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Catching the Wonder of a Sunrise Hike

Hiker at sunrise

It was 9pm on a Friday night and my nightly routine of checking the weather forecast for the following day flagged up some surprisingly clear skies. Unexpectedly clear, based on the previous week of typically relentless Welsh rain we’d endured. So before I poured myself a second glass of white, I tentatively suggested to Rob that it might be a lovely morning for a sunrise hike. And then held my breath… Reluctant to commit to anything pre 9am on a Saturday morning, the casual “sure” that followed, took me a little by surprise. And before I knew it we were popping the wine back in the fridge and getting ready for a last minute microadventure.

Cadair Idris

Near the southern border of Snowdonia National Park in north Wales, towers the majestic Cadair Idris. Although only the 19th highest peak in Wales, it certainly doesn’t fall short in the popularity department, and is right up there with the ever-busy Mount Snowdon. And rightfully so. On a clear day, Cadair Idris, or the ‘Chair of Idris’ as the legend tells us, offers the most stunning views of the west coast, Llyn Peninsula and surrounding mountain ranges, including the Snowdon massif. And that doesn’t even include the dramatic near vertical drops down to the ‘seat’ of Cadair’s Chair, Llyn Cau (lake).

A sunrise hike on a mountain

But catching Cadair on a clear day can be tricky business. Even in the height of summer the summit is more often than not blanketed with low cloud that not only obscures those far reaching views on offer, but also makes navigation much more challenging. I’ve hiked the 6 mile route a number of times, but not once have I seen the views from the very top. So the promised window of good weather left me forgetting all about the early start, and hopeful that the weather man wasn’t pulling a fast one on me, as is his way!

Catch the worm

I’m always amazed at how easy it is to get up in what seems like the middle of the night when there’s something exciting to be getting up for. And it wasn’t really the middle of the night at all. Being mid November meant that the sun wouldn’t show his bright and cheery face until around 7.45am. That gave us 2 hours and 15 minutes to shovel some porridge down us, drive to the base of the mountain and hike up to the east-facing ridge – the arm of Cadair’s chair if you like. That also meant that the most challenging part of the hike would be done in the dark. We weren’t too worried about this as we know the route well, and as it turned out, those clear skies let the bright moon show us the way. Our headlamps went totally unused.

Mountain lake

Night hiking on a schedule takes some of the fun out of enjoying the quiet sounds of darkness. But we had the sun to catch. And as it was decidedly uphill to the ridge, we got our heads down and stomped it out, taking care not to be too gung-ho on the rocky and uneven ground. Each time I turned around, the horizon to the east was growing ever brighter, and I questioned whether we would make it in time. But our good scheduling and zero faff policy got us to the ridge with time to breath and take it all in before the dawn light-show began.

Sunset or sunrise?

The ever-changing beauty and uniqueness of a cracking sunset never fails to lure us simple beings in for the spectacle. I love that the power of colours in the sky can stop us in our tracks, leave us speechless, and enforce time to pause and reflect. But sunrises? Well, they’re something else. Making the effort to watch the sun come up not only rewards you with all that a beautiful sunset offers, but more often than not, you get to enjoy them all to yourself (or whoever you are with!). Whereas enjoying a sunset alone can really take some doing. And on a day like the Cadair Idris hike day, it was inevitable that the hoards would be descending upon the mountain by the dozen later on. Even at 2930 feet, one still has to share that sunset.

Mountain layers

In the darkness of that crisp cold morning, we noticed footprints in the snow of a single hiker and his dog. But he was way ahead of the game and must have reached the very top before there was even a hint of light in the sky. So we really did have that incredible sunrise all to ourselves. I’ve enjoyed a few sunrises over the years but never one that was quite as magnificent as on that Cadair Idris morning. After the initial glow of deep orange had cast its beams over the eastern sides of every rock, stone, mountain and cliff face, came a warm golden sprinkling of light that seemed to make the snow sparkle from every angle. It made the distant skies and their approaching storms seem all the more moody, and lit up the foreground with the promise of positivity for the day ahead. In every direction the landscape was diffused with a different hue to the one slightly behind it, or to the left or right of it. With so much to take in, all one could do was stand and watch in wonder and awe.

Approaching storm

If it weren’t so chilly, we could have stood there all day, just watching. But the need to keep moving only played in our favour, as with each new elevation climbed or corner turned, came another view or hue that was more magnificent than the last. And with perfect timing on our side once again, we made it to the peak of Penygadair to enjoy 360º views for our first time on that mountain. An approaching snow storm joined us at the peak shortly after we set off on the final leg back to base. There goes that view! But in its place, the hypnotic display of falling snow in the form of polystyrene pellets, provided another focus for our senses.

Approaching storm over mountains on a sunrise hike

As we skipped down the steep path back to the car, I struggled to hide my smugness to the scores of hikers that we passed, just starting their ascent. I wanted to tell them all what they’d missed. That it was the best sunrise I’d ever seen. That the top was clearer than it would probably be all day. That they should have got up earlier!! But I kept quiet and cheerfully said hi, with a deep sense of gratitude for the lucky light we had encountered.

Morning energy

Cosy, back in front of the fire by 11.30am, I sat reliving the morning through my photos. And I realised that as wonderful as sunsets are, when they’re over all you’re left with is darkness. A great sunrise, however, just seems to keep on giving. The light will continue to change for the rest of the day, until sunset. And there just seems to be so much more positive energy to be taken from the warming, brightening light of the morning sun.

It’s all too often we use the bad weather and lack of daylight hours as an excuse for not adventuring in the winter. I’ve been very guilty of this in the past – the lure of the fire and of hunkering down to ride out the winter storms indoors is just so appealing and easy. But the beauty of a sunrise hike, aside from the obvious, is that a four or five hour hike will see you back in front of that cosy fire before lunchtime, with only well earned laziness to fill the rest of your day.


Sunrise resolution

Am I a sunset or sunrise kind of gal? Well, before that Welsh hike I would have always said sunset. But being up there, just the two of us, with so much beauty and wilderness laid out before us, has certainly made me reconsider. Sadly, too many sunrises have passed me by in the depths of sleep, and so I feel highly unqualified to be a good judge of which I truly prefer. And I’m not about to change my mind completely with only a handful of amazing sunrises in my portfolio of evidence. So to find out for sure, I resolve to get me in front of as many sunrises as possible in the coming year.

About the author


Joey Holmes is based in Cornwall, UK, and runs Cool of the Wild. She can’t get enough of being outdoors – whether that’s lounging around the campfire cooking up a feast, hitting the trail in her running shoes, or attempting to conquer the waves on her surfboard – she lives for it. Camping is what she loves to do the most, but has also spent many many hours clinging to the side of a rock face, cycling about the place, cruising the ski-slopes on her snowboard and hiking small mountains and big hills.

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