The mountains surrounding Ogwen are steeped in climbing folklore with some of the earliest modern rock climbs in the UK being recorded on the cliffs and gullies of Tryfan and Cwm Idwal. There is a real 'big' mountain feel to the climbing at Ogwen, but this is mixed with a more relaxed atmosphere that many other upland areas don't share. The ease of access, good footpaths, distant sea views and generally off-vertical cliffs, don't threaten or impose in a daunting way and have been instrumental in the continued popularity of this well-travelled area.
As you leave Capel Curig and travel north on the A5 coach road you are suddenly transported into the high mountains of Snowdonia with views across to Tryfan and the Carneddau. This relatively small stretch of mountains seems to absorb hill walkers and climbers, who come from as far afield as London, Birmingham and Liverpool for a weekend of mountain based adventures. It was Tom Leppert who noted that 'there is a lot of very good climbing between the covers of this small book,' in his 1982 Ogwen guide. Since the pioneering ascents of local schoolmaster Jeffrey Archer Thompson and the Abraham brothers from the mid-1880s, to the latest Ogwen guidebook published in 2010, there have been hundreds of new routes established, crags discovered and there are routes that would challenge even the most seasoned trad climbers. Ogwen is still an area where many tackle their first multi-pitch rock climbs or their first mountain routes; invariably this is on the impressive sweep of the Idwal Slabs, or the more exacting East Face of Tryfan, and it often leaves rich experiences which remain etched in climbers' memories for many years to come.
It was at Ogwen that I took my first steps on rock and having grown up in the lesser known climbing mecca of Bethesda, at the foot of the Nant Ffrancon valley, it was only natural that Ogwen would be my most regular haunt once I caught the climbing bug. After repeating many of the established classics I would scour the guidebook in search of gaps between the topo lines. In all honesty this often led to some terrible new routes, but every now and again I would come up trumps and discover a hidden gem that had previously been overlooked.
I also worked at Ogwen Cottage as a cleaner, before progressing onto the instructional freelance team, prior to the Cott's eventual closure along with the rest of Birmingham City Council's outdoor learning service. It was here, as well as climbing with some of the local old hands, that I began to learn and appreciate the history of this beautiful and important area within the mountaineering world.
Below I have described some of my favourite climbing spots at Ogwen. The list is far from definitive and there are some obvious omissions such as the excellent slabs of Tryfan Bach and the fine rock of Carreg Mianod. The crags at Ogwen aren't discriminatory, so you'll find routes of all grades in the below sections and hopefully be inspired to visit new crags – or indeed make your first visit!
Without a doubt the Idwal Slabs are the most popular venue at Ogwen and are climbed on year round by parties who don't mind the rain and low temperatures of the winter months. One of my earliest rock climbs was on these slabs and I still remember the exposure as I scampered between holds with a tight rope pulling me upwards. I've since taken many beginners climbing here and it's brilliant sharing the experience of routes such as the 'Ordinary Route' or 'Hope', where the exposure slowly creeps up on you as you're greeted with views stretching as far away as the Isle of Man. Although it may be clichéd to say it, there is a real sense of achievement felt by many when they look back at the Idwal Slabs after a successful ascent and for some climbers, myself included, it was the spark that set the flame for my love of climbing.
Perhaps this crag doesn't have the most encouraging of names, however Suicide Wall remains my favourite crag at Ogwen. No amount of indoor training can prepare you for the mind games this stretch of wall offers. On first glance the rock looks fairly blank and is mostly vertical in angle. Despite the lack of obvious cracks and corners, the wall is covered in pockets and crimps which make it possible to climb almost anywhere; the hard part is searching for the path of least resistance and, of course, the protection to go with it!
The crag classic is 'Suicide Wall Route 1' E2 5c, first climbed in 1945 by Chris Preston and at its time was amongst the most difficult routes of its type in the world. It didn't receive a repeat ascent until 1951 by Joe Brown and even with the modern protection we have today, it is still a bold and challenging climb.
'Capital Punishment' E4 5c, which shares the same finishing belay as 'Suicide Wall Route 1' is the other mega classic of the crag. This bold wall climb has positive holds but is unnervingly run out in some sections. A real test of nerve and technique. When I was at sixth form in Bangor I would often cycle up to Ogwen after school in order to have a crack at some of the new routes the area offered; one of my personal favourites from this period was 'The Great Escape' E8 6c, which tackles the sparsely featured headwall above 'Capital Punishment'. By the time I eventually made the first ascent, which became a bit of an epic battling the weather and a bad fall that left me unable to sit down for two days, I had 'Capital Punishment' so wired I could climb it in three minutes!
Tryfan's East Face has a different atmosphere to many of the crags at Ogwen, it can feel almost alpine in nature some days requiring a host of skills from normal pitched climbing to moving together on some of the less sustained rock climbs. Something that I would recommend for strong parties is heading up one of the easier routes on a misty day to really get a feel for the place and its eerie atmosphere. Although the East Face can become very popular on sunny weekends it's always possible to find a quiet route, a far better option than getting frustrated climbing behind a slower party. Some of the must do routes are 'Gashed Crag', 'Arête Climb', 'Pinnacle Rib Route', 'Belle Vue Bastion' and 'Grooved Arête'.
Clogwyn y Tarw often reminds me very much of gritstone edges in the Peak District, only it's better and the routes are longer. There's also great climbing at all grades; the central slab routes offer some fantastic low grade multi pitch routes whilst the crack and corner lines on either end of the crag offer some traditional battles with 'Monolith Crack' Severe, 'Herford's Crack' HVS and 'Yob Route' HVS being particularly "memorable" challenges at the grade.
As you move into the upper grades this crag has an awful lot to offer with nine routes of E6 and above typically tackling arêtes and walls. The gear is often poor and although the majority of routes have now been climbed on-sight they are prime head-pointing territory for those wishing to get a taste for the next grade. 'Gribin Wall Climb' E9 6c is the most difficult route on the crag with some tough climbing and very poor protection guaranteeing a small number of repeat ascents. 'Rare Lichen' E8/9 6c, which tackles the arête to the right, has good technical climbing with slightly better protection.
This often overlooked crag on the slopes of Tryfan is a quiet venue with some very fine routes in the Severe to HVS grade range. The climbing is quite steep for the grade but with sinker holds and plenty of cracks and flakes to slot gear into. 'Bochlwyd Eliminate' takes the title for the best HVS at Ogwen, with wonderful open wall climbing, whilst 'Marble Slab' is a lovely introduction to the crag at HS.
Only a short stroll from the road is Milestone Buttress which has a number of friendly, well protected routes on very quick drying rock. It has suffered somewhat from its popularity, with polished rock and queues for the best routes on busy weekends, but despite these flaws it remains a cracking venue. The climbing is varied and I quite like the fact it has a slightly complex descent, with either a short abseil or an easy down-climb to descend from the top right of the crag – it feels like mountaineering but in miniature form! You can't go far wrong selecting any of the routes on the main crag and for the higher grade climber the classic old John Redhead test-piece the 'Wrinkled Retainer' E5 6c is well worth searching out, although the tree has begun to grow back so it might be worth taking a small saw with you…
Whilst driving or cycling home from work at Capel Curig I often wondered what the crags atop Gallt yr Ogof would be like to climb on. When I eventually did make it up there I was immensely impressed by these long, steep, single pitch routes. 'Heart of Stone' must be the best mountain E7 in Wales with steep sustained climbing on good rock with enough gear to make it a very safe proposition. Alongside its harder neighbour 'Mission Impossible' E8/9 6c, they provide two excellent sustained routes that are great objectives for sport climbers wishing to push their grades. The nearby Afterburner Wall also offers good sport in a similar vein whilst the crags lower down on Gallt yr Ogof are worth a look by those in search of a climb away from the crowds.
Glyder Fach may well have the best quality rock in Wales. It has great friction, perfectly rounded crimps and always seems to have holds just where you need them! Unfortunately having the best quality rock doesn't necessarily mean that Glyder Fach Main Cliff has the best climbing, having said that there's still an awful lot of good climbing to be found. The best climbing can be found in the lower grades with 'Chasm Route' VDiff and 'Direct Route' HS being the pick of the bunch. The various ridges and gullies to either side of the main cliff provide some of the best scrambling at Ogwen, whilst the Main Cliff provides some exciting harder routes, with 'Glyder Crack' E6, 'Kaya' E7 and 'Sentinel' E8 offering great moves on amazing rock only slightly marred by being escapable in places.
This rarely visited crag on the slopes of Foel Goch has one of the finest esoteric outings at Ogwen in the shape of the roof crack 'Cobalt Dream' at E5 6b. I seem to remember reading somewhere that Martin Boysen once described it as being more like a HVS – to me it felt more like grappling with a bear that has just been sprayed with olive oil. Fortunately, the protection is good! The routes to the right are rumoured to be sandbags for their grades whilst the rarely repeated 'Ghost Rider' E5 is a fantastic and testing outing.
In recent years the bouldering around Ogwen has been becoming increasingly popular with new problems and even new areas discovered. There are many isolated outlying boulders and walls but I'll stick to the areas offering the most variety in bouldering here. Foremost amongst these bouldering areas is the Sheep Pen Boulders; a cluster of large blocks situated on a sunny plateau above the Nant Ffrancon. This peaceful spot must rank as one of the most pleasant bouldering areas in the UK and there are enough mid-grade problems for a full day of bouldering with plenty of more difficult problems up to V12 in difficulty. The best of the bunch are 'Dog Shooter' V4, 'The Pinch' V7 and 'Sheep Pen Traverse' V10/11. Don't be put off by the walk either, it's deceptively short, if a little on the steep side and you'll have your bouldering pad out within 15 minutes of leaving the car.
Amongst the most popular of the newly developed areas is the Lily Savage area which lies above Llyn Ogwen on the opposite slope to Tryfan. There have been a flock of new boulder problems joining the older classics such as Lily Savage and the area still has some potential on its myriad of walls, roofs and arêtes. A few hundred metres along the slope lies George's Block which contains the classic battle of 'George's Crack' V5 – one of the best problems of its grade (despite being an off-width) and a real battle whether you jam and bar your way along the crack or use the hidden crimps inside the crack!
Not to be missed out on is the Gallt yr Ogof boulder near to the Climbers Club hut. This block doesn't offer too many boulder problems but it does offer quality and with the Caseg Fraith boulders only a few hundred metres away you can make a good day of the bouldering hereabouts.
Spearheading much of the recent bouldering development is Pete Robins who has scouted out some of the best hard new problems in North Wales over the last few years. His best efforts to date around Ogwen include 'Isles of Wonder' 8B, beneath Carreg Mianod and the excellent roadside 8A 'Snap Dragon', which lies a couple of hundred metres beyond Ogwen Cottage. Alongside these Pete has also developed some fantastic highball boulder problems such as 'The Rock's the Star' 7B+! beneath Gallt yr Ogof.
Although slightly outside of the Ogwen area the Caseg Boulders and Braichmelyn boulder near Bethesda are definitely worth a visit and provide good evening entertainment for those spending the night in Bethesda.
The Ambassador E8 6c
This amazing line tackles the compelling rounded left arête of the Central Block of Milestone Buttress. The rock is immaculate, the climbing hard (around 8a+) and the protection good. This was "my" project and I'd fallen off the final move of the top crack (unlike the eventual first ascentionist, I understand the local ethics and was placing gear on lead…). After a bit of a gap in attempts due to work commitments and a summer spent in the Alps James Mchaffie had the impression (?) I was no longer interested in the line. He sneaked in the first ascent and called the route 'Ambassador' as we'd both just been made BMC ambassadors. The irony wasn't lost on me and I'm still bitter about losing out on the first ascent of perhaps the best E8 in Snowdonia. Bloody Cumbrians!
Heart of stone E7 6b
An absolutely stunning route high on the flanks of Gallt yr Ogof. Steep, sustained and safe climbing with great moves on pockets and crimps. The crux comes just where it should – right at the top when your arms are melting and being ejected leaves you taking a bit of a winger into space! The best mountain E7 I know of in Wales and perfect if you're sport climbing fit. Takes a few sunny days to fully dry out.
Capital Punishment E4 5c
The ominously named Suicide Wall has some of the finest rock climbing in the low E grades in the Ogwen area. The rock is well featured with pockets and many hairline cracks but the protection is often difficult to come by which gives the crag a big reputation. Capital Punishment takes the strongest line of the crag up a rounded groove. The climbing is never too difficult but at times off balance and with some considerable run-outs, all adding to the mix of a very memorable experience. It's graded E3 in the new Ogwen guide but I'm writing the article…
Demetreus E3 6a
Tucked away to the right of the central section of the Idwal Slabs lies this excellent wall climb. The protection is excellent and the route has an exciting finish with delicate climbing between good holds. There's also a good dose of exposure for what is essentially a single pitch climb.
Javelin Blade E1 5b
Not the best route for the grade at Ogwen but when you remember that it was first climbed in 1930 by Jack Longland you can really appreciate the level of commitment they had in the 'good old days'! If you feel a little bit afraid on the crux just remember what Longland said after making the first ascent: "…the pull-out onto the actual blade of the javelin was very strenuous; though not dangerous – I had a belay about 40 feet below me."
Direct Route HS 4c
Made famous for its inclusion in the seminal coffee table book Classic Rock, Direct Route is a great outing with varied climbing and the crux pitch found all the way up at the top.
Manx Wall HS
A more popular winter route nowadays with scratched up rock and also less vegetation – winter climbing has actually made this route better in some ways! It's a fine summer outing with a traditional style of climbing and finishing just beneath the summit of Glyder Fawr.
Red Slab Severe
Midway down the Nant Ffrancon lies the wide sweep of the Atlantic Slabs and just down to the right is the excellent Red Slab. 100m of friction slabs provide an immensely enjoyable afternoon outing.
Direct Route V Diff
Yes it's polished and yes, it's normally very busy, but that doesn't detract from the fantastic climbing and positions on this Ogwen classic. An early or late start are best employed to beat the crowds and three contrasting pitches provide the fun!
Cneifion Arete Moderate
A wonderful rock route best enjoyed, dare I say it, without ropes! After the first pitch the climbing soon eases in difficulty and those looking for a little more challenge can stick to the crest of the ridge the entire way.
When to Go
The best rock climbing season is generally from April through to the end of September as many of the crags receive little sunlight through the late autumn and winter months. The bouldering areas often receive plenty of mid-winter sun and areas such as the Sheep Pen Boulders can be enjoyed on clear days in December and January as well as through the summer months if a cold wind is blowing.
Accommodation Advertise here
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The Caban Cysgu above Bethesda provides self-catering accommodation with the possibility of booking rooms for larger groups and has easy access to the local amenities in Bethesda. Tel: 01248 605573
In the Nant Ffrancon is the Ogwen Valley Bunkhouse which lies midway between Bethesda and Ogwen. Tel: 01248 601958
For Climbers Club members the Helyg hut between Ogwen and Capel Curig is a convenient spot and one of the oldest mountaineering huts in the UK.
There are two campsites in the Ogwen valley, Gwern Gof Uchaf beneath Gallt yr Ogof and Gwern Gof Isaf beneath Tryfan. Both are very popular over holiday periods and worth booking camping spots in advance.
Food and Supplies
In Bethesda you are spoilt for choice shopping wise with a Spar, Londis and Tesco Express. Capel Curig also has a small Spar shop. The nearest climbing shop is Joe Brown's in Capel Curig and the seasonal Ellis Brigham outlet shop just down the road.
The nearest climbing walls are Plas y Brenin wall at Capel Curig, a small facility but often with some good boulder problems set. The Indy climbing wall in Llanfair PG roughly 15 minutes from Ogwen has an excellent bouldering wall with lead climbing facilities and the Beacon climbing centre in Caernarfon has a big lead wall, plenty of bouldering and a small café upstairs.
The Moel Siabod café is the best and nearest café with good opening hours, large helpings and a wide variety of cakes. There are a couple of other options for evening meals in Capel with the Bryn Tyrch, Tyn y Coed and Plas y Brenin. Betws y Coed is only a few miles further on from Capel and has plenty of cafés and restaurants; Tŷ Gwyn in particular makes excellent meals.
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About the Author: 22 year-old BMC Ambassador Calum Muskett is from Bethesda, North Wales. Despite his young age, Calum has racked up a wealth of hard and adventurous climbs in a variety of styles - sport, trad, alpine and winter - in destinations all over the world. From the Dolomites to Yosemite, the Mont Blanc Massif to Patagonia, or indeed in good old Gogarth, Calum has built up an impressive resume of climbs in relatively little time. Visit his website.
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- DESTINATION GUIDE: Welsh Winter Climbing 15 Feb, 2016