It’s interesting how some walks happen unintentionally. As someone who likes to plan everything down to the last detail, it’s rare I leave anything to chance. Yet my week in North Wales during September 2007 was a trip based more on possibilities. True, the flights to and from Manchester, the youth hostels and train journeys were all booked in advance, as were the three days along the 60 mile North Wales Path, but from Bangor things were a little less ordered. All I knew were the youth hostels at the end of each day plus the train and flight times home the following Saturday. On Tuesday 11th September I planned to walk from Bangor to Caernarfon but took the bus instead. That way I got to spend a day exploring Edward I famous castle, I considered it worthwhile making the most of my time in this region as who knew when I would return again. Caernarfon Castle was stunning and, as it turned out, practically empty. By the end of the day I turned my thoughts to Snowdon Ranger, a youth hostel along the western flanks of Mount Snowdon that, as luck would have it, was accessible from Caernarfon via the Welsh Highland Railway. In the quiet of the late afternoon I alighted at this remote station alone miles from anywhere, as if I’d just arrived at the opening murder scene in a horror movie.
The following day the weather looked favourable so I set off at 8am to walk one of the six available routes up Snowdon. The approach from Snowdon Ranger is one of the oldest and so-named after a former guide from the 1850’s who once lived in the house now occupied by the hostel. At 11am I stood at the summit of Snowdon, this glorious achievement was overshadowed somewhat amidst the chaos of a building site with the construction of the new station and cafe just below. Via the eastern paths of the Pyg and Miner’s Tracks, I descended to the Pen-y-Pass Youth Hostel, my home for the next two nights. The day after that I enjoyed a 10 mile walk to the north of Pen-y-Pass, a circuitous route over the Glyders and Castell y Gwynt (photo right), dominated by the intriguing rise of Tryfan to the north. Throughout the day this lone mountain stood like the bony rise on the back of a stegosaurus. Around its base I looked to a tortuous tumble of rocks from Glyder Fach made even more fearsome by the sight of people as tiny dots struggling up the higher edges, lost amongst the mass of rock and overhangs that was Tryfan.
That evening I was held spellbound by the history of Pen-y-Pass hostel. Within a glass cabinet was a visitor’s book from the days of the famous Pen-y-Pass climbing parties of the early twentieth-century that used this building, the former Gorphwysfa Hotel, as its base. Of particular interest was the signature of George Mallory, he disappeared in 1924 whilst making one of the first attempts on Everest. He and Andrew Irvine may have even reached the summit twenty-nine years before Hillary and Tenzing in what is still one of mountaineering’s great controversies.
On the morning of Friday 14th September I ate breakfast whilst watching the rain and low lying cloud billow up Llanberis Pass. Yet even as I set off at 9:30, a few patches of blue amongst the clouds to the east gave renewed hope. By the time I had retraced my steps from the previous day beyond the Pen-y-Gwryd Hotel and climbed another Miner’s Track (the best way up to the Glyders from Pen-y-Pass), the bad weather was clearing. This enjoyable climb provided fine retrospective views back to the Snowdon range. I was soon heading across a wide grassy plateau towards Tryfan which looked darker in the shadow, but at least it wasn’t lost in cloud just yet. By 11:25am, I stood alongside Llyn Caseg-fraith once again and turned my back on Snowdon for the last time.
This day had one objective, Capel Curig, a small village with a hostel and a couple of stores. The hostel didn’t open until 5pm so there was little point in an early finish. I decided to do as I had done the day before and make a more reasoned choice once I had a better idea of the weather. There was one thing at the back of my mind though, this was a special day, special at least to someone who talks in panegyric terms about George Mallory. It was the one-hundredth anniversary of his first ever climb on British rock, a climb he made on Tryfan. For that reason I nurtured a desire to reach the top. Alas, I am not made of the same stuff that he was, Mallory climbed via its terrifying west face whereas I, a chronically vertiginous individual, could only hope to ascend its southern ridge, if at all.
Yesterday had been a useful reconnaissance for today’s walk, from Glyder Fach I could see the lie of the land around Tryfan and with a much better idea of what was required to climb it, I managed to form some sort of strategy and made for a lower gulley. This was still the Miner’s Track as it continued past Llyn Caseg-fraith and down to the head of a wide valley known as Cwm Tryfan. The Welsh word ‘cwm,’ pronounced coom, means ‘hollow’ or ‘valley.’ The most famous one is the ‘Western Cwm’ on Everest, named by Mallory in honour of these Welsh mountains and valleys. The path eased from a scramble to loose stone clinging at an angle to the edge of scree around the arc of the valley (left). From what I could see, Tryfan looked friendly enough. Despite this part of the valley being in cloud, visibility was okay, but it was cold as the wind began to bite. The narrow path around the far side of Cwm Tryfan broke away into nothing as the way continued upwards. By this time Tryfan was now a brooding mass that towered high above me, so in deferential obeisance I backed away into a suitable shelter for a midday lunch on a mattress of gorse in front of a large rock.
In that all too brief half hour I could lose myself in the company of bleating feral goats in the valley to my left. Before long my attention was alerted by voices to the right of me as people struggled up Bristly Ridge. The previous evening a fellow hosteller told me how he slid awkwardly from Glyder Fach to Bwlch Tryfan. This, I guessed, was the scene of that ungainly descent via a loose and unpredictable path. I hoped that Tryfan was more forgiving. Even so, the worse that Bristly Ridge could give you is the odd tumble and a few blisters. Tryfan on the other hand can kill. On Saturday 16th June 2007 a thirty-two year old man from Oxford fell down its eastern side. Having reached the summit with his wife they became disorientated during the descent when the mountain was covered in low cloud. At the inquest, Tryfan was described as ‘the hardest mountain to climb in Wales.’ The guide book they used came under closest scrutiny, publishers ‘Gwasg Carreg Gwalch,’ who produced my guide to the North Wales Path, were advised to review the section ‘Walks in the Snowdonia Mountains.’ Ironically the couple were using a chapter entitled ‘Tryfan the easy way’ when the tragedy occurred.
Having vacillated endlessly for two days over whether I really had the balls to climb Tryfan, I still wasn’t sure. Still, I was happy enough to make my way over to its lower slopes, almost subconsciously, and take a closer look. Whilst there I could explore its nether reaches, it would be a shame not to having come all this way. Then, perhaps I could try climbing one or two boulders and see where it took me, nothing too adventurous you understand. That was the best tact, mosey on over and climb a little to see what it was like. As I packed away the remainder of my lunch away at 12:30, I looked again, no harm in going a little way up I thought. Soon Tryfan towered above me. From close up it looked like a precarious pile of gigantic rocks, some of them looked poised to fall on some unsuspecting person below. What I could make of the path took me up to a drystone wall which effectively marked the start of any climb. I could hear the noise of the wind buffeting the wall, but as I stuck my head over the top it was nearly blown off! I almost turned back. Seriously, if it was that windy down here what on earth was it like up on the summit? A stile pointed me to the start of the climb.
To begin with the way up seemed to be a series of hops that took me from one rock to another before I stopped to look and then decide how best to make my way up and over the mass of boulders. There was no path or route to follow, though when looking the day before across the divide from Glyder Fach it clearly looked as though there was one, not when close up it seemed. Folk simply made their way up as best they could. The higher I got there was no way of knowing what stage I was at, nothing of the ascent yet to come could be seen. Nevertheless, it was comfortable to begin with, though it needed a lot of concentration. Even the wind was not so bad on the climb, at worse it blew in gentle gusts with occasional sunshine to enlighten my way. I steadily climbed higher. Tryfan was welcoming me up it seemed but even at that stage there was still a large part of me that clung on to thoughts of egression, if such a thing were needed. The climb got steeper the higher I went all the time but it still felt safe. At one stage I gazed upwards to a cluster of boulders that looked like it could tumble down at any moment, somehow I had to pick my way through that lot.
At a table of high rocks there seemed to be an impasse, there seemed no way onward and upward for me from there. That was until I watched two guys coming downwards, so I followed the route they took. Ahead of me the boulders continued to rise to the final part of the climb at an obvious summit ledge just above. As I clambered over some of the largest and almost unassailable boulders on this side of the mountain, one of them took me close to a terrifying drop over to my right. It all led onto a surprisingly wide area of uneven yet horizontal rock where two distinct boulders stood tall and proud above them all. I could tell where I was, it was 13:50 and I had arrived on top of Tryfan. All around this circular summit plateau were lurching drops beyond every edge save for the narrow access points to the south and north. There was little wind but just being up there gave me the collywobbles as I felt uneasy knowing the enthusiastic pull of gravity that awaited on all sides. The pay-off was clear visibility. From across a nearby ledge to the line of Bristly Ridge I saw the tumbled summits of Glyders Fach and Fawr. With Y Garn stretching to Foel-goch, the valley of Nant Ffrancon looked remarkable from this height. In all directions was a stunning landscape of names so unpronounceable I’ll wager even the Welsh have trouble saying them.
Tryfan wasn’t the highest mountain I climbed that week, at 3,010 feet it is only the fifteenth highest in Wales and the lowest of all Welsh 3,000 footers, but its climb can well be considered the most spectacular. Several people were up there, a few around the edges eating sandwiches and a large group milling around a raised ledge that supported the twin boulders of Adam and Eve. They were technically the highest points of Tryfan, but I wasn’t going to argue the toss just because I hadn’t scaled them. At roughly 10 feet high with a gap of nearly 4 feet between the two, the challenge is to leap from one to the other. Ordinarily I would have had a go but for the fact that one mistake on the eastern side could have been my last, the stakes were far too high. On Tryfan if you hang around long enough someone will make the attempt soon enough. One couple arrived soon after me and as the guy climbed up onto the rocks and assumed a crouching tiger, hidden dragon position his partner looked on in trepidation. With a sizeable audience willing him on he did the dangerous leap from west to east. It was uneasy viewing but if I suffered, his poor wife nearly passed out.
Others came and went including two more up for a leap in the more sensible direction. Despite my fears a morbid fascination made me explore the edges. At Adam and Eve was the nastiest drop. The small gap between them led to a sickening ledge with nothing but a sheer plunge below. Countless people make this leap every day, I saw three in my short time, but I couldn’t help wondering if any had got it wrong and continued over the edge into oblivion. The greatest impression of height came when I looked over the western edge to Llyn Ogwen with the A5 looking like a strand of grey thread. In the valley heading east from there was the farm of Gwern Gôf Isaf where Mallory stayed with Hugh Wilson and Geoffrey Keynes. Fitting it was that I could see his route along the Ogwen Valley to make the climb to this spot, exactly one-hundred years earlier. I allowed myself a fleeting moment of self-satisfaction and reverence. Soon I looked back down to Cwm Tryfan as it led up to Bristly Ridge, the path I had walked earlier looked infinitesimal. Soon enough I would have to find my way back on that tiny path and turned my thoughts to leaving the summit of Tryfan.
I reminded myself of one sobering statistic as I gingerly began to thread a safe route downwards, eighty percent of accidents on mountains occur on the descent. I then wondered how many of that eighty percent were idiots talking on a Dictaphone whilst not concentrating on where they were going! During my thirty-five minute stay on top of Tryfan it had clouded over but there was still no sign of rain, in that respect I considered myself fortunate. Nothing earth shattering to tell you about the descent, obviously I made it down as I managed to do this write-up, though I suppose it could have been done through a medium. It was basically a steady drop as I minced my way from boulder to rock, some of them wobbling quite alarmingly. I made my way down as best I could back to the wall. Over that I found an invisible path down and around the edge of the gully through darkened clumps of heather. I retraced my footsteps to the steep cleft below Llyn Caseg-fraith for my final bit of scrambling. Once completed it was back to the Miner’s Track junction with the Glyder path where I turned left and in so doing began the final part of my day to Capel Curig.
I looked back and saluted Tryfan and bade it a very fond farewell, it is without doubt a magnificent and prodigious lump of quartz. From there an exposed camber of grass, boggy in places, began a slow and deliberate trudge beyond an area of exposed rock to a small hump with a cairn. By this time it was 16:17 in the afternoon and I had reached the summit of Y Foel Goch. At 2,641 feet this was a modest peak compared to most I had conquered that week, even so, it provided some great views whichever way I looked. Tryfan was still very much in evidence, whilst to the north the line of Pen yr Ole Wen ran down to the hills around Cwm Llugwy. The elephantine nose of Y Braich and stark rise of Pen Llithrig y Wrach gave way to the hills beyond and eased towards a more sedate eastern landscape. Down in the valley of Dyffryn Mymbyr were the double shaped waters of Llynnau Mymbyr pointing to the location of Capel Curig. From there I could see the Snowdon Horseshoe as well as the distant Llyn Gwynant, or just about. I turned my gaze eastwards to the lengthy ridge that gradually dropped to Capel Curig. This was the way I had to go from there.
Looking at the map this ought to have been a steady 3 mile drop to Capel Curig. Instead it turned into a winding path that went in and around rocky sections with a few sizeable drops on either side. I had to remind myself that even Y Foel Goch was a considerable height and any drop to the valleys from 2,500 feet was going to be a time consuming and uncomfortable affair. This more favourable option I had chosen combined distance with descent in equal measure. At least the views remained a constant pleasure, away to my right stretched the loneliness of Dyffryn Mymbyr with what remained of the Ogwen Valley to my left. A zigzagged path on a surface of slate and shale took me on a steep drop down Blwch Goleuni. This dropped me to a boggy gully and from there I made a slow manoeuvre through the morass. In a strange way this path was the most remote and loneliest piece of wilderness that I walked that week. At no other point had I wandered over such a sweep of land with expansive views and not see one single soul from beginning to end. The landscape was empty, bereft of life, I could have been the only person alive for all I knew. I soon came to another high stile and then made my way across another ridge, Cefn y Capel. As the afternoon wore on I was making good progress but it became wetter and more difficult the lower I ventured.
Capel Curig came into view down in the valley at the top of Llynnau Mymbyr. This path had dragged on longer than I anticipated. The final ridge of Cefn y Capel had a route to the southern side which I favoured, a wide grassy sweep with a path up the side was my way down. As the grass narrowed the path to the left brought me to an overhang marked on the bigger map as Creigiau’r Gelli. Once down, I rounded a bend to a farmhouse and then turned right beyond a gate down a farm lane to a crossing over the River Llugwy. From the bridge I passed some shops, one of them the ‘Joe Brown shop,’ presumably named after the climber and not the singer. St. Curig’s Church was not a church but someone’s house and B&B. Across a valley to my right I took one final look back at Snowdon, its summit covered in an ethereal cloud whilst Lliwedd sat below serenely. Things looked sunny at that end, and it was a pleasant evening here as well. I followed the A5 and passed a pub on my left, the ‘Bryn Tyrch,’ whilst 300 yards further up the road was the youth hostel where I clocked my arrival at dead on 6pm.
After two nights at the Pen-y-Pass hostel, Capel Curig was a disappointment. The small and crowded dorm put me in a grumpy mood as the only available bunk was a top one and getting to that was made difficult by the inconsiderate eejit below who had spread his gear all over the place, including my bunk. Looking up to my insurmountable bunk made me realise that Tryfan wouldn’t be the hardest climb that day after all! Sorting my pack was another headache as there was little room to manoeuvre. Down in the kitchen I devised a plan for the morning and decided to walk the A5 to Betws-y-Coed. A midday finish would give me time to catch the day’s only train out of there at 12:20. This hostel was nothing more than a halfway house, I felt I was in limbo. Having completed all the walking for the week, I just wanted to get home but it looked like a trying night lay ahead of me before then. Prior to visiting the pub I caught up with home, there was some news about Foot-and-Mouth kicking off again in Surrey. Weeks before this trip there had been a scare in the same region when it leaked from a laboratory that was supposed to be conducting research into preventing the disease, how ironic.
The pub was heaving, I could hardly move. It was a struggle to get served and even harder to find anywhere to sit and eat, so I only stopped for one drink. A large TV screen showing live rugby from the current World Cup did little to improve my mood, a Welsh pub was not the place to loiter while England was getting battered 36-0 by South Africa. The following day I arrived in Betws-y-Coed at 11am leaving plenty of time to nose around this fascinating place. As the train pulled into the station and a large number of people manoeuvred into position, who should I see barging his way to the front, none other than the obnoxious git in the bunk below mine at Capel Curig. With the train drawing near and he edged closer to the railway line I moved up behind him and planned a case for justifiable homicide. In the end I let him force his way past others, preferring to compare him to a large bronze sculpture I had seen earlier outside the station instead. The journey home gave me the time to reflect on what an extraordinary week of walking it had been, but, as Nelly Furtado once sang, all good things come to an end. Still, as good things went, my time in North Wales had been better than most.