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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Work in progress – by Rufus

I told you about my new camera in this post. Since then, Dave (my human) has purchased a new harness just to let me take photos, and I’ve been experimenting with angles, viewpoints and settings.

Today we went off to Mynydd Carn Llechart for some more physio for my leg, and I took the harness and camera along. It was a beautiful morning, clear and cloudless, crisp and cold. Ideal for some landscape work. I’ve been concentrating on candid photography recently so this chance to take more considered images was most welcome. There was a cold wind on the hill, and more than a trace of snow which had fallen overnight. Under paw it was soggy and wet but it wasn’t too bad and I soon got the measure of it.

The sun was quite low as it was still quite early and we were walking directly towards it. This made some of the shots I tried quite difficult to take without under exposing the foreground or getting too much flare in the final image. I noticed that Dave was taking quite a few photos so I decided to take some of him taking pictures. I checked out what he was snapping and it was his usual and predictable snow covered mountain shots so I wasn’t missing anything significant.

We got to the cairn that gives the mountain its name after about half an hour of splashing and squelching across the moor. I went for some close up images of the stones while Dave was distracted by a pair of Red Kites wheeling about over head. When he’s not distracted like that he tends to get in the way of my photos, usually to steal my view point. I welcomed the chance to work unhindered.

We didn’t hang around long as the wind was still quite chilly. Heading back, the sun was behind us and the quality of light was lovely and warm. It cast long shadows which we were constantly walking over.

I’m quite pleased with my day’s work although I am still learning how to make the most of the low viewpoint I am usually faced with. So please view this gallery as a work in progress.

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Business as usual

It was a hard weekend. A last minute gig on Friday night, preceded by a visit to Swansea that I decided should be made on foot as I am now in training for my trek. It was 8.2km in total. Then I pottered about in the garden on Saturday morning and spent most of Saturday afternoon and evening at a charity gig in Parc y Scarlets. I didn’t get home until 12.45am, and after missing the teapot and pouring boiling water over my hand, I didn’t end up in bed until around 2am.

Sunday was a more leisurely affair and after a late breakfast, Rufus and I took a short drive to the hills, where we climbed Fan Nedd. It was cold and very windy but I was wrapped up in several warm layers. Rufus, with his built in thermals and fur coat, was fine despite a fine covering of frost on his fur. We walked along the ridge heading south to the trig point and then the small cairn marking where the hilltop drops away towards the Forestry Commission woodland. We’ve done that walk before, and it’s tough on the ankles, with lots of tufts of grass and ruts. It wasn’t for us today.

Instead, we turned about and headed back to the car. Rufus took the stile in style (see the photos below) and we wandered along the road for a bit until we walked past Maen Llia and down to the stream that becomes the river Llia further down the valley. Rufus wanted to catch stones today, so I threw little ones for him and he jumped up to catch them, flicking water all over me as he did so. By now, the sun was starting to hide behind the clouds so we decided it was time to head home. Despite the cold, I was feeling warm but this was making me tired.

I dropped Rufus off at his house, and went home to a hot shower, hot food and a comfy sofa.

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We were due some clear weather. At 5.30 am (when Rufus has to go, he has to go) it was cold and frosty out, but there was a hazy cloud in the sky. At 7am (when Dave has to go, he has to go) there was the promise of a nice sunrise in the sky but nothing more. We had decided to go to the mountains anyway. It couldn’t be worse than last week.

The temperature gauge in the car read -1C, I had a good idea it was below freezing as the windscreen was thick with frost. But a minute later it was clear thanks to the miracle that is heated glass. There was the prospect of ice on the single track road up to the parking spot near the river Tawe. I’d finally get to use one of the traction control settings for real. Alas, all the cie was confined to the sides of the road and the journey was clear all the way.

We set off in golden sunshine. Ahead, Fan Brecheiniog shone white against the blue sky. There was a thick, even frost over everything and because the grass is orangey yellow at the moment, the frost was pale yellow. It was lovely to walk and crunch through the grass as we slipped and skidded down to the river. There were icicles at the smaller waterfalls, where spray had soaked the grass. We crossed over, careful where the water had frozen on the banks, and set off on the trudge up to the lake. This was exactly the same route as I took last week, but the visibility was completely different. Ahead, the bulk of the mountain was always in sight. Behind, a haze shrouded all but the peaks of Fan Gyhirich, Corn Du and Pen y Fan. The sun was still low and dazzling, as was the frost.

All the deep marshy bog was frozen, which made progress much faster and in no time we were at the lake. Several other walkers converged on the lake from different directions. The Beacons long distance path climbs up and over Fan Brecheiniog, and there are several routes from where we started, depending on which bank of the river you follow. We stopped for some snacks and to throw stones into the still lake. Fan Brecheiniog and Fan Foel were perfectly reflected in the water.

Then it was onwards and upwards. Being able to see where we were going and where we’d come from made it much easier and as we climbed the views became more and more spectacular. Llyn y Fan Fawr took on a deep blue hue. The mountains between us and Pen y Fan – Fan Gyhirich, Fan Nedd, Fan Llia and Fan Fawr lined up in the haze. Rufus was off into the distance, and every now and then I got a disdained look as he checked to see if I was trying to keep up. Compare the photo of him on the path (below) with the one here taken last week. Eventually, he waited for me on an outcrop of rock, watching my slow progress.

Near the top, the ground was white as the frost was much thicker. I could make the path out, weaving its way up the final steep haul to the ridge. By the time I started on it, Rufus was away at the top. Finally, out of breath, I reached the ridgeline and from here it was fairly flat for around half a mile. It was gorgeous. This was worth all the huffing and puffing of the last hour, the tedium of the drive up here and even the early start. It reminded me why I love waking on the hills in the Brecon Beacons. A slight breeze was enough to require gloves, and I pulled the buff up around my ears and neck.

We walked on to the cairn at the end of the ridge and then on around and down slightly to the old burial cairn on Fan Foel. From here, the views north over the Usk reservoir were incredible. To the west, the long line of Bannau Brecheiniog stretched out away from us. Strangely, it was completely frost free. All too soon it was time to go back home and reluctantly we started back along the ridge. The sun was in my face now and it was getting warm again. At the bwlch before the final descent, I stopped and listened. It was silent. Then I became aware of faint sounds drifting over the air. Off to my left I could hear Rufus’s footfalls crunching the frost grass. A little over from that, I could hear faint bird calls. Somewhere ahead was what sounded like a steam train, extremely faint but there nonetheless. It was so peaceful.

At the lake, I chatted with a fellow photographer who was taking pictures of the reflections in the water, which was more mirror-like now. We moved on, away from him so that I could throw stones in the water for Rufus to catch and dredge without disturbing the reflections. Then we turned our backs on the lake and the mountain and made our way through the rapidly thawing bog and marsh to the car. By the time I’d pulled on to the road, Rufus was flat out in the back.

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