Friday, 21 March 2014

In at the deep end....Gorge scrambling in north and mid Wales

Gareth in the Coed y Brenin-South Snowdonia
I was alone and halfway up a steep mountain gully in Wales.  Not one of the good kinds of gully; covered in reassuring neve or inviting ice, or consisting of solid and entertaining rock steps.  No, it was late April and the sun was shining (at least, it was shining outside of the claustrophobic confines of the ravine), and the gully was filled with moss and rushes and soil.  Where rock appeared it was wet and covered in slime.  Above the right hand wall towered an imposing and vegetated mountain face.  I was halfway up Esgair Gully; a deep gash that burrows below the north face of Foel Goch in the Glyderau.  Ahead things seemed to be getting steeper and looser.  It finally seemed time to admit it: I had a problem.  I had become obsessed with the obscure and esoteric world of Welsh gorges, gullies and streams.

How did it all start?  I moved to Bangor in 2004 to start university.  One of the major attractions was the mountains.  I’d always loved mountains and the wild places.  With the University Mountain Walking Club (Bangor UMWC) I started scrambling the classic Snowdonian grade 1 ridges, and after getting hooked on that started ticking off the grade 2 scrambles in the Glyderau and Carneddau.  I never had the head for heights or the bravery to tackle the top scrambles, and so soon ran out of new routes to explore.

It was one August day in 2007, heading with three friends out of the Llanberis Pass to upper Cwm Glas, aiming to go via a grade 1 described in Scrambles and Easy Climbs in Snowdonia.  I can’t now recall who had the idea, but we took to scrambling up the easy-angled watercourse of the nearby Afon Gennog to avoid the tedium of the steep approach.  It was pleasant: dry, grippy rock, water burbling under out feet.  Eventually the gradient relented and we walked over to the dripping wall of Craig y Rhaeadr.  The scramble we aimed to do threaded a way between Craig y Rhaeadr and an adjacent gorge.  Once again, someone suggested that we ignore the description and follow the water instead.   We set off into the gorge; steep sides, waterfalls, the occasional deep pool.  I recalled something A. Harry Griffin had written about gill scrambling in the Lake District.  He followed a set of self-imposed rules to maximise the fun: stick to the watercourse, traverse pools (rather than wade), take the hardest possible route.  An hour later we emerged near Llyn Glas, soaked to the skin and covered in bits of slime, but smiling.  With this, I was hooked.

Clocaenog Forest's secret waterfall
Autumn 2007 slowly unfolded.  At this time I couldn’t drive, but fortunately a friend, Pete Early, had both a car and a desire to get off the beaten track.  We explored Nant Gwynant and its surrounding valleys, always beautiful when the oak leaves turn and the rowan berries gleam. Above Llyn Dinas we discovered a gem of a scramble, following an open and unthreatening stream through a hillside scattered with conifers and rhododendrons.  Beyond this we ventured to Craig Llyn-Llagi, that sprawling heathery crag on the northern flank of Cnicht.  In thick mist we squirmed and slid up an algae-ridden stream-way, before retreating it and dismissing it as worthless.  It wouldn’t be until 2012 when I returned and discovered that the stream gathered itself into a narrow and enjoyable scramble higher up (albeit still on the slippery side).

The obsession grew over time, and in 2008 with various friends I searched our routes around Gwydyr Forest, Nant Ffrancon, Mynydd Mawr, Nant Gwynant, and the Llanberis Pass.  Possibilities seemed endless and everywhere, and each new look at the map suggested that more routes were waiting to be found.  I found the Geograph website a brilliantly useful tool to bring up photos of likely looking streams and gorges, and to decide if they were worthy of closer investigation.  The discovery of some usefully placed bothies then facilitated some trips into south Snowdonia, away from our usual stomping grounds, where we unearthed scrambles on Cadair Idris and in the Coed y Brenin. 

So what is the appeal?  Certainly, the deep gorges are a relic landscape.  There is no agricultural use for them and so their vegetation has been left intact whilst surrounding woodland has been felled.  This is part of the appeal of the big Snowdonian gorges; they are atmospheric and evocative places, untouched by the hand of man.  Apart from a handful of routes that the outdoor centres use, it is likely that you will be alone once you enter.  However, the open, sunny slabs of the gentle mountain streams also have their attraction.  On a hot day in summer there can be few more enjoyable pursuits then following a watercourse up onto the tops, perhaps with an optional swim on the way.  

Exploring Craig y Rhaedr Gorge
Of course, during my explorations it hasn’t all been fun.  A handful of scares are fresh in my memory.  I recall a day in the Vale of Ffestiniog with Gareth Harvey, when we went to scope out the Ceunant Llennyrch, a huge ravine formed where the Afon Prysor leaves the dam at Llyn Trawsfynydd and flows down to the Dwyryd estuary.  It was October 2010, probably a bit late in the year to be doing the big gorges that involve getting wet, but it should have been relatively trivial.  For a start, we knew the gorge got used by outdoor groups.  We entered the woodland along a riverside path, and opted to stay on the path until the gorge became interesting.  Unfortunately, we made the ridiculous error of walking too far, and the path climbed high above the river.  Being too lazy to retrace our steps, we decided to descend direct down the slopes to the bed of the gorge, Gareth leading the way.  This was possibly a mistake.  The ground was wet, covered in blankets of thick moss and dead trees, and deep holes waited to ensnare angles. 

After proceeding gingerly down the slopes I came around a tree to see Gareth standing down in the river.  Between me and him was a cliff of brown rubble, but no obvious route down (and to this day I’m still not sure how he got down so fast).  I slithered around on my mossy ledge, trying to find a way down, but nothing was obvious.  The drop was perhaps only four metres, but with a rough landing, and it certainly looked nasty.  I remember standing there, shouting obscenities at poor Gareth for several minutes, for leading me into this predicament.  I had the bright idea to throw my rucksack down to lighten my load when I eventually tried a descent.  Shit. I realised I’d just thrown down my helmet and several long slings that might have extricated me.

 After several more minutes of gibbering around I gracefully climbed/tumbled down into the river, emerging with a few light scratches and an apology for my bad language.  An important lesson learned: the entries and exits to some of these gorges can be trickier than the navigation of the gorge itself.

Other memories of days that slide more to the unpleasant end of the enjoyment spectrum.  An adventure away from usual haunts into Clocaenog Forest, where the map promised a huge v-shaped ravine, but suggested no waterfalls existed.  Gareth was in attendance again, and we’d been joined by another friend, Chris Earing.  Another day with a difficult start: our first attempt was to descend from the road through forest slopes, but thick, spiky gorse barred our way.  Attempt two involved climbing down an adjacent stream, but this lead to impossible waterfalls and collapsing bracken.  Our third, successful, attempt, entailed bracken-bashing followed by a light jog as we trespassed across a few farm fields to the river. 

As we headed up river we found a series of beautiful waterfalls, hidden to the outside world by the trees, and presumably seen by very few people.  The going was tricky as the rock was incredibly treacherous; both friable and slimy.  Impossibly steep waterfalls forced us to the sides of the gorge where we climbed up steeply through a combination of bracken and brambles.  Agonising progress, using brambles to pull up on, and with deadwood collapsing under our boots, but no chance of a retreat now.  Eventually the steep v-shape of the gorge relented and we could breathe a sigh of relief: escape was possible if we needed it.

For every one of these testing days, there must have been at least ten days of perfection: scrambling in solitude, unencumbered by ropes and harnesses.  Summer evenings were particular favourites, when a quick post-work hit could be had; the mountains even quieter than normal, with cuckoos calling from the valleys below.  Eventually 2013 arrived and I left Wales for Oxfordshire.  Over the years I drafted the explorations into a guidebook that now contains 70 routes or so.  More remain to be investigated, especially into the great desert of Wales.  Deep in the Cambrian mountains all sorts of gorges and streams lie ignored and unknown.  Will the guidebook ever come to light?  I hope so, but no publisher so far has decided to take the project on.  I do remain hopeful though, and long to see other people get as much happiness out of these lost landscapes as I have. 

The Author 'new routing' at a secret location in Snowdonia
Mike Peacock:2014 
Photos: Author's Collection