A Historic Climb on Y Lliwedd in North Wales

A Historic Climb on Y Lliwedd in North Wales

Avalanche/Red Wall/Longlands

Y Lliwedd is a mountain connected to the tallest mountain in Wales, Snowdon, and it forms part of the famous Snowdon Horseshoe.  It has caught the eye of keen walkers, climbers, and mountaineers for generations.  The 898 m (2,946 ft) peak is shrouded in myths and is said to hide a secret cave containing King Arthur’s knights, who sealed themselves in after the Kings death and now await his return.

The East Face of Y Lliwedd was one of the regular training grounds at the end of the 1800s and well into the 1900s for the British Mountaineers to hone their skills before attempting to climb Mount Everest.  It has seen the likes of George Mallory climb its complicated, slabby features over 100 years ago, completing the first ascents of Mallory’s Slab, Terminal Arete and Double Girdle. 

Siegried Herford (left) and George Mallory (right) after completing the Double Girdle on Lliwedd.
Image from The Mountain Men: An Early History of Rock Climbing in North Wales written by Alan Hankinson

Today with modern protection, strong ropes and guidebooks, an ascent of the East buttress should still not be taken lightly.  It requires careful route finding, delicate handling of loose rock and a strong head for adventure.  The Rockfax description provides the following warning for the route described in this blog, ‘it is frequently the scene of benightments’, which helps set the scene. 

Avalanche/Red Wall/Longlands is comprised of 3 routes.  Avalanche is the first 6 pitch route which climbs from the Heather Shelf to the Great Terrace.  It was first climbed by Archer Thomas in 1907 and was named ‘Avalanche’ as when he was belaying E.S. Reynolds, a large boulder was dislodged from the Terminal Arete by another group of climbers, causing a rock fall which startled the pair on Avalanche.

Red Wall is the second 3 pitch route which was also climbed by Archer Thomas in 1907.  It was named Red Wall due to the colour of the rock that rises above the Great Terrace.  The rock is deep red colour which contrasts with the lichen flecked rocks in the lower pitches and those higher above. 

Longlands is the final 3 pitch route which was climbed by Sir John Lawrence Longland, ‘Jack’.  Jack added this final section to this historic route 22 years later in 1929.  The 3 routes combined provides 286 meters of exposed and engaging climbing across 12 pitches. 

This blog details how Larry and I climbed Avalanche/Red Wall/Longlands S 4b **.

We parked on the road down from Pen Y Pass, making sure we arrived early so we were able to park properly.  Having not been to this part of Snowdonia for some time we did not know that we needed to pay for parking.  The pay machine looked like it had been plucked straight out of the 80’s, and only took coins.  Typically, we did not have enough but when Larry went to investigate, he found a ticket in the machine with the correct date on.  Feeling rather confused, and fortunate, we looked around but there was no one nearby so thanking the “Sending Gods” we plonked the ticket in the car and got on the trail. 

A short walk leads up to Pen Y Pass and then we followed the leisurely Miners Trail until reaching Llyn Llydaw when we took the left path towards Y Lliwedd.  We followed this path until it starts to gain height and head rightwards towards the Heather Shelf at the base of the Y Lliwedd’s East Buttress. 

A rather stoic goat we passed on our approach

The approach took about an hour and a half, thanks to some faff, and once off the main paths it crosses difficult and boggy terrain. 

The top of Snowdon and Y Lliwedd were shrouded in the morning clouds but it was forecast to be sunny later in the day.

The East and West peaks of Y Lliwedd. Heather Shelf can be seen in the centre of the pitcure.

Identifying the start of the route is very easy a hundred meters away but as we got closer, it became difficult to identify the correct features.  When we finally found the start, it was soaking wet so we opted to solo up the easier looking ground just to the left.

Ready to get started

We were now stood on the edge of Heather Shelf.  We got our ropes out, harnesses on and racked up.  The second pitch (our first) is a rising traverse which passes over 2 prominent ribs before climbing up to the belay “4m left of a prominent spike, level with a dog-leg in the corner to the right.” This is where the Rockfax fun begins, what on earth is a dog leg in the corner? 

From the shelf, I could clearly see the 2 ribs, so I knew roughly where to aim.  I had opted to climb in my boots rather than rock shoes as I thought it would be a good opportunity to train in boots in preparation for an alpine trip later in the year.  I stepped off the ledge and was instantly hit by the exposure.  Teetering across the first rib I struggled to find any meaningful protection.  I managed to badly put a sling around a spike but as I climbed on, it fell off.  Larry shouted up that it had fallen and looking back, I had around 20 meters of rope between us and no protection.  Instantly, I felt very exposed and a bit shaky, but I climbed to the second rib and found a bomber cam slot.  I then climbed up looking for a “dog-leg” but kept climbing until I found a clear belay stance, but no mysterious spike?

An earthy belay ledge

Larry climbed up, and we discussed the flaky rock and rather concerning start of the route.  The description of the next pitch did not make sense as we looked around trying to identify the features.  It then dawned on us that I had linked the second and third pitch. This meant Larry was climbed the fourth pitch which he did quickly, overcoming the tricky groove. 

On route to the tricky groove

This pitch was well protected, and the rock felt more solid that what I had experienced earlier.  However, after starting in boots, the protection-less rising traverse had rattled me, so I swapped my boots for my climbing shoes and felt much more comfortable seconding the pitch.

The 5th pitch climbs a vegetated groove up to a ‘thin plank’.  The groove looked awful, full of mud and very wet.  Not a chance I was going to bush whack my up 30 meters when there was a clean rib to my right.  The climbing was easy, but I had to get creative with my protection, zig zagging around to find anything of any value.

Soaking up the exposure

After this the 6th pitch is a long easy scramble up to the Great Terrace.  Larry disappeared off, running the rope out behind him.  I seconded up and we were on the Great Terrace, under the Red Wall.  ‘RW’ has been etched into the rock making it easy to find the start of the next pitch.  We stopped for a break, eating sandwiches, and drinking plenty of water. 

Lunch with a view

From the Great Terrace it is possible to escape to the easier Terminal Arete on the left if you are running out of time or if the weather is on the turn.  From our position, Snowdon had finally been unmasked of the morning clouds and the weather was beautiful. 

The 7th pitch, and the start of Red Wall is probably the best pitch of the route.   At 4a it is technically not difficult but from the right-hand edge of the Great Terrace you climb out into an outrageously exposed position.  Larry was leading and he slowly inched his way out into the exposure. 

The rising traverse 7th pitch. The slab drops off to the ground beneath your feet as you step off the ledge.

Moving from the ledge you are instantly hit with the vast expanse of space under your feet leading all the way to the valley below.  He carefully moved out to the right until reaching a good stance and then climbed up to the belay. 

The next pitch and second of the 4a’s was my lead.  This pitch was confusing as the guide description and the topo do not match.  The guide says to climb a rib then, ” passing a pinnacle on the right to a ledge“.  The topo line moves left?  This is an example of the unclear nature of the route, so a cavalier attitude is required to head up and explore.  I climbed the rib and to my left looked damp and unpleasant, so I headed onto a grassy ledge out the right.  I then climbed the short wall which I assume to be the one described in the guide as, ‘the short wall via a tricky few moves’.  This led to a very grassy and slippery top out. 

I carefully trudged up to the large face in front.  The protection was adequate but very spaced, so I had to get very creative with my anchor building.  After the spectacular 7th pitch, the 8th was an anti-climax and rather underwhelming.

Once Larry had joined on the ledge, we then needed to fathom where we were meant to go.  This is the start of Longlands, and the guide description is less than useless.  ” Climb the left arete of a steep face to a hollow.”  Whilst Larry was on belay, he walked all around the ledge trying to figure out what the left arete of a steep face to a hollow looked like.  We lost about an hour of faff and confusion here.

At least we had a spectacular view towards Snowdon

Finally, we decided on what looked like the best option.  To the right of the ledge, on a left arete, there are 2 clearly defined vertical cracks which provided ample protection.  It did not look like an ungraded climb and after we thought the moves were at a sustained 4a.  No idea if we were off route but it was the best option around.  Look for the twin cracks, you cannot miss them.  They make interesting climbing.

Larry on ‘Twin Cracks’

Next were 2 easy meandering pitch up towards the final 4b crux pitch.  Whilst belaying Larry, the wind died down, and the midges descended on me.  I put my hood up and tried to shelter as best as I could to stop them climbing all over my face and in my ears.  Horrible little things.

Midges vs Jungle Formula

As soon as I was on belay, I sprinted up to escape the wretched creatures.  Here we were, 11 pitches later, at the base of the crux slab.  It was my lead, and I was brimming with anticipation for the slab.  At its base , I placed protection to protect the belay and then climbed up.  The first couple metres are easy enough but then there is a committing and delicate balancing move up the slabby arete to a large pocket.  As I moved up to the pocket, I slipped on the only bit of real polish I had seen on the route but still managed to grab the pocket.  Rather annoyingly, I needed a green cam for the pocket, but Larry had used it in the belay, and I could not get anything else to fit convincingly.

Nothing else for it, I balanced on tiny foot holds and pushed for the top, hitting the jugs with a great sense of relief.  I set up a belay on large blocks at the top and a short time later Larry was with me. 

7 hours, 12 pitches and nearly 300 metres later we were on top of Y Lliwedd having climbed Avalanche/Red Wall/Longlands.  I was overcome with satisfaction; we had climbed such historic route which required delicate climbing and careful route finding. 

The top out view looking out towards Snowdon. A truly magical moment

My bubble was quickly bust when a walker approached me and asked, “have you been abseiling”.  No, very much the opposite.

We packed up and scrambled off Y Lliwedd via the normal descent path, re-joining the Miners Path and back to the car.  A beer was in order!

Y Lliwedd’s East Face in the shade from the afternoon sun. The face only gets morning sun.

Avalanche/Red Wall/Longlands.  I have described our journey of the climb but if you choose to climb it, which I highly recommend, it is likely that your experience will be totally different to mine.  Due to the nature of the route, there are so many options to get to the same objective.  Pitch 9, the “Twin Cracks” as I shall now call it, might not have been the best way to climb but to us at the time, it looked like the best option.

It is hugely rewarding to have followed in the footsteps of such iconic climbers and very humbling to imagine them exploring this face for the first time armed with chock stones and a hemp rope.  

My advice is to take the Rockfax guide with a pinch of salt.  At times it felt reading the stars and choosing my direction up based on the cycle of the moon would have been more accurate than following the guide.  It is highly likely that the description is vague because the route itself is vague and there is no way to truly identify all the ever changing features in a book.  The climbing is never too difficult or desperate (other than the second pitch) so if it becomes very hard, you are probably off the route.  Go back and reassess. 

Just make sure you have your adventure head on and get at it. 

Y Lliwedd East and West buttresses on the left and Snowdon on the right. Magical Mountains!

Sources

The Mountain Men: An Early History of Rock Climbing in North Wales.  Alan Hankinson.

North Wales Climbs. Rockfax.

Just a hungry duck at the campsite…

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