Friday May 27th, 2016 – Scrambling in Dyffryn Ogwen, Gwynedd
Despite having a bit of trouble sleeping my first night in the chilly, empty, mountain valley bunkhouse in Snowdonia, I awoke early and was ready to start my day. Fresh farm eggs had been left on the table for me, so I started the day off by cooking a healthy breakfast accompanied by a mug of strong black Welsh tea (only after remembering to turn the wall switch on for the stove to work, often a feature of European and UK outlets.)
I studied the map on the bunkhouse wall and snapped a picture to reference when I started scrambling. Scrambling is essentially hiking using your hands, not quite as intensive as rock climbing, since no gear is required. My kind host Gwyn gave me a lift to Idwal Cottage, (at the base of the mountains at Llyn Idwal and the Cwm Idwal National Nature Reserve) I’ve highlighted the route I ended taking around the lake and through Cwm Cneifion (The Nameless Cwm), up to the summit of the Glyderau mountain range. My original intent was to climb up Tryfan to the east, but things didn’t turn out accordingly.
We hopped in the truck and drove the mile or so down the road until the mountains were looming around us, and then over a bridge. Gwyn told me to wander back to the bridge later and take a peek at the original Roman bridge preserved underneath. I made a mental note of that, as I grabbed my water bottle, hiked my smaller day pack over my shoulders and disembarked the truck in the parking lot of the visitor’s centre. It was before 9am and the doors were locked. I waved goodbye to Gwyn and told him I’d be back at the bunkhouse around 4pm, I hoped! Only a few other hikers were arriving and setting out down the same path as me. My first full day in the UK. Day One: Climb a Mountain! and I did!
I started the hike around Llyn Idwal, with some trepidation, unsure of my route and my ability. However, there were a few other hillwalkers out and the sun was shining, with only a chance of rain in the late afternoon. The lake was bright blue, reflected from the nearly cloudless sky. Welsh Black dairy cows, the oldest breed in Britain, raised their heads indifferently at me as I trod down the rocky footpath, passing waterfalls and glancing up at the surrounding vista. A father and daughter team passed me as I stopped to snap pictures, their climbing helmets swinging from their packs. Maybe I was unprepared, I wondered. I knew I was supposed to veer onto a path heading east, to get to Tryfan but I seemed to be moving away that jagged peak, instead circling the lake, so I caught up to 2 other hikers ahead and asked them the best route. They pointed to a diverging path ahead, near a boulder and said that would take me over the adjacent mountain, down a valley to the lake below Tryfan, but it would take probably 6 hours to traverse and usually they start from the other side (Northern entrance). It was too late to loop back to the road and then to the starting point on the North ridge, so I decided to plough ahead, leaving the main path at the boulder and heading up the steep rock embankment following a well worn footpath, blended with a rocky mountain stream bed in parts. The ascent was steep and I grew weary fairly early on. This is mad, I thought. Who does this for fun?! Oh yeah…me! That’s why I’m here.
I picked my way carefully up the hill, losing and finding paths, which I began to assume only the sheep or feral goats used (potentially the remnants of goatherds farmed on these slopes a thousand years ago). Then, I spotted another hiker, halfway up the ridge. I called out, but he was absorbed, on a break, reading. So, I kept going up the embankment, but slowly. Eventually he caught up with me, an older fellow, mid 60s. Calling across the distance between us, I asked if he was going to Tryfan as well. He declared that I was way off course for that location and the path to that valley would be very tricky to get to from our current vantage point. We looked at his trusty OS map and I agreed that it would be hard. He showed me his route and was not perturbed when I decided to join him in heading that direction. I liked hiking with someone who had a good map, and who had been here before. We chatted a bit as we wended our way up towards the Nameless Cwm (Pronounced ‘Coom’), a rocky, theatre like valley pass formed by erosion that headed up to the summit of Glyder Fawr. I discovered that he was a native Welshman who lived a couple hours north, but had grown up in this area and had been walking these hills and valleys many times. Today was simply a training exercise, strengthening his knees after a skiing accident. This was a walk in the park for him! We hiked for hours and it was hot and arduous. He kept the pace and I could barely keep up. There wasn’t much wildlife, but when I did look up, past the next foothold, and spun my head around to see the view, the whole Ogwen Valley was spread out before me.
I squinted around back the way I had come, breathing in the air and exulting in my accomplishment thus far. I only snapped a couple photos on the ascent, not wanting to slow down my guide. The scree on The Nameless Cwm was jumbled and precarious. I stopped a few times for water and enjoyed the security and company of my fellow scrambler , especially for the final steps. The grass slope was steep and damp. I was afraid to slip, as I dug my feet into the shallow footholds and flung my body forward and up, grasping against grass clumps and hoping against odds that I would not tumble to my death. I clambered over the edge on all fours and fell forward grateful and exhilarated! I had done it! PHEW! It was only a short walk ahead to the summit, along the rugged top edge of Glyder Fawr. The terrain was celestial. From 1001m up, on the peak of Glyder Fawr, we could see all of Snowdonia spread out before us. The pointed peak of Snowden to the South, the jagged fin of Tryfan to North. The villages of Bethesda and Tregarth could easily been seen. Water dramatically separated distant Anglesey from the mainland. Far to the West, even Holyhead was still visible. The sky was clear, the air amazing. We met a handful of scramblers at the tallest summit rock. The terrain here was larger rocks, we had to carefully step from one to another to cross. At the boulder summit, we sat for lunch and photos. I had grapes, fresh bread and Welsh old cheddar cheese, but oddly I could only eat half of the bread and I focused on the grapes and water for sustenance.
I was curious about our descent down Y Garn bringing us past a small mountain lake and adjacent to a place called Twil-du or The Devil’s Kitchen, ominous sheer cliffs forming a wild chasm about 450 feet long, 300 feet deep, and only 18 feet wide. The climb down was loose gravel, then progressed to what my hiking companion called ‘new’ stone steps, carved or inserted into the mountain. They felt as old or established as the mountain itself. We had obviously made the ascent less travelled and were now going down a well used path. We passed a few hikers climbing the opposite way, going uphill. Some young men were hiking to camp at Snowden. I wished them well weather, they had a long way to go. Our descent down Y Garn was fairly easy and I splashed my face and tasted water from the mountain stream waterfall at the Devil’s Kitchen. We spotted some delightful songbirds flitting from boulder to boulder and hiding in the low shrubbery, as the path wended down and evened out around the other side of Llyn Idwal. ‘Amazing!’, I exclaimed as I glanced back at the cliffs I had just conquered. We left the main path and headed an alternate way through the fields to the car park, travelling through a narrow gorge of slate, projecting dozens of feet tall. It was a mining path from days long ago, the sheer edges reaching 30 ft above.
The hill walker offered to drive me back to the bunkhouse and I gratefully accepted. It would have been a long walk back and I felt safe with him, for if he had wished me any harm, the mountain paths would have been the place for it. I could tell he wanted to see me safely home. First we made the short walk to the bridge on the road and climbed over the rail to go to the bank of the river and peek under the new bridge to see the ancient Roman bridge still preserved below. Wow! I clambered down to feel the cool stone and imagine the history, the people and soldiers who would have used that bridge when extending Roman rule through Wales nearly 2000 years ago.
Back above, the trip home down the road was quick. I refreshed my water and went around to the main door to check in with Gwyn. He asked how I fared on the mountain. His daughters and mother were visiting. Shy girls, but his mom exchanged some kind words with me. I heard the sad news that the old white hen , whom I had photographed yesterday, had passed, and later the girls helped bury her in the yard. Farm life and death. Expressing my condolences, I chatted briefly and mentioned that I was off again, to hike the hill in the backyard which leads to a track winding down about a 1/4 mile down the road, then head back into town if time allows. ‘Easy Girl,’ Gwyn said with a smile. I grinned back. I want to explore as much as possible. To Be Continued…