Exploring Dinorwic a Historic Slate Mine in North Wales

Exploring Dinorwic a Historic Slate Mine in North Wales

Snakes and Ladders is an adventurous journey through the historic Denorwic slate mines which takes you into the bowels of the quarry by crawling through tunnels, climbing hair raising ladders and abseiling into the cavernous pits. 

Warning – The quarry is slowly falling apart.  The upmost care is required with everything you touch. 

Dinorwic Quarry is between Llanberis and Dinorwic.  The slate mines were active from 1770 to 1969.  At the height of the production, Dinorwic was the second largest slate quarry in the world.  In July 2021, the slate mines in North Wales became a Unesco World Heritage Site.

To get to Denorwic Quarry, travel to Dinorwic Bus Terminus linked here.

This will take you to the free parking at an entrance to the slate quarry.  Follow the path into the quarry and past the old slate mill.  Head through the gate and down the hill.  At the bottom of the hill, you will see a small slate hut building on the left.  Cross the gate to the back corner see an opening in the metal fence.  This is the start of Snakes and Ladders.

In the 2 weeks that separated my visits to Denorwic, the first pit went from being empty to full of fantastically blue water.  The water running off the mountains is phenomenal.  When I first visited, the pit had an eerie look as the bottom is full of dead trees but when full of water, it looks magical. 

Walk up the scree and through the cave.  Exiting the cave, I was struck by the contrast between the slate and nature reclaiming this industrial site.

Continue until entering California which is home to the infamous chain climb. The chain pitch gives Snakes and Ladders an HVS 5a climbing grade.  I climbed chain on a wet day when grip on the smooth slate was non-existent.  I hauled my body weight up to the midway rest, grateful to place some protection as the adrenaline had given me the shakes.  The steepness of the slate decreases making the rest of the climb easier.

Reaching the rest in the middle of the climb

After the chain, exit the tunnel to the tree. The abseil from the tree is approximately 10 metres.  Once at the bottom, walk across the terrace to the cave entrance which is marked by a few large blocks.  I cannot describe this small section as I couldn’t fit me and my bag down so I walked up the stairs on the left and then through the rightmost tunnel which also takes you to Australia. 

Australia is the largest quarry pit; the scale of the quarry is astronomical especially when you remember that it was all dug out by hand.  Follow the vague but loose scree path down to the bottom.  With huge care, cross the bottom of the pit which is lined with vast boulders and head towards the giant scree pile.  The scree is loose and dangerous.  I climbed to the far left of the pile but there is no right or wrong way.  Whatever you do, do it carefully.

Cautiously climbing the giant pile of loose rocks
Approaching a ladder on the terrace

On the terrace, walk around until you find the first of the ladders.  I used 2 x 120 cm slings and 2 x large carabineers.  I attached the slings to my harness so I could climb the ladders like a via ferrata.  The ladders are very old and have an adventurous feel.  When I climbed the second of the ladders, I found it quite disturbing how much they oscillated as I committed my weight to each rung. 

A worryingly wobbly set of metal poles used to transfer between the ladders

After the ladders there is another terrace, with many old buildings to explore.  One of the old cabins is still in good condition and have a small wood burner inside.  Inside the cabin there are old remains of a kettle and shoes, they look old enough to have been abandoned from the quarry, but they could also have been later additions. 

Inside the well kept building. There is graffiti from as far back as 1984 on the walls

At this point, I recommend leaving the official Snakes and Ladder route to explore further into the quarry by walking past the cabin and up the stairs on the left.  At the stop of the stairs you will reach the derelict buildings in the upper levels which contain large industrial machinery.  There are 2 large compressors, bits of electrical generators and 36 Ingersoll Rand saw tables in a cutting room.  It is fascinating to see these old machines from another era, slowly rusting away. 

After exploring the upper levels, head back to the cabin.  There are 2 options which depend on the length of rope you have.  If you have 2 x 50-meter ropes, walk through the valley and downclimb the blocks to the tree to abseil into Lost World. 

At the midway point into Lost World

If you have a shorter rope, walk down the scree on the right, before the valley, to the lower terrace.  Head to the end of the terrace to a bolted abseil station.  This will take you to a lower level where you can either abseil off a tree on the left, or bolts in a large block on the right.  Finally, follow the ladder down to the base of Lost World. 

From the base of Lost World, the quarried slate towers above with small caves dotted around where the slate workers would have passed through.  The explosion colours from trees and ferns contrasting against the mass off quarried stone is beautiful.  Pass through the left tunnel and out onto another terrace.  The final ladder is ahead.

On the penultimate hair raising ladder

This ladder has missing rungs which have been replaced with dubious climbing rope.  Handle with care and aim for the top.  At the top of the ladder continue to the train track to nowhere.  The eagle eyed may be able to spot bits of the train track in the jumble of rocks below.  

The train tracks to nowhere

Finally follow the slope back down to the main footpath at the bottom which will take you back to your car.

On the decent path back to the main track

This is a very brief description of the Snakes and Ladders route in Dinorwic Quarry.  There is a topo and more information available on Dave Talbots website.  There is also a guide in a Rock Fax book.

I cannot stress this enough, handle everything with care.  If you do not have the knowledge or equipment to complete the Snakes and Ladders route, there are plenty of walking alternatives that will take you to all the main areas of the quarry.  If in any doubt, hire a guide.

The size of the quarry is astonishing.  There was no heavy machinery to assist with the quarrying, teams would have blasted the rock and loaded it into carts for extraction.  It is humbling to walk around the quarry and to see the damage the mining industry did to these mountains.

Equipment:

  • 2 x 50 metre rope or 1 x 60 meter
  • Harness
  • 2 x 120 cm slings
  • 2 x HMS carabiners
  • Helmet
  • A couple quick draws
  • Snacks

Happy adventuring. 

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