How to scramble: the Llech Ddu Spur

Posted by Hanna Lindon on 12/06/2015
Photo by Garry Smith.

A stunning Grade 1 scramble in Snowdonia that most people have never even heard of? It sounds too good to be true - but the Llech Ddu Spur really does live up to its billing. Here’s what you need to know to take on this secret Carneddau classic.

The fly in the ointment of most classic Grade 1 scrambles is that everybody knows how good they are. Hit Tryfan on a sunny Sunday and you’ll have to elbow your way through kids in Crocs to reach the summit. Crib Goch’s main ridge can often be gridlocked in decent bank holiday weather - and you’ve got a better chance of winning the lottery than getting Striding Edge to yourself at a weekend.

Llech Ddu, on the other hand, has all the making of a modern classic with one added bonus: hardly anyone has heard of it. Secreted away on the remote northern side of the Carneddau, it’s gulfs apart from the flashy, high profile scrambling territory of the Glyders and the Snowdon Massif. The approach in itself is an hour-and-a-half’s tramp up the Cwm Llafar valley; and by the time you reach the base of the spur itself, you’ll almost certainly be the only soul in sight.

“You could say that the Llech Ddu Spur is the antithesis of the classics like Crib Goch and Tryfan,” says local climbing instructor Garry Smith, who wrote the newly-published North Wales Scrambles guide (by Northern Edge Books). “Perhaps they’re put off by the long approach time, or maybe it’s just because the route isn’t well known.”

So what makes the Llech Ddu Spur the best Snowdonian scramble that you’ve probably never heard of?

WATCH Britain's Mountain Challenges: Llech Ddu Spur, on BMC TV

Wild at heart

According to Garry, it’s all about location, location, location. “It’s the feeling of wildness that makes Llech Ddu so special,” he says. “It generally has this amazing mountain ambience, and I’d say that there’s nowhere else in Wales that surpasses it.”

The downside of that remoteness, of course, is that the crag is a good tramp in from the nearest parking spot. Most scramblers begin at Gerlan near the town of Bethesda, following a succession of easy paths and tracks up Cwm Llafar. Llech Ddu swims into view from far down the valley: a leaning pyramid of rock bolted onto the side of Carnedd Dafydd. Look out for the white quartzite bands on the shoulder above the crag, which mark the beginning of the scramble.

Lost on Llech Ddu?

It might be a Grade 1 - but on the scale of navigational difficulty, the Llech Ddu Spur gets a much higher rating.

“The main challenge here is navigation,” explains Garry. “Because it’s not well trodden and there’s no glaringly obvious path to gain the ridge, you need a good level of navigational ability. Ensuring that you get the correct line on the approach is tricky, particularly in reduced visibility, although once you’re established on the main ridge you can’t go wrong.”

To reach the bottom of the scramble, skirt the boulder field at the bottom of Llech Ddu and follow a path that zigzags up scree slopes to the right of the crag. Around 30 metres before reaching Cwmglas Bach, a hanging cwm on the ragged northeast cliffs of Carnedd Dafydd, a grassy ramp cuts up and back to the left. Follow this to find the quartz bands at the beginning of the scramble.

Easy breezy

Take the navigational challenge out of the picture, and the Llech Ddu Spur makes a superb introduction to scrambling. It’s a straightforward Grade 1 with superb views, blocky handholds and an exposure factor that is decently high but still hovers well below that of Crib Goch’s.

The first section follows a series of rock steps and runnels up the shoulder of the crag before narrowing into a rocky ridge. You can pretty much pick your grade here by sticking to the crest of the ridge or sidestepping the major difficulties using sneaky detour paths to left and right. 

“The exposure is thrilling but not too intimidating, and the rock is generally solid,” says Garry. “Unlike many other scrambles, it also remains reasonably doable in the wet. The combination of good tracks on the walk in and the fact that it’s relatively easy for the grade makes it a popular run, too.”

Weather warnings

Llech Ddu might just about doable in wet weather, but you’ll still want to pay attention to the forecast. It isn’t just the start that can be a ‘mare to find in claggy conditions - the descent from the summit of Carnedd Dafydd is also a navigational poser. The crag’s remote location makes the prospect of getting lost here a serious one.

It goes without saying, of course, that winter in the Carneddau is a game changer.

“Under winter conditions this becomes a solid grade one winter ascent,” explains Garry. “It would be inconceivable to attempt it without good winter skills - and of course an ice axe and crampons.”

With spring well and truly here, though, an ascent of the Llech Ddu Spur could be a good way to kick off your scrambling season.  

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