A walk in the clouds

There are times when you pick the wrong option, and just have to shrug your shoulders with no regret. Last weekend was a bit like that for me. While the rest of the UK was enjoying glorious sunshine, I found myself walking through the clouds, with no views and feeling like a wet sponge as a light drizzle soaked into me for the best part of two days.

Moel Siabod from above Dolwyddelan
Moel Siabod from above Dolwyddelan

I checked the weather forecast before heading for the hills, and picked an area which looked promising, but I made a crucial mistake by only looking at the ordinary weather forecast. Mountain forecasts can be very different, and so it proved in this case. I’d chosen to spend two days backpacking on the Moelwynion east of Snowdon in North Wales, a range of small rugged hills connected by rambling ridges, and would be spending most of the time above 500 metres. This may not sound like very much, but in the UK this modest change in altitude takes you above the tree line into a different climate zone.

It all started promisingly enough as I set out from the village of Dolwyddelan in the Lledr Valley west of Betws-y-Coed, and crested a hillside above the village to be greeted by a magnificent view of Moel Siabod, one of Snowdonia’s more picturesque hills, a rocky trapezium from this angle, standing apart and unconnected from other peaks. It was 9am and already pretty hot, so I unzipped the bottom half of my convertible trousers and slapped some sun cream on.

Moel Siabod still seemed a long way off from here, and I had some varied terrain to pass through before I reached its summit. The southern side of the hill is Forestry Commission land farmed for commercial timber, and I followed a rough 4×4 track through immature birch plantations coloured by clumps of pink willowherb. As the tracked climbed up the lower slopes of Moel Siabod this merged into pine forest, and the tranquillity of my walk was interrupted briefly as I passed through an area that was being cleared. A noisy JCB digger was crawling down the track towards me, and I had to stop and locate a narrower footpath up through the trees on slopes too steep for the digger to reach.

Figures approach Moel Siabod's summit from its east ridge
Figures approach Moel Siabod’s summit from its east ridge

Above the forest I was onto boggy moorland. These peaceful open spaces should be a stress-free place to walk through, but wildlife sometimes has other ideas. A red grouse scared the living daylights out of me when I nearly tripped over it. It flapped noisily right beneath my feet and my heart skipped a beat. By the time I realised what had happened and whipped my camera out, it was lurking in another clump of grass just a few metres away, and it wasn’t going to let me get near it again.

My three previous ascents of Moel Siabod have been up the Daear Ddu ridge, an interesting but easy scramble up rocks. With my big pack on my shoulders, however, I choose to skirt beneath the southern side of the hill on an easy path that curled back round to reach the summit from the western side. I reached the top at around 11.30, and by now the weather had changed significantly. A horrible dark cloud hung over Snowdon, and even the lower hills I was heading towards were obscured by an thin grey haze, rendered slightly eerie by gaps in the cloud where shafts of sunlight cut through. Parts of the Lledr Valley beneath me were basking in sunshine, but here on top everything felt a bit gloomy. I even ended up putting my trouser legs back on.

I swapped routes with another walker on the summit who told me to be a little careful in the area I was heading to, as everything’s a bit featureless and easy to get lost in when the weather’s cloudy. I assured him I had compass and GPS, but wasn’t expecting to need them. He knew better. Unlike me he’d checked the mountain forecast and told me the clouds would be descending to 500 metres. He proved to be right.

Cloudy view of the Snowdon Horseshoe from Bwlch Clorad
Cloudy view of the Snowdon Horseshoe from Bwlch Clorad

A broad grassy ridge descends from the west side of Moel Siabod. On a clear day this would be a superb place to view the Snowdon Horseshoe from as you descend an easy path. I made a hot descent in sunshine but Snowdon could be easily missed in the cloud across the valley if I didn’t know it was there. I promised myself I would have to follow this path again on another day. I reached a col at 500m above two small lakes in a corrie below. Here the path turned south and I began to ascend again. I was now getting a bit sleepy. I’d set out in my car from London at 4am this morning in order to get here, and my lack of sleep was starting to catch up with me.

At 1.30 I put down my pack and found a comfortable flat rock to rest my back against. I could see a small drop in front of me to another col, and beyond that the rest of my day’s walk along an undulating ridge. The sun was still beating down and it only took a few seconds before I was sleeping soundly. When I woke up half an hour later it was a very different place. I could no longer see the ridge in front of me, and the sun was nowhere. As I looked around I realised I was in thick mist, and the temperature had dropped significantly. I looked at the map and noticed there were still a few folds to cross before I reached an area of small pools that I had chosen as my overnight camping spot. Still sleepy and facing a long boggy trudge in crap weather, my enthusiasm for the walk was rapidly vanishing. But I couldn’t stop here. I reluctantly rose, dug around in my pack for my rain coat, and lifted the weight back onto my shoulders. As I picked up my stick and trudged wearily on I decided that I really must get into lightweight backpacking some day.

Walker looks up at misty view of Moel Meirch
Walker looks up at misty view of Moel Meirch

With a damp and misty slog ahead of me I realised that my only purpose to being where I was at that moment in time was because it’s all good training for my expedition to Manaslu next month. Of course, some people love training, and this would be a great comfort to them. Sadly, I’m not one of them. A walk in pleasant scenery I love; a walk in cold grey mist I don’t; and a walk in cold grey mist with a sodding great pack on my shoulders, well, I don’t know what to say. Focus, plod along, one foot in front of the other, and get on with it. Even this proved difficult in places. Every so often the ridge dipped and passed through a boggy stretch where I had no option but to dip my boots underwater and leg it across. Leaping from tuft of grass to tuft of grass isn’t easy with a big pack on, and sometimes I missed. Still, occasionally I was managing to laugh at myself. If I remember rightly, I was also swearing a lot, but there was no one to hear me, so that’s OK.

On the other hand it was also possible to look on the bright side: navigation wasn’t proving a problem, for the entire length of the ridge was spanned by a fence which I could follow all the way. The down side of this was that it was also a rusty barb wire fence, and at one point I had to brush against it in order to tip-toe across stepping stones through a patch of bogland. Inevitably my trousers got caught on it and ripped a tiny hole in one pocket. It was only a teeny tiny little hole, but it was still a hole, and it was a brand new pair of trousers. An easterly wind carried a faint echo of the word “bollocks” across the Glaslyn Valley towards Snowdon.

Cnicht from Ysgafell Wen
Cnicht from Ysgafell Wen

At 4pm I reached Llyn Edno, a broad lake spanning the breadth of the ridge in a small hollow, and decided this was a good place to stop and finish the remainder of my packed lunch. Of course, Mr Sod has proved mathematically that this is the most likely time for it to start raining heavily. If I’d done my sums before heading out as well as checking the mountain weather forecast, I would have known this. But I hadn’t, and I was in mid-sandwich when it started peeing down. By then putting the sandwich away and heaving my pack back onto my shoulders was unthinkable, so I sat there like a miserable drowned water vole munching gloomily.

I continued onwards over another small rise and reached a junction of ridges. To the west a broad grassy plateau narrowed and tapered until it rose to the jagged heights of Cnicht, a hill known as the Welsh Matterhorn due to its striking profile from its western side. A curious phenomenon of the misty conditions was that these very small hills looked very much bigger from a distance. I was standing at 650m on the summit of Ysgafell Wen, and although the ridge dipped a little along the way, the summit of the Welsh Matterhorn was only 39m higher at 689m. At one point it had been my intention to climb Cnicht before dropping back down to one of the many lakes on the ridge to camp. Although it would probably have only added another hour to my day at most, I was feeling very sleepy and from here it looked more like Kilimanjaro. Since I’ve already climbed both Kilimanjaro and Cnicht, I decided that I really couldn’t be bothered, and pitching my tent was more imperative.

Wild camping spot beside Llyn Conglog, with Allt-fawr behind
Wild camping spot beside Llyn Conglog, with Allt-fawr behind

The boggy ridge had become more of a wide grassy plateau peppered with dozens of tiny lakes. It was a heaven for wild campers, and I had it all to myself. I crossed a couple more small hills and arrived at the the shores of Llyn Conglog, the biggest of the lakes on the plateau, which in those deceptive misty conditions looked more like the Caspian Sea. I could dimly make out the profile of Cnicht rising sharply through the mist beyond the lake, and made up my mind to pitch my tent here, because it was likely to prove a very picturesque view to wake up to the following morning. Of course, it didn’t occur to me that the following day the weather might be even worse.

Apart from that glorious sunny view of Moel Siabod that greeted me first thing in the morning, snuggling into my sleeping bag in the tent was my favourite part of the day. I brewed up several mugs of steaming Earl Grey tea and heated up a nice Lancashire Hotpot. I tried reading some of Voyage of the Beagle on my Kindle, but Darwin isn’t the best material for keeping open sleepy eyes. I read about three pages.

The wind battered against my tent that night. It’s a very small backpacking tent, so the battering was right in my ears, but I slept like a hibernating hedgehog. The thick tufted grass was soft beneath me, and it was a very comfortable place to sleep. When I woke up at 6am the wind was still battering, and I could hear a very light drizzle on the tent. Unzipping the entrance to peer across the lake I could hardly see the other side, and Cnicht was nowhere to be seen. It was a worse day than yesterday, and the main consolation was that it was only raining lightly.

Looking across boggy moorland to Foel Fras from Moel Penamnen
Looking across boggy moorland to Foel Fras from Moel Penamnen

I lost two lightweight tent pegs packing away my tent. I left the two ends pinned in the ground as I took down the pole, but as soon as I removed both ends of the pole from their eyelets, a big gust took away tent, pegs and all. I caught the tent after a few metres, but I had no chance of finding the pegs in the long grass.

I followed the fence line to the top of the next hill, Allt-fawr. Here the mist cleared briefly to reveal a huge ugly eyesore of a giant slate quarry below me to the south, a grey mass of scarred and filthy landscape. Perhaps it was a good thing the view wasn’t clear today, after all. There followed a five hour trudge down into valleys and up again, over small hills and down again. The tops of the hills were always windy, and the next one would be visible rising into cloud beyond. None of the views were encouraging, and a damp drizzle clung to me throughout. I needed to get my compass out to cross a boggy featureless plateau beyond Moel Penamnen, but beyond Foel Fras the route skirted the edge of pine forest above Cwm Penamnen, and navigation was easy. The grass here was very long, sometimes knee high and my trousers legs became soaked heavily.

My final hill of the day, Y Ro Wen rose steeply above the cwm in profile, but from my side the path rose gently up grassy tussocks. From the summit another 4×4 track swept down to Dolwyddelan, and it didn’t take me long to descend back into the valley. When I reached my car at 2pm I realised the world below 500 metres was basking in sunshine. I checked Twitter and discovered the rest of the country was experiencing gloriously sunny weekend weather.

I was still a drowned rat, but I suppose I’d rather enjoyed it after all, in its own way – it gives me something to moan about, and it was good training, mainly in sense of humour. I’m going to have to do it again though, when the weather’s sunny. The views would be a bit special when you can see them.

You can see all my photos from the trip in p.4 of 2011 Flickr album.

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