Articles - Climbers guide to Mid Wales
Paul Cox on the 1st ascent og Steric Arete, Direct start(Vs 4c) lower Cwfwry Arete, Cadair Idris
If you base your climbing experiences around knowing the grade of all things and the value of little else, then now would be the perfect moment to stop reading. But if your game plan can accommodate a degree of uncertainty, a touch of patience, a good deal of walking in striking mountain landscapes and a nose for climbing off the beaten track, then get ready for a journey into Britain’s forgotten wilderness.
Even for well-seasoned climbers, Mid Wales has always been something of an enigma. Tales of the odd great route and the occasional published photo have often been tempered by first-hand sagas of copious vegetation and nightmare approaches. And there’s the pull of more popular crags in
What follows is an introduction to a number of terrific mountain routes across one of the
What to know before you go
A few things should be born in mind to enjoy routes in Mid Wales. First and foremost is the need for dry weather on and prior to a visit. This restricts the climbing season to the late spring through to the early autumn. To start out on most of the routes in anything but dry conditions would be a big mistake as many of the routes hold water and are on high shady cliffs. Secondly, the upward view of many of the big mountain lines on first acquaintance is more often than not a rather disconcerting one, the watchword here being ‘green’. In fact, once embarked on, the routes are remarkably clean and on some of the best rock around with good and regular gear.
For those unfamiliar with the area, the climbing lies in the five major mountain ranges of Cadair Idris, the Arennigs, the Arans, the Berwynions and the Rhinogaus and all are easily reached from the two tourist centres of Dolgellau and Bala. Cadair Idris is an impressive mountain and the best known in Mid Wales. Its huge bulk looms over the Mawddach Estuary. Although a big hill at 893m, it is pipped as the highest in Mid Wales by its eastern neighbour Aran Fawddwy a mere twelve meters higher and with better rock and routes. Aran Fawddwy keeps its impressive eastern face concealed and its beautiful Cwm Cywarch is also well hidden. The Arennigs to the north of Bala have a wealth of good solid rock as do the Rhinogaus with its selection of hard, single-pitch lines on solid grit. (Yes, really! It’s good stuff, between Peak grit and Torridonian sandstone. So go there.) The Berwynions don’t possess rock of the same quality but have a small number of crags in gorgeous settings worthy of a look once the other areas have been sampled.
As a good illustration of the kind of surprises that Mid Wales can turn up for the uninitiated, the Arenigs are perfect. Sandwiched between the big hitters of the Arans to the south and the Moelwyns to the north, the crags of the eastern side of Arenig Fawr have never been well publicised and only developed fully over the last decade or so. Crags of all shapes and sizes pepper the steep mountainside above the circular Llyn Arenig Fawr. For a first visit the large tiered crag of Simdde Ddu’s south face is the place to head for and a day of three-star climbing on superb very clean rock, in a magnificent mountain location. As a starter, the best line on the crag will not disappoint. The blunt arête on the faces right-hand side is the line of Emperor’s New Toes (VS 4c)*** and unfolds as a glorious climb up the rather blank looking line. The positions are airy and the protection is a little spaced but the holds keep appearing with the crux at a slight steepening midway. The face gains height to the left of the arête and provides a couple of three-pitch lines up cracks, arêtes and walls. Gyllion (HVS 5a, 4c, 5a) *** is as good as many at the grade in neighbouring
The Arans form a long ridge linking various summits that run parallel to the valley linking Dolgellau with Bala. From this valley the hills look large but uninteresting in comparison with the brooding bulk of Cadair Idris lurking in the distance. However the Arans eastern elevation is a very different prospect with a continuous line of huge steep walls dropping down into remote cwms. The most dramatic contains Llyn Lliwbran with Gist Ddu (the Black Chest) as its backdrop and the most beautiful is Cwm Cywarch. Both are blessed with large crags and both have classic mountain routes on them.
The remote Gist Ddu is an amazing cliff composed of huge ribs of superb rock clinging to the sides of a massive, heavily vegetated cwm, a stone’s throw above the perfectly positioned Llyn Lliwbran. Gist Ddu is hard to find and not all that often in condition but one route here is an all-time classic, Martin Boysen’s 1968 Aardvark (HVS 5a, 5a, 4c)***. A masterpiece of route finding, Aardvark tackles the steepest and best arête on the crag dodging the hard bits by exposed traverses but always finding its way back on to the line. Even the start up a Welsh version of the Hanging Garden of Babylon is fun. Aardvark is high in the grade even in perfect conditions and may not be quickly found or accessed. Leave plenty of time for the ascent as to rush it would be to spoil something a bit special. For those wanting more, a quick abseil back to the large comfy grass ledge at the top of Aardvark’s first pitch will allow the classy top pitch of Voie Suisse (E1 4c,5b)*** to be accessed. This 45m intricate vertical wall climb on great rock and with good protection will require a bit of cleaning of its top thin crack on the abseil approach unless someone else has done the route earlier in the season. And that is not as likely as you might imagine.
Cwm Cywarch is a very different place to Gist Ddu, its picture-perfect valley floor rising up to the long line of crags that line its western rim. Craig Cywarch has lots of routes, some quite well known such as Will-o’-the-Wisp of Classic Rock fame but its best mountaineering experience is Acheron (HVS 4c,4c,4c,4c,5a,4b)***. Acheron lies on the NE buttress and is hidden from the valley floor, but a very quick approach soon allows sight of the line, a huge snaking rib. It is hard to get any idea of its scale unless people are on the crag. There’s a lovely grassy gearing-up ledge. From here you can trace the severely foreshortened line. The climbing is amazingly varied with the highlights being a steep overlap on the first pitch, a wild traverse on the second, an arête above everything on the third and the crux leaning corner on the fifth. An easy descent back to the base via the exposed rake of Llwbyr Llewellyn may allow time for the other classic on this face the easier Doom (VS 4c,4c,4b,4a)***.
Very different in character to the large crags of the other three big ranges in the area, the compact rectangular walls of super solid grit are well worth a punt for those who like hard cragging in a mountain environment. The best routes in the range are mid to hard extremes with little of quality in the lower grades. The best introduction is to head for the outcrop of Y Grisau only a thirty-minute walk up from the parking at Llyn Cwm Bychan. The tall vertical wall at the crags lefthand end is cut from top to toe by two thin crack systems. Both Wilderness Grit (E3 6a)*** and its equally fine companion and slightly more sustained Later Than Night (E3 5c)*** are very well protected. A little wander up the path reveals an almost unimaginable amount of rock and some real gems for those with the nose for sniffing out the lines in this beautiful setting
Of all the ranges in Mid Wales Cadair Idris is the best known and spectacular. It is a beautiful mountain with impressive buttresses on all sides with the crag-lined bowl of Cwm Cau to the south and the massive drop of Cyfrwy above Llyn y Gadair to the north. Unfortunately the rock is not brilliant and many of the easier and middle grade lines should be approached with this in mind. Nevertheless an exploratory wander around should give some idea of what is on offer and an ascent of the long classic Cyfrwy Arête (Diff 700ft)*** shouldn’t be missed. Late summer evenings give the best conditions on this crag.
A rarely visited range, the Berwyns is a less aggressive range with less pronounced features but with a number of delightful valleys and crags in gorgeous settings. For those looking for a less demanding day away from the mountaineering of the other ranges then Craig Rhiwarth a series of little buttresses above the small
- What you need to know WALES
The major mountain ranges of Mid-Wales cover a large area from the Rhinogs and the Arenigs in the north to the southern ranges of Cadair Idris, the Arans and the Berwyns. The small towns of Bala and Dolgellau are the largest centres in the area the A494 that links them being the quickest way between the climbing areas.
The only way to access the ranges easily is by car as public transport is not really a viable option, although Dolgellau and Bala can be reached and linked by bus. From the east, Bala is best accessed via the A5 and then the A494, which also leads onto Dolgellau. Dolgellau is also accessed from Welshpool on the A458. From
When to go
The weather in Mid Wales is on the whole similar to that in
What to take
A standard rack and double ropes are ample for the routes at all of the crags. Cams are very useful in the Rhinogs. It is worth carrying a pair of shoes up the routes, as the descents are long. Route finding to the crags in this area is complex and an OS map and compass will be needed. Many of the crags are high and shady so warm clothing is a must.
Guidebooks and route information
Meirionnydd, Climbers‘ Club, cordee.co.uk Rock Climbs in Snowdonia, by Paul Williams, Constable.
Classic Rock features Will-o’-the-Wisp at Craig Cywarch.
Shops & Pubs
There are supermarkets, restaurants and pubs in Bala and Dolgellau.
Where to stay
Campsites, B&Bs and holiday cottages are numerous. Good campsites at the start of the Pony Track up Cadair Idris and at the start of the Roman Steps on the western side of the Rhinogs.
Other climbing in the area:
There are thousands of routes within an hour’s drive of the areas mentioned in this article. If the weather is wet in the hills then Tremadog is a good bet as are the limestone crags of Clwyd near Llangollen.
To find out more about climbing in Wales check out the following articles: