Thursday, 23 June 2011

The Black Mountain: Raging Torrents in the Darkness

My first ever wild camp was in the Brecon Beacons. Consequently, there was a karmic character to my return as I had brought with me a close friend for whom it would also be a first wild camp. Whereas mine took place in the eastern end of the national park, this time I chose the Mynydd Du - the Black Mountain - in the west. Starting from Glyntawe, we would ascend Fan Hir, and trawl the escarpment peaks of Fan Brycheiniog, Fan Foel, Bannau Sir Gaer and Waun Lefrith before traversing the access land to Carreg Yr Ogof and then south east  to our wild camp spot next to Afon Giedd. I had eyed the weather forecasts throughout the week with the nervous eye of one who is to be responsible for the well being of a friend - the last thing I wanted was miserable, nay dangerous, weather. I was to be left somewhat in limbo by the prognostications of the Met Office. We parked at Dan yr Ogof campsite and made our way to our ingress point at the Tafarn-y-Garreg pub. Clouds loomed a deep, charcoal grey across the sky with momentary breaks through which the sun peeked nervously. At 400m, en route up to the Fan Hir escarpment, there was little in the way of wind but when we reached the area just beyond the 463m Allt Fach, the maelstrom began. 






We pushed on, labouring against the steep ascent and the brute force of the squall, and revelling in the mercilessly brief moments of the sun's warming caress. Eventually, we reached the Fan Hir escarpment and began a more sedate ascent, with the corollary that the wind grew ever stronger. Unlike the rugged, gnarly majesty of Snowdonia and the Lakelands Fells, the Brecon Beacons has more rolling, undulating tranquil smoothness to it - dangerous, because when the fog descends, navigation turns from essential skill to art form. The views of rest of the Beacons National Park, including Pen y Fan and Cribyn in the far eastern distance are still spellbinding. Framed by a dark, portentous mantle, they were ever more so.






The peak of Fan Brycheiniog at 802m is a relatively straightforward Trail 100 to bag, but that does not diminish its rightful place within that list - views along the entire escarpment develop, like ageing a fine wine, getting better as Fan Brycheiniog is left behind and the windswept austerity of Twr y Fan Foel and Fan Foel begin. These latter brothers gift staggering vistas of the Llanddeusant valley, the hills of Mynydd y Lan and the Glasfynydd Forest. Here we rested, sheltered by the cairn, eating and drinking our fill before moving onto Bannau Sir Gaer. The wind dropped, its influence shunted unceremoniously aside by the leeward contours of Nentydd Blaen-Twrch, and the sun took its chance.






Bannau Sir Gaer and Picws Du turn this circuit on its head and bestow a completely transformed vista. A steep ascent to the top of the peak and suddenly, at 749m, Llyn y Fan Fach and the sheer face of the Glastir y Picws dominate the landscape. It is a shock, even a knowing one, to see the Llyn at base of this enormous scar. Bathing the face in the early evening light, the sun itself peeked from behind the clouds, eager too to gaze upon this awesome sight. We circled pools left by the rain and delighted in each moment the sun joined us. From time to time, we would gaze back along the escarpment in awe.








Onwards we strode, invigorated by this wondrous spectacle, until we reached Waun Lefrith and the real challenge to my navigation. We would traverse the access land, pick up the bridleway amid the tussocky grass and undulating landscape and, after a quick ascent of Carreg yr Ogof, head south east to our wild camp spot by Afod Giedd. The ominous portent from dark, foreboding clouds to the south, driven towards us by the south westerly wind, instilled in me no small disquiet. I was not impressed by the prospect of hill fog making navigation more challenging that it needed to be.






As we picked up the bridleway and headed south-east, the ground became ever more boggy but the rivers were tame and uncomplicated to ford. Neat waterfalls, ensconced in depressions in the earth, fairly dawdled into the various rivers in the valley. It was all rather pleasant and inoffensive. If only we knew. The wind had abated little as we descended the valley and I was keen to find a sheltered spot by Afon Giedd. We found a small hollow, about 20m from the river in the lee of enough shelter to make the camp a good one. We selected spots and pitched. The pegs went in easy and perhaps that should have alerted me - the ground felt soft underfoot but not unduly so, nor was it moist. It seemed like a good camp. We set about getting the Sidewinder going and preparing hot chocolate and our Fuizion evening meals. All was well. The hill fog I had been concerned about now shrouded Fan Hir and Fan Brycheiniog but we had done what we came for and paid it no mind. We retired to bed just scant moments before the rain came and light began to fade. We slept well until around 3.00am the next morning...




I awoke to a strange sensation beneath me, admittedly dulled by the Neo Air. The floor of the Fly Creek seemed alive when I moved. I pushed at the ground and it gave way beneath me, billowing as if air were trapped beneath it. As I reached for my XP2 to, literally, shed light on the problem, I knew deep-down we were in some trouble. The porch was beset by a literal pool of water nearly 4 or 5 inches deep and the same had insinuated itself beneath the Fly Creek, running the entire length of the tent. The rain, assaulting the fly in great sheets of percussive fury, was the final clue I needed. I shouted to my friend and started to get dressed - we would have to break camp as any moment the bathtub of my groundsheet could by breached and I'd have more than the condensation of a Yewbarrow winter wild camp to dampen my down sleeping bag. The rain abated momentarily as I exited the Fly Creek, and slowed to a light drizzle. We packed our sodden tents, as well as the rest of our kit, and made off. As we reached Afon Giedd, knowing we'd have to ford what had been a relatively sedate brook, we stared simultaneously horrified and oddly enervated. The pleasant rivulet of yesterday had been engorged by the rainfall and was now a raging torrent two or three times as wide. There would be no easy way to cross. I strode up and down searching for a ford of some sort but, after a while, I knew there was nothing for it and did a Phil Turner. Hell, I was wearing trail running shoes and had been putting up with wet feet all day yesterday anyway so who gave a damn, eh? I went up up to my knees and picked a path across, wary of the water's strength. My companion did the same.


Light began to dawn, and we moved with purpose. Fog surrounded us, veiling our path in a misty obfuscation. We took a bearing, heading south-east, and made our move. As the light grew steadily better, we could see just how sodden the valley had become. Fog permeated everything, scattering a damp, silky sheen across the earth. We were tired but new we'd end up much earlier back to our car and, consequently, tea and bacon sandwiches - in such situations, small luxuries keep you going.






Yet the fog created some mysterious lighting effects and from time to time, we would stop and gaze in spellbound rapture. We were conscious that the weather might change and make navigation even worse, so we moved quickly and mostly without pause, but the infrequent hiatus was worth it. Two more rivers to ford, deep raging cascades of fast-moving water which put my friend up to his waist at one point, requiring me to pull him up from the other side. We cared little and ploughed on.




Eventually, we made it back to Dan yr Ogof and after a short drive, found ourselves a place to eat bacon sandwiches and slurp hot tea. It was an odd volte face from our expectations but nothing is ever a bad experience if you want to view it positively. In the end, I quite enjoyed the challenge...





17 comments:

  1. Maz, bad luck that one ! I have abandoned camp in the middle of the night, because I thought I was going to be blown away. I don't know what is worse. After a sleepless night you did the right thing. Nothing like the restorative properties of a bacon sandwich and hot mug of tea !

    Good post, with some menacing weather photos. Very long time since I have been in the Beacons - I used to walk it  a lot with my wife when we lived near Bath.
    Mark

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  2. ah, the tame Brecons eh?!  usually a surprise it seems!!  really great photos Maz.

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  3. Good stuff! The Black Mountain is a real contrast: the dramatic northern cliffs and then the rolling, featureless, boggy, sinkhole-filled southern slopes! I've been up there in sun (nice), rain (not so nice) and blizzard (exciting!) It's a great part of the Brecons, and thankfully the wilder parts are far less trod than the honeypot central peaks.

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  4. As said friend, I'm disconcerted to discover quite how much concern underlay your calm exterior!  I had felt in entirely safe hands, which is just as well as I don't know which way up a map goes.
    And I'm sure I'll laugh about the 3am incident!
    One day...

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  5. What a load of tosh! You're trying to be nice but I think you had some doubts when I led us 1km in 90 degrees the wrong direction...

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  6. Certainly is, Ken. An area replete with juxtapositions and contrasts which only adds to the atmosphere. The Brecons has never been as sexy as some of the other parks, and the western area, even less so. That's why I like it, and why I like the Carneddau. Blizzard, eh? Well, it's been said, but I like a bit of weather!

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  7. Tame? No way! Thanks David and good luck for the HRP next week!

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  8. Mark - I don't know whether it was bad luck or not. Certainly it was not part of the game plan, but it didn't half make the whole thing more adventurous.

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  9. We got beat up under pen y fan last year, nearly lost the tent! Deceptive
    those hills. Cheers

    http://www.charitygiving.co.uk/davidlintern

    Sent from Dave's mobile

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  10. My only point of concern was when you speculated whether compasses can 'go wrong'...

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  11. Hudson: It's reading right man, look.
    Hicks: Well you're not reading it right.

    Ahem.

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  12. That was definitely interesting. Some excellent, atmospheric photos - particularly that one looking down over the llyn as the evening sunlight catches the landscape. It's amazing how quick rain can turn a seemingly good campsite into a lake - I've haven't yet had to do the 3am abandon camp but I do probably spend too long looking for well drained land!

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  13. There was so much boggy ground, if we'd looked for more drained land we'd have ended up in Brecon...!! We weren't that close to the Afon Gied either. It does make me laugh - we should probably have camped higher up but there you have it. Ah well, it was an experience! Thanks for the comment Nick - there were some fine views.

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  14. All's well that ends well.  Knee high is no trouble.  Its when it gets mid thigh you might have trouble. As for the wild camp pitch.   Who has not had to get up and bail at some point.  Nice post and good photos.  

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  15. The Black mountain is a fine place for a daunder, there is something special about the limestone moorland to the south.  Bleak and wild. Lovely.  You captured the atmosphere of the place well in your photos.  Good job it is June or your 3am exit from camp would have invloved a good long night walk to boot?  Did the river overflow or did the 'moisture' come up through the ground?

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  16. Thanks James. You're right though - there would have been darkness right up until the car at 6am had we been earlier/later in the year. We were lucky. The ground between us and the river was not saturated in the same way as our site - I don't think it was moisture coming up - the heavy rain simply sat on the ground I think. It was not a particularly bad choice as far as I can see but we'll see next time.

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  17. Thanks Martin. Mid-thigh was not what I had wanted for him, but we were cautious and careful and it was certainly an experience! As for bailing - I agree - I had thought about getting another hour's sleep but my instincts said no and I normally trust them.

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