A 5 Star Mountain Challenge

I think that having hit 32 consecutive days on Saturday we are coming to the end of our geocaching streak. We went out on a high though with a 5 star mountain challenge. That’s 5 stars out of 5 stars in case you were wondering.

As mentioned in a recent post about our  walks up Cadair Idris and Foel Ispri, Morgan and I had embarked on a geocache with the highest difficulty and terrain rating (5/5) possiible (there’s more on the rating system in the aforementioned weblog post). The geocache we were attempting was called Gwyddno’s Mountain Challenge and involved finding several clues in 5 different geocaches on mountains in Wales. Each of these caches were fairly demanding in themselves. The questions in them then had to be answered correctly in order to find numbers that would build up the coordinates to the 6th and final geocache location.

I already done the cache at Foel Dinas back in 2007 when it was brand new and managed to get the ‘First to Find’ on it. I had also found the Llaeron Earth Cache whilst walking the Tarren ridge back in 2007. These were both before Gwyddno’s Mountain Challenge cache was published so at the time there were no questions in them. Gwyddno sent us the questions for these though so we only had 3 more to do, plus the final cache. After some lovely days walking on Cadair Idris and Foel Ispri, and walking in the Moelwyns, we had all of the questions. Some searching on the Internet, reading of various wikipedia articles and some Google Map research provided me with the answers to the questions and therefore the coordinates of the final cache. I checked these and they looked plausible, now we just had to find a day where the weather looked good and Morgan was in the mood for a mountain challenge.

Saturday was that day. The forecast was for no wind, warm temperatures and wall to wall sunshine. The first challenge for me was getting a balance between setting off early as I would be inclined to do and not rushing Morgan in the morning as he likes to take things easy at the weekend! I’ve been enjoying my walks in the hills with him so I don’t want to put him off. With spare clothes packed and hill-walking kit in the bag, along with a nice packed lunch we managed to leave the house just after 8am for the drive north along the coast towards Harlech.

I can’t give too much away about the location of the final cache for fear of ruining it for others but saying that it is in the Rhinog range of hills is fine. I’d never walked here before and don’t know it at all, in fact, the first time I’d ever been along this bit of coastline was a few weeks back when I cycled around Southern Snowdonia. I therefore had no idea what the Rhinog hills were like and certainly had little knowledge of them. This was one of the reasons I wanted a nice clear day so that navigation in unfamiliar hills would be a little easier.

The Rhinogs Hills lie to the East of Harlech and are formed of hard sedimentary rocks of Cambrian age which occur as a major anticlinal structure known to geologists as the Harlech Dome. The greywackes and gritstones of their northern hills form a rocky, rugged terrain with steep hills that are fairly uncompromising. A quick look through online guides to the area have quotes such as:

The Rhinogs are not hills for a walker who insists on using a path. This is some of the roughest terrain in the UK, with established paths pretty much non-existent.

It’s treacherous terrain where ankles can easily be twisted, either on unstable rocks or among clumps of heather. A good sense of balance is essential.

Short in altitude but utterly uncompromising, the Rhinogs are famously among the wildest and roughest hills in Wales. The northern hills are a chaos of mini crags and heather, with scatterings of little lakes and idyllic wooded valleys – beautiful walking.

Our drive took us past Harlech Castle and then up a narrow track to a small parking spot at Eisingrug. I had to get out of the car at one point along this lane to move some stubborn cows out of the road. At the top there was enough room for a few cars to park and an honesty box to place a £2 donation towards the Air Ambulance to cover the cost of parking. There was also the first geocache of the day which we found and signed.

With our parking fee / air ambulance donation paid – good karma for the walk ahead – we set off along a well marked track. As we left the car behind the weather was nothing like it should have been. We could see down towards the estuary at Porthmadog below us, but there was drizzle in the air and up ahead was a wall of clouds – the Rhinogs themselves were shrouded from view.

Setting off

Setting off

We made our way along the track which was boggy in places and then onto a less well defined path that took us between Llyn Eiddew-mawr and LLyn Eiddew-bach, two remote, desolate looking lakes. We stopped for our second geocache along this trail at a ‘pyramid rock’ before starting the climb up towards Moel Ysgyfarnogod.

Pyramid Rock

Pyramid Rock

The track reduced down to a steep path, then a poorly defined sheep path and finally disappeared altogether. We could just about make out the outline of a hill ahead of us though as we started climbing ever higher. At one point the clouds lifted a little, just enough for us to see what looked like an easier route along a grassy slope between various crags. We headed for that and found a nice grassy track alongside the remains of some old stone shelters. There were piles of stones everywhere and the walking was good. Visibility was poor by now though and it wasn’t that warm either. We were soon both forced to put on an extra layer as we made our way up the slopes.

The next destination was another geocache in amongst the crags of the SW side of Moel Ysgyfarnogod. The hillside here is stepped with several vertical, craggy rock faces so knowing which level to be on was difficult in these conditions, but we picked our way up through the crags taking what looked like the safest route. We passed a cool glacial erratic balancing on a few small stones and finally emerged out of the crags onto a domed, smooth mountain top riddled with deep fissures into the rock. We picked our way across the edge of this towards the geocache location where we stopped for lunch.

Balancing Erratic

Balancing Erratic

Visibility was now down to about 10 metres, so we could see nothing of the surrounding area. Picking our way through the crags and boulders hadn’t helped our sense of direction and it was impossible to know what lay ahead. The map showed crags in all directions and no obvious route to the top of Moel Ysgyfarnogod. We would have to descend off this little summit heading almost due north before climbing to the top, but with no visibility and therefore no visual navigational aids I would be navigating purely with the compass. The compass seemed less than reliable up here though and seemed to be affected by the rocks.

Having never been here before I was beginning to think about turning back rather than heading onwards into the unknown. I was of course confident of finding my back the way we had come, but if we continued on that might not continue to be the case. I had a chat with Morgan about it over lunch and was about to decide to head back. It would of course be the safest option and probably a good lesson in hill-walking for Morgan. We may not have made it to our chosen destination and met our objective, but the hills and the geocache would still be there tomorrow – better that we were too rather than risk continuing on in what were now pretty poor conditions.

However, just as we finished lunch the clouds lifted partially for a short while giving me just enough time and visibility to see Moel Ysgyfarnogod to the north and a suitable route both down from the mini summit we were on and up to the top along a little ridge off to our NW. That was all I needed, the terrain didn’t look too bad, so we set off as the mist shrouded us once again. It didn’t take long to reach the summit where we stopped at the trig point then headed off to find the next geocache in what were now improving conditions.

From here we could now just make out the next summit of Foel Penolau through the mist. It looked easy enough to get to but the top appeared to be inaccessible thanks to a sheer wall of rock. We decided to walk to it anyway and around it’s base looking for a suitable way to the top. The crags on the SW side of Foel Penolou were indeed sheer cliff faces. I’ve since looked them up and there are quite a few climbing routes on these crags,with the easiest route coming in at a respectable Very Severe 4b. Summitpost.org describes Foel Penolau better than I could:

Sitting astride the spine of the Harlech Dome like some Tolkienian fortress, Foel Penolau (614m) is perhaps the most distinctive feature of the northern Rhinogydd. Depending on what you want to believe, its name either means Bare Last Summit or Bare Hill of the Bottoms; both seem appropriate, there’s a great aura of terminality about this place. Despite being 9 metres shorter than its close neighbour Moel Ysgyfarnod, it’s a far more attractive proposition, being on the whole a much rockier and more formidable beast; its flat slabby summit being completely encircled by cliffs and broken stone. To reach the summit therefore, one must pull their hands out of their pockets and tackle them via the weakness of their choice, a task most mountaineers will undertake with gusto.

We still had plenty of ‘gusto’ in the tank so made our way around the southern end of the crags, following a tall dry stone wall that hugs the SE corner of Foel Penolau. Here we found what looked like a way up. After some scrambling and a little bit of climbing we made our way out onto the top and then with a little more climbing right to the very top where there was a small stone cairn resting on the smooth rocky surface. Although the mist was clearing now, we still had nothing of a view so after a quick photo and a drink we picked our way back down towards the wall at the SE end of the rocky summit.

Morgan on Foel Penolau

Morgan on Foel Penolau

We then followed this wall around to the NE where it takes a 90º turn off towards the next summit of Diffwys. We weren’t heading this way and were instead starting to head back towards the well marked path off to the NW. As we left the wall behind us, the clouds started lifting properly giving us a glimpse Diffwys and the southern end of Llyn Trawsfynydd in the valley below.

A Glimpse of Trawsfynydd

A Glimpse of Trawsfynydd

We picked our way down between the bogs, mountain streams and crags to the North West of Foel Penolau in ever improving weather. The clouds cleared, the sun came out and we could at last see where we were going. We were heading for Bryn Cader Faner, a stone circle and cairn reputed to be one of the most beautiful Bronze Age sites in Britain. We could soon see it nestling on top of a rocky prominence like a crown of thorns. It is a small cairn 8.5m wide and less than 1m high, with fifteen thin slabs leaning out of the central burial mound. We stopped here for some photos before heading off down the hill on a well defined track towards the final geocache of the day.

The final cache was found along with a little bit of climbing in the sunshine by Morgan. The sun was now beating down on us and the going was hot, but at least we had decent views down towards Porthmadog in front of us, off to the peak of Snowdon to the NE and could see where we had been in the hills behind.

We made it back to the car after 5 hours in the hills and close to 7 miles of walking.

We had found the final cache of Gwyddno’s Mountain Challenge so had bagged a 5/5 geocache – we won’t tell you where on the walk it was though, you’ll just have to work that out for yourself. It goes without saying that the final spot was a fitting end to a 5 star mountain challenge and well worth the effort. The geocache as a whole had taken us to some places that we might never have gone and provided Morgan and I with loads of time in the hills together. It might only be a tupperware box hidden under a rock but it had given us loads of quality ‘father and son’ time together, brought us sights and experiences that we might never have again and has hopefully inspired Morgan onto more days in the hills and more challenges. Certainly a lot more than most tupperware boxes full of tat can lay claim to. We did of course give it a favourite point when logging it on geocaching.com.


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Alan Cole

Alan is a Freelance Website Designer, Sports & Exercise Science Lab Technician and full time Dad & husband with far too many hobbies: Triathlete, Swimming, Cycling, Running, MTBing, Surfing, Windsurfing, SUPing, Gardening, Photography.... The list goes on.

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