Brecon Beacons Traverse - June 4/5 2005
First attempt - nearly made it, but not quite!
Pics are on a separate page here.
The BB Traverse runs from Pen Rhiw Wen on the Black Mountain to Llantony Priory near the border with England. The route takes in the summits of the 31 mountains in South Wales that are 2000' high or higher, and while the direct distance is only 71 miles, in practise a runner is likely to cover more like 75-80.
I first heard about the traverse from Pete Morfey of Cardiff Harlequins and I instantly wanted to do it. I built my fitness up with some long runs (road/trail) and then made a few forays on to the traverse route to get to know the mountains and get used to covering longer distances on the fells (I run in the mountains regularly but not for "ultra" distances).
My main training runs were:
"Tower" west of Fan Gyhirych to Storey Arms - 3.5 hours.
Storey Arms to Cefn Yr Ystrad (then to car at Trefil) - 5 hours.
Pen Rhiw Wen to Storey Arms - 6 hours 10 mins.
Cym Gu Fawr to Llantony Priory - 7 hours.
I also made a couple of forays up to Cefn Yr Ystrad from Pyrgad to work out a route around the quarries and down into the valley, and drove the road section from Pyrgad to Cwm Gu.
The Big Day - June 4th & 5th 2005
Finally, the day before my birthday, I was standing at Pen Rhiw Wen at 5.20 am in mist and drizzle ready to start, with a superb backup team (Steve and Karteek) cheering me from the car. I used a Garmin GPs for basic route finding and the 1:25,000 OS maps of the area. I also carried a compass as backup in case the GPS broke. June 4th - the Traverse I headed off into the mist, with visibility pretty non existent (par for the course on the Black Mountain) and was soon picking my way through the boulders on to Carreg Lwyd. First top, in the bag, all felt easy enough. I went off a little fast (nerves) but soon slowed to a jog, remembering I had about 24 hours of this ahead.
In a talk he gave to our team (Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team) before the NYC marathon a few years ago, Sri Chinmoy inspired all those present to offer gratitude to God at each mile marker in the race, and it seemed natural on the traverse to take a few moments to offer gratitude on each summit. So, I started as I meant to go on at Carreg Lwyd, taking a few seconds to meditate at the top. Carreg Las, the next peak, was of course invisible, but there is a discernible path over Foel Fraith so I took that then struck out northeastwards on to the flank of Carreg Las - picking out a green line between the rocky defenses which led me up to the twin tumuli on the summit. That summit is a magical place, but I didn't stay long and was soon negotiating the boggy valley head on the way to Bannau Sir Gaer. It was a long trek over very formless mountain terrain (no clues as to which way the summit is - just a huge masif which seems to rise in all directions) but I found the dramatic cliff edge and the summits of BSG and Fan Brycheiniog came and went, weather starting to get a bit wild as I nipped up to Fan Hir then back to the pass to follow the Nant Y Llyn to its confluence with the swollen River Tawe.
Here I met my backup team well ahead of schedule, took some drink and a GO bar and went off over Cefn Cul. I met the guys again at the old ruined tower before the arduous ascent of Fan Gyhirych - a real steep slog. Once at the top I was back in the westerly wind which occasionally mustered itself into a storm with sharp squally showers - a look back over my shoulder didn't inspire any optimism that this weather would clear up either. The descent from Fan Gyhirych is gentle and easy - theres even a path. The climb to Fan Nedd too is a doddle. From the top I took a sighting of the next summit and bounded down over the tussocks and heather into the valley - I could see my car in exactly the right place at the road crossing - a reassuring sight! I got a refill of the camelbak and pocketed my third energy bar for use later on, then forded the stream to head up Fan Llia. Here I started to flag a bit - once on the ridge I was feeling nauseous (running faster than usual after taking solid food) and taking a hammering from the unrelenting rain-bearing westerly wind. Time to get the head down and soldier on. I told myself I couldn't be finished after only 5 or 6 hours and I must be due for a second wind any time now. Sure enough it came on the long approach to Fan Fawr and I was soon heading in to Storey Arms for a breather in the car and my first real treat - a hot cup of tea.
I wrestled on my windproof running tights and changed baselayers before scoffing some instant mash. Then it was back out into the drizzle and up Y Gyrn in the company of the indomitable Steve. We splashed our way up to the ridge at Duwynt and began the hike over the main summits of the Beacons. I was walking the ups but jogging the downs and managing a jog/walk mix on the flat (though there wasn't much of that). The exposed cliff-edge path to Waen Rhydd was a bit sapping, but the descent from Allt Lwyd was more so - very steep over rough tussocks then crashing through the stumpy remains of a felled woodland to the forestry track. We missed the path to Avercynafon but I realised 100m later and we nipped back to take it - a very beautiful trail it is too, though little used by the look of it.
At Abercynafon Steve took a rest - I wanted him to save some energy for the Black Mountains - and I tried to eat despite feeling a bit sick before beginning the ascent of Cefn Yr Ystrad. What can I say about that climb? Long and slow. Still, at the summit, a kind of unofficial half-way-house on the traverse, i was only 8 mins behind schedule (11.45 ish). I was hoping to make that time up on the way down but a pain in my ankle developed where my fell shoe was digging into the bone and starting to bruise it. Walking was fine, but running suddenly became total agony. It was only my left foot rather than both, but it was excrutiating. I walked on, a little despondent that I would not be able to jog even the downhill sections, when a voice inside suddenly said "run on your forefoot!" very loudly, so I did. No pain. Well, only a temporary fix, but I was able to jog down through the gorgeous forest of the Pyrgad nature reserve and meet the guys by the camping site.
Here I put my road shoes on - ah, such luxury! They were soft and cushioned and life was suddenly very good. I jogged & walked to Cwm Gu past some lovely scenery - at one point I saw a couple, out for a walk, heading down a footpath just after Llangynidr bridge, then I finally overtook them just before Glan Usk - next time I must remember to take that footpath - it cuts off about half a mile! Doh! The road section is very beautiful - from the forest at Pyrgad tothe giant redwood trees on the flanks of Myarth - its all heavenly. At Cwm Gu we stuck some extra insoles in my left fell shoe to raise the ankle bone away from the offending upper, and this seemed to do the trick. I stuffed more mash down me and swilled some tea - I was pretty drained and not looking forward to Pen Cerrig Calch, as this is a long and draining climb through gorse and over boulders. Well, next time I may experiment to try and find a better line here, as the route I took (turning right to climb up alongside a wall just after coming through the gate onto the fell) is not that wonderful. False horizons appeared then revealed higher ones, then eventually the actual summit surrendered to our efforts.
The ridge here is flat and would be a great run but I was fit only for walking by now, so I tried to push on at as brisk a walking pace as I could muster - the 12 hour walking races I've done were good prep for this! Night fell on Pen Allt Mawr and then our real problems began. The rain and wind returned with a vengance, and it was just about impossible to find the path along the ridge. Off the path, the going here is very slow; heather, tussock and peaty bogs combine to sap your speed and strength. Head torches gave us enough vision to place our feet safely in the right place, but not enough to locate the trails which would have offered quicker progress. I was getting cold by Mynydd Llysau, and glad to turn the corner and get the wind at my back over Pen Trumau and the slopes of Waun Fach. Our inability to find a path here was more frustrating as I could remember there being several parallel ones on this section when I did it in training! Thanks to the GPS we located the huge boulder that marks the summit of the Black Mountains, defended by a huge moat of black slimey mud. Lovely. We were very wet and getting wetter and colder as we struck out for Pen Y Gadair - here we again had no luck finding a path - I think we took the corner too tight instead of staying on the crest of the ridge, which would explain the tough time we had picking our way through the heads of streams and up and down miniature peat "cliffs" two or three feet in height that seemed to keep obstructing us. We had been up on the Black Mountains for hours - it was turning into an epic.
After Pen Y Gadair I was sure we would find a path to Pen Twyn Mawr - we did, but it was hard to stay on it - we were forever loosing it and finding ourselves back in the slow-going rough. The miles were passing very slowly, and I heard my speech becoming slurred and my sentences very clipped when I spoke to Steve. Tell-tale signs of the possible onset of hypothermia, so it was time to think about how to get warm. Steve valiantly gave me his spare fleect but even with this on I was not getting any warmer. Still, I was in control, feeling positive and moving forward, but once I got to Pen Twyn Mawr's summit I realised I could not turn around and slog back along that same path in that same wind and rain again - so I turned due east and charged through the heather until I found myself on the trackway that runs along the fringe of the Mynydd Du Forest. We dug out the map and confirmed that this did offer an escape route, so I decided to take it. Perhaps theres a better way down, through the forest itself, but having failed totally to find one on my training runs here I opted for the longer but easier-to-navigate option.
So we marched off north along the track, finding it infinitely easier to follow than the ridge path, and after some time we suddenly found ourselves walking between closely packed pines. There was no wind or rain here in the shelter of the trees, and the temperature seemed several degrees higher. Blissful. then I tripped over a guy rope. Campers? Here? Respect to these people for pitching their tents so high up the mountain, and apologies to them for waking them up at a stupid hour of the night. We came out of the forest and could easily pick up the fence-side path going down to Grwyne Fawr. This descent was pretty fraught - in wet conditions the path is very slippery and its surace is broken every few feet by smooth, slippery rocks. We had to pick our way down slowly. Then the batteries went in Steve's head torch, so we had to descend even more slowly with only one light source between us. It seemed like an age before we saw the fence across the river by the gate of Grwyne Fawr, but boy was I glad to see it. Fording the river was straightforward with hands on the fence, and we were on the road around six and a half hours after leaving Cwm Gu.
Karteek, of course, having expected us in four hours, had waited for more than six hours then gone looking for us at Gospel Pass, so we were stuck. All day I had been close to the scheduled times at each meeting point, so the likelihood of me being two or more hours behind all of a sudden must have seemed pretty remote. Karteek had made the only sensible decision, but next time I will try and get some kind of communication set up for these situations (GSM phone maybe?). So there we were. I had the energy to carry on, but not without some food, drink and a change of clothing - I could not get warm in my current clothes and I had been borderline hypothermic an hour before. Steve had no light, so he couldn't come up the next ascent with me anyway - and in rough weather in a fatigued state I was not about to go solo. There was no signal on the mobile and we were out of walkie talkie range, so the only thing for it was to walk down the road.
It began to get light as we staggered down the valley - we were both hallucinating all kinds of things in the half light. I saw a party of silent people in twenties costume having some kind of garden party, then a four wheel drive vehicle that turned into a tree as I approached. Steve saw the same tree and to him it appeared as some kind of geodesic dome dwelling. Next came a couple folding and unfolding a pushchair in the middle of the road ahead - when I got nearer they disappeared, having been a total figment of my imagination. My eyes were closing and I fell asleep while walking a few times. Now the prospect of finishing the traverse had gone, my energy was slipping away. I remembered that it was my birthday, which brought a smile to my face. In fact, in between the brief "rough patches" I had been in a pretty positive & cheerful mood since Pen Rhiw Wen - something I was very grateful for.
We found a phone box three miles down the valley - what a miracle! Miracle number two was that it had a working phone in it! We called Karteek in the car but of course he was out of reception - probably somewhere in the Vale of Ewyas. Eventually I called Fran, who tried ringing him at intervals then decided he was not about to get any of her messages. Fran, who was totally happy to be woken in the early hours (!), then sprang into action and decided to arrange for us to be picked up by some friends. She would have come herself of course, but it was our car that Karteek was driving. We had slept on and off for about three hours slumped in the phone box when the rescue party arrived - Charana, Prabhavati and Kaivalya had ventured out at 6am to bring us salvation in the form of hot chocolate, cheese sandwiches and hot water bottles. What absolute stars.
We drove to Llantony and sure enough Karteek was there waiting for us at the finish. Steve and I were warming up nicely in the car with the hot water bottles and the epic on Waun Fach was fading from memory. I felt no disappointment at not having finished - failures are, after all, the pillars of success. Next time I'll make plans a little differently and I feel confident I'll do all 31 peaks. I just hope I can pick a moonlit night and some better weather! With a bit of luck I'll have the same guys backing me up, as they were truly superb. I got a lot of inspiration from attempting the Brecon Beacons Traverse and despite the privations of cold, rain and fatigue I wouldn't have missed it for the world. My thanks go to Sri Chinmoy for his inspiration (without which I would never have run a single step) and to Steve and Karteek for all their help. Also to Fran for all her support and help and our rescuers; Kaivalya. Charana and Prabhavati.
6th June 2005
|Point||Approx||Actual||Target Time||Actual Time|
|Gareg-Las||3.1||3.30||0.55.26||Poor visibility, reasonable line taken.|
|Bannau Sir Gaer||2.5||2.55||1.34.30|
|A 4067||2.8||About 2.20||Feeling good.|
|Fan Gihirych||0.8||4.48||3.22.00||Hard climb, slow.|
|Fan Frynych||3.2||3.27||5.24.54||Tough weather on ridge, felt rough, slightly sick.|
|Storey Arms||1.1||About 6.20||Food, change of clothes|
|Y Gyrn||1||3.07||7.05.23||Joined by Steve|
|Corn Du||0.5||0.42||7.47.33||Reasonable progress on central beacons -|
|Pen y Fan||0.4||0.36||7.55.42||weather intermittently bad.|
|Allt Lwyd||1.8||1.57||9.40.43||Hard descent v steep.|
|Abercynafon||1.1||Food, rest, then solo long sluggish ascent.|
|Cefn Yr Ystrad||4.1||4.34||11.46.40||Ankle pain - hard to run - lost time on descent. HAlf way and still happy and on schedule.|
|Cwm Gu||10.8||Road section easier - next time will cut corner after L. bridge.|
|Pen Carrig-Calch||1.6||11.65||16.12.32||Rejoined by Steve - insoles prevent shoe rubbing ankle bone.|
|Pen Allt Mawr||1.6||1.54||16.44.49||Very tired - only walking from now on. Nightfall on Pen A. M.|
|Mynydd Llysiau||2.6||2.43||17.50.35||Rough weather returns again, hard to find path so tough going over open country.|
|Waun Fach||1.8||1.90||18.45.18||Very boggy, getting cold and damp despite layers.|
|Pen y Gader-Fawr||1.2||1.32||19.22.27||Tough slog in driving rain.|
|Pen-Twyn-Mawr||1.8||1.90||20.13.17||After summit went east to trackway then north into forest and down - lost power in one torch so slow descent - is there a better way down?|
|Grwyne Valley||2.3||3.00||21 hours||Then walked to phone in valley.|
|Chwarel y Fan||1.1||Total mileage at finish was 67 miles.|
|Rhos Dirion||3.9||25 mountains done out of 31|
|Pen y Beacon||1.1|
|Pen y Garn Fawr||3.4|
|Notes on sheet 2.|