For experienced hillwalkers in search of an adventure, the Welsh 3,000s is a classic mountain route that links all 15 of Snowdonia’s biggest peaks.
Words by Matthew Jones, photography by Ellie Clewlow
Climbing up Pen yr Ole Wen with Lyn Ogwen and the Glyderau behind
From the footpath that skirts the north-east fringe of Llynnau Mymbyr, I gazed up the broad valley. The twin lakes sparkled in the sunlight, reflecting the blue skies and wispy cirrus cloud above. Heather-clad slopes framing the scene on either side gave way to lush green pasture, dotted with white flecks of sheep. But my eyes were irresistibly drawn to what lay beyond, chiselled into the horizon – the hulking Snowdon Massif. On the left, I could pick out Gallt y Wenallt as it rose to the two crests of Y Lliwedd. My eyes tracked along the long, curved ridge to the summit of Snowdon and then slid right to Garnedd Ugain, appearing scarcely lower than Snowdon itself. In front I could just make out the tip of Crib Goch. It stood out in stark contrast, backlit by the early afternoon sun against the shadowy mass of jagged rock. Maybe it was just a trick of the light, but even from here the notorious ridge looked like a jagged knife edge.
The mighty Crib Goch ridge
Snowdon (or Yr Wyddfa, to give the mountain its Welsh name), Garnedd Ugain and Crib Goch are the first three summits of the Welsh 3,000s – a classic mountain route connecting all of Wales’s peaks over 3,000ft. There are, depending on whether or not you count the minor summit of Carnedd Gwenllian, 14 or 15 in total. And by a convenient quirk of geology, they are all found within the three mountain groups of northern Snowdonia – the Carneddau, the Glyderau and the Snowdon Massif.
The fastest firsts
If you are fit enough, it is possible to bag them all in a day. This notion first occurred to keen mountain types at the turn of the 20th century, but the first person to take the record really seriously was Thomas Firbank. In 1931, aged 21, he bought a 2,400-acre sheep farm in the Dyffryn Mymbyr valley. From here, he ranged across much of Snowdonia, enraptured by its rugged landscapes – a love affair recounted in his book I Bought a Mountain. One chapter is dedicated to his dogged pursuit of the ‘Fourteen Threes’. It is a detailed account of the planning and preparation that went into his successful 1938 attempt, when he and two companions completed the challenge in 8 hours and 25 minutes.
That laid down the gauntlet, and after World War II, a series of mountaineers competed to go even faster. In 1973, legendary Lake District shepherd and fell runner Joss Naylor came to Snowdonia and ran the course in 4 hours and 46 minutes, despite getting briefly cragfast on Crib Goch and waylaid in fog on Carnedd Llewelyn. Naylor’s record stood until 1988, when it was beaten by an unassuming Scot, Colin Donnelly, who had been posted to RAF Valley on Anglesey. Donnelly ran the course in 4 hours and 19 minutes, a time that for many years was considered unbeatable. It was only last May that another Scot, Finlay Wild – a Lochaber-based GP – finally bettered it, shaving nine minutes off Donnelly’s 31-year-old record.
Going that fast is undoubtedly impressive. But charging across the mountains is not, perhaps, the best way to appreciate their beauty. Even completing the course inside 24 hours is more of an endurance challenge than anything else – a test of stamina and fitness rather than a memorable adventure. Instead, my partner Ellie and I planned to tackle the 15 peaks over three days – a mini expedition would give us the chance to stretch our legs and savour the surroundings, too.
Many hillwalkers seem to share a collective disdain for Snowdon. Maybe it’s the fact that it attracts so many tourists – after all, on average half a million people visit its summit every year, making it Britain’s busiest mountain. Maybe it’s because there’s a cheat’s shortcut to the top, in the form of the Snowdon Mountain Railway, which enables visitors to enjoy panoramic views without even putting in the effort of climbing the mountain. Or maybe it’s the fact that instead of a rustic stone shelter or simple cairn at the top, there’s a sleek modern café, replete with a wide selection of snacks and souvenirs, plus long queues to match.
But if you can see past its tourist trappings, Snowdon is a glorious mountain – something we were both reminded of as we took a moment to look around us, midway across the exposed scramble of Crib Goch. The ridge reared up ahead, looming out of the cloud, and we could see a line of people snaking out towards the distant summit of Garnedd Ugain – some moving confidently, hopping from rock to rock on the crest of the ridge, others more cautiously, using the edge as a handrail and sticking sensibly to the left-hand side. Still others were seemingly clinging on for dear life, clearly out of their comfort zone and shuffling along inch by inch, with hands, feet and occasionally bums on rock, too. Admittedly, the precipitous drops to either side focus the mind, but the view is spectacular. From here, the horseshoe appears as a collapsed bowl, as if some giant has scooped out a great handful of rock and dragged it across the landscape. At the bottom of this vast hollow is sprawling Llyn Llydaw, belted at one end by the stone causeway of the Miners’ Track. It was an utterly exhilarating
perch, if a precarious one.
A couple of hours later we hopped up the winding stone steps to the trig pillar on the summit of Snowdon, pleased to have bagged the first three peaks. All that was left for day one was a loping descent down the Pyg Track back to Pen y Pass – saving the stiff ascent into the Glyderau for tomorrow.
The traditional route of the Welsh 3,000s climbs out of Nant Peris to slate-strewn Elidir Fawr, whose lower slopes are occupied by the vast, disused Dinorwig Quarry. Deep inside the mountain are 16km of underground tunnels that lead to Europe’s largest man-made cavern, housing six powerful generators. This subterranean infrastructure is all part of a hydroelectric scheme that, at peak load, supplies up to 1,728 megawatts of power to the National Grid.
Llyn Idwal with reflections of the Glyderau
I could have done with some of that energy myself as we neared the end of the second day, having summited not just Elidir, but Y Garn, Glyder Fawr and Glyder Fach too. We’d thrown in a scramble among the jagged monoliths of Castell y Gwynt (meaning Castle of the Winds) en route too, just for fun. All that was left was to ascend iconic Tryfan via the South Ridge, and to find a spot to pitch for the night.
But first, we had to get past the large goat who had decided to perch right at the top of the ladder stile on Bwlch Tryfan. We’d encountered these feral beasts before. They’re a well-known feature of the Glyderau, though usually you smell them before you see them. A combination of gentle ushering and some frantic hand claps eventually convinced this particular billy to move on, and we steeled ourselves for the hands-on rock ascent up Tryfan’s scaly back. They say you never climb this majestic peak the same way twice, and having been up it half a dozen times, I can attest to that. At the summit are two giant, flat-topped boulders, named Siôn a Siân in Welsh, or Adam and Eve in English. Jumping between them purportedly gains you the ‘freedom of Tryfan’. It’s a gap of just over a metre, hardly a leap into the unknown, but it’s a big drop on one side, and as writer and mountaineer Frank Showell Styles once dryly put it, ‘the penalties of failure are unpleasant in the extreme’. It’s probably something you won’t feel the need to accomplish more than once, if indeed at all.
Mountain goat at Bwlch Tryfan
The third and final day of a Welsh 3,000s adventure is a real departure, as the rocky summits of Snowdon and the Glyderau give way to a markedly different landscape. These mountains are scantily clad in threadbare tussock and heather, occasionally revealing bare rock outcrops and broken patches of scree. For us, it felt like familiar ground, as we had crossed most of the Carneddau when backpacking the Cambrian Way back in August 2019, a 298-mile route from Cardiff to Conwy originally devised by Ramblers member Tony Drake.
I was grateful for the lighter pack on my back compared to the load I was lugging back then. The first summit of the day was Pen yr Ole Wen, which dominates the Nant Ffrancon pass. From Ogwen, most 3,000ers follow the lake shore before tacking left alongside Afon Lloer and doglegging back to the summit. There is another, more direct line, but few take it, for the path is a punishing climb up heathery terraces, following an eroded track. The one saving grace of this alternative is the captivating view back across Llyn Ogwen to Tryfan, which offers a good distraction, as well as an excuse to stop and recover your breath.
Carnedds Dafydd and Llewelyn seemed to follow in quick succession thereafter, as we stuck fairly closely to the edge of Ysgolion Duon, known to English climbers as the Black Ladders; a succession of remote cliffs that drop hundreds of feet down to Cwm Llafar. The next peak on the 3,000s is Yr Elen, which necessitates an out-and-back detour via a narrow saddle. Like an eagle’s eyrie, it sits isolated and alone, but gives far-reaching views back along the broad swathe of the Carneddau that you have just crossed.
On Pen Yr Ole Wen
Just below the rocky summit of Foel Grach, on the mountain’s northern slopes, is a small stone-built mountain shelter – a dark and damp refuge, but still a welcome respite from the teeth of the wind that scour the Carneddau. We stopped here to swig some water, scoff some Jelly Babies and contemplate our progress. Until 1984, Foel Grach was the penultimate summit of the Welsh 3,000s, but that year Carnedd Uchaf was remeasured and added to the list. Fourteeners still skip it and head straight to the trig pillar at Foel-Fras, the final peak, but we made the short deviation to bag it anyway.
Patting the top of the trig on Foel-Fras, I felt triumphant, although ‘knackered’ came a close second. A check of our trusty OL17 – apparently, Ordnance Survey’s best-selling map sheet – showed how far we’d come over the past three days. I even had to flip the map over from East Sheet to West to find our original start point back at Pen y Pass. We’d covered around 42km (26 miles) from first summit to last, with about 4,000m (13,000ft) of total ascent. Alas, the map also revealed that at our current spot height of 942m, we were still a long way from home. As I wearily contemplated our options to get back to the car park at Bont Newydd – either via the shorter descent along the Afon Anafon, or the longer but easier variation via Drum – I took some comfort from the fact that the walk back would also be accompanied by a real sense of accomplishment, as well as an even greater respect for Snowdonia’s highest places. As adventures go, walking the Welsh 3,000s takes some beating.
42km/26 miles in total, with around 4,000m (13,000ft) of ascent, climbing the 15 peaks of Snowdon, Garnedd Ugain, Crib Goch, Elidir Fawr, Y Garn, Glyder Fawr, Glyder Fach, Tryfan, Pen yr Ole Wen, Carnedd Dafydd, Yr Elen, Carnedd Llewelyn, Foel Grach, Carnedd Uchaf/Carnedd Gwenllian and Foel-Fras.
OS Explorer OL17; Landranger 115.
YHA Hostels at Pen y Pass and Idwal Cottage, Ogwen. Rowen Youth Hostel and Cefn Cae campsite near Bwlch y Ddeufaen. Wild camping possible on the route.
If you’re perplexed by the excessive classifications of Britain’s peaks and hills then walk this way to become an instant expert…