“Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment

Evan Hardin

Idwal Staircase

I admit I have a little apprehension but mainly excitement as we head up from the visitor centre and then to Cwm Idwal. Today we are planning on taking the route up Idwal Staircase which is is classed as a grade 2 scramble. As we head in the direction of the scramble we enjoy amazing views as always over Cwm Idwal and the surrounding countryside, it is a beautiful area.

The Cwm sits in the bottom of what’s called a ‘cirque’ a scraped out rock bowl which is created by the recession / movement of glacial ice. Appropriately for water in this sort of area it looks icy cold and very clear, like it’s recently dribbled down the side of a glacier. I think to myself that it would be great for a wild swim at some point but that’s not why we are here, which clearly shows I can’t guess the future. Cwm Idwal was designated as the first ever national nature reserve in Wales all the way back in 1954 and on some of the ledges above there are rare artic alpine plants that have by their very position managed to escape the agile feral goats that roam the area. You get quite a few super tough plants, such as the Snowdon Lilly, a flowering plant that lives in rock crevices. In the summertime you can also see migrating birds like the ring ouzel which often gets mistaken for a blackbird and is a species of high concern in the UK because of changes to their habitats. I’ll be honest, until I looked it up I had no idea that they were not blackbirds but it helps to know these things if you want to be a mountain leader.

After a short hike around the edge of the Cwm we arrive at the foot of Idwal Staircase, and we make sure we have identified it right which isn’t too difficult as it’s pretty distinctive, as you can see by the photo below, it’s a damp cleft in the rock heading up into the sky.

Then we discuss the route going onwards. Obviously this is going to be going straight up the side of the mountain. I drop my gear and just climb a little way up to get an feel of it and really my only concern at this point is the patches of slippy black lichen on the rocks which would be an unfortunate place to put your foot if you weren’t paying attention. Obviously I point this out as a potential hazard to the lads but it’s not a concern if you pay attention to where you are putting your feet, like any good climber and/or mountaineer does. Unfortunately I can’t really see anywhere I can place any protection gear to help everyones confidence until we get to about ten metres up the climb. Richard for some reason is saying he want’s to leave his rucksack at the bottom of the staircase because he doesn’t want to be taking it’s weight straight up there. I’m sure I explained before that when we are up, we are not coming back down this way, we can’t down-climb this. We also won’t have the time to circle back round to get it, plus in my head I think if we start leaving rucksacks of expensive gear around not only may that backfire on him but someone might call mountain rescue for not being able to find the rucksacks owner.

The weather today is perfect and the route is about as dry as it is going to get considering a lot of the time it has a small stream running down it. Further up the routes potentially going to be drier also as it’s exposed to the sun and the wind. I am very confident I can do this, Rich isn’t a fan of taking his gear up but he appears ok with it and so does Andy. The real danger in committing to this will be if anybody is lacking in confidence. The cracks begin to show with Ben because out of nowhere he’s coming up with lots of alternative ideas from doing other routes to doing entirely different activities, the only thing he isn’t straight up saying ‘I don’t have the confidence to do this’. I can tell his confidence has gone but it takes so much time to get him to just say it I get a bit frustrated he won’t just admit it so we can move onto a different plan. I know I can do this and I’ve already done grade 3 roped stuff but from my point of view I am not going up there if one of my group members is going to have a mega freak out up there, because that’s going to put him in lots more danger than it should and also put us ALL in danger. Panic, and fear are extremely contagious. I call it along with the rest of the group, unless we are all on the same page, I’m not willing to chance it. I think maybe Ben’s learnt a bit about how much confidence he has with these things now too as his confidence for the route is entirely different to how he was when the challenge was mentioned to him. We pack up all the gear and in my head I’m sighing, I’ve wanted to do this route for two years now. We start heading back along what feels like the walk of shame but I’m kind of glad really as Ben having a wobble half way up the arse end of a mountain would not have been good because when you are on that route you cannot climb back down. Friends are always a lot better alive and well instead of a stain on a boulder. I’d much prefer we were all safe and as I’m going for mountain leader next year, I feel this is the right choice. Ben is clearly pissed off with himself and keeps apologising to us but at least he knows his limits now and he’s safe. Plus he seems more annoyed with himself than I could ever be with him. I want to salvage the day, because I HATE wasting an opportunity for an adventure so I suggest we go back to the campsite and go and do one of the other things thats on our hit list, a wild swim. I’ll have to come back and do that scramble another day but next time I’ll make sure the teams fully trained, experienced and confident. Which of course will take more adventures to achieve!

Open Water Swimming In Llyn Cwellyn

We head back to the campsite and get ready for what’s going to be Richards first wild swim, which should be an experience for him. Mainly because that there’s nothing that quite wakes you up than that terrifying moment where the freezing cold welsh lake water comes in contact with your crotch area. Andy, Ben and Richard have all brought wetsuits with them, the wimps. I’m not going to wear one because from experience I swim much better without one, and I intend to do a few laps to make up for the workout I’d have had earlier in the day climbing Idwal staircase. Additionally no matter how cold the water is all year round, there’s no way I’m wearing a wetsuit during UK summertime out of stubbornness.

We head down through the campsite and onto what is like a shingle bar that reaches out into the lake. I have to admit as I walk into it the water is pretty shocking, but after getting in gritting my teeth and dunking my head under the whole body numbness rapidly leaves. It’s actually very pleasant in here when you get used to it, and what’s more is cold water swimming is meant to have lots of health benefits. Andy and Richard don’t go full poseidon and head right into the depths of the lake which is probably wise as neither of them are great swimmers, but I do a few enjoyable side to side laps before floating up to Ben.

Ben Tries To Re-Enact Aquaman

Being a bit of a water adventure enthusiast I’m quite content floating about doing my best giant looking albino fish impression. Ben on the other hand is clearly still annoyed with himself for not committing to the climb of Idwal Staircase earlier though because he sploshes up to me and says ‘Mark, want to do something crazy?’ if you’ve read any of my other blogs then you know this probably isn’t a good thing to ask me. I always want to do crazy things! I ask him to elaborate on this suggestion of crazy, despite the fact he’s already panting like a Jack Russell trying to keep himself afloat. He says “Why don’t we swim to the opposite shore of the lake?” I look over the calm waters to the far shore of the lake, which is a barely noticeable almost pencil stroke of shingle at this distance. I know that Ben’s suggesting this to make up for not committing to the scramble earlier but he’s not a long distance swimmer, I am but I’m just getting visions of having to drag him off the bottom of the lake. And don’t get me wrong here as a mate I’d happily jump to his rescue if he got into trouble, but the idea of having to fish him out of this expanse of water and give him CPR is not my ideal way of ending the day.

I feel like he’s either doing this to prove something to himself or even to me and I’m not sure he will actually make it to the far side, and even though I say this to him he’s dead set on swimming to the other side. If I don’t go with him he will probably attempt it anyway so as I’ve got a habit of saying lately ‘Screw it, let’s do it!’ we set off with me trying to ignore the stats on this reservoir. It’s apparently 37 metres deep in parts and my active imagination combined with my anxiety, though under control keeps throwing up images of our lifeless bodies floating along the bottom being nibbled on by pike. As we head out deeper into the dark waters of the reservoir I catch what I think are confused looks on the faces of Andy and Richard who are now back on the shore. Making the assumption that they both know me well enough to guess that we are going to swim to the other side might prove to be a dangerous one. Right on cue and just as Andy and Richard turn into small pink dots in the distance Ben begins to sound totally knackered. We are only about half way to the other side and he sounds like he’s literally going to die, gasping for air, and when I ask him if he’s ok he’s like ‘this is just how *gasp* I swim!’ because as we all know, everybody swims like an asthmatic seal. Luckily by this point we are well on our way to the other shore it’s coming properly into view and if he conks out I do know how to save him.

Shalom From The Shallows!

We start to approach the shallows as the lake shore comes into view and I can hear Ben’s audible sigh of relief as he can now put his feet down and stand. I guess he won’t be auditioning for the part of Aquaman anytime soon! We start to emerge from the water now we can stand and wade up onto the beach which is a little strange considering that for some reason sat on the small shingle beach and looking very confused at our emergence from the water is a group of Orthodox Jews with the full traditional get-up going on.

The children point at us like we are leviathans emerging from the lake and I have to take to moment to check and make sure I haven’t sprouted gills I’m not aware of. Maybe it’s Ben’s breathing freaking them out, after all it’s so heavy he could be trying to breathe in the pebbles off the beach! We all look at each other with a large measure of confusion in the dim light of dusk. I’ve never actually met many Orthodox jews only really seen them in films, and I definitely wasn’t expecting to meet them here at a random mountain reservoir. They look at us, two random extremely pale dudes that have just emerged semi naked from a lake and we look back at them with their black and white suits and hats. They aren’t exactly dressed for the environment they are in but I guess in a way now were are no longer in the reservoir, neither are we! It’s a pretty amusing encounter so I can’t help but smile as as I tip them a casual ‘Good evening!’ as if this is something totally normal that happens to us all the time.

When Ben says he’s going to get out and walk back to the campsite I can’t say I’m surprised, and I’m kind of relieved because it’s much safer for him. Plus if he makes it back before I do he can also go and tell Andy and Richard that I’m not dead at the bottom of the lake, which is always useful! I am pretty glad he’s made it though it is an achievement for him, maybe it’s made him feel better about earlier on the mountain?

I decide I’m going to swim back because for one I’m not tired yet and for two i’ll be much warmer in the water and keeping moving being as I’m the one without a wetsuit. I’ve got a bit of natural insulation as I hit the beer and crisps like a juggernaut during lockdown but it’s probably not enough to keep me warm on a long walk round the reservoir perimeter. The far shore looks forever away and it’s getting darker and as I’m thinking this I see the small shapes of Andy and Richard leave the beach. I guess they had enough of waiting for us. I catch the small figure of Ben awkwardly making his way around the edge of the lake, slowly because he’s got no shoes on. I decide I’m going to race him back, just to rub it in and start going as fast as I can in front stroke.

Definitely Not The Lifeboat Service

Ahead on the shingle bank that extends into the water that we swam off earlier a few figures appear launching what I’m guessing is a blow up kayak. I wonder for a second if Andy and Richard have assumed that we’ve got into trouble and sent some random people to rescue us? I think I’m going to get my answer because the boats coming straight towards me, but it turn out it’s a couple of lads off the campsite who have clearly had a few drinks. They paddle up beside me and jokingly ask if I need rescuing ‘I’m doing great actually lads but cheers!’ I laugh. They say ‘Oh we didn’t mean from the lake we thought that if you were doing this you’d probably be sober, so we decided to row out with a beer for you to rescue you from being sober!’ I burst out laughing and then choke on a mouthful of lake water because clearly they are as bonkers as I am. Why not, might as well have a beer if they have made the effort to row all the way out here! I float in the water while one of the dudes attempts to pour a Budweiser into my mouth, which is probably not a great idea as most of it goes in my eyes instead. I say my goodbyes to the drunk dinghy operators and swim back to shore, at the exact time that Ben gets there. I’m glad to see he hasn’t cut his feet open on his less that comfortable looking walk and we stroll back to camp to let Andy and Rich know we aren’t dead. Turns out Andy had guessed that we had probably planned to go for a longer swim, but I do promise that I’ll never do that to them again. Maybe it’s time to invest income walkie talkies. Time for a shower and some food now then, finally. What a weird day!