Shangri La

Last August I trekked in the Himalayan mountains in the Ladakh region of Northern India. You can read about some of it here. We were partially defeated by the unseasonable weather – one of the increasing symptoms of Global Warming – although the whole experience was amazing. To give you a taster (and apologies if I’ve already bored you in person) we crossed 6 passes all around 5000m high, climbed a total of 5889m and walked more than 50 miles. Most of it in water, it seemed. We weren’t ab;e to summit the intended 6000m peak but we scaled the nearby 5700m Konga Ri.

One of the most memorable moments for me, and there were many, was on summit day when our guide spotted three animals in the distance. He was convinced they were wolves but footprints we came across later confirmed that they were Snow Leopards – a mother and two cubs. I have a grainy image of three dots on the snow slope which is my photograph of these rare creatures. I also saw Lammergeier Vultures, a Golden Eagle, Black Kites, Snow Cock, Blue Sheep (which are actually bluish grey mountain goats) and some of our little group were fortunate enough to see marmots in some of the many marmot holes we passed every day. The mountain environment we were immersed in was incredible too.

Inevitably, on the last day of the trek we talked about what was next. After we’d all got over the initial longing for a flushing, sit-down toilet that didn’t overflow in the rain, thoughts turned to what treks we would do next. In my mind I wanted to come back to Ladakh. By the time I’d got home and dumped everything in the washing machine, the new trekking brochure from Exodus was on my doorstep and 18 seconds later, I had found my next trek.

In the early spring, I’m off on a photographic adventure to get some snaps of the wildlife in the Ladakh region, with the aim being to photograph Snow Leopards. We will be accompanied by several wildlife expert guides who will scout ahead and spot for us. We’ll spend a week camping in the mountains at more than 4000m but this time there won’t be high passes or multiple river crossings. Instead we’ll be based in one spot and we’ll take shorter treks and walks to the places the spotters have identified as likely places to find the wildlife. Snow Leopards are incredibly rare – the number thought to be in the Ladakh region is in the low teens and the chance of spotting them will be low. But in our favour is the fact that it will still be winter in the mountains, and the Snow Leopards come down from their high altitude habitats to hunt during the winter months.

And so we come to the two factors that will certainly have an impact on the trek. Ladakh is high in the Himalayan mountains. Leh, the principal town of the region, is at 3500m and well within the zone in which altitude sickness can strike. In August I stepped off the plane at Leh airport and felt as if someone had taken all the air away. Pushing the trolley with 5 kitbags on from the luggage claim to the bus, perhaps 200yards, was exhausting. Climbing the stairs to my second floor room at the hotel (which was another 200m above the airport) with my backpack was exhausting. The local girls carrying my kitbag made it look easy, but when I offered to help, it was all I could do not to grind to a halt as I carried my bag along the corridor. The giggles from the young ladies were polite. The other element that threatens to curtail activities is the temperature. In August it was hot in Leh – 30+C. It was colder in the mountains, with negative numbers at night and during our blizzard day as the cold winds blew down the valleys from the snow covered mountain. But that was summer.

In winter, much of Ladakh is cut off from the rest of the world by land. Roads, which all have to cross high passes through the Himalaya, are blocked by snow and ice. Properly blocked; not with a light covering of snow which would bring the UK to a standstill, but with yards of deep snowdrift and frozen snow which no amount of gritting is going to cure. The only way in or out is by plane and the only reason the airport is open is because it’s a military base. I found a website the gives the weather in Ladakh. It offers a historical record as well so I thought I’d look at the weather last March as an indicator of what I can expect. The screenshot is below. But if you can’t wait, the good news is that on the day in question – mid way through the camping phase of our trip – the temperature ranged from -15c to -39c. Yup, those are little minus signs in front of the numbers. And we’ll be in tents.

I’ve been trying on my fleeces, down jacket, thermals and windproof jackets. All of them. At the same time.

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Do you ever get the feeling…?

Do you ever get the feeling that someone is trying to give you a hint?

“There’s been a change to your flights. You are now travelling with Virgin Atlantic as Jet Airways is no longer trading.”

“There’s bee a change to your flights. Please see the amended schedule.”

“There’s been a change to your flights. Please see the amended details.”

“Kashmir is in communication blackout, but it’s okay as Ladakh is still safe.”

Circumstances beyond anyone’s control have created a series of hitches, glitches and uncertainties that have made the run up to my latest trek rather like a stage of the Tour de France over cobbles in the rain and howling wind. Bumpy, uncomfortable and with the distinct possibility of a fall. Merde! When I think back to previous treks, I’m sure the build up wasn’t as challenging. Ok, so there was training on the Brecon Beacons in the winter for my second Everest Base Camp trip, battling gales and storms. I had to postpone Kilimanjaro when I injured my knee and when I resumed training, I got caught in a thunder storm on my last training walk in the mountains. There was last minute stress when I thought I needed a Yellow Fever jab to get into Tanzania. I even contemplated travelling to London to get one, as there weren’t available locally.

But this one! You may have read about the problems in Indian controlled Kashmir recently. Yep, Ladakh is right in the middle of Kashmir. The FCO and the local trek crew both confirm that it’s safe to travel there but there were moments when I was watching the news and thinking ‘really?’  Then, out of the blue, a strike by ground crew at Heathrow this week, with the promise of more to come. The strike was averted but a number of flights were canceled. Then more problems with British Airways IT systems caused delays and cancellations again. Now there are storms predicted for the airport this weekend. And it’s monsoon season in most of India (though not Ladakh, strangely).

And if you’ve been reading my Facebook output you’ll have noticed several posts about luggage weights. You may need a strong coffee and a pen and paper for the next bit and yes, I will be testing you at the end. The journey to the start of the trek involves two flights. An international one and a local flight. Both have weight limits on luggage, as you’d expect. Both are different with the internal flight weight limit being 15kg (8kg less than the international one). On the trek itself, there is a third weight limit for the porter’s load. It’s 3kg less than the internal flight limit. Simple, you say. Pack to the porter weight limit and all will be fine.

Well, yes, it would. But this trek involved a semi-technical climb of Dzo Jongo. For this I need a climbers helmet and harness, ice axe, crampons and crampon compatible boots and a thick down jacket. And my sleeping bag has to be rated to -10c. All of this stuff is heavy and bulky. In fact, all that kits comes to nearly 8kg. But to help a little, the technical kit (but not the jacket and sleeping bag) will be carried separately from the start of the trek, so suddenly I have an extra 4kg to play with.

Packing has been very much a compromise. I have learnt not to skimp on the warm stuff so although I have a lighter insulated jacket, the bigger one is coming with me as summit night will be cold. I wore it on Kilimanjaro and despite also wearing thermals, two fleeces and a windproof jacket, I could feel the cold. It’s surprising how much waterproofs, fleeces, thermal base layers and socks weight. I may not change my socks every day (sorry for handing you that thought) but from previous experience, the really bad smelling won’t start until we return to normal altitude as the bacteria can’t grow in low oxygen environments (I hope, I really hope). As long as I can seal them in bags, I’ll make it home without being accused of attempting biological warfare.

So, after all the planning and weighing and repacking and reweighing, my kitbag should now be around 15kg which means it will sail through the international flight and with fingers crossed that my scales are accurate, pass through the internal flight. But just when you though it was safe to relax, I have to tell you that my kitbag currently weights 21kg!

“Has he gone mad?”

No more than usual. I’m taking a load of donations for a local school that Exodus, the company I’m travelling with, support. They do this at all the destinations they run treks in and I think it’s a fantastic scheme. I have the spare capacity and so I’ve packed pens, pencils, geometry sets, paper, socks, toothpaste and tooth brushes. These will be taken from me at Delhi before the internal flight. I’ve also put more things from my carry on luggage in the kitbag to make boarding and leaving the plane much easier. Once in the hotel, I’ll have to do a lot of repacking to even out the weights (the back pack will be maxed out with camera gear).

Compared to all this, the physical training was simple.

The test: What is the international flight weight limit for my kit bag?

Onwards and Upwards

Since I wrote about the plans for my next adventure, a lot has happened. Most of it high up on the hills around my home, or on the mountains for North Wales, as you’d expect perhaps. But some of it has happened behind the scenes at base camp, also known as my house.

Some of the major happenings have been to do with getting to India in the first place, always key to a trek like this. I was due to fly on Jet Airways, as I have done with my adventures in Nepal. But earlier this year the trekking company changed flights, risking my bus plans as we migrated to Virgin. Now I know why, as recently Jet Airways has ceased to trade. The next hurdle was the Indian Visa. Unlike Nepal, it has to be obtained in advance so I headed off for the website and began.

If you’ve ever taken part in a pub quiz, you know that sometimes they can go on a bit. Just when you thought it was time to hand your answers in, round 17 comes along and it’s about countries of the world. It was a very similar feeling and although none of the questions were hard (spoiler alert – I passed), there were a lot of them. And round 17 was, indeed, about countries of the world that I had visited. I had to list everywhere I had been in the last 10 years. And I was surprised to find when I compiled the list that I’d been to a lot of places, even after I’d discounted England and Scotland as separate countries. I just hoped that none of them would preclude my entry into India.

I always try and book travel to and from the airport in advance to take advantage of cheaper fares, but I have to balance this with the likelihood of last minute changes. Fortunately, the change in airlines came just before I booked the coach tickets. Not only were the flight times altered, but the departure and arrival terminals changed too. Alas, cheap fares were now out of the question as I had to buy two separate tickets top accommodate the different start and finish points. At least my hotel room remained the same. I always stay overnight on returning to the UK as it saves having to deal with delayed flights and missed connections. And in my experience, the last thing I want to after spending 12hrs plus travelling is to battle my way with a heavy kit bag and back pack to a distant bus stop in the inevitable cold and rain of a British summer.

And while all of this paperwork and administration is going on (I left work to get away from that kind of thing), I still had to bring my fitness levels up to a high standard. So the last thing I would want to get would be, say, shingles.

I got shingles. By the time I realised there was something amiss and went to the doctor, it was too late to take any medication (which, apparently is pretty horrendous and not very effective) and so I had to let it take it’s course. Which wasn’t pleasant (although I think I may have had a mild form) and kept me off the hills and away from the exercise bike during some reasonably nice weather. But at the beginning of April, I was starting to feel ‘normal’ again and the hills started in earnest.

I wanted to test my level of fitness to see what I needed to work on and so a trip to Snowdonia was called for. My plan was to climb Snowdon via the Llanberis path – a long but steady route – carrying a backpack weighing a little more than it would on the trek itself. I’d decided 7kg would be the pack weight on average so I loaded up with about 8kg (a little more to start with in the form of water) and managed the route in about 4.5 hours – an hour quicker than I’ve done before. But the measure of fitness isn’t just speed – it’s recovery time and so the following day I chose a harder route up to Glyder Fach via Capel Curig. It promised to be challenging underfoot, with steep climbs but with long sections of more enjoyable high level walking. Despite the steep bits (which were really steep), boggy marsh and my heavy backpack, I made it to the top of Glyder Fach (which translates rather disappointingly as ‘small pile of rocks’) still able to breathe and move. More importantly, I had done two major peaks in two consecutive days and I felt my fitness was pretty good.

As a further test, on my way home the next day I climbed Crimpiau, a hill at the end of the Ogwen Valley with stunning views back to Tryfan and the Glyders. Although it was half the height of the mountains I’d been on, it was still a good test of fitness and I felt energised and ready for the long journey home.

Back at base camp, I decided to have another go at packing. One of the problems with trekking in general is the varying luggage weight limits and the inevitable bulk and mass of technical kit. My flight weight limit is 22kg plus 7kg hand luggage. My internal flight weight limit is 15kg plus 7kg but the weight limit for porters is 12kg. My first test pack of the kitbag was 18kg. Even allowing for leaving some travelling clothes at the hotel, I’d probably be 2kg over the internal flight limit and a full 5kg over the porter limit.

The main weight came from four essential items – the sleeping bag (rated to a necessary -23C), ice axe, crampons and harness. Nothing to save there, so I set about paring back the base layers, socks and toiletries to a minimum. By the time I’d finished, I was down to 15kg but I couldn’t see where I was going to gain the extra 3kg for the trek itself. I re-read the luggage guidance and there was a paragraph I’d missed before. It said that the technical kit for climbing Dzo Jongo would be carried directly to base camp while we trekked a longer route to acclimatise. I re-packed, leaving out the offending items and suddenly the bag was only 11kg. Relief all round.

More training awaits and I expect I’ll be out on the Brecon Beacons quite a lot over the next few months.

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What now?

Five years ago, I wrote about a plan to climb a trekking peak in the Himalaya. At the time I knew of only two – Mera Peak and Island Peak, both in the Nepal Himalaya. I’d met a guide on the flight out to Everest Base Camp who was climbing Island Peak, and our guide, a mountaineer from the UK, was talking about running an expedition to the same mountain. Nothing came of that, but I was interested.  I did some research to see what was involved. Not surprisingly, money was involved. An expedition to Island Peak (on the way to base camp) or Mera Peak (off to the east) was a 20 day + trek with acclimatisation days and bad weather days built in. While neither mountain required technical climbing skills, both required technical kit (ice axe, crampons, climbing harness and helmet) and the ability to use them. I couldn’t afford everything in one go, and I’d need time to prepare, so I decided to collect bits of kit in sales and using special offers to keep the costs down.

I saw this as a long term challenge because I would have to get much fitter than I had for Everest Base Camp, and would be reaching 7-800m higher than base camp, around 6200m. It gave me something to aim for. My decision to climb Kilimanjaro was mostly to see how I got on at those kinds of altitudes, and whether I could reach the level of fitness needed to consider going higher. I got to the top of Kili, and it was hard going. But I got there, the effects of altitude were manageable, and I enjoyed (most of) it.

Onwards and upwards, as they say. Except that circumstances changed and I inherited a Rufus. As part of welcoming him in as a permanent member of my life, I promised not to leave him for any length of time (and after a few days where he stayed at a kennel and was thoroughly miserable the whole time, not to leave him at all). I knew that the day would come when he wouldn’t be with me any more and I wanted us to have a great time together. We had four amazing, adventurous years together which I wouldn’t have exchanged for anything.

After he left me, and thanks to the fitness which I had maintained thanks to a demanding hound keeping me honest, I was able at short notice to climb Jebel Toubkal in Morocco. One of the big attractions of this mountain was that I would get two days of ice axe and crampon training and experience, which brought me back on track with my plan to summit a 6000m peak. One day of sliding down mountains practicing ice axe arrests (“Is this your ice axe, sir? I’m afraid I shall have to take it into custody”) and stomping about jamming crampon spikes into 45 degree ice and another of putting it all into practice climbing the mountain itself. I found it harder than expected because we didn’t have much chance to acclimatise (1700m to 3200m in one day and 3200m to 4160m the next when the recommended safe ascent is 300m per day). But it was (mostly) as enjoyable as Kili.

I started to look at trekking peak again and found that there were more than two, and they weren’t all in Nepal. In Morocco, I had been talking to a fellow trekker who was thinking about climbing Stok Kangri in the Northern Indian Himalaya. Then I found out that the company I trek with (Exodus) were offering a new trek this year to the same region as Stok Kangri, but to a peak called Dzo Jongo. I liked the idea of a new trek (I’ll be on the first commercial running of it) and that it is generally a much quieter mountain than the more famous ones.

Dzo Jongo (not the best name for a mountain – Crag Hard, Ben Nochance and Mount Doom are all better) is 6180m high. Or 6280m according to some websites. Hopefully it’ll be sorted by the time I go. It requires no mountaineering skills but I will probably be roped up to the others during the final summit traverse along a snowy ridge. At the time of year I’m going, the plastic, highly insulated high altitude boots that would normally be needed to cope with the temperatures are not required. Since they cost between £500-800, a significant fraction of the cost of the trip, that’s good news. I’ve still had to invest in a climbing helmet (the risk of rockfall is present) and a climbing harness (which looks like a prop left over from one of the ’50 Shades’ movies) but both were discounted in New Year sales so I saved quite a bit. I have my ice axe and crampons, so the expensive stuff is already out of the way.

Getting all this stuff to Ladakh in Northern India will be fun. As a friend pointed out this week, ‘you’re carrying a sharp pick axe, spikes and bondage equipment to a remote part of India – good luck with that’. Having learnt from previous treks (particularly Kili), I know that I will initially over pack. Bearing in mind this is a high altitude trek (average altitude for the 16 days is  4500m), bacteria doesn’t grow in the low oxygen environment and so it’s perfectly hygienic to wear underwear and clothes for several days at a time. It’s a camping trek, so the important things are a good sleeping bag and a working inflatable mattress – the former I have and can confirm is so warm even in -10c conditions that it is almost impossible to leave for a wee break in the early hours. The latter I have now, my previous one refusing to inflate during the Kili trek and allowing me to feel every pebble of the mountainside.

So all that’s really left now is getting fit. Really fit. There are many hills and mountains to come. I’m sure you’ll hear about some of them.

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Smooth as a baby’s

The things I do for fun. Two days to go before I fly off to climb Kilimanjaro. This evening was shaving evening! I’ve had a beard for just over two years, mainly because I hate the inevitable shaving rash I used to get when wet shaving (an electric razor never did it for me). But I have to look like my passport photo so I decided to shave the beard off.

Me with full beard

Beard

I’ve grown (grown, ha ha! Groan,) used to my beard now and I even let it grow over Christmas until I found coffee and bread crumbs from breakfast still there when I got to work. I trimmed it back again to what you see above. I set to work with shaving cream, two razors and hot water.

10 minutes later, I was at the goatee stage.

Me with goatee

Weird

I was alternately soaking one razor and using the other. It still took ages to get the long bristles off. I kept scraping but the razor was being deflected over the longer hairs. Still, eventually after another 15 minutes, I managed to get the Mexican Bandit look.

Me with moustache

Village people

If you’ve ever seen the episode of Top Gear where they make an intro for a 70’s action hero show (with a Reliant Scimitar as the main car) you’ll recognise this style of moustache. By now, all the scraping was taking a toll on my skin and my upper lip always suffers the worst. But the temptation to leave the mo’ was countered by the inevitable comparison to Village People. So the scraping continued.

After another 15 minutes, it had almost all gone and I’d had enough.

Clean shaven

16 again

 

As I’m writing this, I can feel a gentle waft of air on my upper lip. It’s stinging too. The double chin that the beard hid is still there but I was looking up slightly at the camera (there are some benefits to being a photographer – I know the tricks to hid the undesirable bits).

It’s as smooth as a baby’s bum,. apart from the bits where the blade was obviously blunt, which is as smooth as a piece of sandpaper.  

www.justgiving.com/DaveFarmer0304. It’s got to be worth it just to see the mo’!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The last misty mountain

Including today, I have five days left before I fly out to Tanzania and try to get to the top of Kilimanjaro. Today was the last realistic opportunity to get some hill training in. At least that’s what Rufus was telepathically transferring into my head. I know it was him because I also had an overwhelming urge to fill my back pack full of doggy treats.

So after breakfast and a swift patrol of the garden, we were off and very quickly at the start of the path over Moel Feity and to Llyn y Fan Fawr. Last time we were heading in this direction, we ended up scurrying back to the car in the middle of thunder and lightning and a tremendous hail storm. Today, the weather couldn’t have been more different. It was cold and clear and a golden glow from the just risen sun brought out the yellows and oranges in the grass and it was as if we were walking on a brick red carpet. Albeit a soggy one.

We made our way up onto Moel Feity, stopping to tidy up the memorial to the American bomber crash. Wind had scattered some of the poppies and I placed them back on the small cairn, weighted down with stones. Then it was off down the other side and up the hill to the lake. By now, Fan Brecheiniog was covered in a fluffy cloud hat and for a moment I had to look twice to make sure it wasn’t another thunder cloud. That day still haunts me. But it wasn’t and we reached the lake relatively dry.

After a stop to refuel, during which I had the urge to sacrifice my Snickers to Rufus (which I only just managed to overcome), we started the steep trudge up on to Fan Brecheiniog itself. As we climbed, the cloud lifted so that by the time we were on the top, there was a light haze covering the ridge. Ahead, a huge aerial stucjk up from the stone shelter and as we passed I heard the distinct nasal clip of someone speaker over a radio circuit. I’m not sure what was happening but the two guys with the radio were comfortable in the shelter. Rufus and I walked on to the end of the ridge and took a few selfies before we turned around and headed back down to the lake.

At the water’s edge, I sat and threw stones for Rufus to catch. This will be the last time we walk together for a while and I wanted to make sure that he had a bit of a play as well as a good long walk. There was much wagging of tail and barking, which suggested to me that he was having fun.

The two kilometres walk back to the car isn’t the best part of this route and we splashed, squelched and slipped our way back in about an hour. Rufus was reluctant, as usual, to jump up on to the back seat but he didn’t know what I knew – we were only going a mile down the road to the river. Or maybe he did know. Maybe it was his idea? Once he realised we were stopping again, he was stood up and ready to jump out. I parked by the side of the river so that he could have a proper paddle, and rinse some of the mud out of his paws.

We walked up and down the river bank until I found some stones and there followed a stone fest. I threw, he chased. He jumped, paddled, slipped, bathed and barked. His tail wagged so much that if it had been submerged it would have propelled him up against the flow of the water. A few times he made athletic leaps across to a stone in the middle of the river, only to leap back on to the bank again with equal grace. A lot of fun was being had. All too quickly it was time to leave and Rufus dried off in the back while I drove behind horses, tractors, cyclist and slow learner drivers back home.

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Just a little bit further

Yesterday was the last decent day, weather-wise, that would fit in with my training plan. I intend to wind down in the last week, concentrating on gym/cardio/aerobic exercise in a controlled environment to minimise the risk of injury. So Rufus and I headed out to Fan Llia. I had an idea that we’d walk Fan Llia and Fan Dringarth and then drop down to the east side of the Ystradefllte reservoir to make our way back to the car.

At the stile, Rufus struggled a little to get over so I gave him a helping hand. I may have helped a little too much, or he may have slipped but the next thing I knew, he was going head over heels to land in the mud on the other side. I jumped over but by the time I’d got to him, he was up, shaking himself down and wagging his tail. I kept an eye on him but there were no limps or winces, and we climbed steadily through mist and wind to the cairn on Fan Llia. There was a little drizzle but also a little sunshine as the clouds blew rapidly across the mountain. By the time we’d reached Fan Dringarth, the cloud was lifting again and there were large patches of blue sky.

Much to Rufus’ surprise (as he knows our normal route north well) I turned west to head down to the Nant y Gasseg and Nant y Gwair streams which join to form the Afon  Dringarth which feeds the reservoir. He was confused for a moment, and then he spotted the river, and there was no stopping him. I had to watch where I was stepping because of half buried rocks but every time I looked up, there was a small black shape bounding towards the water. By the time I reached the river, Rufus was wading and waiting for me. I threw stones stones and a stick for him to chase and he was a happy dog.

This little valley, Cwm Dringarth, has signs of habitation going back hundreds of years if not further. I saw the remains of sheep folds and other rough drystone structures. There were obvious and not so obvious flattened platforms that once formed the base of dwellings for those farming in the valley. It must have been a bleak and hard life in the valley, although it;s likely that the climate was a little better and, of course, the reservoir wasn’t there and so access would have been much easier.

The going along the side of the valley was tough for me as I had to avoid the river itself and negotiate many little streams that had cut deep into the hillside. I seemed to be climbing up and down all the time, while Rufus used the riverbank and riverbed to make smooth progress. Walking on a slope was hard too; my feet were always at an angle and my left leg was slightly lower than my right. Between us, we managed to make our way along the valley, through mud and bog, until we reached the reservoir.

It was fenced off, which was very disappointing for Rufus who looked longingly at the water through the railings. But eventually, he realised a dip was not to be and carried on, only occasionally glancing across to see if there was a convenient gap in the fence. Streams coming down from the hills were in full spate after the rain and they had cut deep channels in the soft earth. Each had places where sheep had created crossings, but slipping and sliding down and back up again was hard going.

Eventually, we reached the dam at the head of the valley, and this was where in the past I’d crossed over to start the long climb back up to the cairn on Fan Llia. This time, the plan was to head on south, climbing more gradually as we went. By now, the blue skies we’d had for a while were beginning to cloud over again and with the prospect of more storms in the afternoon, we were at the right part of the route; nearly at the car.

False summits can be demoralising if you aren’t expecting them. I had an idea that the summit of the ridge ahead wasn’t the final one and I was right, so it wasn’t too disappointing. But as we got to it, the rain started. Light at first, it became heavier as we reached the real summit and started the last stretch down to the car park. Here the going was treacherous, with saturated ground beneath my feet running with water. I know from experience that this is slippery so I was very careful as I made my way down. Looking up, I saw Rufus disappearing into the reeds in the distance. I wasn’t worried but I wondered if he’s get lost and I’d have to call him to the stile. I decided to cross the fence early, at a point where some inconsiderate farmer has chained a gate shut. As I stepped onto the wooden platform leading to the gate, my feet went from under me on the slimy wood. I fell sideways to my left and managed to tear a fingernail off, bend another one back as I landed on my left hand. I lay on the wood and in slow motion, Rufus’ lead (an extending one, with a big plastic reel) flew around and hit my forehead. I may have sworn.

Giving up on the gate, I made my way down to the stile, where Rufus met me and proceeded to show me how crossing a stile should be done. Back home, we were both tired and when I checked the route, I found we’d walked 10km and climbed 400m, which was more than I had estimated. It was a good final workout for me, and judging by the near constant tail wagging during the walk, an enjoyable day for Rufus.

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Winding down

With 17 days to go until I fly out to Tanzania, there are a lot of things to do. I still have to train but having down the long walks, these will be shorter but more frequent tramps through the countryside. And Rufus has agreed to accompany me, which will be a great incentive and pleasant company.

This morning, I got the last of my dollars and had a nice chat with the young lady at the travel agent. She was fascinated by the up coming trek (she wasn’t trying to sell me anything I didn’t want, and the questions and her reactions seemed genuine). And somewhere between then and when I found myself on Cefn Cul with Rufus, it all became a step more real.

The walk today was partly to check out my knee after yesterday’s testing route. And it was fine. As we walked in the wind and occasional sunshine, I was trying to think about everything I need to do before I set off on the 15th. I got the point where there were so many things (charge batteries, replace head torch batteries, redirect mail, online check-in etc) that I realised I need to make a list. I did this for my first trek, too, and stuck it on the fridge door. It even included ‘switch off lights’ as a last act before leaving the house.

The ground was soaking wet. It wasn’t so much mud as saturated ground. The water was running off in new rivulets  and where the going was flat, it sat in clear pools. Most of the time I had no choice but to walk in the water. The end of the ridge came suddenly – with a fence. Although the whole ridge is access land, I didn’t climb it as the sun was going down and I wanted to get back before we got a drenching from the clouds that were forming ahead of us. So we turned around and splashed our way back.

I left the path we followed to drop down to the road a little earlier and that was a big mistake. Off the path, the ground was uneven and full of holes and little channels where water had dug away at the earth. It made the walking much harder and I was staring at the ground the whole time. And I still managed to twist my left ankle and then turn my right one. I was fortunate not to injure either ankle but it’s a risk of continuing to train. I have no choice but I must be more careful.

Rufus doesn’t seem to have any problem with ruts and dips. He trots, dashes, walks and jumps along without a care. As we were crossing through a patch of high grass, he was bounding with leaps as sure footed as any mountain goat. He despatched the inevitable stile with ease, too.

I’m waiting to see what the weather forecast is for tomorrow before deciding on our day’s activity. The one thing I know is that there will be no lie-in. Rufus will see to that!

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Not another mountain?

The weather forecast for today was the best for the next few days or so and I had to get another long walk in before the trek. So there wasn’t any choice about getting out on to the hills today. I had an early night and was cooking breakfast at 7am. I haven’t had a cooked breakfast for ages, and this was very much a whim, so it wasn’t complete (no hash browns or mushrooms) but it was most welcome. Outside, a crescent moon shone in a clear sky. I defrosted the windscreen and set off.

My plan for today was to walk the same route over Fan Llia and Fan Fawr as two weeks ago. I wanted to get the pacing right and I estimated it would take between 5½ and 6 hours. I set off just before sunrise and was grateful for the frozen ground; what would have been boggy and unpleasant walking was actually quite easy going thanks to the layer of frost providing a firm base.

I was soon at the cairn on Fan Llia. It usually take me 45 minutes and I was hoping, by adjusting my pace, to take a little longer. I did it in 43 minutes! Some work needed there. The morning was cold and clear; The sun rose and lit up Fan Nedd opposite, and started to warm up the air. Snow covered all the summits I could see and as I walked along, I lost all track of time. Over Corn Du, a faint whisper of cloud partially obscured the top and similarly with Fan Brecheiniog. The mountains themselves were causing the clouds to form.

By the time I got the Craig Cerrig Glesiad, I was feeling pretty good and so I decided to detour over to Fan Frynych. The route is only 20 minutes off the track, but there’s a bit of a dip and then a climb. The area is full of old limestone and other mining remains and a bright white trig point which has had a Welsh dragon painted on its side since the last time I was here.

By now there was a little bit of cloud overhead, and I set off back to rejoin the main route and head over to Fan Fawr. Last time I was here, there was a thick mist making route finding hard, but today it was clear and I was able to choose a lightly drier path. For 40 minutes I trudged over featureless moorland before I reached the slopes of Fan Fawr, white with snow. I sheltered for a few minutes by a convenient rock and chatted to a couple of walkers who passed by. They were on their way to the Mountain Centre but as far as I could tell on the map, they were a fair distance from it.

After a few minutes break, I set off up the side of Fan Fawr. This is the highest point on this route and it’s a relentless slog up the side of the hill. The snow, obscuring the little paths and tracks, made the going slippery and robbed me of any little landmarks to help me gauge when to turn up the hill. In the end, I followed the path I used last time, which was hard work in the snow. But eventually, I got to the top to find a completely white landscape with a myriad of footprints – human and animal – milling about near the summit.

A wind was blowing now and it was cold. In the distance, clouds were appearing on the horizon. These were more than light mist from the hills and I guessed that before long there would be rain. I set off along the top of Fan Fawr and down to the Ystradfellte reservoir. This is a tough and steep downhill section but the views across the reservoir to Fan Llia are wonderful. Unfortunately, I was looking at the steep climb up to Fan Llia’s cairn which was waiting for me once I’d crossed the dam. The reason I chose this route was for the climb at the end – it’s a psychological challenge and in the past I’ve found it helps as part of the training to finish with a difficult section.

As soon as I started on the climb away from the reservoir, the dark clouds arrived. It started raining and I was a little apprehensive after recent experiences. Mist dropped down to hide the cairn I was aiming for. Over to my left, the clouds were dark but ahead they were lighter. Over to my right there was still some blue sky. But that quickly disappeared in the mist too. The final 10 minutes of climb were completed in a familiar grey world.

At least the heavy rain didn’t materialise and once I’d reached the cairn, the mist lifted a little so I could see the path back to the car. A quick descent to the river followed, hindered only by boots which were working themselves loose despite me tightening the laces up. I have to replace those laces – another lesson learned – part of the reason for doing these walks.

At the car, I tucked in to ham sandwiches before heading home.

Today’s walk was 20.6km with 829m of climb, all achieved in 6hrs 45 minutes.

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Walking off the turkey

Boxing day and I had eaten too much Christmas dinner, too many Green & Blacks chocolates and too much Turkish delight. There was only option left to me. Walk it off.

After Tuesday’s experience, I was a little apprehensive of going back onto the hills. But I knew I had to so that it didn’t become a permanent worry, and I knew I needed the training time. So after checking the mountain weather forecasts (low risk of thunder storms), I headed off to the Storey Arms and the start of the path to Corn Du. The weather was looking good – sun and blue sky at the start and low cloud on the hills themselves. No sign of high winds or hail, and the western sky was clear of storm clouds.

I set off on the snowy and slippery path. Immediately, I passed another walker who had stopped to put crampons on. My ice grips were at home – they’re in the back pack now – but I didn’t really feel I needed them. Although the path was icy, there were plenty of protruding rocks to give me grip and I knew that if the ice got worse I could walk on the snowy grass at the side and be okay. In no time, I was on the top of the first hill, looking down at the swollen stream and the climb up to Corn Du. I was passed by four walkers here, and two a little further on. I was setting my own pace (I’m aiming for around 3kph) and so being passed never worries me. There was no sign of the crampon man (and I didn’t see him the whole time I was on the hills).

The visibility dropped as I climbed into the clouds and with the thick snow that now covered the path, it was hard to see where I was going or how far I’d come. For a while I could see the two guys ahead of me but they disappeared into the cloud as they pulled ahead and then I was on my own. It doesn’t worry me – I like the solitude, but I felt a couple of twinges of unease as I thought back to Tuesday. But the cloud above me was too bright to be thick and I knew from previous experience that this was just a mist. The unease eased off.

Soon I came to the junction of paths that lead from the Storey Arms and from Pen Milan. At this point the climb up to Corn Du steepens so I usually take a moment to catch my breath and enjoy the northerly views. There were no views this morning, but I took a break anyway. I checked the path up and there were faint traces of the sides of the route.The main part, stones laid down by volunteers from the National Trust, was covered in a layer of snow around 8″ deep that had drifted into the channel. I chose to walk on the side, where the going would be much less tiring. In no time, the bulk of Corn Du loomed out of the mist and I waded through knee deep snow to reach the summit.

It was much easier to get to this time as there was little wind blowing. The top was white but the snow wasn’t deep here; it had been blown elsewhere by what wind there was. I spent a few minutes here before heading across to the drop and path to Pen y Fan. Just before I left the summit, I was joined by two more walkers. It was getting a little busy compared to when I’m here normally.

The wind dropped completely between the two mountains, and I could clearly hear someone talking on their phone. I couldn’t see them, though, until I walked on quite a bit when a red jacket suddenly appeared to my right and lower down.

Pen y Fan was similarly windswept and I reached the cairn in near whiteout conditions. Two people stood taking photos of each other. I turned around to go back and dropped down behind Corn Du. The snow was knee high again here and it took me about 10 minutes to make may way around until I got tot the path that heads down to Pont Ar Daf. In that time, I must have passed about 15 people. It was a popular place.

The path down was smooth with snow but not as slippery as it looked. I’m getting to the point, with 20 days to go to the trek, that I am paranoid about getting an injury. At this stage, anything serious enough to stop me training might well stop me from going. So I was careful where I stepped and took it easy. In the 30 minutes or so it took me to get down, I must have passed around 50 people. There were solo walkers, families with kids, pairs, trios, and one largish group. It was interesting to note that on the way up, everyone I passed responded to my ‘good morning’. On the way down, apart from one or two at the very top, few gave me more than a second glance as I greeted them. I’ve seen this before. It seems that genuine walkers are friendlier that the weekend strollers.

I was also amused to see a couple gingerly making their way down what was a fairly easy path at the bottom. She was holding on to him despite having a pair of walking poles. As I got closer, I spotted that while he was wearing the right kit, she was wearing trainers with worn soles. I have no sympathy for that lack of preparation and I hope she slipped and fell. (As I was driving back, the rescue helicopter flew over the car heading towards the hills. I expect it was some other unprepared fool being overconfident and risking the lives of others when it all went wrong).

Back at the car, the sun was shining once again and I drove down to a favourite location to take some photos of a tree by the river. I’ve been there several times and when the light is right, it’s a lovely place to stop and snap away.

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