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Berwyn Mountains

Sunday: Four of us meet early for the day’s walk. Today will be a mountain climb, and there’s the early morning bustle of checking boots, packing food, making sure we have the maps. I love these busy, purposeful beginnings; full of potential.

We take the two hour drive out of England and into Wales, to the Berwyn Mountains. The day is beautiful: clear blue and cold. There’s a small car park and a cabin B&B, enveloped by Scots Pine and the sound of falling water. It’s a magical place: from the cabin’s balcony, rocking chairs overlook the woods and the beautiful Pistyll Rhaedr waterfall, as the few walkers around pull on thick socks and  zip coats. We nod and smile at each other: we’re all at the start of something.

Water falls through a hole hewn in the rock.

The four of us go first to the foot of the waterfall, the tallest stepped drop in Wales and England. Water drops from the lip; pools, travels through a perfectly hewn loop of granite and then down again into the splash pool below, fringed with foam and snow. I breathe in the smell of ozone, raring to go today, as full of energy as the falls.

We head up, through trees and moss blanketed boulders and out above the tree line, to begin our climb. The ascent is quick and steep, up blue slate steps placed into the hillside. Almost immediately the valley swings out below us, and it is breath taking. A green, deep sided bowl; heavy clouds rumbling across. I imagine it acting as a giant sound chamber; the whole vast valley being filled with the rhythm of the rushing blood I can hear in my head, each nest-building bird momentarily startled by our quickening heart beats.

The bowl of a valley is covered with blue cloud.

We push up, until we reach the summit of the first ascent, and the top of Pistyll Rhaedr. There are no restricting fences or warnings here; we’re able to climb the rocks, plunge our arms in to the freezing water and hang forward, over the drop. I lean out and watch the water crash over the lip, and travel with it, plunging down, being poured through the loop, crashing and breaking apart in the pool below. I don’t think I’ve been anywhere more beautiful. The valley here is framed by trees, and filled with greens, blues, dusty pinks. We naturally separate and explore; one climbs a tree, one tries to cross the surrounding bog land, one scrambles across the rocks and through the shallow, boiling pools. It’s the perfect way to spend half an hour, each lost in the landscape, but there’s a climb ahead, and we regroup and head back to the hill path.

A view of the valley, framed by trees.

Then we get really lost. We have a detailed map and plan today; aiming to find a lake beyond the highest peak, but full of energy and wanting to spend it, we head straight up rather than following the route. It’s a small detour, but enough to leave us wondering where we are. Mindful of the weather, but confident we can follow the valley back from wherever we end up; we abandon the route and just walk.  The view is stunning: the snow is still thick in places and the mud is thicker. As we wade through moss and heather we see icicles hanging from peat ledges, and each of us regularly drops, yelling, legs lost down a rabbit hole, or the deep but narrow cracks in the peat. It’s a glorious, untidy scramble, bathed in cold sunlight.

Occasionally as we walk it snows a little, and I’m glad of it: the snow fits my idea of what a mountain should be: remote and beautiful and cold. We can see rain clouds sliding across distant peaks; what looks like Snowdon beyond. I catch myself grinning, constantly. It’s hard to describe the combination of a pounding heart, and wide, beautiful landscapes that fill your head. It opens you up until your mind escapes from your skull and you’re exhilarated.

Blue tinged, snow covered mountain.

We opt to head for a peak across the valley that looks the highest; covered in snow and reflecting bright white sunshine. It’s a climb, jumping streams as we go, then a fast, steep descent into the floor of the valley (mostly on our arses for two of us) and a finals steep and long climb towards the summit. The views are stunning, and the climb is challenging in deep bracken. Here at the top there are more gleaming icicles and deeper snow. We see fox tracks leading away from this peak, and follow them over the brow of the next: there is a sudden opening up of space ahead, and thousands of feet below, the valley floor rises up to meet other mountain ranges in every direction. We stop, awe struck, trying to take it all in. To the right, are blue-white peaks which jut tooth-like. To the left, are cloudy blue mountains, patchwork forests and rolling green foot hills. Two separate weather fronts roll across the sky; one dropping rain onto the distant mountains below and one scattering snow. We stand for a long time, watching light travel across the land, flowing, filling valleys and creeping over mountains like mercury.

View of mountains, green and purple fields.

Now it’s a fast return; mostly downhill along deep drops, over fences and up short, sliding scree slopes. I’m grinning again; bouncing downhill on spongy sphagnum mounds. We can’t resist going back to the top of the waterfall and climbing, squelching and splashing for a little longer. We stand on the edge of the drop, looking out over the valley that is turning from gold to blue.

When we finally make the descent to the car, it is already with heads full of returning.  I’ve let the land into my head here, all of it, wide and green inside my small human skull. We change shoes and socks, rub thick peat mud from our legs and head to the warmth of a pub, but inside my head, the vast land is waiting.

panoramic mountain range, with snow.