Hill Walking

Earlier this week, I took Emma up to the Brecon Beacons for our last training walk before our attempt at the National 3 Peaks Challenge on 30th June. It was going to be a good, tough walk but nothing too bad, I was confident that it’d be fine. But  there was something I’d forgotten; failing at hill walking is almost a given, if you don’t take it seriously enough.

In the UK, it’s true enough to say; there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing. This isn’t true in a lot of places. In a lot of places, no matter how well dressed you are, nature can kill you. But for that to happen in the UK, you have to really give nature a helping hand. As it turned out, on Tuesday, I was in a helpful mood.

The problem was overconfidence. And complacency. Had I been on my own, this wouldn’t have been that big a deal. But having Emma with me turned something that would have been simply foolhardy into something that was genuinely failing at hill walking… hard!

The plan was to walk from the Blaen y Glyn Uchaf car park, past the waterfalls and up onto the hills, along the Beacons Way. This would lead us over Fan y Big, and Cribyn and then down and up to the Trig Point on Pen y Fan. From there we would drop down to the Storey Arms Car Park. At which point we’d turn around and do the walk in reverse.

It’s a good training walk for the 3 Peaks. A walk I’ve done before, on different occasions, with both my dad and my bother Simon. We chose it because it involves over 1300 meters of ascent and descent, which is what is required for Ben Nevis. It is also a walk of around 14 miles, which is 4 miles more than needed for Ben Nevis, which makes it the perfect training walk. I remember doing the walk with Simon in about 6 hours. I saw no reason why Emma and I would take any longer.

The idea was, if Emma could do this walk, then she’s ready for the 3 Peaks. It’s what we used as the last training walk, the previous time I’ve done the 3 Peaks Challenge. And that one was a success, despite the best efforts of Sat Nav… But that’s a different story.

I checked the weather the night before and the forecast indicated that it would be cloudy with a moderate chance of light rain and low winds. That didn’t seem to be a problem, I’ve been up on the Brecons in some tricky weather and it’s never posed a problem:

The view of Pen y Fan and Cribyn from Corn Du in March 2009. It was clear when I set off.

But that’s the problem with confidence; it leads to overconfidence. And, before you know it, you’re failing at hill walking.

I made so many mistakes that I’m not sure I can remember them all, but the first I’ve already mentioned. I assumed that Emma would be able to match Simon’s pace on the hills. This isn’t strictly true, I suppose; I assumed that I was slowing Simon down and that I’d, likewise, slow Emma down. This would mean that on both occasions we’d be doing it at my pace. Quite why I thought a 16 year old girl, who’s spent the last few months solidly revising, would be able to match my pace, I’m not sure. She’s only been able to fit in a couple of training walks in and around her half term. Whereas I’ve been doing a lot of hill walking recently… but there you go: that was false assumption number 1.

False assumption number 2 was that Emma would know what to pack in her backpack, and that I didn’t need to check it. Had we been going to Dartmoor, I’d have checked it anyway, but it was only the Brecons, so there was no need. The reality is, however, that the Brecons are both higher and potentially more remote than Dartmoor. The upshot of this was that Emma didn’t have enough wet weather gear and wasn’t wearing the best tops to start with. Additionally, neither of us brought a spare set of clothes to leave in the car. Failing at Hill Walking 101 is; don’t take enough wet weather gear.

The next problem was that we set off too late. We didn’t leave home until about 10:30 am. Which meant we didn’t start walking until about 1 pm. Because it was almost literally the height of summer, I didn’t think this would be a problem; it wouldn’t get dark until about 10 pm. Which is fine unless you get slowed down by the weather and/or lost.

The weather turned out to be worse than advertised. The clouds were very low, meaning we spent all day in them, except for half an hour at the Storey Arms car park. There was an almost constant drizzle and, most draining of all, a moderate, incessant wind. This was a headwind for the first half of the walk.

This type of weather doesn’t bother me and I tend to wear shorts at all times of the year, and this day was no different. I run hot, which means my biggest problem is overheating, as such I often look like I’m wearing too little. On this instance, as well as my shorts, I was wearing a long sleeve undershirt and a teeshirt. These got soaked through pretty quickly but that’s fine for me. What I wasn’t paying attention to was that Emma was following suit.

The problem here is, that while I’m solidly overweight, Emma is very much not. What works for me, isn’t likely to work for her. I suggested that she put her waterproof on but she said she was fine, so I left her to it. Within a couple of hours, she was soaked through, too. And we weren’t even half way to the turning point…

Happy but already soaked through at Fan y Big. And with 6 more hours on the hills, because Dad is busy failing at hill walking.

Because of the weather and because I wanted us to push ourselves, we didn’t take much in the way of breaks on the way out. The first sit down stop we had was at the top of Pen y Fan. I found us a place out of the wind and rain and, because we were hot from the climb, we didn’t put our waterproofs on. As we approached the stop, I explained to Emma that we’d have to put our waterproofs on, to retain heat. Once we settled down, we didn’t feel the need, so we didn’t bother.

As soon as we set off again, Emma was shivering with the cold. And I insisted we put them on then. But failing at hill walking doesn’t get much more obvious than letting yourself get cold. I know this. But I didn’t insist that she, at least, dress up. I think I didn’t want Emma to feel I was bossing her around; I was enjoying our walk too much to risk souring the mood. Silly, really; all I had to do was put mine on and she would have done likewise.

Even though we only walked for a couple of minutes, the cold bit into Emma. This meant that she now had cold, wet clothes under her waterproof, which takes a lot of unnecessary energy for body heat to warm up. This was not helped by the fact that her waterproof wasn’t really up to the task, and was poor at keeping out the cold.

I thought about turning us around at that point, because there was still a long way to go. If we’d had time for another training walk before the event, I would’ve turned us around. I gave Emma the option, but she was determined and, not wanting to knock her confidence, we pushed on. This, of course, is another classic aspect of failing at hill walking; putting the desires of the walkers ahead of the realities of the situation.

The walk downhill to the Storey Arms car park was as quick and easy as always. And I was going to get us some hot drinks and maybe some hot food from the vans when we got there.

Emma on one of the descents, of which there was 1300 meters worth…

Except the vans weren’t there, when we arrived. We only emerged from the clouds as we got to the car park, so maybe they hadn’t set up stall that day. But it was gone 4 pm when we rocked up, so maybe they’d packed up for the day. Whichever it was, there was no hot food or drink to warm Emma up. Yet another failure at hill walking; relying on outside factors, instead of being self sufficient.

Faced with all this, we now had a number of options to consider:

  • We could have gone up to the Storey Arms Outdoor Education Centre and taken shelter there.
  • We could have called a taxi and got a lift round to the car.
  • In actual fact, I could have called my dad and he could have driven up from Somerset, picked us up and driven us to our car. This would still have been faster than it was to walk back.
  • Continue the walk as planned.

Emma, as brave as she is, insisted on pushing on. I knew we had options once we got back up to Pen y Fan, so we went for it.

The walk back up the hill was really tough for Emma. She was battling the gradient, the weather and her own mind. She knew this was only the half way point and her mind was insisting that she couldn’t to it: to turn back and get the taxi. But Emma fought this negativity all the way up the track, which ran for well over a mile, and gained nearly 400 meters, in minimal visibility. She was amazing. I was, and am, so proud of her.

Having got back to the top, I got out the map and we looked at the options. Because it was a ‘failing at hill walking’ kind of day, it almost goes without saying that the map was not waterproof and was in tatters by the time we got back to the car. However, despite the condition of the map, the options remained the same. After we went back over Pen y Fan, we could either:

  • mainly follow the route back, skirting Cribyn to save some time, or;
  • drop into the valley and take a longer, but flat route back.

Emma decided we’d see how we felt when we got to Windy Gap, where the path split.

With Pen y Fan behind us, Emma’s spirits lifted and she regained some strength. Skirting Cribyn boosted her energy and her confidence so much, she decided we’d head back up to Fan y Big and complete the return journey. She was so much stronger that we made the hike up the side of Fan y Big without needing to stop. And that’s a nastily steep slope.

From there we set off back up onto the plateau, until we got to the arrow. On the way out, we’d made an arrow out of stones, on the side of the track, to make sure we found the right path on the way back. This was because, on the way out, we couldn’t find the path that led to this point. It was supposed to originate at the point a stream crossed the track, but we couldn’t find the damn thing. Instead, I’d taken a bearing on the compass and we’d simply walked on that until we cut the path. This was actually a more direct route but across some broken ground.

On the way back, we intended to follow this elusive path until it hooked round to the left, then save some distance by heading straight on. This was the way that I’d done it with Simon. So, when we got to the Cairn marker at the bend in the path, we went straight on, relieved to see a reasonable number of boot prints heading on a fairly defined path. This made sense, because if it’s the way Simon and I went, others would do likewise.

The conditions when I was there with Simon in April 2009, no failing at hill walking in sight

And, after what felt like an appropriate amount of time, we reached a track on the edge of a hill, at the head of a waterfall. This was fine, because the track up the hill from the car park, followed a stream full of waterfalls for its first half. If we followed the edge around, we’d find the track back to the car.

Except we didn’t.

We followed the track, with the drop off to our right but the track kept rising, which simply wasn’t right. We’d also been walking too long without cutting the track back to the car park.

We were lost!

When Simon and I cut across from the cairn at the hook in the path, there had been full visibility. Emma and I had none. I intended to get out the compass and take a bearing, but the path was so defined and the boot prints so obvious, there seemed little point, so I didn’t. If there’s ever a ‘Failing at Hill Walking’ handbook, ‘Not Taking a Bearing in Minimal Visibility’, is going to be vying for Chapter 1.

And now it was 7 pm. Emma was soaked through and cold, with no change of clothes. And we didn’t know where we were. Fortunately, by taking a bearing on the direction of then track we were standing on, it quickly became clear on the map which path we were on. But not where along the path. The one thing we did know, was that we were walking away from the car. And had been for some while.

Thankfully, I had just enough signal on my phone for the Grid Reference Free OS app to get a reading. To start with, I figured it had to be wrong. But then, and with a sinking feeling, everything fell into place. The head of the waterfall was actually the point where the stream crossed the track, as mentioned above. It was the turning point where we couldn’t find the path, on the way out.

What had happened was that we’d actually followed the correct route back to the main track. At the cairn, on the plateau, where we thought we’d gone straight on, we’d actually turned through 90° to the right. But, because the visibility was so poor, we hadn’t noticed. That was why the path was so defined. That was why there were so many boot prints. And that was why, instead of being nearly back at the car, we were still an hour away. Bearings. Take them!

If you’re not taking a bearing when the visibility is like this, you’re failing at hill walking

Emma, bless her, took it remarkably well. Not a word of complaint. Not a word or criticism. We took a 5 minute break and then set off. We splashed back across the stream, which was also the head of its own waterfall, and ploughed on. It was along here that I briefly stumbled. It was no big deal, but my left foot stepped off the path, towards the drop. At this point on the path, there was a couple of feet of ground before the drop. Further back, there hadn’t been. It was at that point that I realised how badly organised I was. Poor organisation and failing at hill walking go hand in hand.

If I’d gone over, I’d have taken the only map, the only compass, the only phone and the car keys. Emma would have been left on the top of the hills, soaked through and already cold, with very little food and water, no idea where she was, no means of communication and no survival gear. It was a horrifying thought. It still is! This is Olympic Standard failing at hill walking.

As it was, we got off safely. It was still daylight when we got down and I had a spare hoodie in my backpack and a spare waterproof in the car to change Emma into.

And she did it. 16 miles of walking over 8 hours, with 1300 meters of ascent and descent. Even in the face of the wind, the rain, her being that cold and me getting her that lost; she still managed 2 miles an hour. Which is plenty good enough to see us over the 3 Peaks in under 24 hours.

In actual fact, it’s been good preparation for her. She’s overcome so much that she’s buzzing with confidence. Which I’m thrilled about. But I’m also ashamed that I could be so blasé about a hill walk of that magnitude. That I could fail at hill walking so thoroughly, with my daughter with me…

At least we got away with it. And it’ll never happen again. And both Emma and I have learned something from the experience; probably that failing at hill walking is bad And, maybe; don’t let dad be in charge of anything. Ever! But she’ll be 17 before I know it, so I think that was inevitable anyway. But, despite the fact we ‘got away with it’, I think this one is going to haunt me for a while. 

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