"The upper part of this valley [Cwm Cywarch] with its great crags and scree slopes, its mineral-rich rocks, its gorges and cascades, and its remoteness from internal combustion engines, is a place that deserves to be set aside and safeguarded from every threat of change or exploitation"
William Condry, naturalist (1918-1998)
The unassuming grassy hill of Glasgwm harbours something of a schizophrenic personality. On the one hand the mountain is cursed with a completely uninspiring summit area - it’s flat, it’s round and it’s criss-crossed by a maze of fences. There’s little here to keep even the most ardent of hill-goer happy. On the other hand, tucked away under its sheltered eastern flank, is Craig Cywarch, a 3km long series of crags and buttresses which are home to the greatest density of rock climbs in Mid Wales. And thank God, because otherwise this hill would be completely without merit. Craig Cywarch is Glasgwm’s principle point of interest (hence the twin title), and it’s this feature that this page will mostly focus upon. It has to, if it were to focus on any other part of the mountain, it would be a very short page indeed.
So as a quick introduction let’s throw out a few facts. Glasgwm’s summit is 780 metres above sea level and has a prominence of 213 metres. For the peak baggers out there, this is enough to qualify it as a Marilyn, a Hewitt, a Nuttall and a Buxton & Lewis, the latter of which is going to be of interest to no one but the most dogged of list tickers. The bulk of Craig Cywarch is located between around 300 and 600 metres above sea level, placing its crags within a relatively short distance of the nearest road. The nearest road by the way is not much more than a single lane track which services a few farms in the upper reaches of the valley. It’s this remoteness that helps make the experience of climbing here so special.
Placing the crag in a geographical context is a little tricky. Although it’s located within the boundary of the Snowdonia National Park, the surrounding landscape bares little resemblance to the rugged terrains that the park is best known for. Rather, Glasgwm’s rounded profile is homogeneous with the more subdued hills of the Cambrian Mountains to the south. The crags have a uniquely Welsh quality; they sit perfectly on the hillside dominating the lush, grassy valley of Cwm Cywarch below; commanding a vista which is both grand in scale and intimate in feel.
The crags offer a range climbs starting at Moderate and working their way all the way up to E7. The igneous rock generally offers good holds and protection, however most of the lines are rarely ascended and some of the least used can involve more ‘gardening’ than actual rock climbing. Another consideration is that Mid Wales’ rock is frustratingly adept at holding onto water, even after a day or so of clear weather. When wet, the rock becomes very greasy and all but the very easiest of routes should probably be avoided. Aside from the physical difficulties that climbing on wet rock poses, constantly having to clear soggy vegetation from a route is a thankless task, particularly if you are seconding and have to endure a constant shower of wet moss and lichen. This effectively limits the climbing season to the beginning of March at the earliest, to the end of October at the latest; of course if a nice big high comes along and sits over the area for a week or so you might get lucky!
Historically the area around Craig Cywarch was exploited for its lead deposits, and mines existed in the valley right up until the beginning of the 20th century. Today many of the farms have converted old mine buildings and mills into houses and barns. Some of the workings still exist and many of the approaches to the crag follow old miner’s tracks and tramways. Prior to the discovery of exploitable metals, the area was considered to be a wild and remote corner of Wales. During the 16th century the valley was home to a band of outlaws known as Cochion Cywarch (The Reds of Cywarch ), apparently so called after the colour of their leaders hair. The band terrorized the region and gained such notoriety that they now have a pub – The Brigand’s Inn – named after them in the nearby village of Mallwyd. The area has a strong cultural tradition; Ellis Wynne composed Gweledigaetheu y Bardd Cwsc - 'Visions of the Sleeping Bard' (1703), one of the most influential pieces of Welsh Language Literature ever written, just down the road in Aber Cywarch (which you must drive through to reach the crag).
Climbing began on Craig Cywarch in the first decade of the 20th century when on Easter 1907 a Rucksack Club (a Manchester based club founded in 1902) party led by C.H. Pickstone visited the crag and recorded climbs on the three main gullies. Unfortunately they neglected to record any other climbs in the area, so any other first ascents climbed on that preliminary weekend are now lost to history. For the next 40 years or so very little occurred on Craig Cywarch, until in 1950 when Norman Horsfield, who, after reading some old Rucksack Club Journals, partnered up with Peter Harding and decided to explore the crag, and so began a new age of exploration in the area. In 1954 the Staffordshire based Mountain Club gained the use of an old farm house at the head of the valley at Tyn-y-Twll, increasing the popularity of Craig Cywarch immeasurably. By 1957 over 50 routes had been recorded and in 1958 the first guidebook, written by R.E. Lambe, was published. In 1960 The Mountain Club began construction on their own hut on the site of an old derelict mine building. The hut was christened Bryn Hafod, and to celebrate its opening a party was held to which all the local farmers were invited. This close relationship between the Mountain Club and local landowners has resulted in unrestricted access to the crags, a remarkable achievement in an area which is notorious for its access issues.
The 60s bought such legends as Chris Bonnington and Joe Brown to the area who recorded several new lines on Sawdl y Graig and Gist Ddu. However it would be members of the Mountain Club who would dominate the Arans for the next 10 years or so, with John Sumner, Barry Knox and Dave Adcock continuing the extensive exploration which they began in the late 1950s. The ever popular Will o' the Wisp (HVD) was a product of this era. The late 70s and early 80s bought a new generation of climbers to the area, and the climbing standards were again raised. The 90s bought fourth a flurry of new routes, and over a weeks holiday in 1994 Martin Crocker and John Harwood opened up some of the area's finest climbs, culminating in the area's hardest line, the epic Sci-Fi (E7 6b).
This map of Glasgwm shows the main crags and outcrops of Craig Cywarch. You can get information on the crags, which will appear in the right hand box by hovering your moose cursor over the map symbols. For an annotated printable map click HERE.