The Bala Challenge (Almost)

If ever I needed proof that us Brits are conditioned to persevere in adverse weather conditons, my adventure in North Wales last weekend is it.

A good friend of mine, Catherine, invited me to join her on the Bala Challenge, which she has completed three times in previous years.

There are a few different options to taking part in the challenge, and we opted to attempt the most difficult, a 20 mile (32km) mountain walk with a total ascent of 1250m.

Cath’s fiance Ant decided to come along for the weeked as well, and whereas they opted to drive up on the Saturday morning (the day of the challenge), I travelled up on the Friday evening and booked myself into Bala Backpackers. Even though I live in Wales, I always forget how long it takes to get anywhere here. The equivalent distance of Cardiff to Bala in England would only take you a couple of hours. As we don’t really have motorways in Wales (certainly none in mid-Wales) and a lot of areas are very remote with small, winding mountain roads, when you’re travelling around the Welsh countryside it makes it feel a lot bigger than it looks on the map.

The consolation to the long drives is the breathtaking scenery. Bala is situated on the southern edge of Snowdonia national park, one of the most stunning landscapes we have here in the UK. Even though I was running (very) late, I couldn’t help but be calmed by the colours of the mountains as the sun disappeared behind them. Four and a half hours later, I arrived in Bala with a huge smile on my face. After apologising to the lady who owns the hostel for my lateness (who by the way was very lovely and understanding), she gave me the guided tour and I settled in to get some rest before my big walk the next day. It’s very rare that I come across a hostel so well maintained and organised as Bala Backpackers. I’ve stayed in hostels all over the world, and there’s nothing more annoying than finding everything you needed on the last day. At Bala Backpackers, nothing is left to chance. The hostel has excellent facilities, comfortable communal areas with books and games and is generally very clean. There are lots of extras you can add on to your stay should you choose to. Are your room mates snoring too loudly? Then buy some earplugs at reception. Forgotten your shopping bag? (we don’t use free disposable bags in Wales) These too can be bought, proceeds going to a local charity. You can rent bedding, left over toiletries are available in the bathroom and there’s even a drying room to leave your wet and muddy gear after walking/climbing/kayaking… (delete as appropriate). I didn’t know it yet, but the drying room was going to come in very useful to me.

The town shares its name with Lake Bala, the largest natural lake in Wales. Bala Lake is surrounded by three mountain ranges – Berwyn, Aran and Arenig, and the challenge takes you on a circuit around the whole lake.

Lake Bala
Lake Bala

At 7am the next morning, I got up, ate breakfast and got ready for the walk. The weather forecast had predicted spells of sun and rain, and it was already looking cloudy so I layered up with thermals and waterproofs and put spare hat, socks, gloves, thermal top and waterproof jacket in my backpack.

The 20 mile walk is expected to take 7-10 hours, and you have to start between 8 and 9am. There are three parts to the challenge – 8 miles along one side of the lake to Llanuwchllyn, 6 miles to the summit of Aran (600m) and back down again, and a further six miles back round the other side of the lake to Bala. This last six miles includes something known as ‘death hill’, allegedly the toughest part of the route, especially after already walking over 15 miles. If you are late for any of the checkpoints, you have to pull out and be driven back to Bala as there is a strict time limit of 10 hours.

I met Cath and Ant at the leisure centre, the start point, and at 8.25am we set off. The weather was against us from the start. Although there were patches of sunshine, those threatening clouds soon started to release rain on to us which made the already tricky terrain almost impossible to cross in parts. Add to that the fact that Wales has already had too much rain this year, and that the snow only melted off the mountains a couple of weeks ago, and the boggy marshland that Snowdonia is famous for was like its own little lake district. I started off trying to avoid getting my feet wet. I soon gave in, though, and my boots had about an inch of water in them from mile 5 onwards.

DSC_0180DSC_0184 DSC_0185 DSC_0187

We soon realised that we’d made a rookie mistake. All the other walkers had those handy plastic map wallets to keep their directions in. We didn’t, and it wasn’t long before the rain started to dissovle the paper in our hands. Not that we could understand the directions anyway. The organisers of the event seemed to assume that everyone would understand the code they used.

AH 200m. LS, BR then diagonal across field to G.

eh?

After a couple of miles we’d figured out most of the abbreviations:

Ahead 200m. Ladder Style, Bear Right then diagonal across field to Gate.

After 8 miles of squelching through bogs, traversing barb wire fencing, balancing on logs and sliding down muddy slopes, we made it to the first checkpoint at Llanuwchllyn railway station. Whilst we stopped to eat our sandwiches and change our wet clothes, the sun patch that we had seen making its way around the lake decided to shine on us for a bit.

I couldn't resist taking this shot - how often do you get to stand right in the middle of the track for long enough to take a photo?
I couldn’t resist taking this shot – how often do you get to stand right in the middle of the track for long enough to take a photo?

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After spraining his ankle on the first stage of the walk, Ant decided to drop out at this point and head back to Bala on the steam train. Myself and Cath battled on and set off to tackle Aran. As we knew we were already running late, we decided to push ahead and get to the summit as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, the Welsh weather had other ideas. It took every ounce of energy I had to try and step forward whilst the horizontal wind seemed intent on pushing me to the left. The rain didn’t stop, and was sooned joined by hailstones. It was like trying to walk up a mountain whilst someone threw gravel at your face. We started to get a little nervous when the thunder started, and prayed we were near the top. Just as I was about to give up hope, we spotted a two-man tent about 200m ahead. The checkpoint! According to what little was left of our directions, the views are stunning from the top of Aran. I’d love to show you some photos, but even if I had been able to see much, it was just too wet to get the camera out.

The walk down was just as tricky as it had been going up. The ‘path’ was more of a river and the marshland was getting wetter by the minute.

We’d decided that although we were wet, cold and tired, we wanted to continue on the final six miles when we reached the bottom of Aran. Sadly, we were met by two volunteers in Llanuwchllyn who informed us that we’d missed the checkpoint by over an hour and would have to be driven back to Bala.

Before leaving the next morning, I stopped to take a photo of Aran in slightly clearer weather
Before leaving the next morning, I stopped to take a photo of Aran in slightly clearer weather

Although I was disappointed to not have completed the challenge, I was determined to not let the failure get me down. I will return next year, and I will complete the walk. All 20 miles of it.

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4 Replies to “The Bala Challenge (Almost)”

  1. Wow, well done! I know the area well. The cottage where we stay is in the Arans, and has the highest lake in Wales within the boundaries. The terrain is beautiful, but not soft. We’ll be there this coming week. Hope the weather is more clement. I’m going for a rest.

    1. Thanks! I’m hoping for good weather too, because I’m in Anglesey next week. Just test the ground before you walk on it in Bala, I imagine it’s still very wet 🙂

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