Friday 8 July 2016

The High Carneddau

Blue skies over the Glyderau as we neared my starting point.
Some places immediately capture your interest for the smallest of reasons. It could be a glimpse of them from another summit (I'd never heard of the Howgills until I saw their characteristic rolling heights in the distance from Pen-y-Ghent, for instance); or it could simply be an evocative name - rolling off your tongue, possibly incorrectly - that fires your imagination. For me, the High Carneddau was one such location. It took so long to get logistics and weather aligned, though, by the time I climbed this collection of peaks in mid-June this year I couldn't even remember how they'd burrowed their way into my consciousness. I thought I'd done my homework in that intervening period but even so this still proved to be one of the most challenging walks I've done to date.

Looking up at Pen Yr Ole Wen from the road.
I'd planned a horseshoe route - up Pen Yr Ole Wen, round via Carnedd Dafydd and Carnedd Llewellyn, before descending by way of the ridge at Bwlch Eryl Farchog. 

There could hardly be a more auspicious start to the day than the unblemished blue skies that spanned the majestic Glyderau as we arrived at the western end of Llyn Ogwen

Rich dropped me at a parking bay on the A5 directly opposite the start of the path up the southern face of Pen Yr Ole Wen. This first mountain of the day towered alluringly but deceptively over the road - I say deceptively because the route I'd opted for tantalises (or grinds you down) with one false summit after another during its challenging course. It's not the most welcoming introduction to the Carneddau by any stretch of the imagination!

These discoveries lay ahead for now though. Feeling relaxed, I took a little diversion alongside the boulder-strewn bed of the Afon Ogwen to the end of the lake itself, which gleamed in the morning sun below Tryfan's awe-inspiring profile. I pottered around taking pictures for a while - the start of a photographic obsession with Tryfan that day! - before I registered that the sun was already belting out some heat, even at 9.30 in the morning. I hadn't even started my climb yet.

Looking east across Llyn Ogwen.

Returning to my start point, I followed the path directly up Pen Yr Ole Wen.  I'd been in two minds whether to take this route or the one up from Ffynnon Lloer, a small lake sheltered by its north western ridge and the southern slopes of Carnedd Dafydd. I have little experience of scrambling, however, and my online research made me wary of going the latter way alone. A path on the map seemed the better option, even if there were reports that it was quite eroded in places. The going was steep from the start but the path was clear underfoot (in parts paved and/or stepped too) and this reassured me that I'd made the right choice.

Three stone enclosures below.
It was tough in the ever-increasing heat of the day and the sun was directly on me throughout. I felt I was making decent time even so, despite stopping frequently to take a much-needed swig of water. Those breaks provided me with the opportunity to look back down at how much height I'd gained too, and in itself that was a boost. On one of the crags I'd passed there were some stone-built, circular enclosures, which were only visible now I'd gained more height - I've since tried to find out what they were but there doesn't seem to be any information about them online, which leads me to guess that they are simply disused farm structures rather than anything of more ancient historical interest.

With some self-satisfaction, I glanced at the GPS to see how much further I had to go and found I was barely a fifth of the way to the summit. I don't mind admitting that brought me back down to earth with a 1600-feet-still-to-go bump.

The terrain was becoming rougher the more height I gained, rock and natural gravel amidst the heather; the dusty gravel provided occasional hints of which way previous walkers had headed but generally the ground was not the sort to offer many clues, especially when it was so dry. Soon the path, such as it was, disappeared into a large slope of scree. I knew which direction I was supposed to be heading but progress was slow and I slid back several times. That's not a pleasant sensation on a trail where the average gradient is almost 1-in-2; in fact, given the uppermost slopes are more gently inclined, some of the lower parts of the path must have been steeper than that - they certainly felt like it at times.

The change in terrain is clear from below.

I reached a large stone buttress on a small landing where the ground levelled out briefly. There were indications of a path heading to either side of it and I tested out the narrow trod to the left before becoming uncomfortable with the exposure and returning to try the one that circled the outcrop to the right. I was climbing now, from boulder to boulder, heaving myself up in places, which wasn't quite what I'd expected at this stage of the walk. It did seem that my judgement was sound in the end, though, when I arrived at the continuation of a rough but clearly defined path.

Llyn Idwal was now visible across the pass.
I'd been going over an hour and a half now. I was far too hot, I was knackered and I'd drunk way more water than I expected to have done at this stage. The way ahead looked as steep and as challenging as the way I'd just come. I sat down to rest and take stock.  I was, I would say, unexpectedly out of my comfort zone. I had psyched myself up for a little ungraded scrambling near the end of the route but this wasn't quite how I'd viewed the ascent to be and momentarily I felt a little panicked: in terms of distance, I'd barely started and I was behind time-wise; I was baking in the sun and suddenly worried that I hadn't brought enough water; what's more, muscles that didn't usually come into play on my walks were burning from usage that they were unaccustomed to. Sitting there, I wasn't sure I'd have the stamina to complete the horseshoe once I achieved the first summit; yet, looking back at the rocks and scree I'd just climbed, negotiating them as a descent didn't look like something I'd really want to do either.

It was time to take a few deep breaths so I slapped on some more sunscreen, set the alarm on my phone for ten minutes' time, and lay back on the flattest boulder I could find. I closed my eyes, barely dozing really, and I was awake before the alarm went off. Even so, I did feel calm and refreshed after that time out, and ready to carry on again.

It was still a slog, even after the power nap, and the rocks I had to climb over still presented challenges so I packed away my camera, which didn't come out again until the gradient began to ease off higher up. The closer I got to the top, the boulder fields became more level. These were pretty easy to walk across, even if one or two rocks wobbled unexpectedly underfoot.  Gradually grass - and sheep - became the order of the day and the gently rising dome of the true summit appeared ahead of me. I'd read that the top of Pen Yr Ole Wen in itself wasn't especially interesting so I decided to stop for an early lunch here, where there were rocks to sit on and the views across to the Glyderau and Snowdon were good.

Tryfan, Glyder Fach, Glyder Fawr and the summit of Snowdon in the background (l to r).
Y Garn, Foel Goch, Elidir Fawr, Mynydd Perfedd and Carnedd y Filiast (l to r). Moel Eilio in the background.
The summit of Pen Yr Ole Wen.

The summit was as featureless as I expected, broad and flat and studded with small rocks, but new vistas opened out now that had been hidden from me as I climbed. To the north-west lay the Menai Strait and Anglesey, with the vast ridge that was my route ahead sweeping north-east to the grey bulk of Carnedd Dafydd.

Anglesey and the northern end of the Menai Strait.
The ridge walk to Carnedd Dafydd.

Carnedd Fach.
The path down to and along the ridge was broad and easy to follow. I was energised now and fairly romped along, though not so much that I felt like climbing Carnedd Fach when I reached it. This massive cairn dominates the ridge, and hails from antiquity as so many cairns do in Wales. 

Impressive though it was, I decided to conserve my strength by walking around it rather than climbing up to investigate further. A smoothly undulating ridge walk my route might be from now on but it was one on a grand scale. There was a walker ahead of me on the otherwise seemingly deserted tops, who was on his way up to the top of Carnedd Dafydd, and I took a picture from where I was standing to give some idea of the relative height of its summit.

The walker ahead of me on the zig-zagging path up to the summit.
Looking back to the crags on the northern side of Pen Yr Ole Wen.

The summit of Carnedd Dafydd.
Once I finally reached the cairn on top of Carnedd Dafydd myself I began to sense a pattern emerging; the terrain, like that on Pen Yr Ole Wen, was unremarkable in itself - more rocks, of course, but again making for a broad and featureless expanse. I didn't linger too long - I was still behind time because of how long my initial ascent had taken and Carnedd Llewellyn lay ahead across the vast ridges of Cefn Ysgolion Duon and Bwlch Cyfryw-Drum.

The path was still easy to follow and steered clear of the crags Ysgolion Duon, which dropped precipitously from the northern edge of the ridge. I'd had glimpses of these as I headed downwards from Carnedd Dafydd but it was not until I began my final climb of the day that I was to see how dramatic the north-eastern face of that mountain actually was.

The next ridge walk, to Carnedd Llewellyn (l).
The western limb of the Carneddau from Carnedd Dafydd.

Bwlch Eryl Farchog.
I had a long walk ahead of me before I would get to that viewpoint, however. The going was good underfoot and I got increasingly fine views of Bwylch Eryl Farchog and the valley below it as I stomped along. To the south, patches of cloud occasionally settled on the uppermost regions of the Glyderau, hiding them from view. I kept a close eye on their movement. Contrary to the weather forecast a few days earlier, we had found ourselves mired in cloud on the top of Skiddaw, unable to see the summit until we arrived there, let alone any of the tremendous views of the Derwent Fells it provides. I was eager to make the summit of Carnedd Llewellyn before anything like that happened here.

The ridge here is broad and grassy for the most part but every so often the ground was broken by huge outcrops of rock and fields of boulders. The track I was following skirted the largest of these, though I imagine it would be easy enough to walk over the top if you wanted to add more interest to your walk. I wasn't feeling energetic enough to seek out more interest at this point though.

Before I began my final ascent of the day, I decided to take a break, and I finished the rest of my lunch and drank my coffee with the splendours of Carnedd Dafydd's northern side glowing in the sunlight before me.

Looking back to one of the outcrops of rock along the ridge.
The north western face of Carnedd Dafydd, far more dramatic than its southern aspect.

The summit of Carnedd Llewellyn was - unsurprisingly - very similar to that of Pen Yr Ole Wen and Carnedd Dafydd, a broad expanse of rock-strewn grass with nothing in the way of notable features. Peering over its sides revealed crags and cliffs to the east, though nothing that looked like it would match those I'd gazed at in wonder at just recently as I supped my coffee. To the north, the remainder of of the Carneddau stretched out - are they the Low Carneddau? Or perhaps the Northern Carneddau? Rolling hills were hazy in the distance, hard to pick out by eye and even less distinct in photographs, but I was grateful to have had such fine weather all day and great views of the mountains in my vicinity.

Looking north from Carnedd Llewellyn.
Looking south, a hazy Moel Siabod behind Cefn y Capel. 

It was time to make my way down now and ahead lay the part of the route that had caused me some trepidation in the planning. A winding path of loose stone led me down to another broad ridge, Penywaun-Wen, and at the end of this to the popular climbing spot of Craig Yr Ysfa.   

Penywaun-Wen below as I head down from the summit.
Looking back up to the summit of Carnedd Llewellyn from Penywaun-Wen.
Craig Yr Ysfa.

The crag between Penywaun-Wen and Bwlch Eryl Farchog.
Above Craig Yr Ysfa is a large crag and that stood between me and Bwlch Eryl Farchog. I'd seen pictures of the crag and clambering down it didn't particularly worry me apart from the large slab at the end of this descent. It'd proved difficult to gauge its size and angle from the few photos I could find. I couldn't really judge how exposed it was either. Lurking at the back of my mind was a vision of a highly-polished ski jump-shaped affair that would launch me off the side of the mountain and send me bouncing, Homer Simpson-style, down every rock between there and the valley floor.

In the event, although it was around 6 or 7 feet of smooth rock, it presented no difficulties at all and actually felt reassuringly enclosed by the slightly higher rocks on either side. I can't claim I descended it very elegantly - I simply threw my backpack down ahead of me and proceeded very slowly on my arse but at no point did I feel any concern.

Some of the rocks to clamber over before reaching Bwlch Eryl Farchog.
As I was approaching the base, a sudden movement to the left caught my eye and I turned to see a chap walking down the rock face as effortlessly and quietly as if he were walking down his garden path. I was impressed by the ease and confidence of his descent and said so - he was kind enough to point out that he was wearing climbing shoes, which made it much easier. He mentioned that he was a climber and I took comfort in that fact. He was clearly an expert at traversing rocks at all sorts of angles, so my pride in my own less impressive progress remained - mostly - un-dented!

I've put a few pictures of the slab on here to try and give people an idea of what it looks like and its size. It was surprisingly difficult to find photographs of the slab online, though I did get some helpful advice from fellow members of the Walking Forum. If I'd been able to easily find pictures of it beforehand I probably wouldn't have worried about it as much as I did. It's worth noting too that there's no quick alternative route back down from these mountains should you get to this point and be unable to continue, so hopefully if anyone does come across my photos online, they'll be able to assess the situation beforehand.

Sitting at the top of the slab, ready to slide down.
Looking back up the slab from the base.
Looking back up from lower down on the ridge; the slab is to the right of the crag.

A narrow path twists its way along the ridge here, splitting off at various points and rejoining again. Ahead the view was dominated by Pen Yr Helgi Du, a steep and rough looking scramble upwards again, that has been the site of at least one fatal accident in recent years to my knowledge.

Pen Yr Helgi Du at the opposite end of the ridge.

Following the path that zig-zags down to the reservoir.
Fortunately, from now on I would only be heading downwards, following a steep path that suddenly breaks away from the ridge just before that scramble. There were some fine views from here of the Ffynon Llugwy reservoir and of Craig y Llyn, the crag that looms over its western shoreline. Most of my time, however, was spent looking at my feet, as the loose slate that formed the path didn't provide a very reassuring surface to walk on.

Although this section seemed interminable, eventually it levelled out and I was now walking south just above the reservoir. Even if not pleasant walking in its early stages, the path had so far been quite distinct so I was a little surprised when it just petered out, leaving me standing on an occasionally damp and boggy stretch of grass. I knew I was near the water authority access road now, my passage back to the A5 where Rich was to collect me, so I simply struck out south and waited for the tarmac to appear in front of my nose. And this it obligingly did after a short space of time.

Craig y Llyn.
Bwlch Cyfryw-Drum, part of the ridge between Carnedd Dafydd and Carnedd Llewellyn.

Llyn Ogwen, flanked by Tryfan and Pen Yr Ole Wen.
The slate path had seemed never-ending at times but this access road took the biscuit. The A5 offered little consolation even when it came into view, as it was a mere ribbon in the distance and the cars travelling along it tiny dots of colour. Framed by Tryfan and Pen Yr Ole Wen, Llyn Ogwen gleamed to the south west but the light was against me now and none of the pictures I took from here on really did the views justice.

I could conceivably have fallen asleep on my feet as I walked the access road but the climber I'd met earlier, walking as silently as before, suddenly said hello from behind - his greeting literally made me jump but once I'd recovered it was good to have a companion to chat with during the final stages of the walk and we discovered we had done some of the same walks in the Dark Peak. At the A5, my transport was waiting and his car was parked just nearby so we bade each other farewell - it was a pleasant end to a challenging but exciting day in the mountains.


Date: June 2016

Walk length: 11.25 km

Total ascent: 1034 metres



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