Cwm Llafar Horseshoe
A sign warns me to cadwch eich pellter. That’s keep your distance in Welsh. Noticing the distinct lack of people and the huge expanse of the Carneddau ahead, I’m sure that won’t be a problem.
Miles of pathless walking stands between me and Carnedd Dafydd, the first of the Carneddau giants on the Cwm Llafar Horseshoe. I’ve wandered the residential streets of Bethesda; locals and delivery drivers negotiating the twists and turns to the small community at Gerlan. The road has long since run out, as I find myself in a clearing. A footpath via a private road leads me away from civilisation and towards the wild.
The Carneddau mountains are starting to get under my skin. Much like my beloved Lake District, the Carneddau keep drawing me back. They were my first taste of Welsh mountain walking and I feel there’s a lifetime of exploring to look forward to, even after I’ve visited the major summits. The Carneddau are where you go to lose yourself, both physically and mentally. Yet you’ll always return having found some answers.
The Cwm Llafar Horseshoe is frequented by very few, despite leading to some of the tallest mountains in Snowdonia. In complete contrast to the more popular approach over Pen yr Ole Wen from Llyn Ogwen, it feels savage and untamed. It feels free.
It’s a walk to take seriously: you’re unlikely to see many folk around so you need to be able to look after yourself. And with much of the route away from marked paths and some steep sections to negotiate, it’s a good test of your mountain skills.
Swapping tarmac for open country, the horseshoe starts to take shape. Carnedd Dafydd curves around to Carnedd Llewelyn, currently obscured by the elegant profile of Yr Elen. I track the route of Afon Llafar before the long spur of Mynydd Du begins to rise towards my first summit of the day.
There’s the faintest of tracks to guide me at first. But this soon vanishes, leaving me to focus on the magnificent scenery at each point of the compass. The steep cliffs of the Glyderau. The pointy summit of Yr Elen with Carnedd Llewelyn, the third highest mountain in Wales, cowering behind. Wisps of cloud form below as I look back to the coast and the faraway buildings of Bethesda. But it’s the rugged face of Carnedd Dafydd plunging into the cwm that adds real drama.
I stay as close as I dare to the edge, drinking in the spectacle. But as the wind picks up and the terrain becomes more uncertain, I move further inland, aiming for the boulder-strewn wasteland between me and the summit.
Cloud obscures the view as I top out on Carnedd Dafydd. The first humans I’ve seen all day gather in the windbreak, having endured their own steep slog over Pen yr Ole Wen. I continue along the plataeu, mindful of the buttock-clenching drops to my left.
There’s not a lot to see through this damp misty soup, so I focus my attention instead on the ground, feeling the contours ebb and flow beneath my feet. I spy some English stonecrop and stop to admire this delicate little bloom, often mistaken for one of my favourite flowers, the starry saxifrage.
The high ground eventually narrows, leaving one last push to the summit of Carnedd Llwelyn. I find several fellow pilgrims at the summit. But none has the smug satisfaction of being in the minority with their choice of approach.
I follow a bearing into the mist towards Yr Elen, feeling the quizzical gaze of my peers bore into me as they turn instead towards the well-trodden path. There’s nothing to guide me here. In the clag I pick my line and stick with it until I’m on the connecting ridge between Carnedd Llewelyn and Yr Elen. The fog soon gives way to the stupendous sight of the eastern face of Yr Elen. It’s a long way down to the icy waters of Ffynnon Caseg below.
A long slope sweeps into the vast cwm beneath Carnedd Llewelyn and Carnedd Dafydd. I find the most comfortable looking rock and take in the vastness of the surroundings over a spot of lunch.
I leave this most lovely of summits via a steep slope of scree and boulders. The prospect of the long walk back is apparent if you think about it too much. But I am in no rush. I take advantage of the rocky environment to practise some mountain leader rope work. It feels comical tying into an anchor and belaying my imaginary client down the urgent incline. But there’s no-one around for miles to see my antics so I relish the opportunity to commit the process to memory.
Once past the rocky top of Yr Elen, I settle into the rhythm that comes with any return over spongy grass on tired legs. The buildings of Bethesda are stubborn and refuse to get any closer. I am lost in thought until I reach the field boundary and deliberately linger beside the crystal waters of Afon Llafar, the swirling mist now swapped for blue skies over the Cwm Llafar horseshoe.
Cadwch eich pellter from the Carneddau? I’m not sure that’s possible for long.
Highs and Lowdown
Start / Finish: Bethesda
Navigation: Strong navigation skills are necessary for this remote route across pathless, and quite serious terrain.
Terrain: Wild and rugged mountain walking. Pathless for much of the way. Good mountain legs required.
*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.