Glyderau and Carneddau Expedition
Vehicles inch unhurriedly across the asphalt of North Wales. I’ve been crawling along the motorway since Manchester and it seems everyone is heading in my direction. I feel that lingering sense of helplessness being at the mercy of the flow of traffic. With each tedious mile, I see time marching on, leaving me with fewer daylight hours to enjoy the hills.
There’s no use in complaining. I’m part of the problem, sitting in my steel box on wheels, cursing everyone else but me for causing the hold ups. The road ahead clears, releasing the tension in my lower leg as I gently squeeze the accelerator and enjoy the brief feeling of speed it facilitates. But then, more red lights flare up in sequence ahead, as the procession of vehicles stamps on brakes and comes to a standstill.
I’m heading to Bethesda, a former slate quarrying village in North Wales where I’ll leave the car behind for 24 hours and head into the wilds of the Glyderau and the Carneddau. It sounds like the perfect antidote for the stresses of getting here in the first place.
Screaming down the valley
You know you’ve arrived in Bethesda when you hear the distant screams on the wind. These hail from Penrhyn Quarry, home to the world’s fastest zip line. Thrill seekers hand over a huge wad of cash to fly down a wire at over 100mph. My more pedestrian form of entertainment skirts around the edge of the quarry, with its spoil tips lining the pleasant path from Bethesda.
The Glyderau spine starts above the quarry before working its way roughly south to the halfway point above Devil’s Kitchen. There, it pivots east around the Glyders before taking you slowly down towards Capel Curig. A full traverse of the Glyderau is a serious, but not impossible undertaking, and finer mountain country in this part of Wales is hard to find.
My plan is to sample the top half of the spine before dropping down the ridge from Y Garn to Llyn Idwal. I’ll then cross the A5 to pick up the northern shore of Llyn Ogwen, my gateway to that giant of the Carneddau, Pen yr Ole Wen. A lovely scrambly ascent will then see me exploring the quiet northerly slopes above the crags, all the way back to the car in Bethesda, where I’ll hopefully not have to endure another sluggish journey home.
Finding the ridge
Leaving the quarry tips behind, I continue along a track running parallel with the Afon Ogwen, the river separating me from the vehicles thundering along the A5. I soon leave the track to climb steeply beside Cwm Ceunant. The approach immediately feels wild and unfrequented. Thick heather and slippery scree carpets the hillside with extensive views down to Tryfan further down the Ogwen Valley.
Across the way are the giants of the Carneddau – Pen yr Ole Wen, Carnedd Dafydd, Carnedd Llewelyn and Yr Elen. From afar, they perhaps appear less dramatic than the Glyderau, but then you remember the first three of these are at least the height of Scafell Pike, the highest mountain in England. Yr Elen is no slouch either, standing taller than Helvellyn and just a couple of metres shy of Scafell.
I pick up a faint path contouring north through the lush heather and back towards the lip of the quarry. It feels counter-intuitive to be heading back the way I’ve come from. But I stick with it, until a subtle cairn marks the the start of the ridge proper and I can begin my half-traverse of the Glyderau.
Picking off the summits
It looks tantalisingly close, but the first summit of Carnedd y Filiast is deceptively out of reach. The strong south-westerly winds, described as ‘near gale force’ in the mountain weather forecasts, make for tough walking. But eventually I reach the summit and find respite in the wind shelter, drinking in the views to the coast and across to Anglesey.
The summit is rocky, and I enjoy hopping over the boulders before striding purposefully along the plateau towards the next summit, Mynydd Perfedd. The views towards Llyn Ogwen are particularly striking here, framed by Pen yr Ole Wen and the next mountain on my list, Foel-goch.
It is possible to head west along the ridge to visit the prominent summit of Elidir Fawr. This peak is sometimes known as the ‘electric mountain’, as it hides a pump-storage power station deep within its belly. Given my late start, the big pack on my back and enough metres of ascent already, I press on to my next objective.
Foel-gras looks like a wave, with its long slopes to the west abruptly giving way to a stomach-churning drop to the east. As I approach, I dig deep and drag my boots across the scree slope to the summit. I’m grateful for the zig-zagging path, which helps with the relentless ascent.
Crossing the fence at the top, I find a rough pile of stones right at the edge. Given the winds, I creep tentatively towards the high point to claim this summit before making a respectful retreat towards Y Garn.
It’s another push to this higher ground, in relentless winds. And, to make things more interesting, the clag has swept across from the Snowdon range, removing any hope of a view.
After ticking off this peak, I retrace my steps, taking care to locate the start of the north-eastern ridge. This is a real highlight. While the going is unpleasant at first, it soon eases, with spectacular views of the Ogwen Valley. The bulk of the Glyderau provides an effective barrier against the increasingly strong south-westerly winds, and I am grateful for the stillness of the sheltered ridge.
After a detour from the ridge to the pretty corrie at Llyn Clyd, the way continues along a clear path to Llyn Idwal itself. I bypass the lake, heading for the more direct route to the A5. But that’s not before pausing to gaze up at the impressive cliffs of the Devil’s Kitchen above the Cwm Idwal nature reserve.
Crossing the road, I pick up the track around the northern shore of Llyn Ogwen. Expecting a pleasant lakeside stroll, the Carneddau have other ideas as the route develops large boulders, making for slow progress. But you don’t mind so much with views of Tryfan across the water to distract.
At the far end of Llyn Ogwen, I pick a way up alongside Afon Lloer. This is quite entertaining, with plenty of waterfalls and streams to negotiate until I reach Ffynnon Lloer, feeding these small but furious waterfalls and streams as they tumble towards Llyn Ogwen.
I leave the path, heading for the charming eastern ridge of Pen yr Ole Wen. Another highlight of the route, with plenty of hands-on-rock action before the summit. There’s no real exposure to turn my stomach and enough route-finding problems to keep things interesting, without the way ever being in real doubt.
It’s still a relentless ascent. Remember, Pen yr Ole Wen is the same height as Scafell Pike. But the summit eventually arrives, serving up views of the Glyderau across the road. I head for the col between Pen yr Ole Wen and Carnedd Dafydd before leaving the track, heading for the less-frequented north-westerly slopes above the cliffs of Braich Tu Du.
One for the purists
With Bethesda a seemingly long way away, I relax into the descent. It makes for a fine return leg, at least at first. But I occasionally glance back and think what a dull approach this would be to such a fantastic mountain. The lack of footprints in the boggy ground suggests only purists and those seeking solitude venture here.
As I approach the lower slopes and Bethesda is within touching distance, the terrain becomes marshy and unpleasant to negotiate. Back at the car, I look back to the two mountain ranges I’ve spent the last 24 hours getting to know, just as the mizzle sweeps across the scene.
Despite the rushed start, I really enjoyed this route. The number of cars heading into North Wales had me convinced I’d be wading through similar crowds along the tops. This just wasn’t the case, proving there is still solitude to be found in the mountains if you know where to look and take time to learn the skills to enjoy them safely. Parts of the route felt extremely remote, despite the proximity of civilisation along the A5. There are very few escape options once you are up there, unless you want to find yourself miles away from where you want to be.
I’m enjoying Snowdonia more and more as I become familiar with both the Glyderau and the Carneddau. I’ll be waiting for the crowds to die down before heading to the honeypots. But when the rest of the National Park is as good as this, it makes me question, what’s the rush?
Highs and Lowdown
Start / Finish: Public car parks in Bethesda
Distance: 23 km (over 2 days)
Ascent: 1,750m (over 2 days)
Navigation: Tricky in parts, particularly getting on and off the ridge in the Glyderau and more generally in the pathless terrain of the Carneddau.
Terrain: Tough mountain days with lots of ups and downs, steep ridge walking, scrambling and plenty of pathless sections. The final descent from Pen yr Ole Wen is tiring with boggy patches to negotiate.
Facilities: Bethesda; Idwal Cottage YHA
*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.