Saturday, 18 July 2015

Corn Du and Pen y Fan

To do the classic horseshoe ridge walk in the Brecon Beacons has long been an ambition of mine so when we booked a few days holiday in Cornwall, a stopover in South Wales on the way seemed the ideal way to realise this.The long range weather forecast had seemed a positive one so we booked into a B&B (the wonderful Mount Pleasant Inn in Merthyr Vale, which thoroughly deserves its numerous five star reviews online) and packed our walking gear alongside our beach and bar wear.

A shallow river running through woodland and cascading over rocks.
The Taf Fechan
Thus it was we found ourselves parking the car one drizzly morning in the Taf Fechan forest. The fine weather promised had disappeared but the revised forecast of occasional light showers and sunny spells didn't bode too badly, we thought. I jammed on my sun hat as well as my waterproof jacket and we set off over the river into the woods. The walk at this point was a gentle incline but the air was quite close between the trees so it was a relief to come out of the cover of branches and leaves into an area that seemed to have been cleared for timber. As the trees thinned we got our first glimpse of the mountain walk ahead, the Graig Fan Ddu ridge appearing above the foliage on the left and Craig Cwm Cynwyn on the right. The northern end of the latter, where the summit of Cribyn stands was ominously covered in clag.

The ground was surprisingly boggy here, and the slippery, thin logs placed hither and thither along the footpath made crossing the wettest sections a tricky balancing act. As we approached the dam of the Lower Neuadd Reservoir, however, the earth grew more reliable under our feet and it became safer to look around as you walked instead of constantly looking down to assess the solidity of the ground.

There were a number of rhododendrons in flower around the banks of the Taf Fechan as it flowed out below the reservoir and these provided a welcome splash of colour in surroundings that were dominated by shades of green and brown. Although our route lay west, up the side of the massive fell and onto the ridge, I couldn't resist nipping through the gate to see the reservoir. When I did, I found that - like the much larger Upper Neuadd Reservoir above - it had been drained for some reason.

A mountain ridge appearing beyond a line of trees at the forest edge.
Nearing the edge of the forest.
A clearing on the dge of the forest with the ridge of Graig Fan Ddu in the background.
The ridge of Graig Fan Ddu (r)
The summit of Craig Cwm Cynywn below heavy cloud.
Craig Cwm Cynwyn, its northern end shrouded in mist.
A shallow stream meanders through grassland, blossoming rhododendrons on its banks.
The welcome brightness of the rhododendrons below the Neuadd Reservoirs.

We returned to our route, which was a pronounced climb up the hillside now. There were more bogs to negotiate here, some quite deep as an exploratory probe with my walking pole proved. We had two options: there were two gullies in the fellside before us. The one dead ahead was the route I'd plotted and the other, on its left, led directly up to the trig point on Twyn Mwyalchod. We'd already decided we'd make a diversion to that summit and the question was whether it'd be easier to reach it along the ridge or by crossing the hillside and then climbing straight up to it. We figured the ridge would probably be drier underfoot than the saturated lower slopes we were currently standing on and stuck to our original plan.

From halfway up the hillside, the climb didn't look too onerous or steep but the approach of a fellow walker to its base revealed the true scale of the ascent ahead.

A path heads though grassland to the long ridge on the horizon, which it climbs steeply.
Our route onto the ridge - the tiny black dot on the left is another walker.

Looking up from the base of the ridge, it seemed even more daunting. We both stopped a couple of times on the way up to take a breather and, near the top, hands as well as feet were occasionally required to clamber over the bigger rocks. Once we reached the top we both agreed it hadn't been nearly as strenuous as we'd expected - we'd done ascents that required far more exertion, such as our climb of Whernside from Dent earlier this year.

Ann, one of our hosts back at the B&B, had said that it was difficult to lose your way on this walk as the paths were so clear underfoot and we could immediately see what she meant. Twyn Mwyalchod hadn't originally been part of our plan but the idea of bagging a additional summit, especially one so close, is always too tempting a proposition. It was home to a reasonably well-maintained trig pillar, bright white with the Welsh dragon emblazoned on it in red; poignantly, there were memorials to fallen soldiers marked there too. We paused to savour the views west from here, across the Brecon Beacons National Park to what I presume was the Black Mountain, hazy in the far distance, before retracing our steps to the cairn that marked the end of our ascent. A toot ringing out across the valley caused us to look back and we just caught a glimpse of a steam train, the Brecon Mountain Railway, before it disappeared from view.

A stony path following the edge of the mountains. Hazy hills in the distance.
The path to the summit of Twyn Mwyalchod
A long-distance shot of a steam train across the valleys.
The Brecon Mountain Railway.
A misty shot of mountain summits around the valley.
Background: Cribyn (l) and Fan y Big (r). Graig Fan Ddu is in the foreground to the left.
Me by an OS trig pillar, which is painted white and emblazoned with a red Welsh dragon on each face.
At the summit of Twyn Mwyalchod.

A path along the edge appears clear while more distant views across the valley become hidden in mist.
The mist begins to gather.
North was our direction now and, appropriately enough, the weather  began to turn distinctly northern at this point too. The wind picked up and buffeted us as we tramped along the sometimes rocky, sometimes peaty footpath. Mist began to roll toward us from across the moor at the top of the ridge and churned its way up the valley as well, so we were eventually assailed by damp and cold conditions from all angles. It didn't take long for the sun hat to come off and the woolly hat and gloves to make an unplanned appearance. I was glad that I always keep winter gear in my backpack, even in the middle of summer.

The far side of the valley had long since disappeared now and the rolling waves of mist below us finally settled into permanent residence. The intermittent glimpses of the valley sides and floor we'd had became a thing of the past until we descended below cloud-level a couple of hours later. I sometimes peered over the edge of the crags, which were certainly among the lushest rock formations I've seen in my wanderings, with an obviously vibrant ecosystem flourishing in this unlikely-looking location. 

Mostly, however, this section of the walk was a steady trek through the fog, with little to see. I got a shout to stop from Rich at one point as I'd unthinkingly marched too far ahead into the mist and disappeared from sight. There was no-one else around. The weather was hardly inviting at this point, of course, but we wondered also if the tragic deaths of two walkers only the day before on these peaks had put people off climbing them. It was hard to imagine the oppressive heat and humidity that had caused those two lightning strikes only 24 hours previously, as it genuinely did feel like we were on a winter hike at this point.

A view back along the path - nothing is visible below now.
A look back at our route so far - or what we could see of it, at least!

A crag below the path, full of plant life.
One of the lush crags.

A close up of the eroded junction with exposed bedrock.
The stony intersection at Bwlch Duwynt
We came to an intersection of paths eventually, at Bwlch Duwynt. The broad track that headed down on our left was the "Storey Arms path", the most popular route up to the Central Beacons. The crossroads here was worn down to stone. The repeated tread of boots had cleared it of peat and grass and it gleamed under the gauzy light of the sun. This was the first sunlight we'd seen in a while and for a while our hopes for clear views ahead seemed like they might be fulfilled. Some of the rocks here offered shelter from the prevailing wind and we decided to sit and have lunch, a wise decision it turned out. A wiser decision would have been to put on our waterproof over-trousers at this point too but hindsight is smarter than foresight.

Any signs of the sun breaking through had dissipated while we were eating and we proceeded north again, climbing as we went into the mist that shrouded Corn Du. We encountered more people here than we had seen all day, including one hardy German chap in shorts, t-shirt and slouch hat to protect him from the sun. I was feeling chilly in my fleece and rainproof jacket, far too cold to take my hat off in salute to his fortitude but I doffed it mentally as we said our hellos. 

There was a slippery and wet scramble to reach the summit of Corn Du. The wind was now gale force and it was quite unnerving whenever it caught you balancing on one foot as you heaved yourself up. The modest dome of the cairn on top of Corn Du was ahead and as we went past we tapped it with our walking poles. We didn't pause to savour our  achievement - there was nothing to see from our clag-bound vantage point, in fact you could barely make out the edge of the summit plateau.

A very hazy outline of the climb up Corn Du.
Heading up to Corn Du summit.
A stone-laid path leading up to a rocky outcrop.
The rocky outcrop we had to scramble over to reach the summit.
A stone path leading through mist to a barely discernible cairn that marks the summit.
Corn Du summit - you can just make out the low-lying cairn on the right.

The wind was roaring up the valley now, funnelled by the steep slopes, and then violently storming over Corn Du and Pen y Fan, and the saddle between them. With it came the unrelenting rain, needle-sharp and driven sideways by the wind. Somehow we were in the midst of the downpour and soaked through before we even knew it was happening, too focused perhaps on the climb we'd been doing or on maintaining an upright position. I was almost blown off my feet, quite literally, on three occasions and I kept close to the valley side and away from the northern ridge as we descended and crossed the col between the two iconic summits.

Pen y Fan provided more of the same aside from the incongruous sight of a woman and a child, sitting on the wind-wracked summit cairn and blowing soap bubbles that streamed north over the ridge. Here we lingered while I posed for a photo at the National Trust pillar on the cairn. My hood was pulled tight around my chin with drawstrings and my woollen hat underneath it was pulled below my ears but the wind here peeled one and then the other off in an instant. I had to go running across the cairn before it disappeared in the same direction as the soap bubbles. The bubble blowers carried on producing their delicate creations, huddled affectionately together and oblivious to the fact that anyone was even on the summit with them, let alone a windswept walker frantically chasing a beany hat around.

A picture of me, hat on and hood up, standing in the mist at the summit marker.
At the summit of Pen y Fan.

A stone laid path and grass-covered hillside below a layer of cloud.
Below the cloud line now, on the Beacons Way.
We descended along the next saddle, Craig Cwm Sere, and here debated what to do next. The path that was to take us to the summit of Cribyn disappeared into the cloud and it was clear (about the only thing that was clear by this stage in the walk) that we would have little to gain from following it other than elevation; as on the previous two peaks, there would be nothing to see aside from mist and one another. Reluctantly we decided to leave Cribyn for another day and took the right hand fork, following the Beacons Way south-east along the lower flank of Craig Cwm Cynwyn.

Soon, we were below cloud level and began to get views down the valley. The empty Upper Neuadd Reservoir, with its dam and tower, was surrounded by a wall of trees on three sides and looked quite Tolkienesque, a fortress ready to defend itself against Sauron's dark forces.

The square outline of a drained reservoir. It's edged with trees and stone towers and ramparts mark out the dam.
The Upper Neuadd Reservoir.

Thankfully the rain had stopped, though we were by now soaked beyond repair, and the wind was less strong down here. Tiny patches of blue sky put in a frail appearance as we reached another meeting of footpaths at Bwlch ar y Fan. From here we got some fine views down another glacial valley, Cwm Cynwyn, and of the slopes of Bryn Teg that rise up on its northern side.

A path snaking up to the summit of Fan y Big.
A brief glimpse of the route up Fan y Big
Fan y Big was directly above us now, the jagged path to its summit posing the question, "Will you climb?" For a moment, a gust of wind tantalisingly revealed the heights but almost as soon as we set foot on the trail upwards the clag rolled in again and the summit was lost. Sodden, chilled to the marrow and chafing in our wet clothes, we decided to pass on the opportunity to stand in more mist and instead took the footpath that ran south towards the forest.

It was disappointing to not complete these iconic peaks of the Central Beacons but I think we made the right decision, given we'd left it too late to put on our waterproof trousers and were thoroughly soaked. We still had a sense of achievement, though, and I was glad that we had - by the addition of Twyn Mwyalchod - managed to bag three summits. And we still managed to see some wonderful scenery, enough to make it a certainty that we will return and do the horseshoe walk again, properly, when the weather is better. 

When we were almost at the edge of the forest, we took a look back and finally saw Corn Du and Pen y Fan pretty much clear of cloud; we weren't perhaps in the best of moods at this point but it was impossible not to smile a wry smile at the irony.

A look back along the valley, where the two summits are just appearing from the clouds.
Corn Du and Pen y Fan in the background.


Date: July 2015

Walk length: 10.5 miles

Duration: 6 hours

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