Sometimes I am predictably English. I drink tea for life support, happily make small talk about the weather, queue politely at any given opportunity and relentlessly support the underdog. And when it comes to the latter, I even support the underdog mountains: the unloved and unvisited, but also the second best, or in this case the second highest. You see, I have a curious love for second place, and this is most evident when we compare the second-highest’s of the UK, to the firsts: Ben Nevis, Scafell Pike and Snowdon.
But before I carry on I need to clarify my definition of second highest. Both Snowdon and Scafell Pike have sub-peaks in Crib y Ddysgl and Sca fell, respectively, which are technically the second highest points, but I’m discounting these on the grounds that they are not entirely separate mountains, perhaps in the case of Sca Fell only separated by a col. So when I say second I refer to the next highest that is more than a few metres apart from the highest and not immediately attached to it (It’s a good argument for mountain folk to have après-hike). So with the technicalities taken care of let me introduce you to my three ‘second-highest-bests’.
First up, we have Carnedd Llywelyn in the welsh Carneddau and this broad, flat-topped beauty couldn’t be more different to Snowdon. The Carneddau sit on the edge of the next valley along from the Snowdon massif, running NE-SW and stretch to the welsh coast, and here you’ll find no trains, no café’s and almost no people. The mountains sit just over the road from Snowdonia’s second busiest mountain, Tryfan, and yet walk for less than 30 minutes and you will probably find yourself blissfully alone in the hills of this classic mountain range. Owing to its position in the massif, Llywelyn is a long walk in either way, and this makes for a great ‘wilderness’ feel on a snowy day. Don’t get me wrong – Snowdon is a visually beautiful piece of the earth’s work, she stirs the soul like no other and casts a devastating triangle shadow over her lesser peaks, but in high-season you might feel that you’ve found yourself walking on the M25. In the Carneddau you get a different experience from Snowdon and have the choice to make your route to the top via comfortably-walked ridges in all directions.
Second up, we have Helvellyn in the Lake District. Not only does it have a name that feels amazing as it rolls off the tongue (go on try it!), it also possess a fine set of walks from all directions containing some of the finest ridges in the Lake District, in Striding and Swirral Edge. Like Snowdon it has its own glacial pond in Red Tarn home to Brown Trout and a little known Whitefish called Schelly that is only found in three other Lakeland tarns. Notwithstanding the sometimes perilous ridge routes, the walks to the top of Helvellyn are arguably easier than Scafell Pike, and give you extensive views across Thirlmere and Ullswater – if they weren’t beautiful it wouldn’t have been called the Lake District after all! And if that wasn’t enough Helvellyn also boasts a small population of the rare Mountain Ringlet alpine butterfly hidden away on its slopes. Scafell Pike has the kudos of being part of an ancient volcanic caldera, and has stunning views to most of the highest peaks in the Lakes, but the top is eroded by boots and most approaches are rubbly and broken underfoot making it feel a little soulless after all of the effort to get there. Helvellyn however, pulls you into its chest with skinny arms and affords you enough scrambling to feel like a pro!
Last up, we have Scotland’s second (with no debate over satellite peaks!) and indeed the UK’s second-highest mountain, Ben MacDui. The second Ben stands proud on the southern extent of the beautiful Cairngorm Mountains, a reason which makes it superior to The Ben straight off the bat in my opinion. Getting to Ben Macdui feels like a real achievement on a cloudy day when the plateau stretches ahead for miles, and if you see others on your walk they are likely to be equally committed to this hill. On a good day, two routes that offer unsurpassed beauty are those that take in the Lhairg Ghru mountain pass to the west, or the beautifully remote Loch Avon. Ben MacDui is a completely different mountain to Ben Nevis having a different geology and thus an altogether different look and feel. There are no wondrous arêtes here like the CMD on Ben Nevis which make it a serious winter alpine-style prospect, but high-rolling slopes that give the impression of infinite vastness and make navigation nightmarish in the winter. This is a place to get lost and stay lost.
Ben Macdui is also home to the ghostly Grey Man that reportedly haunts the surrounding plateau. More than once I have given myself the heeby jeeby’s wandering around in the gloam, convincing myself I can see giant shadows. The route to MacDui is comparatively long by normal UK standards but you pass some other fabulous mountains (and Munros) on the way and the wildlife is an undeniable draw. If you’re patient and know where to start looking, you’ll likely come across gobbling Ptarmigan, and might be lucky enough to see Mountain Hare and the only free-roaming population of Reindeer in the UK.
Finally, and by way of a side note, it’s not just the UK that I feel the pull of the second best. Need I mention the, in my mind, unequivocal superiority of K2 relative to Everest? Yes, if you pay enough money you can buy your ticket to the top of the world, but K2 will dismiss you with a likelihood of over 25%. Money and fame means very little on K2, you just have to be exceptional and exceptionally lucky. K2 is the moral man’s mountain relative to Everest, and one that I’d never climb, but still love nevertheless.
So you see, there is nothing shabby about these seconds at all, and I really recommend embracing our second or technically third-placers because in these places there are rich rewards to be found. I’d love to know about the mountains where you are? Is second the best? Let me know so I can come and fall in love with it myself!