Having made my first ever Spring backpacking trip last year, I was eager to do the same again. Unfortunately, a combination of poor weather and some equipment failures resulted in it being one of my less enjoyable experiences, although I was pleased with the actual walking I did in the time I spent out. More details follow.
I have found that it is far easier to copy someone else’s route than make up my own, this is largely due to my past experiences of paths on Snowdonia maps not existing on the ground. A published route has already been walked by someone else, so you can be sure the paths are there. However, choosing a route is becoming harder for me these days. Bearing in mind that I have walked in most parts of the National Park over the years, I want to avoid too much duplication. It must be in an area that appeals to me, while the mileage must be right for me, with 8 to 10 miles a day in the mountains being about the best I can manage, and I don’t want too many strenuous climbs or any scrambling. In this specific instance, I chose an 18 miles circuit from the Backpackingbongos website, that starts literally on the edge of the Moelwyns, and I adapted it by adding a walk-in (and back) from the village of Dolwyddelan, that made it a more suitable length for me.
My choice of dates in May was limited to the two weeks between the weeks in which the bank holidays fell, as I wanted to avoid it being busy, and of course it was dependent on the weather conditions. As it happens, it would not have made any difference when I went, because the whole month was the coldest for 9 years and rainfall was above average. When I arrived at my choice of campsite where I would spend my first night in Wales, namely the little-known and little-used Bryn Tirion by Dolwyddelan Castle, there was sun and cloud but it was chilly and windy, while the owner Mrs Price rightly got me to leave my car just off the track by the camping field because there had been a lot of rain that had left the ground completely saturated. In fact, the tree-lined stream that ran down one side of the site was absolutely thundering down, while the Afon Lledr could be seen spread across meadows in the valley below.
To my disappointment, the village pub, Y Gwydyr, was shut so I had to drive to Betws-y-Coed where I had a satisfactory dinner in The Stables. When I had returned and retired for the night in my little tent, it started raining heavily. I don’t know which was worse, the noise of the rain on my tent or the thundering roar of the stream 100 yards away. I also had a new 3 season sleeping bag, a down one almost half the weight of my synthetic one and bought for a third of its list price as end-of-line clearance, but in spite of the bag’s impressive EN ratings (see Sleeping bag temperature explained) I was finding it less than warm enough.
As I leant over to unzip the opening on my flysheet in the morning, I felt a lump and a bit of movement beneath the groundsheet that I put under the tent when I use it on camp sites (but not carried when walking due to the extra weight). Pulling this back, I found underneath it a large vole, which was quite reluctant to leave. I didn’t want to try picking it up in case it bit me, so it had to wait until I was dressed and had my boots on before I could shoo it away. There was sun and clouds outside, the rain having stopped some time during the night, but as on the previous day there was a stiff breeze from which it was difficult to escape; it was a constant, steady blow, rather than gusty.
When I was ready to leave, I drove to the village where I left my car opposite houses in a turning off the main road and walked back three-quarters of a mile passing Bryn Tirion again. (With hindsight, why didn’t I leave my rucksack there and pick it up on the way back?) A gentle climb past the castle brought me onto a track that led to a farm by a bend in a little lane. The lane in turn passed through the hamlet of Blaenau Dolwyddelan, beyond which a track branched off to the north-west, and this was the starting point of the route I had found online. I had so far walked about 3 miles in reasonably pleasant sunshine but into a persistent strong breeze and it was far from warm, the maximum temperature reaching just 11ºC.
The track passed a farmhouse outside which a woman and two men stood talking. Here I blithely continued up the track ahead of me instead of forking right onto another one, but I was corrected by the woman calling, “That way!” and pointing. My fault, I wasn’t paying attention to my map. I should mention here that the route fell on the corners of two 1:25,000 maps and rather than carry these I had colour printed the route on half a dozen sheets of A4 paper. I was to find later that there is a risk in doing this, for I deviated from what I had planned, which led to me walking in an area that was not covered on my sheets.
Beyond the farm the track gently twisted its way up a shoulder. At the highest point I should have turned left off the track to climb pathless grass-and-rock slopes to the ridge of 1,933ft Yr Arddu, the other end of which descended to Llyn Edno. It was obvious that the ascent was going to be extremely wet and soggy, while cloud scraped along the highest points. With a little familiarity of the area I knew that if I stayed on the track it would lead to an ancient east-west way that crossed Bwlch y Rhediad, from where I could reach Llyn Edno via a path that traversed Moel Meirch. That path ran just to one side of the crest, so I would be sheltered from the wind, although I failed to notice at the time that this way was higher than my original route over Yr Arddu.
The new plan wasn’t too bad initially, apart from the fact that the excess water from the land was treating the track as a drainage channel as it descended towards the Afon Cwm Edno. The latter was brim full and churning along, but fortunately it was spanned by an old footbridge built out of large flat rocks and a recent wooden board, without which I would not have been able to cross it. To the north-east, the lower parts of Moel Siabod disappeared into thick grey cloud. Up the grass slopes past the river, where I was now walking off the area of my printed map sheets, a small belt of conifers gave rather less than adequate shelter from the wind while I stopped for my lunch, following which I reached the aforementioned old track. When I arrived at the bwlch, I continued beyond it for a short distance on a faint trod way for what was a disappointing view into the misty depth of Nant Gwynant, before I turned back to the path that goes over Moel Meirch.
The wet, boggy areas that I knew were near the start of the ascent didn’t seem so bad after what I had already experienced today, but even though I had walked this way only 4 years ago, I had completely forgotten how steep parts of the lengthy climb were and how many rocky bits there were where hands were needed when carrying a heavy backpack. About two-thirds of the way up I saw a rolled-up green tent flysheet laying at the side of the path, and it upset me to see it there. The design looked similar to my own Zephyros, there was an orange-coloured tape sticking out, with two brass eyelets in it, and black elasticated knotted peg loops. Assuming the owner was someone like me who loves his possessions, I could imagine how gutted he would have felt to get back to his car or whatever and find he’d lost something like that. Then, later, there would be the cost of replacing it. It is a very remote spot, so retracing footsteps to look for it would have been out of the question for the owner, for whom it could have been anywhere along his route.
My guess was that it had been dropped a day or two ago by someone who had been up there over the weekend; perhaps they were hastily escaping some bad weather. I hope that was the case, because if he or they were committed to another night out, they would not have survived the low temperature, strong wind and saturated land without a tent. There was nothing I could do about it as I was already fully laden with my own backpacking gear, and a sodden flysheet would have added extra pounds. I hoped it would eventually be picked up by someone who could make use of it.
After the lengthy ascent, the path drops fairly quickly to the north shore of Llyn Edno. This large lake which lies at 1,797 feet is to my mind something like an infinity pool, for it is completely open between its southern end and the sea some 12 miles away, allowing winds to blow unabated straight across it. I would very much have liked to stop by now, but this was no place to linger today, so I continued southwards up the ridge of Ysgafell Wen and on the lookout for water with a sheltered space for my tent near it.
The first couple of small pools I found near the path didn’t have much shelter from the wind, and as I proceeded I was becoming increasingly tired. Eventually there was an intermittent low rock outcrop along one side of the ridge, where the next pool was silty but I chose a spot near a further one, more out of desperation than anything else. This was at about 2,000 feet above sea level. In spite of my first impression the water of my chosen pool turned out to be full of algae and sediment too, that blocked the Steripen prefilter on my Nalgene flask, but I was too tired to change my mind and look beyond. Furthermore, although I pitched my tent on a flat bit of grass close to a rock face, the wind found its way around both sides of the rocks at the same time, resulting in one side of the tent permanently blown in and the other side billowing out (Zephyros tents are intended to be pitched side-on to the wind rather than end-on). However, the spot where I seated myself on a boulder immediately against the rocks was completely sheltered.
I have had worse experiences of wild camping before, but this one was notable for a number of reasons. Firstly, the rubber valve on the filler cap of my water carrier would no longer work as it had gone hard with age (I must have had it for 30 years). Then when I removed the cap to examine it, I found that the plastic spout on which it fitted was breaking into pieces, again age related. The disposable lighter I carry, in case the auto igniter on my stove fails, would not work in spite of it being about a third full. (Moral: check before the trip!) When I bedded down for the night, I was nothing like warm enough in the new sleeping bag, even with my microfleece shirt and fleece hat added to baselayers and socks. If I stretched my hand down in the bag to my thigh and knee area, it felt cold inside, while in the draughty conditions I could also feel the wind actually blowing through the bag.
If being cold wasn’t enough, sleep was disturbed by the non-stop buffeting of the wind on my flysheet, while to add to my discomfort, my ground mat kept slowly deflating through the night, three times I had to blow air into it. Later testing of it in a bathful of water showed there was a tiny leak through the outer fabric near the valve. A puncture was highly improbable, and at the time of writing this the mat has been returned to the manufacturer, with the hope of a happy outcome. Finally, my little tube of airline toothpaste, although previously unopened, was dried up and unusable in the morning, so not for the first time on my trips I had to brush my teeth with just a wet brush.
The wind and the temperature were just the same the next day, while there was no more sun, just grey sky, but at least it remained dry. With no water carrier, a leaking ground mat, a cold sleeping bag, no emergency flame and no toothpaste, continuing my planned route was out of the question now, and it was going to be easy to cut across the middle of it, omitting the southern section, to then follow the return leg back to my starting point.
After continuing along the Ysgafell Wen ridge the walking became slightly better, because the wind was now at my back as I headed eastwards to Moel Druman. From here I was in familiar territory, having last walked this way just a year earlier. This time I found the pathless descent to Llyn Dyrnogydd easier than before (or did I just choose a better way?). To my amusement, the tiny tube of airline toothpaste that I had lost when I camped there twelve months ago was exactly where I had unintentionally dropped it, though it was now full of little teeth marks from an animal.
I followed exactly the same route as I did previously, by the lake’s pathless north side, but beyond its far end I headed northwards this time, down pathless grass slopes and reaching an old quarry track below at an optimum point. After a hairpin bend in the track, the map shows a footpath heading north. If only! There was no break whatsoever that way in the expanse of dense moor grass, currently whitish coloured with the dead blades of last year, so I stayed on the track as the author of my route did, walking a winding way that must have been twice as long as the path would have been if it had existed, till I eventually reached a point where a railway line emerges from a tunnel. Now at a lower altitude, out of the wind and with the sun coming out too, it was less cold, so I stopped here to strip off the thermal baselayers I had been wearing since the start of the day. The track passed under the line and continued above the Afon Lledr that was now flowing clear and gentle, with no hint of the swollen mass of the previous morning. Beyond a couple of dwellings and a farm, I reached the lane that I had followed on my way out.
On arriving back at Dolwydedelan it would have been good to quench my thirst at the pub but this was still closed, possibly for good? I had already made up my mind to camp for the night at Cwmlanerch near Betws-y-Coed, and here I had the entire site to myself, with not even a touring caravan or motorhome on it, let alone any other tents. Given the chilly weather, this wasn’t entirely surprising. I discovered that in addition to the one shower in the gents there were also two unisex ones at the end of the toilet block; whether or not these had been added since my previous visit I do not know, but it certainly encourages me to use the site again in the future. This night I slept in my old synthetic bag, a Snugpak Softie 10 Harrier, that I had fortunately packed in my car. Admittedly it is a higher specification, and I was at a lower altitude now, but my point is that is within three minutes of getting in, it was warm and toasty inside it, quite the opposite of my experience with the new down bag.
My original plans had included spending the next couple of days resting and relaxing near the Welsh coast, but I really didn’t relish the thought of going to the effort of putting up my big tent somewhere just to spend more time sitting in the cold, and during which time it would quite probably rain, so that the tent would have to be dried when I got home. Consequently, I departed for home in the morning. On the bright side, later checks showed that I had walked 20 miles in 2 days, which I was pleased to learn. Meanwhile, I do not regard the walk as finished with, because it was to have included a circuit of Moelwyn Mawr on old miners’ tracks, something that I haven’t done before, so I would very much like to return and do it all another time.
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