Monday 26th September 2016
It has been an interesting few weeks.
Firstly, a major contract loss at work led to a Redundancy process through which I came successfully albeit with a change of hours and a loss of earnings. More than can be said for the poor souls who were less fortunate. Or are they? A fresh start may be a good thing. Certainly the situation at work is very unsure at the moment. Only time will tell.
Secondly, the TGO magazine landed on my mat with next year’s TGO Challenge application information within it’s pages. Now, I have been interested in participating in this event for a good few years but have never been in a position to apply. So, with my current employment situation you would be justified in thinking that I am not in a position to apply for yet another year’s Challenge. Well, I put the question to my wife Izzy and she concurred much to my surprise. I deliberated for a few days before putting in my application, bemused by my predicament and weighing up the costs and my current kit for suitability. Tapping on that Submit button (it’s an Online application form) brought a great satisfaction and a big smile to my face. Now it’s a waiting game to see if I will be accepted.
Thirdly, my wife Izzy gave the go ahead for a solo backpacking trip in the car. My usual stomping ground of the Peaks did not appeal. Daniel Clout, a fine Facebook acquaintance, had loaned me the use of a Mountain Laurel Designs Duomid which he had only just purchased secondhand and not yet used himself. So I had this shelter to test and the TGO Challenge preoccupying my mind with thoughts of proper mountain terrain, long miles and kit testing. Not to mention a great lack of fitness and the need to lose some weight. May 12th was a long way off should I be accepted but the sooner I started preparing for the crossing of Scotland the better.
In the few days preceding this trip I was monitoring the forecast in the viable areas twice daily. By viable I mean within a 5 hour drive of home. That is plenty far enough for an overnight backpacking trip in my opinion.
So, North Wales, the Lakes, Northumberland and even Galloway were on my watch list with my preference being for Wales. As the week progressed and the forecast became more distinct the list narrowed down to the Eastern Fells of the Lakes and eastern Snowdonia in Wales. It was wet and windy everywhere but I finally settled on the Arenigs, namely Arenig Fawr in north east Wales. The forecast was for brisk 40-50km/h winds, overnight rain and morning showers.
I wasn’t going to postpone however. All good preparation for the TGO Challenge!
Day One – Saturday 24th September
I parked up in a lay-by along the narrow road south of Llyn Celyn, donned my hiking gear and set off up the track onto the lower western flanks of Arenig Fawr. It was a little after dinner. I’d eaten a late breakfast so snacks would keep me going until evening.
The fine setting, a fresh breeze, sunny spells and the prospect of some quality solo hill time had me in high spirits.
The track up to Llyn Arenig Fawr provided easy going access to the foot of the mountain proper. Visibility was very good and the views opening up around me were the finest I’d seen in many months. There was not a soul about, though I did hear dogs barking from somewhere seemingly nearby, though with the vagaries of sound in the hills they could have been miles away.
The Llyn is a reservoir with warning signs boldly displayed giving warning of the hidden depths, submerged obstacles, thin ice in winter and, more pertinently to my intentions, the health hazard posed by the presence of blue and green algae. I had 500ml of water in my rucksack but would need to source at least another litre and a half for overnight. No doubt there would be plentiful water about with the recent rainfall.
I crossed the dam at the outflow and ascended the grassy slopes directly over the broken face (Y Castell) at the far end of the Llyn. It wasn’t particularly steep or arduous but I stopped several times to catch my breath and admire the expanding views behind me. The ridge was quickly underfoot and the summit proper came into view still the better part of a kilometre distant and a 100m above me. The path I stumbled upon at the ridge soon disappeared without trace on the boggy ground amidst the reeds. Somewhere here I took my first sodden footsteps of the trip. My Wild Cats filled with chilly water that cooled my warm feet and squelched for a few paces before draining. This is a feeling that no longer bothers me in the slightest. My feet were soon warm again. My socks fit well so blisters or discomfort are never a problem when they are wet.
I picked my way upwards amidst the litter of stones on the southern flank of the main ridge.
On attaining the ridge before the final 100ft to the summit I was suddenly hit by the full force of the wind that had so far been nothing more than an occasional nuisance, causing the loose straps of my rucksack to clip my ear or tap my nose. This onslaught caused me to lose my balance and stagger forward like a drunk for a few paces before I stopped, leaning forward at a fairly steep angle into the unseen force tugging at my fragile body. Any onlooker would have been concerned by my maniacal laughing in the teeth of Nature’s force trying to push me away.
A few paces further on and into a shallow saddle before the final rise to the summit the wind died to almost nothing.
There was a fine area suitable for pitching up here. Only a little bit exposed but flat and currently shielded from the strong winds. For a minute I wrestled with the urge to pitch up there and then. It was a little early however and I wanted to get a bit more walking under my belt.
On the summit there is a Trig Point and a summit shelter (no more than a hip-high rough stone wall enclosure large enough to offer seating for a half dozen hikers) and a worn, touching memorial to the 8 crew of a B17 Flying Fortress that crashed on the mountain in 1943. There are apparently pieces of the plane wreckage scattered nearby on the hillside.
The panorama from the summit is said to be one of the best in Wales on a good day. There was far too much weather on the western horizon today. The Snowdon range was largely smothered in haze and cloud, the vague outlines of those large peaks glimpsed only for moments at a time.
Still, the view was impressive enough for the effort.
A quick bite and another few mouthfuls of water and I set off against the wind again, down the southern slopes of the peak, picking my way steadily amidst the jumble of rocks toward the southern top of Arenig Fawr. The view from there further along the broad southern ridge of the mountain was an attractive collection of tarns set amongst what appeared to be lovely grassy areas. Up close this turned out to be much what I expected: sapping bog, sphagnum moss cloaked and less than conducive to a great camp. Nor did I collect water from the tarns. The warning signs at the Llyn earlier were fresh in my mind. Besides, I prefer to draw water from a flowing source rather than a standing one.
With that in mind I looked at the map. There was a stream running off the far southern flank of the mountain. I dropped down 50m or so but things didn’t look promising. There were a lot of sheep about and the ground was pretty rough and overgrown. I decided to traverse around to the west and drop down into the valley. Maybe I would come across some running water on that flank or off Moel Llyfnant as I’d more or less set my mind on a camp on that mountain. I was fairly sure of a spot up there as I recalled seeing a photo of someone wild camping up there a few years back.
The weather was drawing in a bit. The clouds were lowering ever thicker over the valley and the light was growing dimmer. From the vantage of height I couldn’t make out any clear paths below. There were two footpaths marked on the map that supposedly converged at a point near the line between myself and the summit of Moel Llyfnant.
It may have turned cooler but the descent and progress across the valley floor kept my blood up. It was by turns slippery and boggy, interspersed with monster hummocks and thick clumps of reeds, so I was teetering one moment and sinking up to mid-shin the next. It made for warm and… interesting progress. I didn’t hold out much hope of finding a path on that ground whether it was marked on an OS map or not.
I did eventually find a path. For thirty paces or so either side of a dilapidated stile over a fence after which it was swallowed by the boggy ground.
No sooner did I step onto the lower slopes of Moel Llyfnant and firm ground than it began to rain. A steady drizzle that looked like it could be in for a while. Waterproofs were donned before I began the steady climb aiming for a saddle at the northern end of the hill that might prove a suitable spot for tonight’s pitch should the summit pitch prove unsuitable.
Visibility was down to 20 metres at best by the time I reached level ground. Level but not firm. More boggy ground. This more reminiscent of the Peak District peat bog I was accustomed to. Thankfully not on a similar scale.
In short order I was at the summit, over the sad remains of a rotten, practically non-existent stile.
There was nothing to see. The rocky summit appearing ghost-like out of the blowing mizzle. A lovely flat area of hard, grassy ground big enough for a tent or two. That was enough for now. I was tired and hungry.
The ground didn’t take pegs well. I had to double peg the two corner tie-outs on the windward side and knock all the pegs in with a rock. The wind was fairly stiff with some pretty fierce gusts. The rain was coming down in earnest now.
The fly erected I dived inside with my pack and set about making it into home for the night. Camp admin done I stripped out of my wet socks and trousers. Getting wet feet might not bother me much but there are few greater pleasures in camp than stripping out of damp socks and putting on a clean, dry pair.
With every fierce gust during the first hour I shone my headtorch out to the windward tie-outs visible from inside. No movement. Good. I’m not usually paranoid. Yet this was my first use of this shelter, it wasn’t mine and though it appeared sound it was a few years old now with a couple of repairs in place. As my poles weren’t long enough to erect the Duomid, even with the included pole-jacks, I’d joined both pole-jacks with a connecting piece of bamboo and some duct tape to extend the pole sufficiently. My confidence in this setup was not 100%.
With warm food in my belly and a hot drink to wash down the bar of chocolate I had for afters, I began to relax. Whilst preparing my meal I had phoned the wife to let her know all was well. So, contented I looked through my photos, tried to read a bit but quickly found my eyes too heavy so settled down to sleep.
It was 930pm. Rock and roll lifestyle or what?
Day Two – Sunday 25th September
The wind and rain railed at the wondrous Cuben Fibre (now renamed Dyneema Composite) shelter through most of the night. By dawn the wind had eased and the rain all but stopped.
Arenig Fawr was visible across the valley. I made a quick coffee, pocketed the Irish whiskey fruit cake I’d saved for a brew on returning to the car, and went out to enjoy the view in the cool morning air. Porridge was originally on the breakfast menu but cake and coffee were far more appealing.
The view was good while it lasted. A quarter of an hour later the mist and rain rolled back in so I rang Izzy from inside the Duomid and set about packing up.
There didn’t appear to be a break in the weather so I layered up and packed up in the rain. I had a 4 hour drive home as well as a couple of hours walk back to the car from here.
I set off on a line that would have taken me on the easiest descent and direct route to intersect the path I had failed to find in the valley the previous afternoon in the hopes it may prove easier to make out in the daylight. The mizzle showed signs of clearing not long after setting out. The conditions made for an interesting play of light. Away in the distance the sun bathed the valley through a small window in the veils of falling rain.
On the ground a well-defined though narrow trail paralleled my course. Too high yet to be the mapped path. A few hundred metres later it disappeared amidst the boggy, stony grasses. 5 minutes later I stumbled upon another that offered easy going for a further 10 minutes before fading out. Such paths are common off the beaten path in little frequented areas. More often than not they are sheep or game trails.
The only thing resembling a fixed line on the ‘footpath that wasn’t’ was the foundation of an old stone wall. The steep incline, wet grass and the nature of the rocks underfoot and strewn about this wall made me very reluctant to follow it too closely. The rocks were loose, slippery and offered many painful options of injury judging by their jagged nature. I was soon tired of this terrain and looked forward to the boggy uncertainty of the valley floor.
The rain stopped and the sun made an appearance turning a gloomy morning into a lovely one. To make matters even cheerier a very definite Quad Bike trail could be seen not far from where I would reach ‘level’ ground. It wound its way almost certainly from the direction of the building I could see in the distance. On the map there were several small structures at the end of a track which was my way out of the valley and back to the road.
Once on the Quad Bike trail – no more than the recent passage of a sole quad, not a well established track yet – the going got a lot easier and in no time I had passed by the ruined shell of an old farm and over the ladder stile at the corner of the plantation not far from the buildings on the map. I then realised that somewhere between here and the ruined building my map case had come free of the straps on my shoulder harness. Doh! Thankfully it was only a few hundred metres back.
The walk back to the car from here was smooth track, a good path along the course of a dismantled railway line to the road and then 2km of tarmac trouncing. The weather held good and I made swift progress.
It wasn’t until I saw the first car driving along the nearby A4212 that I realised I hadn’t seen a single person all weekend.