The history of the Pen-y-Pass

As Pen-y-Pass Youth Hostel is opening after refurbishment, Ben Lerwill uncovers the remarkable history of the Pen-y-Pass youth hostel

Illustration photo of The history of the Pen-y-Pass

With the 60th anniversary of the first Everest ascent now imminent, there’s plenty of attention being lavished on one particular Snowdonia hotel, a place in which gale-blown Nepalese prayer-flags seem to flutter just out of the mind’s reach. Stories and legends continue to cluster around the Pen-y-Gwryd Hotel, where a rich hobnails-and-crampons atmosphere still speaks of the era that saw Edmund Hillary and his team ensconced there for winter training in the run-up to their 1953 Himalayan expedition.

Venture just a few minutes more along the serpentine A4086 to the top of the Llanberis Pass, however, and you’ll reach another place of rest with a rich
mountaineering history. The Peny- Pass (literally ‘head of the pass’)
is these days a well-tooled YHA hostel, serving up reasonably priced, reasonably tasty evening meals and drawing walkers of cheery demeanour and varying
abilities with its none-more-plum location for Snowdon hikes (stumble out of the front door and you’re at the base of the Pyg and Miners’ Tracks).

But the bulky, double-gabled building has only been a hostel since 1971, and its modern incarnation is just the latest phase of a long past. It’s a past hinted at by the corridor’s wooden display cabinets, and by the lounge’s framed pictures, and inadvertently but perhaps best of all by the standard YHA phrase that comes up if you happen to Google the name of the hostel: “Snowdon accommodation for fun-seekers”.

In its previous guise as a coaching inn named the Gorphwysfa Hotel, and particularly during its long heyday in the early 20th century, the accommodation played regular host to some of the then-nascent climbing fraternity’s most colourful characters. A hotel had been in situ at the head of the pass since at least 1871, but it was the leaseholders of the property from 1907 (a Mr and Mrs Owen, he a Boer War veteran, she a local lady) who worked hard to make the Gorphwysfa a focal point for the mountain-walking community.

Recurrent names from the hotel’s still on-display guestbook – its every page burnished by century-old thumbprints – include those of George Mallory, the Abraham Brothers and even author and avid climber Aldous Huxley. The entries in the book give entertaining insight into the whims of the day. A Mr and Mrs Middlemass-Hunt, writing in 1902, decree that, “the passer-by may safely risk a bed and breakfast at Gorphwysfa”, while another guest comments glowingly on, “four days of cold mutton and pickled walnuts”. If there’s one frequent signature which can be said to most embody both the old hotel and the high-living spirit of the age, however, it’s that of Geoffrey Winthrop Young.

The first few decades of the 1900s were a time in which the upper classes had formed an almost exclusive hold on serious mountain adventure, and Winthrop Young was one of the ultimate exponents of the era’s often prevalent climb-hard, partyhard ethos. A highly renowned Alpine climber, the one-time Eton schoolmaster (and author of the cult Cambridge-based classic The Roof Climbers’ Guide to Trinity) lost a leg during WWI, but this was no block to either his climbing exploits or to the raucous annual Easter gatherings he organised at the Gorphwysfa from 1903 until the 1930s.

Accounts of these yearly parties paint them as vigorous, fruity affairs, complete with anecdotes of musical theatre, roaring fires, fine drink and bed-hopping. Ostensibly mountaineering meets, they combined long days of climbing and scrambling on the Snowdon Massif with long nights of song and revelry. They’ve been described as celebrations in the mould of the Bloomsbury Set, the gentrification and literary pleasures of London transported to the wild mountains of North Wales.

Guests included not only leading lights in the world of climbing but privileged luminaries from other sections of society. In Jim Perrin’s Snowdon: The Story
of a Welsh Mountain, he quotes Winthrop Young as follows: “It says something for the calibre of the men first attracted by the romance of the hills, and of pioneer climbing, that of those who came on Pen-y-Pass parties, as I look through the list of names, three had earned the Order of Merit, four had the Nobel Prize, five became Cabinet ministers, seven were made peers and one a life peer, (and) fifteen were knighted.”

There’s more to the hotel’s climbing heritage than its mass gatherings, of course, and some of the greatest British mountaineers of the day – not least Mallory – used
the Gorphwysfa as a base for serious training. The style and layout of the building has been altered significantly in the decades since, but even now it’s just about possible to stand in the downstairs rooms and halfcapture a sense of the boots that have stomped through here in the past. Better still, when you stand outside on a brisk morning and feel the slopes and ridges looming over and around you, it strikes you with a pleasant shiver how even a century of human history is a mere blip in time.

Long prior to the building of any hotel, of course, the head of the Llanberis Pass was seen as a special spot. A carriage route over the pass first opened in 1830 – after which a small huddle of workers’ cottages appeared – and even before this time the site was marked by two tall cairns, with a traveller passing this way some 300 years ago supposedly claiming that his local guide, on reaching the markers, circled them repeatedly while reciting the Lord’s Prayer. A sacred site? A co-ordinate marked by special grace? It seems fitting to again mention the words of Winthrop Young, who once wrote that Peny- Pass was “lodged upon the rim of space... the highest roosting place on the island.” Not a bad endorsement for somewhere still offering beds for £13 a night.