Mountain Guide Tim Neill shares some of his favourite lesser travelled North Wales classics.
North West Wales has long been an established stomping ground for generations of rock climbers. The honey pot crags of Cwm Idwal, around Tryfan, the obvious cliffs in the Llanberis Pass, Tremadog, Gogarth and the Slate quarries are the well documented draws. This is proven by the well travelled hand and foot holds of the many classic climbs across the grade spectrum. Beyond these “must visit” cliffs are many others dotted around that offer equally fantastic climbing days. These will be well known to many keen locals and some keener visitors alike. If you fit in those brackets then perhaps, like me, you often just need a nudge to go back and rediscover them. If it’s all new then dive in and explore a little deeper into the incredibly varied and diverse climbing on offer.
Looking ahead to the summer I’ve optimistically chosen 3 cliffs in the mountains but with a cautious caveat of being sunny and quick drying just in case it ever rains in Wales just before you come climbing...
Over the last year and a bit they’ve obviously seen much less traffic than they deserve yet none are in the esoteric bracket by any stretch. Whilst modern taste is for convenience “quick hits” and “another lap” all these climbs will always endure through pure quality climbing, setting and a bit of class.
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Photo: Harriet Ridley, Tremadog, North Wales.
These walls offer some of the sunniest and quickest drying high mountain classics in Snowdonia, yet it’s rare to meet others. They offer more reliable good conditions and a much longer season than their austere counterparts like Cloggy, Cyrn Las or Llech Ddu. The Amphitheater Buttress bounding the other side of the gully continues to be the main lure with an almost constant clank of hexes echoing on most sunny weekends. These cliffs keep the sun from dawn until the late afternoon and have very little lingering seepage after bad weather.
Mur y Niwl (Wall of the Mists) was always known as one of the best mountain VSs in Wales until it’s grade was bumped to HVS! So that quote can be amended if that helps swing it for you. It quests out across terrain cut by harder climbs with airy stances and exposure to match. It leads eventually to the luxuriant woodrushes on the midway ledge marking the boundary between the lower and upper walls. The classic continuation is to then climb Pinnacle Wall. This incredible Severe weaves its way through further impressive terrain on an illogical but magical journey with the shadows creeping up behind you as the day is probably wearing on. For a more sustained trip I’d recommend The Grimmet over on the left. A brilliant VS, but quite different to Mur y Niwl with gear on demand to allow steep graunchy climbing all the way.
(left) looking out over Mur y Niwl. (top right) The crux traverse of Mur y Niwl. (bottom right) Climbers on Pinnacle Wall
For the extreme leaders the mega classic Aura (E2) on the Lower Wall cuts a direct line from near the start of Mur y Niwl up a steep and sustained incipient crack to give one of the top 5 Mountain E2s in the Welsh hills. The logical continuation is the more technical but better protected E2 of Pinnaclissima above. It cuts up the other side of the eponymous feature of Pinnacle Climb with some pushy jamming and bridging in contrast to the open face questing on Aura below.
The Carneddau is home to a small population of indigenous Carneddau ponies who roam the mountainous land between Bethesda, Llanfairfechan, Capel Curig and Conwy.
Finally, a hugely underrated outing on the right side of the lower wall is the mighty Mother of Mercy. The first ascentionist Dai Lampard rates it as his best contribution on rock. It had a flurry of ascents a couple of years ago after I gave it a good scrub and it really is a mega belter for the E5 connoisseur. It’s like a mirror image yet equal of the famous Lakes classic “The Cumbrian “. This “Cambrian” version is a pulse raising wild and steep groove with improving protection leading to a crescendo where all best crux moves should be. Enjoy!
Another sunny crag with a mountain vibe but a more rural setting. It’s low altitude and aspect allow climbing more often than even the local keen beans think. I’ve been there in a t shirt in February!
Recent access guidance is hard to come by but the best approach these days is from the village of Rhyd Ddu. A mountain bike ride or longish walk back down to and along the west shore of Llyn Cwellyn to the foot of the cliff is a lovely way to start the day. First time visitor’s facial expressions are a sight to behold as they strain their necks upwards from a lovely base camp spot by the stream just above the forest.
It’s always had a reputation for seepage but this only afflicts the classics Dwm and Tramgo. Both Joe Brown routes, the former attracts the list oriented climber in search of a tick from the pages of Hard Rock. The latter he climbed with Chris Bonington. The image of Joe hanging in slings on the FA of Tramgo was immortalised as the signage for the Joe Brown shops for decades. These 2 must do classics need a couple of weeks of dry weather to give the free climber a good chance of dry jams. However Dwm is still a popular trip with a few pulls on runners in the top roof if it’s wet as advertised in Hard Rock.
(left) Keith Ball nearing the top of Vertigo. (top right) Tim on Hang 'em High. (bottom right) Tim setting off on Vertigo.
Apart from those 2, the experienced HVS climber has a couple of other Joe Brown trips that are well worth psyching up for. The Curver and Vertigo. Neither go straight up and their given names are well suited. They weave intimidating lines diagonally rightwards through otherwise very steep terrain and on first acquaintance might have you grumbling about the grade. Reasonable protection for the hardest bits on both is hard won and not in abundance. These are truly for solid HVS climbers at either end of the rope. If ever you needed reminding how incredible Joe Brown must’ve been at pioneering on rock in his era this cliff gives 4 superb examples of his skill.
For more recent additions (ok, the 80s!) there’s a bunch of character enhancing experiences from the arms and vision of Pat Littlejohn and his friends. The best (and safest) in my opinion is Heading for Heights. This “top shelf” E5 has a series of long committing sections that each leave behind solid gear and will test your resolve to head into further hostile terrain. The steepest crux high up gains an incredible jug, however also an incredible realisation that you’re about to burn all your bridges with “fight or flight” mode fully engaged for quite a few more metres. Excellent stuff.
Despite being off the beaten track, Castell Cidwm has played host to climbers for many decades.
Apart from all this high adrenaline fuelled climbing the cliff is in a beautiful setting and in total contrast to most North Wales cliffs. Partly due to the approach, a different view, a different valley to the norm and abundant nature it’s the perfect compliment to the roadside distractions of Tremadog but with a similar clement situation.
(banner) a view across Clogwyn yr Oen, a typical Moelwyn crag view.
Another sunny crag in the hills! Situated on the cusp of mid Wales and away from the bustle of Northern Snowdonia this is for sure the most majestic cliff above the private road to Llyn Stwlan. It’s always much quieter than the other crags along this road, yet is the best of the bunch with a more majestic outlook, grander climbs and rock architecture.
It’s a sort of incredible lump of rhyolite rising out of the slate tips with soaring slabs, cracks, corners and prows. It’s biased towards the Vdiff to HVS climber then picks up again at E5 with only a few snippets in between. The list of first ascentionists is a good selection of who’s who on Welsh rock from Ron James to Ron Fawcett and even the Chris’s Bonington and Brasher left their mark.
The lovely quartz veneered slab left of centre is tackled by Africa Rib and Asahel at around V Diff and Severe respectively. The rock is beautiful and where it’s not got the quartz it’s a very unique type of rhyolite pitted with helpful pockets and hidden and precise gear placements, giving novice leaders a great step up from the trade routes and lack of guessing required on the lauded classics of Idwal Slabs and the Milestone Buttress. Airy stances and small ledges complete the package.
The devious and varied slanting central groove is followed by the brilliant Mean Feet at HVS. This strong line from the late ‘50s has a little bit of everything. Its perplexing steep crux will make everyone pause at least a little, even if only to place some more bomber gear just in case. It’s a really good route!
Bisecting this classic is one from 1980 in the form of The Crimson Cruiser. Given E5 it’s perhaps easier for it’s given grade than all the others on the crag are for theirs... If you have access to the old Tremadog guidebook with the red card cover there’s an incredible photo of this route on the back. The pitch overhangs it’s base yet gives a number of potential sitting rests! It’s the equal of Fawcett routes anywhere from the Llanberis Pass to the Peak District. Flawless rock, good gear where it’s most needed, a great strong line and fantastic finish where indecisive action will lead to a big whoosh into nothing but lots of fresh air. Go get it.
Tim Neill is a hugely experienced British Mountain Guide renowned for his enthusiasm for all types of climbing. He began climbing in Snowdonia and over the years has amassed a vast tick list that’s given him an encyclopaedic knowledge of North Wales rock, from the easier mountain classics through to the most adventurous and esoteric lines of Anglesey’s sea cliffs. He’s available for instruction and guiding throughout the year.
(left) Tim on Hunger, Gogarth Main Cliff. Photo by Ben Silvestre.
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