|Snowdon Mountain Railway|
|Three: Spring Ascent|
Signal bridge and
the outbound main
leading away up
Another view of
Padarn, seen now
from the window
of our passing
reached the platform, Samantha and I found
that our fellow passengers had already occupied nearly all the compartments in the
carriage. We finally found seats in the last compartment of the car, immediately in
front of the diesel. The guard went up and down the platform securing everyone
inside, and then with a toot on his whistle signaled the engineer to depart. The
Hunslet opened up with a roar like a lusty newborn-- the engine seemed determined to make
up in volume what it lacked in size. Nudged along by the little beast, we lurched
away from the platform and up the gentle hill beyond. As we passed through the
yards, we got a good ground-level look at Wyddfa and Padarn simmering
quietly to themselves by the enginehouse. I wished desperately that one or the other
of those fine engines could have been powering our train-- that Hunslet's earsplitting
roar had to be heard to be believed. Still, it wouldn't do to grumble, and I settled
in to enjoy the ascent.
beyond the enginehouse lay a lovely,
park-like expanse of meadows and open woods. On the left-hand side of the train a
clear, fast-running mountain stream tumbled down a series of cataracts and falls.
The valley carved by the stream provided a convenient ramp up out of the Llanberis basin,
and the SMR took full advantage, twisting and turning to stay with the cataract.
Here Sam and I got our first taste of real rack railroading. As we entered the
grove, the rails tilted up visibly in front of the car, and I found my weight shifting
further and further back on the compartment bench. Unease washed over me as we bit
into the grade: trained as a brakeman on a traditional adhesion railway in the U.S., my
body was more attuned to the motions of conventional railways, and every nerve was
screaming that we traveling at an impossible angle up a catastrophically steep grade!
Knowing that the rack was there to hold us firm was small comfort at first. Yet
familiarity breeds contentment if not contempt, and after a moment I relaxed and
began to enjoy the sensation.
Passing the high
top of the little valley the rails swept
left through a sharp curve, and vaulted the stream on a fine stone viaduct. Just
beyond the bridge, the trees gave way to a windswept world of heather and high meadows.
We had climbed onto the spine of one of Snowdon's outflung spurs, a highway of
stone which offered a natural avenue up towards toward the summit. To our right, the
ground sloped gently away from the ridge to form a wide highland valley. For
millennia, our little companion stream had been transporting sediment down from Snowdon's
peaks; over the centuries, it had laid a broad saddle of land between our ridge and the
next. Too dry and wind-swept for agriculture, this has always been grazing land.
Sheep still dot the pastures, but the scattered cottages and barns we passed have all
fallen into ruin: no one lives on this lonely plain any longer.
Light and fog at
play on Snowdon's
gentle valley to the right provided a sharp
contrast to the harsher view to the left. No broad alluvial fans here: instead, there was
a chilling drop several hundred feet straight down into the Llanberis valley
below. On one hand, meadow; on the other, thin air. The very contrast
added a strange exhilaration to the trip.
up the ridge a tall knot of stone
interrupted the smooth rise of the ridgeline, and the rails swerved rightward to clear the
obstacle. Just as we rounded the foot of the knob, the tracks split in two at a
lonely passing loop and watering place called Hebron. Pulled up on the other track was yet
another of SMR's centenarian steam engines, this one pushing a works flatcar laden with
tools and rail. An early-season maintenance crew had been at work out on the line,
and had tied up in the passing loop to give us room to clear. After we sidled bye, gouts
of steam shot up from the engine's stack as she and her crew followed us back up the hill
to resume their interrupted chores.
Hebron the rails reared up again in one of
the line's patented near-20% grades as we clawed our way back to the top of the ridgeline.
We had climbed almost halfway up the mountain now, and the dense fog which we had
earlier seen whipping over the distant peaks now began to swirl directly across the rails.
With each passing foot the mist grew thicker. At the last, we traveled in a
cocoon of swirling white, which broke only occasionally to disclose a rocky and desolate
landscape. With one final hearty shove, the Hunslet pushed us up to a little
concrete platform set hard by the rails. We had arrived at Rocky Valley, the
terminus for our Spring ascent. Until the weather broke later in the season, the SMR
could take us no further.