Man Down! Man Down!

In the morning the sun shone and the night time rain that had fallen sporadically throughout had coated the upper slopes of the Black Mountains with a dusting of snow.

Our original plan was to drive round to Cwmyoy and walk from there on to Offa’s Dyke and Hatterrall Hill, but with sunshine not guaranteed to last and the prospect of snow showers, we felt it better to walk from and return to the Old Chapel rather than change in an exposed car park.

IMG_1717There were just ten of us walking, others having other commitments or were still suffering the effects of yesterday’s wet and windy adventure. I knew there were ten as I did a head count as we were leaving. However, about half a mile into the walk, it became apparent that we were a man down! Peter Hardyman was missing! How can that happen? How can we lose somebody in such a short time? Simon ventured back down the track but there was no sign of Peter. Having waited for ten minutes we accepted our loss and carried on.

IMG_1718For the next hour we climbed continuously at a steady pace up to the ridge that leads north to Gadair Fawr and Waun Fach and south, eventually descending into Llanbedr. It was good to get some views after the restrictions of the day before and the colours were noticeably brighter than we would normally expect at this time of year; a sign of the exceptionally mild winter and the fact that the growing season has never really ended. There was even frog spawn carelessly clustered in some of the puddles in the rutted paths. A significant cold snap or an unseasonal drought will seriously reduce their chances of survival.

Crug Mawr

Crug Mawr

As we walked along the ridge squally showers of fine but very sharp snow swept across on the strengthening wind. During these occasions the mountains took on a moody appearance. Between showers the sun shone and the colours picked up. As the morning progressed into the afternoon the showers became more frequent. Fortunately, the sun shone while we were on the top of Crug Mawr.

Descending to Blaenau Isaf, we returned to the Old Chapel. Peter re-joined us fifteen minutes later. He had taken himself off when he, having popped back to the chapel for his ice axe(!), didn’t know where we were heading. To be fair he had managed to send me a text message to let me know where he was going. Sometimes I find children much easier to manage!

We had a great weekend with extremes of weather, super food, lots of alcohol, good conversation and many laughs, all the things you need to add spice to life. Thanks to all those who took part and made it a memorable weekend.

Wales at its wet best!

Nothing was going to stop us having a good weekend in the Brecon Beacons as we gathered on Friday evening at the Old Chapel. There were 15 of us all together, although there should have been more but a less than pleasant weather forecast seemed to have deterred some, not that they would admit that that was the reason.

During the evening the collection of empty bottles in the corner increased as the supplies of full ones dwindled! Tongues loosened and laughter echoed around the room as the heat from the wood burner condensed on the cold, stone walls.

As forecast, the rain started to fall heavily at about 4.00am and was set to last well into the next night. Those of us who were camping emerged from our tents on to an already soggy field.

Crossing the swollen Afon Tarell

Crossing the swollen Afon Tarell

Fortified with a full Welsh, we drove over to Storey Arms determined to fulfil our walking ambitions, if only to respond to the derisory remarks from ‘lounge lizard’ Crowcroft, safe and warm in his Northants home. It was wet. Very wet, and windy. Fortunately, as we set out, the wind was behind us, pushing us along the Taff Trail towards the youth hostel. The ground was absolutely sodden, muddy and very slippery and we found ourselves using a lot of energy trying not to slip.

Lunch!

Lunch!

Remarkably, it was somehow enjoyable. Our kit was being put to the test, and largely failing. It was also stunningly beautiful. Although the higher summits were hugged by dense, water laden clouds, the slopes were streaked with gashes of rushing streams tumbling erratically down, filling and flooding the larger tracts of water in the valley floors. Fortunately it was not particularly cold, even in the strengthening wind. The only time we began to cool down was when we stopped for a quick ten minutes to put some fuel into our bodies, just prior to the longest climb of the day.

IMG_1712The climb took us up the narrowing valley beneath the towering cliffs of Craig Cwm-du with many tumbling waterfalls cascading down them. The path was perilously close to the raging stream, so much so that we had to climb above it and cut across tussocky heather to Fan Frynych. On the top the wind cut loose and blasted us with needles of face peircing rain, forcing us to squint to protect our eyes.

Cutting across the open moorland that makes up Fan Frynych, we picked up the path that skirted along the edge of the impressive cliffs that make up the sweeping arc of Craig Cerrig-gleisiad. In places the path went worryingly close to the edge. This would not normally be a worry but in the strong wind an unexpected gust could easily catch you off guard. Eventually leaving the edge we again cut across the tussocky grass, crossing numerous swollen streams towards the car park, visible for a long time but slow to reach. By the time we did reach it at 3.30pm it was virtually empty, only the hardiest of walkers still out on the hills.

Having finished the walk we were keen to head back quickly to change before heading to the Red Lion in Llanbedr for the Scotland v England match – not pretty but the right result. It had been a while since I had visited the Red Lion but it was great to be made to feel so welcome by everybody, irrespective of which side of the bar they stood.

Peter Hardyman

Peter Hardyman

In the evening, having feasted well and drunk considerably more, the conversation and laughter rang out. The most amusing among us was the usually reserved Peter Hardyman. Having only brought a pair of walking boots with him, he had nothing dry to wear on his feet. The stone floor of the chapel was cold, so he fashioned out a pair of slippers made from a discarded wine box and a discarded beer box. He really shouldn’t mix his boxes! The mop head wig and ice axe completed a very bizarre picture.

There will be headaches in the morning!

 

Citadel

Citadel_landscape_poster_lrWhen you know a leading character in an event it seriously heightens the interest. I have always been drawn towards mountain expedition stories but ‘Citadel’, the latest offering from Alastair Lee and Posing Productions, is of particular interest. It is the story of Matt Helliker and Jon Bracey’s attempt to climb the previously unclimbed north-west ridge of Citadel, a stunningly beautiful mountain in the remote Neocola Mountains of Alaska. My interest? Jon Bracey. Today Jon is a muscularly toned climber with features carved out of the rock on which he climbs. I remember him being a relatively short, reserved, yet still very fit teenager who would bury his head in a climbing magazine at every opportunity. I would like to think that by taking him on a school expedition to the Himalaya in 1993, when he was an impressionable 17 years old, I opened his mind to big mountains and, in some way, influenced the route he has taken in life.

The film opens with some stunning aerial footage homing in on the Citadel. As it does so you gradually become aware of people, invisible, somewhere on the mountain. Those first indistinct human voices grow as the camera zooms in on Matt and Jon, ant like, camped on the top of a steep snow slope. The scale and the technical difficulty of the climb is incomprehensible.

With the introduction over the climbers talk of the reality of climbing, the risks and the losses, before taking us back to their respective homes in the Alps, Matt to his constant drive for fitness, while Jon has two young children keeping him on his toes. The balance of family, paid work as a top guide, and doing what you love is difficult but Jon seems to have got it right.

Returning to the Citadel, where the optimism of fellow climbers with knowledge of the mountain, is not flowing, Matt and Jon  are flown in with the unseen camera team and deposited on the glacier. Base Camp is established and then they have to sit out a storm and wait for the mountain to accept them on to its upper slopes. When the weather finally clears the mountain does not make life easy for them; soft, loose snow reveals almost flawless rock beneath it and the going is slow. Close ups of crampon tips grasping at the smallest of niches sets our hearts racing. With only three days of food in their packs they cannot afford to linger too long and they are already under pressure.

At the end of the first, long day (fourteen hours of climbing) they cut a small ledge in the snow to camp for the night. This was where we were first introduced to them on the mountain. The following morning this proved to be almost their high point, for now, the granite was flawless and impossible to climb without screwing bolts into the rock, something which purists Matt and Jon refuse to do. Sticking firmly to their principles they concede defeat, the mountain has beaten them, and they retreat to base camp to decide their next move.

The north-west ridge might have beaten them but there was still a chance they could bag the also unclimbed north ridge, tackling it lightweight in one day. Setting out early, Matt had to cope with stomach issues but, together, they put their heads down and climbed the route at a phenomenal pace, advertising just what fit and exceptionally capable climbers they are.

Alastair Lee has produced a superbly crafted film with stunning mountain shots and a clear narrative running throughout. He is, by far, the best mountain film maker in the country. If you love mountain films, make sure you see this one. It will be showing at King’s School, Worcester, Thursday 4th Feb. 2016 at 7.00pm.

As for Matt and Jon. Well done, guys. I am particularly proud of what you have achieved, Jon.

 

Winter Walking

There have been very few good winter walking days so far this winter; December was far too warm and a washout. 2016, so far, has seen some improvement but we are still being deprived of cold, crisp, clear days. Now, in mid January, the temperatures have dropped and there is some snow on the upper slopes in Wales but the ground is so saturated, we need a long spell of cold weather to turn the hills from a mud lark to an ice rink.

January 6th held some promise, although the temperatures were still unseasonably high. The promise of sunshine and clear skies tempted me and son, Stephen, to head over to Storey Arms, not to venture up the pedestrian motorway to Pen-y-Fan, but to venture west to explore the area around Fan Frynych and the Graig Cerrig Gleisiad National Nature Reserve.

The route from Storey Arms followed the Beacons Way/Taff Trail gently down hill to the Youth Hostel at Llwyn-y-celyn where we climbed up to the busy A470, crossed it with care, and headed into new territory for us both. The sun was shining, the sky was clear and there was very little wind. The day could not have been better. It was going to be a while before we reached the summit and the ridge but I was already looking forward to the views we would be getting of the main peaks of the Brecon Beacons and of the dramatic cliffs we would be walking around.

After an initial, short climb, we followed a wall, heading north to walk round a spur, climbing very gently as we went. On reaching the line of the ridge we were given a choice of either climbing up the ridge to the summit or traversing around in order to approach from a totally different angle. Had we taken the climbing option the walk would have been over too soon so we chose the longer traverse where we then contoured around the north-western side of the range. This took us into a delightfully remote valley, which climbed steeply from its head to hills that just begged for exploration.

Lunch

Lunch

Swinging round we stopped for lunch on a small mound between the junction of two streams. Three trees grew from it. It was just in the shade but, because it was a mound it was relatively dry compared with the ground that surrounded it. It was an ideal opportunity to try out a couple of new pieces of kit, a steripen for water purification and a fast acting compact stove. Taking water from the stream, we purified it and then boiled it up to make cups of mushroom soup, which, if we were honest, was pretty tasteless. I forgot to pack a spoon so most of the powder stuck to the bottom and did not dissolve, so I might be doing the soup a bit of an injustice.

The route up from lunch

The route up from lunch

It soon got cold in the shade, so, fed and watered, we started the climb up a beautiful valley. Soon the path became a little ambiguous as the valley narrowed to nothing more than a tumbling stream cut into the hillside. Eventually, we climbed up from the stream, heading for the ridge where we knew there was another path. As we did so the cloud descended and our view was obliterated. However, it did not matter as we knew fairly accurately where we were and so long as we maintained higher ground ahead of us we had not reached the path. The ground was by now levelling out and when we did reach the path we headed for the trig point marking the summit of Fan Frynych (629m). We were nearly on top of the trig point when we spotted it, it being painted white and was standing proud against a background of white mist. There was no chance to enjoy the views I had been so looking forward to.

Hidden drama

Hidden drama

From the summit we picked up the path which would take us around the top of the cliffs of Craig Cerrig-gleisiad, again a dramatic viewpoint obliterated by the hanging mist. As we traversed the cliffs we began to hear the noise of traffic, indicating that we were getting closer to the road. Just as the ground begins to fall away steeply, we picked up a tenuous path heading south. It did eventually become a more convincing path as we continued to traverse around the hill, descending gradually towards the car park.

All day we had been slipping and sliding in the mud without falling. How typical that, about a hundred metres from the car park, my feet suddenly disappeared beneath me and I planted myself on the wet ground. We had not seen anybody all day; we had had these hills to ourselves. The one time when there was an audience of people milling around in the car park, I should make a fool of myself! It had been a super walk, the more so because I shared it with Stephen.

The forecast predicted for the 16th January for the Black Mountains looked fantastic, with a huge yellow ball shining out from the app on my phone. Forecasters on TV spoke very positively about the 16th being a very sunny, if cold day. With all that confidence I set out from home for the Black Mountains to have a look at a route I have planned for a group next month. It would also give me the opportunity to check one or two bits for the Crickhowell Walking Festival in early March.

Having cleared the ice from the car I set off just as the sun was rising, a huge orange/red ball rising in the east casting long shadows of vehicles across the motorway. In the distance the white tops of the Black Mountains came into view. By the time that I arrived at the Queens Head, walker’s car park, on the Llanthony road near Cwmyoy the sun was casting its warm glow over the lower, snow free hillsides. Despite the warmth of the look the temperature was still hovering around zero. The bonus for me was that, having had three days of cooler temperatures the muddy ground that we have had to endure so far this winter was now solid.

Cwmyoy

Cwmyoy

Climbing up the wrong side of the valley through Llanthony Woods I was given super views of the small village of Cwmyoy tucked neatly under a rocky outcrop, slightly detached from the main ridge. The fact that it is slightly detached might have some baring on the state of the church in the village. Having climbed so far to a point almost level with the village on the other side of the valley, I took a forest track that led to the floor of the valley, crossed the Afon Honddu, which was carrying plenty of water in it, before climbing up a couple of fields to the village.

Inside Cwmyoy Church

Inside Cwmyoy Church

Anybody passing through the village has to visit the church. I have seen some crooked churches over the years but this has to be one of the best. There are no straight surfaces in this church, no parallel lines. While beams tend to lean one way, windows lean the other. It is a truly remarkable building. Indeed, the church of St Martin is unique, no part of it being square or at right angles with any other part.This is the result of being built on ground where subsidence has occurred in debris left by glaciation of the valley. Above the church, on the skyline, is a great gash on the side of the mountain caused by a landslide and it is this feature which gives the church and village its name Cwmyoy.

Local tradition says the landslide was caused by a terrible earthquake during Christ’s crucifixion, when there was darkness over the whole land.

IMG_1645Only further adding to the importance of Cwmyoy church is the 13th century carved stone representation of Christ on the Cross.  This rare medieval survival is thought to be one of the crosses from along the Pilgrim’s Way to St. David’s.  It was found on a nearby farm in 1871 and taken first to the Vicarage garden and then to the church.  It has had a chequered history, being stolen from the church in 1967 and only returned after it was recognised by a member of staff from the British Museum who spotted it for sale in an antique shop.  Today the cross is secured to the floor of the church, where it is intended that it will remain, and because the Church is located along the modern route of the Cistercian Way, the cross can be visited by a modern generation of travellers.

Leaving Cwmyoy behind, I climbed up and around the right hand side of the spur, following a path up on to Hatterall Hill. For a while this took me along the boundary between pastureland and open hillside. The pastureland was still remarkably green despite the livestock on it. I was also surprised to see just how many sheep were out grazing high up on the open hills, despite the sudden drop in temperatures over recent days and the lying snow. As I climbed higher I began to encounter snow. I left the marked path and made my way along sheep and pony tracks through the snow covered heather, aiming for the summit ridge. Navigation was not an issue as I knew that once I hit the ridge top I would stumble across Offa’s Dyke Path, which at this point also was part of the Beacon’s Way.

IMG_1646By now the promised sunshine was no longer there, replaced with rather heavy, watery clouds intent on sprinkling me with light snow.Out of the shelter of the hill, it was also significantly colder, but still very pleasant. I was not alone, and occasionally met others on the path. The one common factor of us all was our disappointment that the promised sunshine had not lasted as long as predicted.

Descending from the trig point on Hatterall Hill was easy, now following the Beacons Way as Offa had veered off to the east. As I descended further, back down to the river, the luxury of frozen ground was gone and I found myself wallowing in mud yet again, particularly through Strawberry Cottage Woods, soon after which I found myself back at the Queen’s Head and the car. It proved an enjoyable four hour walk, which can be lengthened quite easily to suit.

 

Christmas & New Year Activities

With Christmas Day behind us we were able to enjoy brief encounters with the outside world on the few occasions when the weather cheered up. Sometimes we just got on with it despite the weather.

Boxing Day “Steam-up”

IMG_1564On Boxing Day Michael and Helen Whitehouse hosted a “steam-up” at their home in the beautiful Worcestershire countryside. This is an annual event, which I always look forward to, and is one of the highlights of Christmas.  It is aways in aid of charity and this year it was in aid of the Himalayan Trust UK. People arrive to park their cars in the lane below the paddock adjoining the Whitehouse garden. Passing through the gate into the field you wait on the station for the train to collect you to take you on a circuitous route with many recognizable railway features, even if they are scaled down, up to the house where there is another station. There we are provided with mulled wine, coffee and delicious mince pies and the chance to meet with people whom you last met at the same occasion a year ago.

The weather was an improvement in progress but as it was dull and damp early on many people decided not to to venture out. For those that did, the weather improved, the sun began to shine and they all generously donated into the collecting pot for the Himalayan Trust UK. I just love it!

May Hill

The 29th December proved to be the best day of the holidays with clear skies and bright sunshine. It was still unseasonably warm. It was a good day to meet up with a few friends, Sandie, Simon, David, Annie, Tudor and three dogs on May Hill Common for a short walk over May Hill and back through Newent Woods before retiring to the Glass House Inn for a long, relaxed, sociable lunch.

IMG_1569Like those we were with, I had never walked in the area, although I have driven past it on many occasions en route to Wales. A gentle climb took us towards the top of the hill, passing a herd of docile Belted Galloways with their distinctive black and white markings. The most notable thing about May Hill is the clump of trees on the top, visible from many points along the Malvern Hills and from the more easterly summits of the Black Mountains. These were planted in 1887 to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. From this vantage point we looked down on to the flooded Severn Valley, looking more like a lake than a river.

IMG_1570Descending the southern ridge of May Hill we returned through Newent Woods, home to some spectacular Redwoods standing tall and straight in the lea of the hill. This returned us to our cars park on the common. It was not a long walk but it opened my eyes to the possibility of investigating the potential for adding a few miles to it so that it could be included in the next round of day walks.

I can highly recommend the The Glass House Inn if you don’t mind being watched by a plethora of stuffed animals hanging from every beam and staring out from every wall. You constantly feel you are being watched, but it adds interest to the place. There is a good choice of beers and the food is excellent, even if we had to wait a little too long for it to appear. That did not matter as we had plenty to talk about while we waited.

New Year Ramble on the Malvern Hills

Over the years the New Year Ramble on the southern end of the Malvern Hills has generally had a good turn out. We have had exceptionally mild walks, some damp ones and the occasional one with snow, heavy frost and clear blue skies. The forecast for this year was to be particularly damp and from about 24 hours before the walk the excuses started to arrive by text message or email. Those, for whom it meant a significant journey were the first to pull out, and I can understand their unwillingness to get wet and then to have to travel uncomfortably home for a couple of hours. That said, my stalwart supporter (or should that read “stalker”), Claire, travelled up without complaint from Bristol.

On the morning of the walk the text messages increased and there seemed to be an alphabetical connection. Everybody whose name began with an “A” suddenly couldn’t make it, including my wife, Angela. Where’s the support when you need it? Then there was ‘car trouble!’ I thought I had heard the end of lame excuses when I left teaching. No more, ‘I did my homework but the dog ate it!’ One of the best was a letter from a mum asking if her son could be excused from abseiling in case he got his ears wet! This was turning out to be nearly as good.

Having been accused of being Captain Fairweather two years ago by David Thomas, I was particularly upset when he pulled out. He had clearly looked out of the window and decided he was not going to bother.  I feel I have earned my Captain Anyweather stripes again.

IMG_1571A hardy bunch met me at the car park, including Libby, not dressed for walking but wanting to know what time we would be finishing so she and Ellie could meet us in the bar of the Malvern Hills Hotel afterwards. There were eight of us brave enough, or stupid enough to venture out. I decided that we would curtail the walk to last a couple of hours or so, so that we would know we had been for a walk. Once we got going it was not too bad, a little exposed on the tops but on the west side, out of the wind, it was quite pleasant, sufficiently so that we added an extra few minutes to the walk by visiting the obelisk. The hills were sodden with so much recent rain it was mucky underfoot. There were no views from on high as we had our heads in the cloud. But the company was good and all those that languished in bed do not know what they missed.

Himalayan Club Malvern Rambler

If we thought it was wet for the first Malvern Rambler, the next day was so much more so. Again text messages came flooding in from Sixth Formers bogged down with revision, feeling under the weather or still travelling home from far flung places. To be honest, I did not blame anyone for not wanting to turn out on a day like this. The rain fell by the bucket load. Driving to Malvern the River Severn was now Lake Severn with the flood plain doing what it should do in such circumstances.

Will, me and Dom

Will, me and Dom

The car park at the foot of the Herefordshire Beacon was, predictably, almost empty and part of me hoped nobody would show up. When you have a group of 25 you are working with, somebody is guaranteed to turn up, and, true to form, two did, Will and Dominik. Dominik even brought his mother and little sister along. I can understand Will, he is a country lad, well used to getting wet. Dominik had just bought some new boots (we met in Cotswold Outdoor after the first Malvern Rambler) so needed to test them. I admired both for their spirit but also Dom’s mother and sister, neither of whom needed to be there.

We did the same walk as the previous day, only this time there was no let up in the ferocity of the rain. Funnily enough, we hardly saw another soul out on the hills. Despite the conditions, it was actually a very pleasant walk and I had ample opportunity to answer any questions the boys had about their upcoming trip to Kyrgyzstan in the summer.

By the time we got back to the car park, I felt that we were so wet we did not need to linger over coffee of hot chocolate; we just wanted to get home and get out of our wet gear. However, despite the extremely wet conditions, I was glad we did it.