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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Advertisements

At last, Atlas!

This is not a sad, reflective post.

Since I lost my walking buddy last month, I’ve been at a bit of a loss. The house is empty and silent, my walks have been enjoyable but half hearted and generally I’ve been struggling a little to find something to focus on.  Friends have been really great (thank you all) but inevitably there were moments I had to deal with myself.

I had committed to spending all my spare time with Rufus while he was with me and I never regretted a second. We had some great adventures side by side. We walked all of the Brecon Beacons together. Rufus swam, paddled or splashed about in every muddy puddle in South Wales along with a few rivers and a couple of lakes. I had to stop him climbing up the Devil’s Kitchen in Snowdonia as it was only a few weeks after he had Pancreatitis and he was still recovering. We got about half way up before I managed to persuade him that Llyn Idwal was an ideal paddling pool! If peeing on lamposts is a territorial marker, his kingdom stretched from Sketty Park to Uplands and from Cockett to Oystermouth road (for non-Swansea folk, that’s quite a patch). Squirrels in that acreage were very, very scared!

Everywhere I walk now has some kind of memory of Rufus for me, almost always one that makes me smile. Last week I walked down to Tor Bay and on the beach, I remembered Rufus triumphantly running up to me with a giant piece of rotting seaweed in his mouth. I was meant to throw it for him. I declined. On Fan Gyhirych, I remembered him feigning a limp when he thought we were heading back to the car, only for it to disappear as he leapt over a stile, and instantly reappear again after he’d eaten the treat he knew he’d get for such a feat. It came and went according to the adventure he was having and at one point he got stuck up to his belly in thick mud, which I had to rescue him from. The limp went completely after that! I like these memories, they genuinely make me smile. If you see some grinning idiot on a mountain, it’s probably me.

But I always knew that one day Rufus would head off to the hills without me and I would be left to fill the time with something new different. And I always wondered how I would feel about that. I have a long term plan, with no dates because I couldn’t predict the future, to climb a so-called trekking peak in the Himalayas. A trekking peak is a mountain that can be summited with limited technical skills. There would be no mountaineering but there might be some ice axe and crampon sections, and the need to rope up to protect against falling into hidden crevasses. I knew the first stage of that plan would be learning to use crampon and ice axe. My previous blog was about getting boots that would take crampons but was written well before I had made a decision about when to start. I was merely taking advantage of sales prices.

On Monday, I found a short trek that would combine ice axe and crampon experience for beginners with two summits. Although it was very soon after losing Rufus, it was also an ideal opportunity to start to focus on ‘the next thing’. And here was my dilemma, because no matter how I thought about it, I felt guilty about moving on this quickly. Irrational, I know, but a real issue for me. So, (and bear with me here), I had a little chat with Rufus about it and he ended up calling me names for being so silly to think that way.

The upshot of all this is that I’ve signed up to trek in the Atlas Mountains in Western Morocco later this year. The trek includes a section of walking on ice and frozen snow and offers the opportunity to summit Jebel Toubkal, at 4190m the highest in North Africa, and Jebel Ouanoukrim, which is only a few metres lower. I have heard good things about these mountains from fellow trekkers and one of the great things is that start point in Marrakesh is only 4 hours from the UK – nearly a third of the travel time of the longer treks I’ve been on.

My aimless wanderings will very quickly become focused training sessions. I have Rufus to thank for making me maintain a decent level of fitness, which has meant I can take advantage of last minute offers and a shorter build up. While I won’t say exactly when I’m going (this is the internet after all, and the last thing I want is unwelcome visitors while I’m away), it is relatively soon.

Expect some more posts about the build up, and eventually some long and boring account of the trek itself (from which you are only excused if you have a valid excuse).

Finally, below is what most of weekends will end up with…

Soaking feet

Aahhhh!

 

Rufus

This is the post I never wanted to write, but always knew I would have to.

Yesterday afternoon, my best buddy, walking companion, personal trainer, confessor, therapist, culinary critic, alarm clock, conscience and rival in photography went off for a long and lovely walk in the sunny hills without me. Rufus was diagnosed with chronic kidney failure on Friday and it seems it had been going on for a short while. However, he has such a strong constitution that he showed few signs, and those were masked by his ongoing arthritis. In fact, he was in the vet for a general check up and we had no idea of any underlying conditions until we saw the blood test results.

By Monday, he had deteriorated quite quickly and while not in pain, he was clearly exhausted and the spark in his eyes had faded, even if he managed a weary wag of the tail when I spoke to him. It was at the same time the easiest and the hardest decision to make but it would have been cruel and selfish to prolong his suffering, as the disease was advanced and incurable. He walked into the vet, his tail up and wagging. As usual, he behaved himself and gently and peacefully fell asleep in my arms as I asked him to wait for me on the hills, where I promised to meet up with him every time I went there.

If you’ve read my blogs or seen my social media posts, you will know we shared a special and very close relationship. He was an important part of my life and if you’d asked him, he would have told you that without him, I’d be out of shape and fatter than I am. He was such a character that writing about him was easy and apart from some artistic license to interpret his thoughts, our adventures were told as they were. If you have a moment, search some of my earlier posts to get a picture of who Rufus was.

Rufus was very photogenic and he knew it. If I was taking too long over taking a photo when we were out, his protest usually took the form of standing in front of the camera. For every photo of a smooth waterfall I have, there are several of a smooth waterfall with a slightly blurry Rufus in the frame. When the camera was deliberately pointed at him, the chin would go up, the back legs would stretch out just a little and suddenly he was posing like the pedigree hound he was. The only give-away to his calm and considered exterior was the wagging tail.

Rufus wagged his tail constantly. If he was trying fake being asleep, his tail would give him away. Even when he reluctantly plodded up the stairs to have a shower, there would be a little tail movement as he knew he’d get a big treat afterwards. I like to think that he was a happy dog and I have no reason to think otherwise. A few years ago we went up onto the snow covered hills of the Brecon Beacons. After the initial climb, I noticed that his tail was drooping and not wagging. He seemed fine otherwise, so I kept and eye on him, ready to turn back if he showed any signs of illness. But he was his usual energetic self, leading the way, stopping to let me catch up and staring dramatically into space whenever I took a photo of him. Later, we went to the vet to check it out and it turned out he’d wagged his tail so much that he’d strained the muscle. That was Rufus.

He was a gentle hound with a lovely temperament. Like any spaniel, he’d chase anything that ran but he was friendly and loved attention. On hill walks, he’d ignore other dogs and stop conveniently where people were passing. Inevitably, he’d get a pat on the head or a tickle under the chin. Satisfied, he’d head off to the next group of people. Anyone who met him would tell you that once he’d checked you out with a few sniffs, he would be your friend. Even when he was feeling rough at the vet on Monday, a little girl came over and stroked his fur and he loved it.

We had our disagreements. We disagreed over the ownership of the sofa – if I was sat on the side he wanted to lie on, and which side varied according to whim, he would stand staring at me until I moved. He usually slept on the bed at night and I was allowed a narrow strip at the edge so he could choose where and how to sprawl. Rufus was a great believer in the concept of time being relative. When it was time to go out in the garden, it was time.  He also firmly disbelieved in the existence of rain and refused to accept it as an excuse not to go out. The only exception was the rain we could both hear on the conservatory roof, which we both agreed wasn’t worth going out in.

It was water that filled a large part of Rufus’ outdoor enjoyment. The first time I ever saw him swim was at Penllegare, where excitement got the better of him and he dived into the water after a stick. The river current slowly took him down stream as he bobbed along, before he figured out the doggy paddle and scrambled up on to the shore. Shortly afterwards, we were walking him along the side of the Neath canal when for some reason, he decided to jump onto the lilies at the edge of the water. He disappeared completely under the water and for a few seconds, I saw myself having to reach in to get him. Then he bobbed to the surface, surprised but none the worse for his dive and I dragged him back onto the tow path, which he stuck to for the rest of the walk.

From then on, water was the draw whenever we were out. One of his favourite places to go was Llyn y Fan Fawr. The route up to the lake followed the streams and brooks that would become the Tawe, and Rufus would walk in them, keeping pace with me on the river bank. He loved to chase, catch and dredge for stones and much time on our walks was spent throwing and catching stones. At the lake, my snack break would consist of throwing more stones into the shallow water and it would be a very reluctant hound that would set off for the Fan Brecheiniog ridge. Coming back down, Rufus would spot the water and be off, charging down ridiculously steep grassy slopes to get to the water’s edge, where he’d wait patiently for me to negotiate the path before trying to catch more stones that I was obliged to throw.

In recent months, with his arthritis, I’d had to keep him out of the water as it was a bit cold but I’m glad that on Friday, after we’d been to the vet and before I knew the blood test results, he managed to sneak into the river on Fairwood Common and we spent a few minutes with him barking for me to throw sticks. I now know he was very ill then, but the lure of sticks in water overcomes most ailments.

The house is empty now. The spot he had in the front room has a faint spaniel-shaped shadow where he would watch me, waiting for the signs of an imminent walk. Last night, I thought I saw him pop his head around the door to point out that it was time to go into the garden. There was no gently nudge to suggest we have the last little look in the garden before bed. I didn’t get to smooth his head as we lay back on the pillows and the light went out. There was no snoring, kicking as he dreamed of chasing squirrels, movement as he found a new most comfortable place in the world. This morning, he wasn’t lying next to me, belly and legs in the air as I tickled his tummy before we got up. There was no ‘bump bump’ as he came down stairs. I’ll get used to this silence eventually but it will be a painful and unhappy process.

There are so many photos I could have chosen to illustrate this but the two I choose show you how my shadow will look every time I step out into the hills and mountains.

So, if you are out on the hills and spot a fleeting black shape out of the corner of your eye, probably heading towards flowing water, say hello to Rufus. He’s very friendly and doesn’t bite. And if you’re walking past a river or lake, throw a stone in for him to chase. He’ll love that.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

A walk in the wild wood

I let Rufus off the lead and stopped to listen. At first, other than his gentle snuffling as he explored the scents I could hear nothing. But as my senses adjusted to my surroundings I started to hear the subtle sounds of the woods. Off to my left there was a rustling as blackbirds foraged through the leaves. Above them, in the skeleton branches their smaller cousins called warnings as we made our way further into the trees. In the distance, a dog barked on a farm.

To my right a stream trickled and whispered over stones and fallen branches. In folklore, streams and waterfalls are supposed to be magical places where the fairies gather, and if you listen hard enough you can hear them calling softly. Listen the next time you’re near a small waterfall, and as long as there is no one else around, you’ll hear them too.

Although there was no wind, there was a lot of movement. Blackbirds taking off stirred the leaves around them into little splashes of yellow, while other leaves dropped to carpet the path in a bright orange or brown layer. Every now and then Rufus would pop out from behind a tree or bush before disappearing again as he found some new smell to investigate. We turned off the main path to walk alongside the stream. Above, the canopy of leaves got thicker as if autumn hadn’t quite made it here yet. Rustling in the branches led to showers of leaves either side of us as we moved; the squirrels were keeping pace with us but remaining out of sight.

Every now and then as we walked, a bright patch of yellow leaves still attached to their trees seemed to glow against the sky, defying the brown decay around them. Green moss coated the tree trunks and ivy climbed up and around where the moss allowed it. The sound of an aeroplane flying high above on its way to Heathrow battered its way into our little world which, until now, had been free of man-made intrusions other than us.

Beneath our feet, the mud thickened and spread out to block out path. So reluctantly, we turned about and made our way back through the trees and out onto a misty Fairwood Common.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The Story of the Shower

Rufus had a shower this morning after we got home from our walk. He will tell you it was unnecessary, a cruel and unusual punishment, a compromise to his natural oils keeping his fur clean and an assault on his canine rights. This is the true story of the walk that led to his shower. You decide.

We set off for Mynydd y Gwair to the north of Morriston after a leisurely breakfast. My plan was to walk across the common and on to Mynydd Garn Fach. Along the way there would be marsh, a river to splash and paddle in and a climb up to wonderful views down to the Loughor Estuary. But as we walked along the road and off onto the common, Rufus was reluctant to go too far from the tarmac, stopping and turning around to face the car. I thought his leg might be playing up a bit and so after a few minutes, I let him have his way and we headed back to the car. Or more accurately, towards the car. We passed the car with no sign that Rufus wanted to stop and instead, he took the turning that led down the forestry track to the remains of Bryn Llefrith plantation.

I’ve noticed recently that Rufus is more discerning with his choice of routes and rather than accept my guidance every time, he occasionally lets me know which way he wants to go. It usually manifests itself as a sudden, complete halt followed by a sullen, teenager-like plod while he looks in the direction he wants to go and stops dramatically to sniff at a non-existent scent. This was one of those occasions.

He trotted off down the track at his usual pace, with no sign of any leg issues and no non-existent scents to smell. We haven’t been in to Bryn Llefrith for ages and although they haven’t cut any more tress down, it has become overgrown with reeds and bushes. Many of the newly planted trees are starting to sprout but it will take ages for the forest to grow again.

We turned to follow the northern boundary fence of the forest, which is where the footpath goes. There was some mud and a lot of marshy ground but there always is at this point. Unfortunately it didn’t dry up and steadily got worse. Ahead, Rufus was splashing through the water and I could tell by the sound of his paws that it was deep. Then the sound turned to squelching and for the next 10 minutes, we squished and slurped through ever thickening mud. And then it got really muddy!

The plantation slopes down from Mynydd y Gwair and the water ultimately runs into the Upper Lliw reservoir. When the plantation was complete, the trees would manage the water and control the saturation of the ground. Now there are only a few trees left, there is no control. We were walking around the perimeter at the lowest point and eventually, there was little point in trying to avoid the mud as it was everywhere. I think at this point, as we were alongside the shore of the reservoir, Rufus knew that there was a shower ahead. He did his best to dodge the deepest pools but to no avail. The further we went, the muddier we got.

My plan was to climb back up to the higher track and hopefully dodge the mudfest but the track was as muddy as the path. The only difference was that we could see further ahead at all the pools and puddles that lay between us and the dry part of the track far ahead. Rufus vaulted a couple of tree trunks that had fallen across our route, kicking up drops of mud that went everywhere. I plodded along, my boots taking on the colour of the ground as they soaked up the gloop. Eventually, we reached drier, high ground.

Back in the house Rufus headed straight for the back garden. He knew what was coming and tried to dodge the inevitable. But reluctantly, he accepted his fate and made his way slowly up the stairs tot he bathroom. With much grunting and sighing, he had his shower. The blanket that Rufus sleeps on in the car went straight into the washing machine along with my trousers and my boots spent an hour or so in the sun where the worst of the mud dried and I was able to scrape it off.

Had I left the mud on Rufus, he would be caked in a layer that would prevent him from moving properly. The photos of the shower while I’m washing him are proof enough. I rest my case.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.