Most of your friends will have stopped smoking, stopped drinking, or signed up to a gym in January. How did we chose to kick off 2016 on the right foot? Wild camping in the black mountains of course.
Amid a backdrop of bewildered faces, proclamations of idiocy, and my father’s ‘I’d better not see you getting helicoptered off a mountain on the evening news!’ ringing in our ears, Jo, Jo’s little brother, and I set off from Paddington station early on Saturday morning for a weekend trekking and camping in the black mountains.
To 99% of the population the idea of hiking and camping in the Brecon Beacons on the first weekend of January seemed absolutely mad, and to an extent I would have to agree. If it wasn’t for Jo’s little brother Laurie, I’m not sure the idea would have crossed our minds either. However, convincing ourselves that it would be good preparation for our trip, the decision was made and the clock was ticking. Having never wild camped, with little trekking experience, and no knowledge of the Brecon Beacons, we had just over a week to plan a route, figure out what kit we needed, accumulate said kit, and figure out just what we were letting ourselves in for.
In the space of a week we became proficient in booking train tickets, borrowing kit, buying waterproof trousers and sourcing our body weight in pork pies. Perfect, we were ready! Kind of. We still had lessons to learn...
Having filled our water bottles from the only available water source, a hot spray combi hand washer-dryer in the disabled loos, we strode out from Abergavenny station into the biting chill of January. We were fully kitted up, pork pied to the hilt, and full of optimism. Five hundred metres later we were bent over, panting heavily and sweating to the point of steaming. Right, time for a rethink. We quickly stripped off, gulped down some warm, slightly soapy water, and checked the map. 'Right', (we said ‘right’ a lot that weekend) 'soft start guys. Take two, let’s go'. 'About 45 minutes to the start of the trail', and with a decisive point of the compass, of we went again. An hour later, we were lost. Stage left, enter GPS. Lesson number one: always have a backup plan.
About two hours, one golf course, and a couple of pee stops later we were behind schedule but, at the start of the trail… and our first hill. A small 500m MOUNTAIN. Jo and I have both camped before and both love long hikes, but apart from my short stint in the TA, neither of us have ever combined the two. As we began our ascent, advice from Cheryl Strayed’s, ‘Wild’ and Bill Bryson’s, ‘A Long Walk in the Woods', about the importance of packing light, were throbbing through my brain. With every labored step I cursed the extra water, and I regretted not buying the lighter version of my tent, but most of all I longed for the glorious sight of Jo’s six large pork pies flying from my hand off the top of a mountain! Undeterred and to a silent but rhythmic pant we plodded on to the top, to the summit, to the end of the pain. We made it, and wow, what a sense of elation! Lesson number two: pack light!
Lesson 3, 4, and 5:
Now behind schedule we pressed on quickly to make up miles to Lanthony before it got dark. We stopped for a quick snack and kit sort before descending the other, very steep and very slippy, perhaps too steep, too slippy end of the ridge. It was getting colder, wetter, and the visibility was closing in so we wanted to get down quickly. Two minutes later Laurie was sliding quickly down the hill on his arse! Whilst initially seeming novel, it all too suddenly became clear he wasn’t going to stop. Jo and I looked on helplessly as he sped off down the hill. Silently, tensely, we prayed for a soft landing as his poles and kit went flying. Dad’s words two days before were suddenly booming in my head again! Luckily after a brief lie down in the distance and a large exhale of breath, we received a wave and a slightly shaken, but positive, all clear from the the bottom. Thank god! Lesson number three, four and five in quick succession: Situations can change rapidly. Always keep the GPS in a zipped pocket, and, know when to head to the pub.
After retrieving the GPS from the top of the hill, and taking our newly learned lesson very seriously we pressed on with vigor to the nearest field with a pub near by. Our haven for the night, just happened to be Wales oldest pub, the Skirrid Inn, a beautifully ancient pub, with a huge log fire, great beer, ghosts, and the world’s best lasagna. Ghosts?
Day one done. Lesson number six: always have a backup plan (Pub) and be prepared to adapt. Changing the plan can often bring new treasures you might otherwise have missed.
Lesson 7 and 8:
Day two I rose at 06.30, freezing cold and bursting for a pee, at 06.35 I layered up jumped back in my sleeping bag and went back to sleep. After a quick breakfast of assorted pork products we finally set off about 10.30, plenty of time to reach Lanthony. Lesson seven and eight: wrap up warm in the tent and having a pee bottle really is a good idea!
When we had finally packed up and got back on the road, the going felt good, it was a fresh but clear start and the air was crisp. It still felt hard but we had found our rhythm. As we started hitting the gradients it came clear that we had a different pace to Laurie, with his much heavier pack, and the rest of the week still ahead of him he understandably wanted to hang back and let us go ahead. The previous night we had discussed that we should set off early and take our time on day two, unfortunately our lie in had scuppered that plan. Lesson 9: Group dynamics… Listen to each other and be open and clear about your objectives and motivations.
Lesson 10 and 11:
Feeling slightly guilty, it was sad to leave Laurie, but it was so lovely to be striding out together, just me and Jo and the pleasure of the challenge. We were both really loving the weekend and our enthusiasm helped us keep a quick pace whilst climbing to the top of Hatterall Hill. When we got to the top the heavens opened and snow was flurrying down by the bucket load. It was a magical moment as the air temperature crisped and the sounds around us softened in the snow at the top of the hill. Jo and I will hold that memory forever, but in the back of my mind I was secretly swearing under my breath for not checking the weather that morning, we were now basically walking into a blizzard! Well, we knew we were closer to our exit point than our start, and our map reading was now more hit than miss, so with ears slightly pricked, we pressed on. Cautious, but confident. The views and the moments we were greeted with at the top of the hill were breathtaking. We passed a herd of Shetland ponies all with their bums to the snow, and as we descended we were treated again as the clouds parted for the sun to stream through, reflecting the flooded valley floor like a golden river.
Full of accomplishment we strode triumphantly into the Half Moon pub at 14.30 to order a pint, a packet of crisps and a taxi back to Abergavenny Station. Half an hour later we were joined by Laurie, clutching the pork pie and packet of mustard we had left for him at the top of the hill. The third of six available pork pies to be consumed that weekend. Lesson number 10 and 11: Always check the weather and always pack English mustard when camping with Jo.