A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

A Rough Day In The Rhinogs

The Rhinogs have a reputation as being some of the roughest walking country in Wales. Although I like to think I returned from my big Camino walk in December reasonably fit, since then I've done little strenuous activity and have put on some weight. It would probably have been sensible to have worked my way in gradually and taken on some easier walks for the first day or 2. But sensible? Me?

After Friday night's deluge the campsite field was sodden. Driving off I promptly got stuck in the mud. Luckily a party of Duke of Edinburgh's Award schoolkids, who'd arrived very late the night before, were able to give the car a push. I crossed over from Cwm Bychan into Cwm Nantcol, the next valley, along a narrow, winding road until it became a farmer's track and I could go no further. On the way I managed to hit very hard a large stone on the edge of the road. This had the effect of gouging out 2 chunks of rubber from the wall of both my nearside tyres. As you can see, things were going very well so far!

I set off on foot past the stone cottage in the 1st pic and headed for a slight dip in the skyline just to the left of Rhinog Fawr, at 720m the 3rd highest of the Rhinog summits. The weather was cold and cloudy. I made the classic mistake of vaguely following 2 other walkers along the sketchy, relentlessly uphill path. The terrain changed from tussocky grass and bog to slippery stones and mud. It wasn't until the path levelled out, and I glimpsed the gleaming lake of Llyn Du to the north-east, that I realised I had overshot the cairned path on the left flank of the ridge as described in my walking guide.

Having no desire to retrace my steps, I carried on for a while until I came upon another hint of a path zigzagging up the northern face of the mountain. As I climbed, the path became more and more snow-covered. Halfway up I looked back and saw the southern edge of the Lleyn Peninsula bathed in sunlight. But I was struggling up into the deep cloud which clung to the higher tops of the Rhinogs. Suddenly, and unexpectedly quickly, I gained the summit plateau where there was a cairn, a wind shelter and an OS trig pillar ( 2nd pic). I ate my sandwiches resting my back on the eastern side of the stone shelter out of the wind. Ravens cronked overhead.

Now I had to get off the mountain. A surprisingly clear path led south-east in the direction of the next peak, Rhinog Fach. I followed it. I was ankle deep in snow. The path terminated at a cliff edge above a steep, snowy, bouldery gully. I didn't fancy clambering down this way at all. My walking book became very unhelpful at this point. The author had written that he always got lost here and had never taken the same route twice. Later someone told me I should have picked up a faint path to the left of the gully. But I veered to the right, contoured across heathery, rocky, ankle-twisting slopes to the south-west, and eventually faced a steep, pathless, extremely rough descent down tumbling, rocky stairways and raking, heathery inclines.

There was a lot of scrambling - using hands as well as feet. I took it slowly. I didn't want to hurt an ankle or tear a muscle. I had to be very careful as the ubiquitous heather often disguised the presence of hidden rocks or depressions beneath. As so often happens, halfway down the angle of declivity increased before it lessened. But I had committed myself, and was much too tired to go back and find an easier way down. After what seemd a very long time I reached the pass of Bwlch Drws-Ardudwy. The 3rd pic shows my slope of descent.

In relief I relaxed and set off down the pass back to Nantcol Farm and the car. Rhinog Fach would have to wait till another day. Here I made another classic mistake. I relaxed too much and didn't check the map. Assuming the return path would be obvious, I blithely followed a sheep track alongside a wall at the far side of the valley stream, thinking this was the correct way. It soon brought me into difficulty. The track abruptly vanished. Too late I realised that I was on the wrong side of the stream - which now flowed powerfully and had widened considerably.

After a long period of slow, uneven progress through marshy fields and tight, rocky defiles, I eventually found a place to breach the wall and ford the stream. There was another steep, awkward rise to to the place where I thought the correct path should be - this time knee-high, spiny thorn bushes were the obstacle. Still no path. Field after boggy field later I found the path - along which 2 other walkers were quickly and cheerfully making their way. They seemed rather surprised to see me emerge from a field of goats looking wild, wet and exhausted.

An hour later I was sitting in the National Milk Bar in the seaside town of Barmouth drinking a welcome mug of tea. National Milk Bars, like Spar supermarkets, are a national institution in Wales. It had been a rather gruelling slog for my first walk of the week. But, as is often the way, when I reflected back on it I realised how much I'd actually enjoyed it. In a masochistic kind of way. Outside, gulls rode the wind in Cardigan Bay and jackdaws made their chack-chacking calls from house chimney stacks. And later still, snug in my sleeping bag, tired but content, the rich and lilting repertoire of a song thrush soothed me to sleep.

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