Wild Camping in Wales | A Journey Between Fear and Peace on the Mountains of Snowdonia
Hiking, scrambling, bivvy bagging, and surviving near-death experiences in the Welsh outdoors.
My heart is racing at 2,000 beats per minute, and my lungs feel like they’re trying to crawl up my throat and escape out my mouth. Meanwhile, there’s a gang of angry butterflies running riot inside my stomach. All this would be bad enough, but it’s being made worse by the fact I’m climbing on the upper echelons of the sixth highest mountain in Wales... without ropes.
What started out as a sunny day scramble on Glyder Fach, in the Snowdonia National Park, has turned into a nightmare that I can’t seem to wake up from. We’re about four-fifths of the way to the summit, and the fear has well and truly taken hold. I want to go home. I want to be in bed, or the pub, or the backseat of the rental car; I want to be anywhere but here. I close my eyes and then open them again. I’m still clinging to the rock in front of me, painfully aware of the terrifying drop behind me.
"I’m clinging to Glyder Fach with everything I’ve got, and my fingers are starting to hurt."
My six months of bouldering knowledge has deserted me, replaced by looping visions of me falling and splatting all over the rocks hundreds of metres below. This is it. I’m going to die here. I’m definitely going to die here. I quietly vow to come back as a ghost and haunt my mate Dave, the man responsible for leading us up this suicidal route, from now until forever.
“I’m stuck, mate. I don’t think I can move," I say to my other friend Tom.
Rewind the story back 36 hours and it’s midnight as me, Tom, Dave and Dave’s brother Glenn approach the Gwerf Gof Uchaf campsite just outside of Betws-y-Coed. After somehow managing to construct our tents, one of which we’ve never put up before, by the light of our headtorches I endure a horribly cold night of camping. My lack of camping mat, a rookie error in hindsight, comes back to bite me and I barely scrape together a few hours’ sleep; shivering intermittently.
Waking up earlier than normal, I make buying a camping mat my first order of business. Picking up some discounted ones in Betws-y-Coed (Dave didn’t have one either), we then grab some breakfast from the Alpine Coffee Shop and drive on over to Zip World.
Zip World, if you’re not familiar with it, is basically Disneyland for people who like messing about on zip wires. You zip over quarries, zip through caves, and generally do a lot of zipping. It’s the kind of big kid fun that’s impossible not to enjoy.
"I’m convinced that this mountain has a very real and very personal vendetta against me."
With our zipping done for the day, we retreat to The Stables in Betws-y-Coed (Y Stablau in Welsh) for beer, food, and hazy discussions of our scrambling and wild camping adventure that we’ll be setting off on at sunrise. It’s clear that my draining day of action-filled activities, on top of my lack of my sleep from the night before, has seen my energy levels hit rock bottom. When I hit my sleeping bag, and brand new camping mat, way before my usual bedtime I’m officially running on empty.
We leave our campsite bright and early the next day, myself well rested thanks to the game-changing introduction of that camping mat, and head towards Tryfan with heavy packs on our backs. Tryfan is one of Britain’s most iconic peaks, and is said to be the final resting place of Arthurian legend Sir Bedivere. Its name means ‘three rocks’, and refers to the three humps up on the mountain’s summit. The 15th highest mountain in Wales, we’d decided to make climbing to the top of it our first mission of the day
After some fairly simple uphill walking, with a sprinkling of gentle scrambling thrown in for good measure, we arrive at Nor Nor Gully via the Heather Terrace. The views up here are so Welsh you can almost hear the male voice choir soundtrack floating on the breeze.
Nor Nor Gully appears before us as a narrow, steep-ish, ascent but one that certainly feels doable down where we’re standing. Little did I know at the time just how wrong this assumption would prove to be. Tom, Dave, and Glenn go on ahead while I hang back to take shots. And then it’s my turn.
There’s a brief scramble up before a substantial bit of rock wedged between the encroaching gully walls becomes my undoing. The other three find a way to overcome it, but no matter how hard I try I can’t seem to get all of my limbs up and over it. My heavy pack and cartoonishly long legs, which can make tight situations like this especially stressful, certainly don’t help matters and I soon become frustrated. I try one final time, but it’s clear there’s no way I’m getting up the gully without some sort of mechanised winch pulling me from above.
I remind myself that knowing where your limits are in the mountains is an important thing to keep a grip on and so, with heavy heart, I decide to wave the white flag on Nor Nor. I announce to my friends that I’ll find another way to the summit and, credit to them, they offer to come with me. The last thing I want, however, is to drag people away from a challenge they were looking forward to.
“I’ll see you at the top, lads," I say
“See you up there, mate," they reply.
Hoping it’s not the last time I ever see them, and with a major case of #FOMO haunting my every step, I head along Heather Terrace in search of a more agreeable route. 20 or so minutes round the curvature of the Terrace, I find it. There’s a massive stack of rocks between me and the summit but I can see people of all shapes and sizes dotted amongst it, heading in both directions. A positive sign.
I hit some dead ends on the way up but, all in all, it’s pretty easy going. Hauling myself over and through a variety of ancient-looking rocks, I make friends with an elderly dude who’s also doing it solo. We laugh when we take a wrong turn, and I find myself reassured by the fact that this mountain bro has got my back.
"...my lungs feel like they’re trying to crawl up my throat and escape out my mouth."
As me and my silver-topped Welsh guardian approach the summit, I’m feeling quietly chuffed about conquering Tryfan. I may not have gone up Nor Nor Gully, but I’ve climbed the fifteenth highest mountain in Wales. Sure it might not be a major mountaineering achievement, all things considered, but I’m disproportionately proud of ticking it off anyway. My happiness is only increased when I see my mates emerging from their route within 10 seconds of my arrival. We couldn’t have timed it better if we’d tried. One. Two. Three. They’re all here. Exchanging jokes and hugs, it takes a moment or two for us to appreciate the magnificent panoramic around us.
After chomping down some peanuts, taking enough photos to fill seven of my gran’s photo albums, and some general larking about by Tom and Glenn on the horrifyingly precarious stones known as Adam and Eve, we decide to crack on with our adventure. Next stop: Glyder Fach.
“OK. Take a deep breath, and a step back," says Tom.
I’m clinging to Glyder Fach with everything I’ve got, and my fingers are starting to hurt.
"I’ll die if I take a step back"
“A step back?" I say, “But...I’ll die if I take a step back."
“No. You won’t. You’ll be fine. Just take a step down here, and reassess it," says Tom.
Something about the assertiveness with which he says this, and the fact I’ve known him since I was a sprog, convinces me to follow his instructions. I shuffle anxiously to a ledge lower down, and look back at the climb I froze on. Trying my absolute best to ignore the huge drop adjacent to it, I remind myself that this brief vertical is well within my ability range and it’s just the location of it that’s causing me to lose my nerve. The change is minor, barely noticeable to the observer, but I can feel a fraction of my composure returning.
OK, Clayton. You can do this. You can definitely do this. Fear can’t hurt you...only the sharp rocks below ca-...no, no, don’t think like that. You’ve got this. Just focus on the task in hand. And somehow, against all the odds, I do. Shutting my mind off to the worst case scenario for the 15 seconds or so I need to yank myself up the various holds, I manage to reach the tiny plateau above. Refusing to look back in case the ensuing vertigo should see me tumble to my doom, I look at the sky and at a grim-faced Dave coming down to join me on the rocky landing.
“Err...I think we’ve come the wrong way," says Dave.
I’m hit by the sudden urge to push my friend into the void.
“Are you joking? Tell me you’re joking," I say; my voice a mixture of annoyance and fear.
“What’s going on?" says Tom, climbing up from below.
“Dave thinks we’ve come the wrong way," I say, still looking at Dave.
Tom says nothing. His silence speaking a thousand words.
"...I wake up early the next morning to one of the most beautiful sunrises I’ve ever seen"
Descending via a different route from the one we came up, we decide to split again shortly after a heavy rock comes tumbling down from above and nearly brains me in the head. My nerves are shot to pieces by now, and I’m convinced that this mountain has a very real and very personal vendetta against me. With Glenn and I heading to lower ground, and Dave and Tom attempting to summit again, we agree to meet up on Glyder Fawr; the next mountain along.
Heading down and around is more of a slog than I’d anticipated, but I’m happy to be escaping the shadow of Glyder Fach. A few hours of hiking and scrambling later, and after some slight confusion in locating our travel companions, we all reunite on the summit of the otherworldly Glyder Fawr. Picture that planet in Interstellar where Matthew McConaughey wrestles with Matt Damon, throw some spiky rocks into the mix, and you’ve basically got the top of Wales’ fifth highest mountain. It’s a truly surreal place.
Our next stop is the YHA Snowdon Pen-y-Pass hostel for a bite to eat, a couple of well-earned pints, and some seats to rest our tired bodies on. From the top of Glyder Fawr, with its 1,001m elevation, the hostel appears as not much more than a small white dot at the end of a barely visible road. After 30 minutes of walking down towards it, the hostel appears as an ever so slightly bigger white dot. Another 30 minutes go by and the white dot has started to take on the shape of a building albeit a very small one. It’s late afternoon, and our legs are really starting to feel it. Eventually, with sweet relief etched upon our faces, we reach the sanctuary of the hostel and collapse into the first armchairs that we see.
The hot food and alcohol goes down an absolute treat, and it’s a real wrench leaving the cosy comfort of the hostel’s bar area for the objectively less comfortable nearby hill where we’ll be bivvy bagging. With the sun going down and darkness setting in, we set ourselves up on a ridge overlooking a picturesque lake known as Llyn Cwm-y-ffynnon. My brief, yet intense, panic attack up on Glyder Fach is still fresh in my mind but fortunately it’s not long before this quiet little corner of the Welsh outdoors is soothing me more effectively than any medicine could.
Snowdonia’s silence sends me into a slumber, and I wake up early the next morning to one of the most beautiful sunrises I’ve ever seen. Watching as night calmly transforms itself into day, after wild camping outside, is something everyone should do at least once in their life. It’s the antidote to the hustle and bustle of modern living, a mute button to the anxieties we carry around in this rapidly changing, highly unpredictable, world. If the fear of falling off a mountain has been this adventure’s yin, then the meditative pleasure of wild camping has most definitely been its yang.
Over the next two days, we hike up and down Mount Snowdon (Wales’ highest mountain), drink a number of local Welsh beers, play a game of dirty-word Scrabble in the Gwydyr Hotel (blame the local Welsh beers for that one), and take a stroll through the woods around Betws-y-Coed.
And then, just like that, it’s all over. The adventure is finished, and we’re back in the rental car heading home towards London. Sitting in the backseat, fatigue washes over me like a wave and I sleep for the entire journey. It’s one more moment of peace, I figure, before the noise of city life fills up my ears again.
Do It Yourself:
We travelled to Snowdonia via a rental car we picked up from Heathrow Airport. For more information on Enterprise car hire, and their pricing, visit the website.
For more on Betws-y-Coed, and the surrounding area, check out our adventure travel guide.
Big thanks to ZipWorld for hosting us, and to Coleman for sorting out our gear.