Tuesday, 8 January 2019

A Carneddau Traverse

While I was doing some housekeeping on the blog over Christmas I realised I still hadn't written up the traverse of the Carneddau mountains I did in 2017. A linear walk, it took me from the Ogwen Valley in the south to the edge of Llanfairfechan on the north-western fringe of the mountains. Aside from a little scrambling near the beginning, there were no technical challenges but I did find it a real test of stamina, with some 4000 feet of ascent over its 11.5 mile course. It was too good a day in the hills to leave off the website so here it is - more photo-heavy and a little less verbose than my usual trip reports due to much of the detail being lost in the mists of time.

Y Braich, from a previous walk. Pen Llithrig y Wrach is the mountain lit up in the background.

My route onto the range was along Y Braich, which can be translated into English as the arm. If you've travelled along the stretch of the A5 between Bethesda and Capel Curig, you'll probably know by sight this long spur, which extends southwards from main bulk of the Carneddau into the Ogwen Valley. It sweeps down in a deceptively understated manner that suggests its ascent is an easy one but - like many of its familial summits - you don't feel Y Braich's true scale until you're actually standing on it.

I'd originally planned to do this hike at the start of April 2017 (when the photo above was taken) but the Carneddau were swathed in cloud that morning and instead I ended up rambling around the Glyderau's lower slopes until I found myself at the top of Tryfan. A month or so later luck was on my side and I made my initial climb to the start of the ridge under pristine blue skies. As I followed the sketchy path up through farmland, skylarks and pipits launched themselves into the air around me or surveyed me suspiciously from perches a safe distance away.

I was watched closely at the start of my journey...
Looking back down Ogwen Valley.

The Ogwen Valley is one of my favourite places to hike and with every step upwards the views just got better and better. A leat stretches around the lower slopes of the south-eastern Carneddau, channelling run-off from the hillside into Llyn Cowlyd and as I approached it I had my first ever encounter with the wild ponies that live on this mountain range. Beautiful though they were, I was a little apprehensive as I drew near them - we'd passed some of the ponies that live in the Howgills a few years ago and they'd made it clear with bared teeth and menacing grunts that they didn't welcome our intrusion onto their turf! I needn't have worried about their Welsh cousins, however, who seemed unconcerned as I passed by. They even posed obligingly for photos.




Leaving the ponies behind, the first serious climb of the day began. It's a mile and a half from the leat to the summit of Pen yr Helgi Du, at Y Braich's northern end, and you climb 1300 feet over that distance. I took a lot of photos on the way up, as much for the chance to have a breather as to capture the scenery around me.

Looking east from the leat: Creigiau Gleision, Craig Wen and Crimpiau (l to r).
Glyder Fach and Tryfan.
Adam and Eve on the summit of Tryfan.
Gallt yr Ogof with Y Foel Goch in the background.

The gradient isn't especially difficult but it was shaping up to be a warm morning and my calves protested at every inch of the ascent. Thankfully, as I gained height the breeze picked up. Soon I was assailed by a refreshing gale that cooled me down considerably and made the series of false summits I kept passing over more bearable. There was a certain monotony to the route ahead of me but there was still plenty of scenery to revel in all around - I was even motivated to take a short and noisy video with my phone, which you can view here.

The route ahead - one of several very similar-looking photos of my walk up Y Braich.
Y Garn towers above Llyn Ogwen.
Looking south to Moel Siabod.
Pen Llithrig y Wrach (r) and the North Wales coast.
To the west: Pen yr Ole Wen, Carnedd Dafydd & Craig Llugwy; Craig y Llyn in the foreground.

Finally, an hour or so after setting off, I found myself on Pen yr Helgi Du (trans. Head or Hill of the Black Hound). In common with many of the Carneddau tops, this was a broad and grassy area dotted with exposed rocks. There was nowhere to sit so I didn't linger here, even though I was plenty hungry. I had a couple of scrambles ahead of me - one familiar and one an unknown quantity. I knew there were places to sit on the narrow ridge that connected the two so I decided to postpone lunch until I got down there.

Carnedd Llewellyn.
My route would take me up and over the crag on the left, once I'd crossed Pen yr Helgi Du.
Looking south from Pen yr Helgi Du to the Glyderau, and Pen yr Ole Wen (r).

From the highest point of Pen yr Helgi Du the ground drops quite precipitously to a narrow ridge that connects it with the main Carneddau range. I'd studied photos beforehand and deemed this scramble well within my capabilities but I was also well aware that it'd been the site of at least one fatality in recent years so I proceeded very slowly and carefully down the jumble of rocks and vegetation. Route-finding was actually pretty easy, there was even a narrow path in places, and I was soon contemplating it from below with butty in hand.

The start of the climb down to Bwlch Eryl Farchog.
A view back up.
A view to the side.
The view from the base of the scramble.

Sandwiches eaten, I carried on along the col towards the crags at the other end. This scramble I had done the first time I walked in the area (see: The High Carneddau) so I felt more comfortable about what lay ahead. The path leads to a shattered slab of rock, about six feet in height, which you have to clamber up to gain the spur that takes you onto Carnedd Llewellyn.

The slab is just above where the path terminates; the cliffs of Craig yr Ysfa are to the right.
A closer view. The slab, just right of centre.
At the base of the slab.

Viewed from the ridge, there are rugged cliffs to the right of it (Craig yr Ysfa), which are popular with climbers, but the slab itself feels relatively enclosed to me, which minimises the sense of exposure. Nonetheless, it's certainly a place to take care, whichever way you're travelling.

I paused above Craig yr Ysfa to look back across the ridge to Pen yr Helgi Du. It's one of my favourite views in the Carneddau. Then I braced myself and set off on the slog up to the summit of Carnedd Llewellyn. I hadn't passed anyone up to this point but there were several small groups of walkers making their way down as I ascended. The summit itself was surprisingly quiet when I got there though.

The view back across to Pen yr Helgi Du.
The wind at play on Ffynnon Llugwy Reservoir.
Heading for Carnedd Llewellyn.

As I'd been here before and taken plenty of photos I only stayed on the summit long enough to have a breather and take a couple of panoramic pictures with my phone.

Looking south-west - Carnedd Dafydd in the centre with the Glyderau behind and Snowdon in the background, left of centre. 
Looking north towards Carnedd Gwenllian and Foel Fras, with the Irish Sea beyond.


I was at the highest point of the day at the top of Carnedd Llewellyn and though I'd only covered less than a third of my total distance I'd already clocked up over 3300 feet of ascent, more than three quarters of the walk's total elevation. From here on it was - mostly - downhill and what climbs there were would be over the gently rolling summits of the northern Carneddau. Much of the route ahead can be seen in the photo immediately above.

The next target was Foel Grach, which I could see in the distance. As I made my way down to it, I paused to take in the handsome profile of Yr Elen to my left. Its beautiful north-eastern ridge cries out to be scaled but so far it's eluded me, despite several visits to the Carneddau since (including one with that purpose in mind).

Yr Elen.
A striking outcrop of rock just below the summit of Carnedd Llewellyn.

Foel Grach's summit is another broad stretch of raised ground. A large, low cairn thought to date back to the bronze age marks out the summit, which otherwise is somewhat nondescript. On the hillside below the cairn is a stone-built, emergency shelter but I didn't bother visiting it. It's worth making a note that it's there if you're heading over these exposed mountains in poor weather though.

The summit of Foel Grach.

A wide and shallow col separates Foel Grach from the next Carneddau peak, which is Carnedd Gwenllian. The latter is - only just - over 3000 feet high but its prominence on the ridge is so minor that it hasn't always been included in the "Welsh 3000s" as a mountain in its own right. As I made my way towards it, I saw another group of ponies making their way across the grassland below.

From Foel Grach, Carnedd Gwenllian (l) and Foel-fras (r).


Originally, Carnedd Gwenllian was known as Garnedd Uchaf. This can be translated into English as Highest Cairn. In 2009, after campaigning by the Gwenllian Society, the mountain was renamed in honour of Gwenllian of Wales, daughter of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd and niece of Dafydd ap Gruffudd, after whom the two highest Carneddau peaks are named.* 

At the summit of Carnedd Gwenllian.

The route I was following wended its way through the piles of broken and exposed rock at the summit before leading me north-east on a steady gradient up onto Foel Fras. Here I was startled by a solitary pony that galloped across my path before taking up a position on the edge of the ridge above Cwm Dulyn. It really was a beautiful creature, its coat gleaming in the sunlight.

Foel-fras directly ahead.



The climb to Foel-fras (trans. Broad Hill) is a relatively easy one but I was beginning to tire a bit now. And the wind at the summit was ferocious. My hat wouldn't stay on my head (luckily it has cords to secure it around your neck) and my eyes were streaming as I picked my way across the loose rocks to the trig pillar here. It wasn't ideal weather for selfies as several shaky images of me gurning into the camera testify.

Looking back south into the Carneddau on the way up Foel-fras.
The summit of Foel-fras
Heading north-east from here, my heart sank when I saw the steep descent to the col between me and the final mountain of the day, Drum. Gritting my teeth, I tried to comfort myself with the fact that its summit is considerably lower than Foel-fras so I wouldn't have to regain all the height I was losing as I headed down to the bwlch.

Looking north-west: the eastern tip of Anglesey and Ynys Seiriol (Puffin Island).

Eventually I found myself standing on top of Drum, which means "ridge" in Welsh. The cairn that marked the summit was on the other side of a fence but I still had a three-and-a-half mile walk ahead of me to get off the hills so I decided to merely give it a wave in passing and continue on my way.

On the climb back up to Drum - that crag is not the summit.
The summit cairn on Drum.

I joined a farm track here that traced a long, winding course downhill towards Llanfairfechan. Below me to the left was a small, steep sided glacial valley containing a lake. This was Llyn Anafon. It had been dammed and used as a reservoir in the twentieth century but the lake itself is a natural one and had been an important resource for the local community as far back as prehistoric times.

The track down from Drum.
Llyn Anafon below Foel-fras (l) and Llwytmor (r).

Although not on the scale of the High Carneddau to the south, these northern peaks were clearly worth exploring at greater length and I made a note to plot some future walks around this area. I could feel myself slowing down as I plodded along and I wasn't appreciating the scenery around me as much as I should have been doing.

To be honest, I'd been walking near enough eight hours now and my energy levels were seriously flagging. The wind had either dropped or I was now sheltered from it, the late afternoon sun was beating down from the sky and it felt like it was radiating upwards at me from the ground beneath my feet too. I had plenty of water left but it was warm and not very palatable so not as refreshing as it might have been.

"The road goes ever on..."
"and on..."

The number of photos I took after leaving Drum behind fell sharply as I became focussed on reaching the end of my route where Rich was waiting to pick me up. Thoughts of an air-conditioned car interior and a cold pint of bitter shandy at a local hostelry were a welcome distraction from the aching feet in my boots.

Finally I began to pass walled pastures rather than open land and the shining sea grew ever closer. I met a walker with a heavy pack who was heading upwards, presumably to camp out in the mountains - he had a fantastic evening for it. We exchanged cheery hellos and comments about the weather as we passed each other, his adventure just beginning and mine coming to an exhausted but happy end.

                                                  The Road goes ever on and on
                                             Out from the door where it began.
                                             Now far ahead the Road has gone,
                                             Let others follow it who can!
                                             Let them a journey new begin,
                                             But I at last with weary feet
                                             Will turn towards the lighted inn,
                                             My evening-rest and sleep to meet.
                                                                                             J. R. R. Tolkien



* Although this appears to be the most commonly accepted derivation of these mountains' names, there is an alternative theory - see here.


Date: May 2017

Walk length: 11.5 miles 

Duration:  8.5 hours
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