1996, The Glyders from Betyws-y-Coed

For the first time since 1981, I had to miss a year.  In July 1995 I was suddenly rushed to hospital with a pain that turned out to be caused by kidney stones.  This was just three days before I was due to fly with my wife to Greece for our summer holiday, which had to be cancelled, after which we went in August instead.  My late-September week off work, which I normally spend backpacking, was resignedly occupied by redecorating our bathroom prior to me hosting a meeting of the British Pteridological Society.

I had toyed for some time with the idea of traversing the Glyders ridge, but I kept putting it off for several reasons, one of which is that it is jolly high, containing five summits over 3,000 feet in height, which, I decided, meant that it was going to be strenuous to the extreme.  Another reason was that it would be difficult to include in a forty-or-so miles circuit.  Its southwest neighbour is the Snowdon massif, which would make it a double dose of penance if that were to be included.  To the northwest are almost lowlands by comparison, while to the north is the vast Carneddau range with six more peaks over 3,000 feet.  However, the Glyders ridge is  regarded as a classic route; the whole world and his brother appeared to have walked it, except for me.  All I had done was one day walk from the Llanberis Pass to the Devil’s Kitchen in 1982.  I was now emboldened by the relative ease with which I had scaled Moel Siabod, if somewhat dangerously, in 1994; for the time being at least, I had overcome my “rather walk round it than over it” attitude.  Meanwhile my 1995 health scare left me realising that I had better accomplish it while I still could – the kidney stones were the result of other problems of which I was previously unaware

To make the walk a suitable length, I planned to walk from Betws-y-Coed to Capel Curig, which would also provide a nice easy start, to get into the swing of things, before ascending the southern end of the Glyders ridge from Capel Curig, follow it all the way to Bethesda, and then return along the southern Carneddau.  Pretty ambitious!  All of my guidebooks warned of the very steep loose-stone gulley that is the only way down off the northwest side of Glyder Fawr, so with this in mind I bought a lightweight telescopic trekking pole; at this time these had just started to become popular with walkers.

Day 1

Having driven to Snowdonia and spent the night at Riverside camping in Betws-y-Coed, I set off on the morning of Sunday 22nd September, following the north bank of the Afon Llugwy westwards as far as Ty-hyll, The Ugly House.  Here I crossed the A5 road bridge and continued on a tiny lane south of the river to Pont Cyfyng, where I continued on pleasant footpaths, still following the river, to reach Plas y Brenin, the National Outdoor Activity Centre, to the west of Capel Curig.  So far it was all straightforward level walking, but already I was pleased with the “third leg” of the new pole.

Across the main road from Plas y Brenin, a faint path that is shown just as a dotted line on the map, not a public footpath, ascends the south flank of the Glyders ridge.  The land here belongs to the farm of Dyffryn Mymbyr, immortalised by the late Thomas Firbank in his pre-war book, I Bought a Mountain, and it was currently owned by his widow Esme Kirby (who died on 17th October 1999, three years after my walk here).  It was interesting to observe that sensible control of the numbers of sheep here had resulted in land that was not severely overgrazed like much of the rest of the National Park.

After a few steep, “puffy” bits, as I call them, I gained a well-trodden path that runs along the crest of the ridge, where all I had to do was to plod onwards and gently upwards all the while.  The weather was fine, so the views of Snowdon on my left, Tryfan ahead of me, and the Carneddau on my right, were absolutely superb.  Quite late in the afternoon, I reached what was the first water I had seen for some time, a boggy pool on the west side of the col between 2,499 ft Gallt yr Ogof and 2,636 ft Y Foel Goch.  Here I pitched my tent on a grassy ledge that was about 2,400 feet above sea level.  I could look down onto the A5 road that was some 1½ miles distant in the valley, but I was puzzled for a time by the tiny dots of parked cars far below me, and the comings and goings up a little ribbon of track, until I worked out it was a campsite.

Day 2

I had an excellent night’s sleep in my lofty perch, and within only about twenty minutes of setting off in the morning, I was at the top of Y Foel Goch (not to be confused with another Foel Goch further to the northwest in the same range).  Stunning views of  3,010 ft Tryfan dominated the next mile of easy walking.  A mountain I am never likely to climb, because of the scrambling necessary, it is linked to the Glyders by the aptly named Bristly Ridge, and it was at this point that I first encountered some of the numbers of climbers and walkers who make a circuit of the summits from the Ogwen valley in a day.

Another encounter along this part of the walk was with the constant noise of two large helicopters that appeared to be taking turns to practice hovering  a few feet above a flattish spot just to the northeast of  the summit of Glyder Fach, and as I made the final rocky ascent of this I certainly had some extremely close-up views of the procedure.  Fascinating though this was, I felt that on balance it was a bit of an intrusion in this wonderful place, and I would have preferred to have enjoyed it without their presence.

However, this was quickly forgotten as I threaded my way through the jumble of huge boulders on the 3,262 ft summit to find myself alongside the famous Cantilever Stone.  Two fit young men, who had overtaken me on the ascent, clambered up the rocks onto it, where they jumped up and down on its unsupported end.  When they had left, I removed my rucksack and copied their route, though I did not stand anything like as close to the end of the stone as they had, and I certainly did not jump up and down!

Next came the beautiful obstacle of Castell y Gwynt, the Castle of the Winds, a spire of shattered rock slabs that blocks the ridge.  The two previously mentioned young men were in the process of climbing directly over it.  I took the advice of my guidebooks, which all proclaimed there is a way round on the south side.  Well, perhaps I did not go downhill enough, for I had to sit on my backside and ease my legs over gaps in the rocks that you could have hidden a bus in.

After losing a bit of height, it was back up again to the rocky waste that is the    3,279 ft top of Glyder Fawr.  In the good visibility, the true summit was easy to pick out from other similar rock outcrops, not only because there were at least two parties of happy walkers perched all around it.  After this, I had to lose all the hard-gained height by descending the not far off vertical, or so it seemed, scree gulley, the one I had read about and had bought the trekking pole for, and jolly glad I was of it, too.  It was OK providing I took it really easy.  Incidentally, this is the area a man was descending fourteen years ago in 1982, when I stood way below, watching his progress in awe.  Towards the bottom of the gulley, I stopped for a late lunch where a small stream ran parallel, and a while later I had an equally long rest on some sheltered turf by the shore of Llyn y Cwn, at 2,400 ft.

On the move again, I forged on northwards, enjoying the novelty of a brief spell of walking on comparatively level montane grassland, and without even bothering to detour for a look at the Devil’s Kitchen (been there, done that – even if it was 14 years previously).  The path led me steeply but relatively easily up to the 3,104 ft summit of Y Garn, a rounded hill on one side, falling dramatically away into a glacial cirque on the other side.  Wow!  My third three-thousand-footer in a day!  Slowly descending, and then levelling off, the path passed to one side of 2,726 ft Foel Goch (give that a miss, I’m getting tired), while on my left, a spur disappeared onto the cloud-capped 3,029 ft summit of Elidir Fawr (hello, what’s happening to the weather?)

From here I was on my own: there was no path northwards.  My objective, Marchlyn Mawr Reservoir, at 1,979 ft, turned out to be surrounded on all sides by very steep slopes.  Not only were there no flat spots for my tent, it would also have been extremely difficult just to collect water.  My next hope was the lake’s outlet stream, to the north, but after laboriously climbing down to this, I found that it ran through very rough and exposed land.  A concrete maintenance road wound its way from this area to another lake, Marchlyn Bach Reservoir, situated to the northwest at 1,600 ft.  This too, I found, had steeply sloping sides, except at its north end, where unfortunately there was no shelter.  A nearby stone wall had nowhere on its lee side flat enough for a tent, so after a prolonged amount of umming and aahing I settled on a very slightly lower piece of  the flat land close by.

I was not very happy with this site, but it was getting quite late, the light was fading, and there really was no other choice.  I was even less happy when I was woken around 11 p.m. by the sound of my tent flapping and shaking violently in a strong wind.  A tremendous westerly gale had sprung out of nowhere.  As I lay in my sleeping bag desperately wanting to resume my slumbers, the wind progressively became more forceful.  Not only was there an endless roar of wind swishing through grasses, and whistling and rushing around rocks and other solid objects, but the strongest gusts could be heard in advance as they swooped down the mountainside and across the fells, giving me a few seconds of warning before they hit my tent.  Eventually the inevitable happened, the tail end of the tent came down.  I found that the pegs had been tugged out of the ground.  When this happened for the third time, I picked up a rock about 15 inches in diameter, and positioned it on the ground with the guy rope looped around it.  With further rocks placed on top of the flysheet pegs, I had a rather saggy and flappy tent that at least withstood the gusts.  These, I was later informed, were estimated as being up to 70 miles per hour.  By about 2:00 a.m. the gale was clearly losing its strength, and I was able to get back to sleep around 2:30.

Day 3

The morning was grey and gloomy, with thick dark clouds obscuring the upper slopes of Elidir Fawr on one side of me and 2,695 ft Carnedd y Ffiliast on the other side.  I was not sorry to leave my exposed camp site behind as I headed north-eastwards across rough grassland to pick up a track that would take me down through Penrhyn Slate Quarries to reach the Ogwen valley at a point just to the south of Bethesda.  The quarries were vast, and it took an interminable time following sweeping tracks, none of which were shown on my map, to arrive at the rear of a heavily fenced caravan and chalet park that looked more like a prisoner-of-war camp.  My journey was enlivened by a chance meeting with an amateur geologist who was collecting iron pyrites, though he was not in the best frame of mind when I met him as he had just split his thumb open with a misplaced blow from his hammer.

On the north side of the valley, the Carneddau range was covered in black clouds, and even though I actually felt up to tackling it, both physically and mentally, there would be little point in these conditions, so I followed instead the old drovers’ route that runs down the west side of the River Ogwen, parallel with Telford’s newer road, now the A5, on the east side.  It was thrilling to look up to the southern skyline and think that I had been up there only yesterday.  Two or more miles on after my lunch break, spent beside a beautiful old stone bridge spanning the river, it started to rain steadily, resulting in me wearing all of my waterproofs for the rest of the day, which at least remained mild.  On reaching Capel Curig, I swapped the old road for the A5, and marched on all the way to the campsite near Caer Llugwy, the one I had used prior to climbing Moel Siabod two years previously.  This time, however, the outdoor pursuits groups had beaten me to my preferred corner, in fact the site was surprisingly full, given the weather conditions, and I could only find a reasonably sheltered space against a wall at the far end.  This had the advantage of being as far as possible from any vehicle noise from the road, but regrettably I was also shielded from the rays of the sun which shone from an empty sky in the morning, leaving my side of the wall chilly and very wet.

Day 4

On my way to the washroom in the morning, I observed two arty-looking men walking around bearing a huge video camera and a furry microphone, and on my return to my tent the camera appeared to be pointed my way.  I approached the men and asked if they were filming me, to which they replied yes.  It transpired they were from BBC Wales and their mission was to gather some footage of people camping in the National Park, the subject of which was to be high on the agenda today at a National Parks Conference being held in Llandudno, and would I mind if they filmed me some more?  I did not mind, but I told them that as I was packing up they would probably get nothing but shots of my rear end in the entrance of the tent.  I quickly discovered how difficult it is to be normal in front of a camera, and in spite of my better intentions I found myself posing and acting.  However, when we sat down and chatted, and I poured out the contents of this diary in a nutshell, I soon forgot about the man holding the camera, and became my usual self.  I sometimes wonder whether any of it appeared on the television screen; I expect it was all edited out!

The only other thing of note that day, during which I enjoyed a leisurely ramble back to Betws-y-Coed, was the finding of some clothing draped over a laneside wall, which I thought was a bit strange until I leaned over the wall and saw more on the ground, with a leather case full of keys, which made me realise they must have been stolen, possibly from a car.  I commented on this when I stopped off on route at Ty-hyll, the Ugly House, headquarters of the Snowdonia Society, where I was told that people were always coming in to say that their cars had been broken into in the lane while they had gone for a walk.  (Later on, I drove back there and packed the belongings into a plastic sack, which I left with details on the doorstep of the local, unmanned police station.  There were some big clues as to who might have been the victim, like two York University Rowing Club sweatshirts, for example, but I heard no more about it, which to me spoke volumes.)

On the last leg of my journey back into the village, I became stuck behind a large group of schoolchildren who were engaged in some sort of environmental lesson along the bank of the Llugwy, during which I did not hear one word of English spoken; the teacher’s commentary  and the questions from the children were entirely in Welsh.

The night brought a fresh WSW gale followed by sheets of rain, which made me glad I was now on a well-appointed campsite and not up in the mountains.  At the end of my walks, I always appreciate having clean, dry clothes available, with Wellington boots and an umbrella, plus a warm, weathertight vehicle to escape into.  This trip ended with the now-familiar touristy pursuits followed by a curry in Shrewsbury and a detour to the Warwickshire fern nursery on the way home.

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