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. With that in mind, 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 woodland thinned we got our first glimpse of the mountain walk ahead of us - the Graig Fan Ddu ridge appeared above the foliage on the left and Craig Cwm Cynwyn became visible on the right. The northern end of the latter, where the summit of Cribyn stands was ominously covered in clag.

The terrain 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, the ground 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 earth.

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.

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 had now become a pronounced climb up the hillside. There were more bogs to negotiate here, some quite deep as an exploratory probe with my walking pole proved. From halfway up the hillside, the climb up the gully ahead didn't look too onerous or steep but the approach of a fellow walker to its base revealed the true scale of the ascent.

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 but once we reached the top we both agreed it hadn't been nearly as strenuous as we'd expected.

Twyn Mwyalchod hadn't originally been part of our plan but the idea of bagging a additional summit, especially one so close, was too tempting a proposition. It was home to a reasonably well-maintained trig pillar, painted bright white with the Welsh dragon emblazoned on it in red. 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.
We turned back and headed north 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. A wall of fog began to roll toward us from across the moor at the top of the ridge and churned its way up the valley as well. Before long we were assailed by the cold and damp from all angles. The sun hat came off and the woolly hat and gloves made an unplanned appearance.

The far side of the valley had  disappeared by this point and the swirling 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. Sometimes I peered over the edge of the crags,. There was obviously a vibrant ecosystem flourishing in this unlikely-looking location and the rocks below were lush with vegetation.

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.

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. 

The intersection at Bwlch Duwynt.

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.

Funnelled by the steep valley sides, the wind roared up the valley, over Corn Du and Pen y Fan, and across the saddle between them. Driven sideways by its force came the rain, needle-sharp and unrelenting. Somehow we were in the midst of the downpour and soaked through before we even knew it was happening, too focused perhaps 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 edge as we crossed the col between the two iconic summits.

Pen y Fan provided the incongruous sight of a woman and a child sitting on the wind-wracked summit cairn, blowing soap bubbles that streamed north over the ridge. We stopped here briefly while I posed for a photo at the 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. Oblivious to the fact that anyone was on the summit with them, let alone a windswept walker frantically chasing a beany hat around, the bubble blowers carried on producing their delicate creations, huddled together against the elements.

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 debated what to do next. The path that was to take us to the summit of Cribyn disappeared upwards into the cloud. It was clear (about the only thing that was clear by this stage in the walk) that we'd have little to gain from following it other than elevation. As with the previous two peaks, there'd 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.

The wind was less strong down here and thankfully the rain had stopped, although we were now pretty much soaked beyond repair. 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 misty 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 we made the right decision, given we were thoroughly soaked. We'd bagged three summits and we'd still managed to see some wonderful scenery, in spite of the mist. It was enough to make it a certainty that we'll return and do the horseshoe walk again in better weather.

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: 15.25 km

Total ascent: 691.5 metres



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