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
“TRYFAN IS JUST A SKIMMED STONE OVER LLYN OGWEN AWAY”
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,
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.