Spring 2011 part 1: April heatwave on Cadair Idris


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In that strange dreamy state between being fast asleep and wide awake, my mind was trying to identify the loud noise that had roused me. I glanced at the clock. 0310 BST.  The next flash of lightning jolted me into full awareness and I shot downstairs to unplug the phone, computer and stuff, grabbed a pint of water and went back upstairs to watch the show. There followed a short but spectacular thunderstorm that delivered several very close strikes including one with simultaneous lightning and thunder, that from later conversations appeared to have woken up pretty much the entire population of Machynlleth.

That occurred on the morning of April 2nd, as a plume of warm, moist air over western areas destabilised to a much greater extent than our forecasting had predicted. It was a classic summer-style, medium-level storm system, highly electrified as the lightning strikes plot below illustrates (the orange marks are strikes on April 1 before midnight, the red ones are the strikes in the early hours of April 2). The plot was screengrabbed by a UKww member just before the storms reached the Machynlleth area, and it shows how many areas got their best night-time lightning display for years.

Lightning strikes in the early hours of Saturday April 2nd 2011

That sets the scene for this post, as a dry but fairly average March has been followed by some superb summery weather into April, with everything bursting into life, warm sunny days interspersed with useful wet spells and all encouraging peoples' gardens into activity. The shot below was taken from my fireside seat in the veg-garden and epitomises all that is good with Spring: fine, warm weather, trees bursting into leaf and flower and butterflies everywhere. We have made it through another winter back into the world of life and the long greyness is banished into deserved exile. Are there any things more worthy of celebration?

Peacock butterfly and hawthorn blossom

Spring is indeed a time of activation, and on April 9th, in an energetic moment, I resolved to have a wander around Cadair Idris. Despite it being only a few miles to the north, I'd not been up there for several years. If I remember correctly, the last visit, on a deep winter afternoon, saw the weather change impressively: the cloud came right down and within minutes everything was coated in ice-rime. This time, no such worries were to be expected: the main hazard would be sunburn!

The nearest starting-point to Machynlleth is at Minffordd, deep in the Tal-y-llyn valley. On this occasion it was the only choice: the A487 mountain pass over to Cross Foxes and Dolgellau was closed after a landslide (or more correctly a rockfall) occurred earlier in the previous week, fortunately in the early hours as this is normally a busy road by day. Boulders, reportedly up to ten tonnes, were involved. At the time of writing the road remains closed, presumably while the source of the rockfall is investigated to see if there's any more about to come down.

The Minffordd Path reaches the summit in not many miles, but it takes no prisoners! There is no mile-long warm-up stage: instead, it plunges you straight in at the deep end via the steep and relentless steps up through the woodland. I was glad to see everyone else taking a few breathers on this section! As the path emerges above the tree-line, the scene opens out in all directions, this being the view back to the valley floor, 200m below:

Cadair Idris via Minffordd Path: top of the steps

The majority of walkers follow the path around into Cwm Cau, then strike left up onto Mynydd Pencoed, before climbing the final summit slopes, but there is an alternative that is better for photographers, as I'll explain in a bit. It strikes off NE just above the woods, at the signpost to Mynydd Moel, crosses the stream and assaults the mountain directly. This is the easy bit:

Cadair Idris via Minffordd Path: the paths diverge

The path soon steepens into an upwards treadmill, but the upsides to this are that (a) the pain is all done in the first 2 hours and (b) if you start early enough you get the morning sun on Craig Cau,
the huge, 300m plus crag forming the east face of Mynydd Pencoed: by mid-afternoon it is cloaked in shadow. That's the important bit with respect to photography - the image below was taken close to mid-day.....

Cadair Idris via Minffordd Path: Craig Cau comes into view

By the time the 610m/2000ft contour is reached, a short detour westwards across steep heather, rocks and scree reveals Cwm Cau, Llyn Cau and Craig Cau in all their glory:

Cadair Idris via Minffordd Path: Craig Cau and Llyn Cau

Here I stopped awhile, casting about to find different angles, foreground and so on:

Cadair Idris via Minffordd Path: Craig Cau and Llyn Cau

This spot, or more accurately somewhere very close to it, is where a celebrated painting was done around 1774 by the artist Richard Wilson (1713-1782). There's a big print of it hanging on one of the walls of Machynlleth's Wynnstay Hotel; the original is in the Tate Gallery. The picture was featured on a BBC series called A Picture of Britain, with David Dimbleby, but their footage was shot at Llyn Cau, as opposed to struggling up to this spot!

This is Wilson's interpretation of the scene:

Craig Cau and Llyn Cau - 1774 painting

The Tate's website notes: ....the ‘discovery’ of such rugged and uncultivated scenery was greatly stimulated by the taste for the Sublime: previously it would have seemed only raw and disorderly. Richard Wilson was one of the first to adapt the conventions of landscape painting to this sort of scenery, and was a major influence on other artists, including Turner. However, Wilson has still invented landscape features and heightened the precipice at the rear of the composition (Craig-y-Cau) to create a more simplified and balanced composition....

I took my photo above and in Photoshop I resized its height by 2x with the "Constrain Proportions" button unchecked, then cropped it back to landscape format:

Craig Cau and Llyn Cau - Photoshopped image

It's not dissimilar! However, was I to claim this is what the scene really looked like then the climbing fraternity would have had a field day with me! Attitudes to artistic license have changed since the late 18th Century, with much greater demand for accuracy than ever before. In any case, the real view is stunning, with no need for embellishment: it is also a classic example of a glacial cirque, one of the finest in the UK, gouged out by ice action 20,000 years ago or more. More popularly it is often said to be a volcanic crater: this is the stuff of myth. The fact that a lot of the rocks making up the crags are volcanic in origin is mere coincidence: most of the area between here and Dolgellau consists of volcanic rocks.

Looking down from this lofty vantage-point, the height gained was obvious:

Cadair Idris via Minffordd Path: the view downwards

150m of steep climbing remained before the angle eased to grassy slopes:

Cadair Idris via Minffordd Path: craig cau from near summit ridge

Soon, I was atop the summit ridge and sitting in the shelter on Mynydd Moel, out of the strong SE wind which had me putting on a fleece. It was just before 2pm so I was pleased with the two-hour time, especially as it had involved detours and photography. The real leg-work was now complete and I had the rest of the day to wander at leisure along the ridge, which stretched out ahead to Penygadair, the highest peak, with Craig Cau/Mynydd Pencoed to the left and Cyfrwy to the right:

Cadair Idris via Minffordd Path: looking west along summit ridge

Here's the final section to the summit of Penygadair. A lot of high cloud was present to the west, but the best views on Cadair Idris are, at least in my opinion, those of parts of the mountain itself - its rock-architecture is as spectacular as anywhere....

Cadair Idris via Minffordd Path: looking west along summit ridge

Cyfrwy has an impressive stepped ridge - the Cyfrwy Arete, that rises steeply up in a series of pinnacles from the screes. It provides a 200m rock-climb around Difficult-Very Difficult in grade:

Cadair Idris via Minffordd Path: Cyfrwy Arete

It is sometimes classified as a Grade 3 (hard) scramble, but having led it during the 1980s, I wouldn't want to do it without a rope. The image below is a digital zoom-in from the shot above. It shows a climber on The Table - the large flat-topped pinnacle - with another team above. The exposure is impressive and the rock is loose in places, especially on the section below The Table, where the well-known mountaineer Arnold Lunn once had an epic mishap. On August 28th 1922, he was climbing down unroped: just below The Table, a block "10ft high and several feet wide" detached itself as he was hanging onto it! He fell over 100ft, landing on a ledge with a badly broken leg: fortunately people heard the boulder go and then realised Lunn was in dire straits. Eight hours later, he was undergoing surgery in Dolgellau after a difficult rescue, and made a good recovery from what could so easily have been a fatal accident.  Much of the loose rock has of course been trundled now by the passage of many climbers, but a flick through the climbing forums reveals that alarming incidents still occur - it is a place that demands respect and care...


Cadair Idris via Minffordd Path: Cyfrwy Arete

Soon, the summit trig-point of Penygadair was reached:

Cadair Idris via Minffordd Path: summit trig-point

Haze obscured the hills to the north (and in all other directions!): here is Foel Ispri, with the village of Llanelltyd at its foot, and the summit shelter in the foreground:

Cadair Idris via Minffordd Path: summit shelter

From the summit, the next section out over Mynydd Pencoed, the cliffs of Craig Cau now in deep shadow, was visible:

Cadair Idris via Minffordd Path: Craig Cau from summit

But there was no need to hurry - the view to Cyfrwy again held my gaze, with Llyn Y Gadair at its base and the Arete soaring above:

Cadair Idris via Minffordd Path: Cyfrwy and Llyn Y Gadair

The perspective from this vantage point emphasised the exposure even more:

Cadair Idris via Minffordd Path: Cyfrwy Arete

The Table was now deserted although another team was visible just beneath it. Going back again to the start of the 20th Century, The Table was described by the Abraham Brothers (famous pioneers in mountain photography) thus: "Its summit is spacious and comfortable, large enough for a tea party, provided the tea be not so strong that it affects the nerves"!

Cadair Idris via Minffordd Path: the "Table" on Cyfrwy Arete

Eventually I set off for my next port of call - the tor-like masses of pillow-lava to the SW of the summit. These are one of Cadair Idris' many classic geological features. Pillow-lavas are formed when magma is erupted underwater. Because the water is much, much colder than the magma, the surface of the latter is quenched, forming a skin. Meanwhile, the molten tongue of magma continues to expand, becoming inflated and pressurised, until the pressure causes the skin to rupture, when a new pillow forms, and so on for the duration of the eruption. This results in a series of interconnecting pillows, as seen in the image below: up to a metre across, they are typically rounded and are spherical to flattened in shape.

Cadair Idris via Minffordd Path: outcrops of pillow-lava

It's quite something to contemplate that these rocks, almost 890m above sea-level on a Welsh mountainside, were formed underwater, but back then - about 460 million years ago - Wales was part of a group of volcanic islands called East Avalonia and was situated at a low latitude down in the Southern Hemisphere. Now that's what I call history!

Cadair Idris via Minffordd Path: outcrops of pillow-lava

Leaving the pillow-lavas behind, it was time to get the last bit of ascent ticked-off: Mynydd Pencoed beckoned, leg-muscles protested but I was soon up at the top....

Cadair Idris via Minffordd Path: Craig Cau

The view from Mynydd Pencoed back towards the slopes of Mynydd Moel is a lot less exciting than that taken in the opposite direction in the morning, and as far as I know, there are no paintings of this particular scene...

Cadair Idris via Minffordd Path: Mynydd Moel from Craig Cau

A fence crosses the summit of Mynydd Pencoed and dives off down a gully before ending abruptly, with Llyn Cau visible over 320m vertically below - it's a monster of a cliff!

Cadair Idris via Minffordd Path: Llyn Cau from Craig Cau

The path down from Mynydd Pencoed is one of the most frequented on the mountain. These steps have been constructed in order to counter the many years of erosion which here have turned the path into a gash of scree several metres in width. In theory, the scree should revegetate, given enough time. This is ongoing work and it has its fans and critics alike: however, there is nothing visually attractive about severe path erosion and if the steps allow the scars to heal then they get my thumbs-up.

Cadair Idris via Minffordd Path: Erosion control

The afternoon was drawing on as I followed the ridge down to the point where a direct descent to the valley floor is made, just east of Llyn Cau. Here, shadow cloaked the precipices of Craig Cau, although Penygadair was still bathed in warm sunshine:

Cadair Idris via Minffordd Path: Craig Cau, Llyn Cau and Penygadair

Where the path meets the main route up to Llyn Cau, there is a famous roche moutonnée. It's a glacial landform - a smoothed outcrop of igneous rock, over which the glacier that formed in Cwm Cau passed, grinding over the rock and smoothing its features whilst scratching its surface. Another classic geological feature of Cadair Idris, it is illustrated on the
roche moutonnée page on Wikipedia as their example. Here's a shot of its ground-down flank with Craig Cau's shadowy cliffs in the background:

Cadair Idris via Minffordd Path: Craig Cau and the roche moutonee

From here, an easy walk of a kilometre led back to the junction of the paths and the start of the steps down to Minffordd - a jarring descent but over in no time and I was down by 1700, six hours after leaving the valley-floor, after 941m (3087ft) of ascent and about 10km of walking. This is definitely the best route up Cadair Idris from Minffordd, with a hard start followed by a pleasant stroll to enjoy for the rest of the day - recommended!


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