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The Welsh Three Peaks: when it’s all going wrong around you, go climb a mountain or three!

To say we’ve had somewhat of a rocky transition back into normal life in the UK after our three months travelling would be a serious understatement. Visits to various doctors and hospitals (four in total!) have been the order of the day (and completely unrelated to our travels).

With so many medical problems going on at home (although I’m glad they didn’t happen in Bangkok or Indonesia!), something seemed to be telling us to get back out there on our adventures! Back in Bali, we’d sat down as a family over dinner and discussed what challenges we’d like to tackle on our return to the UK. Three months of excitement and new experiences had not sated our appetites for adventure, they’d merely whetted them. One of the things we vowed to do was to explore areas closer to home. After travelling half-way around the world and having visited 19 different countries in their little lives, we realised they’d not been to Wales, Scotland or Ireland and were keen to explore these special places. This combined with our new love of hiking thanks to the awe-inspiring scenery of New Zealand (Bean9 even asked if she could walk across the length of the UK…), gave us the idea to hike the Three Peaks (Snowden in Wales, Scafell Pike in England and Ben Nevis in Scotland) on our return to the UK.

However, having investigated the logistics, it seemed silly to us to drive all that way to the beautiful Welsh hills, climb just one of its peaks, and promptly leave to travel up to the Lake District. We decided instead to hike the UK Three Peaks in sections over a few separate holidays (which may take a couple of years) and to start instead with the Welsh Three Peaks – Snowden in the north of the country, Cadair Idris in the middle and Pen y Fan in southern Wales. And so, after five weeks back to our normal homeschool work, with various breaks for hospital appointments, we set off on our next adventure to the beautiful country of Wales.

For the first three nights, we based ourselves in a little miner’s cottage in Cwm Penmachno (booked on Air B&B) about twenty minutes from Betws y Coed. This location gave us relatively easy access to both Snowden (about 40 minutes’ drive) and Cadair Idris (just over an hour’s drive). On the afternoon of our arrival, we settled in and packed our day bags ready for an early start the following morning.

  1. Snowdon – easy up, dangerous down!

Arising at six the next day, we were met by a bouncing Bean8 and a fairly grumpy Bean9 (the older she gets, the more sleep she seems to need in the morning), but they were both excited to tackle the hike and we managed to get us all out and into the car by about 6:45am. We’d been told that we needed to get to the Pen y Pass carpark early in order to get a space and indeed when we arrived at 7:25, it was already half full.

There are lots of routes up Snowden of varying levels of difficulty. We opted for one with a medium difficulty rating: The Miners’ Track. It was a beautiful walk along a gently sloping pathway initially with views of the famous Snowdon horseshoe: Y Lliwedd (898m), Snowdon (1,085m) Garnedd Ugain (1,065m) and Crib Goch (921m), although the tops of these three peaks were somewhat shrouded in cloud, every so often clearing to give us a tantalising view of their summits. Passing a small lake (Llyn Teyrn) and the ruins of the old miners’ barracks, we continued to a pretty little causeway across a much larger lake, Llyn Llydaw. Apparently, in the process of building the causeway back in 1853, they discovered a prehistoric oak dug-out canoe, proving that these peaks have been roamed by humans for thousands of years. Next, we passed by a much more recent bit of history: the old entrance to the Britannia Copper Mine crushing mill and marvelled at the stunning albeit strenuous route to work these miners must have taken every day.

The next part of our route involved a very steep climb to look over Llyn Glaslyn (Blue Lake), an old glacial lake.

After a hard hike up a zig zagging pathway, we reached a tall stone marking the junction with the Pyg Track. From here, we ascended steadily, finally reaching a flatter section of ridge (Blwch Glas) and fortuitously watching the Snowden Mountain Railway train trundle past us down the mountainside.

Although taken on our descent, it shows the zig zag path we took up the mountainside

With the summit in sight, Bean8 ran up with us in hot pursuit to reach the peak in just 2hours 9minutes (including breaks). I have to confess that I thought it would be a lot harder climb than it turned out to be and had assumed we’d be hiking for longer. But as it was so early, we had the summit all to ourselves and sat at the top for a while eating our sandwiches and looking out over the views. It was, however, extremely cold, so we didn’t last long before heading down to investigate the restaurant to warm up a little before our descent. We had to wait for it to open, but once it was, we tucked into some delicious hot chocolate and watched aghast as swarms of people suddenly piled through the doors from the train, taking it from a place of peace to one of a busy station!

So, as soon as we’d regained some feeling back into our fingers, we headed back down the mountain initially heading for the Pyg Track for our descent. However, on our journey, MrJ spotted another possible route down, across to Snowden’s second highest peak, Garnedd Ugain, along the ridge Crib y Ddysgl and over the craggy ridge of Crib Goch to re-join the Pyg Track on the other side. If I’m honest, looking out over at the exposed route and given the weather conditions, I was nervous about taking such a pathway down, but then thought, yeah why not, let’s give it a go. I was right to be cautious. As much as our route up had been fairly easy, our path down was anything but!

Our proposed route had us climbing along the very top of the ridge on the left

Afterwards, both MrJ and I confessed to having felt sheer terror at various points throughout our journey as we watched the Beans scrambling across rocks, squeezing through small gaps and balancing along tiny ridges with sheer drops to their sides as the wind whipped around us. But at the time, both of us stayed upbeat and positive so as not to scare them. They on the other hand, absolutely loved it. Clearly adrenaline junkies, this was by far their favourite part of the walk.

As we came to the end of the Crib y Ddgsl ridge, there was a section which required us to carefully hand down the children to MrJ over a fairly large drop off. Fortunately, at this point, we met another climber coming in the opposite direction who helped us with the Beans. As I looked on at the terrifyingly sharp and craggy ridge of Crib Goch ahead of us, I asked him whether we should abort our proposed route (although at this point, it was hard to know how). He looked at me and said, “this is only my second time climbing this route, but I’m an experienced climber and I would be dubious about taking the children over that ridge.” This nailed it for me, especially as the wind had picked up even further by this point, so we looked for a safe way to get down the mountainside and reconnect with the Pyg Track far below us. It was extremely steep but MrJ went on ahead for 50m or so at a time to find a safe route and I followed slowly with the children, sometimes sliding on our bottoms down the slope (which they thought was awesome!).

The ridge in the distance is Crib Goch – we reached the end of the green section before bailing down the right hand side of the mountain!

Eventually, we made it down the side of the mountain and MrJ looked at each other in relief as the adrenaline finally subsided. With fairly wobbly legs by this point, we completed the rest of the track back to the carpark with the Beans skipping on ahead of us. It had taken us longer to get down than to get up the mountain (2hours 20mins), but we were alive and hopefully we’d taught the children a little about flexibility when mountain climbing and the importance of safety over achieving your initial planned goal. And we’d learned a lesson about not biting off more than we can chew! When we got back to the holiday cottage later on, MrJ found the trail we’d attempted in a Walking in Wales book. It stated: “Only to be attempted by experienced climbers familiar with exposed rock scrambling!” Ahem… The same book described Crib Goch as Wales’ most hazardous peak. Good decision to bail then!

  • Cadair Idris – The perils of bad weather

At 5am the next morning, MrJ turned to me and said, “we’re awake, the weather doesn’t look too bad (it had looked fairly horrendous for the rest of the week), let’s go climb our second mountain.” I have to confess that the prospect didn’t fill me with a huge amount of excitement at that point, but I do prefer to do the hiking early so I dragged myself out of bed and pulled together our lunch for the day. We managed to get out of the house by about 6:15am and drove the hour’s journey to the foot of Cadair Idris, completely gripped to our current audio book – Philip Pullman’s The Northern Lights, a truly excellent book. When we arrived at the car park and reluctantly pulled ourselves away from the exciting story, it was raining but only lightly, so we pulled on our waterproofs and set off up the mountain.

Naively, as Snowdon was the largest of the three mountains we were to climb, I expected our walks to get easier throughout the week. Unfortunately, that was not to be. There was no gentle easing us into this walk as there had been with the last mountain. This one started with a very steep ascent up a set of rocky stairs built into the sides of the Nant Cadair Gorge next to a pretty waterfall (initially a 1:5 climb as 200m of height are gained in the first kilometre of the walk). And it didn’t stop for 1.5 hours. MrJ had planned us a circular 5-hour route across the peaks of Cadair Idris and Mynydd Moel on the Minffordd Path. This path includes an elevation gain of 1,019 metres – much more than the previous day’s climb as the Pen y Pass car park was already at an elevation of 359m, whereas this one started at the very base of the hill, and involved quite a few ascents and descents across the tops of the peaks.

From the gorge, the Minffordd Path circuits the glacial lake of Llyn Cau as you steadily gain height and indeed our first glimpse of the lake was fairly spectacular. But a glimpse was all we were afforded, as the clouds suddenly descended over our heads shrouding us in mist and reducing our visibility to only about 30m ahead.

We persevered nonetheless sticking close together until after 1.5 hours, we were excited to come across a stile confirming we were indeed on the correct path. We stopped for a food break and a discussion about how to proceed. The weather had set in even further by this stage and it was difficult to work out where the path went as the visibility was so bad, we had no points of reference to help with our navigation. None of us wanted to quit at this stage after the long slog up the mountain, but the conditions were dangerous. By this point, we were circling above the lake across the peaks of the mountains with a sheer drop to our right-hand side. Which would have been fine if we could see exactly where the drop off was… As it was, the mist limited our view to a mere ten metres in any direction.

We decided to play it by ear and proceed carefully with MrJ again going on ahead (although only a few metres ahead or we lost sight of him altogether) to find the path and look out for any dangerous sections whilst I kept an eye on the kids. It was extremely tough going. The weather was freezing cold and continued to drizzle but the Beans were keen to persist. They were determined to reach that peak. Eventually after another hour of slow hiking with me saying (let’s be honest, shouting), “Bean8, keep to the right” about a million times, we finally saw the trig point at the summit. I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy to see a trig point in all my life. We all shouted with delight and ran up the last section for the obligatory photo (with zero view!) as evidence for their cubs’ badge.

As we were about to descend back down the mountain, I noticed a strange shape emerging from the mist. There, only a few metres below us, but almost completely invisible in the cloud swirling around us, was a small but warm and dry shelter. Heaven! We bustled inside, cracked open the chocolate and changed into dry clothes for the way down. We were more than half-way around the circular route making it significantly faster for us to continue onwards. But MrJ and I were worried about finding our way, so we opted instead to go back the way we’d come. It might be physically harder but at least we shouldn’t get lost. And indeed, we didn’t. Two hours and eleven minutes later we limped back to the carpark, all completely soaked to the skin despite the waterproofs, with muscles burning but grins on our faces. We’d made it. One peak left to conquer.

  • Pen y Fan (and Corn Du, Cribyn and my personal favourite: Fan y Big!)

After two days of intensive walking, we spent our third day relaxing, reading and relocating to southern Wales and the Brecon Beacons (and listening to some more of that excellent audiobook en route). To our utter delight the weather down there was sunny! Our next accommodation was on a farm in a little village called Pontsticill. It was a gorgeous location with a plethora of animals for the children to play with including dogs, cats, horses, and some extraordinarily loud donkeys. Seriously, the first time the donkey brayed, both MrJ and I jumped out of our skins in fright. It sounded as though the foghorn of an enormous cruise ship had just gone off next to the house! How such a relatively small animal produced such a thundering sound, I have no idea. At first, it was quite funny. But as the noise pierced my sleep at regular intervals throughout the night, the joke started to wear thin. And when the cockerel joined in persistently from 4-5am, I was left wondering if farm life was really for me!

But back to the walking. On our fourth day, rather than taking the straight forward route straight up Pen y Fan, which would have been a very easy walk, we decided instead to tackle a six hour, 12 mile hike across the tops of four peaks: Corn Du, Pen y Fan, Cribyn and Fan Y Big, with an option to shorten the walk and skip Fan y Big if we were too tired. This was an extension of the Horseshoe Ridge Walk starting at the Taf Fechan car park and was by far my favourite of our Welsh treks.

The weather was supposed to be fair all morning and possibly even sunny if we were lucky. But that unpredictable Welsh weather to which we’d become intimately accustomed, instead threw some lovely hail and rain our way instead!

It failed to dampen our spirits though as it was still significantly better visibility than our previous walk and we carried on with Bean9 leading the navigation and Bean8 stopping every so often to admire the view as the clouds lifted. By this stage, we were all completely hooked on mountain hiking but none more so than Bean8 who seemed to have fallen head over heels in love with it. It’s unusual to find an eight-year-old so vociferous about how gorgeous the landscape looked, but he regularly commented on it throughout our week’s trip, thoroughly appreciating the beauty of the natural world around him. And what a lovely gift for a child – to be able to look out from his self and get comfort and joy from the world around him rather than obsessing on a computer screen in front of him as so many young children seem to do these days.

After scaling the peak of Corn Du, we headed on to the summit of Pen y Fan. MrJ and the Beans were always a little way ahead – I like to take up the rear position ostensibly as the children get more demoralised if they’re at the back, but let’s face it, it’s really because I can’t really keep up with them anymore! My tactic for getting up those steep sections was to count steps in 100s and then take a break at 500 steps, but the Beans seemed to run up them like little mountain goats.

Arriving at the summit of Pen y Fan, with the goal of completing the Welsh Three Peaks completed, we took a moment for photographs and to celebrate our achievement.

The mighty Pen y Fan

I was seriously proud of the Beans. They’d loved the experience and never once complained about the difficulty of the hikes we’d tackled, despite their obvious physical discomfort throughout some parts. Like me, they’re quite goal focussed, and having set this challenge of hiking the set three peaks (and with also the prospect of more cubs’ badges to boot), they were unswerving in their desire to accomplish it. But as I mentioned above, in the process, they fell in love with this sport. So once, we’d grappled with the 951 steps up to the top of the Cribyn peak, they looked across to Fan y Big, and were keen to tackle that one too (despite a little reluctance from the adults!). To be fair though, with a name like that, how could we not climb it! And by now the sun was out too and the views were simply stunning.

We weren’t keen however on summiting it and then retracing our steps back down the very steep hill to re-join the track, as is required for the Horseshoe Ridge Walk. Instead we took a much longer alternative route around the back of Fan y Big. We hiked for a further four miles across the tops of the hills, past lots of very polite squaddies with guns (much to the excitement of Bean8!) and down the other side (which turned out to be a very steep descent after all), past some pretty waterfalls, before finally limping back to the carpark. We’d done just over six hours of walking over 12 miles with 978m of elevation gain and were extremely proud of our achievement!

We headed back for a long soak in the bath and an afternoon relaxing, followed by a slap-up meal, some excellent ale and friendly chat in the local pub. MrJ and I even managed some time on our own as we left the children happily playing pool as we chatted and sipped the delicious homemade beer. It had been a lovely holiday together.

Our statistics: Three Welsh peaks summited, 2984m of elevation gain achieved, over 27 miles of hikes taking a total of 14 hours. But more importantly, we left on the Friday with mountain hiking firmly etched on our hearts. And the promise of more peaks yet to conquer holding excitement for the future.  

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