Thanks for all of the well wishes that you guys sent last week as I left on my holiday. I can report that I am now back in London, relatively well rested and only slightly bruised.
Our holiday plans began last year when me and my girlfriend decided to cycle the entire National Cycle Route 8, which runs from Bangor in North Wales to Cardiff in the South. The route travels past the homes of both of our families and so we hoped that between their hospitality and a few nights in various hostels we would be able to have a budget adventure. After sitting down with a calculator and doing some preliminary research though it became clear that cycle touring is not for the precariously employed (unless of course you are also into sofa surfing, which unfortunately I am not so much). We compromised and decided to book some self-catering accommodation in an area that could offer us a few days of cycling, walking and running, and eventually booked a beautiful cottage in the town of Dolgellau, which is in the South of the Snowdonia National Park.
Before you ask, no we didn’t visit Mount Snowdon. Without a car it was difficult (if not impossible) for us to visit some of the popular spots listed on various tourist websites, and unfortunately Mount Snowdon was one of them. We were unperturbed though, as the beautiful Cadair Idris mountain lay just a few miles walk away from our cottage, as did several other recommended walking and cycling routes. So, on Friday morning we packed up the GF’s panniers, I struggled an enormous backpack onto my back, and we cycled to Euston Station.
Our cottage was beautiful and a cake-baking haven. We stocked up the kitchen at the local shops and over the course of our 5 day stay we baked 2 cakes, 1 pie (with homemade pastry), 1 roast dinner, 2 fry ups, 2 batches of pancakes, and a lasagne. After 9 months of intense jobs and intense training it was tough to relax and wind down, but the indulgence and enjoyment of cooking and eating certainly played a big part!
All the leftovers made up our packed lunches, which were eaten on our mountainside adventures, none of which quite went to plan… It’s a good job we brought extra slices of cake – they were certainly needed!
Adventure 1: The Torrent Walk
We eased gently into ‘adventure holiday’ mode with the ‘Torrent Walk’, detailed on the Snowdonia tourist website. The walk itself was only a few miles along the Clywedog river, upstream and uphill and then back down again, but once you factor in the walk from Dolgellau to the river (along a less-than-scenic A-road) it becomes a lovely, long afternoon stroll.
Adventure 2: Cycling to Bwylch y Groes
The owner of Dolgellau Cycles became our holiday friend after I asked him to true my wheels before we went riding. We were planning to ride east towards Lake Bala, where there was a steam railway that we could take a ride on around the lake. However Mike, the LBS owner, suggested that we go on his favourite after work ride instead. He kindly prepared a route for us that would initially take us towards Bala, but would then turn towards the neighbouring Lake Vyrnwy instead via a loop over the Bwlch y Groes, the highest public road in North Wales (1,788ft)
It was our first proper ride of the year, and at 40 miles should have been manageable, but that was before we factored in the mountain! On top of that the GF was still exhausted following a bad cold, I took a tumble because of a bad combination of twisty roads and heavy legs, and a missed turning resulted in pushing our bikes a full mile back up a 17% incline.
(Ok, I say “a missed turning”… but I guess what I should really say is that I missed the turning and the GF followed screaming at me as I freewheeled gleefully down the previously mentioned mountain… I think I’m still in trouble over this cock up.)
The scenery was incredible and was a minor distraction from the realisation that I am not a climber and really need to work on those hills. I also need a better bike (retro Raleigh is no longer cutting it) and I may have to face my fears and try clips. The GF wanted a rest halfway up and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t appreciate it.
The viewpoint was incredible. We stopped for a photo before pressing on. About a minute later I missed the signpost to Vyrnwy, got low on the bike and squealed my way down the mountain. I pulled over at a farm a mile later, confused that we hadn’t yet come to a turning towards the lake yet… A furious GF arrived and informed me that the turning was back at the top of the mountain. Oops.
A lost ironman wannabe joined us in the lost crew and we pushed our bikes back up. I cannot believe that there are human beings capable of climbing that road on their bikes, but apparently there are and this road was one of the toughest rides in the 70s and 80s Tours of Britain.
We decided to give Lake Vyrnwy a miss and just return to Dolgellau the way we came. We had a picnic at the viewpoint next to a gently rocking camper van from which some strange noises emerged, before descending the mountain (again) and riding back to the village. We did pass some cyclists at the start of the ride who recommended the Lake Vyrnwy Hotel for high tea. I’d love to try this ride again and get some of those scones…
Adventure 3: Climbing Cadair Idris
The Cadair Idris is only a few miles walk from Dolgellau, so we set off just after 10am with bellies full of breakfast and bags full of picnic. There a few different routes up the mountain and we opted for the easiest and most popular Pony Path. We had maps and directions with us, but in the end the route up was clear enough. Though there are only a couple of signposts along the way, the path was easy to see – even if it wasn’t always easy to walk up!
It was a beautiful and magical walk up with such varying scenery that it was hard to believe it was just one mountain! We walked along gravel paths, over grassy hills, on stone steps and up scree slopes. The view along the final stretch was the most fantastic of all, as we approached the ridge that falls away to the glacial lake below, Llyn y Gader. Our lunch on the summit of the mountain was made all the more surreal by my iphone alerts, as it appears 3G reaches up there and I managed to pick up my emails. Apologies for not tweeting.
Picnic lunch at the mountain’s summit, 2,930ft closer to the sky than we were when arriving at Barmouth, 3 days previous (which incidentally we could see as we munched on homemade pie and cake) was surreal.
It was only when we packed up our bags and prepared to follow the path back home that we realised that the directions back down the mountain were now a little unclear. Does the path continue on into a loop, or do we go back the way we came? The directions I had printed from the Snowdonia National Park website did not explicitly say ‘turn around and walk back the way you came’. Instead it said:“On your return, make sure at the beginning that you aim towards the right direction, especially when it’s foggy. Keep to the right when descending. In about 25m you will pass an old fire place which was part of the original cafe, and after about 25m further the path forks. Keep to the right here. The left hand path will take you down towards Bwlch Cau and the south side of the mountain. When descending, the pillow lavas should soon be on your left hand side.”
So we continued in the direction we had been walking, passing over the summit and along the mountain ridge, following the path we had seen some other walkers along just 20 minutes before. There were no arrows or signposts and so we followed the path of repeatedly trodden grass which shortly brought us to stoney ground that wound downwards in a vague sort of path. We didn’t pass an old fireplace, but we were certainly on a path and so we pressed on, passing the last snow left on the mountain.
The path grew steeper and we started to get quite concerned about whether or not we were going the right way, but the brown-ish scree we were walking along contrasted with the grey scree on either side. It was definitely a marked path, but as the path grew steeper and began to fall away under our feet I began to panic and wanted to turn back. We looked back and saw two more walkers following us. We had passed them and briefly chatted on the way up and we knew that they were first time walkers too. They were following us down the scree…
To cut a long story short we had walked the wrong way and I thought I was going to die, or at least be winched off the side of the mountain and then die of embarrassment. The path that we were following (despite my reluctance to refer to the location of my scariest life experience ever as a ‘path’) was the Fox’s Path, not the Pony Path, an intermediate path down the scree face intended for experienced walkers who were a) prepared, and b) wearing proper walking boots. I was wearing Doc Marten desert boots and a pair of corduroy hot pants because I was channeling the spirit of The Sound of Music.
You’re reading my retelling of this experience, so obviously I survived, but before I tell you what happened you must know that this was the single most terrifying experience of my life – no exaggeration – and I’ve done some pretty daft shit in my time.
Please don’t laugh, but I cried.
This path was steep and every time I tried to step all of the rocks shifted under my feet and fell away. I tried to hold onto the bigger rocks for balance but then they fell away too. I had nowhere near enough grip on my shoes and ended up crab-walking down the screeface, throwing rocks at the GF who had scampered down like some kind of half-girl-half-goat. I couldn’t figure out how she got down there without dying. I couldn’t figure out a way to move my body that didn’t make the earth move around me. At one point I just crouched down crying and contemplated the humiliation of being winched off a mountainside. I later discovered that the GF was also contemplating this as she watched me have my sit in protest against nature and the Snowdonia National Park webiste’s directions.
As I got about 30m from the bottom another climber approached, but this time going up. The GF asked him for help, but apparently he just replied along the lines of, “It’s tough, isn’t it?”. And when he clambered past me and I asked him for help he just replied, “Yeah, it is harder on the way down.” What a wanker.
The beautiful lake at the bottom of the Cliff Of Death (a.k.a. the Fox’s Path) was some compensation for the trauma I endured trying to get to it. I wanted to go for a swim, but it was now approaching 3pm and we were worried about getting back to Dolgellau now that we had no directions. We soldiered on, armed with an OS map and my iphone compass (remember, there is excellent 3G signal across these mountains) and shocked to find ourselves going up hill again through sheep fields, crossing streams, falling over in sheep poo, and sinking into boggy ground. When we eventually got back to the cottage, exhausted and sunburnt, I looked up the Fox’s Path on the Snowdonia National Park website and found this:“This path requires walkers to walk along a very steep and loose scree slope above Llyn y Gader in order to reach the summit. Extreme care is needed when undertaking this path, especially when it’s windy, wet or when the stones are covered with ice and snow. Descending this path requires very good physical fitness and we do not recommend anyone who are not experienced on these kinds of terrain to choose this path.”
No shit, Sherlock.
Needless to say we were shattered when we got back to the cottage at 5.30pm, having walked 10 miles and climbed a mountain. Actually we were pretty shattered on the train back to London too, having woken up stiff as boards and then cycled the 10 miles back to Barmouth train station with all of our bags! But it was all worth it, because I had a fabulous time. I know that it may not be everyone’s idea of a holiday, but when did I ever didn’t strike you as the relaxing type?