Everest Anywhere

Last year, I took part in Trail magazine’s ‘Everest Anywhere’ challenge. The idea was to log ascents on every walk and try and get to the height of Mount Everest, 8848 metres. With Rufus driving my efforts, we easily achieved the height in about 14 weeks. We did it again in another 14 weeks. We even got our photos in Trail Magazine after they got in touch. I started it again this year and Rufus did the first hill of the challenge with me. After Rufus passed away, I decided to continue anyway as it would get me out during the difficult weeks after he’d gone.

It’s not long now until I embark on a trek in the High Atlas mountains of Morocco. I’ve been doing a lot of training over the last few weeks and the two weekends I spent in North Wales really made a difference. I trained with a heavy backpack and even got to use crampons on Snowdon – a valuable if brief experience which taught me not to try and walk normally or the front points dig in and you trip up! I also learnt how to properly strap them on. The instruction sheet wasn’t very clear and my first efforts had the crampons slipping off on a steep part of the icy path. As usual, once you know the trick, it’s easy and so much more secure! I’ll be using crampons on Jebel Toubkal as we ascend a glacier to get to the snow covered summit.

In the last two weeks I climbed Pen y Fan twice, both in grim, snowy and misty conditions but as I explained to the National Trust volunteer on the way down, although I don’t like the walk up I love being at the top. I’ve used Pen y Fan as a training mountain, and a measure of fitness, since I started trekking way back in 2007 and I’ve now been to the top 55 times. I can usually tell by the time it takes to get to the top, and the state I’m in when I get there, the level of fitness I’ve reached. I was pleased with both efforts and there was a noticeable improvement over the previous climbs in December.

Yesterday, I went for a walk on Carreg Goch. It’s a lovely hill above Craig y Nos in the Swansea Valley. The initial climb is fairly steep and about half way up there is a side path that leads down to the Afon Haffes. This was a favourite stopping off point for Rufus, who would charge off down the short spur and wait for me in the water. It wasn’t deep enough to properly paddle but stones were required to be thrown and after a brief paw cooling splash, we’d carry on to the top of the path. I made the detour myself this time, and stood for a few minutes to remember Rufus. It was easy to picture him standing in the water waiting for a stone and it made me smile.

Once the steep bit is over, it’s a constant but gentle climb to about 550m. At the top, I had passed my Everest Anywhere goal of 8848m. The landscape is high moorland with broken limestone tops and sink holes. The mountain contains the National Showcaves at Dan yr Ogof and you can often find cavers accessing passages from seemingly impossibly narrow access holes on the top of the mountain. The shallow valley of Waun Fignen Felen was once a lake and the remains of prehistoric man’s efforts to hunt here have been found by archaeologists. This place was once home plenty of wildlife which attracted the hunter gatherers, who probably also had a hand in erecting the many standing stones and stone circles in the area.

The weather was beautiful and I enjoyed the stroll, which was less of a training walk and more of a morning out in the sun. The last time I came this way was in February, when the whole landscape was covered in a thick blanket of snow which anonymised the hills and made route finding difficult. That day I turned around because I didn’t like the look of the approaching clouds. As I got back to the car, they deposited a heavy load of snow. Yesterday couldn’t have been more different. The visibility was superb, crisp and clear. There were barely any clouds in the sky, only a few over the Bristol Channel. I had the mountain to myself on the way up and it was nice just to sit on the limestone outcrop and enjoy the view down across to the hills north of Swansea, and the sea beyond.

On the way back, I met a group of walkers who were out looking for one of the many aircraft crash sites in the area. They asked directions to the site of an RAF Vampire jet crash and I was able to point out the direction as I had been there myself a few years ago. They were in very good humour and we had a laugh before they carried on along the side of the dried up lake bed.

On the way down the steep bit is usually very slippery, either with snow and ice or, as yesterday, with thick, oozing mud. Nevertheless, I managed to get down without slipping over and with only a mild twinge in the knees. Another 7 miles added to my trek preparation.

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Welsh clouds have hard centres.

“Welsh clouds have hard centres” is a quote by an unknown flying instructor to an unknown trainee fighter pilot during World War 2. When you look at the number of aircraft crash sites from WW2 and since, it’s clearly good advice.

I’ve written before about the sites I’ve visited around the Brecon Beacons and the Black Mountain. All of them are situated in bleak, lonely places usually on high ground and inevitably on slopes steep or slight.  Some of these crews were new, completing their operational training on the type of aircraft they would fly into battle. Others were re-training, having survived a tour of operations over enemy territory. A few were returning from operations and got lost in bad weather, or succumbed to battle damage.

Yesterday, I decided to visit a new site for me. Vickers Wellington MF509 was on a training flight from RAF Stratford  on 20 November 1944. The crew of 6 Canadians were carrying out a night navigation exercise when a fault developed with one of the engines. The plane began to descend over the Black Mountain and hit the ground on the western slope of Carreg Goch, a couple of miles west of Craig y Nos. Sadly, the crew were all killed on impact. The engines were salvaged but the rest of the wreckage was left in situ.

I had read about this site several years ago and had always planned on visiting. But the site was in the middle of a difficult limestone landscape and not on any route that I regularly took during training for treks. So I never got round to making the trip.

The initial climb from the main road was short and steep but I quickly gained height and left the trees and farmland behind. I passed a limestone quarry and finally reached the first over many limestone pavements overlooking Glyntawe and Craig y Nos. Now the fun started as I tried to find the best route to the crash site. The main path from here would take me north of where I wanted to go so I decided on some cross country walking, taking a more direct but much less obvious route. I took advantage of sheep trails and open rock to climb quickly onto Castell y Geifr.

This area is full of sink holes and is frequently used by pot-holers exploring the vast cave system of which Dan yr Ogof is a part. I passed several deep holes lined with scaffolding poles and blocked for safety reasons. The going underfoot was tough, with broken limestone hidden just beneath the surface of heather and grass threatening to turn and ankle. I took advantage of exposed flat limestone slabs to make better progress but this meant my route twisted and turned and I had to stop frequently to check the map for progress and to keep heading n the right direction.

As I headed west, off to my right was a large area of peat bog known as Waun Fignen Felen. In prehistoric times, this was a shallow lake surrounded by trees which slowly silted up, providing a habitat for wildlife. 8000 years ago, the climate was warmer and upland areas of Wales were more habitable than now. Traces of human habitation from the Mesolithic, Neolithic and Bronze ages have been found on the margins of the bog, in the form of flint tools and flakes and a small drilled stone bead. Ancient people hunted here, and stayed in the area while the hunting was good.

I continued on, following a particularly sinuous sheep track through thick purple heather and onto the top of Carreg Goch. Slightly sloping slabs of limestone made the final few yards much easier and from the description of the crash site, I expected to find the wreckage on the reverse side. But it wasn’t there. I checked the map and decided that I was a little too north of the co-ordinates and turned south. There was no path, just lots of broken and weathered rocks ready to trip me up. I scrambled and wobbled from rock to rock until I reached a little stream bed, now dried up. I followed that for a while and climbed up onto a rock slab to see where I was. There, on the western slope, was a great pile of silver-grey metal and beside it flew a Canadian flag.

The Vickers Wellington bomber was designed by Barnes Wallace, the genius behind the Dambusters bouncing bomb. In the early years of the war, aluminium to make aeroplanes was scarce and Wallace produced a two engined bomber with a metal frame covered in fabric to minimise the use of aluminium. The airframe had a distinctive geodesic form, a series of struts and bars forming triangles. It was very strong and proved capable of taking a lot of damage without losing its structural strength.

At the crash site, a large amount of the wreckage had been gathered into one place. The largest piece was instantly recognisable as a part of the inner wing. A lot of the metal had been burnt in the fire that followed the crash and had melted out of shape but the wing retained it’s distinctive form. I could see the undercarriage legs and a couple of pieces of armour plating, which had rusted to a deep orange. Down the slope, what appeared to be a long section of part of the fuselage lay in the rocks and around about, other parts of the plane were scattered.

There were a few others at the site when I got there. I got talking to one who said he’d first come to the site 35 years ago and he remembered a large wheel, complete with tyre, lying just down the hill. We went a little way down to see if we could find it. All we saw were more scattered fragments and a short section of metal tubing which could have been from the landing gear. I knew the engines had been removed by the RAF shortly after the crash.

After the others had gone, I spent a few minutes taking in the atmosphere. It was a lovely summers day but I know what these hills can be like on cold, wet and misty winters morning. This crash happened at night it terrible conditions for flying. The crew probably never knew what happened.

I love being in the hills. I love the sense of open space, the remoteness and the spectacular beauty all around. But little parts of our countryside hold sad secrets that clash with this beauty.

The crew:

  • Sgt C. Hamel
  • Sgt J.R.R. Villeneuve
  • F/O W.J. Allison
  • Sgt J.P.E. Burke
  • Sgt J.A.E. Groulx
  • Sgt J.L.U. Du Sablon

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