Seeking the snow

After yesterday’s cultural extravaganza, today was back to normal for a weekend. A short lie in, swift breakfast and a quick drive up to the mountains, which were still snow covered. We went back to Garreg Lwyd.

Last week, the deep snow and bitterly cold wind cut short our wanderings. This morning, despite much of the snow still lying on the ground, the weather was much better. For a start, the bitter wind was a mild breeze, and the sun was warmer. On closer inspection, there was less snow, too.

We set off on a much clearer path. The frozen snow crunched beneath my feet but once again Rufus was able to trip lightly on the frozen crust. He edged ahead of me and as I huffed and puffed up the slope, he darted here and there as if to highlight his superior energy levels.

As we got higher up, so the covering of snow thickened until we were walking over the broken rocks and boulders that normally create problems when trying to pick a way through them. And then we were on the flat summit with the cairns ahead.

By now, the sun was quite warm and I regretted my choice of insulated jacket. I noticed that Rufus, even with his shorter hair, was starting to feel the effects of the sun and for the first time in ages, he drank when I offered him water. At the cairns, we paused for a break and to enjoy being on a mountain. So often, I tend to head to a summit only to head back down again and there sometimes isn’t an opportunity to just enjoy. Today, it was lovely on Garreg Lwyd and I took the time to appreciate the views.

It was clear at the top, and to the south I could see the wind farm we often visit. In the little valleys beyond, there was the remains of a morning mist lingering. To the north, the Carmarthen Fans were white and very mountain-like, while to the west I could just make out the white tops of the Preseli mountains. To complete the panorama, in the east Pen y Fan and Corn Du stood out against the horizon. We’ve climbed them all.

Off we went down into the valley between Garreg Lwyd and Foel Fraith. The path was indistinct at first and it was a case of trying to pick a route between the bigger boulders, and hoping the snow wasn’t too deep. Of course, in places it was and several times I sank up to my knee as the top crust gave way. Once again, Rufus sprang daintily from snow drift to snow drift and hardly noticed the tough going I was experiencing.

The walk to Foel Fraith isn’t my favourite part of this route. It’s long and usually boring, although today the snow gave it more of an interesting feel. The frozen marsh and streams were most welcome, as wet boots are another pet hate of mine. Soon we were climbing up to the top of Foel Fraith and the Carmarthen Fans came into view again. I’ve noticed that in previous blogs I’ve spoken about continuing the walk on the Picws Du – something I was thinking this morning. I have yet to do it, though, and it would more than double the route length.

We stopped on Foel Fraith and after I’d taken some photographs and Rufus had eaten some snacks, I threw snowballs for him. He seemed to have learned that they are cold, because he didn’t make an effort to catch them as he normally does. Instead he sprinted over to where they fell, took a few sniffs to make sure they were the right blobs of snow, and then watched me eagerly for the next one. All the while, he was keen to show me how much more fit he was than me.

Then it was time to turn around and we retraced our steps back to the top of Garreg Lwyd before detouring across the summit towards the quarry. We made our way down the steep slope and into the little dips and cuttings where, in the past, limestone was taken to be used on farms and in industry. Given the conditions, even today, I can’t imagine what it must have been like to work here every day.

We finally reached the car about two and a half hours after we set off, feeling energised and exercised.

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Looking Forward.

Thank you for putting up with my retrospective over the last couple of weeks or so. It’s time to move on. So while my mind gently returns from the African Plains and dreams of climbing Mt Kenya and Mt Kilimanjaro again, the rest of me has been getting on with life, and my local hills.

Last week we took a longer than planned stroll around the hills north of the Upper Lliw reservoir. It’s an open area of low, rolling hills that surrounds the reservoir on three sides. To the east is Brynllefrith plantation, and you have travelled there with us before. To the north is Mynydd y Gwair and the wind turbines recently installed there (you’ve been there with us too).

It was the western hills that we hadn’t visited before, and after walking along the edge of the plantation, we ducked under a fence, crossed a little stream feeding the reservoir and squelched our way up along a muddy quad bike track until we were on the western side looking down on the forest. With the weather threatening to get wet very quickly, we headed back to the car and managed to reach it’s shelter as the rain came in.

Today was an opportunity to seek the snow once again. The weather forecast was favourable and we set off for The Black Mountain north of Brynamman. As soon as we got onto the mountain road, it was clear it had been snowing here recently. The dark road surface turned white in minutes as we climbed higher. It’s a twisting road and although the drop isn’t far or steep, leaving the road would guaranteed being stuck. So I took it easy on the slush and ice and only briefly thought how much more appropriate the Freelander would have been here.

That said, we had no trouble reaching the car park near the Foel Fawr quarry. I did have a slight problem getting out of the car, as the string wind tried to shut the door on me. But I managed to extract myself and Rufus and while he went to check on the snow, I kitted up for the bitter cold. Since he had his haircut, I’ve been careful to keep an eye on Rufus to check he doesn’t get too cold. Today was no exception.

We set off up the white hillside. There were no clues as to where the path was but I’ve been up here a few times so it didn’t worry me too much. The snow had a frozen crust and at first it made the going much easier. But as we climbed, the snow got deeper and the crust gave way with a disconcerting suddeness so that my boots sank up to the laces. For the most part, Rufus managed to walk across the top of the snow without sinking, but every now and then he’d drop a couple of inches as the crust gave way.

I noticed that although I was wading through the snow, my boots weren’t wet and the snow wasn’t sticking to Rufus’ fur. It was frozen and later I found I couldn’t make proper snowballs either. Rufus seemed to be having fun, charging off in all directions but I found the going hard. I had loaded my back pack up with some extra weight for the exercise, and I was beginning to feel it’s effect.

We climbed slowly over rough, rocky ground made more treacherous as the gaps between the rocks were hidden by snow. But we made it and eventually we dealt with the steepest bit and the slope rapidly slackened until we were walking on the rocky, barren top leading to the summit cairns and trig point of Garreg Lwyd. Being flat, it was also windswept but unusually, it was also clear and sunny. Most times I’ve been here, there has been a thick mist and I can’t remember the last time I saw the cairns from further than a few metres away.

Walking to the cairns felt like walking in the barren north. Snow had built up in the lee of the rocks and boulders, and had drifted into little gullies. Being a limestone environment, there were many sink holes and dips and while some were visible, others I only discovered when my feet sank into them. Rufus seemed to have a sense of where they were and I should have followed him to avoid them.

At the cairns, we stopped for a few minutes for a snack and a brief respite from the cutting wind. I love being on the top of hills and mountains and today was almost perfect, with blue sky, sun and plenty of snow and ice. The only negative was the wind. I noticed that when we stopped, Rufus back leg was shivering a bit. It happens sometimes when he stands awkwardly and also when he’s excited. But I decided not to take any chances and so we set off back towards the car.

Now we were walking into the wind and it made the going quite a bit harder. Rufus spent sometime walking behind me, sheltered from the worst of the gale. We stopped at a small cairn for a selfie before heading down over more broken rock until we left the worst of the wind behind. Then we slackened the pace and enjoyed the last few hundred metres through the remains of the limestone quarry.

The shelter of the car was most welcome and Rufus settled in the back as I got the heater going and we slipped and slid our way back down the mountain road.

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Rufus and Dave’s Fortnight of Fun part 10: Holiday’s End

When I woke up this morning, Rufus had managed to take over about half the bed. Usually, he is waking me up but this morning the alarm beat him to it. Expecting a wet nose in the face, I was surprised to hear just a deep sigh from his half of the mattress. He was reluctant to head out into the garden and very keen to get back to bed again. We had a nice lie in while the sun came up.

It was a much better day today but I decided to let Rufus have a rest, so after breakfast I set off to explore Dinas Rock, near Pontneddfechan. It’s at the other end of the river that we often visit for its waterfalls. I’ve only been here a couple of time. Once to film a promotional video for the Princes Trust, when I went gorge walking with a bunch of volunteers. It was a fun packed couple of hours for me, as a non-swimmer. I spent most of my time bobbing along in a wet suit trying to keep a £2k video camera from sinking into the water. The second time was a brief visit with Rufus after we’d been drenched on Moel Feity.

The area around Dinas Rock is full of history. On the rock itself, there are the remains of an Iron Age hill fort, which gives the area its name (Dinas means fort in Welsh). The car park was once a limestone quarry and nearby were other quarries and adits for the millstone grit that outcrops around here. Further down the valley is the Dinas Gunpowder mill, where carbon from the forest was combined with saltpetre from pigeon droppings and other ingredients to make gunpowder. They tested the quality of the gunpowder by using a sample to fire an 8″ cannon ball. If it didn’t meet the standard, the whole batch was destroyed. Carefully! When the site was decommissioned in 1931, the buildings were burnt out to remove the risk of accidental explosion at a later date from gunpowder residue.

The track I walked along was suspiciously flat and as I suspected, it turned out to be the route of an old railway. In fact, it was a tramway which led out of the valley and down towards Glynneath, following the route of the old road. The remains of the powder works and the watermills that powered it are still visible lining the river, but in a precarious state of decay. Back in the car park, groups of nervous school kids were heading off to do their gorge walking as I drove out.

Rufus had a good rest while I was out and after I got home, but this evening it was time for him to have a little walk. The sunset promised to be quite good so we set off for Broadpool, where we were fortunate in that there were now cows hovering around the pool. I forgot that the car is no longer a 4×4 and we bumped off the road to park; thankfully, I didn’t catch any body work on the ditches. After a short stroll around the shore of the lake, we returned to the part closest to the road where we were rewarded with a beautiful sunset complete with mirror like reflections in the water.

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Lost Again

Last year, Rufus and I climbed Garreg Lwyd in the mist. Mist doesn’t normally bother me other than when I lose Rufus in it. But he knows where I am and while I’d be straining to spot him, he is usually sneaking up behind me. I can hear the metal rings on his collar clinking together sometimes, which helps. This particular time, Rufus and I kept close together and we walked from Garreg Lwyd to Foel Fraith and back. But on the short descent from Garreg Lwyd back to the car we got lost. When I checked the GPS track later, it was amazing to see how I’d strayed almost in a ‘U’turn back towards Foel Fraith.

This morning, we headed back to Garreg Lwyd and, typically, it was under a heavy blanket of cloud again. This time I was careful to make sure that the GPS track was working from the start so I had a reference point should I get lost again. It was hard to say how much visibility there was as there are very few landmarks to judge by on this mountain. The climb up, not too strenuous, reminded me of the terrain on my first Munro – Maol Chearnn Deag. There were lots of limestone boulders making picking a route hard,. I was conscious of Rufus’ small paws and I didn’t want him to struggle, but he was picking his own way over the rocks far more confidently that I was. His four paw drive made light work of the slippery surfaces.

Just before we reached the cairns, a figure loomed in front of us. A fellow walker, faint in the mist, passed close by and I guessed that the limit of visibility was about 20 yards. I don’t think he saw us. Shortly afterwards, I reached a line of rocks and I knew that by heading left (north) I would hit the cairns. Sure enough, in a couple of minutes, the large main cairn rose from the mist and in front of it was the trig point. This one seemed to be made of local stone and nearby was an older, collapsed trig point pillar.

We didn’t linger at the cairn and instead made our way a little further to the East. It was hard to notice the downward incline without reference points but as soon as I recognised it, we turned to head back to the cairns. Rufus was doing a fine job of spotting the easier paths, and he was also keeping within visual distance of me. Heading back in what I thought was the same route towards the cairns, we eventually passed them on the left – they should have been on the right. Even within 100 yards or so, I was becoming disorientated.

I checked the tracker and, keeping an eye on the path, we set off back towards the car. We were off track and we ended up passing through a wide boulder field. Even Rufus paused to check his footing but had no trouble crossing it. I tried to guide him along easier routes, but he kept heading back to the rocks as if he enjoyed the challenge. Our path ran parallel to the one we took coming up and that was fine for me. I knew we wouldn’t emerge on some precipice this way. As we descended, the mist thinned until eventually, I could see the main road and then the car park.

The point of today was to test my knee on longer ascents and descents. so instead of jumping in the car, we decided to explore the quarry. Herbert’s Quarry provide limestone for building and farming up until the 1930s. I’ve been here a number of times and I’m always taken by the exposure of the quarry to the elements. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to work here – walking here for pleasure is tough enough in the winter!

We walked over the workings, along little paths and up the sides of spoil heaps. We left the quarry behind and walked along a sheep track towards Foel Fraith for a while until we started encountering the hill fog again. After a brief rest stop, we turned back for the car. But we were distracted on the way back by little outcrops of rock and the views north, where the hill fog ended and the sun was shining. Well, I was, Rufus was interested in the myriad scents blowing on the wind.

Back home, there was much sleeping. And my knee seemed to have survived the ordeal. The route we took can be seen here.

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