A weekend on Pen-y-Fan

Pen-y-Fan summit - and not much else to see!
A weekend of walking in the Brecon Beacons - on Pen-y-Fan to be exact, at least I'm pretty sure that it was Pen-y-Fan because the visibility on both days was so poor that seeing 3 meters in front of us was almost impossible.


The plan for months had been for Marcus and I to head up to North Wales over the weekend of the 23rd/24th of March for 2 days of walking/climbing and wild camping - but the recent weather foiled that and we decided that a 5 hour drive up to North Wales only to have to turn around and come back would be a waste of both time and petrol!

We decided to ditch the wild camping part of the weekend and head to the Brecon Beacons for some winter walking on Pen-y-Fan for 2 reasons; 1) it's a 2.5hr drive over a 5hr drive to N. Wales and 2) I've walked the Pen-y-Fan horseshoe a number of times in both summer and winter conditions - a much "safer" bet than the wilds of North Wales with a walking partner that hasn't really done any winter walking in the mountains before....


Day 1 - Saturday 23rd March 2013

By the time we'd left the M4 and turned on to the A470 the snow was starting to become visible  along the sides of the roads and on surrounding hills - further down towards the Pontsticill Reservoir the small roads became very icy and snow covered, thank god for Quattro! 

As predicted the 2 car parks on the small road to the start of the Pen-y-Fan track were covered in snow so we opted to park at the trail head, alone for a change apart from a guy who arrived in his land rover just as we were unpacking.
Kitting up in the snow

After kitting up and layering up we headed out along the path towards the saddle between Cribyn and the ever comically named Fan-y-Big - opting for this route in (and round) as it offered the shortest way down at the end of the walk and would allow us a decent 30 minutes or so walking to get warmed up although warm proved to be a relative term!

Looking down towards the Neuadd Reservoirs 
The snow had drifted heavily in places and even on the well worn track towards the saddle it was hard going in some places, the wind had also started to pick up and even though we were sheltered by the slopes of Tor Glas we were both wearing goggles and full winter gloves way before reaching the path up towards the summit of Cribyn.

A quick note on clothing;
I can't really talk through Marcus' clothing as I don't know the specifics but I do know that he had 2-3 layers on top and bottom (a decision that kept him warm but did restrict movement in the deeper snow) and he was wearing his Meindl Borneo boots which, while great for UK walking, are not winter boots and he suffered a bit from lack of grip on some of the icy sections.

For both days I opted for my Paramo Aspira smock and Paramo Mountain Vent base layer as I like the fact you can vent the arms through to the skin and the smock has proven itself time and time again in a number of scenarios - there is a reason that mountain rescue and most guides in the Cairngorms wear them!
Leg-wear was just my Rab Vapour Rise Guide pants and they proved more than adequate for  both day's walking.
For boots I decided to wear my La Sportiva Nepal's; mainly because I don't really get enough chances to wear them but also because they are a little warmer than my Scarpa's and I have no problem walking in them all day both in and out of crampons.
I took, on both days, my Montane Prism jacket as an "emergency" insulated overlayer but only used this briefly when we stopped for lunch on day 2 and I also took, and wore, my Mountain Equipment Couloir gloves and took my Montane Extreme mitts for "WTF" purposes.

Back to the walking.....
By now the flog had limited visibility to around 5 meters and we just about spotted the sign post marking the start of the path and ascent to Cribyn - and this is where the going started to get tough.

Snow drifts and ice accumulation made for different challenges but equally as frustrating as the walking pace was slowed dramatically as we tried, largely unsuccessfully  to find routes around the deeper snow and larger patches of sheet ice.

On the walk up we passed a small group of walkers who (first rant coming up) seemed a little under prepared in my opinion.  Ok so 2 of them had ice axes (on their bags) and one had Alpine boots but the rest of them had no axes and had summer/trekking boots with gaiters and they were already struggling with some of the icier patches.
Marcus on summit of Cribyn
Me, on the summit of Cribyn
We reached the summit of Cribyn (795m) and stopped for a brief photo (above) and then headed on into the clag down towards the slight saddle between Cribyn and Pen-y-Fan and from here up the steeper slope to the Pen-y-Fan (886m) summit and cairn which we found eventually after a bit of searching in the gloom with the GPS!

We stopped here for "lunch" as the summit cairn offered some shelter from the wind that was now starting to pick up and was bitingly cold - luckily the hot coffee from Marcus' flask and the cherry brandy from mine were enough to keep us going!
The group of walkers we'd passed earlier caught up with us at this point and said they were heading down the ridge route (Cefn Cwm Llwch) but were struggling to find the path head in the gloom so we offered the use of the GPS to help them out on their way.

I decided to put the crampons on at this point as the ice on the way up was hard going in just boots and I was expecting much the same on the way down.  From the summit the descent down to, and then back up to, Cord Du (873m) was fairly uneventful and we didn't really pause too long here but, as time was getting on, we decided to head on around to the ridge route and the long path towards the cairn at the top of the gully heading back down towards the reservoir.

We were now exposed fully to the wind which was blowing in from the E / SE and had picked up to around 50mph - spindrift was constantly blowing up at us and there weren't too many words exchanged between us as we trudged on with heads down through the snow and ice towards the gully - checking the GPS every now and then to count down the meters to the marker cairn.

As expected there was a huge build up of ice on the gully and crampons certainly made life safer and easier on the way down although once we reached the fields the ground underneath the snow was still fairly boggy so it was back to just boots again and trying to judge where the streams cut under the snow to avoid wet boots!

By the time we reached the car it was just before 6pm and the walk had taken nearly 6 hours - a good experience for Marcus and a great test of both skills and kit for me.  All that was left was the 2.5hr drive back to rainy, grey Romsey and a nice relaxing Sunday - or so I thought...


Day 2 - Sunday 24th March

For some reason I was woken up early and informed that "it would be really good to go to Pen-y-Fan to make the most of the winter conditions" - hang on, hadn't I already done that?!

But I'm not one to shy away from a chance to get out into the hills and certainly not with the conditions as they were - so after hastily packing the car (again) Donna and I headed back up the M4 towards South Wales and the Brecon Beacons for another walk around the Pen-y-Fan horseshoe.

A "slightly" better day - looking up towards the Graig Fan Ddu ridge
We arrived at the trailhead at about 11am and parked in pretty much the same place as the day before although there were a couple of cars there already which meant there would be some more people on the hill - but still not many in comparison to most of the times I've walked there.

We kitted up pretty swiftly and headed off, this time opting for the clockwise route - passing the reservoir and then up via the gully and along the ridge/plateau before reaching Corn Du, on to Pen-y-Fan then Cribyn and down to the saddle and back to the car along the main track.
Donna on the path towards the Neuadd reservoir
 Visibility was slightly better on the 2nd day (as you can see from the pictures above and below) but the wind was still fairly strong (40mph ish) and blowing up spindrift so goggles were, once again, needed for most of the walk.

On the start of the ascent - looking back towards the reservoir
We headed past the reservoir and across the fields towards the start of the gully and the steep upwards track culminating in the last icy 20-30 meters or so up to the marker cairn.  For some reason we decided not to put the crampons on at this stage and climbed up the gully with ice axes for extra support and stability - crampons would, in hindsight, have been useful but we made it up ok and started to walk along the track, keeping the edge fairly close to our right so as to make the most of the consolidated snow and ice that had been scoured by the wind over the last day or so and had hardened overnight.

The gully towards the cairn at the top of Graig Fan Ddu
Once at the top of the gully and on to the main path we put crampons on and headed off along the path where there were signs that a few more people had walked along the path and this also helped with our progress as it was easier in places to follow in their footsteps rather than having to forge our own as we'd had to the day before.

The path to Corn Du was, as it was on the previous day, a grim affair and the wind and biting cold made for few conversations!

We did decide that, to ensure we were back at the car in a reasonable time we'd forgo the summits of Corn Du, Pen-y-Fan and Cribyn and take the "by-pass" paths that linked up with the main path.  We'd both walked to the summits a number of times before (only a few hours before in my case) and we were really out there for the experience and to "be" in the mountains rather than to "bag peaks". 

Snug and warm but looking a little like a fly in my goggles!
By the time we'd navigated around Corn Du and Pen-y-Fan we were both fairly hungry so we decided to stop on the downward, south facing, slopes of Pen-y-Fan for something to eat and a hot drink.  We dug in to the snow and sat down to try and get out of the wind a little (which we didn't really achieve!) and put on insulated layers (Montane Prism and Donna's Patagonia Nano Puff) to stop the heat escaping - a hole was dug out for the Jet Boil stove and this was fired up for a welcome cup of coffee.

After 20 mins or so and feeling much better we headed off, back down the slopes of Pen-y-Fan, to link up with the main "Beacons Way" path that skirts around the summit of Cribyn and joins up with the path back to the car at the saddle between Cribyn and Fan-y-Big.

This path was really hard work as lots of the snow had drifted up the side of the mountains and the easiest going was on the edge of the path - as and when you could find it in the snow.

On the path back towards the car - still wearing the crampons!
Once we were back down to the saddle and the path cross roads it was slightly easier going but we decided to keep the crampons on as the ice had built up on the main path and it was easier to have too much grip with crampons than suffer from too little with just boots.

The path back to the car always seems to take ages and it feels like its taking even longer when you keep having to fight alternate ice patches and snow drifts - but we got there in the end and were both still smiling so it can't have been all that bad!

I haven't mentioned the couple of "fools' that we met out on the Sunday's walk that were woefully under prepared (jeans?! and no map?!) as it's not worth it, it won't change anything and it'll still annoy me every time I encounter them - hey ho, the outdoors is for everyone isn't it?!

I'm not 100% sure when the next walking/camping trip will be, or where, but this has certainly helped with staving off the hunger to get out in the mountains and of being stuck in the drizzly, grey south of England looking out of my office window 5 days a week wishing I was climbing mountains!

Route recordings from Viewranger app on my GS3 - viewable on Social Hiking;

Day 1 - anti-clockwise route


Day 2 - clockwise route

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