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Freezing conditions in the Brecons

So, last March, before I was a proper mountaineer and still honing the skills I would need to become one, I worked out a high level route in the Brecon Beacons, just to the East of the highest mountain in the range, Pen y Fan. I wanted to summit the lesser visited Fan y Big. It was half term and I wanted to do this on Friday which had a sunny weather forecast. My son, wanted to join me but waited an extra day because Mr G, wanted come too. Unfortunately the weather forecast deteriorated but proper mountaineers are not put off by a little rain so we went anyway. Our approach to the mountain was up a steep path from the South, up onto a plateau by way of a narrow ridge, across to another narrow ridge on to the summit. Then we planned to cross back and out to Cairn Pica, recommended for its fine views. We hit cloud about 5 minutes after we started walking, and never saw further than our feet after that. I was aware at one point that there was probably a steep drop over my right shoulder but it was full of cloud so I couldn’t see how far it went. Using compass bearings, pacing and paths we found the trig point at the top of Fan y Big then retraced our steps to find the the path along the edge of the escarpment heading towards the cairn. We ran out of path and messed about taking bearings, leap frogging on a line into the fog. All essential stuff for proper mountaineers. Then, feeling a little claustrophobic we found a grassy slope and dropped down into the valley below the cloud. It was like being in a mixing bowl with a cotton wool lid. One consolation was that we stumbled upon the memorial to a crashed airplane which we would never have found if we had been looking for it. It was a route to revisit.

The same half term, one year later and now a proper mountaineer, I tried again. Just me. I checked the forecast and it was sunny, cold at height and windy. That was fine, I love the cold when it’s clear.

In spite of being on holiday I was up and on the road by 7.30am. I had a two and a half hour drive ahead of me. Leaving Somerset over the Severn Bridge my sat nav took me a new way, up past Abergavenny to Crickhowell and turn left, a nicer road than last year through Merthyr Tydfil. After two hours of driving I wondered why on earth I was doing this, what sort of idiot drives this far just to go for a walk, but as I wound into the mountains and along the edge of the Taly Bont reservoir I remembered.

The small muddy car park was empty, I changed my boots, checked my rucksack and without anything better to do started to walk up hill. I knew that I was going to be going uphill, steeply, for a long time. In the end it was an hour and ten minutes but it seemed like longer. The path was clear and steps had been build in places. A black hill pony with a white blaze came to watch but wandered away bored with my slow progress. The top of the hill was in cloud and I could see across the valley to my last mountain, it too was in cloud. I kept going, hopeful that it would blow away before I got there. I don’t know if it was easier climbing into clear sky and seeing the top slowly getting closer or like last time, unable to see where I was going.

By the time I was on the top the cloud had gone and the views were jawdropping. In fact I don’t think I undropped my jaw all day. I found a small patch of snow, I was happy even though the ground fell vertically a long way below it. I was still climbing but the slope was almost imperceptible, it was so much easier now.

The trodden path crossed a pretty little stream, a bit like Kinder downfall if you have ever seen it, but this was my turn off point. I turned almost back on myself and suddenly could see the sunshine glinting off the reservoir in the valley on my left.

Ahead I could see the higher mountains in the range, complete with snow. I saw a person ahead of me admiring the view, bother, I practiced a few pleasantries in my head. They stood for ages, clearly liking what they could see. After about 15 minutes I reached them and they turned into a stone, propped up in a cairn. I turned my back on the reservoir and walked North towards the edge of the escarpment. Now on my left I could see the edge of a ridge I had walked many times, heading for Cribyn, when I could go no further North without plunging over the edge of the cliff I paused for a proper look. I could see the three main summits, Cribyn, Pen y Fan and Corn Du all lined up, towering over poor old Fan Y Big. They looked beautiful with a sprinkling of snow on their steep sides.

I decided not to go back to Fan Y Big, there were clouds blowing towards us and I wanted to see the view from Cairn Pica before they reached us. The path along the clifftop seemed interminable. Covered in snow in places with a sheer drop at the edge made it a little scary from time to time. The snow was frozen hard and it was difficult to kick footholds in. I reached the place we had given up from last time, I could see the path we had taken, checked its direction with my compass, and it had been the wrong one, but we had been doing the right thing to find the right one. Today with the benefit of seeing more than 3 feet I easily set off on the right path. The wind got up and the sun disappeared behind the cloud. I was working hard and warm.

I found a disappointing little cairn, cursed it, checked the map and carried on to find the real thing. The snow was melting and icicles were forming as it dripped off the peat hags, water lying across the path was freezing at the edges, long fingers of ice creeping into the middle of the pool, it was spectacular, I was still working hard and warm.

I found the real cairn, sadly in need of repair but with the amazing views across to the black mountain as promised. I sat on a rock to eat my lunch and look at the view.

I got cold, very cold, more quickly than I realised. The first thing I knew was that my bum had gone numb, I stood up to pack up my stuff and my fingers wouldn’t work. I managed to get my glove on and clip up my bag but I couldn’t hold the map. No problem though I just needed to keep walking around the edge until I got to a point I could walk off. Oh yeah.

I found the first point and contemplated the path and the route off the hill ahead of it, I looked for the stream in the valley bottom and realised, thankfully in time, that I was at the wrong corner, about to head into the wrong valley and I needed to go a little further. Oops.

When I got to the right corner there was a cairn, the path down was steep but grassy. I chose to use my best asset and slid down most of the way on my backside. Almost as soon as I left the top I got warmer and slowly started to remove the layers I had needed up there.

A wooden finger post told me I was on a public footpath and almost immediately the ground deteriorated and I bog hopped the last half mile back to the car park. The stream was a number of fantastic waterfalls, one after the other, I need to come back this way in the summer when I can get wet.

Finally, happy and tired I reached the car, exchanged my boots for driving shoes, and drove home.

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