Monday 11 June 2018

Pen Llithrig y Wrach and Pen yr Helgi Du

Although I've done several walks in the Carneddau mountains over the past couple of years, Pen Llithrig y Wrach has somehow always eluded me - either by not fitting conveniently into a route or by making the hike unfeasibly long for my short legs. Its profile is a striking one from various viewpoints, not least if you're looking at it from the south: from that angle it rises proudly between the extended ridge (Y Braich) that leads to Pen Yr Helgi Du in the west and the jumble of crags that make up Creigiau Gleision in the east. This makes for an inviting and striking prominence that is satisfyingly pointy. It's been suggested that the resemblance of Pen Llithrig y Wrach's profile to a witch's hat lies behind its colourful name, which translates into English as "Slippery Peak of the Witch", but no-one seems to know for sure if that's the case.

Pen Llithrig y Wrach (left), viewed from Moel Siabod in 2015.

We don't normally brave the motorways on a bank holiday but the weather at the end of May was so good it seemed criminal to waste it.  Without any designated paths over its slopes, Pen Llithrig y Wrach seemed like an ideal location to avoid the crowds so we set our alarms for an early start, piled into the car by 6 a.m. and were tucking into a hot breakfast at the Moel Siabod Cafe in Capel Curig by 8.30 a.m.

Moel Siabod.

Bellies filled, we saluted the mountain that lends its name to the cafe and set off along the A5. I'm no fan of roadside walking, especially when it involves a busy A road, but this morning a pair of very chirpy pied wagtails piped us on our way, the trees beside the road were in rude, leafy health and crowds of buttercups shone in the sun. Below all this, the Afon Lugwy tumbled busily over its rocky riverbed. All in all it was a lot more enjoyable than I expected it to be.

One of the pied wagtails in Capel Curig.
The butterfiles were almost as plentiful as the buttercups.
The Afon Llugwy.

As with our last visit to the area, the views along the Ogwen Valley looked like they were going to be disappointingly hazy but scenery close-by reminded my why this is one of my favourite places to walk in Snowdonia. As we followed the road north, we got our first glimpse of Pen Llithrig y Wrach behind the crags that make up the lower end of Crimpiau's ridge.

The crags lying below Crimpiau to the north east of us.
Our first sight of Pen Llithrig y Wrach after starting the walk.

After about a mile, just past an isolated house, we came to a public footpath sign across the road. (We'd kept in single file on the left-hand side of the road, where I'd say the walking is easier and safer - the raised section alongside the kerb isn't broad enough to be considered a proper pavement but it does at least save you from walking in the road itself.)

We headed over and took this path upwards across rough sheep pasture.

The hillside was dotted with outcrops of rock and occasional hawthorn trees. Small streams glinted in the morning light and created little waterfalls as they ribboned their way down from the moorland above. This had been our return route to Capel Curig in February and, though it might  still be a little squelchy underfoot at times, it was a lot drier and less muddy now.

No sooner had I remarked on how much easier going it was today than I managed to slip on a rock as I crossed a stream. I went into the ice-cold water up to my knee. I was in a bit of a grump at first but eventually the views of hills across the valley and of bluebells by our feet won the day and I stopped swearing. We set off again with a spring in our steps (plus some water in mine).

A dry-stone wall with a large metal gate marks a change in terrain to moorland and there was a real sense of the landscape opening up around us once we passed through it. Sedges and rushes formed spiky clumps across the otherwise close-cropped grass and small, wooden bridges provided a dry crossing where the ground was particularly marshy.

Our route was taking us broadly north to a saddle at the head of Cwm Cowlyd, although we actually meandered somewhat as we weaved between the tiny hidden streams in the grassland. It was a very gentle gradient that required little effort. And we were glad to be conserving some energy for the next stage of our walk too as that was when the ascent would begin in earnest.

On the way up we encountered a Carneddau pony, the only one we were to see that day in fact. It stopped grazing to stare at us for a while before wandering a bit further away, although it continued to keep a curious eye on us until we'd passed by.

The wandering path finally arrives at a stone-laid track that's in some disrepair and this brings you to a small bridge over the stream that feeds into Llyn Cowlyd; the stream itself is fed by two drains that run around the hillside, east and west, presumably to collect run-off from the peaks and crags above.

One of the drains that feed Llyn Cowlyd.

There was some commotion when I paused on the footbridge to enjoy the views north. I couldn't spot the bird that I'd alarmed with my presence but I guessed it had a nest somewhere below on the rocky sides of the stream. I moved off uphill away from it to avoid causing further distress. It then appeared on the bridge itself and I could see it was a grey wagtail. The loud chirping continued unabated and I couldn't help but feel I was getting a bit of a telling off for trespassing on its turf.

We set off uphill from here, following a narrow but clear trod in the grass onto the crags above us, Carreg-ar-y-rhos. I think this translates as "rocks on the moor (or heath)" and that name certainly fits the view we had in front of us. There was a bit of a climb over some of the larger boulders and then we found ourselves on another flatter section.

Heading up onto Carreg-ar-y-rhos.
Llyn Cowlyd, with Creigiau Gleision on the right.

The vegetation around us had changed markedly since we left the stream behind. Heather and bilberry became an increasing presence on the hillside. This saddle that lies between Carreg-ar-y-rhos and the crags above it is a decent size and the ground cover quite dense but we didn't have any trouble finding a route until we were closer to the next ascent. Here the slight path split in two.

The col below the next set of crags.
Looking back down across the moor at our route so far.

The right hand trod seemed to point to a gully, taking a direct route up the middle of the crag. We followed it briefly but then it petered out in marshy ground. There were some trodden down rushes in front of us but nothing to indicate a path beyond them.

The right hand path suggested a route up the green gully, slightly left of centre.

We returned to the junction and decided to try the other direction, around the crag and up behind it. This proved to be a pathless slog through tussocky grass, knee-high heather and bilberry and we were glad when we arrived at another relatively flat section above the crags, where a path upwards was visible. It was only a short pull up to the summit now but we took advantage of the opportunity to have a rest and enjoy the views that the newly-gained height provided.

Across the valley: the southern end of Y Braich, our route down, and the eastern Glyderau in the background.
Llyn Cowlyd and Creigiau Gleision to the east.
Pen yr Helgi Du and Carnedd Llewelyn to the west.

In common with most of the Carneddau mountains, the summit of Pen Llithrig y Wrach is broad and grassy, studded with small rocks. It had been a hot, still day and we were pretty knackered by the time we reached this point.

None of the rocks were big enough to sit on so we took our jackets out and laid them on the ground. I soon got fidgety and wandered around exploring the views but Rich lay there all the while I was doing this.

We suspect this might have been when he picked up the tick we found a couple of days later, although I suppose it could easily have hitched a lift when we were making our way through the knee-deep heather and bilberry earlier on.

At the summit cairn.
Craig Eigiau, Cefn Tal-llyn-Eigiau and Llyn Eigiau below.
Looking north-east from the summit to Moel Eilio in the distance.
Looking north-ish into the main Carneddau range.

There's a clear path leading from the summit down into the col between Pen Llithrig y Wrach and Pen yr Helgi Du, one so obvious even we could find it. In fact the only uncertainty on the way down was whether it had been misleading of me to describe a descent of 627 feet followed by a climb of 756 feet as "a gentle dip" between the walk's two summits.

I decided there really was no satisfactory answer to that so I went with, "Look at those wonderful views!" and hoped for the best. And whatever else might have been open to interpretation, at least that statement was unequivocally true.

Craig Eigiau.
Across Cwm Eigiau - Carnedd Llewelyn, Foel Grach and Gledrffordd.
Close-up of Craig yr Ysfa.
Approaching Bwlch Tri Marchog, the saddle between the two peaks.

We wandered rather slowly across Bwlch Tri Marchog, savouring the view down into Cwm Eigiau and the shifting light and shadows that the clouds created on the landscape around us.

Looking back up to Pen Llithrig y Wrach.
Looking down into Cwm Eigiau.
The route ahead.

The crossing wasn't entirely uneventful - when we started to climb the ladder stile in the middle of the pass, it began to fall sideways. I think it could've have been quite difficult to safely get over if you were on your own, without someone to hold it steady. I've reported it via the Ramblers association's Path Watch scheme.

The climb up onto Pen yr Helgi Du was relatively easy and clearly well-walked. It didn't take long at all to get to the top, another broad and flat area of short grass and small rocks. We stopped for lunch, sitting on our jackets again, as soon as we reached a small cairn on level ground.

That wasn't the highest point, though - that lies another couple of hundred yards north west, above the narrow ridge that connects it to the main Carneddau range. In fact the summit proper is so nondescript, I had to find some way of identifying it when looking at my photos later.

To the west, below us, was the reservoir Ffynnon Llugwy, the wind chasing small waves across its shining surface. To the north west, Bwlch Eryl Farchog, the ridge that you'd have to cross to reach Carnedd Llewelyn and the other Carneddau peaks, which I'd approached with some trepidation the first time I ventured into these mountains.

Ffynnon Llugwy Reservoir.
Bwlch Eryl Farchog.

It was downhill all the way now pretty much, our path taking us down the ridge, Y Braich. A mile and a half long, with 1337 feet of descent (or ascent), I can now confirm that it feels never-ending whether you're heading up or downhill. The last time I was here I could at least admire the mountains around the valley that gleamed under blue skies in the morning sun; today, the views around us were hazy and we had to make our own entertainment to pass the time.

One of those "Sound of Music" moments...

The path brought us down to a gate and the reservoir drain. From here we still had some way to go to get to the valley floor, over the same sort of rough pasture we'd crossed at the start of the day. It was a bit boggier here but I managed not to fill my boots with water and we soon joined an access road that took us to the A5.

We crossed the A5 and joined another public footpath. This would take us - over a couple of old stone bridges - to the byway that runs south east from Tryfan down to Capel Curig.

Taking the path on the southern side of the A5. 
An old stone bridge.
Our passage was watched from a nearby pasture.

Before we turned onto this track, however, we couldn't resist taking our boots and socks off and soaking our feet in the stream. It was as cold as the water I'd inadvertently gone into at the start of the walk and it still took my breath away even though I was prepared for it - but, boy, did it feel good this time! I'm sure my hot, swollen feet shrank two sizes back to their normal dimensions on contact with the water, which is probably a good thing or I might never have got my boots back on.

The byway runs in a straight line for a good deal of its course below the eastern end of the Glyderau. Gallt yr Ogof dominated the view to our right - a minor bump relative to the rest of this mighty range of mountains but an impressive presence nonetheless when you're walking beneath its crags.

On a smaller scale but just as rewarding for me was a small pool just off the track, where bog bean was growing in abundance. I've never seen it before so I was pleased to add it to my "collection" of wildlfower discoveries. Although it was only just beginning to flower it was clear that it was a much prettier plant than its name might suggest.

Across on the other side of the valley stretched the high level sections of our walk - Y Braich, Pen yr Helgi Du and Pen Llithrig y Wrach. And I have to say, the dip between the latter two does look quite gentle from a distance.

Y Braich.
Pen Llithrig y Wrach.
Y Braich and Pen yr Helgi Du (l) and Pen Llithrig y Wrach (r).

Soon enough we were walking around Creigiau'r Gelli and descending into Capel Curig. We left the Ogwen Valley behind and Moel Siabod appeared in front of us once again.

The track brings you out by the car park behind the village store and we made a beeline for the shop fridge to get our hands on some cans of pop, which we drank greedily sitting outside. It'd been a bit of a slog in the heat, especially as the breeze had only put in a few fleeting appearances during the day, and it'd taken us longer than we expected, but it'd been a rewarding walk with plenty of variety.

Looking along Dyffryn Mymbyr to Y Lliwedd and the summit of Snowdon.

Date: May 2018

Walk length: 16 km

Total ascent: 912 metres


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