Onwards and Upwards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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In High Places 1

This time 9 years ago (yeah, tenuous I know), I was getting ready to go on my first trek. I’d signed up to trek to Everest Base camp. I had no real idea of what I was getting myself into, having only started properly walking the hills about 18 months before. I’d never been to a non-western country, never experienced different cultures and hadn’t walked above 900m before I signed the papers and paid the money.

I’d read about Everest itself and the people who climbed it. The books never dwelt on the journey to base camp; it was usually dispatched in a couple of pages which talked about Rhododendron bushes and the unbelievable loads Sherpas carried. The journey became a whistle stop sprint up to the Khumbu Icefall where the real action began. So although there has been a lot of exposure for the area, there was very little detail about where I was going.

The guide book I bought was comprehensive but I had nothing to judge its contents against. A lot of it was about how many ways you could get ill, including some interesting but unappealing ways to die. A mate had been to Nepal in the early 90’s and his stories of cheap accommodation and food stuck with me. But he never went in to much detail.

I knew I had to get fit. The company I was going with gave me a training programme but I wanted to be fitter than that, so I planned my own based on the recommendations. My main training hill was Pen y Fan, which I did several times a month. But I added more challenges and tried to spend longer on the hills. I ended up doing the Brecon Beacons horseshoe several times. Then met up with a couple of others booked onto the trek for a weekend in Snowdonia. We climbed Snowdon via the Watkin path (which starts not much higher than sea level) and the following day, I scaled Glyder Fach in appalling weather (I got lost near the top and stumbled about a bit before finding something that resembles Castell y Gwynt).

Then I went off to do Ben Nevis and once again got lost in a whiteout. Scaling Ben Nevis wasn’t about physical fitness, it was a mental workout and I learned quite quickly that mental fitness counted as much as physical fitness; there were training days when I didn’t want to get out of bed and there were early mornings where the rain or mist was thick and there were good excuses not to go out. But mostly I went out and usually got soaked.

Then, suddenly, the training schedule indicated that I’d peaked and should start winding down. About this time I became paranoid about picking up an injury. Rough ground, steep descents and slippery surfaces all posed a risk. As did walking to the shops or going up or down stairs. I became ultra cautious as the days counted down.

I left Swansea on a cold and dark November morning and spent the night at Heathrow, where there were fireworks going off all night. It was the 9th, and I wondered why they were still celebrating Guy Fawkes night. But it was Diwali that was being remembered, and I was to find out when I got to Nepal exactly what that meant…

 

 

Mynydd Garn Fach

Sheep everywhere. Sleeping sheep, eating sheep, staring sheep (they’re the worst because they stare as if they know something we don’t). Some run away, some stand where they are and pee. Others (usually the same ones that stare) will approach us.

We left the car at the entrance to the Brynllefrith plantation (now more like the Brynllefrith tree since they chopped most of the forest down) and started off across Mynydd y Gwair. Despite recent rain, the mainly hot and dry weather had turned the normally marshy and unpleasant moorland into a more enjoyable terrain. It was easy to avoid they persistently lingering patches of mud.

The moor looked like a sheep plantation. Everywhere there were little blobs of white with hints of red, blue and green where paint had been applied to signify ownership. Some of them bleated but most of them had their heads down and were chomping away on the grass, oblivious to our passing. Rufus has long since lost interest in sheep and I wasn’t worried that he’d go off chasing them. My only concern was that we’d walk into a distracted sheep, which would panic, so as we got close to the preoccupied ones, I clapped my hands to announce our presence.

Rufus took this to be a sign that he was due a biscuit and would stare longingly at me. Of course Rufus takes everything to be a sign that he is due a biscuit. A cough, me taking a photo, a leaf falling in the woods several miles away. All of these definitively indicate that a snack is imminent.

The last few times we’ve been here I’ve been heading for the river to get some waterfall photos but today I wanted to see how far we could go beyond the river, up onto Mynydd Garn Fach. The last time we were here it was just after my mate had died and I found a spoon on the walk. I ought to explain why that was significant.

When I was in school with Simon, we created ‘spoonhenge’, a circle of dessert spoons. It took a few weeks of sneaking spoons out of the school canteen and was carefully hidden in the long grass that we knew wasn’t likely to be cut.

Fast forward to earlier this year, just after Simon’s funeral. I was out on Mynydd y Gwair with Rufus and we were off any normal paths. Imagine my surprise to find a dessert spoon exactly where you wouldn’t expect to find one. I took it as a sign. I’m not superstitious as a rule, but this was too much of a co-incidence. I picked it up and used it as foreground interest for some of my photos. In the end, we got to the Bronze Age cairn on the top of Mynydd Garn Fach and I thought it would be fitting to place the spoon in the cairn. Which I did.

Today, I decided that if Rufus was feeling up to it, we’d head up to the cairn. I needn’t have worried about my canine companion, as he was jogging all over the place and was showing no signs of tiredness. So we set off around the coal workings and up to the summit of the hill. The cairn was surrounded by sheep, of course. Some sleeping, some eating and some staring. But they cleared off for us and we spent a few minutes at the cairn, where I found the spoon I’d placed under the stones was still there.

Although losing Simon was sad I have plenty of found memories, most of which bring a smile to my face. I remember when we were starting the first band off, spending evenings in our local pub making plans for world domination. But the smile comes from recalling one evening when we’d had a disagreement in the pub. It wasn’t enough for one of us to storm out but we couldn’t let the argument go. It continued as we walked back to his house from the pub and sort of came to a conclusion outside in the street. Loudly. I don’t remember what we were arguing about but I think both of us would have agreed that if we felt strongly enough about something, it was right to argue.

After I’d replaced the spoon, Rufus and I turned around to make our way through the indifferent sheep back down the hill to the river, where stones were thrown and paddling was had and there was some very strange barking (I reminded Rufus that he was a spaniel not a terrier as some of the barking was distinctly ‘yappy’). Then we set off for the remains of the forest and the car.

On the way I started to collect some rubbish as part of the #2minutelitterpick and #2minutebeachclean I’ve been taking part in. Basically, you spend 2 minutes picking litter up when you’re out. It’s simple, straight forward and makes a difference. Today I managed to collect a lot of tin cans and plastic drinks bottles. They’re all recyclable and it’s such a shame that people can’t be bothered to take their rubbish home with them.

The irony was that we passed the remains of a car that had been dumped in the marshy ground near the forest. It’s been there for more than a year now and it is slowly disintegrating, with bits all over the place. It makes for an interesting photographic subject, but I’d rather it not be there.

Back at the car, Rufus wasn’t ready to go home. I was pleased to see he was still keen on walking around as because of his habit of slowing down when we near the house or car it can be difficult to tell when he’s genuinely tired and when it’s just an act because he doesn’t want to go home.

It turned out we’d walked 3.6 miles in just over two hours.

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Mountain and lake – outdoor photography

By Rufus.

As you may be aware if you have read my previous blogs, I am developing as a photographer. (Developing, photography – ha ha! See what I did there?) Dave, my human, has decided that I am well enough to wear my camera harness again and this weekend I was able to get out and work on some ideas for landscape photographs I’ve been thinking about.

Yesterday, I got him to drive me to Garreg Lwyd, the site of an old quarry and one of the places we frequent often. I wanted to test my fitness, but I also knew that of the weather was nice there would be some opportunities for sweeping landscapes and possibly some cloud photos too. It was great to get out for a proper walk after the last few weeks, and I know Dave is in desperate need of the exercise to get him back to his mediocre level of fitness so he can take me for decent walks again. Garreg Lwyd is a mountain with a proper climb but it’s not too strenuous.

It was a gorgeous morning and there were plenty of tell tale scents of rabbits and foxes. We used a slightly different and steeper path but it didn’t take us long to get to the top. I managed to get some nice shots of the few clouds we saw. We walked for quite a while and I felt great and every time I checked on Dave, he seemed to be enjoying himself too.

Today, we went for another walk on the hills. I’d heard Dave mutter something about The Lake and although it’s quite a trek, I felt up to it. I only hoped he would be fit enough, too, and that he wouldn’t over do things. Sure enough, we set off towards Fan Brecheiniog and for a few minutes I wondered if we would end up climbing it. But I think that would have been a little too ambitious for both of us.

The sky was cloudless and the sun warmer than yesterday. I still have my late winter coat on so I welcomed the breeze which blew in now and again, and it was nice to dip my paws in the streams as we crossed them.

At one point I smelt a familiar aroma and went to investigate the dead thing it came from. I’m thinking of a creating a set of photos illustrating the fickle nature of fate and the fleeting moments we have on this planet. A dead cow would be ideal. Imagine my amusement to see Dave huffing and puffing his way up the hill towards me. I think he was jealous I’d had the idea before him. I managed to get one shot before he dragged me away. He has no concept of art.

The water of the lake was most welcome to my hot paws, and we walked around to the northern end where we sat and basked in the sun for a while. I found more bones and tried to set them up for photos, but Dave kept taking them off me. He just doesn’t get it!

On the way back, Dave carried my camera for me (he has his uses) and I roamed across the moorland. It was great to be able to run about. I think I put Dave to shame because I kept having to stop and wait for him to catch up. He tries his best but he is getting on a bit.

I’ve included some of his photos here too, other wise he’d get upset.

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The Mountain of the Small Cairn and the Graigola Seam

First of all, a warning. There are two photographs of a spider at the end of this blog. Its a small one, and being on this blog, it can’t jump out and get you. Or can it?

An extended walk was long overdue. Both Rufus and I needed to stretch our legs, get rid of the cobwebs and head out into the countryside. So early this morning, we headed north to Brynllefrith and the hills surrounding it. Today, I decided to avoid the plantation itself, figuring that with all the rain we’d had recently, it would be one long, muddy path with added marsh. Instead, we headed north a little way before striking off west on Mynydd y Gwair and on to Mynydd Garn Fach. It was a grey morning when we set off but the cloud was high and there was a chance it might clear.

Underfoot, it was as wet as I had expected and we splashed along a very faint track left by quad bikes. Rufus ranged far and wide and on one pass by me, I noticed he had a passenger. I always keep an eye out for things on his coat, mainly to remove any ticks (although these are hard to spot). But this time, he had a spider on his head. It was a garden spider and it seemed to be quite happy riding along for free. Rufus must have brushed through it’s web on his wanderings. I’m not good with spiders, but I decided to remove this one and somehow I managed to catch it in my hand, where it retracted it’s legs and waited to see what I’d do. After grabbing a quick arachnid portrait, I set it down in a clump of grass.

After that encounter, I became aware of a lot of webs, mainly floating about and which I felt rather than saw. As we went on, they brushed up against my hands and I even found part of a web and a small spider in my hair. There were a lot of flying insects around too, which would account for the webs – an abundance of free food had obviously attracted the arachnid population.

The quad bike track turned into more of a rough path as it merged with St Illtyd’s Walk, a long distance path that stretches from Margam Abbey to Pembrey Country Park. We followed in the saint’s footsteps for a while, crossing the River Lliw (here a mere stream) before climbing the small hill of Mynydd Garn Fach (the mountain of the small cairn). We spiralled our way to the top by taking an anti-clockwise route around to the west and south. There are the remains of old mine workings here and the views from the top of the hill can be spectacular in clear weather. Although it was cloudy, the visibility was good and I could see all the way to Port Talbot and Swansea Bay.

We lingered a while at the top, with a great view of what is left of Brynllefrith and the Upper Lliw reservoir to the east, and Mynydd y Gwair and the distant wind farm to the north. Several years ago the wind farm was planned to be sited on Mynydd Y Gwair and there was a concerted effort by locals to oppose it. They were successful and the hill remains free of turbines. Part of the reason for not building here was the extensive mine workings discovered during the geographic and geological survey done in the area. Birchrock colliery further down the Dulais Valley was the site of several shafts exploiting the Swansea 5ft seam and the Graigola seam, which was accessed via horizontal shafts or adits, some of which can still be seen. There was a substantial risk of subsidence from the old workings, and of landslips where the Graigola seam reached the surface.

We didn’t know about the subsidence risk as we tramped all over the summit of Mynydd Garn Fach and instead we set off back down one of the tracks that lead from a mine adit on the east side of the hill back towards the River Lliw. Fortunately, we didn’t fall down any holes in the ground and made it safely to the waterlogged moorland opposite Brynllefrith. My car came into view while we were still a mile or so away and I noticed another car parked close to it. Wary of such things after my adventures on Fairwood Common, I checked through my telephoto lens but there was no sign of anyone nearby. But as we walked parallel to the woods on my right, I heard banging sounds that could have been from a shotgun. There are foxes in the woods, although I haven’t seen them since the tress were chopped down, so I hoped it wasn’t to do with them. I spotted someone in the woods wearing a red jacket and instinct made me take a picture. Looking at the photo (below) after, I could make out three men and a car with it’s door open. The car would be on a mud filled path so I’m not sure if it was stuck and they were trying to recover it.

As we neared the car, the first big blobs of rain fell and just as we reached the car, the rain started for real. We just managed to avoid a soaking.

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