In High Places 4

If I’m perfectly honest, reaching Everest Base Camp on 21 November 2007 was a bit of an anticlimax.

It’s not that I didn’t appreciate the spectacular scenery around me – even at 5300m where we were, the snow covered mountains around soared more than 3km higher and the sky was a cloudless deep blue. It’s certainly not that it was an easy stroll – I read in my journal that at the time I found the trek across the rough, pathless Khumbu glacier harder than all but the last 10 minutes of climbing Kala Patthar. (That was a consequence of exhaustion and cold when I got back to Gorak Shep influencing my writing). I think it was a combination of having reached my motivational goal yesterday, at the top of Kala Patthar, not being able to see Everest from base camp and the realisation that from this point on, we were heading home.

Whatever it was, thinking about it later made me realise that while it’s good to set goals, and even better to set challenging ones, it’s no good just picking a thing like ‘getting to the top’. While it’s a clear, obvious target it can also be limiting. My initial interest in the trek was trigger by the magical phrase ‘Everest Base Camp’. It has an exciting, almost romantic sound to it. Thoughts of Mallory and Irving setting out on the final push (they actually went from the Northern side of Everest, as Nepal was closed to outsiders at the time). Images of the Commonwealth expedition of 1952, with Hilary and Tensing (their base camp was actually at Gorak Shep, where we stayed). When our trek leader said ‘here we are, Everest Base camp’ we were at a small pile of rocks on which some prayer flags had been tied. My journal says that I realised that if we were actually at base camp, we were at the southern extremity of it. That hid the understanding that actually, as our group were so slow, we had only just got to the vicinity of base camp when the leader called time, so that we would be able to get back to the lodge before the sun went down and it got cold. Having returned in 2011 when base camp was packed with expeditions waiting to climb the surrounding mountains, it was clear we had been short of the usual camp site.

Had my goal been base camp, I would have returned home ultimately disappointed. Given the country, the people and the stunning landscape through which we trekked, that would have been a crime. As it was, my driver for the trip was the scenery above base camp and the opportunity to photograph the mountains. I felt this was a more worthy goal but it was still narrow. Had we not reached Kala Patthar (which was a danger, see my previous post) I would still have returned home disappointed. When I went back in 2011, my motivation was to come back with a record in words and pictures of a trek in a new country, still adjusting to the 20th Century (let alone the 21st). I didn’t actually get to the top of Kala Patthar that time, due to an altitude induced headache and while I would very much have liked to, it didn’t ruin the trek.

Having a ‘get to the top’ goal can lead to all sorts of problems, as experienced mountaineers will tell you. Good climbers know when to turn back and they will value the journey as much as the triumph of the summit.

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Two trig points

As my leave drew to a close, I wanted to get one hill bagging walk in and today, according to the weather forecast, would be the best day. Not too hot, clear, and a Friday, which would mean fewer people out. I like that. Unfortunately, my walking buddy wouldn’t be with me as he’s still recovering from his knee injury so I decided to go for a route that would be impractical for him anyway. Stiles and fences are always a problem for Rufus as his enthusiasm to clear them leads to jumps and falls and swear words from me. This route has two and in the past I’ve had to lift him over both. I wouldn’t take him on this route again, so it seemed an ideal choice.

I sat in the car for a few minutes to let the rain clear. I hate starting off in the rain although once I’m walking I’m not too bothered by it. The route I’d chosen this time started off by climbing Fan Bwlch Chwyth, which we’d completed twice before (see here). Its a short but steep slog but the views north are spectacular and today there was the ‘whump’ of distant artillery firing on the Sennybridge ranges. From the trig point at the top, Fan Gyhirych dominates the southern skyline. The path is obvious and also obvious today was how wet it was. The drainage isn’t good here, which has saved this land from becoming enclosed farmland but made this part of the walk a soggy, muddy ordeal.

The sun was quite hot but it kept disappearing behind clouds and when it did so, a cool breeze blew. Before long I was at the far end of a ruined drystone wall looking down on the forestry track that formed the next leg of the stroll. I hadn’t really considered the distance involved today but when I checked I had already done 2.5 miles. I felt good, surprising since I hadn’t done any serious walking for several weeks, and none with a full back pack for several months.

This is sheep country and the stiles I knew lay ahead were around a whole complex of fences, gates and pens used to gather and contain the sheep during shearing season. When I got to the pens I saw that there was only one stile now but it was a difficult one, with slippery steps and deep mud either side. I managed to avoid falling in the mud (as if I’d tell you any¬†different!) and headed off along the track towards the mountain.

Fan Gyhirych was one of my training mountains for the Base Camp treks so although I’d approached it from a new angle, it was very familiar to me. I was now heading along the curved ridge line that makes it such a distinctive sight from the road. In the winter this north face keeps the snow long after it has melted elsewhere. By the time I got to the second trig point, I had done just over 4 miles and I was beginning to feel the ache in my feet. A few yards north is a cairn of stones and here I stopped for a few minutes to enjoy the views of the Crai reservoir and Fan Brecheiniog to the west.

Then, with some grey clouds threatening to soak me, I set off back along the ridge and down to the track. Quickly it was obvious that the clouds weren’t going to bother me and they cleared off leaving the late morning warm and pleasant. I had decided to follow the track all the way back to the road to avoid the worst of the marsh and mud. As I dropped down to the track, I stopped to chat with a fellow walker. His little dog was on a lead made of a belt. “I forgot his lead” said the walker, and we exchanged route information.

The track made the going quicker and I completed the four miles back to the car quite quickly. Passing a large plantation of conifers, I heard the ¬†cry of a buzzard as it wheeled lazily overhead. It was later joined by a second and they used a current of warm air to gain height over the trees. The last few hundred metres were the hardest as although it wasn’t a steep incline, it was uphill and the tarmac was unforgiving on my feet. It was bliss to finally sit down in the car.

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Death Rays

The weekend doesn’t really count for our fortnight of fun as I’d be off anyway. Instead, I had planned on having a weekend of rest. Of course, Rufus wasn’t quite so keen on the idea despite the rest being for him. So yesterday morning we went off to the woods for a stroll and around Broadpool in the evening, where we dodged cows and watched the heron lit up by the red evening light.

Today was slightly different. I wanted to visit Carn Llechart, a Late Neolithic or early Bronze Age ringed burial cairn, a little to the north west of Pontardawe. As I remembered it, it was a short but steep climb from the lane to the top of the hill (imaginatively called Mynydd Carn Llechart). I saw this as a relatively simple and short walk. I hadn’t counted on the local farmer fencing off the common access land along the lane. Undeterred, I drove on a little further and found proper access as it should be.

We climbed the short incline to the ridge but I knew we’d have to double back to make our way to the cairn. It was a gorgeous morning with not a cloud in the sky and clear visibility for miles. In the distance to the north were the Carmarthen Fans, all of which we’ve climbed in the past. Little wisps of fog were gathering just below the summits of some of the hills. The sun was warming the morning up.

After about a mile, we reached the cairn, overgrown with reeds. It was the last time I was here, too. The cairn is an almost perfect circle, with upright flats stones forming a ring around a central earthen mound. At the centre is a small cist chamber in which a burial was made. The cairn is just over the top of the ridge and would have been visible from the south. Beyond the cairn, southwards and in a fenced off field, are three large stones which may have been contemporary with the cairn, marking an approach of some sort.

Rufus explored the cairn while I tried to take photos of it. Then, once he and I had finished, we set of northwards until we got to a spot that gave us a great view over the hills. I know Rufus doesn’t have the same appreciation of landscapes that I do, but even he was impressed, judging by the time he spent stood still just looking.

I’d checked on the map before heading out this morning and I knew that we would be on the opposite side of the Clydach Valley to the one we normally are when we go to the wind farm. I’d been reading a book on local history and it mentioned that one Henry Grindell Matthews had a small laboratory on the the hillside we could see from Carn Llechart, Tor Clawdd. There he set about perfecting several ‘secret weapons’, including a ‘death ray’ that could stop engines, ignite gunpowder and knock out humans. The buildings were surrounded by a fifteen foot high electrified fence, and he even had his own little airstrip for the private plane he flew. I’m fascinated by things like this so I made a mental note to explore that area at some future date.

Back at the car, I decided to carry on along the lane rather than turn around and go back the way we came. I knew from checking on the map where we’d come out and sure enough, we were heading towards the wind farm on Mynydd Betws. The drive was pleasant and scenic along a narrow lane and almost as quick as the journey up on the main road.

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