There are some hillwalking routes in the UK that everybody knows about, and in good weather are certain to be jam-packed with walkers, while others very close seem to remain known to connoisseurs only. I remember once being all alone on the knife edge ridge of the CMD arete on Ben Nevis, only to emerge on a summit heaving with walkers who had trudged up the usual boring tourist route.
A man at the top was amazed when he saw me arrive. “I didn’t realise there was another way up here!” he remarked. Of course there’s another way up. A mountain has many sides, but the surprising thing is how many people don’t consider this obvious fact.
Snowdon in north Wales is another example. It’s a fantastic mountain, there’s no question of that, but everyone knows it, and in this case most of its routes, even the adventurous knife edge ridge of Crib Goch, will have large numbers of walkers on them on a sunny day.
A few miles south, however, is a pair of wild and beautiful secret gems: The Rhinogs. A compact range of hills, the Rhinogs include the rolling grassy hills of Diffwys and Y Llethr at their southern end, a broad ridge whose most notable feature is a dry stone wall running along its entire length. This gentleness ends abruptly north of Y Llethr, where a sudden change of scenery opens out into one of those views that make you want to sit down and take it all in before walking any further. A steep descent leads down to the deep blue lake Llyn Hywel, beyond which the twin summits of Rhinog Fach and Rhinog Fawr rise steeply in layers of granite slabs. The view is enhanced significantly by the lighter blue of the Irish Sea ever present a short distance away to the west.
These are tough hills to climb, as I discovered the weekend before last when I decided to embark on a two day backpacking adventure traversing the ridge from south to north, before dropping down to camp on the shores of a hidden lake nestling between folds of lower foothills, from where I returned to my car the following day across a series of varied ridges.
It was warm and sunny, and two litres of water were never going to be enough when combined with the exertions of carrying a heavy pack. I made good time over Diffwys and Y Llethr, but the ‘path’ up Rhinog Fach involved climbing steeply on jagged boulders. Another backpacker I passed had left his pack at the bottom and elected to scramble up this section unencumbered. I pressed onwards and enjoyed a satisfying sandwich on the summit looking north to my final summit of the day, Rhinog Fawr. It was only 2.30, but it would be another six hours before I staggered into camp.
I’ve written before about the pros and cons of walking off piste, and the Rhinogs are not hills for a walker who insists on using a path. This is some of the roughest terrain in the UK, with established paths pretty much non-existent. There are many crags on the northern side of Rhinog Fach, and I had to find a route between them over rough boulders and heather to a col 400m below the summit. It’s treacherous terrain where ankles can easily be twisted, either on unstable rocks or among clumps of heather. A good sense of balance is essential, especially when carrying a large pack, as I was. I had forgotten to bring water purification tablets, and as I nursed the last of my two litres of water it was frustrating passing a number of stagnant pools where I might have replenished my stock. Better to have a parched mouth than an uncomfortable bout of the squitters, however, for there’s too much pollution and disease in UK waters to drink water from any of these sources untreated.
The valley between the two Rhinogs was soft and boggy, with clumps of tufted grass carpeting its floor. Rhinog Fawr rose up above me threateningly. There was no obvious route up and I would have to pick a line up across jagged boulders more or less at random. I struggled to force down a sandwich, so dry was my throat as I finished the last of my water, but I lay down on the grass and enjoyed a blissful half hour’s sleep in the blazing sun before moving on. It was 4.30 when I continued, and and almost immediately I had wet feet after putting a whole leg through a hidden hole in the grassy bogland. But a short way up the flanks of Rhinog Fawr, just before the grass gave way to heather, I jumped across a narrow stream to the sound of rushing water. This part of the stream looked deliciously fresh and clean as the soft grass leached out pollutants from the water. I lay down and filled both my water bottles from a cascade that looked cleanest. I was taking a risk, I knew, but I still had a long hot climb ahead of me, and several hours of walking before I reached camp. I swug thirstily from my bottles and refilled them. It was beautiful, and although it would be many hours before I could confirm the water was clean, it turned out to be a risk worth taking.
It was another treacherous climb up Rhinog Fawr. There didn’t seem to be any alternative to steep boulder hopping, but I tried to steer clear of the clumps of heather, where twisting an ankle seemed most likely. The sun continued to burn relentlessly, and I had to stop regularly to rest, drink, and take the pack off my shoulders. Towards the summit I climbed above the rocks and the gradient gave way gently into slopes of dry heather, and it was a welcome relief when I reach the summit cairn at 6pm, 3½ hours after leaving the summit of Rhinog Fach. The two summits are barely two kilometres apart.
But the feeling of being all alone in the wilderness after the satisfaction of completing some physical exertion was worth it. To the north Snowdonia’s main summits ran across the horizon in a line of hazy silhouettes, while to the west the Lleyn Peninsula and Irish Sea were once again in view, just a short stone’s throw away. And behind me to the south Rhinog Fach and Y Llethr reminded me of where I’d come from that day.
The northern side of Rhinog Fawr is perhaps a little friendlier than the southern one, and I was even able to make out some semblance of a path from time to time, but even so it was a tiring descent across heather clad slopes for the first hour and a half of it until I reached the man-made stone pavement known as the Roman Steps, where a comfortable path took me down to my campsite on the shores of Llyn Cwm Bychan. I staggered into it at 8.30 after 12 hours of walking up and down difficult terrain with a heavy pack. It was a mistake to come here instead of camping wild on the other side of the lake, though. Although there were toilets, these did not compensate for the noise of neighbouring campers playing their radios in this otherwise peaceful location. But I slept well that night in any case.
My return journey the following day, skirting the western shoulders of these same hills, was interesting too, and although there was nothing to compare with that epic journey between the summits of the Rhinogs, there were plenty of climbs and descents to keep the knees and leg muscles tested. When I reached my car after another 9 hours of walking I had to apologise to a man who tried to engage me in conversation as I arrived, as I needed to rest and get my breath back before I could face talking to anyone.
Of course, not everyone has to carry a big rucksack like I did, but even so the Rhinogs are rough and difficult mountains, but for those who don’t mind a spot of exertion for the reward of getting off the beaten track where few other walkers can be seen, they’re well worth a look. They’re also incredibly beautiful, with great diversity of scenery along the way.