It seems to have become a feature of hillwalking this summer that the sun is bereft of the will to push through the clouds and bestow its radiance on the mountains it gazes down upon. Thick, ominous cloud carrying with it sapping, chilling spray of fine rain covered the Snowdonia national park this week. As we barrelled to Rhyd Ddu to get ready and begin, it seemed to grow darker and wetter with each passing moment. At that moment, we knew time was against us - hastening ahead without remorse or a glance over its shoulder. We packed - might as well take all of it we reasoned - after all, this was training for something larger and harder. And if we got stuck, we half-hoped we would, we'd have everything we needed. Besides, I said, it's already packed.
Y Garn is a great hulking crag of a hill with angry, sable rock on its east face. The mindless toil necessary to ascend its grassy southern slope is neither life-affirming nor thrilling - it is, however, essential. From 191m we laboured to the wet, slippery bouldery chaos of the apex to be greeted by the most unexpected of gifts - the coast bathed in sunshine, a pastel Renaissance fresco framed by inky cloud. Yet, Y Garn was not why we had come and our course lay to the west. Mynydd Drws-y-coed. On a good day, a guileful and exposed scramble. The wind, rain and fog conspiring to drape a veil of adversity across the ridgeline, we gazed at the first part of the Nantlle Ridge with something approaching trepidation. Buffeted by the gale, we laughed in the way of someone seeking reassurance from another. We pressed on.
Initially, Mynydd Drws-y-coed looks almost unpassable - an indomitable, gnarly monster; a misshapen, warped, malformed gargoyle of a mountain ridge. As you approach, taking each step at a time, a line appears. Several, in fact, some more insane than others, all the while a sheer drop falling away either side hundreds of metres. Eventually, grass gives way to greasy, oily rock. We grab and hold, testing each step, making completely sure of each movement, slowly ascending - crawling, slithering, clambering. There are exposed steps, places where perhaps a jump seems possible - beguiling and bewitching yet obviously just out of reach - onwards and upwards across the sharp, angled rock is the only way.
Eventually, impossibly slowly, we summit, 695m of vicious, jagged nightmare. The wind breaches our confidence to remain for long and we descend to the relative safety of the steep, wet grassy verge rounding the southern apex of Clogwyn Marchnad and turning east to pick up the path to Mynydd tal-y-Midnedd and the imposing, seemingly out-of-place stone obelisk on its summit. From here, we can see down to the Beddgelert Forest, scarred by deforestation and deep tracks criss-crossing like spider's web. Beyond, are Moel Lefn and the cave peak of Owain Glyndower's at Moel yr Ogof. Behind, hidden like a prowling beast is Moel Hebog. We look on all of them with sadness - tomorrow's feast to be saved for another day.
We are in the lee of the ridge now and the wind is beaten away. Peacefulness surrounds us and we slowly pick our way along the sheep trail to the top of the ridgeline again and Trum y Ddysgl. The ascent to Mynydd tal-y-Midnedd is sumptuously easy. A steep, grassy path that virtually carries us to the huge, slate obelisk standing alone on the summit. Again we drink in the beauty of the soft-hued coastline and then move on. Our ever-present slavedriver, old Master Time, is ahead of us still and we rush to catch up, knowing we have a way to go. The sky darkens and I hear twice the distant rumble of thunder. We save Carig Cwn Silyn for another day - secretly I wondered what the rock would be like in the wet, windy vitriol of the day, but we descended to Bwlch Dros-bern and, using the wall next Ceunant yr Allt as a handrail, we headed for the old quarry mine path.
It is a feature of any OS map that the equivocal scribblings that make up some of the icons on the face of the page are little genuine indication of the wonder to be found on the ground. In a sense, the Nantlle Ridge is a testament to that, but if there were to be a better example, we stumbled across it that evening.
The Prince of Wales Quarry, part of the slate mining industry of Wales, opened in 1873. Failing almost immediately, it closed in 1886. Buildings around the north end of Cwm Pennant, along with the path of the old tramway, sit like otherworldly shadows, hurriedly abandoned. It is as if a plague swept through the cwm a century before taking all with it and leaving only ghosts. It is an eerie, lonely place - desolate, windswept and overgrown. The path, a remnant of the old tramway, begins south of Cwn Dwyfor and purports to bridge the torrential rivers cascading into Cwm Pennant - it does not, and fording these rivers is necessary. The path becomes so overgrown in places that the only symbol of its existence are the bleak, forsaken shells of buildings en route.
From the craggy exhilaration of the ridge, this is a more mysterious, almost supernatural, intrigue. It is at times as if we segue into a century before - hard men in thick leather boots, trousers with braces and flannel shirts toil at the face of the quarry, desperate to earn enough to feed their families. The wind relenting, you can almost here the tap, tap, tap of tools of slate. The creaking whine of metal wheeled carts carrying the slate away. The path carries on to Beddgelert forest, curling round the hillside - yet more buildings and trappings of the quarry. It is almost spiritual.
The ground is wet underfoot - sodden and deep trenches within which pools chill water. Our final descent into the unearthly, spectral realm is complete once we enter the desolate Beddgelert Forest. It is as if a maelstrom has torn through parts of the forest, wreaking havoc and tearing asunder the very roots from the trees. As night began to fall, and we quickened our pace, this felt anywhere other than northern Wales - perhaps the Swedish forest of Glaskogen or Rogens, but not Wales. Eventually, we escaped the midges and reached the car. It had been a long day - only 16km and around 1000m of ascent, of nearly 7hrs as the conditions underfoot had been difficult. We were tired but elated. Now, all we faced was the drive home.