Monday and it was sleeting at home when I got up. The Met Office forecast heavy showers of rain, sleet and maybe snow all day with temperatures rising to a maximum of 3oC. I knew it might be snowing on top of the ridge behind the house but the prospect of walking through sleet didn’t appeal. The ridge rises to 425 metres on Mynydd Garn Wen, an hour from the house, with a high point of 555 metres at the top of The Blorenge 3 hours away.
Air cools at approximately 2oC for every 300 metres. The house is at 115 metres and so the 300 metres rise to the top of Garn Wen made the likelihood of snow a bit of a gamble. Sleet was more likely.
I still had the memory of the core area of the Beacons white with snow from when I trekked up the ridge to Abergavenny a week or so earlier. So I chickened out of the prospect of sleet, took the car out of the garage, and drove up to the car park below Pen-y-Fan, at 886 metres the highest peak in the Brecon Beacons National Park.
The Brecon Beacons are known to be deceptively dangerous in winter conditions because they are exposed to strong winds with no shelter available. The chill factor is considerable. I don’t know whether it is still so but it used to be the case that the army suffered a headline grabbing number of fatalities from exposure using the area for training. But if you know what you are doing and have the right kit, it’s great fun.
The temperature in the car park was -1 oC. There were only 5 other cars and the occupants of 3 of those were dozing or eating sandwiches. This is probably the most popular footpath in the Beacons, one reason why I have avoided it for years. I hoped that maybe for once I would have the mountain to myself. Not to be.
The last time I was here the start of the path meant fording a stream which had the effect of deterring those in unsuitable footwear and lacking in experience. Now a footbridge has been built and the path is 2 metres wide and paved. For me this highlighted the dilemma between facilitating access to the mountains and limiting it in the interests of safety.
After crossing the stream at the edge of the car park the path climbs inexorably to a col. Except for the first few metres of height gain it was covered in increasing amounts of ice and drifted snow and the cleats which I bought and use in the Canadian Rockies were very useful, giving a much surer grip.
On the way up the sky was clear at first, Corn Du, the nearest of the two peaks at the top of the path, in sharp view. Then cloud drifted over shrouding it and the temperature seemed to drop even more. In the col exactly 2 miles and 52 minutes from the car park, the venturi effect accelerated the wind to ‘lean-on’ strength, the chill factor dropping the temperature to below -10 oC. It was now cold enough to stop the battery in the camera from working, requiring a battery change with numb fingers .
As I fumbled I reflected on the last time I was up here. A hot summer’s day with not a breath of wind. A friend and I had carried our paragliders up, hoping that the long southwest-facing scarp, the highest ridge in the Brecon Beacons, would have enough wind to soar. It had, just about. We soared for a while, didn’t connect with any thermals to drag us further skyward, so then flew down to land close to the car, posing in the air for photographs as scores of people trudged up the path and stopped to ogle and click away. That was some 20 years ago. Another world, difficult to reconcile with Monday’s snow, ice and biting cold.
Once in the col the main effort was over, the final short section to the top of Pen-y-Fan, only about another half a mile and 50 metres higher, was easy going despite the ice and the howling wind.
As it gradually emerged from the poor visibility of the low freezing cloud, the summit of the mountain was something of a surprise. Like all of the higher mountains in Britain the top had a trig point, once used for triangulation in the drawing of the very accurate Ordnance Survey maps. They became redundant when satellite imagery took over the role. Now only the occasional one is painted white and maintained by local enthusiasts, the rest are neglected.
But the trig point at the top of Pen-y-Fan has now gone. The summit is instead marked by a stone-built cone topped by a National Trust plaque. I may be a bit snobbish about this but it seems to me to detract from the dignity of a mountain top to have a stone-paved path up to it and a stone-built monument capping it. However, one advantage of the stone construction is that it reduces the erosion caused by hundreds if not thousands of booted feet. And the plaque gives the opportunity for a ‘selfie’ to send by MMS, i-phone or other techno-marvel. “Look Mam, I’m on the top of a mountain”. One guy was doing just that as I waited to take a photo of the plaque.
As I stood there, cooling off rapidly after the climb, I reflected on the number of times I climbed Cadair Idris in Snowdonia in even more extreme winter conditions. The stone construction on the top of that mountain is a climbers’ hut, offering brief and very welcome respite from the wind and snow. The conical construction on Pen-y-Fan offers no shelter from the wind which simply wraps around it, again the venturi effect accelerating its speed. The fine snow was swirled off the top which was almost bare.
Once the guy had finished his selfie I stayed on the top for about 15 minutes enjoying the solitude and nature in the rawest it gets around here. The descent back to the car was rapid and easy thanks to the cleats, the air warming noticeably as I dropped down.
Only an hour from the car park, the top of the mountain was a totally different world, one which I hope to visit again. But only in deep winter when it is cased in snow and ice.