Looking back

Four little words – ‘this time last year’. I make no apologies. This time last year I was on the way to completing a big challenge and I think I earned the right to use those words.

This time last year I was climbing up to Shira Plateau on the Western slopes of Kilimanjaro. It was the first full day of the trek and a hot and tough one as we climbed through the rain and cloud forest out on to the heathland the forms the crater of Shira. We ended up at 3500m and while the day was hot, the night was cold.

Today Rufus and I did not set out to recreate the event. Instead, we took advantage of the beautiful weather on the Brecon Beacons to get onto the hills again. Our goal – Fan Brecheiniog. It has featured on this blog many times and I hope it will many more times. I drove this way yesterday but the road was clearer today. There were several moments when i though the car might slide off the road on a thin coating of frost and ice, but a bit of care and forward thinking meant I was able to get to the start point for the long walk to Llyn y Fan Fawr. We set off from the car in brilliant sunshine and snow. The wind was cold but before long my hat and gloves came off as the temperature rose. Rufus bounded through the snow, stopping to greet a fellow canine walker as we made our way along the river. By the time we got to the first steep part of the day, the snow was several inches thick.

Rufus followed the tracks of previous passers by, as it was easier than battling through snow which, in places, was up to his belly. I followed Rufus; he has a good nose for the best path and I’ve learnt to trust his judgement. This time last year I was probably as fit as I have every been. Today was very different. I felt every square of chocolate eaten over Christmas, every mince pie and every roast potato. My backpack was lighter than the 8kg one I took with me on the trek but I felt it’s influence as I stopped several times ‘to take photographs’.

Then, after several false summits, there was the lake. And above it, Fan Brecheiniog shone in the morning sun. We stopped for a few minutes for me to get my breath back. Normally I would throw stones into the water for Rufus, but it was too cold for that today and instead I threw snowballs for him to chase. After yesterday’s fun, he’d learnt not to expect too much and it was enough for him to race to the snowball and break it apart with his nose.

Then we made our way over to the start of the short but knee-achingly steep climb to the bwlch. One of the great things about very cold weather is that all the marsh and bog freezes over. But for some reason I managed to step on the only bit of unfrozen bog in the whole place, and it was deep. I felt myself falling forward before I knew what was going on and I managed to stop myself from going flat on my face. But my left leg disappeared into the water and mud up to the knee.

Undaunted, I headed up the steep path. I thought I heard Rufus snigger, but he was so far ahead it may just have been the wind. It was hard going, even taking into account my lack of fitness. The snow was thick and slippery where it had been trodden down and then frozen overnight. At one point, I was conscious that the view ahead looked a bit like photos in a magazine accompanying an article on how to perform an ice axe arrest! After several ‘photo stops’, I made it to the little valley between Fan Hir and Fan Brecheiniog. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to go on and I was looking at Rufus to see if he was coping. Apart from a few tiny snowballs on his feet, which I cleared quickly, he was fine. He was watching me to see if we were going on and every now and then he’d race a few steps up the hill as if to encourage me.

I set off again, adopting a slow plod as my tactic for making the ascent. The snow was deeper again and in places it was like walking up a sand dune – my feet would slip back as I pushed forward. The usual path on to Fan Brecheinog was completely covered in snow; I’ve never see than before. One set of foot prints led off tot he south and up in a curving climb and I decided to follow them as walking on the compacted snow would be easier. Rufus was now reduced to a plod as well as he battled through the snow but he kept going every time I took a breather. But eventually I decided that I was struggling to go further and it would be silly to exhaust myself and risk slipping on the way down. I called Rufus, who was a few paces in front of me.

I swear a big grin appeared on his face. Before I’d finished saying the phrase ‘lets go back to the car’ he had raced past me and was standing on the bwlch again, about 20m away. I love watching him run in the snow. He bounds like a big cat and the snow flies everywhere from his back paws. He usually races down from here and meets me at the lake. I was a little worried that he might slip on the snow going down, but I needn’t have been concerned. He is sure footed. We passed several walkers descending gingerly but I was using my walking pole now and I found it much easier than I had feared. One of the walkers had just put on a set of mini crampons but I knew from experience these wouldn’t work well in the deep snow. Sure enough, both Rufus and I sailed past him.

At the lake, I threw more snowballs for Rufus and we posed for a couple of buddy selfies. Then we set off back down the slope and the car. I don’t like the last mile or so; it tends to be boring. But snow changes everything and I was able to get some nice photos of the Brecon Beacons stretching off to the East. By now the snow was melting from the lower part of the hill. I had to avoid a few boggy patches I’d walked over with ease on the way up. The last bit of this walk is a short, steep climb of no more than 10 metres, and I found this really tiring. Slumping down into the car, I decided I needed to work at getting fit again.

As I drove off, around 12.50, I remembered that this time last year, I’d made it to Shira campsite, at 3500m after climbing 719m and I felt good. Today I’d climbed around 400m and felt shattered. More work required!

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Return of the sheep

A crisp and clear morning, the last day of the festive holiday and a hound that knows what he wants. All these meant only one thing; a morning on the hills.

This time last year (expect more of that phrase in the coming weeks) I was into the last phase of training for my trek. One of my favourite routes was up and over Moel Feity before dropping down to the source of the River Tawe. From there, I would climb back up to Llyn y Fan Fawr and on to Fan Brecheiniog. This morning I decided to take the same route, although we would stop short of Fan Brecheiniog itself.

We set off from the car and immediately, my boots were soaked. Yesterday’s rain was still lying on the ground in great puddles, small streams and marsh. We splashed our way around and up the side of Moel Feity, spiralling along sheep paths in the cold wind until we reached the flat top. The wind blew even stronger and colder but it was great to be on a familiar hilltop again.

We crossed westward to the memorial to the crashed US Navy Liberator and spent a few moments tidying up before heading on towards Llyn y Fan Fawr. The top of Moel Feity has a number of tracks, some made by quad bikes, some made by sheep. But we decided to make out own to avoid the worst of the water. But it was an impossible task, so eventually I just accepted that I’d get wet. Rufus loves the water anyway and it never bothers him. He criss crossed my path, checking out the scents and aromas.

We dropped off the hill and down to the young River Tawe, which was flowing healthily this morning. Then it was another climb up to the lake through even more boggy ground until we crested a small mound to find the clear blue water ahead. Rufus was off like a shot and headed straight to the spot we used to stop and rest at during the training last year. The lake was full after the rain and it was only just possible to sit on the rocks.

Little waves covered the surface of the water and as eddy’s of wind spun off the steep side of Fan Brecheiniog, they created moving patterns on the surface of the water. The sun shone on the lake and high above us I could hear the echo of two walkers shouting to each other as they traversed the ridge to Fan Foel.

We spent a short time taking in the view and enjoying the solitude before reluctantly leaving for the dry comfort of the car.

The route down was easier, but wetter, if that was possible. Every tuft of grass seemed to conceal a small pool. As we passed through patches of reeds, I could only tell where Rufus was by the splash of this paws in the water. We crossed the Tawe a little further down the hill and although it was only 18 inches or so wide, it was deep and flowing fast even here. On the opposite bank there were several paths visible in the distance on the side of Moel Fiety. I knew from experience that each contoured around the hill at different heights. But which one to take?

Ultimately, it wouldn’t matter as they all led to the general vicinity of the car. Of course, I picked the only one that faded out after a hundred yards and turned into a marsh. The last mile was splashed and squelched, although Rufus seemed to avoid the worst of it.

We popped over a small ridge to find several wild horses sheltering from the wind. Both Rufus, I and the horses were surprised and for a few moments  we stood and stared at each other. The horses remained calm, Rufus came back to me to see what I wanted him to do and we walked past them with little disturbance.

With the car in sight, we came across a small flock of sheep. Their winter coats made them look much larger than normal and they all looked up as one to see what we were. I put Rufus on the lead and we slowly walked past. When I turned to look at them again, they were all following us. It was an odd thing to see as sheep usually head in the opposite direction to us. But for about a minute, they were content to tag along, almost within touching distance. At any moment, I expected a lunge from them as they sought to steal Rufus’ treats.

But we managed to escape their evil clutches, and got to the car in one piece.

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Heavy rain with a chance of getting soaked

The weather forecast said rain and that’s my excuse for having a lie- in. I say lie-in, of course I was up at 5.30am at the request of the boss for a quick sprint out into the drizzle before we both went back for another hour or so of kip.

The plan for today was to get some shopping done and then some chores around the house while the weather was bad. But as is the way with Welsh climate, when I got up for breakfast, the sun was shining. Breakfast and shopping over, there was no sign of rain so we had a brief discussion and Rufus decided we’d better head off to the hills to take advantage of the sun. Of course, as we left the house, it started to rain again but it’s only water so we hopped in the car and set off.

We went back to the river. We were there on Wednesday evening and as we wandered along the river bank, we were buzzed by an RAF Typhoon. This afternoon, there was no activity as we walked along the riverbank up towards Fan Brecheiniog. I had no firm plans for where to go and I thought we’d just wander and see where our noses took us.

Rufus’ nose took him into a deep pool and at first he was happy swimming about. But there was a strong current under the surface and I could see he was being swept off course. There was no real risk of him being swept away as the water left the pool in quite a narrow and shallow waterfall. But he wasn’t happy so I called him over to the bank. Unfortunately, he couldn’t make it to the shallow bit as the current was strong, so he tried to climb a steep part of the bank. Between us, we managed to get him out of the water; I dragged him up and on to me and he kicked out with his back legs. I was drenched! Rufus was happy.

We carried on and with the sun shining and a breeze keeping the temperature comfortable, we headed up the hill towards Llyn y Fan Fawr. After the last day’s rain, the going was extremely soggy but we finally made it to the shore. We haven’t been there for a while and it was nice to see it in the sunlight. We walked around the shore and while I threw stones for Rufus to chase and catch, he splashed about in the shallow water. The level of the lake was much lower than usual even with the heavy rain we had yesterday; I don’t think I’ve seen it that low.

By the time we’d made a complete circuit of the lake, the cloud was heading back over the mountain. As we set off to the car, the rain started; light at first but getting heavier as we went. The only good thing was that I had my back tot he direction of the wind, which was gusting quite strongly. I was resigned to getting a soaking. Rufus was already wet from his dips in the river and the lake so he’d didn’t see the problem. About half way down the hill, the rain stopped and the sun came out again.

Back home, we both sat back on the sofa and there was much snoring!

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Run to the Hills

After some shorter walks of late, it was time for Rufus and I to head off to the hills. Neither of us had done much recently; I’ve been choosing woods and commons for our strolls so I can get some photos of the local wildlife, so the bigger hills were out. Instead, I decided to head off the Lly y Fan Fawr, a favourite of Rufus’ and sufficiently challenging to make a nice return to proper walking. As Rufus is getting on a little (don’t tell him I said so), I keep an eye on him to make sure he’s not overdoing things but he’s always been an active and fit hound, and he enjoys the outdoors.

I was disheartened to find sheep everywhere when we parked up. Rufus isn’t interested n sheep unless they run. Sheep are only interested in running when they see us. As a result, I always have Rufus on the lead when we’re near enough that he might chase them. For the first half hour, he was on and off the lead as we encountered sheep hiding in dips, skulking by the river and popping up from behind boulders. But in between, we were able to get some quality stone catching and dredging done. I am clearly improving in my stone throwing skills as Rufus didn’t have to bark once.

As we followed the river up the hill, the sheep disappeared and I was able to let Rufus roam. This is where I wanted to check to see if he was okay and not getting tired. I needn’t have worried. While he isn’t as fast as he used to be, he still has the energy to range across the hillside, occasionally stopping to make sure I’m ok. In fact, I found myself running out of puff and Rufus was coming back to urge me on.

On the way up, I saw a pair of bright purple flowers on their own and standing out against the green of the moorland. Not being a flower expert, I couldn’t identify them but they looked vaguely orchid-like to me. I snapped away until Rufus came to hurry me along.

It was boggy underfoot. No surprise there after our recent rainfall, so I was very quickly soaked. Rufus isn’t bothered by the water so I decided not to be either. After several close shaves, where I nearly disappeared into the bog (well, maybe not quite) the lake appeared ahead and Rufus was off. Fan Brecheiniog was capped by a blanket of cloud, as was the far end of the lake.

We didn’t stay long as a cool breeze was blowing, and without the sun to warm us up it was getting a little cold. Rufus shot off and I let him choose the path going back down. We meandered down the hill, always heading towards the river. Such are Rufus’ priorities. I got even more soaked than I was already but we quickly reached the upper streams that feed into the Tawe. Then we followed the water down, past sheep and waterfalls, towards the car.

On the way back, I spotted an odd looking flower and leaf on the rocks by a waterfall. The leaves looked like little troughs with curled edges and the flower was tiny, blue and four petalled.  I took a few photos and once again, Rufus came along to see what the delay was.

After some more stone catching, I had to put Rufus on the lead to pass another small flock of sheep. These all had pink heads (no drugs, just dye to identify the owners) and it reminded me of a walk here a few years ago where I came across lines of sheep with pink, green or blue dye. They all stayed together in their respective colours, but moved in one long line, following a path across the hill.

Above us, a red kit circled and swooped, probably watching the lambs. In the distance across the road, I could see three more. We reached the car without incident, having walked three miles in just under two hours.

Back home, I managed to identify the two flowers. The purple one was an Irish Marsh Orchid and the little purple one was a Common Butterwort. The Butterwort is carnivorous and traps insects in the curled leaves with a stick coating.

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3 Mountains

Looking out of the window at 8am, the western sky was black with rain clouds. It reinforced the message of the weather forecast last night – storms, winds, thunder. Not the best weather to be on the hills. Stubborn to the last, I headed out to the hills.

My goal today was to get to Pen y Fan via Corn Du. This would be the same route as I tried before, when the wind was so strong I had to abandon the attempt. It would be about two hours in total, fine if the weather was rough. There were plenty of extensions if the weather was good and escape routes if the perfect storm broke. Rain doesn’t really bother me as long as I’m not starting out in it, but my greatest fear is a thunder and lightening storm popping up when I’m the highest conductor around. There was a chance of lightening today, so I needed to know I could get off the mountain quickly if necessary. The bonus of Pen y Fan is all round visibility, so I could see any threats in the distance.

As I drove over the moorland to get to the start, there was a gorgeous light on Corn Du and the hint of snow on it’s summit. I even stopped to take a photo, so lovely was the sight. It didn’t take long to get to the car park and in no time, I was heading up the hill. Almost immediately, I was passed by four lads in trainers in jogging pants charging up. I’d seen them whooping and yelling in the car park and I deliberately walked slowly to let them pass me. Pen y Fan tends to attract the trophy walkers and I’ve seen all sorts of walkers in the years I’ve been walking it. The funniest was a woman in fur coat and Ugg boots, squelching away and thoroughly unhappy with her partner who was encouraging her to continue.

The lads kept going and before long I was alone again. it was cold out and ahead I could see frost and the remains of the last hail shower on the ground. But I was snug and warm in several layers. I reached the top of the first little hill and the lads were just in front of me. Although they were walking quickly, they were stopping frequently, too. I slowed down again. The path drops down to a little stream and after the week’s rain, this was swollen. Wearing only trainers, the lads struggled to find a way across. I didn’t laugh. I’ve crossed this river so many times that I know the narrow places and was across with no problem.

The path climbs steadily from the river and is fairly featureless. Ahead, Corn Du kept appearing and disappearing as low cloud brushed over the top. The frost and hail on the ground increased. It began to feel a little wintery. At least the wind wasn’t  as bad as last time. The last 15 minutes are on a very steep and slippery section of rocky path and the ground was white with proper snow. I climbed over the edge of the summit and was immediately buffeted by the wind. But it was easy to keep my balance this time.

After a few minutes on the summit, it was time to head over to Pen y Fan. As I climbed up the extra few metres, the sun forced its way through the cloud and the cairn was lit up against the darker sky to the north. The lads were lined up on the cairn and I stopped to take a couple of photos for them. I was feeling good and the weather certainly wasn’t as bad as I was expecting, so as they turned around to head back down, I decided to drop down off Pen y Fan and head towards Cribyn – the next Beacon in the line. The path down from the summit was difficult, not least because of the snow and ice. The natural rock steps are large and sloping downwards, so it would have been all too easy to slip as my weight went on to each foot.

As I reached the bottom of the steepest part, it began to get dark. The wind picked up and after another couple of minutes, it began to hail, The wind was blowing hard from the west and for most of the rest of the path down to the lowest point it was battering up against my back pack. But it got a lot colder. I decided not to climb Cribyn and turned to go back up Pen y Fan.

Now, the wind was blowing the hail directly into my face. It felt like a lot of little needles against my cheeks, despite the beard. I was having to climb against the wind, which made the going tough. I bent my head down and slogged on. Suddenly, there was a noise to my left and someone passed me. I jumped, as I had no idea there was anyone near. A few minutes later, I was at the top of Pen y Fan again and the wind and hail had stopped. It brightened up and there were some great photo opportunities as I made my way back to Corn Du.

I struggled a little to climb down off Corn Du as the wind had picked up again, but I was soon heading down the path in bright sunshine. Ahead, the moorland of Forest Fawr and the Black Mountain was golden in the sun. Suddenly, it was a lovely morning again and all the dark clouds had passed. I felt great and I was just enjoying being out, so I decided to detour onto Pen Milan to add some distance to my walk. As I walked, the views all around were spectacular. Corn Du looked like a proper mountain with it’s rough and vertical north face, and Pen y Fan sat in the background looking slight less dramatic.

At the top of Pen Milan, which is flat and hardly a summit, there’s a fence with a rickety old stile. I managed to climb over it, although it wobbled and gave slightly and I nearly lost my balance. The next kilometer or so was the wettest I’ve walked through for a long time. Every footfall squelched. If I was n’t stepping into some kind of bog, my foot was disappearing into a hole in the ground. In the end, I didn’t bother trying to avoid the water. My boots are fairly waterproof so it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. I was more concerned about twisting my ankle in a rut or on a tuft of grass. #

Eventually, I crested the hill and started to drop down tot he car park again. The ground was slippery with water now, rather than boggy and I took my time coming down. In no time I was crossing the busy A470 and back at the car. The sun was still shining and I still felt pretty good. I’d walked for about 3 hours and I knew I needed to do a bit more. With the weather better than expected, I sat snacking on a Snickers and thinking where I could go next.

In the rear view mirror was Fan Fawr. Last week, this was the highest point of my walk. It rose high above the car park and I wondered if I was in any shape to climb it. I’ve done it before from the car park and it’s a short, sharp pull up to the top. There are rarely any people on it. I decided to give it a go and see how far I could get. I set off slowly and before long I’d reached the first ridge. It was flat going for a while, and very wet as all the water draining off the hill seemed to have collected here. I splashed my way through and started on the next slope. This one was steeper and hid the top of Fan Fawr. I dealt with it slowly and steadily and was confronted by another flat marsh. I picked the route that looked least least soggy and found myself at the foot of the steepest part of the hill.

The path up was muddy and I was careful where I placed my feet. I was now feeling the consequences of the other hills I’d walked this morning. My dodgy knee was beginning to ache, as was the other one. But there wasn’t far to go and my walking pole helped. In a few tough minutes, the slope lessened and I found myself walking on a slightly less steep path which made it’s way around the side of Fan Fawr. Another 15 minutes of steady walking found me at the top of the hill, standing next to the rough cairn. The view back to Corn Du was clear and the route I’d taken this morning looked much steeper than I remembered it.

The wind was cold on Fan Fawr and I felt I’d done enough, so after a couple of photos, I headed back down. Just after I left the top, the skies darkened again and suddenly I was in the middle of what seemed like a blizzard. For a few minutes, the visibility dropped so I couldn’t see the car park, and thick snow fell. I was concentrating on not falling on the slippery and steep slopes but it got so dark that I started to worry about lightning. But I needn’t have, as by the time I got to the last slope, the sky started to brighten again and the last few hundred metres was competed with snow falling ahead and sun shining behind me.

At the car, I was soaked, tired and very pleased with my day’s activities. Not the 6 hours I’d hoped for (it turned out to be 4.5 hours) but a lot more climbing than I’d anticipated (889m) and just an enjoyable time on some of my favourite hills.

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Dave and Rufus’ lads week – day 1

Rufus is staying with me for a whole week. Just imagine, two young-at-heart adventurous souls with the world before them and no firm plans. It doesn’t get much better.

I picked Rufus up this evening after dropping his owner off at the airport. We raced home for food – I’ve stocked up on all his favourites – and after dining, we set off for Braodpool. It was only meant as a short evening stroll but very soon after leaving the car I managed to sink into a deep bog. The cold water and mud filled my boots. I was stood on ground that wasn’t supporting my weight and I could feel myself sinking. Rufus just breezed over it with his weight distributed over four paws. I managed to squelch out without getting trapped.

We left that bit of the common, crossed the road and walked in a wide arc around the pool. I found a dip in the ground which, when we investigated more, hid another large pool. Rufus found many scents here; it looked as if it was used as the communal watering hole for all the wildlife around. A duck flew over head, calling and circled us several times before disappearing off to the west.

Rufus chased the sticks I threw for him and explored Broadpool’s banks as we went back to the car. There was a cold wind blowing and my soaked feet were getting uncomfortable, so it was time to head home.

It’s an early night for us as we intend to head to the hills tomorrow morning.

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