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Snowdonia's Second Mountain...
If you travel south from Snowdon, beyond the hills of the Moelwyns and the Rhynogs, you reach the town of Dolgellau. Beyond the town, the view is taken up by a vast mountain wall of rock stretching several kilometres east to west and appearing almost inpenetrable, a morass of cliffs, gullies, rockfalls and scree slopes. This is the northern frontier of the mountain of Cadair Idris, once thought to be the second highest mountain in Wales.
In fact, it’s summit of Penygadair sits at a prominent but not league-winning 893 metres. The mountain of Aran Fawddwy to the east is higher. But it is the sheer immensity of Cadair Idris that makes it so popular. In that respect it is like Snowdon, it just ‘feels’ like a mountain you want to climb, as your eye follows the sweeping ridges up into the sky.
Cadair Idris is a massif of several peaks, spread along a wide ridge in the north, and a set of smaller ridges that extend to the south. When seen on the OS map, it looks like an enormous H, turned on it’s side, with a stretched-out upper side. The sides of much of its length are covered in steep crags, carved by the ice age, which also left the impressive lakes of Llyn Cau and Llyn y Gadair, nestled into the glacial cwms to the north and south sides of the main summit.
Whereas the ridge that runs east drops down steeply into the valley, the western ridge becomes a rolling cycle of hills that eventually descends into the sea. From the summit the view extends from the Irish Sea to Snowdon in the north, the Aran mountains in the east and the hills of mid-Wales in the south. Because of this dramatic perspective, it is easy to see why it was once thought higher than it is. Despite having the map in front of me, I have stood on the summit and looked at Snowdon in the distance, totally convinced that Cadair Idris was higher!
People have been climbing Cadair Idris for hundreds of years and there is even a shelter with a roof just next to the summit. Of the three paths which lead to the top, two are from the north and one from the south. The Pony Path approaches Penygadair from the west after reaching the col at 550 metres and then heading along the summit ridge.
The Foxes Path takes a more direct line, ascending the scree slope directly up from Llyn y Gadair to arrive almost on the summit. This is quite eroded and should only be done in ascent, but it is dramatic and height is gained quickly. The third main path is the Minffordd Path, which climbs up to Llyn Cau through woodland on the south side of the mountain before traversing along the ridge of Craig Cau. The view down into Llyn Cau is second-to-none and the path can be made into a circuit by continuing along the main ridge east to Mynydd Moel before descending.
None of the ridges are narrow and the paths are relatively easy to follow. Apart from these three traditional routes, there are a number of other ways up, including a longer excursion including the hills further east, leaving you longer to enjoy the ridge. It is also worth heading west as far as the terminal summit of Gau Graig, which is a less visited but dramatic spot overlooking the plains on three sides.
One of the attractions of Cadair Idris is it’s association with Celtic myth. The name translates as ‘the chair of Idris’ who was either a giant, or the 7th century prince Idris ap Gwyddno who won a battle against the Irish nearby. The chair itself refers to the southern bowl of Llyn Cau, where the giant Idris was said to gaze at the heavens.
The summit, Penygadair, means ‘top of the chair’. If you are tempted to stay up to follow Idris’ example by gazing at the stars from the mountain, be wary. Another tradition says that anyone who sleeps alone on the slopes will wake up either a madman or a poet. Maybe take a friend with you so keep this myth at bay, as I’m not sure a 50% chance is worth the risk!
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