearly important enough to receive the bridleway designation that it has today. Maybe it was an artery connecting farmsteads, or a coffin road down to the cemetery at Beddgelert. Now though, there is barely a sign that another human has set foot here for decades. If every footprint leaves a trace, these have been washed away by the tide of time. There is, however, only so much bog-trotting that you can do in a day – especially when you are on a tight deadline – so we take the easy option and roll down to the road for our final journey to the coast.
It feels fitting to finish our journey at the sea; it links Dom’s past and present lives together. The man who worked for Surfers Against Sewage has come a long way since he left, and you get the feeling that there is still a long way to go on Trash Free Trails’ journey. Our regathered group spend an hour or so scouting across the sand at Borth-y-Gest. Cigarette butts and fishing tackle are stripped from the surface, but lethargy after a long hot day is setting in. We call it quits just as Dom exits the reeds at the far end of the beach, dragging a huge traffic barrier, with as much energy as he had twenty four hours earlier. The quirks of Dom Ferris, number three: there is no off button. It’s that energy that Dom, and so many other people – like Sam, Emma, and Tom – bring day after day that means the organisation will continue to leave a positive trace, now and in the future.
But, as with all the best adventures, the destination isn’t necessarily the end point. We wrestle the last of the trash off the beach before heading in the search of ice cream, feeling weary but inspired.
Tom Hill and the Sidetracked team chased the summer solstice to the summit of Snowdon, Wales’ highest mountain, on a purposeful adventure with Trash Free Trails. To plan your own purposeful adventure, please visit: trashfreetrails.org