A bloody nose in Breacon

...part 2 of our miniature Welsh adventure.

We had planned to walk the Neuadd horseshoe for the following day, making an overnight of it by doing the larger route from Craig Fan Las and the upper Talybont car park.  Bizarrely we had never walked up Pen Y Fan, so this was long overdue.

Late breakfast in Breacon, in an unreconstructed cafe/chip shop - not great, but fried bread as thick as cake and a cup of scalding coffee, and we're off to a glorious drive along the Talybont reservoir.  After a few months of urban, pseudo military grey, its an orange and green technicolour marvel.  My eyes, my eyes!

Out and up to Craig Fan Las, legs still not right, even on the ascent.  Weather gets a little gloomy as soon as we summit, but once we're up on the ridge the going is easy, if slippy, and the rhythms of walking with a small overnight load take over.  We catch up with ourselves again, chatting and then silent, cyclical interactions with each other and our surroundings.

We catch a glimpse of Pen y Fan, dusted with icy rime from lasts nights heavy weather.  There are a few people up, just enough to make it social and not enough to make it crowded.  Its very still, and the light is low again.

An hour or 2 later and I don't think we are gonna make it to the planned overnight spot unless we cut corners, so we contour around Cribyn and Fan Y Big, and slowly the hulk of Pen Y fan and Corn Du slip into full view.  Those other two summits will have to wait for another time, and longer days.  The walking is good and under a pale sun.

Now we can see the reservoir, and debate tactics.  To stay near the water in what looks like a perfect spot, and go up tomorrow, or to make a break for the little lake on the other side of Corn Du.  We have about 1.5 hours of light left, it feels a shade too early to stop, so we go up.

The summit is cold and frozen solid.  T is enchanted and wants to camp, but its too exposed for a largely untested tent, and feels a little threatening, bleakly portentous, far from serene.

We don't hang around, shimmy across to Corn Du and down to the little lyn. The light is fading fast and the wind is hooning across the tops.  We need to get a move on.  Again, T wants to stop near the obelisk to Tommy Jones, but the wind is too strong, we need to get off this slope and find some shelter…quickly, now.

Down to the witches pool, a little frazzled and very cold.  Set up in the gloaming - one day we'll pitch this in daylight!  Foolishly, we don't take the time to properly calculate which way the wind is coming and put the tent up broadside to the breeze.  That is about to cost us some sleep.

Water is boiled and food is made and not before time.  As we clean teeth and get into the bags, the wind increases in strength still further.  We can hear it hitting the north wall of Pen Y Fan, cycling around to meet us and picking up speed as it does.  The tent fabric starts to dance a little.  And then, quite a bit more.

After an hour or less, the storm starts in earnest.  Its more a blizzard I suppose, by my reckoning about a force 9 gale, with gusts in excess of this, and with sleety rain and snow.  The tent is now regularly pushed flat to our faces and we are worried a pole will break.  When a gust hits the stomach tightens and a small, fine spray is pushed through both skins of the tent.  Sound is magnified in the dark - the high oscillation motorboating of tent fabric under pressure, the eerie low end portamento growl of poles torqueing in the wind, the thrashing of a door come loose, endlessly loud and otherworldy.  The pitch had been terrible - rocky and impenetrable, and pegs are regularly whipped out of the ground.  Without cover we'd be doomed, or at least in Serious Trouble.  At about 1am, we decide to take 1/2 hr shifts to support the tent from inside, through the night.  We take it in turns to hold the door ties and take some of the strain.  Sitting with our heads pressed hard against 2 layers of fabric, into the wind, after a few hours we get tired enough to dose, even in this position and with the cacophony all around.  I went out every hour or 2 to pack down the snow into ice to prevent the pegs flying out, soaked and frozen in the few minutes this took each time.  T did a double shift at some point.

If this all sounds a little melodramatic, well, it was.  We were not amused.  It was probably the worst storm we have been out in, including a proper mountain tantrum under Picu Urriellu in the Picos, where the wind blew tiny daggers of karst limestone shrapnel through the flysheet.  That was pretty uncomfortable, this was right on the edge of dangerous.  I felt just as terrible for bringing T up this time around, although she was a total trooper and didn't complain once all night - made of sterner stuff than this old fool.  But a few days ago she told me she prayed for the first time in years, at the witches pool under Pen Y Fan.

Throughout the night, I am reminded that this is no place for vanity, or charity.  The hills are capricious.  For all the attempting to understand, we only ever stand under.  A foolish urge to story-tell or to impose a narrative, but the mountains can and will shrug us off without an effort or a wish.  I see that there is NO thought here, there is only IS.  People do die in the face of this indifference, and there is no right to reply, no judge or jury, no reasoning.  I know many will have had closer shaves than this but that's cold comfort at the time.  It made me reconsider the true value of warmth, light and shelter that we, I, take so often for granted - without it, Hobbes says, life is 'nasty, brutish and short'.  Before now I may have mocked this human frailty and held up mountain justice as supreme, but I just got older.  Now I will have to eat my own words and realise my own hubris; just a little bit frightened, in the wee small hours, these were the thoughts of a silly man, whistling in the dark as the elements reigned down.  'Some humility for you, sir?  We stock in all sizes,  I'm sure we have one that fits...if you think you have the stomach for it, sir!'  Valuable lessons.  We have been given a bloody nose in our own backyard that will be remembered for a good while to come.   

At first light, the wind shudders to a whisper and we get an hour or two of rest.  The tent had received a bit of a pasting but was still upright and intact.  The ice-packed pegs had held.  We grind into gear about 8.30am, slowly packing up and making porridge and coffee.  It stays quiet and cold and the tops are still under manners.

The walk out was majestic really, calm after the storm, although through clag for the first hour or two, back up to Corn Du and then along the ridge.  I'm feeling sanguine enough to take bearings at the top again, best to be sure, even though its just clear enough to see the ridge path ahead.  Belt and braces, m'am.

T is buoyant, her mood upbeat, glad to be alive?  Progressing slowly along the ridge, we make sure to stay near to the rapidly slush-filling path and away from slippery edges - that's quite enough excitement for one night, thanks for the swipe though.

At about 11.30 it started to clear slowly, and by the time we reach lower ground and the stream down to the reservoir, it was like it had never happened.

We sat by the reservoir, and ate a lunch of slightly damp cheese rolls, before joining the Taff trail in bright autumn colour, around to the car park and a sleep deprived journey home.

Post Script:  Reading this a week or so after, our mistakes are very evident.  I'm embarrassed to say I didn't check the weather on the day, in Breacon town where I would have had phone reception.  We set off stupidly late for the time of year.  We didn't think about wind direction properly as we pitched, although it did seem to be coming from everywhere!  But we could have been a good deal more comfortable with tree cover on the south side of the hill, instead of on the north side, with none.  In short, we left too few margins - always important to have a little slack!  I underestimated these familiar hills, and will be a damn sight more careful next time.