Wilderness Wales


A Beacon Too Far

In spite of knowing most of the Beacons intimately well, there were four over 2,000 feet that I'd yet to ascend; Mynydd Llysiau, Pen Twyn Glas, Pen Allt Mawr and Pen Cerrig-calch - all on one ridge in the Black Mountains.  I'd decided over a year ago that I wanted to complete the set of all the 2,000 foot Beacons by the year 2000. Perhaps I'd left them this late on purpose, the imminent arrival of the new millenium adding a certain urgency to the ascents.

I'd planned to do the ridge this very week.  Then it snowed!  6 inches reported in the Beacons.  This was it.  My brother Nigel was up for it and arranged a day off work.

We planned to leave at 6am, unfortunately due to computer/Internet addiction neither of us got to sleep before 3am.  Consequently we didn't leave until 8am.  Luckily the snow that had blocked major roads in the area the day before was gone and we reached our destination at roughly 9:30am, a parking space next to the hairpin bend in Cwm Banw.

{[01bms18.jpg]}The snow was very light at first, the grass was wet underneath and the paths were muddy and slippery.  We climbed the Tal Trwynau spur for a short distance, turning right at the forest.  The sun was out at this time, everything was white and sparkling and a few nice photos were acquired.  The ridges though were blanketed in cloud that seemed to be sticking to the tops.  The summit of Waun Fach in the distance was hidden by cloud, which quite frankly improved the look of it.
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{[06bms18.jpg]}At the wall above the forest we came upon a large gathering of sheep, all standing motionless and looking quite bemused.  They made a curious sight.  Maybe they'd never seen snow before. Unusually for sheep they barely moved to avoid us as we walked past.

We followed the footpath north-west on the west side of Grwyne Fechan. The muddy path was somewhat tedious and Nigel was itching to get up into the real snow.  I assured him we'd have plenty of that in due course, besides, we had the compensation of sunshine and fine views. Nigel took a brief food stop in an area of scenic trees whilst I busily captured it all on film, snow and ice covered branches glistening in the sunlight.
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{[11bms18.jpg]}Finally the path started to rise steadily toward the col below Pen Trumau and the mud promptly disappeared, as did the sun.  The snow underfoot was much firmer now and the clouds extended to cover more of the valley.  It was getting whiter and bleaker, pretty soon there was little to be seen that wasn't white.

{[12bms18.jpg]}A group of four or five sheep made their way along the path some distance ahead of us, where on earth did they think they were going? Not much grass up on the ridge.  As we hit the cloud layer we stopped for another brief rest and a cup of tea.  I'd earlier toyed with the idea of navigating with map and compass alone, but when it came to the crunch I thought; "Sod that!", so I entered a few rough waypoints into the GPS instead.

There was little chance of getting lost on the ridge, and no real cliffs to worry about.  The only real consideration was identifying the summit of Pen Twyn Glas in the whiteout and making sure we turned right instead of accidentally following the Tal Trwynau spur.
{[13bms18.jpg]}Approaching the col at 617m we met the sheep we'd been following. They'd joined up with a whole bunch of other sheep huddled together in the mist at over 600m.  Once onto the ridge the path promptly disappeared and we were into the six inch deep snow.  This was fun at first.  The wind also started to make it's presence known.   From then on, visibility was minimal.  The snow thinned out as we hit the short steep bit leading to Mynydd Llysiau.  Once above that  the ridge started to widen and we found ourselves up to our knees and higher in the white stuff. 
{[14bms18.jpg]}   We stumbled around blindy for a while making very slow progress before eventually managing to identify the path, a flatter line of snow leading through the lumpier snow.  This was usually only six inches deep but passed through occasional foot deep sections.  I have no idea where the summit was, but the map indicated that the path crossed the highest point (663m) so I assume we bagged it.  Three Beacons left to complete the set.   {[15bms18.jpg]} 
Shortly after this Nigel asked me what time it was.  It was 2:45pm. We'd completely lost track of the time and suddenly realised that we had a long way to go before the early winter night closed in.  We cursed ourselves for our leisurely stroll up the valley in relatively easy conditions.  There was no choice but to force the pace.

Half way to Pen Twyn Glas the snow started to get really deep, up to our knees most of the time.  Our pace slowed to a crawl and my left knee began to ache.  This was precisely what I'd hoped to avoid.  I'd hurt my knee in Snowdonia a few months earlier and have had trouble with it ever since.  I'd been slowly nurturing it back to full strength, and it had even survived a very rough walk across the northern Rhinogs just a week and a half earlier, but this deep snow was too much for it.  My walking stick was helpful, but was unable to prevent further deterioration.

{[16bms18.jpg]}Just before Pen Twyn Glas we came across a pair of boundary stones on the 640m contour line.  They were covered with interesting wind-blown snow formations and made a nice photo.  Nigel insisted that the steep little prominence that they topped should qualify as the summit, rather than the featureless tump further on, but one cannot argue with the numbers.

After more tiresome wading through the endless snowdrift we reached the featureless tump of Pen Twyn Glas 646m.  The GPS was most helpful in locating this feature.  Only two more Beacons to go.  However it was now 3:30pm, only half an hour left until sunset, and we still had about 6km more to go.  At a speed of no more than 2kph the situation didn't look good.  My left knee was completely knackered by this time.

To make matters worse I discovered that I hadn't packed my torch.  It was still sitting on the table at home next to the computer keyboard. I'd picked it up, put it down temporarily, but it failed to make the last few feet to my nearby rucksack.  Ironically I had plenty of spare batteries.  Nigel never brings a torch, he likes to do night walks in the dark.

The sensible thing to do at that time would have been to head off the ridge down Tal Trwynau straight back to the car.  In retrospect I can't understand why we didn't do that.  It would've been so easy.  But you know masculine pride.  I was determined to continue, and Nigel still had two legs so he wasn't bothered.

{[17bms18.jpg]}As the ground rose higher the snow got deeper.  I kept slipping and falling in the drifts.  The situation was getting silly.  We reached Pen Allt Mawr 719m by sunset.  Only one Beacon left.  However it was patently obvious by then that it was daft to continue.  After a final cup of tea and a few snacks near the summit, we took the only sensible course of action.  I checked the map for the last time in the fading light, plotted a waypoint, and then we headed back down into the valley.
My GPS indicated a diagonal course across the hillside, but Nigel kept drifting to the left (if you'll excuse the pun).  His logic was that we had to go downhill anyway so it was better to get it over with, since the snow would be less deep lower down.  I insisted that he was just adding extra distance, besides I had to keep my left leg straight so I could only walk diagonally anyway.  Deep snow turned into deep heather and snow, and with the steepening slope slipping and falling became more frequent.  It would have been good fun if my leg wasn't so painful.

Somehow we ended up at the river, the snow was negligible there and the walking became a relative joy.  Until we reached the locked gate that is, and the sign telling us to follow the wall back up the hillside and around.  I was exhausted by this time so the prospect cheered me up no end.  It was fully dark by now but we could still see reasonably well due to the snow.

I won't bother to describe the remainder of the walk in detail, suffice to say that the perceived distance greatly exceeded the actual distance.  We wandered through fields and lanes and were never entirely sure exactly where we were.  Even with a GPS it's not easy to look at a map without a torch.

We finally reached the farmhouse we were aming for and a footpath sign just next to it indicated a 125m shortcut across a field to our waiting car.  "Not another field" said Nigel, who suggested we stick to the tarmac instead, and head back by road.  I was dubious, but the prospect of another steep slope, even though short in distance, caused me to agree with him.

It was over half a kilometre to the nearby road, where we promptly turned left and then missed the next left turn in the dark.  The GPS was totally useless due to the high hedges in the narrow lanes, it's arrow jumping around pointing in all directions, it's track was completely erratic.  We didn't realise our mistake until we reached Bont.  A convenient outside light on a house enabled us to look at the map properly for the first time in hours, and we were well pleased to see our error as you can imagine.  We retraced our steps and arrived back at the car at about 8:00pm after adding an unnecessary 2.4km to our walk as a result of opting to miss the 125m shortcut.

All in all, an enjoyable day out with some good photos, but marred of course by my bad knee, the depth of the snow on the ridge, and the persistent hill fog.  In retrospect, continuing on to Pen Cerrig-calch might not have been such a bad idea after all, considering the difficulties we had negotiating the valley.  As it stands though, I still have that one remaining Beacon to conquer, a time limit of just two weeks, and a very sore knee to heal before I can consider mounting the next attempt.

Trip stats; Distance: 18.4km (11.4mi) Ascent: 800m (2,625ft) Time: 10 hrs 11 mins