Bwlch yr Ole Wen
It had been a long 24 hours, starting with nearly 300 miles of driving from Cumbria to Mid-Wales before swinging back northwards to Bethesda for a meet-up with old school buddy Tarquin Shipley and his crew of Lou, Wes and Colin! The latter two being distinctly smaller and spaniel-shaped…
Regular readers may remember Tarqs as the guy who dragged me up the chimney of Glyder Chasm during my last visit to North Wales… or perhaps from our scramble up Tryfan, where he jumped between the topmost pillars Adam and Eve during Storm Ophelia? Whichever you may (or not) recall, I was returning to his neck of the woods for more fun (or punishment, depending on how one looks at these things!) and as always this would most definitely NOT be a disappointing few days in Snowdonia!
What I hadn’t really expected on my first day was to be thrown in at the deep end. However, after a first night of very little sleep (always the same on night 1 in a new bed!) I was encouraged to talk through what would be my first solo 3,000 footer, in fairly wet and claggy weather. I was actually quite looking forward to it!
Tarqs and I ran through a fairly ambitious plan, neither of us really knowing what I was capable of, given the conditions and my level of mountain fitness. On the basis that I was hiking solo away from home ground, I suggested texting Tarqs with my position every hour or two just in case I took a wrong turn somewhere. And so a plan was hatched…
The master plan was to head down to the lake, Llyn Ogwen, and park in the long layby that runs adjacent to the river, Afon Donau. With all my regular ‘gizmos’ fully charged, I hoped to record a successful route that would take me up to Bryn Mawr / Cwm Lloer, over to Pen yr Ole Wen and the spot height of 978m (3200ft) just before the Bwlch yr Ole Wen corridor. If that was all I achieved, so be it, but the plan was to go further, following the ridge along Carnedd Fach before reaching the summit of Carnedd Dafydd at 1044m (3425ft) from where I would need to choose one of three options. Either continue on to greater glory by the name of Carnedd Llewellyn at 1064m (3491ft), or bail out, OR indeed continue along the ridge of Cefn Ysgolion Duon (never mind drunk, try saying that sober!) and bail out down Carneddau beyond the crags (Creigiau Malwood). In this case I would then head S / SW back down to the unavoidable A5 and walk the last few kilometres back to the car.
I was feeling enthusiastic! Things got off to a good start, with me following the plan to the letter. I parked in said layby, where I bumped into the only other human I would encounter during the day – he was on day two of four, I believe, of running up all fourteen 3,000ft’ers in Wales. Truth be known, I didn’t know there were that many! Having been up my route the previous day, he was now on his way up Tryfan, and I suspect he was still out long after I had hit the showers back at Tarquin’s house; his campervan certainly was!
I bade him good luck, and double-checked that I had everything I might require (including Drone!) packed away in the daysack. Erring on the side of caution, I put on my waterproof trousers and then crossed the road, nipped through the well-marked gate and was on my way.
Into the clag!
Yes, almost instantly, as if to say “we are not going to make this easy, Mr Duringer, as you need the practice!”, down came the rain, down came the temperature (which had actually looked quite pleasant on MWIS) and down came the clag…
I never actually reached Ffynnon Lloer (the lake) on Bryn Mawr, as instead I came across what looked like an obvious and interesting line that I could take to get to my first peak. I am still unsure whether or not the ensuing scramble was the one Tarqs suggested, but was pleased to find myself quite quickly at my first and main objective of the day, at 978m. Whilst England’s highest summit is an exact match for this spot height, I admit that on this occasion my hike had started approximately 100m higher at road level than the classic springboard of Wasdale Head car park, so this didn’t quite qualify as a full Scafell Pike climb. Also in contrast to Scafell Pike, the solitude and quiet on today’s route was most enjoyable – the clag on the other hand was not…
I sat on the cairn feeling rather pleased with myself, drank some coffee, took a victory selfie and decided how to move onward. I looked at my “OS locate” app to quickly check and confirm my position, height and time… before texting the info to Tarqs in case of a later catastrophe!
Stop laughing – I did not say one had occurred… ermmm… it just wouldn’t be a “Simon hike” if one didn’t – would it? (lol).
Yes, so it was only as I texted Tarqs that I noted something rather peculiar… My fully charged phone, which also serves as a backup compass and tracker, was already down from 100% to 45% battery and *sigh* I had lent my superb RavPower charger to Jen the day before.
Out came the proper compass and map, and I looked for my next goal: Carnedd Dafydd via Carnedd Fach Ridge, a ridge from which the 200-metre drops probably look quite spectacular if you can see them. Unfortunately, due to the clag I was a tad in the dark, so to speak, and headed off in search of my next peak…
The track was not difficult to follow, which was a mercy since in those conditions the exposure was pretty horrid and the visibility practically nonexistent. Thankfully, it wasn’t long at all before I came to the first of a few cairns marking the way to the peak… To be honest, by this stage I was thoroughly bored, with nobody to talk to and a colourless, featureless view: just misty, murky clag that showed no signs of shifting. Perhaps if I had been in company I might have persevered, but then again perhaps not – I’m a civilian after all!
I sat in the stone shelter at my high point of the day and considered my options. Retrace my steps? Nah! That seemed too final. I decided to continue along the ridge which in fair weather must deliver heart-stopping views across to Yr Ellen (962m) on the opposite side of the valley. But for today I would simply hope to walk the ridge safely, and in the meantime ask the man upstairs to lift this white curtain and let me through to my final possible objective. I clearly don’t stand in good stead with said man, as not only were there no signs of the clag lifting but also my phone was now at less than 20% battery power. This might have been fair game on a good day, but as I walked out of the shelter I had a dizzy moment and all sense of orientation left me. The compass would say one thing, my OS map and OS locate apps said something quite different and my head… Well, by trusting my head alone I would have walked right off the side of the mountain.
I think that sometimes there’s a fine line between bravery and stupidity, and today as a guest of an ex-mountain rescue team member in the local area I did not want to be forced into a situation where I might have required their assistance.
Trusting my OS Map app, I followed its line until battery power had drained to almost 5%. I had texted my last location to Tarqs from the shelter and he knew my route, but as the app failed to give me my actual position, and suddenly completely ran out of juice I was left alone, unknown and without techie tools in that craggy wilderness…
Pacing… hmmm, yup I’m familiar with several of the accepted techniques. Timings, I know how to do those too; they’re mighty useful… if only I had a watch! (That’s also about to be rectified). I simply didn’t know how far I had gone – in distance or time, really – since the last summit. I knew my direction but had neither paced nor timed the leg thus far… stupid, huh?
What does one do on the mountains with no comms, no certain time or location, and no visibility?
The only info on my side was the ridge path which had been a little tricky to join from the shelter (i.e. I didn’t expect much ground evidence if my decision was to attempt to return the way I came). I knew this path ran fairly parallel to the A5, which lay some three or four kilometres of descent away. If I headed due south towards it too quickly, though, I would find myself in a boulder field… the kind where the rocks are so large that it becomes a fairly hefty undertaking to a tourist, especially in clag. So, I paced onward another 300-400 metres before running the gauntlet of whatever might lie in my path on that descent…
Dang it! Boulders everywhere, as feared, and it felt as though they had purposefully ganged up on me. Before I knew it, they stretched around me in every direction… so there seemed little point in heading anywhere other than downwards on a bearing as close to South as I could safely go. Time sometimes seems to stand still in these situations, and this was one of those times! It certainly felt like I spent half an hour (meaning it was probably 10-15 minutes max) floundering around, reminding myself to keep three points of contact at all times on the rocks I was climbing down…
Just as I thought a successful outing was looking to turn into a real drag, the man upstairs paid a visit after all… I dropped below the cloud line and suddenly had a clear view of the layby, and indeed my own car some two kilometres away *PERFECT*.
It was one of the timeliest mood-changers I’ve encountered in many an outing, so much so that the beauty of the sun streaming through the clouds slightly upset me as I had nothing to photograph it with… and then like a sledgehammer it hit me – the Drone!
Well, the Drone itself didn’t hit me of course, as it was in my backpack. However, as I gazed at the view, and more importantly realised how long it had been since I had checked in my location, I wondered if I could somehow use the Drone to a) take a picture of the view, b) give me a lat & long grid reference, and c) perhaps somehow charge my phone enough to get a message to Tarqs. Not necessarily in that order, I might add!
For the next hour it was fun time… the Drone did all of the above for me. I was still a way from the car, but the fact that I’d made it to two 3000ft peaks, coupled with the adrenaline surge as things became really challenging, and the parting of the clouds at that most opportune moment, all began to turn what might easily have been an embarrassing disaster into an incredible and fulfilling adventure.
Who says the man upstairs doesn’t look out for us every now and again? 😉
Until next time, thanks for reading.
Simon Duringer is an award-winning blogger, interviewer and author. His own books can be found on Amazon too by clicking any of the following icons…