Two old friends

My two friends are really old. As old as the hills, as the saying goes. When I first started hill walking seriously, my friends were often there. When I trained for both treks, I can honestly say that these two acquaintances really made the difference. You’ll have figured out by now that the two mates are mountains. Pen y Fan and Corn Du.

Much of my preparation for the first trek was on or around Pen y Fan. It’s the highest spot in England and Wales south of Snowdonia, at 889m. It’s very popular with walkers as there are a number of easy routes from car parks. In one photograph below, there is a long line of 28 people on the path in shot (you may not be able to make them out as the file has been compressed for publication). I’ve climbed it in just about every type of weather – the only one I’ve missed is thunder, as I’m slightly apprehensive about being hit by lightning! By far my favourite is snow. The first time I climbed Corn Du (with friends from work) it was covered in snow. I headed up one day before dawn to catch the sunrise and was rewarded with a thick layer of snow which took the colour of the sun as it came up over the horizon. I’ve turned back in snow when it;s been too bad to carry on.

This morning promised to start clear and cold so Rufus and I set off early from the house. I prefer to have the mountain to myself so an early start is a simple price to pay. As we neared the car park, the roads were icy but I took it easy and it posed no problem other than slowing the journey. There were already a number of cars parked there but as we headed through the gate there was only one other walker near, and he soon turned off the path.

It was slippery underfoot. The lower slopes seemed to have experienced some thawing, which had re-frozen during the night. Even Rufus, with built in crampons on his paws, slipped and slithered and soon followed me onto the snow covered grass at the side of the path. There was slightly more grip, but also more snow drifts, and several times we sank to our respective knees and tummies. Crossing the stream was an ordeal; snow had drifted on either bank presenting a metre high wall which would have been hard to scramble over from the water. So I searched for a narrower bit and finally found something that looked ‘do-able’. Rufus made light work of it but I got across without getting soaked, and we were off up a snow-filled gully, across a line of knee deep snow that had frozen and which randomly collapsed underfoot and back on to a reasonable line which vaguely followed the path.

Behind me, Fan Fawr soaked up the morning sun and ahead, Corn Du slowly disappeared in a mist. I passed a couple of walkers and the mist descended to take away the views. By the time I got to the steepest part of the climb – the final haul up to Corn Du – the visibility was down to yards. On this stretch, with a sheer drop on the left, it was quite a challenge. I found my self wandering off the path towards the drop as the line of the main route wasn’t hidden by the snow. Rufus, with keener vision, kept well clear and was up on the rocks watching me as I tried to avoid icy patches of rock and ground. Then we were on Corn Du and it felt great.

It was very windy there, and I decided to to hang around but to head across the summit to Pen y Fan. It’s only a short distance but it involves a drop down to a path and another climb to the summit. The drop was icy and Rufus was hesitating, so I showed him the way and encouraged him and he was fine. The walk between the two tops reminded me of my adventures in a white out on Ben Nevis (that’s another story but it involves 2000 foot drops and near zero visibility). Then, suddenly, we were on top of Pen y Fan and although this was the 43rd time I’d climbed it, it felt just as good.

The wind was blowing a gale now and once we’d had a snack and a drink, it was time to head back down. Rufus made short work of the icy steps dropping from Corn Du but I wasn’t far behind him. Initially, the path was steeps and it was difficult to find grip but it soon slackened off, and thicker snow made the going easier. We left the moist behind and suddenly, there were groups of walkers heading towards us. It seemed there were three large groups and numerous smaller ones. We left the path and walked parallel to it, where the going was much easier and we wouldn’t have to keep dodging walking poles. Lower down, we left the groups behind and started encountering families. In avoiding the icy path, I was looking for more grip. Twice I managed to step into snowdrifts deep enough that they pitched me over. Rufus was gracious enough not to stare and laugh inwardly. Then we were back at the car park, which was now jammed full of cars, and I was able to enjoy a coffee from the flask left in the car.

While I drank and munched on a Snickers (other snacks are available) on the slopes of Fan Fawr, I threw snowballs for Rufus. He chased them, grabbed them, found they were cold, dropped them and then barked for another one to be thrown. The journey home was easier as the ice had melted on the roads. By the time I got back home, Rufus was fast asleep on the back seat.

As I type this, he’s snoring away on the sofa. I’ll be joining him shortly.

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Ice topped…

…making cold weather puns. Sorry!

The snow was still there this morning so it was off again to grab Rufus and head up to the river. I expected to find some snow and, more importantly, icicles by the river. The combination of slow shutter speed, flowing water and static icicles was tempting. I also expected a few slippery patches on the road alongside the river.

But when we turned off the main road and on to the lane, it was white with compacted snow. A few places had darker patches which at first looked like melted tracks, but as I went over them, they were clearly ice by the way the car shimmied. It was great. The car gave me the confidence to keep going. In fact, the hardest part was not getting over confident. Despite the traction, I had to be able to stop again, and so I kept the speed down and stayed in 2nd gear, using the engine to brake on the downhill bits. Soon we reached the layby and parked.

As soon as Rufus was out of the car, he was bounding through the snow. It was deep and untouched and so he’d take a few strides then sink to his body, leap up and carry on. He managed to get tot he river before I’d had a chance to take more than a few steps. We wandered along the bank, careful of the overhanging snow and icy rocks. I set the camera up to take the first photo and suddenly there was a bark! I’d forgotten the rules. There were no stones to hand, so I threw Rufus a snowball, which he chased off until it stopped rolling. Puzzled at why he couldn’t see it, he started digging, I looked back to see his head under the snow.

I managed to take a few snaps before it was time to throw another snowball. He chased and dug for this one, too. This routine carried on for a while until it was time to move on. Rufus lead the way, breaking through the deep snow and showing me the path to take. In the distance, on the hill, a big black blob slowly split apart as a herd of cows grazed as best they could on any grass they could find.

It wasn’t particularly cold; there was no wind blowing, but mu fingers were getting chilly from all the snowballs, and Rufus was collecting snow on every part of his fur that touched it. He didn’t see too bothered and I checked a few times to make sure it wasn’t getting between his toes. We carried of for a bit, watching a line of 4x4s go by and then a couple of 2x4s struggling along. They were braver than me in these conditions.

I stopped to take some more waterfalls shots and looked down to find Rufus lying down, giving himself a manicure. I decided that it wasn’t fair to let him get coated like this so after a brief discussion, we reluctantly turned back for the car. We walked along the road, as the compacted snow made it easier and it didn’t clog Rufus’ paws. We’d gone further up the valley than I had realised and the view back down to the dot that was my car was beautiful. Everything was white apart from the trees, which stood out starkly. We strolled down the road, and finally made it to the car. By now most of the snow had fallen off Rufus and I cleared as much as I could of the rest of it. As soon as he got in, he lay down and started getting rid of the rest of it.

The journey down the road was as easy as coming up. I kept the speed low and only met one vehicle coming up. The main road was clear and we were home in no time.

When I got home, I went straight out into the garden to try some more macro shots. The wind that had thwarted me on Friday was non-existent today. And the thaw that was slowly setting in created some lovely, tiny icicles on leaves and twigs.

I love the snow. If we only realised that we get it regularly, and were suitably prepared in attitude as well as with supplies, there would be fewer problems and a lot less stress. If the corner shops didn’t hike their prices as the first flakes fall, if people only bought what they really needed (how much bread and milk will go to waste this week as the hoarders throw it away?) and more importantly, if people accepted that there would be a bit of disruption and adjusted their expectations accordingly, it would be a much better experience.

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Here we snow again

Sorry about the title.

I managed to get a last minute day off today (thanks boss). Rufus and I decided to make for Craig y Fan Ddu.I knew it would be white with frost and I knew it would probably be a challenge for the car and I to get to the car park. But what is life without challenges? Just before we set off, there was a beautiful pre-dawn glow in the sky and I took that to be a good omen, since the clear skies forecast hadn’t materialised properly.

We battled through the commuter traffic. Some how it didn’t seem so bad because we weren’t off to work and in no time we were flying up the A465 heading for Merthyr. Beyond the urban sprawl, the narrow lane leading up into the mountains was frosty, with large stretches covered in snow and ice. The car park was empty and the track leading to it covered in about 2 inches of snow. Great!

We set off on the steep path alongside the river, which tumbles and crashed down a series of waterfalls on my left. After 5 minutes, I realised I’d left Rufus’ snacks behind. Fearing that he’d eat parts of me as punishment, I went back down to get them. About half way up the path, we encountered the first of many sheep. As they wear camouflage at this time of year, they surprised both of us. Rufus was staring in disbelief at a sheep only a few yards away. Ever well behaved (!) he came back to me and we negotiated the ovines until we got to the steepest part of the climb. With my head down, I just got on with it and 10 minutes later, I was panting whilst looking out over a snow covered landscape to the south.

Rufus, of course, was unaffected by the climb and just wanted to get on with the rest of the walk.

We set off north along the ridge towards Graig Fan Las and Craig Cwarelli. The sun was out but not strong as there was a partial covering of thin cloud. A light wind served to chill the air but it wasn’t uncomfortable. For the first half of the route, there was a lot of ice on the path, making walking next to the sheer drop quite a challenge. Rufus’ four paw drive worked but even he was losing grip; probably because he was running everywhere. He was careful not to go near the edge, though.

Then we passed over a stream, an adventure in itself as most of the rocks in the path were covered in thick ice and the stream dropped over the edge of the ridge and down…down…down…

Beyond the stream, things changed. The path was covered in snow, which in places came up over me gaiters (I said gaiters, not garters. It didn’t reach as far as them). That’s knee height. Rufus learnt how to spot and avoid deep snow last time we were up here, so he was okay. I looked for the shortest route and found the going quite hard. We dropped down into the head of the Cerrig Edmwnt valley and the wind picked up. I had to stop to fix my gart… er gaiters and almost immediately I felt my fingers start to sting in the bitter wind. Neither of us waited long and we took off westwards. In the distance, Pen y Fan and Corn Du shone with white snow in the sunshine.

By now, the snow was taking it’s toll on Rufus. Snow balls between his toes where he has long hair and it’s uncomfortable for him to walk. I can usually tell and sure enough, he slowed and then started manicuring himself. I helped him clear the snowballs away and decided to turn around. We had to stop a few more times for snowball clearing, but he was okay. On the way back, I was facing the sun and it was lovely to walk in the sunshine even if there wasn’t a lot of heat coming from it. We met two walkers coming up, and I stopped to talk to them for a while. When I looked down, Rufus was lying flat on the path cleaning his paws again.

Before long we were at the drop to the car park. Despite being down hill, it was no less of a challenge as many of the stones and rocks underfoot had thin sheets of ice on them. But I managed to cope with that (Rufus just went for it and spent his time waiting for me by paddling in the river – which also cleared his paws of snow). At the car park, I put the backpack away, grabbed the camera and set off down into the woods. There’s a lovely set of waterfalls here and with the snow they were even more appealing. I threw stones for Rufus while snapping away at the river.

All too soon it was time to head home. Engaging super mega grip drive (ok, I selected the ice setting), we drove up the slippery track to the road. For a few miles, there was a lot of ice on the road where it had melted, flowed and refrozen as the sun dropped below the hills. Then the going got better and we were back on proper roads. Rufus was sleeping for most of the way back and flopped on the sofa when we got home.

See our route here. I wish I lived closer to the mountains.

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