The forecast across South Wales was pretty dire for Sunday morning as a small group of Bristol Store staff gathered to cross the bridge. With Braam at the helm we drove north into dark clouds. The others in the car seemed to feel some trepidation about the oncoming weather, however I employed my professional napping expertise to quickly doze off.
When Braam shook me awake I was happy to see we had passed the worst of the cloud and as the road rose into the mountain so did our moods. With childlike glee I wriggled in my seat; there was snow on the hills!
Our carpark (S0 057176) was conveniently located at the joining of the Beacon Way and the Taff Trail and provides an excellent jumping off point for many adventures. As such we were joined by a small smattering of mountain bikers and walkers also brave enough to face the weather.
After a quick costume change we were all geared up (see end for equipment details) and began striding up our first climb. The route we had chosen warms you up quickly and in the first kilometre we climbed almost 250 metres, panting hard as we passed waterfalls in full flow. With fresh snow on the ground and yet more falling we were glad for the workout although a little less glad of the rapidly freshening wind that scoured our faces with icy snow.
As we reached the top our route took us to the east of the ridge line, sheltered from the wind, and hoods were removed as the pace quickened on the easy ground. The path along Craig Y Fan Ddu treats you to some spectacular views and from time to time the cloud would lift, summoning awe struck gasps from the party. At one point we even saw this strange glowing orb in the sky, a real treat for Brecon in January!
With yet more roaring waterfalls along the path we soon began to smile and Braam’s booming baritone made lifted spirits soar, my own meagre mumble even seeming to go down well with the semi-captive audience.
At the end of the Graig Fan Las we turned southwards towards Fan Y Big, crossing the ridge to suffer the full brunt of the weather again. Although the ground was easy going the lashing of the sideways snow impeded progress and all hatches were battened closed as each member fought their own battle with the elements.
By the time we stopped for lunch (a small shelter a few hundred metres back from Fan Y Big) the conditions had worsened and determining our position in the oncoming whiteout was getting more and more tricky. Resting on cold stones we quickly consumed sandwiches and hot drinks as Braam and I happily lectured the girls on layering and personal administration.
Temperature Management in Cold Weather
In my opinion temperature management and hydration are the easiest to get wrong in cold weather. Often we wrap up too warm and saturate our clothes with sweat whilst moving, this can quickly become icy cold when we stop. Instead it is better to start cold and warm up whilst moving, but make sure to throw on layers when you stop. Frequent drinking must also be enforced, we don’t feel as thirsty in the cold and wet but a lot of moisture is still lost! The dregs of a coffee cup were emptied and away we went.
After lunch we quickly reached Fan Y Big and a quick check of the GPS (my Ambit 3 Peak) confirmed we were indeed where we believed as the snow now obscured all but the nearest points of reference. It is from here that we began to err.
Following what we believed to be the path west we started to descend rapidly. Fearful that we would drop into the wrong valley I allowed Braam to convince me that we should head further to our left and maintain the high ground. Despite a clear bearing telling me to head down the slope I found myself beginning to agree with him, my own internal compass spinning in the snow. Before long we discovered a trodden path leading down to a saddle and happily joined it. Several hundred metres later we discovered another shelter which we piled into.
As the others sat, removing snacks and drinks from their packs the feeling of discomfort in my gut strengthened as I surveyed our strangely familiar surroundings. On the ground at our feet was a coffee stain…
“Guys, does this place look slightly familiar?”
We had walked a small, but complete, loop.
Having never faced conditions such as this before I think this is a valuable lesson, to practice what I preach and TRUST MY COMPASS!
It wasn’t long before we were back on track and in the saddle below Cribyn. By now it was gone 2 o’clock and concious of the short daylight hours we headed down into the valley towards home. The track is easy going and quite enjoyable as it follows the valley down past the Neuadd Reservoir and loops through the wood back to a final short stretch of road.
At the end of the day the lessons learnt were discussed before getting my head down again to dream of higher mountains and deeper snows now that winter has truly arrived.
Suunto Ambit 3 Peak: The whole route was tracked with my watch in the most efficient mode. On Fan Y Big it did take a few attempts to provide a fix (perhaps due to conditions) but when it came through it gave me a 10 figure grid reference of our exact location. In a more dangerous scenario this could have been life-saving.
Scarpa SL: My much beloved boots are now over 3 years old and still performing as if brand new. The lack of waterproof lining has never been an issue as the excellent Italian leather has kept my feet dry and comfortable in all the conditions I could throw at them.
Haglofs Rugged Mountain Pant: A mountain legend. These trousers kept me warm, dry and comfortable for the whole day with no need for a base layer. They’re exceptionally tough and well made. Well worth the price tag.
Leki Sherpa XL: I haven’t walked with poles since a I broke my last set several years ago and I had forgotten how useful they are. I’ve since used these whilst navigating in some dicey winter conditions on Helvellyn and they were excellent. The poles themselves use Leki’s high strength aluminium, not the lightest but I’d rather know they are bomb proof, and their “Speedlock” adjustment system. So far this has worked out great and I see no problems arising in the future.
Quest Insulated: I tend to get cold very easily, so I made sure I layered up nicely and finished the layering with this great jacket from The North Face. It kept me dry, warm, and protected from the wind.
Little Hotties: They’re amazing! I took them as an emergency and used them after a few hours of hiking, when my mittens got wet and cold. I placed my lovely Little Hotties between my liner gloves and the mittens, which helped to dry them and to keep me warm. Little Hotties stay warm for around 8 hours, so I kept them close on our way back, and put them in my slippers after getting home. 🙂
Sealskinz: I used Sealskinz waterproof socks for the first time on this trip. I was wearing a pair of non-waterproof trail running shoes which allow water in and out freely.
To be honest I wasn’t expecting much as I thought the sock would make my feet sweat. In order to avoid the discomfort of sweaty feet I put on a merino liner sock. The extra lining didn’t affect the fit of the Sealskins and after about 10 min with everything warming up it felt a really good fit. We were walking in ankle deep snow most of the day with a few hidden boggy spots that would totally saturate the shoes. Other than a slight cool feeling as the water entered the shoe this had no effect on my feet.