Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Cadair Idris

A stream in woodland with a path of stone steps leading uphill.
The start of the Minffordd Path
For some of the walks I have planned out I don't want to risk doing them unless the weather conditions are as near to perfect as possible; not necessarily for safety reasons - though that is a prime consideration in any trip, of course - but more because the location itself is special in some way or it involves a significant journey to get there. Cadair Idris is one of those places for me. It's a name that's lodged in my imagination since I read Susan Cooper's "The Dark Is Rising" series of novels as a teenager (and again, with equal pleasure, as an adult); and when looking at possible routes it became clear that not only is the mountain itself quite beautiful but that it affords some wonderful views, particularly down to the coast.

I was itching to get there and for several days had been keeping a close eye on weather forecasts. Various sites, both mountain specific and general, were pretty unequivocal that the outlook was due to be clear blue skies and sunshine towards the end of this week. I needed no second bidding to book a couple of last-minute leave days and we set off to Wales yesterday morning around 6:30am. It was a beautiful morning here in Manchester and in Cheshire too. Luminous mist lying low across the fields and the dazzling sunshine above that made sunglasses a necessity as we drove along the M6 and then the M56. When we hit Denbighshire, however, fog filled many of the valleys and the sunlight made little impact on its grey demeanour.

I comforted myself with the forecast, which I'd double checked only an hour or so earlier before setting off, and we agreed that (a) we were still a good drive from Minffordd and (b) it was still early and the predicted sunshine hadn't had time to burn the mist off. It seemed we were right too, when we neared our destination: some cloud clung to the crags and hilltops above Bwlch Llyn Bach but it seemed to be clearing and when Rich dropped me off at the Minffordd car park the occasional glimpses I caught of the tops as I started off looked promising.

On the left, stone steps climbing uphill and a walker ahead. On the right woodland.
I knew from trip reports and forum posts that the climb was a steep one and that the provision of stone steps does little to mitigate this. It was tough going on the calf muscles as I ascended around 700 feet in half a mile. 

The path climbs through lush woodland, with grey cliff faces showing through the foliage now and then. Waterfalls are a constant presence in the early stages - even when you couldn't see the Nant Cadair that made its way down to the valley here, the sound of the cascades accompanied you as you travelled in the opposite direction. The steepness of the steps made my progress slow: a fellow walker had set off from the car park just ahead of me and I'd overtaken him when he stopped to adjust his backpack. When he set off again, I stood to one side to let him go ahead, saying I was a lot slower than he was, and it wasn't long before he disappeared above me.

Uneven stone steps and rocks leading uphill through trees. A simple bench on the right in the foreground.
I'm not sure how many steps there are to Cwm Cau but they certainly give your calf muscles a workout.
A stream making its way downhill through trees, splashing over rocks.
The Nant Cadair making its way down to the valley.
A green valley, the hillsides around it hazy in low cloud and mist.
Looking back down to the valley south of the mountain.
A mountain ridge part hidden in cloud, which is breaking to reveal blue sky.
The cloud looked as though it would clear from the summit ridge.

Lovely though the woods were, the air beneath the canopy was quite close in the morning sun and I was working up a fair old sweat, so I was glad when the path opened out. I was now on a bracken covered slope where there was a gentle but ever-so-welcome breeze to cool me down. The gradient eased off a little here too, though the edge was somewhat taken off my feeling of relief by the fact that the cloud seemed to be building on top of the summit ridge rather than otherwise.

A rocky dome forming a minor summit on the mountain.
Craig Llwd
On my right, I passed a small bridge over the Nant Cadair: on the far side of this a path skirted the flank of Moelfryn, which was where my route down would bring me back to the woodland steps. For now, though my ascent continued, an undulating but steadily climbing path north and then west into the valley. Thick bracken was soon left behind in exchange for grass and boulders. On the left, Craig Lwyd loomed over me - ahead of me lay the glacial lake Llyn Cau, though I would have to climb a bit higher before it came into view. Occasional bursts of sunlight were still hitting the lower sides of the valley and some of the dramatic land formations along its floor.

A path leads round a bend towards a valley halfway up the mountain. The cliffs are wreathed in cloud.
Heading along Cwm Lau, the glacial valley part way up the mountain.
Grass and grey rock on the valley floor lit up by the sun, with crags above fading into the mist.
One of the last splashes of sunlight I was to see for several hours.
A dark, glacial lake overhung by low cloud.
Llyn Cau

Llyn Cau, when it came into view, proved to be quite large. Though I can well imagine it looks beautiful under blue skies, I have to say it appeared quite dark and menacing beneath the turbid atmospheric conditions that were developing that morning. Little wonder there are so many myths and folk stories associated with this mountain: looking up from the dark waters to the increasing amount of cloud swirling like smoke on the ridges, it felt a little as though I was going to be walking into one of them. I stopped a while just above the eastern shore of the lake, trying and failing to get a picture of it that satisfied; then I tried to get a 360 degree panoramic shot with my phone but both attempts at that were unsuccessful so I comforted myself with a handful of Wine Gums and backtracked a little to where the Minffordd Path climbs up onto the ridge.

Rock and grass in the foreground with an undulating mountain ridge above.
Looking up to the ridge walk ahead of me.

I wasn't very far up before I met a couple heading down. I'd assumed when I first saw them that they had done the same route as I was doing in reverse but when we got talking they said the increasingly poor visibility and strong winds up top had made them chary of continuing and they were re-tracing their steps back down. This gave me some pause for thought, I have to admit. In the event, I decided to press on and see how things lay when I was up there myself. Once I reached the ridge I was glad I'd persevered - the winds were strong at times but the path was well-defined and at no point did I feel any worry about exposure, a concern that couple had mentioned.

A fuller view of the lake with mist and cloud suspended above it.
Llyn Cau from halfway up to the ridge.
A cairn beside a path through a misty and rocky landscape.
Up on the ridge.
A narrow path running above steep crags.
The ridge path.

From the base of the ridge to the principal summit, Penygadair, is a climb of around 2049 feet. It sounds daunting but it was a steady climb through interestingly varied terrain and I actually found it far easier than the initial ascent through the woods. 

A cleft in crags, wreathed in mist.
Looking down from the ridge.
If it weren't for the clag, the views from up here would have been tremendous, both looking outwards and down to Llyn Cau. The higher I climbed the poorer the visibility became so the only decent pictures I could get were more "localised" - a fence ending in mid-air, suspended over the crags, or a murky view down into a steep gully, grass-covered ledges clinging to the sides.

As I crossed the ridge above Craig Cau, the young walker I'd stopped to let pass me on the steps appeared out of the gloom. He was on his way back down from the summit before I'd even got there. "I told you I was slow," I smiled. He said that his walking poles had given him the advantage, which was generous of him; I think, to be more truthful, the fact that he was clearly in far better condition than I am might have swung it in his favour, though I did appreciate his generosity. We exchanged a couple of remarks about the conditions at the summit before bidding each other goodbye and with that he disappeared into the mist with the same briskness as he'd displayed at the start of the walk, a couple of thousand feet below.

I plodded on in my usual fashion. I wasn't far from the summit, Penygadair, now and the path traversed rocks now rather than smooth grass. For the most part it was still easy to follow, even with visibility of a few metres at best, as sandy-coloured gravel marked its course; even so, I still managed to follow a few false trails, at one point huffing-and-puffing my way over several boulders to find I'd followed a course parallel with a nice, easy stretch of track. Talk about making life difficult for yourself.

A wire fence trails off and ends suspended over the edge of steep cliffs.
Not even the most adventurous sheep would try and get round that fence.
A narrow, gravelly path through grass with boulders and shattered rocks.
Visibility became increasingly poor as I crossed Craig Cau.
In low cloud, a rocky landscape with no grass or vegetation.
The terrain became rockier underfoot as I neared the summit, Penygadair.
Just visible on a crown of rocks, the OS trig in mist at the summit.
Penygadair, 2930 ft.

A picture of me with the OS trig column behind.
At the trig.
Eventually the trig point appeared through the haze, its outline slowly solidifying as I approached. I had been buffeted by the wind for a while now and nearly blown over at one point when a particularly strong gust caught my backpack, so I climbed up to the pillar rather slowly and cautiously to pose for the mandatory selfie. 

This accomplished without mishap, I clambered down and considered whether to stop for lunch at the handsome shelter. It'd been around 4 hours since I'd had breakfast and, even though I didn't feel hungry, I felt like I probably should eat something more substantial than Wine Gums. As I approached, guffaws of laughter and loud voices made it sound like a party was going on inside. I decided to press on along the ridge even though I was beginning to feel as though I'd been magically transported into the middle of winter.

In the mist, a low, stone-built shelter with a roof.
The shelter at the summit.
A narrow path following a cliff edge in mist.
The path along the summit ridge, following the north face of the mountain closely.

The path was relatively easy to make out, the route I'd marked following the path on the OS map along the edge of the northern face of the mountain. I was a little taken aback, though, when it started to descend from the broad back of the ridge and after using hands to descend a couple of steep steps on damp grass and rock, I had a bit of an attack of nerves.

A drop down a sheer rock onto a narrow, grassy ledge over the cliffs.
The rock step.
There was a drop of two feet or more down a vertical stone slab onto a narrow ledge, with a fairly short and steep grassy slope between me and the cliffs; maybe it's not as exposed as it felt looking down at that moment but I'm sure it wouldn't take much of a misjudgement to lead to a fatal tumble onto that grass-covered slipway. I headed back the way I had come, pondering whether to simply retrace my steps down the Minffordd Path or to try and cross the field of large rocks that seemed to lie in a band across the ridge (around SH 71477 13273). I could certainly take a bearing and head across them, even though I couldn't see a path, but I had no clue how far they stretched in any direction. What's more,in the damp summit conditions, they were quite slippery underfoot, prompting thoughts of sprained or broken ankles.

I returned to the shelter just as the large party was leaving and suddenly found myself ravenous. With just another two couples in there now, I munched on my butties and took stock. I didn't fancy returning the way I had come nor did I like the idea striking out across the rocks; I decided to go back along the path and look at that alarming-looking rock step again. Perhaps the sustenance had made me feel more confident or it was just having had a reprieve from the cold wind and damp clag that made me adopt a more optimistic frame of mind, but when I looked again at the drop and beyond it, I could see a clear route back onto the saddle of the ridge. It was certainly no place to be careless or blasé but I felt now that it was within my capabilities. That said, it was very slowly and gingerly that I made my way past this part of the route.

A broad expanse of grass and rock in cloud. A brighter patch of cloud on the horizon.
Can that be sunlight making an appearance?
From here on, the ridge was broad and grassy, the way ahead clear and well away from any precipitous drops. This was an uneventful and easy stretch of walking, with no-one around save the odd sheep, staring vacantly at me as I passed. Occasionally, to my right, in the direction of Llyn Cau, the mist would brighten up drastically before sinking back into the all-too-familiar grey. I'd all but given up on the idea of any views and assumed this was the closest I would get to full daylight until I was off the mountain, when suddenly the wind that was roaring onto the ridge from the south actually did something worthwhile and blew the cloud away ahead of me. Mynydd Moel was now revealed, a steeper climb than I had expected, and the craggy slopes to its south west; below me to the north, the knobbled landscape between Cadair Idris and Dolgellau was hit by the sun and for the first time I had views from the top of the mountain. They might not have been of pristine clarity and swathes of cloud still swirled around in the wind, but at least I had some sense of where I had climbed to.

A view along the ridge, crags on the edge of the plateau and a peak in the distance.
Looking ahead towards Mynydd Moel.
Below the north face of the mountain, a hazy view of a valley.
Looking down from the north face of the mountain.
A view of the rocky valley below through some crags.
A closer look down from the north face of the mountain.

After spending a while looking down into the valley below, I resumed my climb and arrived with a spring in my step at a massive cairn, which I assumed (wrongly) was the summit of Mynydd Moel. I clambered up this and took a summit selfie or two and then realised the actual summit cairn was over a fence and further up. So I duly headed up there.

A broad expanse of grass and rock with a low peak in the distance.
The actual summit of Mynydd Moel.
A line of cliffs at the edge of the plateau disappearing into mist.
Looking back along the ridge towards Penygadair,
A cliff face in mist.
Looking down from Mynydd Moel.
I'd read that there was a path here, following the line of the fence downhill, but it doesn't appear on the OS Maps website. With this walk in mind, I'd checked on the Walking Forum whether there really was a path here as I didn't want to be wandering randomly down the side of a mountain: fortunately, a couple of members who had themselves descended this way kindly confirmed the route and in the event it turned out to be hard to miss once you'd followed the fence down for a while. It was steep though, strewn with rocks and smaller stones on which I slid a few times, thankfully without falling on my backside.

A walker standing overlooking the valley below.
A walker ahead of me on the way down.
A dry stone wall, at 90 degrees to the path, running through heather and grass on the hillside.
Looking east along the southern flank of Mynydd Moel.
Across a steep hillside, the ridge and summit of the mountain.
The cloud finally clears off the mountain.
The wind, having finally got its act together, continued to clear the mountain tops as I descended. The path I was on was in full sun by this point. The heat, the steepness and the uneven surface made it quite a slow and gruelling process getting down and the views of Cadair Idris that opened up as I headed south west around the side of Moelfryn were both uplifting and frustrating at the same time.

A green hill in the foreground with a lake and hazy mountain tops in the background.
Moelfryn in the forerground with Tal-y-llyn Lake in the valley.
Back on the stone path down, the valley below now clear of mist.
The valley to the south of the mountain now mist-free.
In sunlight, the glacial valley and summit ridge above it.
One last view of Cwm Lau and the summit before I re-joined the woodland steps.
A small, stone bridge crossing a stream.
Heading back down.

In contrast with the morning, when I'd been glad to get out of the woods to gain a bit of breeze, I was now thankful to be back under the shade of the trees and out of the glare of the sun. Not as grateful, though, as I was for the tea room and visitor centre back at the Dol Idris car park. Here I stocked up on coffee, orange drink and a bag of crisps and plonked myself down outside in the shade to wait for Rich, who'd been working in Dolgellau.

A pot of coffee, some crisps and a bottle of orange drink on an outdoor table.
Well-earned.
At times, crossing the Craig Cau ridge and going past Penygadair, I had been in a bit of a grump at the weather. I'd seen so many stunning photos online from the top of the mountain and I couldn't wait to see them for myself. Once I'd had time to sit and reflect at the tea room, however, I still felt pretty satisfied with how the walk had gone: it might not be the toughest walk I'd done in terms of distance but in terms of ascent it probably was, so I did feel a sense of achievement (and I can still feel the after effects in my leg muscles 24 hours later).

We decided to head over to Barmouth for tea, a really charming seaside town that I've been to a number of times but which Rich had never visited before. In the early evening sunshine, the town and its expansive beach could hardly have looked finer to a first-time visitor and we got beautiful views across the estuary and up river too. Briefly I wondered how many people, if any, were standing at the Penygadair trig point looking back down at us but my belly was rumbling and the delicious seafood at The Lobster Pot, by Barmouth Harbour, soon drove all thoughts of anything other than culinary matters from my mind.

Below almost clear blue skies, the entire north face of the mountain across the horizon.
The north face of the mountain from our drive to Barmouth.
Sailboats moored in a harbour with mountains behind.
Barmouth harbour.

Date: September 2015

Walk length: 8 miles

Duration: 6 hours, including breaks.
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