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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Catching the Sunrise

Yesterday, I decided that I’d climb Pen y Fan to take some photos as the sun was rising, The weather forecast was good, I was in the right mood.

The Plan:

Get up at 5am, make a snack breakfast, walk Rufus (as he would be house sitting), set off at around 5.45 top get to the car park for 6.45. This would give me a good hour to get to the ridge where I would be able to set up and wait for the first golden rays of sunlight to hit the southern faces of Pen y Fan and Corn Du. Then, a quick stroll to the summit of Pen y Fan itself before heading back to the car and the journey home. I expected to be back starting 2nd breakfast by 10.30am.

The Reality:

I woke up at 4am and dozed fitfully until 4.45 when I finally gave up and got up. There was much huffing and puffing from Rufus, who had clearly found the most comfortable, warm and cosy spot ever just before I disturbed him. Breakfast was thrown together (scones, of course) and Rufus had some gourmet concoction which included chicken. Then we went out for a short walk around the block, sharing the pavement with two foxes who didn’t seem too worried by our presence. I often take Rufus out before work and I love the bits of our walk where there are no streetlights, as the stars seem to shine much more brightly. Orion was just sinking in the west as we walked. Rufus decided to check every blade of grass for evidence of other dogs so by the time we got back to the house, it was 5.50am. I could already see the plan starting to go wrong.

I managed to set of just after 6am and the streets were clear of traffic as I drove through Swansea and off to the north. Of course, once I left the dual carriageway I hit traffic in the form of a slow lorry. The temperature was below freezing and the road narrow so I couldn’t overtake. I managed to get to the car park at about 7am.

It wasn’t quite dark, so I didn’t need a torch. I set off up the path and with my goal of beating the sunrise, I set a good pace for the first 10 minutes. I hadn’t done any preparation for this walk and the last time I climbed Pen y Fan was in August and I quickly realised the pace I set wasn’t the right pace. A short stop, a rethink and a couple of photos later, I was on my way at a much more realistic speed. As the light levels increased, the view to Fan Fawr and the west was beautiful, with a gorgeous pre-dawn light bathing the hills. But ahead, I could just make out mist covering Corn Du. As I got further up the hill, the mist came further down to meet me. With 10 minutes to go before the sunrise, I entered the clouds. By the time I got the the ridge where I had planned to see the first golden rays of sunlight, all I could see was 10m of the path either side of me. But I had made it there with 5 minutes to spare.

I decided that to have any chance of seeing any golden rays, I’d need to be on Pen y Fan itself so without waiting, I set off. As I walked along the side of Corn Du I noticed the path ahead of me light up as if someone had switched on a street light. The ground here is red sandstone so even though I couldn’t see the actual sunrise, the red dawn light was making the path shine. I looked over to my right and there was a large patch of orange red mist. No sun, though.

On Pen y Fan, I had the summit to myself. There was a thick white frost on everything, making the stone path very slippery. After a couple of  photos, I went to take a drink. As I took my back pack off, the wind picked up until within a minute it was blowing hard enough that I had to brace myself to stop being blown over. The wind was sharp and icy and I decided not to hang around on the top of the clouds to clear. I caught a glimpse of blue sky as the clouds sped over  the summit but I was already heading back down again.

I quickly dropped down below the clouds and the wind dropped again so that it became pleasant walking. By now, the light on the hills opposite was exactly as I’d hoped I would see on the summit and I stopped frequently to take photos. I stopped to chat with a guy climbing up to work on the paths and he asked me about the conditions on the summit. He said he wasn’t going there himself but he wanted to advise people who were going up as more often than not they were unprepared for the reality of a mountain in winter. I chatted to another guy who was planning on picking up rubbish on the way down. Then I reached the relative warmth car park and a few minutes later, I was heading home.

I managed to get the cooked breakfast going by 10.15 and I was sat down eating it by 10.45.

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Addicted to waterfalls

I could hear the sighs from the back seat as we drove up the Swansea Valley and along the narrow lane that follows the Tawe almost to it’s source beneath the Black Mountain. Rufus loves a walk on the hills. He’s not so keen when he sees me with tripod and camera as it means long periods of waiting around while I take ‘another’ photo of some waterfall.

He’s only a dog, you may think. Yes, but he’s a dog who knows me so well now that he will do all in his power to prevent me from taking photos using a tripod. Including placing himself in front of the camera in exactly the right place to spoil a careful composition. You think I’m joking. I’ve included two photos here of Rufus making his displeasure known by standing in shot or staring at me. And bear in mind that the waterfall photo, in which he has invaded the bottom right corner, was a 20 second exposure. He remained there, in one spot , for 20 seconds.

The waterfalls we visited today are on the side of the Cerrig Duon valley, above the little stone circle that dominates the lower valley. They are easy enough to get to, once you cross the river over slime covered rocks. It’s a short but steep pull by the side of the gully that the water has worn into the limestone. The hardest part is navigating the steep side down to get to the waterfall itself.

Once there, the waterfalls are usually spectacular and today was no different. Not too much water so that there was definition in the way the water fell over the rocks. The main difficulty in getting a decent image is mastering the high contrast between the sunlit part and the shaded part. At this time of year, with the sun low in the sky, it’s harder still. Today, I made several exposures of each composition, varying the shutter speed each time to give me some files I could blend together to create a tone mapped final image back home.

And all the while, a hairy black Spaniel bounced and splashed and yapped and weaved between the legs of the tripod. I threw sticks for him, I suggested he went off sniffing for dead things in the sunlight grass. But no, he just wanted to hurry me along. And eventually, inevitably, he won. We left the shaded gully and emerged into the bright winter sunshine. The ground was still frozen and rock hard and there was white frost in places. Where water had formed puddles on the surface of boggy patches, it was ice this morning.

Rufus is good at following paths and he made his way down to the river while I was still faffing about, watching red kits wheeling about above the ridge behind us. By the time I had reached the river bank, he was on the opposite side of the water, watching me to see if I would slip and fall into the water. I disappointed him on that point, and we slowly made our way back along the river to the car.

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Falling water

I’m a sucker for waterfalls, as you may know if you’ve read other posts in this blog. I love the challenge of doing something new with the many waterfalls I’ve photographed (and I’ve snapped away at most of the local ones over the years). But sometimes, I just want to lose myself in the taking of the pictures and create something that I really like.

Today, I was in the right kind of mood to just spend time enjoying the picture making process. It was a cold, crisp morning and there was no one around at the two sites I chose to visit. I’ve been to both before but not for a while. Henrhyd falls are situated at the bottom of a narrow but deep valley at the southern end of Fforest Fawr, right on the edge of ‘waterfall country’. The hard sandstone has been undercut by the river to form a 27m waterfall. It;s the highest in south Wales.  The Romans were nearby, with the remains of a fort and camp around a mile away. It’s tempting to think that Romans visited the area; waterfalls were mysterious and magical places in prehistory and inevitably stories would have grown up around the area. In more recent history, Henrhyd was the location for the entrance to the Batcave in ‘The Dark Knight Rises’.

From the car park there is a short but steep path down to the Nant Llech river, which feeds into the Tawe a few miles further along. Across the river, a set of slippery wooden steps lead back up the other side of the valley until the path stops at the waterfall. It was muddy underfoot but the waterfall wasn’t in full spate. I prefer it in this state as the final images can be quite delicate. I used my tripod as a walking pole to negotiate the slimy rocks and managed to find some interesting viewpoints. I started using a10 stop ND filter but the exposure times I was getting were in the order of four to five minutes and the waterfall was largely in shade. So I switched to a 3 stop filter and started making the images.

I also decided to use a high dynamic range technique as the difference between the shadows in the rocks and the highlights on the water was too much for the sensor. This meant I was standing around enjoying the waterfall for minutes at a time and it was cold out of the sun. But I liked the results I was getting so it was worth every moment.

The climb back to the car was much steeper than the descent and I was out of breath by the time I got to the car. Birds were watching me as I walked, jumping from branch to branch just in front of me. Two even landed on a tree trunk within a few feet of me, as if they knew I didn’t have the energy to chase them.

Next on my list for the morning was Melincourt. This waterfall is further down the Neath valley and is where the river Neath has cut away at softer underlying rocks to form a drop of 24m from a lip of harder sandstone. Turner painted the falls in 1794 and it has been drawing visitors every since. Today, it was my turn. Once again, I had to negotiate slippery rocks and this time I set up at the edge of the water so I also had to be careful where I stepped. Cold, wet feet are not the ideal way of waiting for long exposures to be made.

Walking back tot he car along the narrow path reminded me of the easier parts of the base camp treks I’d done; cold, clear mornings and a busy river only a foot slip away down the slope. Fortunately, there were no yaks to push me over.

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Above the clouds

The plan today was to head out to the hills. Fan Brecheiniog was my goal and I decided that as Rufus had been looking and feeling fit recently, I’d take him along too. It was a beautiful, cloudless morning as we set off and for most of the journey. But, typically, as we reached the little car park at the start of the path, cloud had descended and it looked like a grim and grey walk lay ahead. Visibility was down to a few tens of yards as we set off and I was fully prepared to turn back if it didn’t show any signs of clearing.

It was wet underfoot and we squelched our way along. There was no wind and it wasn’t cold under the insulating layer of cloud. We made good progress and soon reached the river, and crossed it to reach the start of the main slope up to Llyn y Fan Fawr. I’ve walked this route many times before and several times in thick mist, like it was today. I’m confident in being able to find the lake but I usually end up taking a roundabout route if the visibility is poor. Today was no exception; I felt we’d veered off to the south as we climbed the slope. In the past, I’ve missed the lake complete by going too far south and almost bumped into the steep side of Fan Hir. So today, I veered back to the north a little.

In the silence, I could hear the faint sound of a helicopter which quickly got louder until it was clear that it was hovering over Fan Brecheiniog. It made several passes before finally heading off again. I didn’t see it but the idea that it could fly close to the mountain made me hope that as we climbed the mist would clear.

Eventually, I reached the edge of a steep slope where I wasn’t expecting one. Mist blocked the view down the slope but I had an idea we had gone too far south again, so we turned north and followed a clear path. Then I saw Rufus heading down the slope! Before I could stop him, he stopped at the lake edge, which I only noticed by the ripples he made in the water. I had been walking along the lakeside because the mist had made it look like a void. We were no more than 10 feet above the water. Now I knew where we were, I headed back to the path that led to the top of Fan Brecheiniog. In all this mist, I had only been about 20 yards out.

At the end of the lake, I stopped to talk to a guy who had been camping and was just getting ready to go. We chatted for quite a while and he told me he’d seen several people climbing Fan Brecheiniog during the night. Some shift workers had gone up and come down in time to start their morning shift. He’d heard the helicopter too, and had caught a glimpse of it when the mist cleared a little. He thought it was the Coastguard looking for a day walker that hadn’t returned. All the time Rufus wandered about enjoying the opportunity to explore but we were getting cold while we weren’t walking so we said goodbye and headed off to the start of the staircase up to the top.

Rufus seemed fine and keen to go so I decided we would make the effort. We could always turn back at any time. As we climbed slowly up the path, I felt as if the mist was thinning a little but the visibility was still poor. Then, as we started on the final pull to the top, I spotted blue sky above and within seconds, we had burst out of the mist layer and we were looking down on the tops of the clouds.

If you’ve ever flown you’ll know that feeling of being above the clouds in perpetual sunlight. It was a wonderful feeling; all the better for us having made our own way here rather than by plane! The sun was strong but so was the wind on the top of the hill and it got much colder very quickly. But the 360 degree views were stunning. To the north and east, there was nothing but cloud below us. To the south, a hazy mist made the hills leading to the coast fade into the distance. To the west, the views were clear across the Black Mountain and beyond. I stopped to talk to one walker there and we tried to identify all the hilltops we could see.

To the east, Pen y Fan and Corn Du poked their heads just above the clouds and it felt as if you could swim in the cloud between them. We walked on to the cairn at Foel Fawr as we neared the cairn at the end of the ridge, cloud was being blown up the side of the hill and over the path. Small patches of snow remained on the top and they had frozen overnight. We crunched our way through and finally got to the cairn. It was such a different day to the one we had set out in. From a black and white world to one full of colour within an hour, and it did so much to lift my spirits after a long, damp slog through the mud and marsh below.

After a rest and some photos, we reluctantly turned around to make our way back to the car. As I type, there is much snoring coming from a tired hound.

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In High Places 4

If I’m perfectly honest, reaching Everest Base Camp on 21 November 2007 was a bit of an anticlimax.

It’s not that I didn’t appreciate the spectacular scenery around me – even at 5300m where we were, the snow covered mountains around soared more than 3km higher and the sky was a cloudless deep blue. It’s certainly not that it was an easy stroll – I read in my journal that at the time I found the trek across the rough, pathless Khumbu glacier harder than all but the last 10 minutes of climbing Kala Patthar. (That was a consequence of exhaustion and cold when I got back to Gorak Shep influencing my writing). I think it was a combination of having reached my motivational goal yesterday, at the top of Kala Patthar, not being able to see Everest from base camp and the realisation that from this point on, we were heading home.

Whatever it was, thinking about it later made me realise that while it’s good to set goals, and even better to set challenging ones, it’s no good just picking a thing like ‘getting to the top’. While it’s a clear, obvious target it can also be limiting. My initial interest in the trek was trigger by the magical phrase ‘Everest Base Camp’. It has an exciting, almost romantic sound to it. Thoughts of Mallory and Irving setting out on the final push (they actually went from the Northern side of Everest, as Nepal was closed to outsiders at the time). Images of the Commonwealth expedition of 1952, with Hilary and Tensing (their base camp was actually at Gorak Shep, where we stayed). When our trek leader said ‘here we are, Everest Base camp’ we were at a small pile of rocks on which some prayer flags had been tied. My journal says that I realised that if we were actually at base camp, we were at the southern extremity of it. That hid the understanding that actually, as our group were so slow, we had only just got to the vicinity of base camp when the leader called time, so that we would be able to get back to the lodge before the sun went down and it got cold. Having returned in 2011 when base camp was packed with expeditions waiting to climb the surrounding mountains, it was clear we had been short of the usual camp site.

Had my goal been base camp, I would have returned home ultimately disappointed. Given the country, the people and the stunning landscape through which we trekked, that would have been a crime. As it was, my driver for the trip was the scenery above base camp and the opportunity to photograph the mountains. I felt this was a more worthy goal but it was still narrow. Had we not reached Kala Patthar (which was a danger, see my previous post) I would still have returned home disappointed. When I went back in 2011, my motivation was to come back with a record in words and pictures of a trek in a new country, still adjusting to the 20th Century (let alone the 21st). I didn’t actually get to the top of Kala Patthar that time, due to an altitude induced headache and while I would very much have liked to, it didn’t ruin the trek.

Having a ‘get to the top’ goal can lead to all sorts of problems, as experienced mountaineers will tell you. Good climbers know when to turn back and they will value the journey as much as the triumph of the summit.

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