Rising a short distance south of the town of Barmouth and the Mawddach estuary – the place where the great Himalayan explorer Bill Tilman lived for the latter part of his life and embarked on many of his voyages – is Cadair Idris, the last peak in Snowdonia before the high mountains give way to the soft rolling landscape of mid-Wales.
The name Cadair Idris translates as Idris’s Chair because of the mountain’s saddle shape. Quite who Idris was, has been lost in the mists of time. Some say he was a local giant, but he would have needed to be hundreds of metres high to sit astride the col between Craig Cau and Pen y Gadair, the obvious places for a skyscraper-sized horse rider.
Others say he was a Welsh prince who fought the English, and others still a poet who composed some of his best work while resting at the summit.
It doesn’t matter. He could have been Dylan Thomas’s pet sheep, who was regularly dressed in a pink frock and used as a fireside footrest, for all I care. The important thing is that Cadair Idris has one of the best horseshoe ridge walks in Wales, up the Minffordd Path on the south side, and across the mountain’s two main summits, Pen y Gadair (893m) and Mynydd Moel (863m).
One day I would like to climb Cadair Idris from the north, but it would have been unfair on Edita, who hasn’t climbed it, to deny her its better side.
We left from the shady car park by the Minffordd Hotel at 9.30 (shady because of the canopy of trees enclosing it like a roof, not because there were pimps and pushers at the entrance trying to sell us sheep’s cheese).
The trail climbed almost immediately up a stone staircase through a forest of oaks which is said to have existed on these slopes since the end of the ice age 8,000 years ago.
The summer heatwave doesn’t appear to have affected central Wales quite as severely as it has London and the south-east. There the grass is as yellow as straw. Here it was still lushly green. There was a dampness in the air, and the stream below us was more than just a trickle.
Soon we were back in sun. After 200m of ascent, we left the forest through a gate into open moorland. The trail passed through a tangle of bracken. One branch led off to the right to take a gentle route up to Mynydd Moel, the second summit.
We kept left into Cwm Cau, the sole of the horseshoe and one of the jewels of Cadair Idris. The turquoise lake of Llyn Cau is flanked by cliffs on three sides. We entered through the only open side. The pointed prow of Craig Cau rose across the lake, and higher cliffs to our right guarded Pen y Gadair, the mountain’s main summit.
The Minffordd Path passes around this secluded combe in a clockwise spiral. It’s easy to see why this is the classic route up Cadair Idris.
The staircase of steps led up to the top of the cwm’s southern wall. Here a broad ridge awash with banks of purple heather and rocky outcrops rose gently on a good trail. Mostly the path stayed well clear of the edge, and there was a roof-of-the-world feel across the gentle hills to the south.
Occasionally the path peered over the cliffs into Cwm Cau. The gentleness of the gradient masked how quickly we had climbed above the cwm. The lake was now hundreds of metres below us, and the boulder-clad summit of Pen y Gadair rose across it invitingly. It didn’t seem so far away.
As we approached the top of Craig Cau (731m) the trail rose more steeply over boulders. At one point it veered gratuitously to the cliff’s edge to look down a narrow cleft in the rock, all the way down to the lake. If Cadair Idris really was a giant’s chair deep in the bowels of time, I imagine this was the place he came to relieve himself. In that case, I’m surprised a legend hasn’t evolved about the origins of the lake.
At the top of the crag, a ladder stile led across a fence onto the summit of Craig Cau. This is one of Cadair Idris’s best viewpoints, looking down into Cwm Cau from a central position.
The cliff’s edge continued down to a col before rising relentlessly back up to the summit of Pen y Gadair as the trail continued its journey around the rim of the cwm. Beyond we could just make out the summit of Mynydd Moel crowning the softer hillsides on the far side.
To the west, a wide expanse of undulating emerald grassland sloped gently down to the Irish Sea. It was a welcome change to see all this green grass in the weeks of parched summer we’ve been experiencing.
I had promised Edita the best views of the day up on Cadair Idris’s broad summit plateau, but it didn’t work out that way. As we tiptoed across the boulder fields that guarded the summit, we entered a fine mist.
It was annoying. The sun threatened to break through, but it was failing. There were tantalising glimpses of cliffs, but nothing further than 100m or so, and they shimmered in and out of vision as the clouds brushed across the summit.
We took a selfie beside the concrete trig point, but there was nothing to see behind us. There is a low stone shelter just below the summit. It is said that in the 19th century an old lady used to walk up here to sell refreshments – a low budget version of the series of shelters on Snowdon’s summit.
Unlike Snowdon, where the shelters have evolved into a train station and the state-of-the-art visitor centre that is Hafod Eryri, this shelter has become derelict. If you want to spend a night up here, I would recommend bringing a tent.
A handful of people were sitting in mist below the summit eating their lunch. We found a pleasant spot above Cwm Cau and had a sandwich as we waited for the mist to clear.
There was a 4G connection on my phone, so I was able to follow the BBC’s ball-by-ball cricket reports. England had just dismissed Virat Kohli, and had eight Indian wickets down in the 4th innings. By the time we reached the summit of Mynydd Moel, India were all out and England had won the match (for the benefit of my American readers, Edita didn’t give a shit either).
After half an hour the mist still hadn’t cleared, but we decided we had to move on. As we crossed the grassy summit plateau, there were times when we could have been crossing a farmer’s field at ground level. I was frustrated that we didn’t get the benefit of the 360° panorama that I knew there to be.
We kept to the left of the plateau, where the steep cliffs on the northern side at least reminded us we were high up. We looked down the eroded scree slope of the Fox’s Path, where we could see people on the way up.
A little beyond this, the mist finally cleared, and we stood on a rocky promontory looking north. To our left we could see the sand bars and jetties of Barmouth harbour, and to the north the wild Rhinog mountains rose across the valley, a place which provided me with unforgettable memories of an exhausting backpacking weekend a few years ago. On a clear day, I knew that Snowdon was visible on the far horizon, but today all the high peaks of northern Snowdonia were in cloud.
This clearing of the clouds should have raised our spirits. It did to an extent, but as we waited on this spot, two things happened to dampen the mood.
First, I dropped my camera about a foot onto a rock. I wasn’t concerned initially, because I had an old version of this camera that sported more dents than a battered old banger, but still it worked. I even watched it roll down a cliff on Mount Meru, and survive to record our subsequent ascent of Kilimanjaro.
This time, however, the camera refused to switch on. After five minutes of fiddling around, I had to concede that it was (to use the technical term) fucked.
As this was going on, we heard a lady screaming a short distance back along the ridge.
“Andrew, Andrew, stop that at once, come here.”
A few minutes later a sheep and a lamb came hurtling over a rise pursued by a dog. The terrified mother led its offspring down the cliffs on the north side of the plateau. The dog didn’t follow. Mercifully the two sheep avoided a murderous plunge into the abyss, but they were a good 30m down by the time the mother decided they were safe from pursuit. A number of people came to the edge of the cliff and looked down. It wasn’t clear how the ewe and her lamb were going to get back up.
I’m not a dog owner, so I don’t have much empathy. Perhaps someone can tell me – is it so hard to keep your dog on a lead when there are sheep around and you know the dog has a penchant for chasing them? Another dog had come to investigate my sandwich while I was eating at the summit, much to my irritation. None of the dog owners we saw that day seemed to be using leads. Also, who calls their dog Andrew?
There were still clouds on the horizon, but the sky was now clear enough for us to see our immediate surroundings. The grassy plateau dropped then rose again. We crossed a stile in another fence to reach the summit of Mynydd Moel.
We stopped for a second lunch perched at the top of a cliff a few metres from the summit cairn. We gazed down to the moorlands immediately beneath Cadair Idris’s north and east sides. The town of Dolgellau was directly beneath us. To the east a landscape of rolling hills and patchy forest stretched to the horizon. I could just make out the Aran ridge a few miles away, the scene of another more recent backpacking adventure.
It was a nice place for a meal, but there was another dampener to the spirits when Edita knocked over her tin of Elvis Juice and spilled half its contents into the grass. My reaction to this was a cry more anguished than when I dropped my camera. It’s heartbreaking to waste good beer after carrying it so high.
Beyond Mynydd Moel, the ridge dropped steeply for 200m, then extended for some distance to the east on a grassy spur, Gau Craig. This is a quiet corner of Cadair Idris, and we walked all the way to the end, where another cairn lay beyond a fence.
Looking back on Mynydd Moel, Cadair Idris’s second summit has a very different appearance from this side, a steep and dramatic cliff face upon whose top we’d perched for our lunch.
It was 2.30. I’d been up since 3.30am driving up from London. We lay down in the long grass atop Gau Craig and I slept soundly for half an hour, until another group arrived to disturb the silence.
It was a glorious day again by the time we descended steeply from Gau Craig down to the road. The innocuous grassy hillside masked a short section of scrambling.
The valley is narrow here, and the A487 passes through on a raised embankment. The footpath back to the Minffordd car park angled beneath the road, and we were able to return that way without being aware of the traffic so close.
Tal-y-llyn Lake nestled in the folds of the valley ahead of us, and sheep grazed bedside the trail. We had ambled slowly, stopping frequently and pausing on the summit to wait for the clouds to clear.
We were still back at the car park long before 5pm. The horseshoe walk we had completed up the Minffordd Path and over both summits is one of the best shorter walks in Britain within easy reach of civilisation. It was another good day out.