Borth y Gest, Friday, 15th April
I went off on my own this afternoon, to climb Cnicht. Cnicht is a 2,260-foot hill (or 689m if you prefer) between Beddgelert and Ffestiniog. It stands alongside “the Moelwyns” and, from Porthmadog, has a fine, Matterhorn-like profile.
I was aiming to climb it from another direction, though. On the far side of Llyn Dinas, just outside Beddgelert, lies an expanse of wild land. If you travel across it, as the crow flies, for about two and a half miles, you come to Cnicht. A long time ago I'd read a book by EG Rowland, a populariser of walking in the Welsh mountains in the 1950s. In it, he recommended an ascent from the Llyn as one of the best ways to climb the mountain.
I parked the car in the lay-by close to the Southern end of the lake. The start of my route took my around the edge of the lake. I passed two artists with their easels, painting landscapes. The path, once it reached the far side of the lake, turned East, up through the woods. It was in the woods I made my first mistake. Perhaps I was feeling a bit vague today. Perhaps I was carried away by the excitement of walking through a fantastic Welsh wood – the kind I often drive past but too rarely stop to walk through. Anyway, I reached a fork in the path and turned right.
Of course, I should have paid more attention to the map. If you were to do this walk yourself, you might find yourself thinking, “What was he complaining about? The navigation's easy”. However, I spotted at least three places where it was easy to go disasterously wrong (and any mistake is a disaster in this terrain: miss the path and progress is a struggle, as you see later). It's as well to keep one's map-reading hat firmly on when walking this route.
It soon became clear I'd gone wrong. I didn't mind that much at first – in fact, I was enjoying myself. So long as I headed East-ish, I reasoned, I'd soon hit the road. I had underestimated how hard-going it was going to be without a path. I stopped at a destinctive stone sheepfold: this must be on the map, I decided. Find it there, and I'd know where I was.
No such luck. My first response in such situations is to blame myself. The map doesn't lie. I was obviously looking at the wrong part of the map. I moved on a short way, up and East, and triangulated my position, using mountains in the Snowdon group. I decided I was high on the flanks of a minor lump, Mynydd Llyndy. No problem. I'd take a bearing East and soon end up at the road.
I don't suppose it took that long, but the going was rough, slow and exhausting. The terrain was either flat and very squelchy or steep and rocky. It undulated continuously. In a short while the hilly moorland gave way to fields, but these very boggy, filled with tussocks veiled with dead, yellowy-white long grass. There were walls to negotiate, barbed wire, wide shallow streams running over deep, oozing mud... And, forced by the terrain, I strayed a bit to the right. I came to a sign on a gate which said “Danger: Quarry”. I climbed over it, to tentatively investigate. There was a dangerous looking quarry: I stayed well away from it. But there was also a solid path, well away from the edge. I followed the path until it petered out. To my left a bramble-choked ravine rose. There was a gate at the top. I struggled up through the brambles to the gate and looked over it. There was a familiar sign on the other side: “Danger: Quarry”. I climbed back over it, suitably chastened, and resumed the slog over the tussocks.
I finally reached the road. From then on route finding was easy. My only concern was that I'd lost time and ought to really keep moving over the next section to make it up. If I did, I could chill out on the summit and make my way back in a more leisurely fashion. I took a brief, standing break and drank some water.
Following the map, I stopped to open the gate that led up the drive to a farm (now mountaineering centre) calleed Gelli-Iago. A couple were standing by the gate. In fact I'd noticed them as I walked up the road. They looked lost.
“If you're going up Cnicht,” I said, helpfully, “I think this is the way”. Why did I say anything? Probably because I'd just been lost myself. If only I'd run into someone then...
“I think we've worked that out for ourselves now, thank you,” said the woman. Did I detect a note of tartness?
The path round the farm-cum-centre went through several gates and stiles in quick succession. I pressed on. I noticed that George and Mildred stopped to have a major deliberation with the map before opening each one. Perhaps I ought not to tease them though, considering what I'd just been though myself.
Time was pressing. I was now faced with a steep ascent by the side of a stream. The best thing I decided was to get on with it -no dawdling- so I stomped off uphill at a steady pace. It was so much easier walking on a path, even one built of three-dimensional crazy paving. I soon reached Bwlch y Battel, a kind of high valley, the far side of which is the steep-sided ridge of Cnicht.
My aim was to climb up to the prominent notch in that ridge just South West of the summit. There's some great scrambling -or a spectacular walk- from there to the summit itself. The only problem was that I was now feeling pretty tired. I had expected to: as I said, having lost time, I wanted to push myself to get to the summit quite quickly. As the hill steepened the views got more and more spectacular – and my pace slowed to a crawl.
As usual, it was great to reach the ridge and suddenly be able to see what lies on the far side. The plunge down from the ridge into Cwm Croesor is one of the great things about Cnicht. Looking down at the green fields and buildings on the valley floor is spectacular, like looking over the edge of a balloon gondola. On the far side of the valley rose the bulk of Moelwyn Mawr.
From the notch one can either take the path or a choice of scrambles. I chose the path. I toyed with a scamble I'd descended on my last visit but, from the bottom, I couldn't see the way out at the top. Although the holds were easy and there were plenty of ledges, I didn't want to ascend the wrong line and be forced to descend it. I decided to avoid it and took the path – which is a bit of a scramble in itself, come to think about it. It's only a few minutes from there to the summit, and I hadn't gone far when a bird flew out from the rocks above me. A buzzard, perhaps, I thought, although I had a good look at a bird identification chart later and I'm almost convinced it was an eagle. They do stop off in the Welsh mountains apparently, on their way from Ireland to Scotland. I should definitely carry a bird-book with me. I carried on and was soon stretched out by the summit-rocks with my head on my rucksack, eating and drinking. Bliss. I could have stayed there a long time: the weather was ideal for what I was doing.”Goldilocks weather”: neither too hot nor too cold. Lots of clouds in the sky, but lots of sun too, and very little wind.
I descended back to the notch by way of another scramble. It's not quite Tryfan -a Mecca for scramblers among Welsh mountains- but it's certainly a great hill to climb if you like to get your hands on rock. I was enjoying myself now, I felt rested and had plenty of time to get back to Llyn Dinas.
I was soon back at the road and determined to find the correct footpath this time. I walked North for some way, turning left, opposite a house called Llwynyrhwch. This is where I should have emerged had I had the sense to pay more attention to the map earlier. The walk down to the lake from here is delightful and goes right past an even more remote house called Hafod Owen. I'll have to check my facts but I think it is the same Hafod Owen once inhabited by the climber, Menlove Edwards. He was famous both for the bold innovation of his routes and the fact that he was gay. I seem to think he spent his latter years at a Hafod Owen, struggling with his own mental health and struggling to write a book on psychiatry (during the week he was a psychiatrist). I might be wrong about the details - my memory is sketchy, but for anyone who is interested, an in-depth account of his life, Menlove, was written by Jim Perrin. I read it a long time ago. The only event in his life I think I can remember with some certainty is his ascent of the “Very Severe” rock climb Munich Climb on Tryfan. A group of Austrian mountaineers, fresh from the North Face of the Eiger, had come to Wales to climb and had just pioneered the route. In so doing, they had resorted to the then very un-English practice of inserting a piton (a metal peg) for added security on the hardest pitch. When the details became public, Edwards climbed the route alone and ropeless, removing the piton on the way. (I climbed the route once. Had I not been securely tied to a better climber than me I would have fallen off, and I had to be hauled up the section in question like a sack of potatoes).
I didn't get lost on the way down, but did pass one or two features which made me think this walk might have been designed by a demented map-reading instructor. Although the route is clear and well-trodden most of the time, going wrong on this walk is not difficult. Walking back through the woods I passed the place I'd turned off by mistake on my way up. It was a silly mistake to make, I thought, with the benefit of hindsight. On my way down, I'd considered going for a swim in the lake when I got back. However, when I came out of the woods and found myself on the lakeside I decided against it. I felt pleasantly tired: I'd done enough for one day.
5 years ago