Climbing Cadair Idris, Wales, UK Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Climbing Cadair Idris, Wales, UK

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A view of Cadair Idris
Tongues of fire on Idris flaring,
news of foe-men near declaring,
to heroic deeds of daring,
call you Harlech men

- Men of Harlech, a popular Welsh anthem1.

Cadair Idris (sometimes know by its anglicised title, Cader Idris) is a mountain. Not a very large mountain, if you compare it to the giants to be found in other parts of the world, but its 893 metres (2,930 feet) will certainly make themselves felt on your legs when you begin. It is, incidentally, the 19th highest mountain in Wales. On a clear day, you may even be able to see the coast of Ireland across the sea in the west. Unfortunately, Cader is notorious for its tendency for low cloud, meaning you might not be able to see ten yards in front of you on the peak. Nonetheless, don't let this put you off. Go in the summer if possible, as there is less chance of bad weather spoiling your trip.

The Geography of the Area

Formed by the enormous power of the glaciers that ground their way through Europe during the last ice age (which began 70,000 years ago and ended 10,000 years ago), it has the classic profile of peaks formed when high ground is worn away by the ice. It takes the form of two very steep climbs, with a flattish bit in between. The main Tal-y-Llyn valley has been gouged out of the rock by a huge river of ice, leaving the classic U-shaped profile: flat bottom and steep sides. At its bottom is the lake which gives the valley its name - Tal-y-Llyn. It is a ribbon lake, formed when a huge movement of material in the valley's side caused a great deal of it to slump downwards, forming a dam, behind which the water collected in a long, shapely snake. It's worth climbing the mountain for the view of it. The first section of the walk is perhaps the hardest; up to the hanging valley. This was formed when a smaller tributary glacier ran into the main one. It lacked the erosive power of the beast which carved out the valley below, and so did not dig down so deeply, forming a valley which 'hangs' above the main one. The glacier which dug this smaller valley originated in the corrie2 above, the top of which forms the actual peak, Penygadair3. The corrie was where the snows were slowly compacted into ice, and in the deep, steep-sided bowl a corrie lake, or tarn, resides. Llyn Cau is far deeper than the ribbon lake in the valley, and has a darker charm.

Introduction to the Area

Cadair Idris is located on the coast of Wales, in the northern part of Cardigan Bay. The grid reference of the Minffordd car park is 731116; and for Ty-nant it is 698153.

  • Aberdovey/Aberdyfi - Cramped between a crag and the sea, this is a popular tourist stop.

  • Barmouth - Squashed against the coast by a steep hillside, this place has a nice sandy beach with views of Cadair Idris.

  • Corris - A small village with a 'local' shop disguised as a cafe, several other shops that don't seem to sell anything, a small pub, and a good hostel. Also a rather nice craft centre and the nearby Centre for Alternative Technology.

  • Dolgellau - A small town, but sadly the gold-mining attraction has closed down.

  • Harlech - A rather vertical village with a beautiful castle.

  • Llanbedr - A nice little village spoilt by traffic.

  • Machynlleth - The ancient capital of Wales, now a country town. Hard to pronounce properly (brush up on your Welsh).

  • Tywyn - A faded seaside resort, with some rather elegant buildings.

Camping and Accommodation

The area is very popular with hikers from all walks (pun intended) of life, and so there are plenty of campsites in the area, especially in the vicinity of Dolgellau. Camping on the mountain itself it also permitted4, but during spring lambing make sure you don't get in the way of farmers. There are also two bunkhouses in the area. One is not far from the Ty-nant car park on the north side. It also serves snacks and refreshments during the summer. The second is the aforementioned hostel at Corris.

Be Sure to Take...

There's a list of basic stuff you should always have when you climb a mountain like Cader. Here it is:

  • Winter clothing - good socks and boots (your feet will thank you), quality walking trousers (NOT jeans), a base layer (T-shirt), mid layer (snug but light microfleece), warmer outer later (thicker fleece), a waterproof, hat and gloves.

  • Summer clothing - socks and light-ish boots, light trousers or shorts (if you feel brave - it can get quite cold on the summit), a light fleece, a waterproof if you are unsure of the Welsh weather.

  • Reasonably capacious backpack.

  • A good lunch (always important), consisting of dense, satisfying stuff combined with fruit and energy bars.

  • At least a litre of water.

  • Map and compass (and make sure you can use them!).

  • The usual stuff they say you should take in the official guides - whistle, blanket, mobile phone, basic first aid equipment, etc.

  • A camera if you have one - some of the views are absolutely stunning.

If you plan on taking something on four legs with you on your trip (ie, a dog), you will be pleased to know that they are permitted, as long as they are kept on a lead at all times. Take care during spring lambing especially. Sheep aren't usually very friendly with dogs, as a rule (if you didn't already know).

The Walks


Length: six miles (10km)

Ascent: 875m - 2,885 ft

Grade: Moderate/Hard

Average time: four to six hours

The car park here is capacious, so you shouldn't have trouble parking. The path is clearly marked. After going past a small building you will come across a gate, which marks the start of the climb - plenty of steps will be forthcoming. The path is flagged (though a little precarious in places) and so progress is easy (or would be if it was not for the imposing gradient). After a bit of fairly strenuous walking you will come out above the tree-line and you will be treated to a view south to the old mining town of Corris and the Tarren Mountains. As you carry on you will pass a stream and continue along an easy, undulating path, which travels up the valley. The path will then turn west to head for the peripheral peak of Craig Cwm Amarch.

As you walk along the gently curving path up the valley the view ahead opens out and becomes more dramatic, as the waters of Llyn Cau begin to appear, the steep walls of the corrie rising high above. As you near the beginning of the upward climb to the corrie the path will continue to hug the south side of the valley. Just to the other side of the path, suspended above the valley below, is a great smooth rock, nearly 100 yards long. This is a roche moutonée, a band of resistant rock which the glacier scraped over and smoothed but did not grind down completely. Take a detour to inspect it and you will see long scratches, called striations, where the debris carried by the ice ground into the rock. Now, follow the path south to climb onto the ridge which will take you to the summit of Craig Cwm Amarch (791m).

By the time you reach the summit of Craig Cwn Amarch you will probably be wondering why you decided to take this insane climb in the first place. You'll probably be thinking the summit won't be too far away either. However, before you start to go up, you must go down. Quite a long way down, in fact. You will have to descend to the col ('saddle'), and follow the path among the rocks up another steep slope to get to the summit. This is where the path starts to get a bit sketchy, and where your map and compass might need to be called into use if you get a white-out. There's also a chance of some snow at certain times of the year (there have been blizzards as late as April). At the summit of Penygadair there is a trig point and a number of cairns; but the best feature is the small stone shelter5 on the western side. From here, you will be able to see for miles. Look especially to the north, where the views of Snowdonia are exquisite.

Once the summit has been conquered you should head east along the slightly vague path to Mynydd Moel. There are two routes from here: continuing along the path to the next summit and then following the fence south, or taking the 'official' path that turns right after about 500 metres. Neither route is particularly strenuous, and both join soon after to follow a path that is currently being flagged by the staff of the National Park. At the moment it's pretty rough in places, and quite steep6. Some of the best southward views can be had here, and if you're going to get a good view of Tal-y-Llyn, the descent is the best place. You need to cross the stream (usually less that six feet across, and with plenty of rocks for stepping stones). However, if it's been raining a lot there might be a little bit too much water to make it easy. If this is the case you will have seen the condition of the stream on your ascent, since the outward path runs next to it, and it would be best to descend using the outward path.

Once you've crossed the stream you'll have those blasted steps going down the hanging valley to deal with again. Nonetheless, you'll probably be aching for your car at this point, and the descent will go quite quickly, as long as you don't fall over again. When back at the car park, your knees will have turned to jelly and your feet will feel like they are being gently tickled by some red-hot flames. The author advises you to take a rest.

The Pony Path

Length: nine miles (14.5km)

Ascent: 855m - 2,820 ft

Grade: Moderate/Hard

This is a longer walk, and less steep overall. The total ascent is slightly less, though it is not significantly easier. This route is usually preferred by tourists, so if you are a hardcore walker you may want to avoid it at peak times.

The car park here is smaller (Ty-nant: grid ref 698153), but just as serviceable. From here, turn right onto a lane and continue along it for around 200 yards. You will see a telephone on your left, which is the signal to take the track that leads onto the path which gives the walk its name. It winds its way southwest along slowly rising ground. You will see the cliffs of the mountain in front of you, which may look scary, but are not too hard to climb. Since it is the main tourist route it has undergone a large number of footpath improvement projects, so none of this section should be too difficult.

After a while, the path will turn east (left), still clearly marked. It will continue to rise as you work towards the peripheral summit of Cyfrwy. If it is cloudy, you must be careful when the path nears the top of the cliffs. Taking a small detour right, you will be awarded a fine view of the tarn, Llyn Cau. The climb will continue in a similar mode until you reach the summit.

Considering the size of the mountain, the descent is relatively straightforward. You should be able to see for miles (the view is greater on scale than the view from the other side) although once again the cloud may well prove to be your worst enemy until you get a bit lower. Cloud will tend to stick to the summit even when it is sunny elsewhere.

There's quite a bit to do on the summit if you've still got quite a bit of energy left. Take a short stroll southwards for a view down to Llyn Cau (quite a long way down). Once again the stone hut will be nice if you haven't eaten your lunch already so you don't have to lug it all the way up. The conventional descent is to go by the outward route; and this is certainly the easier option. But if you have plenty of energy left you can head along the ridge to Gau Craig.

Take some time finding the eastward path away from the summit and follow it. Ignore the steep downhill path to Llyn Cau (the Minffordd outward path); instead, follow the route along the edge of the northern cliffs towards Mynydd Moel. Once again, this shouldn't cause much trouble to an individual of average fitness. Mynydd Moel is a mere 100 feet (30 metres) lower than Penygadair, and you will be able to enjoy the view without being disturbed, as very few walkers make this detour. Continue following the path east. It will begin to descend through a section of moorland along a fence, but you may have to make a few detours to avoid the potentially treacherous soft ground. It will not take too long to reach the last peak, Gau Craig, one of the many south-facing crags that run in a line off the other summits. You will find a small cairn marking the summit7, as well as a little oasis of calm if you need to relax.

The eastward path starts to get a little bit sketchy as you descend, but if you carry on on a roughly northeasterly bearing you will reach a bridle path (grid ref 7543). It is not particularly well marked, so keep your eyes peeled. From here you should head north, down the lane not far from Maes Coch farm.

There are two main routes from this lane. One follows the lane down to Pandy Gader, and then carries on west to the Gwernan Lake Hotel, along the very same lane you began on. Once again, you should keep on your toes when looking for the path, especially in the woodland just before Coed Croes. The second route is probably more interesting; use the small network of lanes and paths to get down to Dolgellau, where you can have a look around the town. If you're well and truly knackered at this point you can use the local taxi firm for the trip back to Ty-Nant.

The End (at Last)

Luckily, this Researcher wasn't driving home, and so got a good hour's sleep afterwards. As a rule of thumb, Cadair Idris will tire you out. It isn't generally suitable for pre-teen children. Make sure you don't fall asleep if you are driving home. It's not healthy. All in all, it is a deeply satisfying mountain, and will leave you with a deep, warm sense of achievement and satisfaction when you have conquered it. If you are driving south from the Minffordd end, take a look back to see whether you can catch a glimpse of the summit. You'll see a huge wall, heavily wooded, rising up from the valley floor, and behind, the jagged profile of the corrie itself. If you can see the delicate triangular outline of Penygadair, count yourself extremely lucky.

1Celebrating the defence of Harlech Castle against the English invaders in 1468. There are several known sets of lyrics; one incarnation was made famous in the 1964 film, Zulu.2A great bowl formed when snow, compacted into ice, formed a glacier. The corrie is the glacier's source, and is almost entirely shaped by the ice.3Literally 'top of the seat' in Welsh. 'Cadair Idris' means 'the seat of Idris', probably referring to a fort belonging to a Celtic chief named Idris; though in popular tradition Idris was the name of a giant, for whom the mountain was a chair. If you look at the full profile of the mountain, from the bottom of the main valley to the peak, it does look rather like a chair.4According to popular legend, anyone who spends a night on the summit of Cadair Idris will wake up the next morning a poet or a madman.5A good place (certainly the warmest and most welcoming on a cold day) to have lunch.6Make sure you don't fall over. No amount of protests can change the fact that falling over is inherently humorous.7As is usual with the area - they are usually made by walkers with time to burn.

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