Today I was scheduled to do an easy 14 miler. As is my way I chose to ignore the easy part as I just so happened to be a few miles down the road from Brecon Beacons. My last attempt at Pen Y Fan, an otherwise fairly unassuming peak, was foiled by extreme snow and wind. This time I vowed not to be defeated. The weather forecast was clear for the early morning with possible cloud on the peaks and rain coming in later. Great, definitely time for another go.
My normal daily start involves getting up at around 6am, so I went to sleep last night without setting the alarm knowing that I would wake up in time to be on the hill just after first light. My plans for a peaceful night were foiled by the children who decided to get up at 4am. Once awake my brain started turning over and that was that. When 6am finally came around I got my kit ready and headed out the door. Breakfast consisted of a Cliff Builders Bar and an energy bar. It was far from ideal but would have to do.
Driving up into the Brecon Beacons my bowels decided to let me know that they had woken up. Oh great, lots of woods and moorland, but not a toilet in sight. Thank goodness for the packet of baby wipes in the boot of the car and the fact that it was still early and no-one was around. You probably didn’t need to know about this, but I haven’t had to bare my arse in the woods for about 20 years. This was an occasion worth marking down for posterity. Anyway, onwards….
The clouds were low and the wind blew me up the wide track as I approached Fan Y Big from the south. It was rocky, with a lot of standing water but I was able to get a decent move on and the first three miles rolled by. The views were conspicuously absent, as was the sun when I turned off the trail to head to the top of my first hill of the day. It loomed like a shadow in front of me and I crested several false summits before finally hitting the top. Each one caused me to draw breath. I find looming mountains, hints of drops and mysterious objects in the cloud rather terrifying and have to fight the urge to run back to the car. Strangely I have no trouble with perilous heights and daunting mountains in full visibility and will quite happily skip along narrow ridges and stand on the edge of cliff tops when in perfect conditions.
As I stood on the top, fighting the urge to flee in the mist, I was very aware of the cliffs next to me and the howling wind that was pushing me towards the edge. I left the summit after snapping a couple of pics and headed back down to the trail. It was quite a steep, wet and slippery descent. I slid a few feet on a section of wet grass and moved another six feet away from the edge to ensure that I didn’t become a statistic. I was already a good 20 feet away from the edge, but this extra small gap made me feel better.
I had planned to climb straight up to the top of Cribyn, and then scramble off of its face towards Brecon, however I was unfamiliar with the route and was put off by the terrible visibility and the howling wind. Instead I opted to follow the mountain bike track north towards Brecon and soon dropped out of the cloud. Looking back I could almost see the summits and was pleased to observe that the cloud was now lifting rapidly. There was even some sunshine in the distance. I took the first left, through a couple of fields and past some wary sheep before starting to climb up the next ridge, heading southwards towards the peak of Pen Y Fan. To the west I could see several groups of walkers all heading up the main track, but by the time I got onto the top of the ridge they were all behind me. I could jog in a few places now as the ground levelled out in places. Looking back I could even make out a rainbow disappearing up into the clouds. It was only faint though, so I couldn’t get it to show in a picture.
Climbing up I would periodically come out of the wind into an area that was still open, but utterly still and quiet. I love those moments but on this day they were far too brief.
As I continued the climb and the ridge narrowed the cloud came back down and the rain started. I guessed I wouldn’t be getting that view from the top after all. As I climbed up and up I came over a false summit to see the top of Pen Y Fan looming out at me in the cloud. It was a very daunting sight that isn’t done justice in the pictures. The path went near vertical and the drop to the left would be lethal if I inexplicably lost my balance and hurtled over the edge. A totally unlikely scenario, but that didn’t stop my mind presenting it to me just when it was least desired. I pushed on, using my hands to ensure stability as I went up the easy scramble and onto the small plateau on the top. As I stuck my head up the full force of the wind hit and I came up into it on all fours, scrabbling along like a crab. I stood up to get a couple of pictures and headed off in the direction of Cribyn.
Following the path I was confronted with a sudden drop that looked sheer. The wind was battering me, the rain was painful, blurring my vision and the thick cloud ensured that visibility was measured in tens of meters. I retreated and sheltered behind a small hillock while I got my bearings. I checked and double checked but I was heading the right way. I headed back to the drop from a slightly different angle and the cloud parted briefly to show me the path. I scrabbled down, stopping a couple of times to brace myself against the wind and ensure that I had my balance. The terrain soon levelled out and Cribyn loomed in front of me.
I decided that some discretion was in order, so I skirted around Cribyn. The side of my face was sore from the driving rain and I could barely see. After stopping to pick up four water bottles that someone had left on the trail, tucking them in my bag for disposal, my body temperature dropped rapidly in the wind and my brain decided to let me know that I had left my emergency blanket at home. This was a major faux pas. A twisted ankle at this stage and I would have no extra items to protect me from the weather. It could all go wrong very easily. I vowed to take it easy and not become a statistic.
I leapt, skipped and danced along the rocky path. It was an epic core workout, it warmed me up a bit and it took my mind off the rain. Every time the cloud parted enough to give me a view I would catch it out of the corner of my eye, and then stop to take a proper look. I learnt several years ago not to run along rocky paths while trying to admire the view at the same time. The result then was a broken ankle and I think that I got off lightly.
Before long I was back on the main track at the pass between Cribyn and Fan Y Big. 3 miles of steady but rocky downhill and I would be back at the car. The wind was firmly in my face now, but the rain wasn’t quite so painful. It obscured my vision though, so I had to be careful. I had to drive with my legs to ensure that I kept forward motion into the wind, despite it being downhill. As I descended I passed several groups of walkers heading up into the hills. Surely they are madder than I for I was only braving the elements for three hours whereas they looked like they would be out for the rest of the day.
By the time that I got back to the car I could no longer feel my hands, and it took me a while to retrieve the car key from my back pocket. I couldn’t feel the zip to be able to open it and I couldn’t look to see what I was doing without taking off my running tights and turning them around! Ten minutes later I was changed and sat in the car smiling with the fresh hillside memories, with the heater on full blast. By the time I got back to the house half an hour later my extremities had stopped tingling. Next time I will remember the survival bag, just in case!
Here are the stats of the run from Strava and some pics from the day.