For the first time in over thirty years, I altered my tradition of going backpacking in September by going in mid May instead. What was behind this? Well, after I had disposed of my no longer serviceable old tent at the end of last year’s trip, it had been my intention to buy a replacement but before I did, I received a surprise birthday present of a Wild Country Zephyros 1 from my wife. It was the model I wanted because she could hardly have failed to see me continually looking at them on the net, as well as having to listen to my endless comments on them. I think it was her way of saying she’d like me to go away more often….
With the tent already more than half a kilo lighter than its predecessor, I soon set about making various improvements and modifications to it, such as better pegs and guy lines. I had already bought a new self inflating ground mat to replace the old one that I had thrown out, but this was a bit on the heavy side for lightweight backpacking. Browsing on the web I came across the Multimat Superlite Compact 25 which was half the weight, and it was olive coloured too, so I just had to have one! Next I took a hard look at the rest of my kit to see if there were any other items I could replace with lighter ones, as a result of which I halved the weight of my Snow Peak Gigapower Lantern (with its 110 gas cartridge) by buying a Black Diamond Orbit LED Lantern.
Naturally, I couldn’t wait to get out and try all this new kit. After copying a route from the invaluable V-G Backpacking website, all that I needed now was a suitable time to go, some time when it was not too cold, too warm or too wet. May was the obvious choice and I was free in the middle of the month; this fitted in nicely between a couple of other trips as well as avoiding the busy bank holidays.
Vanner Camp Site at Llanelltyd, a couple of miles to the north of Dolgellau, was close to the start of the route and thus the ideal choice for my first night. I did not enjoy my previous stay here, in 1998, when I had some unfavourable things to say about it, but current reviews on UKCampsite.co.uk spoke well of it, and they were right, I found, for the site had improved immensely. The leylandii trees that blotted out the sun had long gone, there was a fine new toilet block, and the charges were reasonable, while there was no longer a fee to CADW for looking around the ruined Cistercian abbey that is at the site. What is more, mine was the only tent there.
A little National Park car park was just around the corner from the camp site, but it was very isolated. Not wanting to leave my car there, I drove up to the village itself, where spaces turned out to be few. I had no sooner pulled up in a vacant spot by one end of a large bungalow when a carful of residents arrived and long faces were pulled in my direction. Not wanting to upset any locals by taking their preferred place, I learned from them that there was parking behind the community hall, and this suited me fine.
While I was getting my stuff ready it started to rain, just a passing light shower, but one of a number that made me keep my waterproof jacket on for the next couple of hours, rather than taking it off in between them. After that there was no more rain for the rest of the trip. Soon away from the main road, I followed small, virtually car-free lanes and tracks that led around the west and north sides of Moel Offrwm. V-G had climbed over this hill, but I had no intention of doing so, I wanted an easy start to my journey. Young lambs were to be seen all around, while to the south the horizon was filled by the lengthy flank of Cadair Idris, its upper parts hidden in mist. Striking to me was how the new leaves on the trees were less advanced than those at home in the south, ditto the wild flowers and new fern fronds. Bluebells were still in bud, though there were large white patches of wild garlic. There were a few Welsh poppies alongside the byways but some of the flowers were more of an orange colour than the usual yellow, suggesting to me the plants had the genes of introduced species mixed in them. I was intrigued throughout this trip by the number of trees of various sizes I saw that had been blown down by gales in previous years yet were still alive, their trunks horizontal on the ground but their apices flourishing; I attributed their survival to the region’s high rainfall.
Thanks to my new equipment my backpack genuinely felt a bit lighter than it used to in the past, while the fact that I was able to pack the entire tent across the width of the pack (except for its poles) rather than having a rolled flysheet vertically down one side and inner tent down the other side, as I used to, made it feel more balanced and stable. Under sun and light clouds I passed the tiny village of Llanfachreth in the distance on my left, till the metalled lane I was following became a stony track that gently climbed to Bwlch Goriwared. Almost at the highest point, a ladder stile crossed a wall on my right; beyond this a faint trod way led north-eastwards, still climbing, to eventually reach the 2,408 ft summit of Rhobell Fawr. Not the first time I had been up here, it is a bit of a disappointment to me, for while it looks a good mountain from below, the effort of getting to the top is rewarded by an undramatic hump of stony grass with a trig point on it, although it must be said the views are fine.
Not one guide that I have seen in print or online gives a clear description of the best route down the east side, so I went my previous way, which was to locate a ladder stile in a wall lower down, after this following a wire fence very steeply down and leaving it when it became necessary to detour around rock outcrops. By the time I reached a small river I was already on the lookout for somewhere to pitch my tent for the night. While there were very few suitably flat spots, there were even fewer that were dry enough, a legacy of the wettest winter on record, not to mention heavy rainfall a couple of days before my journey to Wales. The best area I could find was on a rise beyond the south side of the river, before the land continued its downward slope. Even here it was distinctly squelchy, while there were no rocks or anything for sitting on, but it was all I could find and it was going to have to do. (On my wanderings the following morning, I discovered a far dryer area just a hundred yards or so to the north.)
There was more sun and cloud in the morning, with very little wind and it was mild, in fact this is the way it stayed for the remainder of my trip, with the temperatures rising daily too. In a short time after packing up I was down at the forest track that ran north-south below me, and a little distance along this I turned off it onto a firebreak through the forest that is not a public footpath but it is used as a route to reach the south-west of the mountain of Dduallt. Formerly tricky to pinpoint unless you knew the right spot, the gap in the trees is now marked with a new signpost (more taming of the wilds!). I found myself wishing they had instead put the effort into clearing the twenty or so toppled conifers that blocked the final stretch of the way.
As I knew from previous experience, the southern end of Dduallt is pathless, so today’s hard work of making my way across the slopes to reach the end of its ridge was fully expected. Unfortunately I didn’t get it quite right, by aiming for a wall that turned out to be further away from my objective, instead of which I should have started an ascent much earlier. This meant that I overshot the ridge and then had to thread a zigzagging way up steep slopes to reach the summit from its south-east side. On finally reaching the top, the views were worth it, I could see Cadair Idris, the Rhinogs, the Arans and the length of Bala Lake, while on the northern horizon the summit of Snowdon itself was clearly visible.
The descent of the lengthy north ridge of the mountain was extremely soggy underfoot, not helped by there being only the faintest trod way on the grass. Less than two-thirds of the way down, the heel of my right boot skidded forward on the wet ground where it left a groove about eighteen inches long, while a sharp pain shot up the back of my ankle. The weight of my pack jerking me backwards probably didn’t help, but my poles saved me from going over. Tentatively finding I could still just about put my weight on my foot, I was able to continue with the aid of my poles as crutches, albeit at a much slower rate. Clearly it was not going to be possible to complete my intended route now, though even before this incident I had realised that it was going to be difficult. Right from the start I had concerns about my ability to walk 37 miles in rough country in four days; that was going to need a good daily average for me.
The irony of it was that before starting off this morning I had seen from my map that I could have stayed on the aforementioned forest track that runs between Rhobell Fawr and Dduallt, this would have been a good route northwards without going over the latter mountain, but I had decided it was too unadventurous. With hindsight, if I had gone that way I wouldn’t have injured myself. It is also worth mentioning that just out of curiosity I checked my mobile phone to see if I could have called for help if it was unavoidable. Rather worryingly, there was no signal whatsoever; this caused me to check again at intervals for the rest of the way that I walked, again out of curiosity, and the results were always the same, no signal.
Continuing somewhat painfully northwards, I reached a final steep and rocky bit that needed picking my way down before I arrived at the edge of the Afon Mawddach. The map shows a ford at a point where a track appears to cross the river; this was a little downstream of my current position. Whether the river is crossable there is debatable. However the map also marks separately “Rhyd y Re (ford)” which might refer to the same spot or it could be another ford further upstream. I decided to try the latter as it appeared to be at a point where the river was drawn narrower on the map. Two things became clear, firstly very few if any humans ever walked this way, and secondly there were a couple of tributaries that must be crossed to get there. Nevertheless, it proved to be moderately easy and at a bend of the main river I found a wide bed of dry grey shingle, on the far side of which the water flowed in a channel only about four feet wide. This was easily jumped, even with an injured ankle, though I had to make sure I landed on my good one.
From here the originators of my route walked northwards on pathless terrain, whereas I had planned to go westwards on a track that followed the river, before taking a forest track north to rejoin their route. Under my present circumstances, though, I was now going to go west then south, cutting out the northern and western parts of the route in order to get back to my car the shortest way possible. Thus I limped first along tracks and then on empty lanes through Cwm yr Allt-lwyd and down to Aber-Geirw, beyond which an isolated and apparently infrequently used community centre stood by a small river. Here there were ideal spots for my tent, the best one of which was on level grass above the river at a point where the building hid my tent from being seen from the road.
Having gone to sleep last night with the hoots of an owl nearby, I rose to hear the repeated calls of a cuckoo. Miles of lane walking awaited me once I was on the move again. Secretly hoping a driver would take pity on me hobbling along and offer me a lift, I was disappointed, for in all that way no cars were seen. At a junction, the most direct route that I wanted to take had “Road Closed” signs, which was a bit of a nuisance; it was not clear why it was closed but as it ran below very steep slopes I would guess a landslip was the most likely reason. Diversion signs directed me to a lengthy forestry track that was parallel with the road on the opposite side of the Afon Wen. It made a change from walking on tarmac, though it was more uncomfortable for my ankle. With the road eventually regained, I arrived at the east side of the Afon Mawddach, now many times larger than what I had jumped the day before. From here a lane continued all the way to Cymer Abbey, after which there was just a short distance left to my car at Llanelltyd.
I spent another night on Vanner camp site, where I had the field all to myself again. The late afternoon temperature was high enough to make it preferable to sit in the shade inside my car with doors and windows open (this turned out to be the start of a heatwave over the next few days). Of the new tent, which I had now used four times, I was pleased that it was functional, and easy to set up and take down. Big pluses are that you can sleep with your head at either end, depending on the lie of the land, thus increasing the choice of suitable pitches, while the height at the centre rather than at one end makes it easier to get in and out of clothes, or a sleeping bag, although I felt the narrow sleeping area was a bit claustrophobic compared to the wide inner of my old tent, but I can get used to that. Overall, I was still not quite used to a tent with a side entrance as opposed to an end entrance. It does make it easier to get at anything in the inner rather than diving head first down to the far end to retrieve something, but whereas the new porch is probably greater in area than the old one, it is elongated down one side rather than all in a big triangle at one end. While there was now more space to keep my clutter out of the way to either side, I had a feeling of being closer to the elements at the door, compared to being able to withdraw myself down into the tunnel of my old tent, away from its entrance. I suppose the real test will be when I use the new one in foul weather, which I inevitably will one day. When that happens I anticipate giving myself more room by unpegging the two corners of the inner nearest the entrance and pushing it out of the way, until it is time to sleep in it.
At the time of writing this, it is several weeks since I injured my ankle. In that time nothing changed; both the ankle and foot have remained swollen and painful, with regular discomfort. When no expected self-healing was apparent after the first few weeks, I went to a doctor whereupon a snail’s pace series of x-ray appointments and two-week waits for results commenced, with indecision over whether a bone is broken or not. Apart from me buying an elasticated support and wearing it daily for five weeks, no treatment of any sort has been received to date, but I am on the list for a course of physiotherapy at an undetermined time in the future. I am highly skeptical as to whether this is going to heal my condition, while if it does help there are only going to be six sessions. I am exercising less because of it, and it prevents me going for any long walks, but my main concern is that I will be unable to have another backpacking trip in September, which I very much want to do.
At twelve weeks, I’ve still had no treatment, but the swelling is lessening and the foot and ankle are beginning to look a bit more like the other one. It is still painful, but not as bad as it was. This has raised a faint hope that I might yet be able to return to Snowdonia for another multiple day walk in September.
At fifteen weeks, still no treatment, but I have donned my walking boots for the first time in over three months and managed an easy five miles walk, so come what may I AM going backpacking in September, and to hell with the NHS!
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