January 30th, 2016 By Belinda Dixon
Forecast: snow flurries; 45mph gusts; windchill minus 13
Picture the scene: it’s before dawn. Head-torch beams cut the dark. The Pen y Fan car park is (remarkably) almost empty. It’s windy, it’s just started sleeting and it’s cold. Very cold.
A 4am alarm call and ridiculously early breakfast brought us here. Why? Because seeing dawn break over the Brecon Beacons seemed like a fabulous idea. Seemed that is. Right now, we’re not so sure.
Once on the trail itself the outlines of encircling mountains begin to edge out of the dark; light seeps into the scene. As we (me and Nicola Hendy) trudge higher it’s time to pause, take head-torches off and look back down over a horizon full of rippling ridges and deep-etched glacial valleys, russet and tawny in the breaking dawn.
At 886m Pen y Fan is the highest mountain in southern Britain. With 200,000 people a year tackling the steep track, you could call it a ‘touchstone hike’ – one that you feel fondly towards, that you do with family and friends, perhaps a couple of times a year or on special days.
It’s a spectacular route (see the National Trust’s circular walk) that leaves you with memorable moments. The table-like plateau of Corn Du edging closer. Cresting a ridge onto the Saddle and seeing the water-dotted Neuadd Valley far below. Summiting Pen y Fan and scrambling up to the cairn. Fighting the wind to top Corn Du – at 873m, southern Britain’s second highest peak. Gazing down onto a Brecon Beacons made vivid by the bright, early-morning sun.
And somehow doing all this by 9.20am, after a sleet shower, in freezing, fiercely-gusting winds is all the sweeter. As was the hike down past people heading up – each embarking on their own adventure. And then there was the post-mountain-scaling bacon butty at 10.30am.
So what did we learn on this adventure? Just how strong a 45mph gust feels at the top of a mountain. That minus 13 windchill is hand-numbingly, painfully cold. And that seeing dawn break over the Beacons is as fabulous an idea as it seems.
To learn more about hill walking, head to British Mountaineering Council‘s website – a rich source of information and inspiration.
Film by Nicola Hendy