The Nantlle Ridge
The car is less than a mile away, but I’m starting to genuinely doubt whether or not we’ll ever reach it. We’re in the midst of head high bracken, laced through with killer brambles and dotted with clumps of impenetrable trees. Over an hour ago, when we were unable to locate any semblance on the ground of the track marked on the map, we asked the advice of a local out walking his dogs, who assured us that it did exist, and led through the quarries and down to the road where we had parked. I’m pretty good at navigation, and Fred is better, and we were both sure that, since then, we had been forcing our way along the marked ‘track’; checking the GPS on my phone only reinforced this. Unfortunately, it had led us, with absolutely no warning, to the lip of a slate quarry, the cliff dropping vertically below for an unknown distance and extending as far as we could see in both directions. It was brutally hot and the daylight was starting to fade – on a day of ups and downs, this was the lowest point…
I’m back in North Wales with Fred – we’d driven up a couple of days previously and found our usual campsite rammed – it looked like Glastonbury. An hour of driving around didn’t offer any real alternative until we stumbled, almost by chance, on a beautiful, empty site in the remote and wildly beautiful Nantlle valley, with Mynydd Mawr rising straight up to the North, and a long ridge line to the South.
This set Fred scheming – I hadn’t heard of the Nantlle ridge before, but he had and he’d wanted to walk it for a while. He likes a big mountain day out – we both do – and he was soon looking at the map, reading climbing guides, and becoming more and more excited as a plan formed in his head. He shared it: “We can walk from here, straight up onto the side of Y Garn. Instead of scrambling up, we can climb Eastern Arete to the summit. Then we can walk the ridge, drop down to Craig Yr Ogof, and climb another big route up to the summit. After that we can follow the ridge down and walk back along the road to the tent.”
It sounded simple the way he said it, but the plan involved nearly 300 metres of rock climbing, and over 10 miles of rough walking carrying a rope and climbing gear – a big day out indeed. But it also sounded like a great adventure, so I started looking at the map myself, noticing that a footpath led directly along the valley, along the banks of Lyn Nantlle Uchaf, cutting out a couple of miles of road walking on the way back to the campsite. So I added my suggestion – we should leave our rucksacks in the tent in the morning, drive to the outskirts of Talysarn, park and start the day by walking back to the site to pick up our bags, and continue with the original plan. This meant three miles without carrying the gear, so this is what we set out to do two days later.
And it started out really well. The weather was perfect – we parked the car mid-morning and took an unencumbered stroll back to the site. The walk was beautiful; alongside a lovely lake in gradually warming weather, with a view of Snowdon framed at the end of the valley and the line of our first climb silhouetted high up on the right-hand skyline.
We were pleased with ourselves as we picked up our bags, glugged down as much water as possible, and set out onto the lower slopes of Clogwyn y Barcut and Y Garn. It got better – we knew there was no marked track the way we were heading so were expecting some difficult walking, but we were lucky and quickly picked up a sheep farmer’s quad bike tracks up the hill in the direction we wanted to go. This petered out after a while, and the temperature started to rise as we picked our way diagonally up the hillside through clumps of tough grass.
Things got harder and hotter the further we went and before long we were in some of the toughest and most exhausting terrain either of us had ever tackled. The hillside was very steep indeed, and we made our way up by scrambling – pulling at heather to steady ourselves, and avoiding deep, hidden holes between boulders. It was hideous, and the longer it went on, the more difficult I found it – the anxiety and panic which has changed my life in the past 18 months rose again and again, leaving me dizzy, shaky and stumbling – not ideal given our position. I had to work and breathe hard to remain in control enough to continue, reminding myself that I had chosen to be here, that the mountains were where I found a degree of peace, until we finally reached easier ground.
It wasn’t that much easier, and we struggled up steep scree to the base of the first climb of the day – Eastern Arete – a 165 metre high ridge of rock leading up to the summit of Y Garn. I wasn’t in great shape – I knew it, and Fred knew it too; and after a rest he gave me a way out – we didn’t have to continue if I didn’t want to. But I really did want to be there, and the rest had settled me enough to want to push on – although I hadn’t climbed since becoming ill, the route was easy by modern standards – it had first been climbed by Haskett Smith (sometimes called ‘the father of rock climbing’) in 1905, so I thought it would be fine.
So we headed up – Fred leading the way initially through a loose and surprisingly difficult initial section to a ledge, where I joined him and took over the lead. And it wasn’t fine. I couldn’t do it. Soon I was standing on an exposed spike of rock with what felt like a difficult move ahead and waves of panic and dizziness all around me. I was safe and just in control, but I couldn’t move on – I had to stop. I stepped back down to a ledge, tied myself to the cliff and brought Fred up. He was calm, and I felt a little better after a while, but we both knew that it was now as difficult to go down as it was to continue. So Fred took over the lead and carefully we moved upwards; by about two thirds of the way up I had relaxed enough to begin to enjoy the situation and the climbing and to remember why these days were so important to me.
The climb ends abruptly and we were able to sit in the hot sun, with bilberries staining our clothes, eating sandwiches and enjoying the views: the massive bulk of Snowdon to the east and Caernafon (with its castle clearly visible), the Menai Strait and Anglesey to the north. But best of all, to the south and west, with endless hills and sweeps of coastline behind, was the Nantlle ridge – which looked astonishing, much more rugged than either of us had imagined and with huge, steep drops down to the valley. It also looked a long way – twisting from Y Garn, up and down over Mynydd Drws-y-coed and Mynydd Tal-y-mignedd and on up to the high point (730 metres) above Cwm Silyn – before the long ridge leading back to the valley and the car.
On seeing this, we realised that our initial plan had perhaps been over ambitious – there were still several hours of tough ridge walking to go, and a long descent after that. Even without the difficulties below us, all of which had taken time, the additional descent and rock climb would probably have been too much – as it was now nearly 4:00 we abandoned any thought of that and started walking.
The ridge is fantastic – my third big mountain ridge walk this year, and probably my favourite – made all the more special by not having known of it until two days ago. A short drop down leads to an easy scramble up the very edge of the precipice dropping down into the valley on the right, leading to the first top – needless to say, the views are panoramic and endless – stretching in every direction. From here, the path continues down to a remarkable col – 700 metres up, with near vertical drops on either side of it – and only three metres wide at most. It’s covered in bright green grass and sheep were nonchalantly grazing along its length and dotting the hillsides below – I crossed it cautiously.
The path continues, then breaks left in a short-cut which avoids the next summit; this seemed to miss the point so we continued along the true ridgeline – steeper, but leading to the next top and the slate obelisk we had been looking up at from the camp site for the last two days. From the valley it looked small but it’s actually about 7 metres high, gently tapering and beautifully constructed of dry laid slabs of rock – quite a piece of construction. Next, a gently sloping grass tongue, easy to walk along, leads to a steeper drop down to Bwlch Dros-bern, before the final climb of more than 200 metres to the high point and the end of the ridge for us. This last climb is hard going at the end of the day – never very steep, but twisting and turning up ever rougher ground, before finishing on scree – balancing from stone to stone and picking a way to the summit shelter.
It was from here that we had planned to drop down, with our second climb then returning us to the summit, but instead we continued, skirting the western edge of Cwm Silyn, and steadily downhill. In the cwm are two startlingly blue linked lakes, and on the opposite side, Craig yr Ogof, the cliff we had intended to climb. It was catching the evening sun, a couple of parties of climbers were nearing the top and it made us want to return as soon as possible. *
After another 40 minutes or so, we reached the edge of the open moorland, maybe two miles from the car, where marked tracks seemed not to exist on the ground, and where we took the advice of the local dog-walker, leading us, after a long thrash through bracken and brambles in slowly fading light, to the lip of the quarry, and no way onwards.
We did consider getting the rope out and abseiling into the quarry, but as we couldn’t really see what was below us, we quickly decided this was a bad idea. Instead, we did the only thing possible. We followed the lip of the quarry rightwards looking for an easy way down – it seemed to go on for ever. The bracken and vegetation were so thick that we could only see a little way in front of us, and we were very cautious in case we came upon another quarry edge. In the end, after what felt like hours, we did find a way down, and over the quarry gate to the road – the last two miles had taken over 90 minutes – and back to the car at 8:45.
It was a day of ups and downs, with the lowest point right at the end. But after a shower, a beer and a very late meal we were able to laugh at the absurdity of the low points, relish the highs, and reflect on what had been an extraordinary adventure. We even began to plan what to do the next day…
*In fact, we came back the following morning, finished the climb in a thunderstorm and returned to the car very wet indeed. But that’s another story.