The Garth

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After my night-time hike up Pen y Fan on New Years Eve, I was definitely up for putting my walking boots back on as soon as possible (or as soon as my legs stopped aching, at least). My wish was soon granted when a friend said she was looking for people to join her on a walk up Garth Mountain organised by Cardiff Council. For all the things we have to moan about our local council, we are lucky that they organise a programme of free events throughout the year. Part of that programme is a series of 3 hikes guided by the council rangers.

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At 307m, Garth Mountain is more just a big hill. ‘Garth’ in fact means ‘hill’ in Welsh, and locally it is simply known as ‘The Garth’. Only a twenty minute drive or train journey from Cardiff, it provides accessible walks from the city where you can enjoy incredible views over South Wales. We started our walk from Taffs Well train station. There are a number if routes up The Garth, and the one we took was a steep ascent with a more gradual descent. The path uphill was mainly stones underfoot, with steps cut into the hillside. We also followed the tarmac road for part of it. The route down was slippery thanks to the damp, grassy ground. I knew we had definitely taken the right route when we met a young man covered in mud at the top who was walking in the opposite direction to us. Sliding downhill on the mud may be a challenge, but it’s a lot harder to climb up a muddy slope.

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The weather in South Wales can be, shall we say, unpredictable. We were so lucky to have an almost perfectly clear day. On the city side of the mountains we could see the whole of Cardiff right down to Cardiff Bay. On the opposite side, looking up the valley, the skies were clear up to the start of the Brecon Beacons. And, towards the border, we couldn’t quite see the Severn Bridge. Some of the other walkers in our group are incredibly knowledgeable about the geography of the area. This really helped me as I’m short-sighted and I wasn’t wearing my glasses. They patiently answered my questions such as ‘What’s that white blob?’ and ‘Are they all wind turbines over there?’

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Experiencing adventures isn’t always about travelling thousands of miles and visiting other countries. Sometimes it is simply exploring what’s on your doorstep.

 

Pen y Fan: Conquered

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At 886m, Pen y Fan (pronounced ‘pen-ee-van’) is the highest peak in South Wales and the Southern UK. Amongst other things, it is famous for being the place where army recruits are pushed to their physical limit. However, on a sunny weekend afternoon you will also see family members of all ages hiking up the mountain to have their photo taken on the cairn at the top. Anyone in good physical fitness can tackle Pen y Fan, but don’t let that mislead you into thinking the mountain isn’t a dangerous place. One of the things that makes Pen y Fan an easier summit to conquer is that the road up to the mountain is already at a high elevation, deceptively so if you take the gently rising route from Cardiff. Only an hours drive from the city centre and the coast (that’s a short distance in Welsh driving time – we don’t really have motorways), you don’t realise how far above sea level you are. For those who have no interest in hiking up mountains, by the way, the drive through the Brecon Beacons is well worth a day out on its own and you don’t even have to step out of the car to experience the breathtaking views. Once you take on Pen y Fan, though, you gain more elevation very quickly and the weather and conditions can change almost instantly.

My first attempt at climbing Pen y Fan was about 3 years ago. We had endured a cold and icy January and February in South Wales, and it had even snowed in Cardiff (when you see actual snow in Cardiff, you know the rest of the country must be neck-deep in the stuff). In March, the weather changed suddenly and dramatically. The sun came out, skies were blue with barely a cloud to be seen, and most people were wearing shorts and t-shirts. One of my managers at work wanted to hike Pen y Fan as part of a training programme she was on for a bigger challenge up in Scotland, and she asked for volunteers to keep her company. As a non-native keen to tick another item off my ‘Things you have to do when you live in Wales’ list, I eagerly raised my hand. We parked at The Storey Arms, the most popular starting point for Pen y Fan. The first half of our walk went really well, and we all happily marched along enjoying the beautiful weather and incredible views. We did think it a little odd when two men passed us in the opposite direction wearing crampons and carrying ice axes, but we didn’t give it too much thought. Our route took us to the peak of Corn Du (pronounced ‘Corn-dee’), Pen y Fan’s neighbour, first. It’s one of those optical illusions that are common in nature that makes Corn Du look higher than Pen y Fan when you’re stood at the bottom. Although at 873m, there isn’t a lot in it. We were about halfway up Corn Du when we started to spot the first patches of snow. By the time we got to the top, it was like an ice rink. My manager still insisted it was fine and we should carry on to Pen y Fan, then she slipped and launched herself into my backpack. As I watched two black Labradors slide past me, desperately trying to get a purchase on the ice, I proposed we leave the higher, and therefore even icier, summit for another day.

So, for the last 3 years I’ve been dreaming of getting back up Pen y Fan to finish what I started. I could, of course, have just driven back up there on a nice sunny summer day and ambled up to the top with a packed lunch. But no, that would be far too easy. Instead, I decided to sign up for a walk up Pen y Fan, in the dark, on New Years Eve.

When you tell people you live in Wales, there are a few facts about the country they will relay to you. Some of these are related to famous Welsh people like Catherine Zeta Jones, Anthony  Hopkins or The Stereophonics. Another is that we have a lot of castles. Possibly the most well known fact about Wales, though, is that the country is not known for it’s great weather. As I looked at the weather forecast on the morning of 31st December, in the vain hope that it would say 20° and calm, I wondered what I had signed myself up for. Why couldn’t I have just gone to the pub on New Years Eve like everyone else?

Although it is of course free for anyone to climb Pen y Fan whenever they want (and a surprising number do on New Years Eve), I chose to sign up for a guided walk with SVL Adventures. For the small fee they charge, you get a fully guided walk with people who know the mountain like the back of their hand and have lots of knowledge and expertise to share.

My evening started off in a very covert fashion as I followed the directions to the meeting point that our guide Simon has sent me (only people who signup for the walk are allowed to know the location of the meeting point). There were 18 of us in our group, plus Simon and two other guides. We quickly got our gear ready and attached green glowsticks to each other’s backpacks so we could be counted in the dark. I briefly wondered if said glowsticks had any impact on the number of UFO sightings reported in the Brecon Beacons. At about 9.30pm we were all ready to set off on our adventure. I’m so glad that Simon was there to lead us, because in daylight I don’t have a great sense of direction, and in the pitch dark I didn’t have a clue where I was. Left to my own devices, I probably would have just walked laps around the car park. Climbing Pen y Fan at night obviously means you don’t get to see any of the breathtaking scenery, but I have to say, when it is all lit up, Brecon is quite a sight from above.

Most of the elevation in the route wee took is in the first hour of the hike. Along with the fact that the first section was sheltered from the wind, this made it much more manageable for me psychologically. We took regular breaks, and luckily the temperature wasn’t cold enough to freeze my hydration pack.

After the first steep climb, the ground levelled  out a little bit and we started to walk along a ridge (apparently – I honestly couldn’t tell in the dark). Simon warned us as we were approaching a much more exposed section, and a few seconds later I was almost blown off my feet. Fortunately it wasn’t a head wind, so I did at least feel like I was still getting somewhere as I put one foot in front of the other. Simon kept us all in check with helpful advice such as ‘Don’t go more than two feet to the left because you’ll fall off the mountain’ and ‘Don’t panic if you see green eyes staring at you in the dark, it’s only sheep’. I must admit, after hiking in bear and moose country in Alaska last year, having sheep as the only wildlife to worry about at least ticked one item off my list of concerns.

Because we were such an organised and efficient group (I bet Simon say that to all his groups!), we had plenty of time to reach the summit of Pen y Fan by midnight. It’s surprising how many other people you bump into up there, I dread to think how busy it gets during the day when only sane people hike it. We all queued up to get our obligatory photo on the cairn, someone shouted ‘It’s midnight!’, and then after a quick rendition of Auld Lang Syne we all realised we were stood on top of a mountain in freezing cold winds and decided it was time to head back down.

We took a circular route back via Corn Du, thankfully once again using the more sheltered areas of the  mountain. We did have light rain on and off throughout the hike, but it was never so bad that I had to put my waterproofs on and my walking trousers were dry again by the time I got back to my car at 3am. Later that same day, a friend of mine hiked to the top of Pen y Fan and it was covered in snow. We didn’t see one snowflake whilst we were there, so it just goes to show how quickly conditions can change on the mountain.

Climbing Pen y Fan was an exciting way to see in the New Year, and I would definitely recommend it to anyone looking for an interesting challenge. Yes, I did go to the pub on New Years Day, but I felt I deserved that pint of cider after the work I’d put in the night before.

Tangle Lakes

Please note, this post is part of a series. Click here to read it from the beginning.

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After spending three nights in McCarthy, any other destination would have struggled not to be a disappointment. As the drive from McCarthy to Denali National Park is too long, and bumpy, to realistically complete in a day we stopped over at Tangle Lakes for one night. It was immediately apparent that we’d left the hip, cool atmosphere of McCarthy way behind us. There were two shared showers at the cabins where we stayed, but only enough water to run one at a time. Plastic flowers displayed in polystyrene blocks ‘decorated’ every window. In the restaurant, animal skins, hunting photos and signed photos of George W. Bush adorned the walls. Further down the road, we found a pie shop that sold every book ever written about Sarah Palin, with of course a signed photo displayed on the wall next to them. I mean, I’m sure she’s an interesting lady to read about, but I can’t imagine ever visiting a coffee shop in Scotland that sells 15 different biographies on Alex Salmond.

For all it’s quirks and faults, though, our accommodation at Tangle Lakes was fine for one night. The food was good, and the people as friendly as I’ve encountered in other parts of the USA.

The redeeming feature of Tangle Lakes, and the reason you should stop there if you’re passing through, is the view. Most of our group spent the evening sat on the porch, a drink in one hand, looking out over a stunning lake and mountains. The next morning, we took a small hike that gave us even more impressive views of this beautiful landscape. Then, after a couple of miles of teasing tarmac road, it was back on another bumpy dirt track to Denali.

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Seward and the (Seemingly) Neverending Exit Glacier

Please note, this post is part of a series. Click here to read it from the beginning.

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Continuing our journey around the Kenai Peninsula, we headed to Seward. I’ve heard that cruise ships regularly stop here, but thankfully there were none there when we arrived. Due to changing ferry schedules, I only got to stay in Seward one night. On the condition it was minus the cruise ship passengers, I would have liked more time there. There is something very quaint and traditional about the town, which says a lot in a state where everything is practical in design and had to be rebuilt after the 1964 earthquake.

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Seward was our entry point for hiking to the top of the Exit Glacier. If you’re looking for a leisurely stroll, then this is not for you. Out of our group of eight, only four made it to the top. The entire hike, up and down, with A LOT of near vertical, is about 7 miles. We did start to question the miles markers, though. We’d trek for an hour, only to find the next mile marker telling us we’d covered less than half a mile.

Year markers show how much the glacier has receded.
Year markers show how much the glacier has receded.

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You don’t have to make it all the way to the top to see the glacier, there are lots of great photo opportunities on the way. Although it’s all tough, the last third is by far the hardest. There was thick snow on the ground by this point, slowing us down even more. There are lots of false horizons too. Just as we’d get our hopes up that we were near the top, we’d see yet another hill in front of us with a line of orange route markers dotted up it. If you do manage to battle the slope, snow and rocks, the view of the Harding Ice Field from the top is definitely worth it. A white landscape stretches for as far as you can see. I feel privileged that I’ve been able to witness it, but then also saddened that for future generations the glacier and ice field, along with many others, will simply be a thing of history.

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It took us two hours to descend back to the car park, and my reward was a hot shower at the Hotel Seward. Ms Gene bought the hotel just a couple of weeks before the earthquake in 1964. As well as repairing the hotel, she helped other locals in Seward to rebuild. A true example of the Alaskan spirit of survival.

Hanging Out in Homer

Please note this post is part of a series. Click here to read it from the beginning.

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It’s only when you start to travel from one point to another in Alaska that you realise just how big the state is. After meeting up with my G Adventures group in Anchorage, our guide Miles drove us to Homer.

There are two parts to Homer, downtown and The Spit. Downtown is fairly boring, but practical. That’s where you go if you need grocery shopping. The Spit is where all the action is. The long, thin strip of land that protrudes out into the water feels like it could be washed away at any minute. It apparently used to be wider, but a lot of the land was lost to the 1964 earthquake. Now, artists’ studios and fish restaurants balance on stilts out into the water. Sea otters regularly float by on their backs, and bald eagles here are known as the ‘Homer pigeon’ due to their high numbers. We ate at one of the restaurants overlooking the water. After a few sighs and the sucking of teeth from the waiter, he decided that yes they could rustle up a vegan, gluten-free meal for me. He produced some grilled veggies in coconut milk on brown rice, which was fine for me. I noticed that I still paid the same as everyone else, but I wasn’t complaining. It irked me that he kept addressing me as ‘no protein’. I desperately wanted to point out that my meal contained lots of protein, it just wasn’t from animals, but I bit my tongue. The waiter stressed that they were ‘really busy’ as it was Fathers Day – with a population of less than 5000 I wondered just how busy it could be.

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We spent 2 nights in Homer. While one of our travelling companions went halibut fishing to catch dinner for the rest of the group, the remaining nine of us caught a water taxi across the bay and hiked up to a glacial lake. I’ve walked and skied on glaciers before, but this is the first one I have visited that ends in a lake. As soon as we left the green forest we had trekked through and walked onto the lakeside the air was noticeably cooler. Icebergs floated in the water, another first for me. We had the lake all to ourselves while we ate our lunch, then when more hikers turned up and disturbed our peace we decided to head back down. The trail leads back another way, zigzagging down the mountain to a secluded beach where we waited for the water taxi to come and collect us. The tranquillity of the moment was only shattered by a screaming American kid upset with his brother and complaining about having to be in a row boat with him. We figured, though, that at least his screaming would keep the bears away.

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The Bala Challenge (Almost)

If ever I needed proof that us Brits are conditioned to persevere in adverse weather conditons, my adventure in North Wales last weekend is it.

A good friend of mine, Catherine, invited me to join her on the Bala Challenge, which she has completed three times in previous years.

There are a few different options to taking part in the challenge, and we opted to attempt the most difficult, a 20 mile (32km) mountain walk with a total ascent of 1250m.

Cath’s fiance Ant decided to come along for the weeked as well, and whereas they opted to drive up on the Saturday morning (the day of the challenge), I travelled up on the Friday evening and booked myself into Bala Backpackers. Even though I live in Wales, I always forget how long it takes to get anywhere here. The equivalent distance of Cardiff to Bala in England would only take you a couple of hours. As we don’t really have motorways in Wales (certainly none in mid-Wales) and a lot of areas are very remote with small, winding mountain roads, when you’re travelling around the Welsh countryside it makes it feel a lot bigger than it looks on the map.

The consolation to the long drives is the breathtaking scenery. Bala is situated on the southern edge of Snowdonia national park, one of the most stunning landscapes we have here in the UK. Even though I was running (very) late, I couldn’t help but be calmed by the colours of the mountains as the sun disappeared behind them. Four and a half hours later, I arrived in Bala with a huge smile on my face. After apologising to the lady who owns the hostel for my lateness (who by the way was very lovely and understanding), she gave me the guided tour and I settled in to get some rest before my big walk the next day. It’s very rare that I come across a hostel so well maintained and organised as Bala Backpackers. I’ve stayed in hostels all over the world, and there’s nothing more annoying than finding everything you needed on the last day. At Bala Backpackers, nothing is left to chance. The hostel has excellent facilities, comfortable communal areas with books and games and is generally very clean. There are lots of extras you can add on to your stay should you choose to. Are your room mates snoring too loudly? Then buy some earplugs at reception. Forgotten your shopping bag? (we don’t use free disposable bags in Wales) These too can be bought, proceeds going to a local charity. You can rent bedding, left over toiletries are available in the bathroom and there’s even a drying room to leave your wet and muddy gear after walking/climbing/kayaking… (delete as appropriate). I didn’t know it yet, but the drying room was going to come in very useful to me.

The town shares its name with Lake Bala, the largest natural lake in Wales. Bala Lake is surrounded by three mountain ranges – Berwyn, Aran and Arenig, and the challenge takes you on a circuit around the whole lake.

Lake Bala
Lake Bala

At 7am the next morning, I got up, ate breakfast and got ready for the walk. The weather forecast had predicted spells of sun and rain, and it was already looking cloudy so I layered up with thermals and waterproofs and put spare hat, socks, gloves, thermal top and waterproof jacket in my backpack.

The 20 mile walk is expected to take 7-10 hours, and you have to start between 8 and 9am. There are three parts to the challenge – 8 miles along one side of the lake to Llanuwchllyn, 6 miles to the summit of Aran (600m) and back down again, and a further six miles back round the other side of the lake to Bala. This last six miles includes something known as ‘death hill’, allegedly the toughest part of the route, especially after already walking over 15 miles. If you are late for any of the checkpoints, you have to pull out and be driven back to Bala as there is a strict time limit of 10 hours.

I met Cath and Ant at the leisure centre, the start point, and at 8.25am we set off. The weather was against us from the start. Although there were patches of sunshine, those threatening clouds soon started to release rain on to us which made the already tricky terrain almost impossible to cross in parts. Add to that the fact that Wales has already had too much rain this year, and that the snow only melted off the mountains a couple of weeks ago, and the boggy marshland that Snowdonia is famous for was like its own little lake district. I started off trying to avoid getting my feet wet. I soon gave in, though, and my boots had about an inch of water in them from mile 5 onwards.

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We soon realised that we’d made a rookie mistake. All the other walkers had those handy plastic map wallets to keep their directions in. We didn’t, and it wasn’t long before the rain started to dissovle the paper in our hands. Not that we could understand the directions anyway. The organisers of the event seemed to assume that everyone would understand the code they used.

AH 200m. LS, BR then diagonal across field to G.

eh?

After a couple of miles we’d figured out most of the abbreviations:

Ahead 200m. Ladder Style, Bear Right then diagonal across field to Gate.

After 8 miles of squelching through bogs, traversing barb wire fencing, balancing on logs and sliding down muddy slopes, we made it to the first checkpoint at Llanuwchllyn railway station. Whilst we stopped to eat our sandwiches and change our wet clothes, the sun patch that we had seen making its way around the lake decided to shine on us for a bit.

I couldn't resist taking this shot - how often do you get to stand right in the middle of the track for long enough to take a photo?
I couldn’t resist taking this shot – how often do you get to stand right in the middle of the track for long enough to take a photo?

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After spraining his ankle on the first stage of the walk, Ant decided to drop out at this point and head back to Bala on the steam train. Myself and Cath battled on and set off to tackle Aran. As we knew we were already running late, we decided to push ahead and get to the summit as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, the Welsh weather had other ideas. It took every ounce of energy I had to try and step forward whilst the horizontal wind seemed intent on pushing me to the left. The rain didn’t stop, and was sooned joined by hailstones. It was like trying to walk up a mountain whilst someone threw gravel at your face. We started to get a little nervous when the thunder started, and prayed we were near the top. Just as I was about to give up hope, we spotted a two-man tent about 200m ahead. The checkpoint! According to what little was left of our directions, the views are stunning from the top of Aran. I’d love to show you some photos, but even if I had been able to see much, it was just too wet to get the camera out.

The walk down was just as tricky as it had been going up. The ‘path’ was more of a river and the marshland was getting wetter by the minute.

We’d decided that although we were wet, cold and tired, we wanted to continue on the final six miles when we reached the bottom of Aran. Sadly, we were met by two volunteers in Llanuwchllyn who informed us that we’d missed the checkpoint by over an hour and would have to be driven back to Bala.

Before leaving the next morning, I stopped to take a photo of Aran in slightly clearer weather
Before leaving the next morning, I stopped to take a photo of Aran in slightly clearer weather

Although I was disappointed to not have completed the challenge, I was determined to not let the failure get me down. I will return next year, and I will complete the walk. All 20 miles of it.

Pen y Fan (Almost)

Just a 40 minute drive from Cardiff, the capital city of Wales, is Pen y Fan, the highest peak in South Wales. Standing 886 metres (2,907 ft) above sea level, Pen y Fan and it’s neighbour Corn Ddu are also known as Cadair Arthur (‘Arthur’s Seat’). On Saturday, I found myself with a group of my colleagues, attempting to walk to the top of this stunning hill.

Later this year, one of our managers is climbing Ben Nevis to raise money for charity. As part of her training, she is aiming to climb one mountain a month, and asked for volunteers to join her in Brecon to attempt Pen y Fan.

We had been warned about the adverse weather conditions up there at the moment. Although we have had nowhere near as much snow as our neighbours in North Wales, there is still snow on our hills left behind from January. We decided to push on though, and we couldn’t have picked a better day to do it. The sun was shining, it was not cold (I wouldn’t go as far as to say it was actually warm) and it wasn’t raining.

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Looking down the valley, towards Cardiff

As we started to see the first signs of the snow, it dawned on us just how bad the conditions might be nearer the top.

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Looking towards the border into England

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Corn Ddu in the distance (Pen y Fan is behind Corn Ddu)

Quite a few people were using crampons and ice picks to reach the top of Corn Ddu. Most, like us, scrambled bambi-style and tried to stay in previous hikers’ footprints to avoid sliding all the way back down to the bottom again.

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The view of Pen y Fan from Corn Ddu

Unfortunately, we didn’t make it to the top of Pen y Fan on this occasion. As you can see from the above photo, there was quite a lot of snow. It wasn’t fresh snow, either, so was very hard-packed and like an ice-rink in places. We considered carrying on to Pen y Fan, but figured that, although we’d probably get to the top, we’d struggle to get back down again. I’ll definitely be going back in the summer to give it another go.