I was introduced to Cadair Idris by my father who attempted to retrace the same journey that he and his father, my grand father, had undertaken decades before my birth. Notorious for its weather (that can engulf the higher reaches of the mountains with terrific speed) we were turned back from the mountain on two separate occasions before summiting together via what would become my preferred route up the mountain, the Minffordd Path. My father and I have returned many more times to the mountain that delivers such a deep sense of nostalgia and family tradition. Despite his aging, we hope to return many more times and will do so again later this year. This trip, on which I am now writing, was not with my father but with a good friend who was looking to experience both Cadair Idris and the Welsh mountains for the first time.
Soaring above the Barmouth estuary, Cadair Idris is an impressive, dominating figure on the Welsh landscape. Its shoulders rise high above its neighbouring peaks and the moody, dark clouds that often shroud its highest points offer a glimpse into the hostile world that waits at its summit, where, particularly in the cold Welsh winters, exposure, poor visibility and heavy rain can soak even the most prepared hiker to the bone.
There are many legends written about Cadair Idris. The most persistent that it was once the chair of either a giant who roamed the area or the throne of a 7th century prince, Idris ap Gwyddno, who won a battle against the Irish on the mountain. Whichever you choose to believe, hiking the trails that lead to its peak in a wet, cold and windy March certainly feels otherworldly. The second most persistent story is that for the person who dares to spend a night on their own on the mountain will return a poet…or a madman. Having never had the urge to spend a night alone on its exposed and barren summit, I will satisfy myself with being a mediocre-at-best writer.
Our journey began at 4pm on Friday afternoon, as we drove up to North Wales from London. I’ve made this trip many a time, but seemingly always forget that it is never straight-forward. We arrived some four traffic jams and eight hours later to arrive at our campsite in the dead of night with winds howling and rain thumping. Given the previous week had been glorious sunshine, it came as no surprise that on the eve of my first Welsh hike of the year the weather would turn. We struggled to put up the tent in the thumping rain and set ourselves into our sleeping bags shortly after, warmer but still damp. The wind continued to rage throughout the night, and the tent buckled on a number of occasions. Neither of us got a great deal of sleep, and when our alarm sounded at 6.30am, we both had that dazed, half awake, half asleep look about us. Never the less, we ate breakfast and head to the Dol Idris car park ready for a great day of hiking.
One thing I always forget, or push deep into the recesses of my mind, is that the Minffordd path, somewhat, resembles a three mile staircase. The trail begins in a very pleasant wooded area through which you climb a vast number of rock-carved steps. It evens off shortly after as you press on towards the lake Llyn CauLlyn Cau. On a nice, warm summers day the views here are impressive: Llyn Cau is surrounded by the vertical walls of Craig Cau and Penygadair (Cadair Idris’ highest peak) and, due to the way it is framed by these impressive rock structures, appears the perfect setting for myth and legend.
Of course yesterday wasn’t a nice, warm, summer day. As we pressed on past Llyn Cau, we could see the thick cloud engulfing the ridges that lead to the top of the mountain. While I have hiked Cadair Idris a number of times, I still feel it is very important to respect the weather. I’ve been turned back a number of times and will continue to turn back if I feel vulnerable. One reason is that the ridge that leads up to the peak, Craig Cau, is incredibly exposed in places and there are a number of areas for the wind to get funneled aggressively; not particularly pleasant when you take into a count the several hundred meter drop to your right.
As we began our hike across the ridge leading to Penygadair, it was as I expected. The visibility became fairly poor, and the wind blew incredibly fast and hard. With hoods pulled down to shield our eyes, and gaiters pulled up to shield our mouths and noses, we continued on, making relatively slow time, and testing the resolve of our water-proof gear.
When tackling the Craig Cau, all Minffordd Path hikers come across a stile that traverses a wire fence. Hikers will descend for a couple hundred metres before beginning the final walk/scramble towards the mountain’s highest point. Normally this is a pleasant rest bite with wonderful views but yesterday, with the weather as it was, it became an exposed, desolate and barren place. The shelter of the final scramble was thus very well received; not least because the rocks offered some shield from the wind. We finally reached the summit point, wet, tired and wind-beaten. Sadly, due to the clouds we weren’t afforded the prize of a beautiful view that so many come to appreciate.
Now, a lot of the routes online will have you simply descend the mountain the way you came. But to avoid repetition and take in more of the mountain, it is possible to descend down the East side of Cadair Idris. Thus, after reaching the summit of Penygadair (and quickly stopping by the shelter to catch our breath) we forged on towards the second highest peak on the mountain, Mynydd Moel. The path from Penygadair to Mynydd Moel is not all that visible at the best of times. If visibility is poor, the best advice for first-timers I can offer is to stick closer to the north Ridge, follow the cairns as best you can, and make sure you don’t accidentally head down the foxes path (if it becomes a very steep, almost, mountainside scramble, you’ve gone the wrong way). The view from the second ridge would normally offer a scenic view down the north side of the mountain, and is well-worth the visit.
The descent down the east side of Cadair Idris is pleasant in its own right. Once you reach Mynydd Moel, simply double back slightly until you reach the fence, and continue south until you hit the trail. Broadly, it is a lot more straight-forward than the ascent on the west side of the mountain and is also more lush and marsh-like than the “staircase” of the ascent. However, if there is a lot of water running off the mountain it can be slippery, and caution should be taken when descending, particularly for those who have weary legs. I found this out the hard way on this occasion, with my foot giving way suddenly, and my left hand taking the brunt of my fall. I am now missing an entire fingerprint on my left hand and a healthy section of pride.
All in all, Cadair Idris is a wonderful mountain to climb, and all who tackle it will be left with an experience. Whether that is one of beautiful and scenic mountain views, or harsh, battering wind and rain depends on the season, and perhaps the mood of the mountain.
If you are heading there as a first timer, or even feel inspired to take the journey in the future, make sure you prepare well, are aware of the weather forecast, and have prepared the routes you will take. Make sure you have both a map and a compass, and are know exactly where you will start and finish. Even yesterday when the weather was pretty bad, we came across a group who had walked down the wrong side of the mountain to where they had both started, and intended to finish.