Tuesday 4 October 2016

Snowdon via Allt Maenderyn and the South Ridge

Leaving the road behind near Bethania.
Following the High Carneddau and the Glyderau, the mighty Snowdon seemed like the natural place to head for my next Welsh walk. 

I'd been wanting to do it for a long time and I hoped that the experience of hiking in the mountain ranges north of Wales' highest peak would set me up for whatever Snowdon threw at me. I wanted something more interesting than a simple slog up a path but I decided Crib Goch was something that I probably shouldn't be doing solo until I had gained more experience of scrambling - no-one wants to be the quivering jelly, clinging to a rock at 3000 feet and getting in everybody else's way.

After reading up, I settled on the South Ridge: it seemed to offer some airy exposure and one or two very minor hands-on sections but nothing that would scare the horses (or mountain ponies). The ridge starts from the bwlch between Snowdon and Yr Aran, which you can reach by diverting from either the Rhyd Ddu Path or Watkin Path. Beguiled by the scenery I saw in pictures online, I picked the latter as my route to the South Ridge.

The maintained path.
Rich dropped me off on the A498, near Bethania, and I joined the well-maintained trail that disappears into woodland above the road. The start of the path is clearly sign-posted and it would be difficult to go wrong here, I think - you simply follow the aggregate trail as it winds its way through the trees. It was 11 o'clock when I set off but there were just two people some distance behind me and there was no sound aside from the crunch of my boots on gravel and the musical splash of the Afon Gorsen, which cascaded down from the crag-laden hill hidden above me.

The path clears the trees just above the National Trust campsite, Hafod y Llan, which sits in farmland just west of Llyn Gwynant; from the edge of the trees it curves around a steep rock face and along here I began a gradual climb towards Cwm Llan, the hanging valley on the south east flank of Snowdon.

After clearing the trees...
The transitional valley, which forms a kind of step - albeit one on a grand scale - between Nant Gwynant below and Cwm Llan above doesn't seem to have been graced with a name, at least not on the map; perhaps it's just considered an upper section of Nant Gwynant, as the narrow pass at its head would seem to separate it from Cwm Llan quite clearly.

Even if it hasn't been distinguished with a title of its own, this enclave distinguishes itself with the quality of the views it offers all around from within its confines, not least the lush greenery that decks its northern slopes. Here the verdant lower slopes of Y Lliwedd's broad back - trees clinging to cliffs and rocks above sunlit pasture - form a stark contrast with its barren northern side, a sheer face that stares defiantly at Crib Goch as though the two ridges were squaring up to each other. Looking ahead, a dramatic waterfall marks the entrance to the hanging valley above and when you look behind, a glimpse of Llyn Gwynant reveals how high you've climbed from the roadside; beyond the lake's southern shoreline stretches the knobbly ridge that descends from Moel Meirch.

The lush southern slopes of Y Lliwedd.
The gateway to Cwm Llan ahead, just above the waterfall.
A figure standing to the left of the top of the waterfall provides some scale.
Looking back down to Llyn Nantgwynant.
Looking across to Moel Meirch (I think) from higher up the path.

Making my way into Cwm Llan.
Although it was cloudier than I'd anticipated from the weather forecast, it was a warm day and I looked enviously at the outward bound group that was receiving instruction in the chilly waters of the foaming river.

By the time I reached the natural gateway into Cwm Llan, I was roasting even in just a t-shirt, which didn't make the height gain any easier. Tempting though it was to carry on upwards bare-chested, however, wisdom prevailed and nobody felt obliged to shield their eyes in horror.

I turned left, heading west uphill towards a large buttress of rock; it didn't look unduly big at first glance, but a party of walkers scaling the slopes to its side revealed its true proportions. In the heat, I baulked at the idea of slogging up behind them for a second or two but when I got to it, I realised that my route actually followed an old tramway around its side to the north and this provided a flat, easy surface to walk along. It was all-too-easy to follow, it turned out.

Following the tramway
I was so busy trotting along, admiring the views and feeling pleased with myself I ended up missing the point where I was supposed to leave this path and head up hill towards the South Ridge. That turn occurred very shortly after joining the tramway but oblivious I merrily carried on deep into Cwm Llan, occasionally glancing up at the walkers who had been ahead of me and who were now ant-like dots apparently making their way up to Yr Aran.

My eyes had been engaged by some ruined quarry buildings ahead and I was also busy looking up the Watkin Path to see how it traced its way across the hillside so it took me a little by surprise when I found I had run out of path. Looking at the map in confusion, I then realised how far I'd strayed.

A cloud-capped Yr Aran to the the south west.
Happily - but by this stage incorrectly - trotting along the tramway in Cwm Llan

I toyed with the idea of retracing my steps but the hillside above looked relatively easy to cross, a mixture of rough grass and rocks. It also provided a much more direct route to Bwlch Cwm Llan so intrepidly I struck out across uncharted territory.

Heading cross-country to the pass at Bwlch Cwm Llan.
A few boggy sections aside, it was indeed relatively good going, and by climbing on top of a boulder I eventually identified the official path as I neared the ridge. In its closest stages to Bwlch Cwm Llan it was laid with loose stones and stood out clearly. I looked down from here across the grass, though, to try and identify where I should have walked up from the tramway and it wasn't always easy to pick out in the grass, even from above.

There was a sudden burst of conversation above me, where a heap of loose slate marked the climb to the col and this turned out to be a group of schoolchildren in their mid-teens, armed with maps and compasses and bucket loads of earnest enthusiasm. I waited for them to clamber down and they each politely greeted and thanked me as they passed. It was the first of two school groups I was to pass that day on the supposedly quiet South Ridge and both groups were uniformly friendly and well-mannered. As they carried on down towards the Watkin Path, one of them warned me that the climb up to the col was quite steep but I would be okay after that as it was downhill then to Rhyd Ddu - I was amused that perhaps I looked too old to her to be considering a walk any higher than this point but I was touched by her consideration too, and thanked her before I set off on my way again.

Looking across Cwm Llan, the Watkin Path traces a route up the western flank of Y Lliwedd.
At Bwlch Cwm Llan, Y Aran's shapely peak is hidden from view.
The other side of Bwlch Cwm Llan.

It was good to feel solid rock beneath my feet.
It wasn't long before the sound of their solemn debate about map reading faded away below me, especially as I was now heading up the South Ridge itself and gaining height much quicker than I had been doing before. The terrain was more rugged from here onwards and it was nice to feel the solidity of rock under my feet.

The mists that had been clinging to the ridge whenever I looked up earlier seemed to be thickening now and I resigned myself to the fact that I would probably be lost in the clag for the higher sections of my walk and the summit. Ordinarily this would make me a little despondent but today I was buoyed up by the fact that I was finally climbing Snowdon and I resolved to enjoy myself whatever the weather. I was mindful that the views I had at the moment were soon to disappear though and decided to stop to eat while I still had something to look at. I found a rock to sit on off the path and tucked into my lunch gazing down on the majestic Cwm Llan below.

Looking back down to Bwlch Cwm Llan, where I'd started to climb the South Ridge.
The highest point of the ridge, Allt Maenderyn, was in cloud, so I broke for lunch while I still had views to enjoy.
Looking back down into Cwm Llan.
Y Lliwedd to the north east.

A change in terrain ahead.
The path levelled out slightly just after where I stopped for my break but I could see a steep ascent ahead into the clouds and when got to the top of this I found myself at the bottom of a brief scrambly section.

At the base of this sheet of jagged rock, that gleamed as it rose above me, I encountered my second school outing, which was a much bigger group this time: book-ended by teachers, about twenty excitable and giggling teenagers clambered down the rocks with squeals and animated conversation.

I waited for them to pass, partly out of courtesy and partly because I decided I'd prefer them to be out of sight before I began my probably clumsy-looking climb upwards. Each one gave me either a cheery greeting or a thank you as they passed, sometimes both.

Another walker had descended at the same time as the students, fairly skipping down the rock face to their left, while the teenagers half-slid down a smoother section with a side ridge that provided a kind of handrail. I considered my sense of balance and decided the latter was the option for me. My ascent to the level ground further up wasn't very graceful but it was relatively painless and I found it all quite exhilarating. I probably looked so pleased with myself at the top of this section you'd have thought I'd just climbed the north face of the Eiger with one hand tied behind my back.

A walker heading down had skipped over these pointed rocks like a mountain goat.
I shuffled less gracefully up this flat section.

Looking back down the scrambly section from the top.
It was simply a matter of following the broad path through the mist from here, ascending steadily with occasional rock formations providing momentary interest as I went.

A walker, who had followed me up this hands-on section of the trail, soon disappeared into the mist and boulders ahead. I was to encounter him again on his way down from the summit, by which point I had only just crossed Bwlch Main on my way up. I like to think he actually never went to the top of Snowdon but just nipped on ahead and hid behind a rock with a flask of coffee, only reappearing to make his energetic descent when he heard me panting and grumbling my way up the path.

The only views on the South Ridge today were the rocks by the path.
I still held out hope that by the time I reached the narrow traverse of Bwlch Main a breeze would have picked up enough to blow the cloud away - though, obviously, I didn't want it to be too windy as I crossed the ridge.

As the ridge narrowed, I could see another strip of mud a few feet below the one I was following and it took me a few seconds to register that this was the Rhyd Ddu path about to join with mine and that I was practically on the bwlch. Sadly, the mist prevailed and I didn't get the airy walk that I'd hoped for but there was still a sense of steep drops on either side and if anything the clouds added a bit of atmosphere to the whole affair. I thoroughly enjoyed this section - there were a couple of rock steps where I used hands for security but that was probably out of my own innate cautiousness than out of necessity. I could see the sides of the ridge dropping away sharply to my right but I didn't really feel exposed at all and I left the bwlch at the other side feeling like I couldn't wait to do it again.

Just me and the birds...
Crossing Bwlch Main.
Crossing Bwlch Main.

After Bwlch Main, the path broadened out.
I was nearly at the summit now and the path that had widened as it crossed a flat, grass-covered slope began to weave its way through boulders and solid rock, some of which towered above me.

There was a distinct increase in the number of people around now, some heading down here for Bwlch Main and some for the top of the Watkin Path which also arrives at the summit area just by here. I couldn't see the visitor centre though I knew in which direction it lay and I must have looked quite sweaty and tired by this point as a family making their way down past me chuckled and said, "Don't worry, you're almost there."

"Don't worry, you're almost there."

I have mixed feelings about Hafod Eryri - does it spoil the wildness of the summit? I suppose so but at least it's been sympathetically designed and, judging from pictures, it's certainly less obtrusive than the previous building at the site. Like it or not, the mountain railway is part of Snowdon's history now and I do think it is a good thing that people who otherwise wouldn't be able to experience the top of a mountain can do so with ease here.

At the summit station, Hafod Eryri.
I bought a large black coffee and left the oven-like cafe, where I was in danger of becoming over-baked, to sit outside in the mist. Perched on the steps that face the South Ridge, I sipped my drink and stared into the swirling cloud as I waited for Rich to arrive on the train from Llanberis. I'd got to the top from the start of the Watkin Path in three hours and 40 minutes, which for me is good going, and I felt pleased. Maybe one day I will be walking as fast as the people who at the moment overtake me and disappear into the distance with a "Hello" floating back over their shoulder?

Once the cup had been emptied of warming coffee, I began to grow quite cold very quickly. There was a breeze up here and the air was damp too, since we were above the cloud-line. It wasn't long before I had to break my gloves and hat out of my backpack. I considered going back inside but the idea of standing in the sweltering cafe for an hour really didn't appeal after the effort I'd spent to get here so I stubbornly stayed put, occasionally walking around to try and warm up.

Suddenly, the mist cleared...
Suddenly my obstinacy was rewarded - a prolonged gust of wind blew the clag away and there was a collective, "Oooh..." from the other people milling around the summit.

There was a flurry of camera clicks and people good-naturedly moved out of each other's way as everyone aimed their lenses at whatever viewpoint had taken their fancy. There were smiles all around, which was nice to see, and the chatter of different languages as visitors from all over the globe marvelled at the scenery.

I joined in this burst of activity too, wondering how long this mountain-top moment of clarity would last. It turned out not to last for very long and a new bank of cloud soon rolled in from the west. I was happy with my lot though, as I'd expected to see nothing. However, I did feel a tad sorry for Rich, who - by dint of unlucky timing - looked likely to miss out on the beautiful vistas that had briefly appeared like Brigadoon from the mist.

My route up the South Ridge and across Allt Maenderyn appears with a sudden break in the cloud cover.
Looking west: on the left - Mynydd Mawr above Llyn Cwellyn; in the centre - Moel Eilio stands behind
Foel Gron, Foel Goch and dark crags of Moel Cynghorion; beyond it, lie the Menai Strait and Anglesey.
Hafod Eryri with the summit of Snowdon behind it.
The cloud rolls back in from the west.

It was a long, chilly hour waiting for his train to arrive but just as the engine ended its dogged journey to Hafod Eryri, the wind came in and blew the cloud away again - and this time it was completely gone and remained so for the rest of the day. I really couldn't believe my good luck and gazed on Y Lliwedd and Crib Goch in awe. I had another coffee with Rich and we wandered around for a while, taking in the obligatory trip up to the summit column of course, where we posed for the camera on that stump of rock just as thousands of people had done before us.

As the cloud clears a second time, the summit of Yr Aran finally comes into view.
Y Lliwedd (r) with the waters of Llyn-Llydaw below; Moel Siabod in the distance (l).
Y Lliwedd.
Crib Goch.
Close up of Crib Goch.

Garnedd Ugain summit.
The plan was to walk down the Llanberis Path together and this we did next, after I tried but failed to persuade Rich to take a diversion to the trig point on Garnedd Ugain; I grumbled that he hadn't climbed anywhere yet, having arrived by public transport, but I didn't moan too much or push too hard my case for the tremendous views we'd see if we did it. I had to admit I was starting to feel a bit tired and the idea of stopping off for fish and chips somewhere along the coastal road home was ever more insistently playing on my mind.

I've heard the Llanberis Path described as "dull" and "a slog" many times. It might well be on the ascent - I know I always prefer a shorter, steeper climb to a long, gentle one - but we found it made for a very pleasant walk down and the views were excellent in all directions. Although it wasn't ideally clear, we could see the Nantlle Ridge to the south while to the north, the Glyderau stretched out before us. I hadn't seen their southern aspect before and it's no less majestic than the face they show the Ogden Valley.

Bidding farewell to the summit of Snowdon.
A slightly hazy view of the Nantlle Ridge.
The Glyderau.

To the west the imposing Clogwyn cliffs gave way to the rolling summits of Foel Goch, Foel Gron and Moel Eilio, across the slopes of which the late afternoon sun made play, illuminating the lush grass and casting shadows into the crags and folds of the hillside. Far beyond these, on the Llyn Peninsula, we could see the three peaks of Yr Eifl.

Clogwyn Du'r Arddu.
Yr Eifl in the distance.
Foel Goch, glowing in the late afternoon sun.
On the Llanberis Path.

It took a surprisingly long time to get down to Llanberis, around an hour and three-quarters, but when I plotted the route on OS maps the distance from the summit to the parking opposite Llanberis station came in at nearly five miles so I don't feel we did too badly at the end of day. On the way, we passed the Halfway House Cafe and the smell of hot food lingered around its environs even though it had closed for the day - bellies rumbling, this spurred us to get a move on. Back at the car, we set a course for Conwy and the Fishermans Chip Shop, one of the best chippies we've eaten at in Wales, and which didn't let us down on this occasion - but that's a subject for a food blog, I suppose, not a walking blog...

Date: July 2016

Walk length: 13.5 km

Total ascent:  1096 metres


  1. Wow - what a great blog, and some amazing pictures. Thanks for sharing this. I look forward to more from you

  2. Cheers, really appreciate that! Have just subscribed to the Summit or Nothing channel on YouTube... Looking forward to catching up with the rest of your exploits after the video I watched earlier.