Tuesday 19 June 2018

The Western Carneddau

The day after we walked Pen Llithrig y Wrach on the eastern fringe of the Carneddau mountains I set off on my own to explore some of the peaks on the western side of the range. There was one major summit that I hadn't visited - Yr Elen - and I was hoping to do this via its north eastern ridge before having a more gentle wander back down over the hills to the north. I'd seen this ridge on a traverse of the Carneddau last year and it looked like a fantastic airy route onto the tops.

Yr Elen's north east ridge from a previous walk in the Carneddau.

My starting point was Gerlan, on the outskirts of Bethesda, where Rich dropped me off on a narrow lane. It wasn't too far from the centre of town but I was glad of the lift as it spared me a fairly steep walk uphill on roads at the start of the day. It was already warm when I set off and, after the previous day's exertions, my calves and Achilles tendons protested as I plodded up the lane.

The tarmac gave way to a gravel track after a short while and I arrived at a small concrete building, marked as a pumping station on the OS map. I passed through a metal gate and turned right here onto access land, following a clear path along the wall below Y Garth. Stretching out ahead of me was Cwm Caseg, the long valley that was my route into the hills.The forecast had been for blue skies and that was certainly what I had as I began my journey.

Heading into Cwm Caseg.
Yr Elen (l) and Carnedd Dafydd (r).
The Glyderau to the south  - Y Garn, Foel goch, Mynydd Perfedd and Carnedd y Ffiliast.

It's a long approach to Yr Elen from the pumping station, over three miles walking in total. In fact, the valley is on a grand scale generally, something that none of my photos quite capture. The path follows a decent track for most of its length, although it does become a little patchier towards the head of the valley and rather marshy too in places. It was very lush and green that morning but I was there during a sustained spell of dry weather. I can imagine in poor weather conditions or in winter this is quite a bleak and isolated place to hike.

Cwm Caseg clearly hadn't always been the preserve of sheep and occasional hillwalkers: as I made my way along I passed the remains of a disused quarry and, a bit further on, the scattered, broken down stones of what was once a small settlement. Looking around it was difficult to picture people living in this lonely, high valley. Instead of the melancholy whisper of the breeze, I thought of the sounds that once echoed around here - the laughter, the tears, raised voices and soft words, and all the mundane, daily hubbub of those people's lives, long since scattered on the wind.

As I neared Yr Elen the increasingly faint path approached the bank of Afon Caseg, which runs down the centre of the valley. It followed the river briefly before heading slightly uphill to one of its tributaries, Afon Wen, which flows down from the wide col between Foel Grach and Carnedd Gwenllian. With conditions being so dry, the shallow stream was easy enough to ford and I soon found myself walking around Carreg-y-Gath, a series of crags opposite Yr Elen.

Approaching the head of the valley - Carreg y Gath (l) and Yr Elen (r).
Crossing Afon Wen.
Looking back down the valley from Afon Wen.
Carreg y Gath.

Although it didn't feel like it, I'd gained around 850 feet of height on the long journey up the valley. As I walked there had been a marked change in the strength of the wind. I was carrying extra water after the previous day had been so hot and my backpack was somewhat heavier than usual. Even down here on the valley floor I could feel the stronger gusts buffeting it and knocking me off balance. Clouds were being blown across the summit at some speed too when I looked up (brief video here) and I began to question the wisdom of ascending a narrow ridge above considerable drops in those conditions.

Around the other side of Carreg y Gath there was a steep hillside, a mixture of grass, scree and occasional outcrops of rock. It didn't look too forbidding from below so, after looking at the map, I decided this would be my route onto the tops.

The only way is up...

I suppose I would have to class this route as "do-able" as I did it but it was tough work and not especially pleasant, particularly when the wind nearly blew me off balance a few times. There were very few spots I could pause to take a much-needed breather as well so I just had to keep pressing on.

On the way up...
Looking back down

Eventually the gradient became more gentle and I came to a faint trod in the grass - whether this was created by sheep or by walkers who'd taken one look down and headed back the way they'd come I don't know. I paused here to take a couple of snaps of Clowgn yr Heliwr, which looked particularly handsome from this angle, before carrying on upwards.

Clogwyn yr Heliwr.

Carreg y Gath sits at the end of a spur that rises to Clogwyn yr Heliwr and from there to Foel Grach . It's probably not going to be top of anyone's list of Carneddau locations to visit but it does have a rocky summit above the crags that's not without interest. The infamous Carneddau mist was descending when I reached it. Low cloud was rolling steadily westwards across the mountains and hung like a grey pall over the top of the valley. On a clear day, though, the views from here must be superb.

Looking across to Yr Elen.
Looking back down Cwm Caseg.
Low cloud hung over the head of the valley.

My plan was to aim for the saddle between Foel Grach and Carnedd Gwenllian, which was still a good five hundred feet above me. For a while I followed one of several trods in the grass, leaving it briefly to take in the summit of Clogwyn yr Heliwr - it seemed a shame to pass it by and I thought it unlikely I'd be at this specific location again any time soon.

Heading to Clogwyn yr Heliwr.
I wasn't entirely sure whether I was following a sheep trod or a track made by other walkers.

It was still very windy and, although a break in the cloud briefly revealed Foel Grach above me, I felt certain I'd made the right decision to leave the Yr Elen ridge for another time. And even if I had been able to safely ascend it, I would have been walking in clag all the way across the highest peaks.

Looking back to Carreg y Gath.
Foel Grach appears briefly.
Yr Elen and its north east ridge.

Several faint paths criss-crossed the hillside and in the end I decided the only option was to set a course north-east and plod across the grass. The ground was pretty solid underfoot so the walking wasn't especially difficult but the relentless ascent was a real slog. Fortunately the cloud would thin every now and then, each time revealing I was at least a little closer to the col.

Almost there...

Once I made it to the broad track between Foel Grach and Carnedd Gwenllian, the views were breathtaking...

Somewhere up there lies Foel Grach and Carnedd Llewelyn.
And somewhere over there lies Carnedd Gwenllian.

It was eerily silent up there as I walked through the mist. I can quite understand how legends like the Big Grey Man of Ben Macdui in Scotland take hold of people's imaginations. There were no spectres haunting the Carneddau that day however - at least not that I saw - and I made my way uneventfully to the flat summit of Carnedd Gwenllian. This is marked by a low-lying heap of rocks and surrounded by a moorland landscape that wouldn't look out of place in the Peak District.

Carnedd Gwenllian.
The peaty landscape by the summit.

I didn't linger here, setting off downhill in search of sunlight after taking a few photos. In the distance, I could just see my next target putting in an appearance beyond the broad grass-covered mountainside. This was Yr Aryg, one of several large tors on this side of the Carneddau.

Yr Aryg pops up on the horizon.

From here on, the walking was to be as easy as the photo above suggests, making for a pleasant stroll across broad grassy slopes. Occasionally I'd have to cross a boulder field and take a bit more care where I placed my feet but otherwise the going was good - and much nicer for being out of the clag and able to feel the sun on my face again.

Yr Aryg.

Two further tors came into view as I headed north west: Bera Bach and Bera Mawr. Their names translate as Small Stack and Big Stack respectively and, although Bera Bach has a higher elevation, its neighbour is a larger and more rugged-looking outcrop of rock. Bera Mawr's prominence over the steep sides of Cwm yr Afon Goch to the north surely also contributed to its descriptive name.

Bera Mawr.

When I arrived at Yr Aryg I couldn't resist a little clamber over the jumble of rocks to get to the highest point. The cloud had lifted enough for me to make out Carnedd Gwenllian behind me. Ahead lay the next stage of my journey back, a broad col between Yr Aryg and the Berau.

Approaching Y Aryg.
Looking back up to Carnedd Gwenllian.
Bera Bach (l) and Bera Mawr (r).

The terrain here had a grassy moorland feel to it and there were little pools, sometimes edged with cotton grass, on the hillside. The last independent ruler of Wales, Prince Dafydd ap Gruffydd had been concealed in a bog near Bera Mawr with his family when he was betrayed and subsequently captured by troops belonging to Edward I of England. I was tempted to explore the area further, especially as the dry weather we were experiencing had made the ground up here so easy to walk, but it was mid-afternoon and we still had a long drive back to Derbyshire once I'd come down off the hills.

I was tempted to cross the col over to Bera Mawr.

I pressed on to Bera Bach, the boulders of which provided a more satisfying climb than those of Yr Aryg had done. It didn't feel like that much of a walk between the two so I was quite surprised when I looked back from the former and saw how far I'd travelled. Above it to the north west I could now see Foel-fras, the most northerly of the Welsh 3000s and the eleventh highest mountain in Wales.

Nearing Bera Bach.
Looking back from Bera Bach - Foel-fras (l) and Yr Aryg (r).

From here I carried on with my undulating but ultimately descending course back towards Bethesda. Once you'd cleared the rocks and boulders around Bera Bach there was a clear track across the next col towards Drosgl. The official path bypasses this hill and I opted for that, leaving its smooth, grassy summit for a return visit when the long-distance views were less hazy.

Drosgl with Gyrn Wigau behind it.
Looking back to Bera Bach (r) and Bera Mawr (l).

I did have one last hilltop to cross on my way down, though, and that was Gyrn Wigau. A clear path in the grass cuts away from the main track and brings you to the top of it in just a few minutes.  Like Carreg y Gath, it doesn't seem to attract much attention online but I thought it was quite an attractive spot, particularly the spines of exposed rock that ran along its small summit ridge. It would, I think, be a fine location to sit and watch the sun set, the warm glow from the west lighting up the mountains behind you.

Gyrn Wigau.
Looking north along the ridge to Moel Wnion.
The northern end of Cwm Caseg.

It was here that I met the only other person I'd seen in the hills since leaving Gerlan behind earlier that day. He'd been walking the same route down from the tops as I was. We chatted for a short while before he set off again, disappearing into the distance with speed that put me to shame.

Five minutes or so after we chatted, a fellow walker disappears over the brow of Gyrn Wigau.

I'm not sure what the downhill equivalent of a false summit is but the descent of Gyrn Wigau to the south west is marked by a series of alternating steep and gentle declines. This created deceptive brows like the one in the picture above and repeatedly dashed expectations of being "nearly there".

Eventually, I descended to rocky ground above Y Garth and a dry stone wall. The public footpath you join here doubles back on itself as it heads down into the valley. I saw little point in adding extra distance to my walk when I was on access land so I used the wall as a handrail to make my way directly down to the track I'd started out on that morning.

It was a simple matter of re-tracing my steps back past the pumping station and into Gerlan from here. I'd cast several glances in the direction of Yr Elen as I made my way down, determined to return and climb its north east ridge sooner than later. The day hadn't quite panned out how I'd intended but changing my plans had introduced me to a corner of the Carneddau I might never have visited otherwise, so I was grateful for that.

Date: May 2018

Walk length: 15.25 km 

Total ascent:  827 metres



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