The Freedom of Tryfan
Updated: Apr 1, 2020
Tryfan is a special mountain. At 918 metres high, it is by no means the highest mountain in Wales, but it is arguably the most dramatic. It is nonconformist in appearance. A shameless lens hogger. Idiosyncratic yet inviting. However, what it does conform to is that classic image of a mountain that we all imagined as children. Angular. Rocky. Intimidating.
When seen from the A5 out of Capel Curig, its rocky crest rises from the valley floor like the back of a stegosaurus, its plates huge rocky battlements. When viewed from neighbouring Pen Yr Ole Wen, it takes on the visage of a monumental shark's fin. It simply must be climbed. At once, it has a come hither look that is curiously coupled with a hint of warning. It has a devilish attraction. Topping its immense ramparts are three distinct summits - hence Try-fan, which means three peaks.
But Tryfan is more than just good looks, much more. If you could design a mountain to be a scrambler’s dream, this is it. After all, the following is frequently stated: Tryfan is not a walk. To gain the summit, you are going to need your hands. But it is the sheer multitude of options as to how to get there that makes Tryfan so special. There is every grade of scramble here and more serious rock climbs to boot. Many are routes of great sustained length and superb entertainment. There is something here for everyone. One thing is for sure, when you finally top out, you will have climbed a mountain and you will feel as though you have climbed a mountain. You will feel an exhileration that far outstrips the usual summit satisfaction. But more on Tryfan’s summit later.
I am no rock climber. I have no idea what to do with ropes. A pitch is something I play football on. What I am though, is a hiker who has developed a passion for ridges, scrambling and the freedom of going fast and light. From what I want from a mountain day, Tryfan is nigh on perfection. One route in particular has me planning repeated visits and spouting superlatives to like-minded friends. Along with the Snowdon Horseshoe, this is one of the two absolute classic mountain routes in Wales, especially when combined with Glyder Fach’s Bristly Ridge. It is a mountain adventure that thrills and liberates quite unlike any other. It is Tryfan’s North Ridge. The ascent begins next to Little Tryfan, an steeply angled slab of rock that acts as a good testing ground for wannabe rock climbers. Soon an ascent up a gully brings you to the beginning of the ridge. From here there is no path really. There are a plethora of lines to take. And this is the genius of Tryfan. The freedom to choose your route is exhilerating. You can push yourself just as much as is comfortable. If things get a little bit too ‘epic’ one way, you can usually find a more accommodating path elsewhere. It is a glorious labyrinth of wonderful Snowdonian rock.
Though in truth the best of the drama is yet to come, after one of Tryfan’s most famous features. About a third of the way up stands The Cannon, a large flat slab of rock protruding outwards over the Ogwen Valley at a preposterous 30 degree angle. It’s an obvious photo opportunity, an Instagrammer’s dream. Some nervously crawl along it, whilst an obviously unhinged minority precariously hang off the end of it. Anything for those likes, right? The backdrop is equally photogenic. Y Garn, ’the Armchair Mountain’, stands proud and tall in the distance, with Llyn Idwal sparkling under its regal throne. North Welsh scenery at its best.
From The Cannon onwards, it is the best part of an hour of solid, sustained scrambling bliss to the summit. They say you will never do Tryfan North Ridge the same way twice. It is grade one scrambling at a minimum but the permutations up here are almost limitless. A head for heights is certainly required, as the A5 and Llyn Ogwen feel as though they are directly below. These are the kind of views that only eagles and hawks should be privy to. It is all so thrilling. As each crest of rock is surmounted, another rears up ahead. Often, on a British mountain, this can feel disheartening, as one realises the summit is still out of reach. On Tryfan, all it means is that more great times await. Relentless good fun.
It’s also relentless hard work, but the effort goes unnoticed due to a combination of awe and adrenaline. Precarious ledges, sublime pinnacles and challenging gullies are climbed with a real sense of adventure. Then towards the first of the three main peaks, things get that little bit more airy and the summit comes into view like an island in the sky. It is at this point that Adam and Eve make themselves known. There is no cairn or trig point on Tryfan’s summit. As I said, it is a nonconformist. A special mountain. Instead there is Adam and there is Eve. They are twin stone monoliths, three metres high and just over a metre apart. And to truly say you have conquered Tryfan, the famous leap between them is a must. In truth, the “leap” is just an extended and very carefully considered step but the sheer exposure and the consequences of a fall make it serious business. Like Helm Crag in the Lakes or The Cobbler in the Southern Highlands, this mountain will not let you attain the true summit lightly. It is said that those who make the leap between Adam and Eve gain the ‘freedom of Tryfan’, which is apt because freedom is precisely Tryfan’s greatest quality.
Descent is by way of the shorter South Ridge to the bwlch between Tryfan and its illustrious neighbour Glyder Fach. For those seeking more scrambling adventure, Glyder Fach’s Bristly Ridge is a superb option that ups the ante slightly and keeps the adrenaline pumping. For those quite satisfied with their day, there are a number of descent options, some quick and steep, others long and pleasingly aesthetic. I would recommend exploring verdant Cwm Bochlwyd and its lovely llyn, where the grassy pastures and the harsh mountaintops create a gorgeous juxtaposition.
So, that is one way to climb this special mountain. A way that is never the same twice and grants you the freedom to find your own unique version of scrambling heaven. Next? Well you could climb the North Ridge again and again. Alternatively, you could ascend the shorter South Ridge, which is similar in character, albeit shorter and easier. Or you could pick one of gullies or buttresses that rise more steeply from the east and west. Whatever you decide to do, Tryfan will not dissapoint. You will be back time and time again, seeking the sublime freedom of one of the great mountains of the British Isles.
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