A family walk up Tryfan in Snowdonia – Britain’s favourite mountain

Tryfan. Just that singular Welsh word is enough to conjure up long-suppressed, yet surprisingly vivid mental images of windswept, rugged landscapes. I first climbed the famously gnarly mountain when I was 18 years old and living a newfound solo life away from my family whilst studying for a degree in London. Soon after Fresher’s Week I got roped into jumping into a minibus with ten greasy members of the Imperial College Mountaineering Club – I was more of an occasional rambler and had never attempted anything on the scale of the daunting Snowdonia peaks before. The climb progressed as well as could have reasonably been expected for one so naive – I seem to remember scrambling up the dreaded North Face of Tryfan in reasonably fine fettle, full of bravado – but then my nerve left the building on the infamous Bristly Ridge and I had to apply for a new pair of underpants.

Almost thirty years had passed and I hadn’t revisited the summit of Tryfan in the intervening period. Now with wife and daughter in tow, and on the hottest day of the year, was it really the time to give it another shot? Well the girls were keener than me and so, after some not unsizeable arm-twisting, I made the compromise of  agreeing to clamber up via the South Face which is reportedly a little less taxing. I felt a bit of a party-pooper though which is not uncommon.

Bring on the breakfast

We had hibernated overnight in our campervan, using the car park of the Swallow Falls Inn in  Betws-y-Coed for a cheap but very cheerful base of operations. We tried not to stay up too late the previous evening (just the five beers then!) and set off at around 7am with the aim of having a bacon and egg sarnie under the shadow of Tryfan (pronounced ‘Truv-van’). Tryfan breakfastThe sun was already blazing down while we scoffed the delicious brekkie and gulped down a quick cuppa. There is no better way to start a walk.

Heading off, I was struck by how sharply the shadows were defined on the ground due to the intense sunlight. This was going to be a scorcher – we had packed three bottles of water between us but I had concerns it was not enough.

Never one to be burdened by worries of looking ridiculous, I had attached my Fimi Palm gimbal camera to my rucksack strap, transforming my silhouette into an outtake from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s classic 1986 film, Predator. Hopefully it would capture some reasonable footage without blowing us up.

Llyn Ogwen twinkled majestically beneath the ominous bulk of the Carneddau peaks to the North. The blue was of such an intense hue that we had visions of leaping in, but the path to Tryfan was across the road and calling us. Slightly disconcertingly it led steeply upwards out of the small National Trust carpark. Wimping out was not an option.

Llyn Ogwen 2Visions of Conwy

We climbed steadily for around twenty minutes before reaching a welcome plateau where we had a first swig of water and surveyed the scene behind us. Everybody knows that these ‘taking in the view’ breaks are actually to recoup lost oxygen, but nobody ever lets on. It’s part of the game. The view was stupendous and I felt alive and happy.

We were following the ordnance survey maps on our trusty Garmin GPS and noticed that the path was soon to split in two. We spotted a large group of hikers heading south west along one branch towards Llyn Bochlwyd and so we decided to avoid them by heading more directly south. It soon became apparent that this plan had a major disadvantage – the path was to become decidedly boggy and then, a little further on, decidedly steep. I couldn’t figure out how the ground could be so sodden on such a hot day. My daughter Loz was starting to get mildly irritated – she likes to properly scramble up rocks using her hands and scrambling skills, treating the mountain like a huge climbing frame. She has less time for the drudgery of schlepping up wet sheep paths. God forbid anyone suggest we use a human-laid path to get to the top – it would just be utter sacrilege.

Lake Australia

Eventually we reached the top of the rise and could now see Llyn Bochlwyd shimmering in the distance. It is often referred to as ‘Lake Australia’ because of its similarity in shape to the southern hemisphere continent, but we couldn’t really see the resemblance. A lad was taking a photograph of his girlfriend in front of it, and I took a photo of him taking it. I like seeing images within images, something which has stayed with me since arranging two mirrors to face-off against each other when I was a nipper and being fascinated by the ensuing vision of infinity.

Poor Loz was not getting much happier. The path up to the high stuff was definitely man made – large chunks of stone had been laid down on the ground. It certainly felt rugged enough for me and took some effort to ascend. We could now clearly see the peak of Tryfan above us. It felt like the journey to Mordor – except on a much sunnier day than depicted by Tolkien. I could imagine Sauron reclining on his sunbed.

We eventually reached the inter-sectional valley point known as ‘Bwlch Tryfan’, stretching between the southern base of the mountain and the rise to Bristly Ridge which was the scene of my ‘brown-trouser’ moment back in 1991  – heading up the latter takes you to the Glyder peaks, but that is probably an adventure best served for a future article. I hope we can get back to Snowdonia soon to do it!

Bwlch Tryfan – onwards and upwards

Instead we ate a Scotch Egg and a few sausage rolls before turning North towards the Giant himself – Tryfan. Wikipedia states that the name derives from ‘Try – ban’ or ‘very high peak’. Others believe it is from ‘Tri-faen’ or the ‘three rocks’. Either way, the climb up from Bwlch Tryfan is a mountain classic and one to be savoured.

Loz was now absolutely loving it, skipping ahead with her mum. I kept back to try and shoot some panoramic footage with my Fimi, but was having trouble with the bright sunlight causing some overexposure. It was simply dazzling and put me in mind of an Alpine climb. The hills were certainly alive with the sound of our laughter and enjoyment as we continued to climb.

scrambling up TryfanWe were now in the big rocks and our hands and feet had to be used to make progress. The easiest path upwards wasn’t particularly clear to distinguish but there were plenty of people heading down, so we just aimed in their general direction, trying to keep our distance as much as possible due to the Covid-19 situation. We said hello to a bunch of Italians, some Russians and a Polish couple. We then encountered a gaggle of Liverpudlian lads who were swearing to the high heavens until they saw Loz. I had a silent chuckle to myself.

The gorgeous weather was making the climbing easy – there was good grip and plenty of time on our side. I decided a much more deferential attitude would be required in arctic conditions – the rocks would be treacherous in snow and ice. However I could envisage that the feeling of space and solitude would be mind-blowing. 

Tryfan summitSuddenly we were at the top. It was surprisingly busy – there must have been thirty people up there: some sitting, some standing, and some attempting the jump between the famous ‘Adam and Eve’ stones. “You have to know your limits boy!” I whispered to myself in a moment of faux-bravado – I knew there was no way I would ever have the guts to give it a go. I was then bemused to see some seagulls fly overhead. Somewhere a metaphor was being written, but I couldn’t quite work it out.

A daring descent

We ate a bit more food and contemplated the descent. We were going to seek out the ‘Heather Terrace’ to the east, for a supposedly simple drop to ground level – finding the Terrace involves retracing ones steps back down the south side of the mountain before taking a sharp left. It was steep and we found a few very loose boulders. Loz slipped and hurt her ankle. We were getting tired and thirsty (our water was close to running out) and the thought of another couple of hours out the blaze was not appetising.

Things degenerated when we subsequently missed the path to the Heather Terrace, and found ourselves halfway down a sheer scree cliff. The going was slow and our knees were taking a pounding. The descent took about an hour, and my wife Alison and I were wobbling by the time we reached a welcome flatness to the ground. 

There was still an hour of cross-country walking back to the main road, but mercifully it was reasonably level. We kept getting overtaken by fitter crowds and at times I thought I was hallucinating with the lack of water. Finally, through the heat-haze, we could see the Gwern Gof Uchaf campsite and we knew we were close to the A5 and the safety of the van. Incredibly, Alison was able to drive us to Bethesda and brave the supermarket, while Loz and I collapsed in the back – the full-fat coca cola and choc-ices she bought us from the Co-Op tasted like Heaven.

The walk was complete and our ordeal was over. We knew that a meal at the Dragon Hotel and Restaurant in ‘Betws-y’ was on the cards and we had that lovely sense of pride you obtain when triumph and achievement prevails over laziness. It had taken around 7 hours in total, but it would live in our memories forever. What a day!

Our route, taken anticlockwise from Llyn Ogwen

Tryfan is located in the county of Conwy in Snowdonia, North Wales. For directions, use this link.

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