Moel Siabod

Day two in Snowdonia and I was seeking out a new mountain to climb. I’d seen a route suggested in a magazine which appealed to me – Moel Siabod (roughly translated as ‘Shapely Mountain’) and this morning I set out even earlier than yesterday to get to the top. Once again it was bitterly cold in Nant Ffrancon but the sun was coming up fast and it promised to be another perfect walking day.

At the car park I compared routes with another walker who was just setting out. We both decided that scrambling (one option) wasn’t wise given the ice and frost but i knew there was a more traditional path running slightly to the left of the scramble route. With this as my first goal, I set off to cross the Afon Llugwy on an old single arch stone bridge. After a short detour down the wrong path, I finally found the lane leading onto the mountains. It was a steep, twisting tarmac farm track nestled between high hedges that restricted the view to some branches and many potholes. But just as I was getting bored, the lane pooped out and turned into a footpath that skirted the farm and led to a rougher track. But more importantly, ahead I could see the classic mountain shape of Moel Siabod. I could see how it had got its name.

For the next half mile or so, it dominated the view ahead and I had plenty of time to study the layout of the ridges and make an educated guess where the path I was looking for climbed to the top. The path led over several stiles until I was walking alongside the steepest part of the mountain. I came across the first of three lakes I was looking for. This one sat at the foot of a large spoil tip of broken slate. Above the lake were a number of ruined buildings made from stone; the remains of a slate quarry that had dug into the side of the mountain and excavated a deep hole which became the second lake. This was Moel Siabod Slate and Slab works, which operated from the early 19th Century until 1884.

Beyond this, the path climbed steeply for a few yards and water had seeped onto the ground and frozen in a solid sheet of ice. It was impossible to walk upon and I had to dance a few deft steps to avoid sliding back down the quarry again. Soon I was walking on more even ground, climbing steadily rather than quickly. Underfoot, the ground had been boggy and muddy but the cold temperatures had solidified most of it to make the going much easier and considerably drier.

I skirted the third lake and spotted a path leading up the side of the mountain. It was clearly the scramble route, so I avoided it and carried on looking for the adjacent path. About 15 minutes later, I started to wonder if I’d missed the start of the route up. I stopped to snack and drink and checked the map. The path on the map seemed to follow the scramble route and there was no other marked. I couldn’t see a path on the ground but the eye of faith spotted a faint route up following two slanting lines of rocks. With yesterday’s gully route in the back of my mind, I set off for a short but very steep climb up to the rocks. High above, the grey mass of the summit seemed miles away and I started a slow plod to gain height.

After about ten minutes, I looked up to see how far I’d gone and found the summit no closer. My legs were heavy after yesterday’s climb and I stopped for a breather and to take in the view behind me. A hazy vista lay before me, making the landscape difficult to identify. Occasionally, a shining rooftop or road surface cut through. I set off again, slower this time as the going was much steeper. There was no clear path to follow and I had to choose where I put my feet carefully as in places the way forward was more the 45 degrees. I checked my progress and the summit still seemed impossibly far away. The next ten minutes felt like an hour. I went slower and slower as my energy levels started to ebb and every time I looked up, it felt as if I’d gone backwards.

Eventually, I stopped to make the call whether to turn back. I didn’t know where I was in relation to the summit and I was clearly not on any well used path. I didn’t seem to be making any progress and my spirits were low. I had stopped enjoying the morning. I stared at the summit rocks and as I did I started to pick out details and began to realise that I was much closer to them than I had previously realised. There was nothing to suggest scale and so I hadn’t been able to judge distances but now I spent some time I could see little cracks, patches of snow and other subtle signs that said ‘I’m soooo close…’

This revelation gave me a little extra energy and I set off on the final push to the top. Within ten minutes, the slope had backed off and I could see a low wooden fence leading up ahead and off to the right. I looked up and the rocks I’d thought were miles away were within touching distance. But I still had to be careful; the way up the last few metres was across broken rock, all of which was white with frost and snow. I wobbled and slid my way over the uneven ground, wary of twisting an ankle at this late stage, and suddenly I was on the flat summit plateau with the trig point just above me on the right.

Moel Siabod is a great mountain. It has 360 degree views and I spent minutes just looking around, trying to identify the various snow capped peaks I could see sticking out above the haze. Ahead of me was a panorama of Welsh 3000ft mountains, ranging from Snowdon and Crib Goch, across to the Carneddau and the Gkyders, where I’d been yesterday. It was beautiful and tranquil and awe inspiring and it was everything I want a mountain top to be. Eventually, I recovered and started to take photos. It was warm up there, as it had been yesterday. Despite a slight breeze, the sun was warm and suddenly all the effort and doubts I’d had on the way up was forgotten. It was mostly white beneath my feet and there was a thick frost on the rocks around the trig point. Off to my right was the ridge I would have scrambled up and I guessed that the path I should have followed was much closer to the scramble route than I had expected.

All too soon it was time to head down. I had thought of going back the way I came but I chose instead to use the rest of the route as described in the magazine and head off on a circular path back to the car. I gingerly made my way over the frosty rocks and down onto a frozen grassy slope. This dropped me down very quickly but easily until I reached a deeply rutted path. This was filled with ice and snow and was harder to negotiate. Most accidents happen on the way down after the walker has become more confident and wants to get off the mountain quickly. I was very conscious of this as I stepped carefully to avoid ice and loose rocks. I stopped to chat with a couple from the Wirral who were spending the afternoon on the mountain. They often came up to North Wales and we agreed about how much better it was to have the mountain to ourselves rather than sharing it with hundreds of tourists as on Snowdon.

The walk back to the car was hot and towards the end, when the views had gone, long and lacking in interest. I made my way through the forest and across the river once again before walking the last half mile or so along the A5 to the car. On the way I looked back to see Moel Siabod, hazy in the distance, looking like a proper mountain between the trees.

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Glyder Fawr

The first time I climbed Glyder Fawr in Snowdonia, it was raining, misty, cold and miserable. The day before I’d climbed Snowdon via the Watkin path with friends I would later trek to Everest Base Camp with, and we’d done it as a training exercise and to get to know each other better. I got to the top of the Glyders twice more between 2007 and 2014. It was about time I went again.

The weather forecast was for clear, cold weather and I knew there would be some snow on the tops of the Snowdonia peaks. I was staying in Bangor and I reached the area in darkness the day before so I didn’t know exactly what to expect. I wasn’t to be disappointed. I set off from the car in a bitterly cold wind and walked along the A5 in the Ogwen Valley until I turned off at the visitor centre to make my way to Cwm Idwal. The last time I was here I was with Rufus, and we’d circumnavigated the lake with one of us paddling and splashing his way along the water’s edge and the other one, knowing his role, throwing stones. At one point Rufus had set off up the steep and winding steps that led into the Devil’s Kitchen route to Glyder Fawr. I’d had to stop him in the end as he was still recovering from a bout of Pancreatitis and I didn’t want him to over do things.

Today, I set off along the same route up into the narrow cleft in the sheer mountainside. From the lake, it’s very difficult to see the route and it looks as if ropes and climbing gear will be required. But close up there is a path amongst the jumble of rocks and boulders that have fallen from the cliffs, albeit one that fades in and out of clarity even as you are walking it. The steps from boulder to boulder are high and it makes for hard going as it’s difficult to get into a rhythm. This morning it was made harder by the ice that had formed where water was seeping onto the path and the verglas on the rocks , which was impossible to see. I only knew it was there when my boots failed to grip and I went flying. The first of three slips due to difficult conditions.

Behind me, Cwm Idwal and the lake slowly lit up and behind them, Pen yr Ole Wen shone brightly in the morning sun. Ahead, the shadows made spotting slippery rocks even harder. I plodded on slowly, straining to reach the next rock step and holding on it case it was icy. Around me, trickles of ice clung to rock faces and icicles threatened to drop as the sun began to melt them. Far below, I could hear the voices of walkers and climbers, mostly hidden by the twisting and confused path.

After what seemed like hours, but was just under and hour, I reached the first proper patch of snow. It was frost hardened and the steps of yesterday’s climbers provided good foot holds. Although I’d brought crampons with me, I hadn’t felt the need to use them as from the start point there seemed to be little snow on the mountain tops, and they were in the car. I carefully made my way across the snow and up to the dry stone wall that marks the end of the big steps and the transition to less steep inclines. Here there was more snow, which was easy to navigate and I was soon in the little cwm with the lake where I had planned to take a break and plan my route up onto the summit.

I sat and stocked up on calories, and the sun kept me warm as I scanned the side of the mountain looking for the path I’d used last time. I spotted a steep gully filled with scree and snow, which seemed the obvious path upwards and it was this that I made for to start the final ascent. The sun disappeared as I started and it went a little chilly. It was much steeper than I first thought and walking on scree was tiring. Some of it was frozen solid and this made progress a little better but every now and then, I’d step on a patch that had thawed and my footing would go. This section of the climb was just hard work without the rewards of new views and I found it very tough. It was difficult to find a stable spot to rest and so I tried to keep going to get it over and done with. As the slope began to ease, and as the sun popped back into view, I came across a large expanse of snow. It was too steep to walk safely on and I wished I’d brought the crampons. But I traversed to the right to an outcrop of rock and made my way along a snow free section until the slope eased off completely. Now all that was left was a short scrabble over rocky ground and the summit was mine.

These rocks, shattered by the repeated freezing and thawing of water in cracks, define the top of the Gylders. It’s an alien landscape of sharp, pointed crags in between which is a carpet of weathered stones. There was a thick frost of the rocks which made them treacherous but at least I could see the slippery patches and I was able to avoid them. To my right, Snowdon and Crib Goch stood out from the haze and to my left, beyond Glyder Fawr’s summit was Tryfan and Glyder Fach. I still had to be careful where I stepped but the summit is flat and it was pleasant walking in the bright, warm sunshine. Every now and then a wind would pick up but just as quickly it would drop again. I took my time walking between the towering crags, which all had snow piled up against them in deep drifts. Ahead, overlooking the Nameless Cwm, a long crescent of corniched snow overhung the vertical drop and I made sure to avoid going anywhere near it.

Without warning, a strong, cold Easterly wind started to blow and the top became much harsher. It was time to go back down. I followed roughly the route I’d taken up but avoided the steep gully by using the path I should have taken, which was longer but less steep and better underfoot. I managed to reach the cwm quickly and stopped to have a flask of soup to prepare me for the drop down through the Devil’s Kitchen again. By now there wwere lots of people making their way up and my descent was slowed by stopping to talk to people, to share the conditions on top and to generally chat about how fine a day it was. By the time I reached the path around the lake I was tired and aching but the worst of the descent was over. While I still had to be careful as the icy paths hadn’t thawed, I could spend more time enjoying the surroundings and appreciating how wonderful this place really is.

Just before I reached the main road, an RAF Hawk jet screamed over head as it negotiated the tight turn around Pen yr Ole Wen and headed off down the Nant Ffrancon valley towards Angelsey and its home. I trudged wearily back along the road and slumped into the car. It had been a long day. I’d been walking for more than 6 hours, covering 7.5 miles and climbing to just under 1000m.

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At last, Atlas!

This is not a sad, reflective post.

Since I lost my walking buddy last month, I’ve been at a bit of a loss. The house is empty and silent, my walks have been enjoyable but half hearted and generally I’ve been struggling a little to find something to focus on.  Friends have been really great (thank you all) but inevitably there were moments I had to deal with myself.

I had committed to spending all my spare time with Rufus while he was with me and I never regretted a second. We had some great adventures side by side. We walked all of the Brecon Beacons together. Rufus swam, paddled or splashed about in every muddy puddle in South Wales along with a few rivers and a couple of lakes. I had to stop him climbing up the Devil’s Kitchen in Snowdonia as it was only a few weeks after he had Pancreatitis and he was still recovering. We got about half way up before I managed to persuade him that Llyn Idwal was an ideal paddling pool! If peeing on lamposts is a territorial marker, his kingdom stretched from Sketty Park to Uplands and from Cockett to Oystermouth road (for non-Swansea folk, that’s quite a patch). Squirrels in that acreage were very, very scared!

Everywhere I walk now has some kind of memory of Rufus for me, almost always one that makes me smile. Last week I walked down to Tor Bay and on the beach, I remembered Rufus triumphantly running up to me with a giant piece of rotting seaweed in his mouth. I was meant to throw it for him. I declined. On Fan Gyhirych, I remembered him feigning a limp when he thought we were heading back to the car, only for it to disappear as he leapt over a stile, and instantly reappear again after he’d eaten the treat he knew he’d get for such a feat. It came and went according to the adventure he was having and at one point he got stuck up to his belly in thick mud, which I had to rescue him from. The limp went completely after that! I like these memories, they genuinely make me smile. If you see some grinning idiot on a mountain, it’s probably me.

But I always knew that one day Rufus would head off to the hills without me and I would be left to fill the time with something new different. And I always wondered how I would feel about that. I have a long term plan, with no dates because I couldn’t predict the future, to climb a so-called trekking peak in the Himalayas. A trekking peak is a mountain that can be summited with limited technical skills. There would be no mountaineering but there might be some ice axe and crampon sections, and the need to rope up to protect against falling into hidden crevasses. I knew the first stage of that plan would be learning to use crampon and ice axe. My previous blog was about getting boots that would take crampons but was written well before I had made a decision about when to start. I was merely taking advantage of sales prices.

On Monday, I found a short trek that would combine ice axe and crampon experience for beginners with two summits. Although it was very soon after losing Rufus, it was also an ideal opportunity to start to focus on ‘the next thing’. And here was my dilemma, because no matter how I thought about it, I felt guilty about moving on this quickly. Irrational, I know, but a real issue for me. So, (and bear with me here), I had a little chat with Rufus about it and he ended up calling me names for being so silly to think that way.

The upshot of all this is that I’ve signed up to trek in the Atlas Mountains in Western Morocco later this year. The trek includes a section of walking on ice and frozen snow and offers the opportunity to summit Jebel Toubkal, at 4190m the highest in North Africa, and Jebel Ouanoukrim, which is only a few metres lower. I have heard good things about these mountains from fellow trekkers and one of the great things is that start point in Marrakesh is only 4 hours from the UK – nearly a third of the travel time of the longer treks I’ve been on.

My aimless wanderings will very quickly become focused training sessions. I have Rufus to thank for making me maintain a decent level of fitness, which has meant I can take advantage of last minute offers and a shorter build up. While I won’t say exactly when I’m going (this is the internet after all, and the last thing I want is unwelcome visitors while I’m away), it is relatively soon.

Expect some more posts about the build up, and eventually some long and boring account of the trek itself (from which you are only excused if you have a valid excuse).

Finally, below is what most of weekends will end up with…

Soaking feet

Aahhhh!

 

Boots

I’ve been looking for new walking boots. The problem with being a walker is that boots wear out. Whether it’s through normal, but constant, use or whether it’s because of damage they will one day give up. And it’s always just as they become as comfy as they will ever be.

My first pair of boots that I went walking in weren’t intended to be full on, hill-bashers. They were thin, canvass trainers with a higher ankle for more support. They were great for general walking but as soon as I discovered more challenging terrain, they showed themselves to be sadly lacking in most of the key areas – grip, waterproofness, comfort and ability to survive. So I went and bought a pair of what I thought were ‘proper’ mountain boots. They weren’t, although to be fair they looked the part to my inexperienced eye. They were big, heavy and clumsy and more like work boots for navvys. They were only comfortable if I cushioned my feet in two pairs of thick socks. I hardly wore them, apart from a couple of times on the Isle of Skye in the snow and once near Glen Coe.

The last I saw of them was after a marathon walking day along the relatively easy Bridge of Orchy section of the West Highland Way. I’d been taking photos and wandering along the rough track near the railway station for most of the day and my feet were aching and hot. So off came the boots to dry in the sun, on went some old trainers and I sat in the car, drinking from a flask of coffee and feeling smug.

Later, in the B&B, I realised I’d left my boots behind in the car park. It was raining and cold, so I didn’t go back to get them that evening. I thought back to what had happened. I’d forgotten to put them in the boot and, given where I’d put them, I must have reversed over them when leaving. I decided that I would abandon them as lost, and invest in a decent, purpose made pair of hill walking boots. I was staying in Fort William and the local outdoor clothing shop was nearby. So in I went, and out I came with a pair of Brasher Hillmasters, recommended by one of the staff.

What a revelation! They were comfy like warm slippers are comfy, straight from the box. I didn’t have to walk them in. I didn’t have to layer sock upon sock to cushion my feet. Walking in them felt like rolling along with little effort. I felt I could take on Ben Nevis. Over the next couple of years, I wore these boots every time I went on the hills. They got a proper bashing when I trained for my first Everest Base Camp trek in 2007, including Ben Nevis, and they got me to the top of Kala Patthar and to Base Camp itself in supreme comfort and warmth. In the end, the soles wore smooth and they became my gardening boots. I only got rid of them last year.

I replaced them with a second pair of the same make, which were just as comfortable. These took more of a hammering as by now I had the mountain bug. I managed to do all of the Brecon Beacons in them, and plenty of other hills and mountains, including Crib Goch and Snowdon, several times. These boots got me back to Everest Base Camp in 2011 before finally giving up the ghost the following year when something snapped inside and they began to click loudly!

I bought a third pair of Brashers straight away. But I also invested in a cheaper pair of boots for training, to give the Brashers a chance to rest now and again as a lot of my preparation was on the streets, which tended to wear out the tread more quickly than mountain paths. These boots got me to the top of Kilimanjaro in 2014 and are still my main walking boots today. They have the scars of walking on sharp, volcanic rock. The leather uppers are scuffed and scratched but they remain great boots.

But this weekend, I decided that I would buy another pair of boots. Not to replace my Brashers, but to add the ability to use crampons. The Brashers are designed for all conditions bar deep, slippery snow and ice in winter. As my long term plans include the possibility of walking in deep, slippery snow and ice in winter, I needed different boots.

The website of the specialist outdoor clothing shop I went to said they had the boots in stock, in my size. The sales assistant didn’t seem to grasp what I was saying and told me they hadn’t had any crampon compatible boots in for more than a year. So in the end I went to my local discount outlet, ‘Go Outdoors’, where I bought most of my trekking kit over the years. I hadn’t tried it first simply because they usually cater for the more popular end of outdoor activity. Careful to get the right size (as they will be used in colder conditions, I need to have a boot that fits when I’m wearing two pairs of socks). Not only did they have the exact boot I was looking for but it was nearly £50 cheaper.

As I type, they are sat in the front room. They are comfy but in a different way. They are stiffer and heavier than normal walking boots, as they are designed to cope with harsher conditions and to hold crampons stable and securely. Now all I have to do is find some deep slippery snow and ice in winter.

 

Rufus

This is the post I never wanted to write, but always knew I would have to.

Yesterday afternoon, my best buddy, walking companion, personal trainer, confessor, therapist, culinary critic, alarm clock, conscience and rival in photography went off for a long and lovely walk in the sunny hills without me. Rufus was diagnosed with chronic kidney failure on Friday and it seems it had been going on for a short while. However, he has such a strong constitution that he showed few signs, and those were masked by his ongoing arthritis. In fact, he was in the vet for a general check up and we had no idea of any underlying conditions until we saw the blood test results.

By Monday, he had deteriorated quite quickly and while not in pain, he was clearly exhausted and the spark in his eyes had faded, even if he managed a weary wag of the tail when I spoke to him. It was at the same time the easiest and the hardest decision to make but it would have been cruel and selfish to prolong his suffering, as the disease was advanced and incurable. He walked into the vet, his tail up and wagging. As usual, he behaved himself and gently and peacefully fell asleep in my arms as I asked him to wait for me on the hills, where I promised to meet up with him every time I went there.

If you’ve read my blogs or seen my social media posts, you will know we shared a special and very close relationship. He was an important part of my life and if you’d asked him, he would have told you that without him, I’d be out of shape and fatter than I am. He was such a character that writing about him was easy and apart from some artistic license to interpret his thoughts, our adventures were told as they were. If you have a moment, search some of my earlier posts to get a picture of who Rufus was.

Rufus was very photogenic and he knew it. If I was taking too long over taking a photo when we were out, his protest usually took the form of standing in front of the camera. For every photo of a smooth waterfall I have, there are several of a smooth waterfall with a slightly blurry Rufus in the frame. When the camera was deliberately pointed at him, the chin would go up, the back legs would stretch out just a little and suddenly he was posing like the pedigree hound he was. The only give-away to his calm and considered exterior was the wagging tail.

Rufus wagged his tail constantly. If he was trying fake being asleep, his tail would give him away. Even when he reluctantly plodded up the stairs to have a shower, there would be a little tail movement as he knew he’d get a big treat afterwards. I like to think that he was a happy dog and I have no reason to think otherwise. A few years ago we went up onto the snow covered hills of the Brecon Beacons. After the initial climb, I noticed that his tail was drooping and not wagging. He seemed fine otherwise, so I kept and eye on him, ready to turn back if he showed any signs of illness. But he was his usual energetic self, leading the way, stopping to let me catch up and staring dramatically into space whenever I took a photo of him. Later, we went to the vet to check it out and it turned out he’d wagged his tail so much that he’d strained the muscle. That was Rufus.

He was a gentle hound with a lovely temperament. Like any spaniel, he’d chase anything that ran but he was friendly and loved attention. On hill walks, he’d ignore other dogs and stop conveniently where people were passing. Inevitably, he’d get a pat on the head or a tickle under the chin. Satisfied, he’d head off to the next group of people. Anyone who met him would tell you that once he’d checked you out with a few sniffs, he would be your friend. Even when he was feeling rough at the vet on Monday, a little girl came over and stroked his fur and he loved it.

We had our disagreements. We disagreed over the ownership of the sofa – if I was sat on the side he wanted to lie on, and which side varied according to whim, he would stand staring at me until I moved. He usually slept on the bed at night and I was allowed a narrow strip at the edge so he could choose where and how to sprawl. Rufus was a great believer in the concept of time being relative. When it was time to go out in the garden, it was time.  He also firmly disbelieved in the existence of rain and refused to accept it as an excuse not to go out. The only exception was the rain we could both hear on the conservatory roof, which we both agreed wasn’t worth going out in.

It was water that filled a large part of Rufus’ outdoor enjoyment. The first time I ever saw him swim was at Penllegare, where excitement got the better of him and he dived into the water after a stick. The river current slowly took him down stream as he bobbed along, before he figured out the doggy paddle and scrambled up on to the shore. Shortly afterwards, we were walking him along the side of the Neath canal when for some reason, he decided to jump onto the lilies at the edge of the water. He disappeared completely under the water and for a few seconds, I saw myself having to reach in to get him. Then he bobbed to the surface, surprised but none the worse for his dive and I dragged him back onto the tow path, which he stuck to for the rest of the walk.

From then on, water was the draw whenever we were out. One of his favourite places to go was Llyn y Fan Fawr. The route up to the lake followed the streams and brooks that would become the Tawe, and Rufus would walk in them, keeping pace with me on the river bank. He loved to chase, catch and dredge for stones and much time on our walks was spent throwing and catching stones. At the lake, my snack break would consist of throwing more stones into the shallow water and it would be a very reluctant hound that would set off for the Fan Brecheiniog ridge. Coming back down, Rufus would spot the water and be off, charging down ridiculously steep grassy slopes to get to the water’s edge, where he’d wait patiently for me to negotiate the path before trying to catch more stones that I was obliged to throw.

In recent months, with his arthritis, I’d had to keep him out of the water as it was a bit cold but I’m glad that on Friday, after we’d been to the vet and before I knew the blood test results, he managed to sneak into the river on Fairwood Common and we spent a few minutes with him barking for me to throw sticks. I now know he was very ill then, but the lure of sticks in water overcomes most ailments.

The house is empty now. The spot he had in the front room has a faint spaniel-shaped shadow where he would watch me, waiting for the signs of an imminent walk. Last night, I thought I saw him pop his head around the door to point out that it was time to go into the garden. There was no gently nudge to suggest we have the last little look in the garden before bed. I didn’t get to smooth his head as we lay back on the pillows and the light went out. There was no snoring, kicking as he dreamed of chasing squirrels, movement as he found a new most comfortable place in the world. This morning, he wasn’t lying next to me, belly and legs in the air as I tickled his tummy before we got up. There was no ‘bump bump’ as he came down stairs. I’ll get used to this silence eventually but it will be a painful and unhappy process.

There are so many photos I could have chosen to illustrate this but the two I choose show you how my shadow will look every time I step out into the hills and mountains.

So, if you are out on the hills and spot a fleeting black shape out of the corner of your eye, probably heading towards flowing water, say hello to Rufus. He’s very friendly and doesn’t bite. And if you’re walking past a river or lake, throw a stone in for him to chase. He’ll love that.

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If at first you don’t succeed…

…wait two weeks and try again.

Yesterday I set out once more to try and catch the sunrise from the top of Pen y Fan. ‘You fool’, I hear you cry. Yes, well I hear that a lot and I’ve got used to it by now.

If I’m perfectly honest, I don’t really like climbing Pen y Fan. I love the feeling of getting to the top, but there are other hills and mountains that I prefer climbing as the routes are more interesting. I’m not training at the moment, so I climb for pleasure and for the opportunity to take photographs. Carreg Goch has become a favourite as the surrounding hills and valleys make wonderful subjects. Fan Brecheiniog remains my all time favourite; Llyn y Fan Fawr nestled beneath it is my happy place and the route up from Tafern y Garreg along Fan Hir is one of the best ridge walks I know.

So back to yesterday. I wasn’t climbing for pleasure as such. The goal was to reach Bwlch Duwynt by 8am for the sunrise. I trusted the weather forecast which told me that, unlike last time, the tops would be clear of cloud. I also anticipated some snow at the top which always makes for a classic winter mountain photograph. The journey to the car park was better than last time; I was the only one on the road and the conditions were much better. The temperature only dropped below zero as I dropped down onto the A470. I had the car park to myself and immediately I could see in the near darkness that there was plenty of snow on the hillside and some on the path.

Snow is easy to walk in. Unfortunately, this snow had thawed during the previous day and refrozen over night. As I picked my way carefully up the first part of the path I quickly found out that the patches of snow on the path were treacherously slippery. On went the head torch and I started to tread more carefully. It was darker than last time because there was high cloud overhead, hiding the pre-dawn sky. I wasn’t worried about the cloud ruining the day, but the icy snow was making the first part of the climb energy sapping. I couldn’t get a rhythm going and had to stop, side step and take longer strides to avoid the worst of it.

As the darkness slowly faded, and as my eyes got used to it, I saw that further up the path there snow was continuous on the path. Ideally, I’d be using crampons on this kind of ground. I don;t have crampons. It was going to be interesting.

I hit the thicker snow and found that while it was frozen, it hadn’t turned to ice. My feet broke through the icy crust and found grip underneath. Apart from the odd patch where ice had formed the walking got much safer, although the sensation of walking on a sand dune where your foot goes backwards as you push forwards still remained.

I lost all sense of time as I trudged on. Several times I looked behind, across to Fan Fawr the the hills beyond. Each time they were brighter and all the time I expected to see the first pink light of dawn highlighting their summits, letting me know that I had been too slow. But suddenly, the wind picked up and I knew I was nearing the bwlch. Sure enough, a few weary minutes later, I got to the shoulder of Corn Du and saw the whole of the Gwaun Taf in front. Apart from the bit where the sun would come up, which was obscured by a cloud. And Pen y Fan was missing!

A bitterly cold wind was blowing from behind so I made sure I had my back pack between me and the chill and I stood to see if I could judge when the sun would rise. I quickly realised there was little point in standing there as I’d only succeed in getting colder, and the cloud wasn’t going anywhere. So I turned to my left to make my way around the foot of Corn Du to Pen y Fan, which was slowly appearing from the mist. The rocks beneath my feet were clear of snow but thick with clear ice and this was by far the most dangerous bit of the climb so far. The wind threatened to catch the back pakc and unbalance me, the ice would stop me getting a grip and the steep drop ahead would ensure a swift descent.

Gingerly I made my way to where the route to Pen y Fan started. The path that is normally so clear and flat was nowhere to be seen beneath a featureless blanket of thick snow which sloped down the Corn Du and dropped steeply to Gwaun Taf on my right. Untouched snow, no footsteps. It was beautiful. I made sure I took photos before I spoiled the snow, then set off to try and follow the path.

I have an ice axe. I bought it when it was on sale, and after recommendations from a magazine review. I hope to use it winter climbing in Scotland or Nepal but I’ve never considered it necessary in the Brecon Beacons. And while I still wouldn’t take it with me, I felt at that point that it would have been useful in case I slipped. The snow here was deep and deeply frozen. Although not as slippery now, it was still difficult to walk on and not knowing where the slope started beneath made my first few steps quite tentative. But soon I figured out where the path lay and found myself on the more gentle slope leading to the summit of Pen y Fan. At this point I could see behind me the snow of the Craig Fan Ddu ridge turning pink as the new sun lit it. It was worth every chilly, slippery step.

On the summit, I was alone and at first enveloped in mist. This soon blew off and the views north and west were magnificent. This is always worth the effort of the climb and I spent a few minutes just enjoying. But it was too cold to linger and so after taking the photos I wanted, I set off back down to the snow covered path, passing another walker on the way. We chatted about the conditions and joked about the over crowding and then parted – two lone dots on a white landscape.

Coming down the same way I went up was easy to start with. The deeper snow provided better traction coming down and absorbed some of the impact so my knees didn’t hurt so much. But inevitably, just as I was passing another walker coming up, I slipped into a deep gully at the side of the path right up to my knee. I managed to struggle out and we both laughed as I told him not to come over as this was the deep end. I had hoped that the icy snow near the beginning of the path might have melted as the sun rose but it was as slippery as ever and I had to work hard to avoid the ice. Even parts of the path that weren’t covered in snow had frozen where the melt water had flowed. But I reached the car park unscathed and relatively intact. There were very few people there even 9.30.

This was my 53rd Pen y Fan ascent.

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The art of winter photography or…

… How I become an 11 year old at the first sign of a snowflake.

I love snow. I love the change it brings, making the familiar look new and magical. I love looking out of the window and seeing a white landscape, perhaps with one set of tyre tracks. Even better are the tiny trident footprints of birds and the bigger paw prints of foxes, all of which are common here when it snows.

On Friday, it didn’t snow. I was a little disappointed but I knew where the snow was. So after taking Rufus for his daily stroll (on a very cold Cefn Bryn) I set off for the Brecon Beacons. I ended up at the foot of Pen y Fan, at Pont ar Daf. I had no intention of climbing the mountain this time but I enjoyed an hour’s wandering around snapping the waterfalls and surrounding white hills. It wasn’t very surprising to see people setting off for the top wearing little more than jeans and a sweatshirt. I even saw one chap in a suit and smart shoes, although he was just pacing about in the slush and didn’t head off on the path upwards. Shoertlay after I left, I got caught in two heavy and windy snow showers, which would have soaked and chilled the walkers I’d seen setting off.

On Saturday, I headed up to Carreg Goch, the mountain above Craig y Nos. Here, despite the proximity of Dan y Ogof, I had the mountain to myself. I was heading for Saeth Maen, a small stone row, which I thought would be very photogenic in the snow. With no paths to follow and only a vague memory of the last time I’d been there, it was more of an adventure as I struggled through deep snow, which had drifted in hollows and against the reeds and grasses. I eventually got there and it was worth every slip and slide. The visibility was excellent despite it being overcast, and it wasn’t too cold. The silence was broken only by the gentle trickle of a small waterfall in the distance.

On Sunday, it snowed here and Rufus and I had a warm and cosy day inside.

Yesterday, I headed off once more to find the snow north of Craig y Nos. This time I wasn’t interested in walking and took all my camera gear instead. The weather was beautiful – clear and deep blue skies and crisp white snow. But unfortunately for me, there was no where to park. Every lay by and parking spot apart from one was under 8″ of snow. I even saw a 4×4 struggling in one lay by. I drove as far as Defynnog and although the landscape was stunning, I couldn’t stop anywhere to take photos. It was the classic fisherman’s ‘one that got away’. I finally managed to stop where the road passes above Crai reservoir. Although the car park was covered in compacted snow, I knew I could deal with that as long as I didn’t get stuck in slush. I spent about an hour walking down towards the reservoir along the main road, hopping quickly onto the side every time a car or lorry appeared in the distance. The snow here was nearly knee deep and I was soon soaked from the knee down. But it was worth it as the scenery and landscape was wonderful.

As I drove southwards, back home, the snow faded from the hills until I neared the motorway, where there was no sign of any of the wintery conditions I’d encountered earlier.

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