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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Why we walk the hills

By Dave and Rufus.

There is no sound other than the birds high up in the sky and the gentle breeze making its way through the grass. The early morning sun is shining with a yellow glow, the air is crisp and clear and the remains of last night’s frost crunches under foot. In puddles, ice has formed random and surreal patterns that few will see. It’s warm despite the early hour. The noise of traffic is not invited here.

From the top of Moel Feity, our venue for today, there is a panoramic view of mountains and countryside. in the distance to the north a line of clouds have formed, as if waiting to enter into our arena. But they’re not allowed to spoil the morning. To the west, Fan Brecheiniog looks grey with it’s thin coating of frost yet to be touched by the sun. A small cloud pops over the top and spills down towards Llyn y Fan Fawr like a slow motion waterfall. The twin table tops of Corn Du and Pen y Fan are silhouetted off to the east. Even at this early hour they are probably busy with those keen to be the highest people south of Snowdonia.

We have this hill to ourselves. We can go where ever we want. There are little paths and tracks that the sheep have worn over the years but the sheep are all gathered together further down the valley this morning. We choose to follow the paths or not as the whim takes us.

He’s going to start going on about how time has no meaning next. I know, and I apologise on behalf of my human. Allow him his indulgence.

There is no sign of the passage of time other than the distant clouds and the mist on Fan Brecheiniog. Even the sun is lazy this morning.

There. See. 

We come across the little memorial to the crew of Liberator 38753 and a little later, a small pile of aluminium, some melted, which has been gathered from the crash site. I stop to tidy them both up as I always do when we come here, and we spend a moment or two having a think before moving on.

We walk the hills because of all these things and the things we will see next time. Sometimes its for the challenge, sometimes it’s to get away from the crap and sometimes its to get to the top.

Before he gets too carried away with the artistic dribble, lets talk about the real reason we walk the hills. Dave has this need to prove himself and I have to tag along just to make sure he doesn’t overdo things. I don’t mind; he’s good to me so I return the favour. When I wasn’t well, he stayed with me so he’s a bit out of shape right now. In the past he’s done it to get fit to climb hills in other countries – without me! But I don’t care really because I enjoy walking the hills with Dave.

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49er

“Pen y Fan is that way. If you carry on in the direction you’re going now, you’ll fall off the edge.”

I’ve seen some inappropriate things and actions on the mountains but today ticked a few new ones. I’ve climbed Pen y Fan in just about every weather condition. Some of the best times have been in poor conditions; I particularly like walking there in the snow. This morning the weather forecast was overcast, drab, drizzle. Not ideal conditions, but I had a particular reason go there today. It would be the 49th time I’d got to the summit. I wanted to get the 49th out of the way because I’d like to make the 50th time something a little special.

Off we set from the car park at around 8am, hoping to avoid the masses. I needn’t have worried as the weather was enough to put people off at this time. It was cold and grey and I could see we would be walking into cloud before long. I couldn’t see any snow, though.

Around 15 minutes later, we hit the snow line. The fog was thick and very quickly, the snow went from muddy slush to a white covering that hid the path. At the same time, a light drizzle started. I checked on Rufus – he hasn’t done anything this strenuous for a while. But he was so far ahead of me up the hill that I had to assume he was enjoying showing up my lack of fitness.

We trudged on up, occasionally passing people coming down. I was surprised at how many had made it before us. The fog thickened again and the visibility dropped to a few metres. The snow made it hard to judge distance and the best gauge I had was Rufus, who stood out nicely against the bright white.

The drizzle was intermittent and as we got higher, so it became icy. Rufus didn’t seem to be suffering from the cold; in fact it wasn’t that cold as there wasn’t much of a breeze. It was bright too and we couldn’t have been far below the top of the clouds. It reminded me of the white out conditions on Ben Nevis I encountered in 2007, but without the risk of sheer drops either side of the path. The snow became deeper and the path was defined by footprints, bounded by deeper prints where feet had gone into the drainage ditches.

I stopped to chat to a walker coming down and I remarked on the number of people I’d passed coming down. He said they’d all turned back because to the conditions. I admire them for that; I’ve turned back on Pen y Fan and other mountains. It was something I was considering today, but Rufus was doing fine and I was confident of the route. As I stood and chatted, Rufus began to yap and nudge my leg. It was clearly time to carry on.

The traverse across the ridge in the lee of Corn Du is flat and it offers an opportunity to rest from the incessant uphill from the car park. Today it was most welcome, but the visibility coupled with the thick and unspoiled snow made it strange and a challenge. It seemed from the footprints that most people had indeed turned back at the ridge; the footprints visible now were old. We carried on but I had Rufus on the lead now, as I didn’t want him to disappear in the fog. He was still full of energy and threatening to bound off as I clearly wasn’t moving quickly enough for him.

A final short and unwelcome pull up on to Pen y Fan itself and suddenly we stumbled on the summit cairn. We stopped for a few photos but there was nothing to keep us on top, so we set off back the way we’d come. Which was easier said than done as there was little in the way of any indication of where the path was. I’ve been in this situation before and a combination of knowing which way the wind was blowing on the way up and remembering isolated marks int he ground meant I was confident of finding the path down. Still, there were a few moments of that thrill when you realise the risk. In small doses it’s not too bad a feeling.

It was on the way down that I started to encounter the foolish and the ill prepared. Four lads, only a minute from the summit, asking me where Pen y Fan was. One of them was wearing jeans. They were soaked and I know they were cold, and they wouldn’t dry out. Further down the path by Corn Du another pair of walkers who didn’t know where they were. Then my warning, with which I started this post, to the guy who for no apparent reason, struck off the path heading up towards Corn Du and a sheer rock face that he wouldn’t be able to scale. And he had a dog with him. Finally, another four lads, all in jeans, who turned back shortly after I met them, and passed me going down again.

Heading down the main path was easy at first, once I’d found place to turn down. I’ve missed that spot in far better visibility than today so I was prepared in case I got lost. I’d checked the distance from there to the summit and calculated the distance reading that I’d see when I got back. In the event, I didn’t need it as I recognised a few other landmarks. The snow was deep enough that I could descend quite quickly with fear of slipping but as we got lower and the snow thinned it became much more treacherous underfoot. Even Rufus was experiencing four paw slips and slides.

Then we started coming across a whole new set of people coming up. Just like there is a snow line, so there is a line below which the people you encounter are predominantly casual walkers out for a stroll. There are several ways to spot them. The lack of back packs or any proper walking kit, the ‘sprint-rest-spring-rest’ way they go rather than the slow but steady gait of the experienced walker. But the thing that annoys me the most is the manners. In my experience, a cheery ‘morning’ will always get some kind of response from a fellow walker. It usually results in a chat about conditions, previous hills and how much better it is to be on a windswept mountain in a hail storm than shopping. But the casual walker rarely responds, and if they do it is normally little more than a grunt.

I tested it today and greeted everyone I met with ‘morning’. At the top of the hill, in the worst conditions, we had several conversations and Rufus had a lot of attention. But as the snow thinned and the morning wore on, the responses got less and less until last last few, who didn’t even acknowledge my existence. But many of the people I came across below the snow line were wearing jeans, light macs and trainers. I only hope they would have the sense to turn back when the going got difficult.

We reached the car just over 2hrs after we left it. We got home around 45 minutes later and the snoring began some 10 minutes after that.

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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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Normal service will be resumed

This morning, the sky turned blue and there was a yellow thing in it. Undaunted, Rufus and I headed out to Cefn Bryn for our first proper walk since I got back from my trek.

Rufus suggested a stroll in the garden at 3am and 5am but I managed to dissuade him and at 6.15am, we checked out the weather. It was cold and clear; a light frost made the grass crackle as we walked on it. The stars still shone. The moon hid behind a tree.

By 8.30, we were on Cefn Bryn and the sun was warming the day up in a way that it hasn’t for some time. We walked over muddy ground, made semi solid by the still thawing frost. It was beautiful and clear with views over Whiteford to Pembrey and beyond. It wasn’t a hardcore walk today: Both Rufus and I are getting back into the habit after a couple of weeks (for me) and more than a month (for Rufus) of not really doing much. So we took it easy, went where we felt like and just enjoyed the dry, warm weather.

I came across an old and photogenic piece of farm machinery, which could have been placed there for the purpose. It was the first time I was able to properly enjoy taking photos for a while, just being able to stop and think and picture what I wanted as a final image before setting the camera and actually making the exposure. I spent 10 minutes circling and pausing and snapping, while Rufus explored the surrounding grass and reeds. Then, while I was kneeling to get a low angle, a wet nose pushed against my cheek. I had clearly spent too much time taking photos and it was time to move on.

We skirted a herd of cows as they made their way up onto the ridge, negotiated a small stream and passed by Arthur’s Stone before heading back to the car. I’ve missed the local hills and hopefully, with the weather turning a little for the better, we will be able to address that in the coming weeks.

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Cold and frosty morning

“Snuffle snuffle”

“It’s only 5.30, Rufus. At least another half hour.”

“Snuffle, snuffle”

“Just five more minutes, please?”

“Snuffle snuffle”

“I’m getting up, honest. It’s just taking a while.”

We were in the garden, checking out the activities of the fox at 6.15. At 6.30 we were breakfasting on toast and coffee. At 7, we were heading off for the hills.

I decided I wanted to try the same route as two weeks ago. It gave a decent ascent (521m) without being too strenuous on the knee. I’m building it’s strength back up slowly so it would be silly to try something too much too soon. We set off from the car at just after 8 heading towards Moel Feity before dropping down into a shallow valley and climbing back up to Llyn y Fan Fawr and then on to Fan Brecheiniog.

The weather was gorgeous, cold and clear. The sun was still golden, turning everything it touched a deep orange colour  A thick frost coated the grass and most of the bog and marsh we encountered last time was frozen solid. We skirted the horses on the lower slopes of Moel Feity before turning north and heading up the flank towards the bomber crash site. I wanted to see if my little cross was still there. It was.

The view from Moel Feity was crisp and clear. Clouds were beginning to form a white woolly cap on Pen y Fan to the East and the moon was still shining above Fan Brecheiniog. With a brief stop for a treat and a drink, we set off towards the lake, hidden by low hills at this point. There are few paths and I always make my own way, avoiding the obviously tricky drops and boggy patches. I didn’t have to worry about the water and mud today, but there were enough little dips to keep me concentrating. Rufus tracked me some 50m to the north; he had his own agenda and there were plenty of scents that had to be investigated that didn’t require my presence. Every now and then he would check to see if I was okay.

In no time we reached the shore of Llyn y Fan Fawr. It was calm and the sun reflecting off it was dazzling. There was a lot of heat from the sun and the reflection too, so we stopped for a few minutes for me to catch my breath and for Rufus to catch some stones. Then it was off around the top of the lake and onto the path the climbs steeply to Bwlch Giedd. The path was shaded from the sun, and there was a thick frost on the stones making them treacherous. Even Rufus, with four paw drive, slipped on a couple. I kept an eye on him as we climbed higher but he quickly got the hang of it and, as usual, was waiting patiently for me as I huffed and puffed my way to the top.

I’ve said it before but the ridge to Fan Brecheiniog is one of my favourite places to walk. There’s a combination of solitude, space and achievement there that I rarely feel elsewhere. As we walked along the ridge this morning, I felt it again and it was magnified by the beautiful weather. I met several people on the mountain and we all mentioned how fantastic the conditions were at some point. Rufus and I went on to Tro’r Fan Foel, the ancient and eroded burial cairn on the tip of the mountain that overlooks land that was once inhabited long ago. Then it was time to turn back.

The journey down was uneventful. A thin mist was forming on Fan Brecheiniog, just as it had done on Pen y Fan. Moisture in the wind blowing up the side of the mountain was condensing at the top and blowing across the gently sloping west side. It didn’t affect the walk and wasn’t wetting, but it did spoil the views to the west. By the time we got down to the lake again (avoiding ignominious slips on the frosty path), the top of the mountain was covered in cloud in an otherwise clear sky.

We had to cross several streams swollen by recent rain on the way back, and at each one, stones had to be thrown (or barking occurred). Nevertheless, we managed to get back to the car just over 4 hours and 11km after we started. An enjoyable day.

Snore

“Rufus, Rufus, we’re home.”

Dramatic sigh

“We have to get out of the car now.”

“Huff”

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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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