Today was meant to be the day to climb Mt. Snowdon, but we couldn’t quite make it happen. Now that we don’t have to be down to breakfast at a certain time, we make a leisurely morning of coffee, cereal, morning television news and making sure the devices are charged and working. So it was not until about 9:30 that we left the house, headed off the island to the little town of Betws-y-Coed at the edge of Snowdonia.
The landscape changed dramatically in just the 45-minute trip. We left sheep fields and pastures on Anglesey, crossed the bridge, and gradually found ourselves in hill country reminiscent of the stark mountains of Scotland or the Lake District. The road wound about and wound about, past isolated youth hostels, an occasional house (who lives there? what do they do?), a place called the Ugly Tea Room, the Swallow Falls Hotel, quite imposing, and then we were there.
Betws -y-Coed was an art colony back in Victorian times. Now the town is filled with shops, from crafts to tea shops to stores selling hiking gear. At a very useful information center we sought help for our walking plans. We had realized that walking up Mt. Snowdon would not happen today – not enough time, and one of us really didn’t want to – but what could we do instead? The man told us there was a pleasant walk along the river to Swallow Falls and back, a four mile round trip, so we agreed and set off.
Somehow this walk was reminiscent of the doomed Red Wharf walk. First, the terrain was difficult – lots of roots and stones – and second, the walk was not as interesting as one might wish. Yes, we saw a heron first thing, and that was exciting, but after that it became a bit of a slog.
When we came to the Miners Bridge and its steep steps down and then up again, hearts failed just a bit but we persevered. Once back up the steps, the path just continued, not getting any more interesting but again quite rooty and stony. At last we decided that there was no shame is simply turning around before we reached the falls, so that’s what we did.
We took the man’s advice and followed a different path back. This one wended through the woods and finally met up with a hedged lane with this view over the fields. Because I can’t seem to read a map, I was puzzled again but later realized that this was just as the man had outlined. We found ourselves back in the town and had lunch at a pub/bistro. Welsh rarebit and Orme for me, yum.i
Now, what to do this afternoon? I was longing to do some hill walking. The same man recommended Cwm Idwil, a walk around a lake about 15 minutes away from the town. It wasn’t really up on the hills but among them and would give the feeling. I asked him if it was level or not, and he said, oh, yes. Alison heard him say it, too. (Not that I mind hills, I just wanted to know the terrain.) There was even a short cut if I wanted to use it, so off I set with his printout of the hike, planning to be back by 4:15 and meet Alison by the information center. If I was not back by 5:00, she would call Prince William to arrive with his rescue helicopter.
All was tickety-boo at the start. I found the youth hostel without any trouble, parked and checked with a group of men at the cafe about the starting point. I set off on a wide path, just as promised, that wound through the bare hills up to the lake. The hills were stark and arresting, and the dark, silent lake could have come out of Arthurian legend. The directions indicated stone steps going uphill around the far end of the lake. I was game. Partway up the steps was an area called the Idwal Slabs, which in Welsh means “Slopes of Cheese.” It sounds more benign than they looked to me! “They are primarily used as an introduction to climbing for beginners.” Among them was Edmund Hillary, training for Everest, so this is not child’s play. And there in fact was group of climbers heading up the sheer rock walls, as you can see in this picture if you zoom in on the orange dots halfway up on the left.
Just there was the cutoff – I could see a man with two poles walking across the end of the lake and avoiding the stone steps. I wavered for just a minute, but I knew I could climb those steps, so up I went. Only back at home have I found this description of the upper route, courtesy of the National Trust: “NB: An alternative high level route may be taken at this junction by following the path towards Idwal Slabs and up towards the base of the cliffs above. This route should only be attempted by competent hill-walkers as it involves very rough, steep ground and a difficult stream crossing.”The stone steps went up and up, at some point starting to remind me of the horrible steps Frodo and Sam climb up in Lord of the Rings. But I Crossfit, so I can do anything, right?
Upward and upward, and every time I thought I was at the top there were more steps. There was more mist, too. The good news: I could no longer see the steep hillside falling away below me. The bad news: I couldn’t really see where I was.
Then I came to a waterfall. I had not read the directions before setting out, but now I was riveted. Be careful if it’s icy, it cautioned me. But what about if it was just wet? And what about if there was no path? I was just to slither down and find firm footing on the other side???
I briefly considered turning back, but no. This picture gives you a view from the first side of the waterfall, looking down. Now admittedly, this is a tiny waterfall, but the point is that there was no path of any kind across it. I just had to – gulp- figure it out, the way the shepherds must have long ago.Surely if I just break it down into steps I can figure this out. And I could. I sat down on the rock and scooted down to where I could see a foothold on the other side. I put my foot there, raised myself up and just kept going until I could see the semblance of more stone steps again on the other side. I had made it over the “difficult stream crossing,” with only wet pants to show for it, and I was sure that the worst was behind me.
But, no. The directions continued, “Once you climb the steep stone steps you will be in the midst of the large boulders by Twil Du, peeled off the cliff by the retreating glacier.” And did I mention that this mountain, Twil Du, means Devil’s Kitchen? The problem was the mist. It made the stones wet and slippery, and the grass was wet and slippery, too. The mist meant that I could not see very far in front of me and had no idea how extensive the boulder field was, or where the stone steps would start again. On a dry day, it would likely have been fine, but today it was treacherous and just a bit scary.Notice the mist, the slope, and the lack of a trail…
Can’t go over it, can’t go under it, guess I’ll just have to go through it. So I did, inching my way along lest I twist an ankle, knowing that down was a good direction, and instinctively heading just a bit left when the truck-sized boulders, poised on the hillside, would permit it. And there, at last, after what felt like half an hour of careful scrambling, were the stone steps again. They rose uphill on my left for some distance, so if I had been able to see where I was going the boulder field would probably have been just a blip on the walk. Instead…
So I inched my way down the wet, slippery stone steps, and every time I came to a flat stretch I hustled right along. I finally dared to look at my watch to see if Prince William had been called out yet. From the start of the climb to the stone steps after the boulders had taken only an hour. It had felt like two!
As I made my way downhill, the mist lightened just a bit. First I could spot the lake off in the distance, then the path brought me closer to it, then I was rounding the end of the lake. I loved this slate bridge over the last bit of water.
The final stretch was uneventful except for a trio of sheep that meandered over the path and scattered slowly at my approach. The way ahead brightened and the mist was gone. Sadly, the cafe had closed so there was no restorative cup of tea for me. I turned the car around and headed back to the Visitors Centre, where I picked up Alison just on the dot of 4:30 and we drove back home.
Lessons learned: remember to bring a whistle just in case the worst happens, and learn what signals to give for help. Read the directions before setting out (you moron). Try not to hike alone, even on a path like this one where I encountered at least half a dozen people (until the waterfall and then not again until I was on the other side of the lake).
I was heartened to run into a photographer at Bodnant a few days later who was familiar with the path and referred to it as a “nightmare,” especially in bad weather. So there. But I was proud to have done it and don’t regret it in the least! Continue reading