Cadair Idris, the western Hewitts and not climbing the Crfrwy Arete

A tale of over-ambition, wild camping and not-climbing.

Something about this trip led me to question my motivations for being in the hills, how and why I set my objectives and how I can plan better in the future. Sat at the wild camp on Saturday night gave me a long and peaceful time to reflect on the day’s adventures which I wouldn’t otherwise get – normally it’s back in the car and a long, exhausting drive home. This time it was watching the sun go down, having a bit of rum, exploring the nearby moraines and checking out potential climbs. And a lot of sitting and chatting.

In a nutshell the plan for the weekend was; a two day walk with a wild camp that included all 6 Hewitts around Cadair Idris plus climb Table Direct and the Crfwry Arete. That sounds pretty straightforward on paper.

In real life it was spectacularly over-ambitious. Just setting out with enough gear for a soggy weekend at the beginning of April including a tent, dry clothes, food, a rack of gear, ropes and a big camera was an effort. We must have been carrying 12-15kg each. In itself that’s not a problem for a long day, but battling against wind and rain, and then planning how to do a massive climb the next morning and still retrieve all our gear was where my planning and over-ambition began to fall apart.

I blame the Welsh 3000s.

Me on the Welsh 3000s last 2015
Let me explain. And please excuse the rambling intro. If you’re just after the walk report you might want to skip ahead a bit.

Before I did the Welsh 3000s my plans for mountain days were, in retrospect, always reasonably modest and never really pushed me to my limits. They were always fun, but I suppose in some way always restricted.

When I did the Welsh 3000s last year, it flipped a switch in my brain, a switch that used to keep my ideas in check and say ‘Nah, that’s probably a long enough day’ after more than a handful of peaks. But once the 3000s was done, and not only done within a day but actually in a really good time, I realised I could achieve far more in a long day out than I had ever thought possible. I could ramp up my endurance and push my body and mind to take on bigger, better and longer days out.

Ever since then my plans have become more and more ambitious. I no longer think anything of planning a 15 mile mountain day covering huge amounts of ascent because I know not only that I can do it but that I actually find it incredibly enjoyable. It’s a weird kind of enjoyment. You probably know what I mean. That kind of suffering-come-fun where the exhaustion is only evidence of how much you’ve enjoyed the day out.

So here’s how it all panned out. Oh and by the way the boring factual bits I don’t enjoy reading back myself so I’ve trimmed them down. Sorry if you’re a detail nut!

7am leave Bristol with Joe & Matt > drive to Cadair Idris through a lot of rain > brakes begin making unpleasant burning smells coming over the mountain pass to Machynlleth > stop braking so much and hope for the best > park at the little campsite 100m to the west of the visitor centre because you can’t park in the car park overnight (only a fiver btw so worth doing) > set off up the Minfordd path in the lots and lots of rain.

Heavy clouds burdened with endless volumes of traditional Welsh rain skirted the summits around the cwm of Idris obscuring any chance of a view of the peaks. We passed by a miserable and sodden team of kids from a cadets group and trekked up and around to the summit of Craig Cwm Amarch.

I should say something here about objectives. The plan was to do all the Hewitts around Idris. Why? Good question. You see it was a fortunate coming together of people and objectives that resulted in the three of us doing this route together. I’m working towards my Mountain Leader and in my consolidation period so I’m making sure as many of my days out as possible count as QMDs (Quality Mountain Days). Joe loves being in the mountains and climbing, so any combination of those works for him (plus he’s going to do his ML as well), and Matt had joined us because he’s trying to do all the Welsh Hewitts.

Objective setting is a funny thing. I wouldn’t consider myself a hill bagger. But I’ve got nothing against hill bagging. I just tend to set myself objectives that I think will be fun and hopefully push me really hard and involve some sort of exposure to a manageable danger. I also like exploring new places, so doing something like trying to climb all the Welsh Hewitts seems like a good way to do that. Either way, our plans all coincided beautifully. Although, I think Matt may have been happier if we’d done all the Hewitts in one long day rather than carrying everything in the world with us for two days!

From Craig Cwm Amarch we hauled our sodden loads across the windswept col towards Penygadair, but swung westwards to join the Minfordd path again heading down towards the cross-roads in the path below Cyfrwy.

At the cross road we continued west, and the weather began to ease off a bit which was amazing, as we were in that unpleasant quandary of too-hot-take-off-layer-too-wet-put-on-layer-too-sweaty-take-off-layer-too-cold-moan-a-bit common on days involving big loads and bad weather when it’s not really cold or warm.

The western mountains of Craig-las and Craig-y-llyn seemingly had no visitors that day. To save our legs and backs we stashed our gear behind some massive craggy cairns on the eastern spur of Craig-las and unhindered walked quickly to the summits of each. These small mountains are steep and grassy and obviously don’t get much traffic as the hillsides seemed almost untouched. When the cloud parted to give brief moments of views from the summits, the aspects were amazing. Particularly from Craig-y-llyn where the peak drops sharply from the summit to the north and the view is uninterrupted to Barmouth and across the inlet from the sea. I would hazard a guess that on a better day this would be a breath-taking viewpoint.

View from the summit of Craig-y-llyn
From there it was trudging down, contour around, skirt Craig-las and pick up the gear. The little group of cadets had made it to the crossroads by this point and were heading down to Llyn-y-gader; the lake at the foot of Penygadair which was our planned wild camp as well. The path there was boggy from the heavy rainfall throughout the day, so with damp feet and tired legs we arrived at the lake.

Walking to the lake - Crfrwy and Penygadair looming on the right and ahead
This has to be one of the finest wild camping spots there is. The broad lake nestles against the moraine at the bottom of the steep escarpments of Penygadair and Crfrwy and the ground opens out to the north, leaving a few flat spots ideal for setting up camp, separated from the rest of the lake by huge piles of moraine – meaning camp spots are separate from each other and you might not even know someone else was staying at the same lake as you!

Llyn-y-gader lake and Penygadair escarpment with the Pony path visible in the scree to the left
Our camp below Crfrwy Arete

Boiling up some food by Llyn-y-gader

Tents set up below Crfrwy Arete
 Tents up > dry clothes > more clothes > more clothes (cold) > boil water > take photos > dehydrated meal > rum > coffee > sitting > talking > sleeping bag > mmm, warm > consider leaving tent to take night photos > stay in tent, because, basically, no > sleep.

That was a good night’s sleep. Despite some gusty winds the camp spot was pretty well protected from the southerly winds by the peaks to our backs. After tea, coffee and food camp was quickly disbanded, and not a mark remained to show we had ever been there – the way wild camping should be.

Me with all of the clothes on brewing up for breakfast

View of Llyn-y-gader from the base of Table Direct
I think it was at this point that my plans began to unravel in their over-ambition.

The previous evening we had come to realise how far the lake was from the Minfordd path and the col between Crfrwy and Craig-las. And my plan had been to climb the Crfrwy arĂȘte, descend via the Minfordd path, pick up the kit then walk back around to the summit of Penygadair and on to Mynydd Moel. We amended the plan to descend back to the lake from the summit of Penygadair via the steep and scree filled Pony path (and possibly re-ascend that with our kit if it wasn’t too serious). Even then though, I think the objectives for day two were too onerous. No matter which way you look at it, there was going to be a lot of back-and-forth, re-ascent and faff.

Regardless, we went to climb the arĂȘte anyway, and hoped we’d figure the rest out after.

As it turned out the route up Table Direct was far too sodden from Saturday’s torrents to be in a climbable condition. So after an hour or so of playing about up the rubble fields we picked up our kit and began trekking back along a slightly higher path towards the Minfordd path. About two thirds of the way along we spotted a weakening in the buttresses to our left, a little valley and spur that looked like a valuable shortcut towards the summit of Crfrwy. So we headed up that, and through thick cloud and gusty winds made our way to the summit of Crfrwy.

From the col between Crfrwy and Penygadair looking down on Llyn -y-gader

From the summit and along the way to Penygadair we caught glimpses of the climb we would have taken and it looks amazing. I’m desperate to get back there on a dry day and nail that climb. But probably in a day without the wild camp to avoid all the carrying!

The summit of Penygadair still clung to a lot of its winter coat, with patches of snow an ice littered across the summit. We slipped into the summit hut for some food and chatted with the handful of other groups in there. We met a group of ladies from Merthyr Tydfil who were on a challenge to climb Snowdon, Cadair Idris and Pen y Fan in 24hrs – a big set of objectives for such a large group. I hope they made it!

From there the walk to Mynydd Moel was pretty easy; a long, gentle slope and views of some epic buttresses to the north which looked like they’d have some amazing climbs on. We left our gear once again at the fence line and walked easily to the summit, from where we could see almost all of the summits we’d walked that weekend.

From Mynydd Moel; to the left is Craig Cwm Amarch, centre is Penygadair, to the right Crfrwy and to the left is Craig-las

Down the fence path > long trudge > terrible path > tired legs > coffee at the visitor centre > back to car > drove home with windows open because we smelled.

Lessons learned:
-        1.  Modify objectives to avoid carrying everything in the world ever
-        2.  Maybe don’t take a big SLR camera on every trip
-        3.  Get brakes checked on car