Pen yr Ole Wen

Not all moun­tains shout about their worth. Some are happy to sit qui­etly, while you dis­cover their qual­i­ties for your­self...


Get hands on rock in north Wales

Flick swish. Pause. Flick swish. Pause. The man in the rub­ber dun­ga­rees was thigh-deep in the sil­ver-black wa­ter. With a prac­ticed hand he deftly ma­nip­u­lated his rod and the trail­ing line through the air, land­ing his fly silently on the sur­face of the tarn, let­ting it rest a mo­ment, then whip­ping it away again. We watched for a while. It was fas­ci­nat­ing, in the way that watch­ing any­body do al­most any­thing with skill and pre­ci­sion is fas­ci­nat­ing. The fly fisher was fo­cused on his task – he hadn’t seen us. Or if he had, he was in­dif­fer­ent to our pres­ence. Whether we came, stayed, watched or left was of no con­cern.

Pen yr Ole Wen is sim­i­larly ap­a­thetic. It’s not a moun­tain that de­mands to be climbed. It rises above the el­bow of the Ogwen Valley, where Afon Ogwen leaves the Llyn and heads north through the Nant Ffran­con pass to­wards Bethesda, in a grand and haughty stance.

It has pres­ence. Seen from Llyn Id­wal it’s a pyra­mid of rock and ruin, tex­tured by sheer but­tresses, scoured gul­lies, fans of scree and open patches of bracken blan­keted hill­side. It’s big too. Its 978m sum­mit may only make it the sev­enth high­est in Wales, but if Pen yr Ole Wen were to wan­der east over Offa’s Dyke and into Eng­land, it would find it­self joint-top in the high­est moun­tain rat­ings, match­ing Scafell Pike me­tre for me­tre. But be­cause of its neigh­bours – the higher Carned­dau to the north, the more be­guil­ing Gly­derau to the south, and Bri­tain’s favourite moun­tain Try­fan just a skimmed stone over Llyn Ogwen away – it doesn’t get as much at­ten­tion as it might. Pen yr Ole Wen, though, does not care. It is not needy, it does not crave at­ten­tion. It just is.

If you do de­cide to ex­plore what the moun­tain has to of­fer be­yond its stark fa­cade, there are op­tions. The most di­rect way to the top is straight up the edge of the pyra­mid from its south-eastern cor­ner. This has two draw­backs though. The first is that it very much sticks to the outer lim­its of the moun­tain, giv­ing you pre­cious lit­tle in­sight into the more in­ti­mate char­ac­ter of the peak. The se­cond is that it av­er­ages out at a gra­di­ent of around 1:2 all the way to the top, mak­ing it an ar­du­ous and, dare we say it, rather dull way to reach the apex. A far gen­tler start can be found from just east of Llyn Ogwen, where a path gen­tly climbs north across open moun­tain­side swathed in bracken and pricked with wind-bent hawthorn. The track winds roughly along­side the Afon Lloer, takes a wooden lad­der stile over a stone wall, be­fore steep­en­ing as it creeps up to­wards the in­ner moun­tain ter­rain. The wild Carned­dau ponies graze the slopes here. They’re sim­i­larly un­fazed by hu­man pres­ence, but have no


in­ter­est in be­ing pet­ted. Ap­proach one and you’re likely to find it turn­ing its back and me­an­der­ing away with an al­most au­di­ble sigh of an­noy­ance.

Soon the path lev­els and ar­rives at the grassed shores of Ffyn­non Lloer, held tightly in the cliffs of the cwm with the same name. You may well be alone. Or, like us, you might find your­self in the pres­ence of a lone wad­ing fish­er­man. But this is not a place of crowds. Af­ter watch­ing the mes­meric rep­e­ti­tion of cast and reel for a time, we made a move for the sum­mit. From Cwm Lloer, the top of Pen yr Ole Wen is a mere 320m of as­cent away, and there’s a steadily ris­ing path snaking up the moun­tain’s eastern ridge that deals with the climb with lit­tle fuss or fan­fare.

But there is a bet­ter way. At least, a more en­ter­tain­ing way to reach the sum­mit, al­beit one that re­quires a lit­tle in­de­pen­dent thought. Like the path, it fol­lows the line of Pen yr Ole Wen’s east ridge, but un­like the path, re­quires the use of hands as well as feet, and in­volves some of the best im­pro­vised scram­bling in north Wales.

From the edge of the moun­tain lake we made for the an­gled rocks mark­ing the start of the ridge proper, cross­ing over the es­tab­lished path. From hereon we’d be mak­ing the way up as we went. We dropped a short dis­tance down a grass gully and clam­bered on to a whale­back of vol­canic rock where it breached the green­ery of the hill­side. Ac­tu­ally, di­nosaur­tail is a more ap­pro­pri­ate ad­jec­tive than whale­back. Pic­ture the long, curv­ing tail of a diplodocus or bra­chiosaurus or, if you’re not fa­mil­iar with the names and don’t have time to re-watch Juras­sic Park, one of those gi­ant lum­ber­ing elon­gated di­nos with the whip-like tails and cran­ing necks. Nar­row ribs of rock lay par­al­lel to each other in line with the ridge and barely steeper than hor­i­zon­tal. But grad­u­ally they be­gan to bend up­wards like a bell curve, even­tu­ally reach­ing a gra­di­ent of around 45°. As the cor­ru­ga­tions steep­ened they be­came less dis­tinct, merg­ing into one an­other, and grow­ing more frac­tured as they headed to­wards ver­ti­cal. But this only aided the scram­bling.

Like Try­fan’s north ridge on the op­po­site side of the Ogwen Valley, Pen yr Ole Wen’s east ridge is de­cep­tively wide once you’re on it. There is no sin­gle, nar­row route of travel. In­stead, the scram­bler is left to pick their own way over smooth weath­ered rocks and up chocked steps to find the most safe, most en­joy­able or most thrilling jour­ney, de­pend­ing on their tastes. And speak­ing of Try­fan, its own pre­his­toric form be­came more and more pro­nounced as we gained height on Pen yr Ole Wen. It’s a unique view­point, not seen from any­where else but this quiet moun­tain.

De­spite its of­ten shat­tered ap­pear­ance, the rock of the ridge proved to be pleas­ingly re­li­able. The oc­ca­sional

du­bi­ous-look­ing flake was given an ex­tra good tug and thump be­fore be­ing trusted with weight, but in the main there were few causes for con­cern. Be­cause of this, the scram­bling was quite pos­si­bly some of the most easy­go­ing and en­joy­able to be found in Snow­do­nia, and cer­tainly on the Carned­dau. Even the few nearver­ti­cal rock steps that, at first glance, seemed to present ob­sta­cles of doubt­ful sur­mount­abil­ity, tran­spired to be lad­ders of on­ward pro­gres­sion, eased by solid footholds, jug han­dle-like hand-holds, and enough deep cracks and wide ledges to make the whole ex­pe­ri­ence one of re­laxed scram­bling rather than nerve jan­gling.

Roughly halfway up, the ridge stops. At least, it stops go­ing up, or rather, it pauses. The curv­ing ribs and rock steps peter out as the orig­i­nal path comes back into sight and winds through the un­ex­pected plateau. But again, the path is best ig­nored. Over to the right, be­yond the mun­dane track, is an area of seem­ingly lev­elled moun­tain­side. Al­most pave­ment flat and tex­tured by a here-and-there cov­er­ing of white crys­talline quartz, it could al­most be there by de­sign. It pro­vides an el­e­vated view­ing plat­form from which to en­joy the sight of Cwm Lloer be­low for an en­tirely new per­spec­tive.

We stood close to the edge, the steep cliffs drop­ping away sharply be­yond the toes of our boots. A cool wind teased up from the con­fines of the cwm, and some way be­low the same breeze rip­pled the sur­face of the lake around the legs of the still present fisher. The gul­lies and but­tresses of the sur­round­ing walls were more ob­vi­ous, more de­tailed from this view­point. They looked equally tall and im­pos­ing, but some­how less ob­struc­tive. With cre­ativ­ity it was pos­si­ble to pick lines through this maze of stone and scree from the shores of the wa­ter be­low to the crest of the moun­tain above, al­though these routes were best left in the imag­i­na­tion rather than put into prac­tice.

Turn­ing away from the precipice, we looked back to­wards the con­tin­u­ing ridge where it climbed once more. The scram­bling ap­peared to be thin­ning. But it hadn’t stopped yet. We found a clumsy yet climbable line over awk­wardly-stacked boul­ders and rough heather. This took us closer to­wards the cliffs above the cwm, and while the scram­bling was, if any­thing, more straight­for­ward than much of what had al­ready passed, the ex­po­sure bore cau­tion. We eked out the last of the hands-on ac­tion for as long as we could, but even­tu­ally, with the gra­di­ent once again soft­en­ing and the rock out­crops giv­ing way to cob­bled moun­tain sum­mit, we ad­mit­ted de­feat and plugged back into the path as it ap­proached the sum­mit.

The top of Pen yr Ole Wen is as un­der­stated as the rest of the peak. A shal­low cairn, barely ris­ing above the nat­u­ral height of the sum­mit rock, marks the pin­na­cle of the moun­tain, while a short dis­tance away a small shel­ter pro­vides a break for the wind which can tear over the Carned­dau from the west. But none of this mat­ters. Pen yr Ole Wen is aware that its sum­mit is not what’s im­por­tant here, but rather the view from it. A straight line of sight into the depths of Cwm Id­wal pro­vides a de­tailed and oth­er­wise un­seen view of the Gly­der mas­sif. Try­fan looks mon­strous. Away to the north-west the Isle of An­gle­sey merges into the grey Ir­ish Sea. To the

north-east, Carnedd Dafydd rises yet higher into the clear Welsh air, linked to Pen yr

Ole Wen by the asym­met­ric ridge of Carnedd Fach and stud­ded with an­cient cairns (Carnedd trans­lates as Cairn, Carnedd Dafydd as

David’s Cairn, and Carnedd

Fach as Small Cairn). Be­yond this, but hid­den from view un­less a short on­wards walk is taken, lay the dark weep­ing cliffs of

Ys­go­lion Duon (Black

Lad­ders) and the prince of the Carned­dau,

Carnedd Llewe­lyn.

Whether Pen yr Ole

Wen is but part of a greater ex­plo­ration of the Carned­dau, or, like us, your prime goal of the day, doesn’t re­ally mat­ter.

The moun­tain doesn’t sulk or glower. It doesn’t re­ally care why you’re there or whether you’re there at all. It is, af­ter all, just a moun­tain. But you should care. Al­though just a moun­tain, it’s one with sur­pris­ing depth, char­ac­ter and in­trigue to be re­vealed. It’s wor­thy of your at­ten­tion, even if it doesn’t crave it. Pen yr Ole Wen may not de­mand to be climbed, but it thor­oughly de­serves it.


Cross­ing ob­sta­cles in Cwm Lloer – the hu­man way (left) and na­ture’s way (top).

Head­ing for Carnedd Dafydd, Cwm Lloer be­low.

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