Friday, 10 April 2015

A Sunny Backpack in the Arans

Creiglyn Dyfi

I last walked the Arans in Snowdonia with my University Mountaineering Club in 1977, whilst staying at the St Mary’s Club Hut at Bryn Hafod.  That was in a cold and snowy February, and I still recall the happiness of youthful play, high in the hills as we turned our orange plastic Karrimor bivvy bags into sledges near the summit of Aran Benllyn, before a night of singing the songs that used to ring out in those days in the pubs in all mountain districts.  Wild Rover, Sweet Mountain Thyme, Manchester Rambler, Uncle Joe’s Mint Balls and the like.  Tuneless we may have been, but joyeous we certainly were.
The late and lovely John Bibby, 'bivvy bagging' with the University College of Wales (UCW) Mountaineering Club, Aran Benllyn, February 1977
Mike Wiggins, Jess Fitch and ANO in the St Mary's Club Hut, Bryn Hafod, UCW Mountaineering Club Meet, February 1977
As I drove through Y Bala and along Llyn Tegid on a beautiful morning this Easter week I recalled that day from 38 years ago. My memory was hazy as to fact, but vivid as to feeling.  Nostalgia then turned to anxiety about whether the small car park at Llanuwchllyn might already be full.  For those who struggle with Welsh place names, by the way, it is pronounced 'Llanuwchllyn'.  As ever my worrying was misplaced, as despite my latish start there was plenty of space.  As I was doing the rucksack faffing thing another car arrived and disgorged four Welsh teenagers, chattering loudly in English, getting ready for their own walk.  You can sometimes tell by the type of equipment people carry how much hill walking they do, and these clearly weren’t regular hill goers, but good on them anyway for trying, I thought, as I headed off to start the long, long ridge path up to Aran Benllyn and beyond to Aran Fawddwy.

Looking back to Llyn Tegid
The teenagers were heading up the same path and were going at about my speed and we kept overtaking each other.  Being an anti-social sod I decided to put on a spurt to get ahead of them, but carrying full backpacking gear and being the best part of forty years older than them, this wasn’t that sensible.  Eventually I gave up trying, and sat down for five.  Then it started, a few hundred yards behind me.  Music.  Loud music.  I use the term ‘music’ loosely here.  Being a, trendy, hipster sort of old bloke I recognised it as not just any old music, but what is known as ‘Rap Music’.  I happen to know that your typical teenagers will happily sit in their bedrooms quietly listening to songs with clearly enunciated lyrics, lovely melodies by nice, clean cut young people like Pixie Lott and Will Young on their record players, but as soon as mum and dad get in from Tesco’s they will quickly stick on a long player by the likes of ‘Ghostface Killah’ and then pump up the volume (I told you I knew my stuff) to demonstrate contempt for the older, wrinkle covered generation with their 'O' Levels, and their obsession with good jobs, pensions and ISAs.  I know this happens because many was the time, as a long haired teenager, that I would be happily singing along to Showaddywaddy or Mud’s latest hit single when my parents would return home, and I’d have to reduce the revs from 45 to 33 per minute and slam Deep Purple in Rock on to the turntable and play Highway Star at full volume.

I digress.  As they got closer they glanced at me and changed from speaking English to Welsh. I looked the first one straight in the eye and said “Bore da.  Sut dach chi heddiew?” (“Good morning.  How are you today?”)


Then the reply.  “Oh! Bore da. Iawn diolch.  Sut dach chi?”  (“Oh!  Good morning. Well thanks. How are you?”)

From me, “Bendigedig, diolch yn fawr.  Hwyl fawr”. (“Marvellous, thank you very much.  Have fun”).

They sat down and chatted amongst themselves, and a few seconds later the music stopped.  I smiled at them then carried on before I was rumbled, almost my entire stock of Welsh used up.
Along the ridge
On the summit ridge, with Cader Idris in the right distance
The ridge is a lovely walk and becomes increasingly rocky, with the occasional jewelled pool near the top of Aran Benllyn (885m).  I largely had the hill to myself after I had finally managed to pull away from the teenagers.  Then it was onwards and upwards to Aran Fawddwy (905m), which is just a few feet short of 3000.  Another 31 feet higher and it would substantially increase the degree of challenge for those doing the Welsh Three Thousanders.  The weather was almost too good, making the views hazy, but Cader Idris, the Mawddach Estuary, the Rhinogs and the Snowdon Massif were all just visible, whilst the RAF entertained me with jet fighters streaking along the valley over Llyn Tegid.

The Memorial Cairn on Drws Bach
Dropping down from Drysgol and eying up the steep final climb to the corrie
I dropped down to Drysgol (731m) via the poignant cairn and memorial plaque, then continued down a pathless, fiercely steep grassy hillside, thankfully dry or it could have been lethal, and then up by the impressive outflow stream from Creiglyn Dyfi, to a lovely wild camp spot by the lake.  This sparkled in the late afternoon sunshine, masking the sadness that loneliness can sometimes raise above the surface.
Daphne Duplex at the near perfect pitch
Self-timed selfie
Very simple things can really improve a wild camp.  Apart from a dry level pitch and the beauty of the setting, the solitude and the weather, I was ridiculously over excited to see a low flat boulder just a few yards from the tent, which served as a kitchen work surface and comfy chair as I prepared my evening meal and later settled down with the Kindle.
My designer kitchen boulder

The cliffs of Aran Fawddwy
The peace of the surroundings helped ease the anxieties that I sometimes experience when camping high and completely alone. I knew that I was safe, and that the lions, tigers and bears that sometimes come to my tent as I sleep on wild camps would not venture up here this night.  I slept with the doors on both sides of the Z Packs Duplex open, with just the bug netting to keep this night’s very benevolent elements at bay. 

The temperature plummeted and I woke frequently, pulling on my down jacket, hat and some thin gloves at one point. As I lay watching, the moonlight waltzed across the lake with the dark silhouette of the mountains behind.  The stars twinkled over me, just as they do in the nursery rhyme, and the all night chattering from the stream bursting from the lake lulled me into a state of half-sleep, whilst the gentle breeze that rose in the early hours reminded me of somethng I miss at night when in brick-enveloped normality.

I brewed tea as the sky to the east slowly turned from black to a dark indigo, and by the time the sun climbed over the hillside I was eating breakfast in my sleeping bag.  Being able to pack up on a dry, now windless morning was a bonus to what had been the near perfect wild camp.

Mornng view from my east facing door
Morning view from my west facing door
Looking back to Aran Fawddwy on the gloriously still secnd morning
My second day’s route was entirely pathless for the first four hours, across quite a lot of boggy ground, tussocky grass and never with the feel of rock underfoot. I crossed several small hills, most of which are, no doubt, on peak baggers’ lists of Marilyn Munroes, Harvey Nuttalls, William Cobbetts or whatever.  I simply delighted in going up them, even the steep slog up Esgeiriau Gwynion, as I completed over the two days what in practice was a horseshoe shaped route around Cwm Du and Cwm Croes.

The magnificent cairn on Foel Hafod-fynydd
As I descended the broad grassy ridge towards the farm at Talardd, with a red kite hovering gloriously above me, I realised that the cartographers of the Ordnance Survey yet again have better sight than me, for they had found footpaths that were beyond my ability to see.  No path as shown on the map descended to the farm, and the access land finished well above the farmstead, leaving me nervously trespassing, quietly untying and retying roped up gates and then walking thankfully on to the road, passing the sign at the entrance to the farmyard stating there was no access for “unauthorised persons”.  No difficult encounters, then, and a happy plod along the lane for an hour to the car in the beautiful April sunshine.
I doubt the London and North Eastern Railway ever came up the Twrch Valley

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Balancing on Blue

Or in this case, balancing on my computer screen

Whilst I enjoy reading many outdoor blogs I confess to not always enjoying trip reports. I don’t actually find them very interesting. That isn’t a criticism of those who write them, or those who read them.  They just do not float my boat, but each to his own.  And yes, I know I write trip reports on here, which possibly shows that I am a hypocrite. I try to write what I would like to read, mainly by adding some (admittedly pathetic) attempts at humour, self-deprecation, or ‘deeper thoughts’. The latter appear to chime with some readers, come across as pretentious to others and may have some simply reaching for the sick bucket.

With that background information about my predilections (good word that) it may seem a little odd that I sometimes reach for the ultimate trip reports, books by long distance hikers such as Chris Townsend.  And often I find these enjoyable.  In 2013 I read the book The Last Englishman by a British through hiker, Keith Foskett.  Or, as Keith would emphatically argue, 'English' through hiker. It told the tale of his epic walk along the Pacific Crest Trail in the USA. Recently, Keith kindly sent me his latest book Balancing on Blue. The deal was a free copy in return for a review. I was able to write any review, of course, not just a favourable one.

Well the book arrived last week and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  It is a cracking good read and I really did pick it up every spare moment until it was finished. It tells of Keith’s through hike of the 2184 mile Appalachian Trail (or AT) over almost 5 months in 2012.  Now 2184 miles, mainly through thick forest with limited views, must be incredibly hard going for the walker. It must also be a genuine challenge writing about it and keeping each page fresh.  But Keith has succeeded magnificently.  The joy of the book is that it doesn’t read like a trip report of the ‘first I walked here, and it was this far, and then I walked here and it was really tough and it rained a lot and this is what I ate and this is what I saw’ variety.  Yes that’s in it, and so it does give the reader in the UK a flavour of what the AT itself must be like.  However, the book is rich in bringing to life the characters of Keith's walking companions, their grit, determination and motivators and the towns he stopped at along the trail.  Keith describes his own emotions and thoughts and feelings and you do feel that you are walking each step with him, albeit without having to suffer the dirt, the discomfort, the smells and the constant hunger that through hikers seem to endure. Or the bears, of course. I couldn't be doing with bears.  Cows are too dangerous for me.  At the risk of sounding horribly patronising and pretentious it really is a well written book.  It feels like it has been written by a ‘real author’ who happens to through hike, rather than a passionate walker who needs to write a book to supplement his income (I guess this may be true as well though!).

The book left me wanting to walk the AT (except for those sodding bears), yet knowing that I would never have the courage to set off, or the determination to manage such a walk.  But at least I have walked it with Keith.  And I will do my best to remember his trail mantra “never, ever, ever give up” as I set out on my third The Great Outdoors Challenge (TGOC) a month today.  With luck and the right frame of mind I will have some of Keith’s ‘balancing on blue’ moments during that crossing of Scotland.  If you want that explaining you’ll have to read to at least page 95 of the book!

I’m not going to try to provide a synopsis. Go buy the book.  If you enjoy walking and reading you will be richly rewarded.

Monday, 16 March 2015

Sogginess in the Lakes

This was the first time it was dry enough to get the camera out - me in the Z Packs Challenger Death Jacket on the side of Catbells

Planning a trip for March is always a risky business.  The weather can be great. It can also be terrible.  Having arranged to meet up with Robin Evans  for a three day outing, and having booked Hyperdog into the kennels so I didn’t have to sleep snuggled up to what is, even in the best of conditions, a wet, muddy and wriggling wriggly licky thing, I was somewhat committed to making the trip last week.  Over the few days leading up to the off the weather forecast moved from ‘calm and fair’ to ‘very wet and very windy’.  As I have not the slightest masochistic streak in me, the attractions of the trip diminished more and more as it came closer, and as the forecast changed from bad to torrid.

Robin had planned a three day route in the Lakes, starting at either Braithwaite or Little Town and involving Dale Head, Grey Knotts, Haystacks, the High Stile Ridge, Starling Dodd, Buttermere, Crag Hill and various bumps in between.  In the couple of days before we set off, the route, and our planned camps, got lower and lower, and when we finally met on the Wednesday morning in Braithwaite we had committed to nothing more for the first day than a walk south along the Cumbria Way into Langstrath.  So that was easy enough and, what is more, it was dry as we left the camp site, with no rain forecast for another two or three hours.
Fifteen minutes later the first drops of water started falling from the sky; ten minutes after that we had full waterproof gear on; and within another fifteen we were starting to think we might need the phone number of the RNLI to call for assistance.  As the rain increased in intensity so did the wind.  It was horrid.

Along the path next to Derwent Water we bumped in to an old colleague of mine, Mick Guy, from the Keswick Mountain Rescue Team with his Search and Rescue Border Collie. He cackled like a very mad madman when we explained we were camping out.  We got to Grange.  We went in the cafĂ© and ordered some lunch and generally dripped onto the table and the tiles.  We ate lunch.  Slowly.  We decided (well I did, but I think Robin was content with the decision) that a wild camp, even just in Langstrath, would be no fun and that we might be better back at the camp site in Braithwaite, which is only 200 metres from a pub.  Now you might think that is rather whimpy of me.  I think the opposite.  I was deciding to camp out in Braithwaite when I would be within twenty five minutes of my real bed and a log fire and a sofa and a fridge with beer and proper meat in it, and a wine rack with wine and a shelfy thing with whisky on it.  So that choice wasn’t whimpy.  It was steely.  Like the colour of my tent pegs.  The ones which complement my eyes so nicely.

Does my pack look big in this? Robin on the way back to Braithwaite

Derwent Water

Drying out in the Newlands Valley

So we headed back towards Braithwaite.  Firstly on the lane, then on the wall next to the lane, as by now the road was badly flooded in places, and then on the path that runs along the side of Catbells.  As we got towards Braithwaite it cleared up a little (of course it did, that’s what the weather does when it is being particularly malevolent) and the Newlands Fells looked quite splendiozy.

At the camp site Daphne Duplex was up in a thrice or two and Robin put up his new Tramplite tent and we did a bit of gasping and sighing and heavy breathing, what with all that glistening cuben fibre on display, and then we forgoed the temptation of a bar snack and had dehydrated things to eat and then seeing as how we had eaten dehydrated food it only seemed right to go to the pub to have some non-dehydrated drink and that’s what we did.
The Z Packs Duplex Death Tent in the murk at Braithwaite. And no Gordon, it didn't blow away.
The rather pleasant old Keswick to Threlkeld Railway path

The weather forecast remained awful for the Thursday, but with the possibility of a dry two or three hours first thing, then more heavy rain and wind and the possibility of snow overnight.  By now we were close to writing the whole thing off as a bad job and heading to our respective homes.  On the Thursday Robin wanted to have a lazier day at the tent and then possibly try for a wild camp if it remained reasonable, but I wanted to walk so I headed off alone and did a low level walk from Threlkeld, combining the old railway line path to Keswick with a diversion up Latrigg. And today the weather must have been feeling pretty guilty for its treatment of us the previous day, as apart from the little incident when it tried to blow me off the top of Latrigg it remained dry until I was taking my boots off back at the car, and then it did what it does best in the Lakes ie it tipped it down.
Keswick in the clag from Latrigg - where the wind was so strong it was almost unstandupable
And despite the apparent lack of endeavour in these two days I did walk a total of 32 km with 870 metres of uppy bits, and I did carry full backpacking gear on both days to give myself at least a semi-decent workout.

I've walked this path dozens of times but never noticed this before.  It had an old water pipe thing up the back and must once have had a tap or something on the front at the top. I think.

Thursday, 12 February 2015


A Frozed Up Angle Tarn
So yesterday evening I says to Hyperdog Moss “Where do you fancy going for walkies tomorrow?” and he just looks at me and wags his tail a bit, so I says “Come on help me out here, we have the whole of the Lake District or the North Pennines to choose from", but he just wags his tail a bit more and walks off and brings back Bill. Bill is one of his toys. It’s a sort of knobbly green rubber thing. Actually, there is no ‘sort of’ about it, it is a knobbly green rubber thing. I then had to throw Bill for him to catch for the next three hours and that was the end of that conversation.

So I had to choose. The day being claggy and generally yucky we decided not to drive too far and to stay relatively low, so we walked from Patterdale to Angle Tarn via Boredale Hause, as you do, it being the obvious way to go.

There was a lot more snow than this but that was until Hyperdog ate most of it
You can never have too many photos of Angle Tarn I say

The sun looked like it was coming out as we headed through Side Farm, but that was a trick it was playing on us, because the clag soon came back, along with intermittent snow showers.  Most of the snow had gone below the Hause, but there was some left above that, and a few icy stretches on the path, but nothing difficult that couldn’t be avoided so the spikes stayed in the pack. This lack of snow didn’t stop Hyperdog suddenly and inexplicably flying sideways off a grassy bank into a big drift, and not yet being an expert with snow he decided the best way to get out of the drift was to eat the snow which wasn’t very effective but he seemed to enjoy it.  When we got to the Tarn he also decided to test out the ice but I shrieked at him and he came back sheepish like and sheep dog like ie slinking like he was about to round me up. I explained the dangers to him but he just looked bored. Teenagers never take it in when you tell them of the dangers of whatever it is that you are telling them is dangerous but they usually learn eventually.

And then we went back down again.  As it was brightening up a bit, and we hadn’t gone too far when we were almost back in the valley, we took the higher path above Side Cottage and Side Farm that runs parallel to Ullswater and went over and down to Silver Bay and watched a group of youngsters having fun in a large rowing boat from the Outward Bound School on the other shore.  And that was it really, apart from my cunning trick of enticing Hyperdog in to the lake down in Glenridding by throwing a stick in for him to chase.  He thinks this is a game but it is really to get the mud off him and what he doesn’t know can’t hurt him as I always say.

Outward Bound - but not to Henley Royal Regatta any time soon

Ullswater, Glenridding, Sheffield Pike, Birkhouse Moor etc