Let’s all do the Konga (Ri)

My bid to climb the 6200m Dzo Jongo in Ladakh was thwarted by climate change in the form of an unusual short but intense rain and snow storm. It was disappointing but that summit was only one of a series of amazing sights, challenge and achievements in the 10 days we trekked through the Stok mountain range. And we did bag a summit, the 5750m Konga Ri. This is my experience of it.

We had trekked from the village of Stok over 6 passes ranging from 4700m to 5300m in height. It had rained for two days and we spent one afternoon walking through a blizzard. On one day as we climbed up to Gongmaru La we followed the river through its gorge, wading across it 14 times as the path weaved and twisted along its banks. The river was in full spate due to the snow and rain on the mountains the fed it. We later found out that we had been cut off from the rest of Ladakh for several days due to floods and landslides.

On the day after the blizzard, we found that our original base camp was under a foot of snow and, more seriously, under the threat of avalanche from an overhanging serac. The summit ridge was heavily corniced and the approach was waist deep in snow. We got the message. So our experienced guide (Valerie has been leading treks in the region for more than 30 years) pointed to a low, rounded summit to the left of Dzo Jongo and said ‘we’ll do that one instead’.

The plan was to ascend to the Lhalung La pass, at 5320m. There we would split with those who had chosen not to attempt Konga Ri, who would drop down towards the camp with the ponies and crew and await our return. Those going on would have to commit to the climb, as the only escape routes were over Konga Ri or back the way we’d come.

We set off around 8am, taking an easy line up the side of the valley. As we reached the snow it made the going that much harder. Feet slipped back with every step forward and as the sun rose it became warm and then hot. The light was bright and reflecting off the snow and I was glad of my sunglasses which dealt with the intense radiation. I’d covered myself in sun cream and was liberally applying lip protection but I could still feel the sun burning my lips.

It took us a couple of slow hours to reach the pass, a flat plateau of thick white snow at 5300m with fantastic views all around. We gathered slowly at a cairn and took a break while the stragglers arrived. In every direction there were snow covered mountains.

We said goodbye to the people that weren’t making the attempt on Konga Ri and set off to the right, ironically heading directly towards Dzo Jongo. The route was flat to start with but the snow and altitude made even that walking more tiring that usual. Before long, the path started to descend slightly as we crossed over to the ridge that would lead up to the summit. I could see that beyond the dip in the ridge there was a steeper pull up the side of the mountain. We walked slowly, pacing ourselves and saving energy for the climb but even so the altitude began to tell.

Tamchos, our guide, suddenly stopped us and I tried to see what he was staring at. He said he’d spotted three wolves in the distance, following the path we would be taking up the side of the mountain. I couldn’t see anything and I stared ahead trying to spot the movement. My sunglasses have prescription lenses but they are so curved that it’s a compromise and my vision isn’t as good with them as with my usual glasses. I aimed my camera in the general direction and snapped away. Later, I found one image where I can see three dots which correspond to the place Tamchos was pointing.

We moved on a little and bumped into two trekkers who had been following our group and staying in the same campsites. We’d got to know Andy and Phil, the latter was a photographer and movie maker who was carrying around a lot of camera kit that had attracted my attention. They and their guide were stationary also watching the dots in the distance through telephoto lenses. They were convinced it was a snow leopard and two cubs. Tamchos didn’t agree but didn’t argue. However a few minutes after we left Phil and Andy, we came across paw prints in the snow. The general opinion was that they were cat like, not dog like as dogs cannot retract their claws and there were no claw marks. We only saw one set, which were adult leopard sized and they followed the route we were taking, leading up to where we’d spotted the dots.

Now we started to climb again and once the excitement of the wildlife spotting had faded, it began to get tough. The snow was deep, the path indistinct and the gradient rapidly became steep. We must have been around 5500m, higher then Everest Base Camp, and the gradient began to take its toll. I tried to maintain Tamchos’ pace as we climbed the side of the mountain but found it increasingly hard to do as my feet were slipping in the snow, dropping me back half a pace for every one I took forward. I expected him to zig zag up the slope but he attacked it full on.

We reached the top of the climb exhausted and panting only to find it was a false summit. We set off again with Tamchos explaining that there were two more such false summits but that it wasn’t far. The next section was very steep and although I overtook a couple of our group (I’m not sure who as I had my head down) I did so very, very slowly and as I recall, they had stopped to rest or to remove a layer. As I reached the top of the second climb I had to stop. It was getting increasingly hot now and I had to remove a layer and take a drink or risk overheating. Tamchos had taken a pause but set off again almost as soon as I reached him. I didn’t dare look up to see how far was left because now I was in a world of my own; my own breathing was the only sound I could hear. My feet were all I could see and my pace was the only pace. In my head, thoughts were racing between the ‘this is do-able’ mantra I had used on all the other passes and ‘I can’t do this’, which I dismissed several times as I was clearly doing it.

Suddenly, in my head, I decided that there was another false summit ahead. At the same time I felt all my energy just draining away, a strange feeling I’ve never come across before. It really was as if a tap had been opened and my energy was spilling onto the floor. I slowed to a crawl, barely able to put one foot in front of the other. I took a couple of staggering footsteps and looked up, ready for another slope ahead and the inevitable defeat.

It was flat. The way ahead was a plateau with Tamchos about 10m in front of me. I stopped for a couple of breaths, unable or unwilling to accept that I had done the hard bit. Then I thought I’d better keep going or I might never move again. Each step was an effort but also a reward. I was there and all I had to do was walk about 50m and I could rest. I don’t know how long those 50m took me to walk, but I made it and stopped, only able to stand and grin as Tamchos congratulated me. I had done it and it felt really, really good. Then Tamchos offered me a piece of cherry cake and that felt even better. It was 2.55pm, seven hours after we’d left camp.

The others staggered in over the next few minutes until everyone who had set out to get here was standing or sitting around the cairn. There were congratulations and selfies. I had more cherry cake and some digestive biscuits. I finished the last of my Snickers off, and had a few squares of Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut.

By now, I was starting to regain breath, energy and my senses. And I started to look around at the view from the top of this mountain. Everywhere I looked there were snow capped mountains. To the south was the extended ridge of Dzo Jongo. It was clear how the cornice of snow would have halted our progress over the final ridge; we wouldn’t have known whether we were stepping on solid ground or a thin covering of snow over a sheer drop of some 500m. Roped up or not, it would have been extremely dangerous. I don’t think anyone had any doubts that Valerie’s assessment was the wisest and, in reality, the only decision. Other peaks were characterised by long sharp ridges with steep sides and few accessible slopes. In the distance, the horizon was made up of the whole Himalaya and such was the perspective that between our white plateau and the white tops of the distant peaks was a darker strip that could have been placed there just to enhance my photographs.

The brilliant blue sky and intense sunshine that had accompanied us on our climb so far was being threatened by clouds coming in from the south. But we were still in brilliant sunshine and I didn’t want to leave this hard gained summit. We gathered around the cairn, which was adorned with a complete yak skull and horns, and a group photo was taken. Then, after another piece of cherry cake, we prepared to leave. At least it was all downhill from here.

Tamchos set off and soon he was outpacing us and I was finding it hard to walk in the deep snow. In places it was up to my knees and mostly way above my ankles so I was having to lift my legs higher to avoid dragging them through the snow. Under the snow, the ground was rocky and so now and again my foot would slip and twist on a hidden rock or dip, making progress harder. And this was before we’d reached the serious slope.

The downhill gradient started to pick up but rather than it being easier to walk, it was just as hard as coming up, as my feet were slipping, failing to get purchase on the uneven ground beneath the fresh snow. There was a steep drop to my left as we descended and I did consider getting my ice axe out, but it was rocky and it would have been unlikely to do much; I was better off using my walking pole to maintain balance.

We continued down for about 30 minutes until Tamchos stopped to check the route ahead, I welcomed the break and looked back to see that we had outdistanced the others. It made me feel a little better that I wasn’t the only one suffering and my aching legs relished the short rest. But cramp threatened to set in and I was eager to set off again.

We took a slightly different bearing that led through deeper and steeper snow. My feet continued to slip but now I found that occasionally, I could control the slip to ease the impact on my knees by deliberately sliding. Tamchos advised me to pick my own route so that the fresh snow would help prevent more serious slips and falls. We spread out and now some of the others caught me up. We descended the steepest part of the mountain in an extended line, overtaking and being passed as the conditions dictated. We later joked that one of the camp tea trays would have enabled us to slide down far quicker, although everyone admitted later that they hadn’t considered the stopping part.

After about an hour of slipping and sliding and giant steps down, we reached the snow line and shortly afterwards we stopped for a rest. It had been almost as exhausting coming down as the last part of going up, and it had certainly taken its toll on muscles I hadn’t been using until now.

We could see the green valley ahead and Valerie explained that just around the corner behind the rocks on our right were the tents. I half believed her, thinking it might just be a moral booster; the false summits earlier still played on my mind. We set off once more on ground that was much easier to walk on. It was green and rocky and muddy in places but now we could see the hazards and the slip risk was considerably less. Everything ached and the sun was beginning to warm me up again now we had left the cooling breeze of the descent. We kept together as an extended group as we walked over the flood plain and dropped lower until we were crossing the little tributaries that made up the river ahead. The red rocks of the mountain in front of us began to glow with the evening sun and contrasted with the greenery surrounding us.

And then, just as we walked down a particularly steep part of the plain, the white of the cook’s tent came into view ahead. As we rounded the spur of grey rock and scree, more tents became visible. The mess tent looked beautiful and inviting and as we neared we could see that all the tents had been put up. It had taken us 9 hours to complete the summit and return.

We all did the Konga (Ri).

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Moel Siabod

Day two in Snowdonia and I was seeking out a new mountain to climb. I’d seen a route suggested in a magazine which appealed to me – Moel Siabod (roughly translated as ‘Shapely Mountain’) and this morning I set out even earlier than yesterday to get to the top. Once again it was bitterly cold in Nant Ffrancon but the sun was coming up fast and it promised to be another perfect walking day.

At the car park I compared routes with another walker who was just setting out. We both decided that scrambling (one option) wasn’t wise given the ice and frost but i knew there was a more traditional path running slightly to the left of the scramble route. With this as my first goal, I set off to cross the Afon Llugwy on an old single arch stone bridge. After a short detour down the wrong path, I finally found the lane leading onto the mountains. It was a steep, twisting tarmac farm track nestled between high hedges that restricted the view to some branches and many potholes. But just as I was getting bored, the lane pooped out and turned into a footpath that skirted the farm and led to a rougher track. But more importantly, ahead I could see the classic mountain shape of Moel Siabod. I could see how it had got its name.

For the next half mile or so, it dominated the view ahead and I had plenty of time to study the layout of the ridges and make an educated guess where the path I was looking for climbed to the top. The path led over several stiles until I was walking alongside the steepest part of the mountain. I came across the first of three lakes I was looking for. This one sat at the foot of a large spoil tip of broken slate. Above the lake were a number of ruined buildings made from stone; the remains of a slate quarry that had dug into the side of the mountain and excavated a deep hole which became the second lake. This was Moel Siabod Slate and Slab works, which operated from the early 19th Century until 1884.

Beyond this, the path climbed steeply for a few yards and water had seeped onto the ground and frozen in a solid sheet of ice. It was impossible to walk upon and I had to dance a few deft steps to avoid sliding back down the quarry again. Soon I was walking on more even ground, climbing steadily rather than quickly. Underfoot, the ground had been boggy and muddy but the cold temperatures had solidified most of it to make the going much easier and considerably drier.

I skirted the third lake and spotted a path leading up the side of the mountain. It was clearly the scramble route, so I avoided it and carried on looking for the adjacent path. About 15 minutes later, I started to wonder if I’d missed the start of the route up. I stopped to snack and drink and checked the map. The path on the map seemed to follow the scramble route and there was no other marked. I couldn’t see a path on the ground but the eye of faith spotted a faint route up following two slanting lines of rocks. With yesterday’s gully route in the back of my mind, I set off for a short but very steep climb up to the rocks. High above, the grey mass of the summit seemed miles away and I started a slow plod to gain height.

After about ten minutes, I looked up to see how far I’d gone and found the summit no closer. My legs were heavy after yesterday’s climb and I stopped for a breather and to take in the view behind me. A hazy vista lay before me, making the landscape difficult to identify. Occasionally, a shining rooftop or road surface cut through. I set off again, slower this time as the going was much steeper. There was no clear path to follow and I had to choose where I put my feet carefully as in places the way forward was more the 45 degrees. I checked my progress and the summit still seemed impossibly far away. The next ten minutes felt like an hour. I went slower and slower as my energy levels started to ebb and every time I looked up, it felt as if I’d gone backwards.

Eventually, I stopped to make the call whether to turn back. I didn’t know where I was in relation to the summit and I was clearly not on any well used path. I didn’t seem to be making any progress and my spirits were low. I had stopped enjoying the morning. I stared at the summit rocks and as I did I started to pick out details and began to realise that I was much closer to them than I had previously realised. There was nothing to suggest scale and so I hadn’t been able to judge distances but now I spent some time I could see little cracks, patches of snow and other subtle signs that said ‘I’m soooo close…’

This revelation gave me a little extra energy and I set off on the final push to the top. Within ten minutes, the slope had backed off and I could see a low wooden fence leading up ahead and off to the right. I looked up and the rocks I’d thought were miles away were within touching distance. But I still had to be careful; the way up the last few metres was across broken rock, all of which was white with frost and snow. I wobbled and slid my way over the uneven ground, wary of twisting an ankle at this late stage, and suddenly I was on the flat summit plateau with the trig point just above me on the right.

Moel Siabod is a great mountain. It has 360 degree views and I spent minutes just looking around, trying to identify the various snow capped peaks I could see sticking out above the haze. Ahead of me was a panorama of Welsh 3000ft mountains, ranging from Snowdon and Crib Goch, across to the Carneddau and the Gkyders, where I’d been yesterday. It was beautiful and tranquil and awe inspiring and it was everything I want a mountain top to be. Eventually, I recovered and started to take photos. It was warm up there, as it had been yesterday. Despite a slight breeze, the sun was warm and suddenly all the effort and doubts I’d had on the way up was forgotten. It was mostly white beneath my feet and there was a thick frost on the rocks around the trig point. Off to my right was the ridge I would have scrambled up and I guessed that the path I should have followed was much closer to the scramble route than I had expected.

All too soon it was time to head down. I had thought of going back the way I came but I chose instead to use the rest of the route as described in the magazine and head off on a circular path back to the car. I gingerly made my way over the frosty rocks and down onto a frozen grassy slope. This dropped me down very quickly but easily until I reached a deeply rutted path. This was filled with ice and snow and was harder to negotiate. Most accidents happen on the way down after the walker has become more confident and wants to get off the mountain quickly. I was very conscious of this as I stepped carefully to avoid ice and loose rocks. I stopped to chat with a couple from the Wirral who were spending the afternoon on the mountain. They often came up to North Wales and we agreed about how much better it was to have the mountain to ourselves rather than sharing it with hundreds of tourists as on Snowdon.

The walk back to the car was hot and towards the end, when the views had gone, long and lacking in interest. I made my way through the forest and across the river once again before walking the last half mile or so along the A5 to the car. On the way I looked back to see Moel Siabod, hazy in the distance, looking like a proper mountain between the trees.

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Kitchenwatch 4 – When things come together

It’s called a living room, but that doesn’t mean you have to live in there all of the time. Both Rufus and I have struggled a little bit remaining in one room during kitchenwatch. We’ve had walks together and I had considered leaving him out in the garden while I went shopping. The threat of thunder storms and the need for me to be around some of the time as the builders discover more little legacies from the guys who built the kitchen extension meant I didn’t want to do that. So we’ve lived in the living room for most of the last 10 days.

Today, the builders were due back to finish off the fitting the bits and pieces, check the water and replace the fridge and washing machine. As we wouldn’t really be needed I decided we’d head off for a morning on the hills. The weather forecast was for a cooler morning which meant better conditions for both of us. So after making sure the builders had everything they needed, we set off.

The plan was to revisit the waterfalls on the hill above the River Tawe near Cerrig Duon stone circle. We set out from the car and there was a chilly breeze but we soon warmed up as we walked. It didn’t take long to climb the side of the hill on an old sheep trail. They’re always the best way to ascend a hill as sheep take the easiest route and we often follow their tracks for this reason. Today, in the cooler weather, Rufus was ranging far and wide, enjoying the freedom to investigate interesting aromas without me calling him back.

At the crest of the hill, we surprised some green sheep, their wool dyed to identify them. A few years ago I saw pink sheep, the red dye having run and faded over time and once I saw a flock of multi coloured sheep. There were reds, greens and blues and with the fading creating subtle differences in shade, the effect was surreal.

The sun had warmed the morning up as well and it was pleasant as we walked over the flat of the hill. We found the stream and followed it against the flow. I stopped to take photos of the waterfalls and Rufus waded and paddled and lapped at the fresh water. Suddenly, I realised we were fairly close to Llyn y Fan Fawr. This circuitous route had brought us close to the southern end of the lake and although we still couldn’t see the water, I knew from previous times (when I’d been lost in mist and had passed the lake without realising) exactly where I was. I took the executive decision to head for the lake. Rufus was already ahead and I knew that once he saw the lake there’d be no stopping him anyway. So off we went, a little further than I had planned. We’d done the climb and the going was flat with a few little ridges. On one of those ridges, I saw the water and Rufus charging towards it.

We sat on the bank of the lake for a few minutes and I threw stones for Rufus to chase or catch. He seemed to be doing well with plenty of energy and I was feeling good and over to my left was the path that led up to Fan Brecheiniog. It was very tempting to set off but I wasn’t sure as I hadn’t planned it and it was only a few weeks ago that Rufus was seriously ill. But all the time we’ve been walking this past two weeks he’s been strong and although his right knee is stiff when we get home, it’s never stopped him from charging out into the garden at the least excuse.

So we set off slowly up the path. It’s steep and rocky and I kept a careful eye on Rufus; as he was ahead of me it wasn’t hard. He was pulling away and at first I called him back to try and ease his pace. But he was happy, and eventually I let him go. It’s a short but sharp ascent and although I’ve done it many times, it’s not often I do it without at least one pause for breath… ahem… to take photographs. This time I managed to do it in one go. I think it was because I kept my pace slow and steady. At the top of the path, we stopped to chat to a trio of walkers also making their way up. Rufus was keen to get going so I left them behind and we set off for the final pull to the ridge.

I love the top of Fan Brecheiniog. It’s my favourite mountain in the Brecon Beacons national park. The views are stunning and on a day like today, they were all visible. The lake was a deep turquoise blue and clear enough that I could see the bottom of the lake around the banks. A breeze kept the sun’s heat at bay. We walked along the top with a sense of space and freedom that is one of the reasons I love it here. There were more people on the mountain today than I have ever seen in one go before. We passed a group of about 20 young walkers all chatting away; I overheard one say he loved this mountain because of the solitude and I chuckled at the irony. We passed two small spaniels and their owners and there was much wagging of tails as Rufus said hello.

At the far end, Foel Fawr, we sat and enjoyed the view from the cairn back along the way we’d come. Rufus was looking bright and still had energy to wander about but I didn’t want to push things, so we turned around and headed back down. I’m constantly on guard looking for little signs that his blood disorder is coming back to the point of paranoia but there was nothing. At the lakeside, we chased stones again and then set off on the direct route back to the car. Despite days of fine weather, it was still boggy underfoot and I struggled to find a fairly dry path through it all. Above us, two Red Kites wheeled and soared in the warm air. By the time we reached the river again, we were both starting to tire a little but as we neared the car, Rufus was still walking faster than me. He was glad to get onto the back seat and have a lie down, though.

The journey home was uneventful and every time I checked on Rufus, his eyes were shut or drooping. We got home just in time to speak to the builders. They had just finished and were clearing up. Everything that was planned to be done had been finished, apart from the wiring in of the oven, underfloor heating and sockets, which is due to be completed on Monday.

I have a kitchen!

Although I was tired from the walk, I managed to clear the living room of it’s temporary kitchen (kettle, toaster, sandwich toaster and water) and started to fill the cabinets. As there are so many more of them than I had before, I still haven’t filled them all and I’m still trying to decide where everything should go to make the most of the new layout. It’s all strange at the moment and I’m sure I’ll change my mind before the week is out. Rufus has indicated his approval by having his food and drink there.

There is still work to do to finish it all off. I will be having the gas fire and boiler replaced later this year and all the existing pipework runs through the kitchen, so that has been left for the time being. I haven’t decided what to do with the space by the window where the units used to be, but they left me offcuts of worktops which I can use to make a breakfast bar of sorts. And I have to decide on the tiles I want so that I can get the builders to come back and do those.

But I have a kitchen. Now all I need to do is learn to cook!

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Climbing Kilimanjaro 2: Across the Caldera

By now we were well and truly on the mountain. Ahead, Kilimanjaro reared up out of the plain and when the clouds permitted, we could see the top, where we would be walking in only a few days. Our guides fostered a spirit of positive mental attitude which proved to be the right way to tackle this trek; physical preparation was only part of the challenge ahead.

We left camp ahead of our porters although they swiftly passed us on this flat stretch of plain. We were walking in the collapsed cone of the oldest of the three volcanoes that make up Kilimanjaro, Shira. Where rivers and streams had cut through the rock we could see the strata of lava flow beneath. To the right, south, was the remains of the crater wall, Shira ridge, rising to just under 4000m. The morning was hot and the walking relatively easy. There were few landmarks to break up the landscape but as we passed the most prominent, a large and incongruous boulder, we turned right to head away from the mountain and off towards Shira Cathederal. The Cathederal was a large rock formation which was once part of the Shira cone. The rough volcanic rock had weathered less than it’s surroundings and we would be using it as a small acclimatisation walk .

The pat led over flood channels and dry river beds but remained easy going. We spotted giant lobelia growing off the path and as we had time to spare, we walked over to investigate. They were odd plants, seemingly out of place in this wilderness, but beautiful in their own way. Heading back tot he path, we spotted Malachite Firebirds flying around and watching us from the bushes. Their emerald green feathers stood out and flashed when caught in the sunlight.

It turned out that we were near their nest and we retreated to allow them to return. There were two chicks in the nest and one of our group had seen them, beaks wide open, waiting for food. Not wishing to disturb them any more, we set off towards the rocks, now getting closer.

The path started to ascend and as we were unused to the slope after our walk on the plains, we slowed and felt out of breath. But before long we reached the foot of the cliffs and took a short break before attempting the climb up to the view point. Here we shed packs and started on the scramble up the narrow, rocky path. There were plenty of hand and foot holds, but there was also exposure to quite a drop and I remembered the ‘three points of contact’ mantra I’d been taught when scrambling in Snowdonia. After a few minutes, we were on the narrow ridge that led to the summit.

We’d climbed around 80m in total and although we were at altitude, it wasn’t too taxing. There were magnificent views across the caldera to our camp of this morning, but looking south towards the lower slopes and the route of the Machame path, there were thick dark clouds and they seemed to be approaching.

Back down, after a precarious slippery scramble, we donned back packs and set off over the slightly lower hill that would take us to Shira Hut camp site, our goal for the day. Shortly after we set off, the first rain started to fall. There were the big raindrops of a thundery shower and a few hailstones. I didn’t allow my mind to recall my encounter with a thunder storm during training until I heard the first clap of thunder from the right.

Waterproofs were hastily put on and I noticed the guides weren’t too concerned by the thunder, so I chose not to be. Mind over matter – it seemed the positive mental attitude was working. But no amount of positivity stopped the rain from falling and it quickly became heavy and persistent. To the accompaniment of the odd peal of thunder, we walked in near silence in a world cocooned by our rain gear and the thick rain and mist. In all subsequent conversations, this was deemed to be the worst day of the trek, including the summit day. It was cold, wet and miserable and all we had to look forward to was the dubious shelter of a tent at the end of it.

We straggled into camp after about an hour. Everything was soaked. We were even given dispensation to go straight to the tents rather than registering at the Ranger post first. Wet kit was deposited in the porch of the tents, and we gathered, damp and downhearted, in the mess tent. Hot peanuts and hot drinks helped revive our spirits. The mention of an acclimatisation walk didn’t fill us full of enthusiasm.

After lunch, which was soup and toast, we had some time to gather our thoughts, change out of damp clothes and take a rest before we set off on the short acclimatisation walk. We took the route we’d be following the next day. The plan was to climb another 80m or so and stay for a few minutes, following the acclimatisation rule of climbing high and sleeping low. In the event, we were feeling good enough to ascend higher and we finally stopped at around 150m higher than camp. There we chatted with our guides, who explained the language and tribal system of Tanzania.

Before independence in 1964,  there were 120 tribes across East Africa and they all had their local languages and dialects. Julius Nyerere legislated that Swahili, already a common tongue, would be the national language. The main effect of this was to unify the various tribes and thus the country. All Tanzanians can speak Swahili and their own tribal tongue. Locals can identify the tribe from the accent of Swahili and while I can’t say I noticed too many differences, the way our porters said ‘jambo’ every time they passed us on the trail varied considerably from long, drawn out version, to short snappy ones. This to me seemed to be based on accent.

The walk also had the benefit of drying off our gear, as by now the rains had stopped and the sun was out. We descended with a wonderful view of the caldera, the path we’d taken this morning and the clouds clearing from the slopes of the Cathedral rocks.

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Walking off the turkey

Boxing day and I had eaten too much Christmas dinner, too many Green & Blacks chocolates and too much Turkish delight. There was only option left to me. Walk it off.

After Tuesday’s experience, I was a little apprehensive of going back onto the hills. But I knew I had to so that it didn’t become a permanent worry, and I knew I needed the training time. So after checking the mountain weather forecasts (low risk of thunder storms), I headed off to the Storey Arms and the start of the path to Corn Du. The weather was looking good – sun and blue sky at the start and low cloud on the hills themselves. No sign of high winds or hail, and the western sky was clear of storm clouds.

I set off on the snowy and slippery path. Immediately, I passed another walker who had stopped to put crampons on. My ice grips were at home – they’re in the back pack now – but I didn’t really feel I needed them. Although the path was icy, there were plenty of protruding rocks to give me grip and I knew that if the ice got worse I could walk on the snowy grass at the side and be okay. In no time, I was on the top of the first hill, looking down at the swollen stream and the climb up to Corn Du. I was passed by four walkers here, and two a little further on. I was setting my own pace (I’m aiming for around 3kph) and so being passed never worries me. There was no sign of the crampon man (and I didn’t see him the whole time I was on the hills).

The visibility dropped as I climbed into the clouds and with the thick snow that now covered the path, it was hard to see where I was going or how far I’d come. For a while I could see the two guys ahead of me but they disappeared into the cloud as they pulled ahead and then I was on my own. It doesn’t worry me – I like the solitude, but I felt a couple of twinges of unease as I thought back to Tuesday. But the cloud above me was too bright to be thick and I knew from previous experience that this was just a mist. The unease eased off.

Soon I came to the junction of paths that lead from the Storey Arms and from Pen Milan. At this point the climb up to Corn Du steepens so I usually take a moment to catch my breath and enjoy the northerly views. There were no views this morning, but I took a break anyway. I checked the path up and there were faint traces of the sides of the route.The main part, stones laid down by volunteers from the National Trust, was covered in a layer of snow around 8″ deep that had drifted into the channel. I chose to walk on the side, where the going would be much less tiring. In no time, the bulk of Corn Du loomed out of the mist and I waded through knee deep snow to reach the summit.

It was much easier to get to this time as there was little wind blowing. The top was white but the snow wasn’t deep here; it had been blown elsewhere by what wind there was. I spent a few minutes here before heading across to the drop and path to Pen y Fan. Just before I left the summit, I was joined by two more walkers. It was getting a little busy compared to when I’m here normally.

The wind dropped completely between the two mountains, and I could clearly hear someone talking on their phone. I couldn’t see them, though, until I walked on quite a bit when a red jacket suddenly appeared to my right and lower down.

Pen y Fan was similarly windswept and I reached the cairn in near whiteout conditions. Two people stood taking photos of each other. I turned around to go back and dropped down behind Corn Du. The snow was knee high again here and it took me about 10 minutes to make may way around until I got tot the path that heads down to Pont Ar Daf. In that time, I must have passed about 15 people. It was a popular place.

The path down was smooth with snow but not as slippery as it looked. I’m getting to the point, with 20 days to go to the trek, that I am paranoid about getting an injury. At this stage, anything serious enough to stop me training might well stop me from going. So I was careful where I stepped and took it easy. In the 30 minutes or so it took me to get down, I must have passed around 50 people. There were solo walkers, families with kids, pairs, trios, and one largish group. It was interesting to note that on the way up, everyone I passed responded to my ‘good morning’. On the way down, apart from one or two at the very top, few gave me more than a second glance as I greeted them. I’ve seen this before. It seems that genuine walkers are friendlier that the weekend strollers.

I was also amused to see a couple gingerly making their way down what was a fairly easy path at the bottom. She was holding on to him despite having a pair of walking poles. As I got closer, I spotted that while he was wearing the right kit, she was wearing trainers with worn soles. I have no sympathy for that lack of preparation and I hope she slipped and fell. (As I was driving back, the rescue helicopter flew over the car heading towards the hills. I expect it was some other unprepared fool being overconfident and risking the lives of others when it all went wrong).

Back at the car, the sun was shining once again and I drove down to a favourite location to take some photos of a tree by the river. I’ve been there several times and when the light is right, it’s a lovely place to stop and snap away.

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3 Mountains

Looking out of the window at 8am, the western sky was black with rain clouds. It reinforced the message of the weather forecast last night – storms, winds, thunder. Not the best weather to be on the hills. Stubborn to the last, I headed out to the hills.

My goal today was to get to Pen y Fan via Corn Du. This would be the same route as I tried before, when the wind was so strong I had to abandon the attempt. It would be about two hours in total, fine if the weather was rough. There were plenty of extensions if the weather was good and escape routes if the perfect storm broke. Rain doesn’t really bother me as long as I’m not starting out in it, but my greatest fear is a thunder and lightening storm popping up when I’m the highest conductor around. There was a chance of lightening today, so I needed to know I could get off the mountain quickly if necessary. The bonus of Pen y Fan is all round visibility, so I could see any threats in the distance.

As I drove over the moorland to get to the start, there was a gorgeous light on Corn Du and the hint of snow on it’s summit. I even stopped to take a photo, so lovely was the sight. It didn’t take long to get to the car park and in no time, I was heading up the hill. Almost immediately, I was passed by four lads in trainers in jogging pants charging up. I’d seen them whooping and yelling in the car park and I deliberately walked slowly to let them pass me. Pen y Fan tends to attract the trophy walkers and I’ve seen all sorts of walkers in the years I’ve been walking it. The funniest was a woman in fur coat and Ugg boots, squelching away and thoroughly unhappy with her partner who was encouraging her to continue.

The lads kept going and before long I was alone again. it was cold out and ahead I could see frost and the remains of the last hail shower on the ground. But I was snug and warm in several layers. I reached the top of the first little hill and the lads were just in front of me. Although they were walking quickly, they were stopping frequently, too. I slowed down again. The path drops down to a little stream and after the week’s rain, this was swollen. Wearing only trainers, the lads struggled to find a way across. I didn’t laugh. I’ve crossed this river so many times that I know the narrow places and was across with no problem.

The path climbs steadily from the river and is fairly featureless. Ahead, Corn Du kept appearing and disappearing as low cloud brushed over the top. The frost and hail on the ground increased. It began to feel a little wintery. At least the wind wasn’t  as bad as last time. The last 15 minutes are on a very steep and slippery section of rocky path and the ground was white with proper snow. I climbed over the edge of the summit and was immediately buffeted by the wind. But it was easy to keep my balance this time.

After a few minutes on the summit, it was time to head over to Pen y Fan. As I climbed up the extra few metres, the sun forced its way through the cloud and the cairn was lit up against the darker sky to the north. The lads were lined up on the cairn and I stopped to take a couple of photos for them. I was feeling good and the weather certainly wasn’t as bad as I was expecting, so as they turned around to head back down, I decided to drop down off Pen y Fan and head towards Cribyn – the next Beacon in the line. The path down from the summit was difficult, not least because of the snow and ice. The natural rock steps are large and sloping downwards, so it would have been all too easy to slip as my weight went on to each foot.

As I reached the bottom of the steepest part, it began to get dark. The wind picked up and after another couple of minutes, it began to hail, The wind was blowing hard from the west and for most of the rest of the path down to the lowest point it was battering up against my back pack. But it got a lot colder. I decided not to climb Cribyn and turned to go back up Pen y Fan.

Now, the wind was blowing the hail directly into my face. It felt like a lot of little needles against my cheeks, despite the beard. I was having to climb against the wind, which made the going tough. I bent my head down and slogged on. Suddenly, there was a noise to my left and someone passed me. I jumped, as I had no idea there was anyone near. A few minutes later, I was at the top of Pen y Fan again and the wind and hail had stopped. It brightened up and there were some great photo opportunities as I made my way back to Corn Du.

I struggled a little to climb down off Corn Du as the wind had picked up again, but I was soon heading down the path in bright sunshine. Ahead, the moorland of Forest Fawr and the Black Mountain was golden in the sun. Suddenly, it was a lovely morning again and all the dark clouds had passed. I felt great and I was just enjoying being out, so I decided to detour onto Pen Milan to add some distance to my walk. As I walked, the views all around were spectacular. Corn Du looked like a proper mountain with it’s rough and vertical north face, and Pen y Fan sat in the background looking slight less dramatic.

At the top of Pen Milan, which is flat and hardly a summit, there’s a fence with a rickety old stile. I managed to climb over it, although it wobbled and gave slightly and I nearly lost my balance. The next kilometer or so was the wettest I’ve walked through for a long time. Every footfall squelched. If I was n’t stepping into some kind of bog, my foot was disappearing into a hole in the ground. In the end, I didn’t bother trying to avoid the water. My boots are fairly waterproof so it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. I was more concerned about twisting my ankle in a rut or on a tuft of grass. #

Eventually, I crested the hill and started to drop down tot he car park again. The ground was slippery with water now, rather than boggy and I took my time coming down. In no time I was crossing the busy A470 and back at the car. The sun was still shining and I still felt pretty good. I’d walked for about 3 hours and I knew I needed to do a bit more. With the weather better than expected, I sat snacking on a Snickers and thinking where I could go next.

In the rear view mirror was Fan Fawr. Last week, this was the highest point of my walk. It rose high above the car park and I wondered if I was in any shape to climb it. I’ve done it before from the car park and it’s a short, sharp pull up to the top. There are rarely any people on it. I decided to give it a go and see how far I could get. I set off slowly and before long I’d reached the first ridge. It was flat going for a while, and very wet as all the water draining off the hill seemed to have collected here. I splashed my way through and started on the next slope. This one was steeper and hid the top of Fan Fawr. I dealt with it slowly and steadily and was confronted by another flat marsh. I picked the route that looked least least soggy and found myself at the foot of the steepest part of the hill.

The path up was muddy and I was careful where I placed my feet. I was now feeling the consequences of the other hills I’d walked this morning. My dodgy knee was beginning to ache, as was the other one. But there wasn’t far to go and my walking pole helped. In a few tough minutes, the slope lessened and I found myself walking on a slightly less steep path which made it’s way around the side of Fan Fawr. Another 15 minutes of steady walking found me at the top of the hill, standing next to the rough cairn. The view back to Corn Du was clear and the route I’d taken this morning looked much steeper than I remembered it.

The wind was cold on Fan Fawr and I felt I’d done enough, so after a couple of photos, I headed back down. Just after I left the top, the skies darkened again and suddenly I was in the middle of what seemed like a blizzard. For a few minutes, the visibility dropped so I couldn’t see the car park, and thick snow fell. I was concentrating on not falling on the slippery and steep slopes but it got so dark that I started to worry about lightning. But I needn’t have, as by the time I got to the last slope, the sky started to brighten again and the last few hundred metres was competed with snow falling ahead and sun shining behind me.

At the car, I was soaked, tired and very pleased with my day’s activities. Not the 6 hours I’d hoped for (it turned out to be 4.5 hours) but a lot more climbing than I’d anticipated (889m) and just an enjoyable time on some of my favourite hills.

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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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