Nantlle Ridge, North Wales - Small is Beautifulby Dan Bailey - UKHillwalking.com May/2012
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If rain has washed you out of the big peaks around Ogwen and the Pass then try your luck on the Nantlle Ridge. With its lower altitude and peripheral position this classic walk often escapes the worst North Welsh weather, but it's a must-do come rain or shine.
Snowdonia in the wet can be dismal: the summits so cloaked in murky gloom that it's hard to imagine they're there at all; sheep huddling sadly in the lee of the reeds as waves of icy rain sweep through dull grey valleys; climbs and scrambles turned dank and slippy as the rocks stream and the streams burst; cold hands, soggy socks and views of the insides of clouds. There's only so much tea drinking and gear shop browsing a body can take, and if I never visit a chilly castle or a dripping slate cavern again it'll be too soon. After several days of this I was beginning to get cabin (well, campsite) fever.
In this all-too-common situation climbers might retreat to the drier climes of the coastal fringe, but for walkers it can be harder to see beyond the crowd-pleasing 3000-footers, to remember that there's far more to Snowdonia than yet another rainy day in the Carneddau, the Glyderau or Snowdon. The giants pack close together in the northern quarter of the National Park, attracting most of the footfall while the host of lower ranges that make up the bulk of Snowdonia remain comparatively neglected. Yet this is no reflection on the quality of their hillwalking, which is up there with the best. It took those few days of frustration to remind us of the utterly bleeding obvious, but we got there eventually; we too could flee the mist-bound higher peaks and try our luck elsewhere – and we didn't even have to go far to do so.
'There's far more to Snowdonia than yet another rainy day in the Carneddau, the Glyderau or Snowdon'
Thanks to their lower altitude Snowdonia's smaller hills can often stand below the cloud ceiling, escaping the worst of the weather while the biggies remain clagged in. Well, it's a theory at least. Up in the north of the park the Nantlle Ridge is the pick of the bunch, a row of shapely little peaks that represent North Wales at its unspoilt best. The traverse of the lot is a day out as good as any, a classic grassy ridge stride with occasional hands-on sections for added interest, and spacious seaward views. It really doesn't deserve to be relegated to a wet weather plan B; a route this memorable should earn plenty of attention come rain or shine. But while crowds queue their way up nearby Snowdon the Nantlle Ridge can be strangely quiet. I guess that's part of the attraction.
'A classic grassy ridge stride with occasional hands-on sections - North Wales at its unspoiled best'
The logical place to begin is the tiny village of Rhyd-Ddu, and from here the lung-bursting climb to Y Garn, the first peak of the range, got us off to a staggering start. I reckon it's the hardest bit of the day. This is the smallest of the Nantlle summits but maybe the most dramatic, with a raven's eye view over steep northern crags (home to a couple of mountain rock classics) to fields and forests far below. Though the light remained dull and lifeless the early rain was fizzling out. The Snowdon range was still lost under a cloud cap, while our hills had now blown free as hoped. Luckily no one else seemed to have twigged to this, leaving us exclusive (if temporary) ownership of the entire Nantlle Ridge.
Next up, Mynydd Drws-y-coed. Seen from below this is a classic shark's tooth peak, a narrow grizzled spine with precipitous flanks, all slimy rock and lush vegetation – not a climber's mountain, but well suited to scramblers. The ascent looked fairly daunting from a distance but soon resolved into an easy clamber. A scrappy path to the left of the crest avoids the fun stuff, but what's the point of that? We took the ridge more direct, where a series of blocky, mossy steps led us up past a little leaning pinnacle to the airy summit. From here a pleasingly narrow ridge connects to Trum y Ddysgl – easy ground but with that special rooftop feel that characterises all the best ridge walks. Descending from this third peak of the range the slopes on either side pinch tight to form a distinctive grass-topped gangway, yet another highlight on what was shaping up to be a pretty memorable day. A gentle ascent beside an old drystone wall now brought us onto peak number four, Mynydd Tal-y-mignedd - a hill that's probably easier for most Anglophones to climb than to pronounce. Up on top is an unusual square-cut obelisk. Built ostensibly to celebrate Victoria's jubilee, it's now probably a more fitting monument to the local quarrymen who put the hard work in.
Beyond a col that's slightly lower than you might wish it to be rises the northeast ridge of Craig Cwm Silyn, where a little scrappy scrambling can be found if you go looking – we did, for what it was worth. This is avoidable to the right, and you won't be missing much by going that way. The difficulties (such as they were) quickly eased, and beyond a short series of mini grassy pinnacles the path soon took us to the stone-walled windbreak at the 'high' point of the range. That's a not particularly impressive 734 metres if you're counting, but what it lacks in altitude this hill makes up for in interest. On its northern flank is the gorgeous mountain cirque of Cwm Silyn whose twin tarns are backed by the wonderful Craig yr Ogof and its small but select collection of mountain rock climbing classics. The cwm is well viewed from above, and worth a detour west from the summit.
So too are the two western tops of Nantlle, Garnedd-goch and Mynydd Graig Goch. These are broad, stony and shapeless compared to their eastern neighbours, but they have a stunning outlook to the pointy Lleyn hills and the sea. There is a downside however. The Nantlle Ridge is a linear feature, and if taken to its natural westernmost conclusion you find yourself a long way from Rhyd-Ddu with a fairly pressing transport issue to resolve. Having gone west on a previous visit we chose a different tack this time, retracing our steps back east along the ridge. It's just as good in reverse. Afternoon sun had begun to break through in patches, painting the Nantlle Ridge and its fellow littlies in the the Hebog range and the Moelwynion in a new and beautiful light. Meanwhile the bigger hills of the north remained as greyly invisible as ever. I love it when a plan comes together.