High Tide

The tide on Whiteford beach is scary. One minute the water is so far away that I can barely make out the breakers, and the next they spray is covering my glasses with a thin coat of salt. I’ve watched it race towards the shore in a continuous roll, I’ve felt it snap at my heels as I’ve retreated from it and I’ve walked out to the lighthouse when it’s been at its lowest. The prospect of a higher than usual (I’d read it would be the highest for 18 years, which is a lunar cycle) Spring tide this morning eased the decision on where to take Rufus for his weekend walk.

We left the house in the dark and reached the car park near Cwm Ivy before the sun had come up. By the time we’d walked through the woods and onto the beach, a beautiful morning was shaping up. The sea was choppy and the tide was fully in. It was the highest I’ve ever seen there, with the waves undercutting of the dunes in places. We walked along a narrow strip of sand between dune and sea until the waves barred the way, when we climbed up onto the tops of the dunes and made our way across the headland to the opposite side.

Out of the wind it was warm as the sun rose, not like a February morning at all. Walking in sand is tiring but great exercise and we had plenty of that as we made our way to the tip of the headland. Once out of the shelter, the wind picked up again and it was time to don gloves and hat and do up the coat. Rufus, with his permanent fur coat was happy to have a cooling breeze again.

We’d spent less than an hour in the dunes but already the tide had receded significantly. The lighthouse was still surrounded by the sea and on its metal skeleton, cormorants perched, warming in the sun. On the beach, lapwings and sandpipers scurried to and fro with the incoming and outgoing waves. As we walked back along the beach, a huge flock of sandpipers flew low over the sea. There must have been more than 100 of them flying parallel to the shore.

There was a lot of rubbish on the high water mark; most of it seemed to be plastic and I wished I’d brought a bag to put it in. I grabbed a tangle of plastic fishing line, which I brought home to dispose of. I’ve seen first hand what that can do and it’s not pleasant. One of the items washed up was an old football. It seemed to be a decent one, with stitched panels, and there was no sign of damage. It was just a little deflated (well, you would be too if you’d been abandoned on the beach). I kicked it, Rufus chased it and there followed a new form of football; one in which use of the mouth was allowed. I tried explaining to Rufus the rules of the game, but he just ran off and dared me to get the ball off him. He carried the ball for quite a while – unusual for him – and only dropped it when lured by the tempting aroma of some long dead aquatic creature. So I brought it home and it’s now in the back garden.

By now, the tide had all but disappeared and where earlier we were hugging the sand dunes, now we were able to range across the sand. But somehow, we’d done more than 5 miles, so it was time to head back to the car. Wet paws collected much sand as we crossed the dunes again and soon we were on the long uphill drag to the car park. A deep puddle solved the sandy paws issue and we were both grateful to reach the car.

Snoring occurred in the car on the way home, but I would not betray our friendship by saying from whom the snoring came.

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Adventures in the world of slow

After yesterday’s fun in the snow, today was always going to be a little slower. And in a triumph of wordplay, I decided to head off to the River Tawe to start using slow shutter speed techniques with my 10 stop ND filter on the waterfalls.

As if to confirm the slow nature of today, a selection of Sunday drivers littered the roads. It’s not just their inappropriate use of speed I dislike, it’s the generally poor standard of driving that comes with the Sunday driver; braking hard at the speed sign rather than slowing to meet it, failing to indicate and wandering all over the road to name three. All three of these were in evidence today.

At the river, we wandered and strolled, occasionally stopping for me to take long exposure photos. Slightly more occasionally, we stopped for Rufus to catch little stones, chase them into the water and for him to bark at me if I got anything wrong with either activity. Things that count as being wrong are:

  • Not throwing a stone
  • Throwing a stone in the wrong place
  • Taking too long between stone throwing
  • Taking too long to operate the camera
  • Not handing out enough treats

He’s a good teacher though, and is never slow to correct me if I make mistakes.

Before we knew it, we’d been out for over an hour. The clouds were beginning to peep over the hills and the temperature was starting to drop again as the sun became obscured by the first signs of the approaching rains. So we set off back to the car. I was surprised at how far we’d come along the river, which is well below the level of the road, and it took a little longer to reach the car than I had expected.

Our journey back included encounters with a driver who seemed to indicate at every roundabout junction, but never acted on the indication. I actually got quite good at anticipating where he was going by the position of the car on the road. Despite his attempts to run me off the road, we arrived home and settled down to a day of slow.

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49er

“Pen y Fan is that way. If you carry on in the direction you’re going now, you’ll fall off the edge.”

I’ve seen some inappropriate things and actions on the mountains but today ticked a few new ones. I’ve climbed Pen y Fan in just about every weather condition. Some of the best times have been in poor conditions; I particularly like walking there in the snow. This morning the weather forecast was overcast, drab, drizzle. Not ideal conditions, but I had a particular reason go there today. It would be the 49th time I’d got to the summit. I wanted to get the 49th out of the way because I’d like to make the 50th time something a little special.

Off we set from the car park at around 8am, hoping to avoid the masses. I needn’t have worried as the weather was enough to put people off at this time. It was cold and grey and I could see we would be walking into cloud before long. I couldn’t see any snow, though.

Around 15 minutes later, we hit the snow line. The fog was thick and very quickly, the snow went from muddy slush to a white covering that hid the path. At the same time, a light drizzle started. I checked on Rufus – he hasn’t done anything this strenuous for a while. But he was so far ahead of me up the hill that I had to assume he was enjoying showing up my lack of fitness.

We trudged on up, occasionally passing people coming down. I was surprised at how many had made it before us. The fog thickened again and the visibility dropped to a few metres. The snow made it hard to judge distance and the best gauge I had was Rufus, who stood out nicely against the bright white.

The drizzle was intermittent and as we got higher, so it became icy. Rufus didn’t seem to be suffering from the cold; in fact it wasn’t that cold as there wasn’t much of a breeze. It was bright too and we couldn’t have been far below the top of the clouds. It reminded me of the white out conditions on Ben Nevis I encountered in 2007, but without the risk of sheer drops either side of the path. The snow became deeper and the path was defined by footprints, bounded by deeper prints where feet had gone into the drainage ditches.

I stopped to chat to a walker coming down and I remarked on the number of people I’d passed coming down. He said they’d all turned back because to the conditions. I admire them for that; I’ve turned back on Pen y Fan and other mountains. It was something I was considering today, but Rufus was doing fine and I was confident of the route. As I stood and chatted, Rufus began to yap and nudge my leg. It was clearly time to carry on.

The traverse across the ridge in the lee of Corn Du is flat and it offers an opportunity to rest from the incessant uphill from the car park. Today it was most welcome, but the visibility coupled with the thick and unspoiled snow made it strange and a challenge. It seemed from the footprints that most people had indeed turned back at the ridge; the footprints visible now were old. We carried on but I had Rufus on the lead now, as I didn’t want him to disappear in the fog. He was still full of energy and threatening to bound off as I clearly wasn’t moving quickly enough for him.

A final short and unwelcome pull up on to Pen y Fan itself and suddenly we stumbled on the summit cairn. We stopped for a few photos but there was nothing to keep us on top, so we set off back the way we’d come. Which was easier said than done as there was little in the way of any indication of where the path was. I’ve been in this situation before and a combination of knowing which way the wind was blowing on the way up and remembering isolated marks int he ground meant I was confident of finding the path down. Still, there were a few moments of that thrill when you realise the risk. In small doses it’s not too bad a feeling.

It was on the way down that I started to encounter the foolish and the ill prepared. Four lads, only a minute from the summit, asking me where Pen y Fan was. One of them was wearing jeans. They were soaked and I know they were cold, and they wouldn’t dry out. Further down the path by Corn Du another pair of walkers who didn’t know where they were. Then my warning, with which I started this post, to the guy who for no apparent reason, struck off the path heading up towards Corn Du and a sheer rock face that he wouldn’t be able to scale. And he had a dog with him. Finally, another four lads, all in jeans, who turned back shortly after I met them, and passed me going down again.

Heading down the main path was easy at first, once I’d found place to turn down. I’ve missed that spot in far better visibility than today so I was prepared in case I got lost. I’d checked the distance from there to the summit and calculated the distance reading that I’d see when I got back. In the event, I didn’t need it as I recognised a few other landmarks. The snow was deep enough that I could descend quite quickly with fear of slipping but as we got lower and the snow thinned it became much more treacherous underfoot. Even Rufus was experiencing four paw slips and slides.

Then we started coming across a whole new set of people coming up. Just like there is a snow line, so there is a line below which the people you encounter are predominantly casual walkers out for a stroll. There are several ways to spot them. The lack of back packs or any proper walking kit, the ‘sprint-rest-spring-rest’ way they go rather than the slow but steady gait of the experienced walker. But the thing that annoys me the most is the manners. In my experience, a cheery ‘morning’ will always get some kind of response from a fellow walker. It usually results in a chat about conditions, previous hills and how much better it is to be on a windswept mountain in a hail storm than shopping. But the casual walker rarely responds, and if they do it is normally little more than a grunt.

I tested it today and greeted everyone I met with ‘morning’. At the top of the hill, in the worst conditions, we had several conversations and Rufus had a lot of attention. But as the snow thinned and the morning wore on, the responses got less and less until last last few, who didn’t even acknowledge my existence. But many of the people I came across below the snow line were wearing jeans, light macs and trainers. I only hope they would have the sense to turn back when the going got difficult.

We reached the car just over 2hrs after we left it. We got home around 45 minutes later and the snoring began some 10 minutes after that.

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Seeking the snow

After yesterday’s cultural extravaganza, today was back to normal for a weekend. A short lie in, swift breakfast and a quick drive up to the mountains, which were still snow covered. We went back to Garreg Lwyd.

Last week, the deep snow and bitterly cold wind cut short our wanderings. This morning, despite much of the snow still lying on the ground, the weather was much better. For a start, the bitter wind was a mild breeze, and the sun was warmer. On closer inspection, there was less snow, too.

We set off on a much clearer path. The frozen snow crunched beneath my feet but once again Rufus was able to trip lightly on the frozen crust. He edged ahead of me and as I huffed and puffed up the slope, he darted here and there as if to highlight his superior energy levels.

As we got higher up, so the covering of snow thickened until we were walking over the broken rocks and boulders that normally create problems when trying to pick a way through them. And then we were on the flat summit with the cairns ahead.

By now, the sun was quite warm and I regretted my choice of insulated jacket. I noticed that Rufus, even with his shorter hair, was starting to feel the effects of the sun and for the first time in ages, he drank when I offered him water. At the cairns, we paused for a break and to enjoy being on a mountain. So often, I tend to head to a summit only to head back down again and there sometimes isn’t an opportunity to just enjoy. Today, it was lovely on Garreg Lwyd and I took the time to appreciate the views.

It was clear at the top, and to the south I could see the wind farm we often visit. In the little valleys beyond, there was the remains of a morning mist lingering. To the north, the Carmarthen Fans were white and very mountain-like, while to the west I could just make out the white tops of the Preseli mountains. To complete the panorama, in the east Pen y Fan and Corn Du stood out against the horizon. We’ve climbed them all.

Off we went down into the valley between Garreg Lwyd and Foel Fraith. The path was indistinct at first and it was a case of trying to pick a route between the bigger boulders, and hoping the snow wasn’t too deep. Of course, in places it was and several times I sank up to my knee as the top crust gave way. Once again, Rufus sprang daintily from snow drift to snow drift and hardly noticed the tough going I was experiencing.

The walk to Foel Fraith isn’t my favourite part of this route. It’s long and usually boring, although today the snow gave it more of an interesting feel. The frozen marsh and streams were most welcome, as wet boots are another pet hate of mine. Soon we were climbing up to the top of Foel Fraith and the Carmarthen Fans came into view again. I’ve noticed that in previous blogs I’ve spoken about continuing the walk on the Picws Du – something I was thinking this morning. I have yet to do it, though, and it would more than double the route length.

We stopped on Foel Fraith and after I’d taken some photographs and Rufus had eaten some snacks, I threw snowballs for him. He seemed to have learned that they are cold, because he didn’t make an effort to catch them as he normally does. Instead he sprinted over to where they fell, took a few sniffs to make sure they were the right blobs of snow, and then watched me eagerly for the next one. All the while, he was keen to show me how much more fit he was than me.

Then it was time to turn around and we retraced our steps back to the top of Garreg Lwyd before detouring across the summit towards the quarry. We made our way down the steep slope and into the little dips and cuttings where, in the past, limestone was taken to be used on farms and in industry. Given the conditions, even today, I can’t imagine what it must have been like to work here every day.

We finally reached the car about two and a half hours after we set off, feeling energised and exercised.

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The day after yesterday

Yesterday was the opening game of the 2015 Six Nations rugby tournament, with England beating Wales at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. I watched the game on TV from my personal box, with a strong cup of tea by my side. I live life on the edge.

This morning, I took the early train to Cardiff as I wanted to visit the museum to see an exhibition on early photography. More of that later. The train was empty, despite being an Intercity service going to London. When I got to Cardiff, I found that it, too was quiet. The only people around seemed to be the people heading off to open up and run shops. It was clear that everyone else was indoors, recovering from the night before.

It was cold and grey in the capital, and after a reviving cup of coffee, I set off for Jessops, the photographic retailer. After they went bust a few years ago, the brand was sold and a few of the shops were reopened. Cardiff has such a store. I ended up having a chat with one of the salesmen there as it turned out he went to college in Swansea, where I was a technician in the photography department. We shared some stories and caught up with the whereabouts of some of the tutors. It was a breath of fresh air, and there was no sense of sales pitching at all. I always liked the staff in Jessops, and I’m glad the brand has been resurrected.

Then it was on to the museum and straight to the exhibition. A large proportion of the displayed photographs were from or by John Dillwyn Llewelyn and his sister, Mary. JDL was an early pioneer of photography in Britain and was a contemporary of Fox Talbot, to whom he was related by marriage. His earliest images date back to 1840. His mansion at Penllegare was the centre of his photographic endeavours, and the house and grounds feature often as subjects. If you go along to Penllegare Woods to day (and you should, it’s a great place to visit), you can see many of the places and subjects JDL photographed. The mansion, sadly, is gone and the beautiful ornamental gardens are over grown but volunteers are working to restore parts of the grounds to their former state.

Some of the images on display were from the 1850s and it was amazing to see people staring out from 164 years ago. There were familiar sights – Caswell and Three Cliffs Bay, Tenby, Swansea docks and, as mentioned, Penllegare woods.

In the early days of photography the film wasn’t sensitive enough to freeze any kind of motion, so there are photographs of sailing ships in Swansea docks where their movement on the water has blurred the masts and completely hidden the rigging. It meant that people sitting for portraits had to stay motionless for up to several minutes. Neck braces were used to help keep people still. Some of the pioneering work JDL was doing was developing more sensitive films, cutting the exposure time to seconds and making possible more natural looking poses

Other photographers were represented too, some amateur, some professional. The images ranged from studio portraits to reportage and historical records. Some of the equipment and cameras used by JDL and his contemporaries were on display too. The early cameras were crude wooden boxes that weren’t immediately identifiable as photographic tools.

I enjoyed the exhibition and the fascinating insight to the early days of photography it gave. I wish there had been more photographs on display, though.

Looking Forward.

Thank you for putting up with my retrospective over the last couple of weeks or so. It’s time to move on. So while my mind gently returns from the African Plains and dreams of climbing Mt Kenya and Mt Kilimanjaro again, the rest of me has been getting on with life, and my local hills.

Last week we took a longer than planned stroll around the hills north of the Upper Lliw reservoir. It’s an open area of low, rolling hills that surrounds the reservoir on three sides. To the east is Brynllefrith plantation, and you have travelled there with us before. To the north is Mynydd y Gwair and the wind turbines recently installed there (you’ve been there with us too).

It was the western hills that we hadn’t visited before, and after walking along the edge of the plantation, we ducked under a fence, crossed a little stream feeding the reservoir and squelched our way up along a muddy quad bike track until we were on the western side looking down on the forest. With the weather threatening to get wet very quickly, we headed back to the car and managed to reach it’s shelter as the rain came in.

Today was an opportunity to seek the snow once again. The weather forecast was favourable and we set off for The Black Mountain north of Brynamman. As soon as we got onto the mountain road, it was clear it had been snowing here recently. The dark road surface turned white in minutes as we climbed higher. It’s a twisting road and although the drop isn’t far or steep, leaving the road would guaranteed being stuck. So I took it easy on the slush and ice and only briefly thought how much more appropriate the Freelander would have been here.

That said, we had no trouble reaching the car park near the Foel Fawr quarry. I did have a slight problem getting out of the car, as the string wind tried to shut the door on me. But I managed to extract myself and Rufus and while he went to check on the snow, I kitted up for the bitter cold. Since he had his haircut, I’ve been careful to keep an eye on Rufus to check he doesn’t get too cold. Today was no exception.

We set off up the white hillside. There were no clues as to where the path was but I’ve been up here a few times so it didn’t worry me too much. The snow had a frozen crust and at first it made the going much easier. But as we climbed, the snow got deeper and the crust gave way with a disconcerting suddeness so that my boots sank up to the laces. For the most part, Rufus managed to walk across the top of the snow without sinking, but every now and then he’d drop a couple of inches as the crust gave way.

I noticed that although I was wading through the snow, my boots weren’t wet and the snow wasn’t sticking to Rufus’ fur. It was frozen and later I found I couldn’t make proper snowballs either. Rufus seemed to be having fun, charging off in all directions but I found the going hard. I had loaded my back pack up with some extra weight for the exercise, and I was beginning to feel it’s effect.

We climbed slowly over rough, rocky ground made more treacherous as the gaps between the rocks were hidden by snow. But we made it and eventually we dealt with the steepest bit and the slope rapidly slackened until we were walking on the rocky, barren top leading to the summit cairns and trig point of Garreg Lwyd. Being flat, it was also windswept but unusually, it was also clear and sunny. Most times I’ve been here, there has been a thick mist and I can’t remember the last time I saw the cairns from further than a few metres away.

Walking to the cairns felt like walking in the barren north. Snow had built up in the lee of the rocks and boulders, and had drifted into little gullies. Being a limestone environment, there were many sink holes and dips and while some were visible, others I only discovered when my feet sank into them. Rufus seemed to have a sense of where they were and I should have followed him to avoid them.

At the cairns, we stopped for a few minutes for a snack and a brief respite from the cutting wind. I love being on the top of hills and mountains and today was almost perfect, with blue sky, sun and plenty of snow and ice. The only negative was the wind. I noticed that when we stopped, Rufus back leg was shivering a bit. It happens sometimes when he stands awkwardly and also when he’s excited. But I decided not to take any chances and so we set off back towards the car.

Now we were walking into the wind and it made the going quite a bit harder. Rufus spent sometime walking behind me, sheltered from the worst of the gale. We stopped at a small cairn for a selfie before heading down over more broken rock until we left the worst of the wind behind. Then we slackened the pace and enjoyed the last few hundred metres through the remains of the limestone quarry.

The shelter of the car was most welcome and Rufus settled in the back as I got the heater going and we slipped and slid our way back down the mountain road.

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Looking Back II – Looking up.

This time last year I was fast asleep. No big deal, I had an early night. In a tent. Okay, January in a tent isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. At 4700m on the western slope of Kilimanjaro.

I can’t believe that it’s a year ago today I started the long and difficult slog up to the summit of Kibo. We were up at 10.30pm (7.30pm GMT as Tanzania is 3hrs ahead of us) for breakfast of porridge and more porridge and lashings of hot sweet coffee. I remember being fairly sharp the adrenaline was pumping at the thought of what was coming next. It was cold, and I’d worn several layers to bed so that the impact of the cold wouldn’t be too bad. I don’t recall it being a factor at the start.

We didn’t hang around. At 11.30pm we set off on a short but steep scramble over the rocks that surrounded the camp site before settling in to a steady plod along zig zags that led up the scree towards Gilman’s Point.

It got colder and colder. I went into a daze in which only the person in front of me existed. I saw a procession of lights coming up on a different route that looked like something out of Lord of the Rings. The moon sank below the horizon before we’d got half way up but Jupiter kept us company throughout the night. Every time we stopped for a break, I wanted to rest my head on my walking pole and sleep.

And then we got to Gilman’s point around 5.45am. It felt unreal and amazing at the same time. I celebrated with a wee down the drop we’d just walked up as payback for the cold and tiredness (the altitude makes you go much more frequently).

Sunrise was at 6.30am, just as we reached Stella Point. It was one of the most beautiful sights I’ve experienced – watching the sun rise over Mawenzi Peak and colouring the cloud layer way below us first a pink colour and then orange. It took me another 50 minutes to get to Uhuru Peak – the summit, at about 4.20am GMT. If I’m awake tomorrow morning at that time, I’ll be thinking about how I felt then. My journal, written about two hours later, lists the following to describe how I felt at the top:

“Rush to the head, relief, elation at achievement, happy, tired, a bit fuzzy due to the lack of oxygen, disorientated, in awe of the sunrise above the clouds, cold, aching limbs, pack weightless.”  I wrote that the effects of altitude seemed to disappear for a while.

Then we were descending and I think that is when the effects of altitude came back because the walk back to Stella Point passed in a blurry flash and suddenly I was charging down the slope trying to keep upright, to keep up with our guide and not to fall over. Equally as suddenly, Barafu camp came in to view and suddenly we were sat down in the sun warming up, fuelling up and staring at the top of Kilimanjaro some 1300m above us. The sudden increase in oxygen available made up for the fatigue and the packed 2nd breakfast (it was 9.20am local time) contained a real sausage! We stayed at Barafu for 90 minutes and then took another 90 minutes to descend another 1000m to Millennium Camp, which we reached at around 12.30.

I was fast asleep in my tent shortly afterwards and slept until they started using dynamite to excavate a toilet block some hours later.