My Great Outdoors Challenge had gone far better than I had expected, and, even though it was now a dozen weeks or so in the past, surely I had enough fitness left in the tank to tackle what everybody had said were Snowdonia’s toughest hills.
And so the day before I got the rickety train to Barmouth, cheated with a taxi up the hill to Bunkorama camp site, and pitched my tent high above the Mawddach estuary. The next morning dawned well – “sunny intervals, light variable wind”, my notes say.
Indeed, as the day progressed, I wondered what all the fuss was about. The first two hills, Diffwys (2462ft) and the highest of the Rhinogydd Y Llethr (2475ft) were sporting enough without letting me think I was breaking new ground in terms of arduousness. Sure, the descent to my wild camp at Llyn Hywel was a bit rough, at 40 minutes for less than a mile and 700ft of descent, and a Sigg bottle bounced out somewhere amidst all the heather, but there I was, mid afternoon, a wild camp pitch of my dreams beneath Rhinog Fach (2333ft), and an evening ascent to look forward to.
I was pleased to be there when I was, for on this perfect summer afternoon first one, then another and another, tent-carrier rolled up, all of them praising me for having the best spot, not that it was going to make me move. There was quite a little community when I set out for the summit of Rhinog Fach.
Its steep south ridge looked cracking, easily accessed from Llyn Hywel’s eastern shore. Indeed it was. It took me roughly the same time to ascend as I had to descend from Y Llethr earlier. I didn’t fancy a descent the same way, but a clear track took me northwards before swinging south-west back towards my tent. Cracking, absolutely cracking. Tomorrow could not come soon enough.
The descent to the bwlch started off easily enough but became rougher in its lower stages. Still never mind. I looked at Rhinog Fawr and, knowing there was no easy tracked path from here, looked for weaknesses in the sandstone. There were a couple of inclined planes that sloped to the north-west, and I headed up to the closer.
The summit of Rhinog Fawr
The summit of Rhinog Fawr is two miles from Llyn Hywel. Three hours after striking camp, I summited.
There had been no easy walking anywhere on the ascent, save for the last quarter-mile or so on the summit plateau, where a bagger’s path came in from elsewhere (so there are easier ways …). As James Forrest had put it, “every 100m feeling like a mile, every minute lasting an hour … an eternity of boulder hopping and heather bashing”. It was, without doubt, the hardest summit climb I can ever recall.
Now I’m not the world’s greatest hillwalker, and aged 68 then certainly not the youngest, but in the last decade I had the Carn Mor Dearg arête under my belt, fully enjoyed the Nantlle ridge, skipped across the Southern Upland Way and completed the Cape Wrath Trail. But this was something else. And I still had to get down.
The Roman Steps
There is a well-worn descent to the Roman Steps. So well-worn that bits were crumbling. Another mile, another hour.
Still, it’s only 2 o’clock, and an inviting path headed off to Llyn Morwnion. There, it stopped. I looked across to the Ysgafarnogod ridge, barely two miles away.
I knew what I was meant to do; head north-eastish for a mile, turn north-west in a cleft of sorts that ran past Llyn Pryfed, and then things would get easier, or at least less difficult.
But I had used enough energy already, and I could see no release from the damned tangled heather. It’s not often I turn back – can’t remember the last time – but today was such a day. The Rhinoggyd had spat me out.
I knew there was once a campsite in Cwm Bychan. I didn’t know if it was still there. I plodded down the Roman Steps in hope, and was mighty pleased to turn a corner and see a smattering of tents and caravans.
There is an easy approach to these hills from the east, which made sense as I was staying in Bala. South of Trawsfynydd a lane skirts the edge of the eponynmous llyn; take a left fork soon after and you rise towards the hills. Park at an abandoned quarry, walk a quarter-mile to the farmstead of Cefn Clawdd, and then take a track that winds another long mile until you’re at the very foot of the hills.
Foel Penolau (rightmost hill) and Moel Ysgyfarnogod (adjacent) above Cefn Clawdd
The task now is to identify a breach in the intake wall, a substantial construction that should not be climbed. I knew of a gate at 661344 and made for it, then turned left by the wall (passing a breach at 661346) until I could find an easy(ish) way to the summit of Foel Penolau (2014ft). Despite its relatively lowly height, the summit is well-protected by rock, and a bit of hands-on work is needed, but not much.
The summit of Moel Ysgyfarnogod
But to take a more-or-less direct line south-west to Moel Ysgyfarnogod (2044ft) is another matter. Perhaps, the easiest way is to reverse the ascent, but I kept as close to the south-west line as I could. This involved some quite intricate stuff around the massive boulders followed by a downclimb over a bunch of jumbled rock. Exactly where I came out, I found a path which led me clearly and directly to Ysgyfarnogod’s summit, so I must have been doing something right.
Retracing my steps a little, a right fork headed encouragingly downhill, and indeed led directly to the breach at 661346. The path must, I thought, continue the other side of the wall? Well, apparently not, but the ground wasn’t that tricky and I soon found the track back to my car.