The 4×4 Vauxhall on Snowdon

A Snowdon mystery developed on the morning of Saturday 3rd September 2011. The crew of the first train of the day, the staff train, spotted a 4×4 Vauxhall Fronterra some way up the mountain at Bwlch Wyddfa. It had clearly made a turn at the point where Bwlch Wyddfa is now considerably widened due to the railway. The driver of the staff train stopped and informed the 4×4 driver that he should not be driving up there.

Bemused walkers pass the Vauxhall at Bwlch Wyddfa (BBC)

It appears then at that point the driver (who later was found out to be Craig Williams, a 39 year old unemployed mechanic from Cheltenham.) decided to abandon the effort in light of the very bad weather being encountered up near the summit.

It is not mentioned how Craig Williams got down, but its possible he may have been picked up by the staff train shortly after it began its descent from the summit.

The news reports:
On Sunday morning 4th September the media were beginning to catch on the news of the unusual intruder near the summit. First off the mark was the BBC, with this report, followed by this video report. Grough followed later in the day with their report and the Daily Mail published theirs in the evening. As the report was being released late in the day, it was not until the following day when a deluge of articles on the mystery began.

The earliest to identify the driver was the BBC at lunchtime on Monday 6th September. No name was given however the BBC said “A man has been charged with a driving offence after a 4×4 vehicle was found close to the summit of Snowdon. The charges relate to driving a vehicle on common land, moorland or land which is not part of a road. The man, 39, from Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, has been released on bail to appear before Caernarfon Magistrates Court on 16 September.”

Craig Williams’ interview by BBC at Llanberis station (BBC)

Again it was the BBC, just an hour and half later who released the man’s name as Craig Williams. He claimed it had not been a publicity stunt but one of 50 things to do before he died, a spur of the moment thing. Report here. Talk began of ways to bring the 4×4 down from the mountain: helicopter, train, drive it, dismantle it. In the event the Snowdon Mountain Railway was the best option as it already had the facilities needed – a flat bed truck and vehicle ramps.

Around 40 news reports were published on the incident. The BBC clearly led the way with the most publications, as well as news items on its local news channels, including a major report at 6pm on Monday 6th September. The BBC mentioned Gwychder y Wyddfa’s article on the history of cars being driven up Snowdon and located the old British Pathe film that Gwychder y Wyddfa mentioned in its pages.

It is not know how the BBC initially located my research. It appears it was Bethan Williams, a BBC North Wales journalist who started to follow my rarely used Twitter timeline when I made a few comments on the 4×4 incident over two days from Sept 5th 2011. The BBC then found the relevant pages concerning cars up the mountain on the pages of Gwychder y Wyddfa.

The attempt to drive up Snowdon:
One possible factor that enabled Craig Williams to make an effort at driving up Snowdon is that there are clearly no signs forbidding this practice. The Miners Track has one at Pen Y Pass forbidding anyone except park officials from driving up to Llyn Lydaw. But there are NO notices forbidding the driving of vehicles up to the summit of Snowdon as prescribed under the Road Traffic Act 1988 (see pic below) so it can be argued Craig Williams saw no indication that he was forbidden to do so.

The SNPA sign at Maenllwyd near Llanberis in 2011

How did Craig Williams drive past these gates near the start of the Llanberis path?

How did he get up Snowdon? It is clear it took some planning. It obviously wasnt a spur of the moment thing. One major problem in driving up Snowdon is the Llanberis path now has two stepped ascent sections, plus a narrow gateway through which no vehicles can pass. Using the road to Hafodty Llan is impossible because the SMR has to be crossed and this is impossible as theline is fenced off all the way to Halfway cutting. A route clearly had to be surveyed to get round these obstacles. No doubt it would appear Craig Williams had climbed at least part of Snowdon prior to his attempt to survey the possible options.

To ascend this pretty difficult section on Derlwyn’s slopes one has to pass through a narrow gate!

Since the access gate near the start of the Llanberis path is very narrow the SNPA probably thought there was no need to provide warning signs. How did the 4×4 get past this narrow gate? A possible route is via the roadway to Hafodty Llan, left before the SMR’s Cader Ellyll bridge through a gate on the left, then across the fields & slopes to the Llanberis path near the old Hebron settlement, thus avoiding the narrow gate and the stepped section of the Llanberis path on the slopes of Derlwyn. This is of course one of the options SNPA officials use when they use light service vehicles for the purposes of maintaing the Llanberis path.

The Snowdon Mountain Railway’s Cader Ellyll bridge with the access gate on the left

The Llanberis path is quite easy all the way from a point above Hebron to the bottom of Moses Hill

From the old settlement above Hebron, it is a fairly easy drive, with just one gate that is wide enough for vehicles, all the way to the bottom of Allt Moses (or Moses Hill.) There is one question that begs of us all. Did Williams drive up Allt Moses? As this is now a stepped ascent its definitely impossible.

If Williams had indeed used the route I have just described, the most likely route from above Halfway house would have been either up the grassy slopes past the base of Llechog and then across to Clogwyn or onto the SMR at Bwlch Maen Lye. One issue with using the SMR is the narrow embankment across the base of Llechog, but probably sufficiently wide enough for a car to drive this way.

Allt Moses (Moses’ Hill) Clearly impossible for 4×4’s. An alternative route must have been taken

Of course the one option open to Craig Wiliams, and most likely the one taken, would be to drive all the way along the railway itself. There is vehicular access onto the railway from the SMR’s upper car parks at Llanberis. No doubt Williams took this route at night to avoid detection. Without a doubt it explains why Williams was driving down from Snowdon early on Saturday morning, and not up as anyone would have quite correctly assumed.

Railway access from the SMR’s upper car parks. Certainly this will in future be gated & locked!

One major issue with using the railway is the sheep trap above Hebron station. Wide tracked vehicles employed by the SMR can easily cross this no problem. Perhaps Williams was just fortunate enough to have passed this without any ado?

One clear bit of evidence for using the railway is that it is the quickest, the easiest to access, and most straightforward up the mountain.

If Williams had used parts of the Llanberis path, there is a question that begs to be answered. At Clogwyn he would have had three choices. The first took the Llanberis path from Clogwyn across ‘the Saddle’ and then possibly what was the old Llanberis path route across the base of Cyrn Las (formerly known as Llechwedd y Re) rather than its current alignment. From there he either rejoined the Llanberis path or then used a second option across the grassy slopes of Crib y Ddysgl towards Bwich Glas.

The difficulties of using these routes below, and above, Clogwyn denote that the railway was William’s preferred route all the way, but its something he wont be telling anyone!

The possible routes above Clogwyn. Were any of these Craig Wiliams’ route?

At Bwlch Glas Williams was clearly faced with a dilemma. From here it is clear the only route to the summit is via the railway. Alas that only goes to Hafod Eryri and not the summit. In the past it was possible to use the railway and then up onto the path to the summit at a point before the railway entered the station. However major changes to the path have made it impossible. There is no way any 4×4 could have driven this route.

This explains why Williams was caught turning his 4×4 at Bwlch Wyddfa. He had realised there was no way he could reach the summit. He might have got to Hafod Eryri but no doubt had to reverse back to Bwlch Wyddfa. Imagine his reversing back down there and the first train of the day ascending in the thick mist. There would have been potential for an accident. Imagine the headlines – ‘Mountain train collides with car at the summit of Snowdon!’ Luckily Williams had turned round just before the works train left Bwlch Glas and began ascending the Wyddfa ridge.

One factor about driving up Snowdon:
It is clear NOT one car has ever made it to the absolute summit of Snowdon. By this I would mean the flat area around the summit cairn. It has always been impossible to drive further than a point just above the railway station. On 14th May 1904 Jarrott and Letts managed to drive their 5hp Oldsmobile to a point near the base of the summit itself in just 61 minutes. Photographs show the Oldsmobile parked on the very steep slopes just below the Roberts’ Snowdon Summit Hotel. From these it is clear the Oldsmobile had to drive up backwards because there was nowhere for it to turn. That particular route is shown below in red and as we can see, it does not even reach the summit itself.

Route that once gave cars the nearest approach to the summit of Snowdon. Postcard from author’s collection

Removal of the 4×4:
The vehicle was removed by train in the morning of 8th September 2011. Video of the train, hauled by No. 11 Peris, was seen arriving at Llanberis on videos here and here on the BBC’s website. Here are a couple of screengrabs from these videos:

The convoy arriving at the SMR Llanberis sidings (BBC)

The Vauxhall being offloaded at the SMR’s Llanberis sidings (BBC)

Pictures showing the 4×4 being loaded onto the SMR’s flat-bed wagon at Bwlch Wyddfa can be seen at Wales Online. It is clear from these pictures that the 4×4 clears the SMR’s gripper rails easily, so it must be assumed that the vehicle was driven all the way up to Bwlch Wyddfa on the railway tracks. The dent on the nearside wing seen in the pictures and videos is consistent of a collision with the sides at Halfway cutting or the rocks adjacent to the tracks on the narrow ledge above Clogwyn Coch.

Two land rovers were spotted at the summit in the 1970’s according to Dave Williams on the UK Climbing Forums. Another report claims an Al Harris managed to get an old Austin A40 van as far as the steep climb up Moses’ Hill. I wouldnt be surprised by these, I managed to drive an old Vauxhall over the mountain path between Waunfawr and Llanberis in the late 1970’s including the atriciously steep slopes above Maenllwyd. Today looking at this section I am surprised our car did it without a scratch. We had to stop every few inches to make sure the underneath of the car was not getting bashed by rocks. Like many other parts of Snowdonia driving this section is now forbidden.

Why was it easier to drive up Snowdon in the older days? The simple answer is the Llanberis path was much smoother and had no stepped sections. Today it has two major stepped sections up which it is clearly impossible for vehicles to ascend as well as the problems of getting past Hafod Eryri to attain the summit. The reason for having such stepped sections is to counter any erosion problems from the large amounts of footfall the Llanberis route experiences. Clearly anyone considering a drive up to the summit of Snowdon is wasting their time because in the first instance it is not possible anyway to reach the summit and in the second instance modifications to the various paths up the mountain now preclude vehicles of any sort.

Bwlch Wyddfa: All reports said the 4×4 was found near Bwlch Glas. The actual location is the very little known Bwlch Wyddfa, which some writers describe as the Wyddfa Ridge. This name probably declined largely out of use when the SMR built its line to the summit and totally altered forever the aspect looking along Bwlch Wyddfa. Bwlch Maen Lye mentioned also in this feature is another part of Snowdon whose name has also been forgotten. It refers to the ridge to the north of Llechog, and this is where the SMR makes its long sweep below the ridge at Bwlch Maen Lye towards Rocky Valley halt.

Updated November 7th 2011

Acknowledgements to BBC for pictures from its video reports.

Copyright © 2011 Gwychder y Wyddfa.

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