28km with 2986m ascent over 3 days
The last trip to Snowdonia was about six months ago just before solstice, three long days walking alone in the lush green valleys and along an empty Nantlle ridge with a light pack in perfect weather, endless sunshine with an occasional warm breeze, the June light lasted long enough to still be walking beyond 10pm. I remember catching the sun and spending both nights camped out high with the tent doors unzipped to cope with the balmy weather. Returning for another three day backpack in the middle of winter in the high mountains of Carneddau was unsurprisingly a starkly different experience. The plan was to spend a night camping in the tucked away cirque at Cwm Caseg at the foot of Yr Elen before heading up and over Foel Grach to spend a night in Dulyn bothy. The benefit of living on an island with a changeable climate and proper seasons is that you can visit an area twice six months apart and have the feeling of walking into entirely contrasting worlds.
I stopped off briefly in Betws y Coed for coffee and breakfast and bought a cheap pair of snow goggles before driving off into a more monochrome world. All of the summer shades of greens replaced by winter black, white and grey, in the first week of January the mountains of Carneddau, Tryfan and the Glyders were a perfect picture of winter, steep slate black slopes with thick white tops of snow.
A few days earlier I’d read a story online of mountain rescue being called out to rescue a teenager who had a near miss after heading up Snowdon unprepared in jeans and trainers and lost his way when the winds picked up to 90mph. Whilst I wasn’t heading out in flip flops, shorts and a string vest the story was a reminder to have a more robust plan in place so in return for a small donation I’d arranged to leave my car at Idwal Cottage YHA and gave the warden a copy of a route plan and expected return, breaking tradition with my usual contingency plan of sending occasional text messages when a signal was available to friends and my poor long suffering mum. As I got changed and checked my pack in the car park a fat little robin hopped around my feet, I made sure to tell him my route plan too, just to be on the safe side.
The first few hours were tough going, on the map it looked like a short enough distance from the road up the side of the pyramid of Pen yr Ole Wen, yet on foot it was a long uphill rocky clamber where the path was repeatedly lost and found, disappearing under drifts of hail and snow. A particularly fierce and icy wind whipped around stealing a few more degrees off the already freezing air.
The Glyders and Tryfan dominated the view to the south, the occasional hint of sunlight forcing its way through the thick grey canopy of cloud above, snow started to fall and there was nowhere I would rather have been in the world.
The climb up had provided a little shelter from the winds and when the ground finally evened out to approach the summit of Pen yr Ole Wen the gusts were relentless in both their strength and chill. The simple stone shelter was a welcome refuge from the wind and to sink into the soft powdery snow drifts and refuel for all of a few minutes before strapping on crampons and bracing the gusts again. A thick blanket of cloud had steadily made its way over from the west and sank down rendering visibility appalling for the rest of the afternoon.
After reaching the higher summit of Carnedd Dafydd and passing the just visible Bryn Mawr down below I passed by a few other walkers emerging out of the clouds, the wind was roaring too loud to stop and say anything and just nods and waves were exchanged. I didn’t see anyone from that point onwards and had the feeling of being entirely alone in a frozen place. I later realised that my beard had become gradually become covered with ice and snow that had frozen thick, it was handy to have an extra layer of insulation.
The mists lifted all too briefly, introducing some dramatic black into an otherwise white and grey world as well as a dramatic drop along the ridge down into the valley below. Endless spindrifts blew across the snow and over the edge like spray on a stormy sea.
Snow came down for the rest of the day and the wind was a persistent blast of freezing air that had no impact on the mist and cloud. I managed to get up to Carnedd Llewelyn before deciding to retreat back to Cwm Pen Ilfar for the night, it was freezing, I couldn’t see more than 10 metres in any direction and there were steep sudden drops either side, heading further on alone in such would have been foolish.
I managed to find shelter from the wind and pitched close to a stream and could see the lights of Bethesday and a few distant villages scattered in the distance, strange to see signs of civilisation so close after so many hours walking in place that felt so remote. A welcome helping of hot dahl, with rice and chapatis paved the way for a long restful sleep in the winter night. I remember falling asleep to the pattering of snowflakes on the tent and was woken by the occasional sound of clumps of snow sliding off the canvas through the night.
A few more inches fell in the night, it was good to wake up warm in a cold world and have the heartwarming sight of a pot of water for tea steaming and boiling away in the deep snow. The wind had dropped a little but the cloud remained, thicker than before and looked set to stay, so a few hours were spent in the tent staying warm. I still had my heart set on Cwm Caseg and considered a few different routes to get to there before setting out for the day and pulling the pack back on and heading higher.
On the return to Carnedd Llewelyn the wreckage of plane lay in the waters of Nant Fach, torn pieces of silver metal and old engine parts spread far out along the course of the stream.
Snow fell for most of the day, at times just a light scattering of small flakes in the air, at other times it fell in thick flurries with complete whiteouts at the top of Carnedd Llewelyn. It took time to get back to the summit cairn and I was surprised to see two other people out, it turned out they’d returned to successfully find a lost camera from the previous day. I carefully took a bearing to head to Foel Grach and rechecked it before heading on, the path was invisible so I put all my faith in the trusty compass.
Another figure emerged out of the cloud, a younger man called Glynn who was training for the reserves and had wanted to test his own navigational skills, he’d wandered slightly off course and had missed his destination of Foel Grach and was now lost. We walked together for a while to put him back on the right track, I was glad of the company in these conditions, the tops were fairly featureless and the path on the map was under a few feet of snow. The compass guided us through the murk straight to Foel Grach where we made use of the arctic looking shelter building to stop for coffee a break. It made for a cosy refuge, dark and damp, the snow was blindingly white when we opened the door to leave.
There were some treacherous patches of well hidden glassy ice that would have caused slips and falls without crampons or micropsikes. We walked on in the clouds to Garnedd Uchaf before parting ways, I assume he got home okay. Visibility slowly improved as the altitude dropped walking north west to the rocky outcrop of Yr Aryg. I dropped down a few hundred metres to start walking up into Cwm Caseg. On the way down three wild ponies grazed away on the hillside, digging at the snow with their hooves to reach the grass, they didn’t seem too startled by the presence of a person, just the occasional glance upwards.
The world grew whiter again as the snow came down heavy with a cold wind, but the surroundings were quite beautiful and peaceful. A raging waterfall poured out of Cwm Bychan a good destination for another night, it’d make for a good shower on a warmer day. I tramped on higher around the base Yr Elen through soft deep snow, when the wind dropped to nothing it was completely silent.
The frozen lake of Ffynnon Caseg was a fine place to end up for the night and I was pleased to have made the effort to get there just before nightfall rather than heading down to the bothy. An idyllic place to wild camp at any time but more so in winter, a well hidden and perfectly formed cirque surrounded by mountains with the silvery frozen solid lake sunk into the snow and overlooked by the frosted dark spires of Yr Elen. It was a high camp just shy of 800m, the surrounding pinnacles giving the false impression of being much lower. The light had largely faded by the time the tent was up, the snow was a good foot deep and long stakes were buried in snow and trekking poles and an ice axe were needed to pitch out the more stubborn corners.
It was a very cold night but wonderfully quiet and peaceful, frost formed inside the tent and the water I fetched from the stream began to ice over in minutes. I made sure to wrap my boots in plastic bags to stop them from freezing solid, I forgot to do the same to my gaiters which had frozen completely stiff after an hour.
I woke early in an unspoilt world, my footprints from the walk in were now just sunken recesses in the fresh blanket of snow. It seemed a shame to spoil the smooth white pristine surface by walking through them, but the need to get fresh water for hot coffee won the battle, it was a relief that the stream was still flowing in the cold.
The skies above changed by the minute as the sunlight reached over the summits and ridges, clear and icy blue one minute, thick with cloud the next, as much as I didn’t want to leave this perfect place it was time to pack and leave. The craggy north east ridge of Yr Elen looked just about manageable and the quickest way up to the get to the tops, after packing up with frozen hands it was good to get moving and feel a little warmth. The drifts up to join the ridge made for slow going and on more than a few times I sunk up to my waist.
The ridge itself was narrow and sharp topped with icy rocks and flanked by dramatic plunging drops either side, all quiet adventurous for a monday morning and not ideal with a winter pack on my shoulders. Hands were used as much as feet to get to the top but in small chunks it felt manageable. The clouds had gathered again, giving some reassurance by removing the view of the steep drops on either side.
The climb up was enjoyable if a little dangerous and with some relief the small plateau summit was reached, with ice axe and crampons the edge provided a clear way down and around back in the direction of Carnedd Llewellyn. It was then that the weather finally shifted in my favour, throughout the morning the sun had appeared as a faint white circle distant through the clouds but didn’t look to stood any hope of breaking through and clearing the clouds, slowly but surely spots of clear bright sunlight pricked through whilst patches of unfamiliar blue appeared above and grew in size.
After walking for two days without being able to see much more than a few metres in any direction it was like having the gift of sight again, the veil of cloud burnt off and blew east revealing a wintry Carneddau.
I stopped to take it all in, a well placed flowing spring gave no reason to not sit down and make a coffee.
In the sunlight I could see tiny shimmering ice crystals which hung lightly in the air, it was like walking through glitter, I’ve since read this being described as ‘diamond dust’ which occurs when the air temperature is lower than minus 10.
For an hour or two I had perfect winter conditions whilst walking back along the ridge to Carnedd Dafydd, clear blue skies and fresh white snow and there was barely a wind blowing even on the most exposed summits.
The cloud remained in the west, not in thick smothering blankets but in hanging wisps that draped the summits of the Glyders and further in the distance the broad towering shoulders of Yr Wyddfa stood higher than everything.
I walked back as far as Carnedd Dafydd before taking a steep descent to Bryn Mawr and following the stream down to Llyn Ogwen, overlooked by the jagged sharks tooth of Tryfan. The waters edge made for an easy walk back to the road, the water reflecting the snowy mass of Y Garn as the sun started to set.
Back at Idwal Cottage car park I checked in with the owners and was happy to see that the fat little robin was still hopping about, no doubt he was all prepared to report me missing to mountain rescue had I been another minute longer.