Why we should avoid doing nothing.
Over the Christmas holidays, and any bank holiday for that matter, it’s dead easy to do, well nothing, and only notice that you’re doing nothing too late in the day to do anything more than an afternoon walk.
With that in mind, Vicky suggested we did something, rather than nothing, between Christmas and New Year, to avoid that feeling of doing, well, nothing.
With the excitement of adventures to come, while driving to the local Vue to watch Star Wars, we decided to do a trip to the Peak District or the Brecon Beacons, whatever Google says would be easier and quicker to get to.
On the short drive home, it was clear we’d be booking this right away. 20 minutes later, and now well past our bedtime, we’d booked a night’s stay at Llangattock Mountain Bunkhouse YHA, just inside the Brecon Beacons, west of Abergavenny.
Where to walk?
With little time to plan, we dropped a good friend of ours a message for some route advice. A few days later, we had three routes hand picked ready to go on OS Maps Online service, which Vicky and just gifted me for Christmas. Thanks Laurie.
We also picked up the two OS maps covering the area, just incase we had to go ‘off route’ from the custom printed maps.
On The Weather
Personally, I’m someone who couldn’t give a shit about the weather, it simply is what it is, and that is something firmly outside of my control. All I can control is what I’m wearing, and making sure we’re fully prepared for the conditions.
With that in mind, without much of a glance at the weather, we hopped into the car at 7am with bags packed, coffee mugs filled (self made, to save money of course), with the two and a half hour drive ahead of us, we headed to Sugar Loaf mountain (no, this isn’t in advance to our No Sugar Challenge, that is coming up…).
It didn’t take long before we came across a snow flurry. I would estimate about 5 minutes. This went from bad to worse as we took the little, windy country roads towards the Beacons, on a route chosen purely to miss out paying the £6.70 fee for the pleasure of crossing the Severn bridge (another money saving exercise!)
Passing many fallen trees, beached cars and having to take alternative routes because of blocked roads twice, we forgot about our pursestrings and decided to head south, towards the safe haven of the motorway, and thus the toll bridge.
Things started to look up as we headed south, and then into Wales as there was far less snow on the ground. Getting near the national park, we could see snow quite far up, and decided that after four and a half hours driving, we should attempt the road to Sugar Loaf. We had been warned that it could be a poor road, but thought that given how high the snow was, we wouldn’t hit any problems.
After a few miles of incredibly tight and narrow roads, we stopped at a tiny passing point where two other cars ahead where attempting to turn around. A quick chat with some fellow would be walkers (also wearing Rab I might add), it transpired that the road ahead was covered in ice, and other cars had got stuck.
We turned around, and other than having to reverse half way back up the hill to let two campervans through, the drive down was relatively painless.
At this we decided to head to the now worryingly named ‘Mountain Bunkhouse’ with the intention of doing a walk there. After arriving safely, we found luck had been on our side, because as walked up towards the nearest summit, the roads quickly became covered in ice.
After a few hours of trampling around in the snow, we passed through an old quarry, dropping into the valley bottom to follow the canal. The lowlands were nice, but without snow, it was significantly less interesting than the higher areas. Due to what snow melt had occurred, it was also rather damp and treacherous.
After being fattened up with christmas meals like a turkey before slaughter, we decided to whip up something much lighter that evening in the hostel. Dinner down, I made a whiskey drink to snuggle up with while devouring some new books we had.
Whiskey Tea, found somewhere on the internet.
- One tea bag, such as earl grey. Something more than crappy builders tea.
- Three tablespoons of cheap whiskey. We used Jack Daniels (yes I know, it’s not a whiskey…)
- A slice of lemon, and a little squeeze of half a lemon. Squeeze only by hand, otherwise it’ll be too bitter.
- A tablespoon of honey. Add more if too bitter from the lemon.
- Let brew for a minute or two, then remove the tea bag.
- Drink with a good book.
Looking at the weather for once, we decided we should be able to make a run for Pen Y Fan, so with the alarm set for 6:40, we got breakfast down, and to the car for sun rise.
When we woke that morning, it was clear that forecast was a little wrong, and the snow covering sparkling over the fields warned us against driving to our intended destination. With car abandoned we headed to our favourite summit once more, this time with the intention of staying in the snow all day, by heading over the hill.
Grass is greener on the other side
While we can’t be sure if the grass was greener on the other side, we can be sure that on the south side of the summit there was a lot more snow. This figures as the way the snow had built up, the wind at the time would have been due South. This somewhat took us by surprise, and significantly slowed our progress. We had a fun day walking in the snow, having snow ball fights and trying but failing to build a snowman! Vicky was very sad when she found out that building a snowdog just would not work.
When we arrived back at the car at 3pm, leaving an hour of light left to get down the possibly icy hill, we had not walked anywhere as far as we had intended, but the day had taught us some valuable lessons.
Other than the first few miles of sketchy iced up roads, the journey home was rather uneventful. Those first few miles, the car rarely came out of first gear, as the engine kept our speed below 5mph. Here and there I tested the brakes out of interest. The results ranged from coming to an instant stop, to the wheels locking completely. I wasn’t too worried as at such a low speed I could have stopped the car easily by heading into the mud banks on either side of the road. This is another benefit of owning a crappy (but well looked after!) car.
Preparation, and what we learned
This whole trip turned out to be great preparation for our two weeks at Glenmore Lodge in February, and most likely will end up as our winter wonderland highlight to the Christmas holidays.
We learned quite a bit over the 48 hours:
- While our gloves kept us nice and warm, mine left me without much dexterity. Thankfully I could still use my camera.
- A base layer and my soft shell kept me extremely warm while moving (and when we stopped briefly for some hot tea). We kept comparing the weather on the Met Office app with the conditions on the top of Cairngorm. While it showed a feels like -20deg C compared to -5 in the Brecons, with another layer up top, we should be extremely toasty.
- The benefits of actual walking trousers became clear. Until now I’ve used trousers that would cost £5 at most, and are as thin as a newspaper. Without long johns we kept our legs warm in the snow.
- Key to keeping legs warm was our gators. Mine are now ruined as it turns out, as they kept coming undone, and riding up my leg towards the end of the day. This turned the top of my shoes into a nice ridge for snow to melt in and run down my lovely new socks.
- We did some pacing tests using the OS Maps app for checking our 100m, as well as some estimating distances and comparing those to actual. As well as this, we took some bearings, and worked through how we might navigate in poor visibility.
- We didn’t take our camelbacks with us, but had a flask of tea and bottle of water per person. Seemed to be enough. Looks like we don’t drink as much in the winter!
Given how cheap it was to get there and back (£35 in fuel) and the YHA (£36 total for both of us for one night), we’re going to be doing this again soon. Perhaps in the summer we might actually do the routes Laurie spent time making for us. One thing we want to try soon is bivvy bagging. Perhaps the Brecons will be the place of our first night out under the stars. First though, we need some decent roll mats, and I need a new sleeping bag!