Yesterday, I attempted to climb Pen y Fan, 2906 ft, the highest peak of the Brecon Beacons. I hadn't been up there before, and decided to take advantage of the good weather before lambing starts and I become confined to the farm for the next three or four weeks. It was further than I remember, driving to the main footpath at the Storey Arms near Libanus, so it was later than I intended when I finally set off up the long trail across the mountainside. I soon discovered it's really not my sort of walk – the path is wide and paved with rocks or gravel for most of the route to the summit, and very popular with walkers even on a sunny winter afternoon; definitely not a wilderness experience. I think it is probably a good miniature simulation of what I can expect on Kilimanjaro, however; the rocky terrain -- so different from the mud and bogs I've become used to -- the long, slow haul up the slope and of course, the very fickle weather. It was the weather that beat me, for just like Kilimanjaro, the Beacons form their own microclimate. They may be tiny in comparison with Africa's tallest mountain, but they are still frequently shrouded in cloud while the rest of South Wales basks in bright sunshine.
Yesterday, there was only a hint of cloud around the peaks when I set off, but by the time I reached the ridge about an hour after setting out, visibility was reduced to a few yards and a vicious wind blew hard across the stunted vegetation. There was an intersection of several paths on the crest of the ridge, and without any landmarks showing through the cloud, I had no way of knowing which one led to Pen y Fan. Trying to read my map was hopeless in the gale force wind – it would have shredded if I'd even tried to open it. The right hand path looked as though it was rising more than the two alternatives, so I decided to keep heading uphill in the hope it would lead to the highest point. I persevered for about half an hour, during which time the wind became fiercer and the cliff top path became rougher underfoot before I decided it was simply too dangerous to continue. Both the dog and I were in real danger of being blown over the edge. I have no idea how far down the cliffs reached; the drop was a bottomless void lost in swirling cloud. So, we headed back to the path leading down to the Storey Arms, passing other hooded figures that loomed out of the mist, heads down, with a grunt of acknowledgement as they struggled past us against the wind.
D the dog hated it. He hated the wind, the rocky path underfoot, and most of all, he hated the numerous other dogs we met on the paths. Only the ludicrous sight of a pug in a billowing Goretex jacket cheered him up for a few moments – he jeered, but I suspect his reaction was partly fuelled by envy. That wind was bitterly cold. A few hundred feet down from the ridge, we emerged into sunshine again and we both cheered up until some hill runners in T-shirts and trainers went down past us at high speed. Now that is demoralising when you're muffled up in a hooded jacket and carefully placing your feet amongst the rocks.
I used my walking poles for the first time during the descent. I must admit I've always thought of them as an affectation and been rather scathing in the past, but research has convinced me they're essential for Kilimanjaro. I was given a pair as a Christmas present, and thought Pen y Fan might be a suitable testing ground. It felt strange at first, but they're very similar to ski poles, so I quickly became used to them, and have to admit they were very effective. My knees didn't suffer at all during the hour-long descent. But I think a wrist brace might be a good idea in future when I'm using the poles – another old minor injury began to nag during the descent. At this rate, my rucksack will be overflowing with supports for all my damaged joints when I head for Africa. And on the subject of rucksacks – I received some very strange looks from other walkers who weren't impressed by my bulging daysack. They obviously thought I had everything but the kitchen sink in there, and they weren't far wrong; am I a complete idiot to be hauling 15lbs of ballast up a mountain?
The really annoying thing about yesterday's walk is that when I later looked at my map, I discovered I'd been within half a mile and only 150 vertical feet from the summit of Pen y Fan when I took that wrong path on the ridge. I'd actually walked further than if I'd climbed to the top of the Beacons, but had seen nothing of the usually spectacular views across the country and had no real sense of achievement. I also forgot to take my pedometer, so can only make a rough guess at how far I walked. Oh well, the exercise was useful, I suppose