The Cwm Eigiau Horseshoe
I love a quiet road. Particularly a quiet road with gates to open and close.
Deep in the heart of the Carneddau is just such a road. The barriers force me to stop regularly on the narrow lane, easing frazzled nerves from the long motorway drive. There’s a gentle rhythm of jumping out of a warm car into the raw beauty of the mountains, edging the few metres through the gap, before repeating. It’s like running confidently into a cold sea before retreating to the warmth of the beach, then heading straight back in for another dip.
We grab the last two spaces in the small car park at the end of an unbeatable drive in. I’m meeting a friend who has their mountain leader assessment coming up so I’m prepared for a day of geeking out over micro-navigation, flora and fauna and moving over steep ground.
The weather isn’t promising. For the morning, at least. And I have a stinking cold. But I look at my surroundings and these things don’t seem to matter. I seek out Pen Llithrig y Wrach, the first summit on this high level tour of the Carneddau, hiding in the clouds. The name means ‘the slippery head of the witch’. But no-one can tell me who the witch was and why her head was so slippery.
I can’t see much of the high ground. But I know from the map that we’ll lose height quickly before clawing it back on the approach to Pen yr Helgi Du. Then comes a tantalising patch of closely-packed contours marked Bwlch Eryl Farchog. My Welsh is a little rusty but I can only assume it means ‘bloomin’ good ridge’.
Carnedd Llewelyn, the third highest mountain in Wales, is there. As is Foel Grach, another of the Welsh 3,000s. And as if that wasn’t enough, there’s the challenge of heading off path to find a safe way through the crags to Melynllyn reservoir and a pleasant cool-down in idyllic Welsh countryside to finish.
Moving with purpose
We set out at pace. Two trainee mountain leaders eager not to be outdone by the other. Arriving at the doomed dam at Llyn Eigiau, my snotty nose is grateful for the slower pace as we head on to the open fell. A well-placed sheepfold provides an opportune time to talk moss and lichen. Out comes the text book to settle the debate, before conversation turns to the splendour of our wider surroundings.
‘It feels seriously wild out here. Like that scene in the Scottish Highlands at the end of Skyfall.’
‘Yeah. But wasn’t James Bond reckless heading out without a map and compass, group shelter or first aid kit.’
The mist pours into the valley as we climb, visiting obscure navigation points across the pathless terrain. We push on to the summit in strong winds and poor visibility. With not a lot to see, we follow bearings to the saddle and a convenient lunch spot that’s out of the wind. With around 160m of height lost, we need the fuel for the steep re-ascent to Pen yr Helgi Du.
Ridge in the clouds
The next part of the walk is for those who think the Carneddau are just boring lumps standing in the way of spikier offerings in the Glyderau and Snowdon ranges. Almost immediately, the north-west ridge plunges into the gloom. An enjoyable, airy scramble keeps eyes focused on the task at hand, instead of on the huge drops to Cwm Llugwy on the left and Cwm Eigiau on the right.
Not that you’d know it today. The off-white cloud obscures the drops but the gusts of wind augment that innate feeling of awareness that accompanies any walk on exposed ground. This is no place to lose your footing.
The scramble down is enjoyable. Route-finding is remarkably straightforward, particularly when we turn to look back up what we’ve just come down. It’s a fine ridge this, and just a shame there isn’t a lot to see.
After crossing the thin, flat saddle, the ridge climbs again, serving up another treat that’s almost unbecoming of the Carneddau. A lovely little scramble across grooves in the slabs of rock. It’s great fun and breaks up the monotony of what ultimately turns into a longer-than-expected slog towards the large summit plateau of Carnedd Llewelyn.
As you might expect for the the highest point in the range, there are a few more people huddled into the shelter up here. I can sense the thick clag wants to lift and we linger in hope that we might get a view. I didn’t get a view the last time I was up here and it feels like I’ll need to book in another trip so I can drink in the majesty of the Carneddau from this lofty vantage point.
We take care to point ourselves in the right direction. Navigating a way off Carnedd Llewelyn can be confusing in these conditions. And neither of us can face the embarrassment of getting this one wrong. Reassuringly, we both end up on the summit of Foel Grach, confident that our map and compass skills are on point.
As if to reward our efforts, the cloud disperses in dramatic fashion, revealing a stunning green and blue scene pockmarked with grey rocks. The more stubborn cloud swirls around in the eastern cwm of Carnedd Llewelyn, like a bubbling cauldron. ‘Perhaps it’s that slippery witch at work’, I suggest.
Time to concentrate
In just 30 minutes, Carnedd Llewelyn is typically clear of cloud. Such is the way in the mountains. But no use in looking back. Being just shy of 1,000m up, we need to focus on our descent. We thread an intricate route through the crags above Melynllyn and Dulyn reservoirs. This isn’t a place to head if your navigation is a little rusty. There’s no path and it’s important to know you can steer a course through the steep ground without drifting off track.
Our efforts lead us down a small spur between the two bodies of water. This sheltered spot serves up expansive views to the edge of the Snowdonia National Park and beyond. Back on a secure track, all that remains is a pleasant 4km gambol in the late afternoon sunshine. After battling strong winds and rain in poor visibility, it’s nice to stride out with our layers safely stowed in our packs, reflecting on a sterling day out in the hills.
Highs and Lowdown
Start / Finish: Small parking area near Llyn Eigiau reservoir
Navigation: Strong navigation skills required in this remote landscape away from marked paths. Some tricky parts which could prove disastrous if underestimated.
Terrain: A tough mountain walk in remote and steep terrain. Much of the route is off-path, with steep ascents, exposed ridges and some scrambling.
*These routes and descriptions are only ever intended to be a personal record of my adventures, which may inspire your own. Hillwalking involves a degree of risk, so please make sure you are properly equipped and prepared if you choose to follow them.