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Dragon's Back Race 2019 - Day 1 Recce

Next May I'm due to start the Dragon's Back race from Conwy Castle on the North Coast of Wales down to Llandeilo, the best part of 200 miles South.  

It's run over 5 days and over pretty much every mountain in between with strict cut-offs throughout for good measure.  It's an enormous undertaking whichever way you look at it - my major (of many) concerns being the cumultive lack of sleep with what will likely be 4:30am wake ups each day and late finishes.

I don't normally recce races; I've always taken the view that it's a lot of effort for marginal gain though if planning on winning the thing that equation changes somewhat. But in this case, because so much of the course is over difficult, trackless terrain under weather that frequently renders the space 10 metres ahead of you invisible, I think it's well worth the investment.

Last weekend I decided to run Day 1 of the race and take 2 days doing it in a 2/3rds, 1/3rd split.  I'd intended to go in Summer but illness put paid to that so mid November was somehow the next best option.

I've watched John Kynaston's video recce about 30 times so far and my journey was to prove quite far removed from that 30-degree scenery-fest.  But, best to prepare in suboptimal conditions in my view.

I decided to travel as light as possible so took the train to Conwy from Slough, stayed overnight right by the Castle at No 18 (a great B&B that laid on breakfast early for me and I was able to make a packed lunch too) and got underway just before 8am as it got light carrying everything I owned on my back.


Sunset was 4pm so that was 8 hours to complete 23 miles to Pen Y Pass YHA where I'd spend the next couple of nights. On paper, a ridiculously easy stroll.  

I have the route on my shiny new Suunto 9 watch which my jury is still out on.  It seems to cock up elevation to a comical degree (though a recent software update seems to have fixed that) and similarly heart rate, where it often tells me I've hit 210+ beats per minute - exceeding that time I had Atrial Fibrillation and spent 3 days in Heatherwood.

I manage to go wrong almost immediately, hacking through a load of bracken when there was a perfectly serviceable path a few metres away but pull it together climbing up Conwy mountain and the subsequent rolling peaks and dips.  It's quite a gentle start and despite the lack of a view - the clag soon descended - I was enjoying myself.

Descending from Pen Yr Ole Wen - Dragons back race recce
Not a lot to see in the murk today

Each subsequent summit got harder as the altitude increased along with the wind chill.  The route becomes less well-defined to non-existant, and Winter had started to stick its claws in.  The latter tops were iced over and there was already 6 inches of snow in places, driven by a strong Easterly that shreiked frustrated against a stone wall offering shelter up Drum only to be unleashed as that petered out into a wire fence nearer the top.  Little chance of going wrong in actual fact, but it was several hours of plain endurance without the payback of any views of the stunning scenery hidden behind that clag.

I'm not used to picking my own route so this needs work.  Also I don't like slogging over jagged boulders and there was plenty of that and treacherous too given the ice coating on many.  I was disconcerted by the lack of grip from the Peregrines so maybe that needs a rethink - perhaps saved for later days and something with more ground contact used for the first day?

The trail drops from 978 metres on Pen yr Ole Wen down to Llyn Ogwen at 300 metres above sea level very quickly and very sketchily. I didn't enjoy that much although there were some views for the first time when dropping below the cloud base and the temperature climbed perceptibly with each 100 metres descended.  

It was 2pm and I had two hours of daylight (I did have a powerful headtorch with me) and given the ice skating earlier I decided to defer on Tryfan and the Glyders.  I debated whether to nav round to Llyn Idwal and up to Glyder Fawr but decided that risked getting lost in fading light.  I do need map reading and navigation practice but that didn't seem the time to start.

So in stark contrast to the rest of the day I ended up heading to the YHA down the Slate Trail alongside the A5 and then, less interestingly, the A5 itself as I lost the trail and waded through a swamp and across a couple of streams to get back to the road, sense of humour now in tatters.  

The road detour added about 10km to the day, making a total of 45km as the YHA with its inviting lights came into view as the last of the suns rays disappeared over the horizon.

The YHA is lovely and I had a slap up feed of carbs and a couple of pints, and then crashed out before the onslaught on Snowdon the day after.


Much better weather today and although the cloudbase was about 200 metres below the summit of Snowdon itself, the lower reaches showed off their full glory in the sunlight.  

I set off up the Pyg track which runs from right outside the front door of the YHA and couldn't help stopping repeatedly to take photos looking back.  I noticed the watch's compass was totally thrown by the Snowdon Massif.  It couldn't work out what direction it was facing and was useless.  That was to be a real frustration later on. 

View from the Pyg Track, Snowdon
A view from the Pyg Track

I passed by the Crib Goch detour off the Pyg. I'd already decided it was too dangerous as there was a -8 wind chill, ice and strong gusts up there.  A couple of people warned me off it as I was climbing too so the right decision I think.  I will admit that knife edge arrete scares me. I've watched too many YouTube videos of it now and not doing it has only made me more worried.  But nevertheless, it's not something you take risks on.

pen-y-pass YHA from the Pyg track
Pen-y-pass YHA from the Pyg track

The Pyg runs right to the summit of Snowdon and became very slippery near the summit, the rocks decorated in feather-like ice structures all oriented in the same direction by the wind, like iron filings attracted by a magnet.   All of Liverpool seemed to be climbing up that day!  The summit trig was thronged so I carried on by down the Watkin path, the first reaches of which are pretty awful - avalanches of loose scree and reverse scrambling - though it becomes a proper path lower down.  

As the Watkin became runnable I forgot where I was and started running it, only to realise I was off route and there was the rest of the Horeshoe to complete.  There followed a prime example of the difference between a nice dashed line marking a path on the map and reality where no such path existed.  I would regain the path (which runs along the top of the ridge to Y Lliwedd) only to immediately lose it again and an hour of intense frustration followed as no matter what I could not stay on it and in fact got further away with each attempted adjustment.  

Eventually I gave up and decided to head down the mountain through boulder fields and thick heather because, as yesterday, the remaining light was fading fast.  I was lucky that I could see clearly down the mountain otherwise that would have been uncomfortable but it was extremely slow-going with very difficult terrain.  

Llyn Gwynant from Snowdon
Down to Llyn Gwynant from Snowdon having lost the trail

I'd forgotten that the race route bends back on itself as it completes the Horseshoe and was delighted to see I was going to rejoin the race line and wasn't hopelessly off course and finished the last few km to Nant Gwynant in a great mood!

That's the camp at the end of Day 1 but I tacked on an extra 4.5 miles back to the YHA along a lovely path alongside Llyn Gwynant lake.

The trail alongside Llyn Gwynant running back up to the YHA at Pen-y-pass
The trail alongside Llyn Gwynant running back up to the YHA at Pen-y-pass

So it's been a mixed bag couple of days.  As a recce it wasn't an unqualified success.  Two of the money shots - Tryfan and Crob Goch - remain untested and my navigation has been shown to be deficient.  

On the plus side, I was well ahead of the time schedule and my navigation has been shown to be deficient (that's the point of this thing after all, right?)

It has certainly made me appreciate the kind of terrain that's coming - there's a bit of everything in Day 1 - so that too has been very useful. There has been some good altitude gained and I wasn't too damaged after Saturday so that's encouraging.

The YHA is fantastic and a great place to base yourself - no surprise I'm sure - that's why it's there after all!  If like me you decided not to drive, the bus from Betws-y-Coed is a regular fixture and costs just £2 each way.  There are trains from BYC to Llandudno Junction and from there Crewe, Chester, Euston etc.

I'm looking at the other 4 days now but it's looking like 2019 for recces for those and for me they are more difficult to get to and away from so they will probably be more piecemeal but I am really keen to go back after this weekend's adventures.

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Thanks for the write up. Interesting reading. Glad I'm not the only one having those thoughts of....'it looks easy in paper' then getting out there and thinking 'oh god'!!