1999, South-eastern Carneddau from Betws-y-Coed

The intention this year was to walk the southern section of the Carneddau mountains that I was unable to complete as part the walk I planned in 1996. My new route would include 3,490 ft Carnedd Llewelyn, the third highest peak in Wales, for I now felt confident enough and experienced enough to include such heights. However, I was made a little bit apprehensive by the advice given in some of my guide books, which in the event turned out to be a little over-cautious, I felt (more of this later).

I drove a lengthy route to Betws-y-Coed via Bridgemere Garden World, near Nantwich in Cheshire. It was a day of sun and dark clouds, with heavy, squally showers. At Riverside Camping, it was difficult to choose a spot that was not too muddy; in my opinion this is largely because they cut the grass far too short. Another gripe I have with this site is that every year the area with electric hook-ups for touring caravans and motorhomes expands, resulting in the tents area becoming further and further away from the facilities. Rain fell for the rest of the day and the night.

Day 1

Leaving my van outside a guesthouse in a side road near the railway station, I walked through the village centre in light drizzle. September had so far been wetter than of late, so when I crossed the Afon Llugwy on the B5106 road bridge, the swollen river made an interesting spectacle as it forced its way between the huge boulders; it was a change from the miserable trickle I saw here in 1996. On reaching the Miners Bridge, about 1½ miles to the west, I stopped to check the direction of the next path I was to take. Oh, calamity! I had the wrong map! This had happened because I remove the stiff covers from my maps, to save weight, and somehow they had become mixed up, I had extracted what was the wrong map from the right cover. What to do now? There was nothing for it but to hide my rucksack in the trees, and leg it back to the station by the shortest possible route down a lane instead of along riverside paths. Aided by the new pair of walking poles that Father Christmas had brought me, to replace the one that broke last year, I was back at my van in about 35 minutes. Selecting the correct map, I then jumped into the seat and drove back through the village and part of the way up the lane, to park opposite another guesthouse. It would not be so far to walk back at the end of my hike, I reasoned. As on a previous occasion, I had difficulty in finding my olive-coloured rucksack until I was within an arm’s length of it.

A series of paths, tracks and lanes, first climbing and then gently descending, brought me to the edge of a ridge above the southern end of Llyn Geirionydd. From where I stood, a narrow path overhung with bracken led diagonally downhill to reach the far end of the lake. I had not gone many yards down this path before I realised that I should first have put on my waterproof trousers, for the bracken was very wet and my lower half was quickly saturated. To add to my misery, I took a wrong path northwards from the lake, emerging at the site of a derelict former lead mine, from where I had to re-orientate myself and find my way onto the correct route. I was following Ralph Maddern’s rather sketchy directions again, from one of his 1981 books, and even though I had trod the same way 11 years previously, I did not recognise one bit of it. Furthermore, as I hauled myself up a very steep lane that climbed out of the Afon Crafnant valley, my torso and limbs felt very weary, while my joints felt creaky. Maybe I was overtired and not fit enough before starting the walk, or maybe I was beginning to feel my age, perhaps it was both. (My work as a service engineer kept me in a permanently “knackered” state; I rose in the mornings as physically tired as when I had gone to bed, and I started again on Mondays almost as tired as when I finished on Fridays.)

After a lengthy climb, during much of which I was rather uncertain if I was heading the right way, I arrived at the top of a ridge from where I could see the dammed northern end of Llyn Cowlyd way below me. A little path, not marked on any map, wound its way down to the dam, but halfway down this I changed direction to the west, to head across rough and boggy ground towards a little stream that runs down the eastern end of 2,224 ft Creigiau Gleision. I could see a green patch in front of some ancient sheepfolds on the far side of the stream, and this proved to be a perfect site for my tent, with dry, level grass, shelter by the walls, a large stone to use as a seat, and a superb view.

Day 2

Monday morning did not look over-promising, with broken cloud just touching the mountain tops and the threat of rain ever-present, but at least it was relatively mild. I made a late start after spreading out my sleeping bag to air and my damp waterproofs to dry, which turned out to be a slow process. I cut back across country to return to the unmapped path that threads its way down to Llyn Cowlyd dam, following which I climbed up some old tracks that zigzagged out of the far side of the valley. Passing over a ridge, and down around a shoulder, I arrived at the breached dam of Llyn Eigiau, where I stopped for lunch beside the outlet river. After this came a lengthy and slightly boring tramp along a straight and fairly level track, before I turned off ninety degrees to the left to start up an old track that never seemed to stop climbing its way up to Melynllyn Reservoir, though the scenery and the wildness of the land more than made up for it.

Rain commenced before I was halfway up, and I decided in advance that I would call it a day when I reached the reservoir, partly because it would be the last place I could be certain of obtaining water for a while, and partly because I needed to be sure of reasonable weather conditions before proceeding with the next section of the walk. As it often turns out with these mountain lakes, steep slopes surrounded three-quarters of it, while the remaining quarter was flat and grassy but totally without any shelter. The wind blew parallel with a stone wall, ruling out any spot by that. After much wandering back and forth I found a sheltered ledge only just big enough for my tent, halfway down the side of a dry culvert. When I later drifted off to sleep, with the rain still falling, it was comforting to know how much worse that might have sounded if I had pitched in a more exposed spot.

Day 3

A bright morning greeted me, and my east-facing ledge proved to be a perfect suntrap. I quickly took advantage of this, spreading clothing and equipment to air on the surrounding rocks. I kept an anxious eye on the misty summits, for I was unsure as to whether I should go over the tops today, or cop-out and take a lower route. When it was quite apparent that conditions were improving, I decided to go for it. Following Peter Hermon’s advice in his 1991 volume Hillwalking in Wales, to “pull up onto the grassy tongue between the two lakes,” I hauled myself up horrendously steep convex slopes, though I fear the “fragments of track here and there” were in fact figments of the author’s imagination; perhaps he was hallucinating from the effort involved? Apart from a fairly level bog halfway up, where I stopped for a breather, it was one of those climbs that seemed never-ending; every time I thought I had reached the top, a further rise was revealed beyond.

At long last I arrived at the edge of a broad and level grassy ridge. The rock outcrop to my right appeared to be 3,196 ft Foel Grach, while the lofty hill to my left was obviously 3,490 ft Carnedd Llewelyn. A well-worn path led along the ridge and threaded its way up through a jumble of rocks to reach the cairn and windshelter on the summit, which is only 70 ft lower than Snowdon. In all directions lay vast rolling hills and ridges, and for me the novelty was in actually looking down onto all of them. Many of my guidebooks warned of the openness of the summit plateau and the ease of getting disorientated, even in fine weather. I disagree with this; obviously there would be problems in bad visibility, but on a day like today I had no trouble in working out what was what and where I was headed for next.

The rocky path southwest of the summit, leading to 3,425 ft Carnedd Dafydd, became a wonderful ridge, though not at all dangerous, as it was wide enough to keep balanced and there were no precipices. After this it was necessary to leave the path, striking off southeastwards on a broad spur leading down towards Ffynnon Llugwy Reservoir. Once again I take issue with my guidebooks, more than one of which warns of the need to avoid crags above the lake; you would have to be heading completely in the wrong direction for that to become a possibility.

The lake itself is in a breathtakingly beautiful spot, with soaring green cliffs on three sides, but it was marred by the reverberating noise of a military helicopter that was practicing hovering as close to a cliff as it could get. (Speaking of the military, I have never yet mentioned the fighter jets that unexpectedly explode out of the Snowdonia skies to thunder only a few feet, it seems, above your head, only by then you have already thrown yourself flat on the ground in shock.) A concrete access road leads all of the way down to the distant A5 road, but I intended to walk only half of its length, to reach a man-made leat that contours the hillsides. On the way, I had to pass a feral horse and its foal. Tossing their manes, they cantered up a grassy knoll to one side of the road, and gazed down at me from above.

A path follows the bank of the leat, which winds a level course around the hillsides high above the Llugwy valley. Its purpose is to divert water from streams above it into Llyn Cowlyd Reservoir, the southern end of which it eventually reaches. There is an eastern arm of the leat that I had hoped to follow, but unfortunately there was no path alongside that stretch, so I had to leave the leat and descend a marshy path down into the valley, along which runs the A5 road. It had begun to rain at about 3:00 p.m., lightly at first, but gradually becoming heavier and more persistent. By the time I reached the road, the skies were dark and the downpour was demoralising.

Half a mile beyond Capel Curig, a track crossed the River Llugwy on a high, arching bridge before leading through some deciduous woodland. A little way into the wood, a cleared area within a high drystone wall offered a secluded pitch for my tent. Rain continued to literally fall out of the sky.

Day 4

At around 5:00 a.m. someone flashed a powerful light into my face. While I lay there startled, the answer came to me in a huge crash of thunder. “Oh, my God!” I thought, “I’m right next to a big oak tree!” Fortunately, the lightning and thunder that prevailed for the following ten minutes was more distant.

It was still pouring with rain at 8:00 a.m. when I should have got up, but I saw no point in it. I was forced out at 8:40 by the need to spend a penny, then I breakfasted, cleaned up and packed away everything except the tent flysheet. By 11:00 a.m. I was bored with sitting there reading my paperback book, so I took down my sodden shelter, and set off. Walking back to view the river where I had crossed it yesterday, I saw a brown swirling mass rushing by. Now I could see why the bridge had been built so high, though the water was around both ends of it. Downstream, the flow splashed against rocks and the stone wall beside the main road, while at a sharp bend, water was shooting up into the air, looking like television news footage of some European flash flood. At Pont Cyfyng the roar was deafening, and to one side of the minor lane that commences here, a torrent of water fifty feet wide tumbled downhill through trees, the course of a stream somewhere beneath it. Further downstream still, the lane was under inches of water, where ducks floated on the riverside fields. On my approach to Ty-hyll, an old abandoned car on a side track provided me with a dry place for a ten minutes rest.

After crossing the A5 road bridge to swap to the north bank of the river, I saw a notice, standing in water, instructing walkers to keep out of the field and stay on the riverside path. Below Swallow Falls, a new viewing area had thoughtfully been constructed; it allowed one to view the falls from the north bank free of charge, not to mention without hordes of tourists, and without risking life and limb crossing the main road from the car park on its other side. The attractiveness of the falls is in its channels of white water rushing around black rocks, but today there was just a wall of brown water, simply falling off the edge. Down in Betws-y-Coed, the river was thundering under the B5106 road bridge so fiercely that spray was landing on the tarmac and on more than a few of the onlookers. Even little old ladies were toddling out of their cottages to come and have a look at it.

Thus ended what was at that time my wettest-ever backpacking walk. I learnt later that more than 2 inches of rain had fallen on Capel Curig in 24 hours. In spite of the achievement of climbing Carnedd Llewelyn, the walk was also my least enjoyable in terms of comfort and physical fitness, leaving me wondering whether I wanted to continue doing it in future years.

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