Monday 29 March 2010

Roaming the Rhinogs, Easter 2008

An early start saw the amigos hit the road from Bristol with an eagerness to leave the city life behind. Inspired by Roger Deakin’s book, Waterland, we were off to Wales to seek out true wilderness and try our hands at wild camping. Earlier attempts had been somewhat mixed. In Sardinia we managed to pitch in the vicinity of a frustrated dog/wolf who growled menacingly all night, as if he was about to rip the tent to shreds and then set about the occupants. The following night was more idyllic, with a roaring campfire in sheltered dunes on the beach, a crashing surf and more stars than you could shake a stick at.

By the time we crossed the Severn Bridge into Wales the Boy Simmonds had just about got his head round the fact that you don’t need to use the gear stick in an automatic. Before long we were in mid Wales, passing through the Black Mountains and following the river Wye in full flow (proposals were put forward for a ‘three men in a boat’ style trip in a warmer season). Jim then spotted some mistletoe high in the trees lining the road and explained its origins. Now can’t seem to stop spotting it.

A brief stop was made at a camping shop in Crickhowell which I remembered from the previous year when I bought a few last minute essentials for the Mid Wales 100. Some League of Gentlemanesque behaviour ensued from the two middle aged women working the shop before we left with what we came for. Back on the road steady progress was made through sweeping valleys until we reached Dolgellau in the south of the Snowdonia National Park. Having built up an appetite we walked straight into our only disappointment of the weekend, the Ship Inn. A promising menu gave way to a shockingly tasteless affair straight from the microwave.
After stocking up on supplies for the forthcoming 24 hours (Jim and Simmy decided that 8 cans of Joshua’s finest were essential rations) we headed to a rough walkers car park on the east side of the Rhinogs. The weather was extremely changeable due to the strong winds, with heavy rain one minute and promises of sun the next. Fortunately we were much better equipped for this venture than any previous jaunt, and it was in full waterproofs that we began the business end of the weekend.

After a gentle trudge of a couple of miles through dense pine woods we emerged at the foot of the Roman Steps (though not Roman, the series of stone steps were constructed in medieval times as a pack animal access over the hostile terrain from the hinterland onto the coastal plains) where the ascent began. It was here that we saw the last people we were to see until the following lunchtime. As we began the steep climb up the north face of Rhinog Fawr (great) the weather really came in and sleet lashed at our backs before softening to large flakes of snow. The peak above us was shrouded in cloud but as we picked a way to the summit, as much by instinct than map, the clouds cleared to reveal supreme views in all directions, including out to sea at Cardigan Bay. It was from this first ‘bagged’ peak that we plotted our direction of descent and potential pitch for the night.

With the light drawing in we descended into the Nantcol Valley and finally found a small island of grass in the boggy ground next to an old ruined cottage. Before long the tent was up, with guy ropes being employed, a first for Hotel Blacks. The spot was a good’un, with fantastic views of the setting sun on Rhinog Fach (small) and the route we would climb tomorrow. Inside the tent things quickly became homely as sleeping bags were rolled out and the stove was lit. First course was soon served up, tomato soup with lashings of basil, shortly followed by a heaped bowlful of steaming pasta. The verdict was that we should open an eatery in Wales given the dross served up at lunchtime and what we had been able to rustle up on a camping stove. That said, food always tastes better on the mountain. Bellies full, moral was further boosted by some idle chat over a few hands of knockout whist. There was no need to change into pyjamas, it was a case of wearing every thread available, including beanies.

During the night I was convinced I was the only one having a fitful night’s sleep, as every time I looked over the fun boys seemed to be dreaming peacefully. I was pleased to discover in the morning that they had had a similar experience. The stove again worked miracles, producing an improvised dish of porridge mixed with crunchy oat cereal. The wind was still fierce and taking the tent down proved a right handful.

We descended to the valley bottom where the fields were full of spring lambs, with Jim commenting that they were really quite ‘good looking’. Soon a gradual zig-zagging ascent began and we were amazed at how the dry stone walls on the opposing mountain face appeared in places to be almost vertical.

Almost felt sorry for the first peak as despite being higher than Rhinog Fach it did not even merit a cairn. With a dusting of snow underfoot we descended steeply before stopping for lunch in the saddle between the two peaks. From here we could see the forest where the car was parked.

A short, sharp climb brought us to the top of Rhinog Fach and more stunning panoramic views. A comfortable descent led us down to the forest and before long we were back at the car.
Feeling rather weary by this stage we drove to the nearby Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) which I had been keen to visit for some time. It was founded in 1973 on the site of a disused slate quarry and was originally a community dedicated to eco-friendly principles and a test bed for new ideas and technologies. Energy levels were really crashing by the time we got the water balanced cliff railway up to the site proper. We made a quick tour, spending a good portion of the time available in the café.

Onward to the bunkhouse at Braich Goch which Jim had rather sensibly booked for the night, the thought of another night under canvas was not particularly appealing. After a luxurious shower we had a quick pint in the bar surrounded by some very simple/ugly local types, before strolling down to the Slaters Arms in the village (Corris). The pub was just what we were after, a friendly landlord, wholesome homemade food, Welsh ales, roaring fire and locals chirping away in their incomprehensible patter. A couple of whiskeys sealed the evening and we hit the sack relatively early.

After talk of what constitutes the perfect fry up the night before, we set about the task with gusto in the morning. Quality ingredients played their part with local sausages and bacon, flash-fried beans, on the vine tomatoes, mushrooms, eggs fried in puddles of oil (as per the opening scene in Withnail and I) and thick cut toast.

With such a gut-full it was an effort to gear up for the morning’s walk, particularly with an overenthusiastic Brummie trying to pass on his limited knowledge of the area. The circular walk was to take in Cadir Iris, and while the path was much more travelled than the previous day a blanket of snow had fallen overnight making conditions tricky higher up. We soon reached the lake at the foot of the mountain and from here we took the more adventurous route around the back of the water to attack the steep hill face. From here the footprints disappeared and the walk took on a more pioneering feel. Small exploratory steps were required to negotiate the incline as the snow had drifted to a couple of feet in places. Finally we scrambled over the lip onto the footpath proper.

From here we continued along the ridge line before descending back down to the car park with the uneasy feeling of the long road home hanging over us.

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