The usual decision-making of where to walk was easily solved this year. For my 60th year something a little more special was needed, and the obvious choice was the Snowdon group, the most majestic of all in North Wales, but somewhere I had previously avoided, only having cut across two corners in 1989. My aversion was due partly because of the height and severity of the area, but more that I would find less solitude, because of its popularity with walkers. I now felt confident enough to tackle the tough terrain, and I hoped to devise a route that would avoid the crowds.
I was greatly inspired by a feature I had saved from a walkers’ magazine in 1995. The author of “Snowdon Without the Summit” described a lofty route that completely encircled the massif without scaling the main peaks. Mixing chunks from this article with information I gleaned from various guidebooks, I added the line of grassy mountains to the west of Snowdon, where I had rather optimistically hoped to walk on the return part of my 2000 trip, to make the whole route a reasonable mileage. In the event, I ended up omitting this section a second time, for apart from the fact that the area in question lacks a quantity of streams and pools for water supplies (especially in this exceptionally dry autumn in North Wales), my slow progress on some demanding sections of the route made the walk quite long enough timewise.
On Saturday 21 September, a calm and sunny day, I left home earlier in the morning than usual for this journey. I reached Llangollen by late lunchtime, following which I visited two nurseries, one on Anglesey (a complete waste of effort) and one near Caernarfon (interesting, but…) before turning back to Betws-y-Coed. Determined to avoid the sparsely grassed patch of ground by the village that is Riverside Camping, with its adjacent railway that gives you an early wakening, I drove 2 miles further south to Conwy Falls, where a track shoots up to Rynys Farm. Here, I found, there were lush grass, rural views, a smaller number of campers, friendly owners, excellent facilities and lower fees. Oh, and a dog whose name above his kennel I read only just in time, “I Bite.”
Driving from Betws-y-Coed to Beddgelert the next morning, I parked my van on the A4085 in the edge of the village, where it would be overlooked by residents and passers-by. Walking back through the village and returning along the A498 by which I had arrived, about ¾ of a mile in total, I then climbed a narrow path that zigzagged its way westwards in the direction of a farm called Perthi. Here I was supposed to turn northwards, going through a series of gates and fields “to reach the skyline.” My directions were taken from a newly published 2nd edition of Ridges of Snowdonia by Steve Ashton. Well, Mr Ashton, where on the skyline should I have been aiming for, considering it filled more than 50 percent of the horizon in front of me? A compass direction would not have gone amiss! He also omits to mention that the terrain is pathless.
So, a rough and tiring slog on a hot sun-and-cloud day brought me, I think, to a 1,925-foot subsidiary summit, Craig Wen. I say, “I think”, for all I was concentrating on was finding the easiest way to gain height while maintaining a roughly northwards direction. On the plus side, there were impressive views behind me of Beddgelert Forest, sparkling lakes and the Eifionydd hills, while below on my right was Llyn Dinas, with the Moelwyn group of mountains climbing beyond it.
Continuing onwards and still upwards (sorry, Mr Ashton, I know I wanted to avoid hordes of walkers, but this is rough going and I have yet to see any hint of a trod way), the 2,450-foot peak of Yr Aran came into view. From where I was it could be seen as a soaring green hump chopped in half, with the nearest section removed, leaving a huge cliff. Beyond, the land dipped into Bwlch Cwm Llan, which I was heading for. Therefore, I chose not to climb a few hundred feet only to descend again, but to bypass Yr Aran on its western side to reach the pass directly.
The bwlch, or col, is heavily scarred by old quarry workings and ugly spoil tips, but it contains two charming little lakes, one of which I had camped beside in 1989, when I inadvertently left my little battery shaver on a “shelf” on a slate wall. Needless to say, nothing was now to be seen of the shaver (alright, I did look…), but a narrow piece of slate that I had jammed into the wall, to hang my water carrier on, was still there. It felt rather strange, coming across my handiwork of 13 years ago.
My planned route from here was to continue northwards up Snowdon’s South Ridge to the summit. Weather conditions were ideal for it, but the time of day was not. It would have involved over 1,500-feet of steep ascent when I was already tired from the pathless slog to get this far, and it would have brought me to the summit quite late in the day when I should be finding somewhere to camp for the night. I made the decision to circumnavigate the western side of Snowdon and rejoin my planned route elsewhere.
With this in mind, I walked westwards from the bwlch for maybe half a mile on a path that at first followed a little valley choked with large rocks before it improved. I then turned northwards, climbing pathless grass-and-rock terrain to reach Cwm Carregog. This large area was rough land too, and I found the best route was to contour anticlockwise around the lower edge of the basin to its far side, where what appeared to be smoother ground lay along the base of the Llechog ridge. On the way, I was surprised to see stunted bushes of juniper growing in the rocks.
On reaching the lower, western end of the ridge, I climbed to a vantage point to look down into Cwm Clogwyn on the other side. This I could see was very different in character from Cwm Carregog. It is a vast grassy hollow surrounded on three sides by mountain walls, and it contains in its central area three small lakes that can only all be seen at once from a height such as the ridge I was standing on. The nearest of these, Llyn Nadroedd, looked as though it might be a suitable place to stop for the night.
A tent pitch by the lake turned out to be a bit of a compromise. Grass by sheltering rocks was either sloping or wet, or both. Level, dry grass was more in the open, and indeed my nylon flysheet did flap somewhat disconcertingly as gentle breezes rose and fell at intervals during the night. The evening’s setting sun gave a glowing golden colour to the western flank of Snowdon which was less than a mile distant at the far end of the cwm.
In the morning the sounds of trains on the mountain railway wafted across to me as they made their laborious journeys to and from the summit, and I could just see them on the skyline at one spot. My plan for the start of the day was to walk across the cwm towards the central lake, Llyn Coch, and then follow its outlet stream north-eastwards towards a fourth, larger lake, Llyn Ffynnon-y-gwas, that was situated at the far end of the cwm, beyond which lay another col, Bwlch Cwm Brwynog. On the way, I found the grass was longer and more lush, less heavily grazed perhaps, but certainly due to the ground here being much wetter, in spite of the current drought conditions, without which it would have been an extremely sploshy walk. When I reached the stream I found it too large to cross easily, so I followed it downhill close to its near bank, forcibly bypassing some really wet slopes on route, until I arrived at a point where the stream turned westwards. Here it was wide but shallow, enabling me to cross it and make a beeline over relatively level grassland to the west shore of Llyn Ffynnon-y-gwas.
The Snowdon Ranger Path crosses the hillside above the far end of this lake, and two or three pairs of walkers were visible as I approached it. The position of the col I wanted to cross looked plain enough on the 1:25,000 Ordnance Survey map, but it was difficult to pinpoint on the land, and I found myself needlessly stomping up the zigzag path leading towards Clogwyn Du’r Arddu before coming to the conclusion that I had overshot the mark. What a waste of effort! I found it on the way back down, by trying a tiny path that climbed up to my right and led behind some rocks before bringing me to a stile, below which laid yet another large cwm. To my left was the craggy side of 2,211-foot Moel Cynghorion, while ahead I recognised the undulating line of Snowdon’s Llanberis Ridge. My intended route was to the east, following the base of Clogwyn’s cliffs to reach Llyn Du’r Arddu.
The author of the previously mentioned 1995 magazine feature wrote that he was “pleasantly surprised to find a faint path that contoured the rough flanks.” Well, there was the faintest of faint paths for the first few hundred yards, of the sort that only a Red Indian scout would be able to discern, but after that disappeared it was just a case of picking my way over the rock-strewn ground and trusting I was going the right way. Halfway along I encountered a small group of middle-aged men headed in the opposite direction, and they were just as unsure as me.
The western approach to Llyn Du’r Arddu looks straightforward on the map, but I found that in reality enormous, rough boulders cover a large area around the lake. Some time later, after picking my way out of the north side, I headed northeastwards on rocky slopes, looking for an old quarry track that leads to Snowdon’s Llanberis Path. On the way I passed a little mauve-coloured mountain tent, the porch of which was open. Inside I saw packets of pasta and coils of rope, but the occupants were nowhere around. It was a relief to reach the quarry track after a tiring toil up the boulder-strewn grass slopes from the lake, but halfway up the track I decided to cut two sides off a triangle and head across country straight for the Llanberis Path. With hindsight I can say this was a mistake, for I now had much steeper slopes to climb on a hot, sunny afternoon, to reach a veritable highway thronged with a steady stream of walkers heading to and from (mostly from, at this hour) Snowdon’s summit by what is the longest but easiest and most popular route. And who could blame them on such a glorious late-September day as this? Anyway, it would have been easier for me if I had stayed on the quarry track, taking the long way round instead of a silly short cut, for I was in a very tired state as I slowly puffed my way up towards the summit amidst all these people. But then, the majority were younger than me, and they were not carrying 28 lb rucksacks.
The Llanberis Path and the Snowdon Mountain Railway converge just to the south of Clogwyn station, and then run parallel for a few hundred yards, during which time I was able to admire the passing locomotives and return the waves of little children in the carriages, but it was my hope to escape the sea of humanity soon by descending eastwards into the near-inaccessible Cwm Glas, and this is where I anticipated problems.
Although I possess a considerable number of books about the North Wales mountains, very few authors mention Cwm Glas; furthermore they suggest differing routes, and they all refer to ascent, not descent. In 1967, as a foolhardy young man, ill-equipped and inexperienced, I climbed down with my wife, then my fiancée, on one side of a scree gulley north of Crib-y-Ddysgl, a way based on vague directions I had read somewhere, and we lived to tell the tale. A couple of my books refer to a steep route up onto the Llanberis Ridge at a break in the crags at Gyrn Las, but Peter Hermon, in Hillwalking in Wales (1991), is very much against using this for descent, one of his reasons being because the spot where it joins the edge is easily missed. The author of the 1995 magazine feature wrote, “Unforgiving cliffs lay ready to punish a careless error – to my relief, a small cairn loomed out of the mist as I approached the edge and I knew that I had got it right.” Well, there was no mist to worry about today, otherwise I would certainly not be attempting this route, and in the event, Showell Styles’ directions in The Mountains of North Wales (1974), were the most helpful, for he describes the point as being 200 yards or so due east from where the railway bends sharply to the right, away from the crest of the ridge, a quarter of a mile above Clogwyn station.
Some of the people who saw me break away from the Llanberis Path to climb the convex grass slopes towards the currently out-of-sight crest of the ridge might have wondered where on earth I was off to, while I was full of trepidation, but I found I could walk carefully around the rim of the cwm, and before I had gone 50 yards, there was a tiny pile of stones on the edge!
After all that, the way down was almost an anticlimax. Admittedly, there was some 650 feet in height of vertiginous slope to climb down, but I found it relatively easy, it was just a case of carefully picking my way down a series of zigzagging grassy terraces and rock ledges. In places I had to sit down and ease myself gently off edges, in places it was very wet, and sometimes these coincided. The little lakes of Llyn Bach and Llyn Glas glistened below me, drawing me on, but after the walls of the cwm, the less-steep slopes leading to the lakes were seemingly never-ending and the more tiring.
It was only late afternoon when I reached the interior of Cwm Glas, but I immediately set about choosing a tent site, eventually settling for a grass terrace between a wall of rocks and a large rib of bare rock that would come in handy for sitting on, and also for spreading equipment on to air in the morning. Being just to the north of Llyn Bach, the outfall stream close by was my source of water. (This year I had abandoned iodine water purifying tablets in favour of a tiny filter that screws onto the neck of my flexible flask in place of the cap. Far simpler to use, it would also mean no more nasty chemicals in my body. The only drawback is that the water trickles out of the flask very slowly, but I soon developed a technique of squeezing the flask and filling my plastic mug, rather than trying to drink straight from the flask.)
Once my tent was up and my equipment was laid out, I set off to explore the cwm, the floor of which I found to be a series of different levels of grass separated by outcrops of huge, rounded rocks. Around the rear soared the high walls of 3,026 ft Crib Goch with its famous Pinnacles, and 3,493 ft Crib-y-Ddysgl with its rock buttress commonly known as the Parson’s Nose, while high on the ridge to the west could be seen a slight dip that had been the starting point of my descent. While I was in the cwm, I experienced a strange sensation of not being particularly high up, yet Llyn Bach is at 2,450 feet, and the out of sight Pass of Llanberis was 2,000 feet below me. This feeling stayed with me all of the time I spent there, and it was only when I occasionally caught a glimpse down into the pass that I would realise just how high up in the mountains I actually was. In spite of the altitude, I spotted a tiny frog, one of this year’s I guessed, hopping in wet grass near the lake, and later a second, slightly larger one, unmoving in a little cavity on a slope.
Tuesday morning’s sky was blue and cloudless, though unfortunately my tent area was in the shadow of Crib Goch for some time. By 9:00 a.m. walkers were braving the knife-edge ridge over 500 feet above me, their distant shouts to each other penetrating the still air. I packed up late, and walked in blazing sunshine down to Llyn Glas, with its little island on which two small conifer trees grow. Leaving my rucksack behind some rocks, I set off to explore the limestone terraces at the rear of the lake, in search of rare ferns that have been recorded here. Perhaps with more time I might have found the nationally rare one (which I had only seen in the wild in Norway and, just one week before now, as a reintroduction in County Durham), but I did spot a frond of a species rare in Wales (only previously seen by me in Switzerland and again in County Durham a week ago), this was sticking out of a crevice about 30 feet above me. A better climber would probably have got further up than the 6 or 7 feet that I managed, but I was not going to risk my life for a close-up photograph.
After my bit of botanising, I started my exit from the cwm, eastwards towards Bwlch y Moch. I carried with me photocopies of routes (for going in the opposite direction, unfortunately) from The Welsh Peaks, by Poucher (1979), and The Complete Guide to Snowdon, by Jones (1992). First I should contour around Cwm Uchaf and aim for a cairn on an obvious notch in the north ridge of Crib Goch. Jones refers to what I took to be two lines of cairns, the larger ones leading on to Llyn Glas. However, I saw absolutely no cairns at all (other than the aforementioned one on the notch in the ridge, when I reached it) and I feel that Poucher was about right, saying that the path continues along a grassy shelf. There was in fact a series of wide grassy shelves, making for easy walking, but was there a path? Not a sign of one!
In Cwm Beudy Mawr now, past Crib Goch’s north ridge, it was a totally different matter. Poucher refers to a path, well cairned but rather indistinct in places, which contours round the slopes, and Jones says the path dips and rises across the rather rocky mountainside at around the 1,400 feet contour, and is well cairned. From the notch on the ridge, I found the faintest of trod ways, about 6 inches wide, that started off across the sloping mountainside but after a few hundred yards it had all but disappeared.
The land I was contouring sloped steeply down to my left, before dropping completely away over rocks, and two or three times my foot had slipped on loose stones. If I tumbled it was possible that I might not stop sliding down, and would continue over the edge. Ahead of me the slope was even steeper and rockier, and, looking at the skyline perhaps half a mile beyond, there was no clear indication of where I should aim for to find Bwlch y Moch. There was certainly no hint of a path now, and I had not seen a solitary cairn, apart from the one I had passed on the ridge. I was not at all happy with my situation, and reluctantly decided it would be safer to turn back.
Feeling rather sorry, I returned the way I had come, which now seemed even more unnerving than before. Furthermore, I was now faced with the worry of how to get down from Cwm Glas to the Llanberis Pass. The relevant routes I had read at home were hardly remembered. The absurd notion flashed through my mind that I could be marooned up here for all time, unable to find a way out, but hey! I had done it with much less experience in 1967!
On arriving back at Llyn Bach’s outlet stream below the rock crags of Gyrn Las, I came across a trio of feral mountain goats. The slightly comical-looking face of a young, white female, with short, upright, spiky horns, was framed between two shaggy-coated black-and-white males with large curved horns. Oh, to have had a SLR camera with a telephoto lens in my hands at that moment! There was a rocky but well-trodden way down the side of the stream, though in several places hands were necessary as well as feet, and sometimes it was easier to drop my walking poles down ahead of me before climbing down, for they got in the way. I was OK until I had to turn round and descend facing the rocks, as I could not always see where to get a good foothold, while my rucksack tended to unbalance me. The slowest bits, however, were on loose rock scree, where I found it was necessary to step really carefully.
Eventually, less steeply sloping land was reached in the area lower down called Cwm Glas Mawr. There was still about five-eighths of a mile to go to reach the road in the pass, but there was now a path, which I shared with a small group of climbers who were walking down. Just as in 1967, I kept looking back and thinking, “Have I really just come down from all the way up there?” At the road, the climbers were going the other way, so with no offer of a lift, I turned right and started a 1½-miles uphill march. I would rather have been up in the hills, away from tarmac and cars and tourists, but the scenery was glorious, as was the weather, and I would be able to add Llanberis Pass to my mental “walked it” list. At the head of the road is Pen-y-pass, a complex of stone buildings consisting of a youth hostel on one side of the road and a mountain rescue post, a national park information centre and a café on the other side. Here I made use of the public telephone to inform the other half that she could put the insurance policies away for now.
It was now late afternoon, and I needed somewhere quiet to put my tent up. I considered heading south up the Miner’s Track to Llyn Llydaw, but felt that there would be too many walkers about. Studying my map, I decided to try Llyn Cwmffynnon, a short distance to the north, across the road. A footpath led through the youth hostel garden before climbing steeply up a wide, grassy gulley, after which gentle grassy slopes led down to the lake, but it was very boggy and were it not for the current drought conditions it would have been rather unpleasant. I pitched my tent on a dry rise by some rocks near the lake’s edge. The far shore presented an unusual view of the south side of the Glyders range of mountains, where Castell y Gwynt, the Castle of the Winds, which I had passed 6 years previously, was just discernible on the skyline a mile away.
The following morning, Wednesday, had some clouds in the sky, the first I had seen for a few days, and the high summits were disappearing. On packing away my tent, I found an aluminium peg in the ground, right next to one of mine. I was amazed that, given such a vast area, I had chosen exactly the same spot as someone before me. Today would be my fourth day out, and I decided to spend it walking down the Glaslyn valley back to my starting point at Beddgelert. With picture postcard scenery, easy footpaths and pleasant weather, the hours passed, but it was mostly relatively lowland walking that did not compare with being up in the wilds of the mountains. A minor diversion was the sight of a film set of a ?Chinese village constructed by the river at the northern tip of Llyn Gwynant. Complete with straw roofs, washing on lines, a couple of rather rusty 1930s tractors and a bamboo water wheel, it caused me some amusement because it looked so out-of-place here.
Arriving at Bedgelert at about 4.30 in the afternoon, I continued through the village to the far side, where I had parked my van. A man was standing by it, and I saw a pile of broken toughened glass on the pavement. This did not look good! I found that the passenger door window was missing, and the cab of the van was absolutely full of broken glass. The reason for this, I soon learned, was that the locals had noticed that my van had been there for a few days, and, concerned that I might have fallen off Snowdon or something, they had informed the police. An officer duly arrived and decided to smash a window with his truncheon, to look for papers with my details on them. (The registration number would only have provided the name of the leasing company, but the company ‘phone number was on the van’s livery; if called, they would have told the officer I was on holiday in Wales as well as giving him my wife’s ‘phone number.) My van was now being guarded by my informant while the policeman had driven a mile up the road to get a signal for his phone, and when he returned I learned that, after a succession of no replies and answerphone messages, he eventually got hold of my wife, who assured him that I had phoned her only the previous afternoon, from Pen-y-pass, and told her I was on my way back.
However, now that he had broken a window, the policeman had also arranged for my van to be removed by a recovery vehicle, as it was no longer secure! I do not like to think about how I would have felt if I had returned any later, tired and dirty, to find my van missing and broken glass on the pavement. The moral is, I should have informed someone, ideally the police, that I would be leaving the van there while I was walking for a few days (I think the nearest police station is at Portmadoc, 16 miles away.)
At Beddgelert Forest Enterprise camp site, I temporarily weatherproofed the opening with a clear plastic sack, and made a lot of explanatory phone calls, before setting to work to remove as much glass as possible, using a dustpan and brush borrowed from the site shop. This being North Wales, it took until noon the next day to have a new window fitted, and, this being North Wales, it started raining at just about the same time. I then drove via Dolgellau and Welshpool back to England, where it was dry. Altogether, it was a rather sad ending, but it hardly detracted at all from what was a splendid trip (even if I did not walk a great number of miles overall); it was certainly my driest ever, and all I wanted to do afterwards was to be back up there again.
Something later upset me more than having my van window broken by the police, and that was the loss on my way home of one of my pair of beloved microfleece shirts. Purchased in a sale several years ago, they are warm, breathable, quick drying, slightly draught proof, very long to cover the pelvic region, green in colour and seemingly indestructible. I wore one throughout the walk and a clean one afterwards, and I believe I must have left this one at the Camping Club site at Wolverley, near Kidderminster, but although I ‘phoned them twice, it had not been found. Nothing the same exists at the time of writing, and the nearest equivalent I have purchased, at nearly four times the price of the lost one, is a skimpier size and not as comfortable to wear, in spite of its high-tech specification.
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