Wales – Snowdonia
Lightweight camping gear has transformed the gentle arts of hill walking and breakfasting. When I first ventured into Snowdonia, fortunately under experienced leadership, there were rules. You wore heavy leather boots, for the ankle support. The only time I’ve ever seriously sprained an ankle in the hills was approaching the summit of Snowdon on Boxing Day 1977. It was agony. I was wearing heavy leather boots.
You planned your hike properly and always told someone where you were going. If you weren’t back before nightfall, and hadn’t managed to explain from one of the few public telephone boxes clearly marked on the map as a vital resource, they’d call Mountain Rescue. You started out at an unseemly early hour, to avoid this embarrassment. Breakfast was consequently minimal and hence a BnB or hotel was poor value.
Now, though, with my bivy on my back, I cared nothing for timings or planning and I told nobody where I was headed*, except the bloke in the bar and I’m not sure he was in a state to remember. If I get benighted, so what? I’ll just sleep out. Hence I could linger luxuriously over my lavish Full Welsh breakfast. Old school hikers were already on their first summits, squinting at their watches and tut-tutting at clouds, by the time I’d even emerged from the lovely Eagles Hotel at Llanrwst, burping bacon.
The only hiking fly in the ointment of civilisation was that due to the lack of drying facilities all my gear was still filthy, especially my shoes. Too embarrassed to enter the swanky dining room in them and still mortified from having been told off for removing them in the bar (a complaint was made about my socks!), I’d tried to clean them with the toilet brush, which was considerably more hygienic than they were.
Unfortunately the head fell off it out of the window and descended two stories to the ground, narrowly missing a small child. My first excursion of the day was to scamper down the spectacular oak staircase, past the suit of armour, down the baronial stone steps and outside to rescue the lost bog brush before its olfactory content might interest a passing retriever. Luckily it snapped back onto its handle fairly convincingly. In a tent I’m quite competent, in a hotel I turn into Paddington Bear.
* I’d just like to mention I was carrying not one but two phones as well as a compass and whistle and I was updating friends and family daily on Facebook, including from the summit of Carnedd Llewelyn 😉
Marveling at the power of the glacier that had carved such a wide, flat valley from such obdurate rock, I meandered through the meadows to Trefriw. The sun peeped coyly out, the air felt dry for a change. The painful wound on my foot was no better and I was having to change the dressings three times a day, but I felt cautiously optimistic. This was a good thing as just out of Trefriw the road quite suddenly became almost vertical, by Norfolk standards. I laboured up it, puffing, thirsty already and wishing I hadn’t eaten quite so much bacon.
Nonetheless the hike over from Trefriw to the Afon Ddu and Lyn Cowlyd was very pretty, although the massive water pipe leaving the lake is a bit of an eyesore.
As you come over the top you get the first views of Carnedd Llewelyn, and you can just see the black pipeline running down the valley (below).
The sides of Lyn Cowlyd are steep and it was clearly necessary to get up onto the ridge as soon as possible, not far after Craig Ffynnon. I took what looked like a path along the pipe and then upwards but after a ruined farmstead it completely petered out and the going became very tough, through deep, untrodden heather.
From the worryingly ill-defined edge of a spooky pool, I had even better views of my destination, Carnedd Llewelyn. Also of the interesting route by which I would shortly have to get up there.
For the past two weeks I’d been worrying about the precipitous descent of Pen yr Helgi Du, descriptions of which on other blogs include ‘a bit airy’. The only advantage of worrying about this had been that it didn’t leave me enough brain cells to also worry about the subsequent hairy (and airy) scramble up to Penywaun Wen. Finally blundering up to a draughty bedroom on Carnedd Llewelyn (“but that’s the second highest mountain in Wales”) sounded something of a doddle in comparison.
First, though, I had to struggle up Pen Llithrig y Wrach, which to a man from Norfolk seemed unfeasibly steep. After such a long hike and with a bad foot this was actually rather hard work.
It was at this point I began to suspect that after nearly two weeks of slogging through rain I was finally about to get very lucky indeed with the weather. The last thing I needed up here was foul conditions but in fact it was absolutely perfect, sunny and still. In a piece of even greater comparative good fortune, looking over the Glyders to the Snowdon horseshoe two valleys away I could see that Yr Wyddfa and all its satellites were rapidly becoming enveloped in thick cloud!
In fact as I progressed along the unfrequented Pen yr Helgi Du ridge, meeting almost nobody else, the weather on those much more popular tops grew steadily worse and worse while mine remained sunny and bright. What incredible good fortune! You’d have thought it was already my birthday, rather than only the day before it.
The summit of Pen yr Helgi Du is a broad, friendly whaleback by the standards of the neighbourhood, giving little hint of the imminent precipitous descent.
I make no bones of the fact that I descended Pen yr Helgi Du almost entirely on my bottom. Only by keeping your eyes as low as possible, and preferably fixated on your kneecaps, can you avoid horrifying awareness of the drop away to your right.
Below the precipitous descent I met the first other humans I’d encountered since Trefriw, a couple about to ascend. Merry with relief at having got to the bottom I cheerily admitted I’d come down on my own bottom. The bloke laughed at this, and that I was from Norfolk, but the woman had already looked up and then down to the left and she wasn’t laughing at all. Her face was a picture.
Having survived the long-dreaded precipitous descent it was then necessary to gird what remained of my loins for the hairy scramble. I’m afraid there are no photos of this exploit, because you have to stow your phone safely in your backpack to stop it getting smashed if you accidentally slither down the rockface. It’s a genuine scramble; for about twenty feet you do have to use your hands. Again there’s terrifying exposure away to the right but luckily you can’t see it as you’re in a sort of broad chimney.
In fact if you’re used to rock-hopping at the seaside it’s easy work and quite soon I was trudging in a fatigued and post-adrenaline sort of way up the long and increasingly stony slope to Carnedd Llewelyn. This being the second highest mountain in Wales I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised that it was rather an extended slope; the sky was starting to get pretty gloomy by the time I eventually reached the shelter.
So now, finally, it was time to call into play the most cunning of all my cunning plans so far. The idea was to sleep out on this remote and rocky summit, waking up early on my birthday to savour the famously extensive views. Strangely enough no one else had had the same idea and the wind shelter was vacant, which was lucky as I hadn’t booked. I rigged my tarp inside it to form the Carnedd Llewelyn Sheraton.
After a quick turn around the block in a rather stiff breeze I settled down to supper and bed. I was very much looking forward to my birthday views the next morning. The temperature dropped to something distinctly chilly and it started to hail. Quite hard. In June.
At this point may I issue an appeal from those who like to sleep on summits to those who like to picnic on them – please don’t leave litter in the shelter, even if it’s ‘biodegradable’. The smell of a rotting banana skin hidden somewhere quite close to your face is surprisingly distracting when you’re trying to doze off on a pile of rocks under a scrap of hail-spattered fabric.
Next thing I knew, it was five in the morning. That’s odd, by this late hour on the summer solstice it should be bright and sunny. I should know, it’s my birthday, the longest and in my childhood always sunniest day of the year. Sixty years old, dear me. For some reason I seemed to be on the summit of the second highest mountain in Wales.
I peered out from under my tarp. A tall man in running gear was standing in what appeared to be a swirling grey cloud, peering in at me. ‘Good Morning’, I cried merrily. He stepped back and disappeared without a word, which I considered unfriendly on my birthday; he could at least have said ‘many happy returns’. How on earth did he get up there at dawn, and what was all this ‘swirling grey cloud’ business?
I couldn’t believe it. You could, as they say, hardly see your hand in front of your face. It was ridiculous. I’d walked all that way on my Cosmic Solstice Rebirth Pilgrimage and clambered up all those scary bits of rocky stuff, an elderly man from Norfolk, specifically for the extensive birthday views. I lay in my sleeping bag and ate my fabulous birthday breakfast (which was strangely similar to my previous night’s supper) while hoping the fog might show signs of shifting. If anything it settled more implacably.
Good grief, I had to get off the mountain in this and, guess what, the OS map I’d carefully downloaded on the hotel WiFi and tested now wouldn’t open on my phone. I dug out my spare phone which has no other apps and so lots of free memory, it worked on that one, thank goodness. In fact I’d have been OK without it as of course I had a compass and I knew from memory that all I had to do was walk a little east of north, avoiding the sheer cliffs on my right, down to the saddle then up the shoulder to Foel Grach, after which it was just a case of turn left and down about five miles of easy grassy slopes. I packed up my bivy in some disappointment and did exactly that.
Foel Grach is notable for having a stone-built emergency shelter at its summit; the thing is so damp inside though that if you had to spend any time in there you’d probably emerge as wrinkled as if you’d slept in the bath.
There isn’t much to say about the hike down. It was an easy grassy slope. I couldn’t see a thing. Not until I got to the 500 metre contour, more than halfway down, did I get a snippet of a view.
On a fine day this is a super walk, ten miles from second-highest summit to city centre. On a sunny midsummer morning with clear views one would be tempted to bag Carnedd Gwenllian, Bera Bach and Drosgl en route, for the views. In an inexplicable outbreak of laziness I just headed straight down onto the saddle that forms the watershed of the Afon Gam and the Afon Ffrydlas, then out of the hills between Moel Wnion and Gyrn.
It only remained for me slip down some extraordinarily steep and slippery fields, in one of which I tripped on a root and was the closest I came on the entire expedition to breaking a leg, and then to get thoroughly lost in the industrial estate at Llandygai where after walking 320-odd miles I was jolly nearly run over by a huge skip truck that pulled a sudden high speed u-turn without seeing me at all.
I suppose Bangor’s ancient cathedral is an appropriately spiritual and self-improving place to end a 320-mile Cosmic Solstice Rebirth Pilgrimage.
Blow that, I’m off to my parents’ house for hot coffee and birthday cake.
Many Happy Returns to me, and thanks for reading.