Friday, 21 August 2015

Cross Fell

Six of us from my mountaineering club met up east of Penrith at Kirkland in weather that didn’t promise any views, but the boots went on anyway and the walk up to the spine of England began.  Cross Fell is the highest mountain in England outside of the Lake District and is also the highpoint of both the Pennine Way and the Pennines.

Despite occasionally losing the path and straying into ankle-deep bogs, the ascent of almost 2,000 feet was probably one of the easiest I have ever walked.  An easy incline all the way took us to the Pennine Way, where we turned south on to it and followed it to the summit and its recently (2014) reconstructed summit shelter, appropriately cross shaped which guarantees at least one side affords some shelter from the wind.

a misty summit shelter

We left the summit aiming for the Little Dun Fell and Great Dun Fell but as conditions were fairly grim, we decided to descend straight to Wildboar Scar from Tees Head.  My GPS was invaluable in finding the path, which obviously does not having a lot of footfall.  But once on it, the terrain became a lot easier.  As we approached Grumply Hill the view cleared and the panorama of Lake District fells opened out before us.

The only summit of the day was another TRAIL 100 tick which, along with good company, made up for the poor weather.  I’m sure that it would be a much better walk in good visibility and certainly deserving of more attention, but with the big hills of the Lake District only a few miles away Cross Fell is always going to be the poor relation.  If you want a high summit with some peace and quiet, this Pennine giant is well worth a visit.

Thursday, 20 August 2015


Four of us started out from Penwyllt for a straightforward walk up to the two Nuttall summits of Fan Fraith and Fan Gyhirych.  A dull start soon gave way to torrential rain and a delay putting on waterproofs was a mistake that should have been avoided.

We walked up the good track towards the col between the two summits and just a few hundred yards below it we were stopped in our tracks by a flash of lightning which was followed by a crack of thunder only 8 seconds.  A hurried discussion about heading to highpoints half a mile away when lightning was striking just over a mile away led to the quick, and sensible, decision to turn tail and descend, although some walkers behind us did not follow our lead.

This was definitely one of those times to remember that the hills are always there for another day!

On the drive home through the rain I tuned in to the radio and heard a news item about a lightning strike on Pen y Fan, resulting in serious injuries.  As details became clearer over the next couple of days, 3 people were hit on Corn Du – 1 fatality, 1 suffering serious burns and 1 being released from hospital the following day – and 1 was hit by a second strike on Cribyn, unfortunately another fatality.

Having been on these mountains yesterday, it is easy to understand their pointed summits attracting lightning although the highest, Pen y Fan, wasn’t hit.  It was still a sobering thought that people had died, and fully justified our decision to retreat.  This was the first time in many years that weather has caused me to abandon a walk, as opposed to modifying plans for the day and, unusually for me, I didn’t feel any disappointment in turning around before reaching the planned summits.

I’m sure that it was just bad luck that those who died were on summits when the lightning struck.  I hadn’t seen any forecasts for thunderstorms and even though we were really close to a strike, there was no smell of ozone that is a tell-tale sign of imminent lightning.

Although hazards exist on the hills, and planning and experience can contribute to some sensible decision making, sometimes the thing that ensures a safe and successful day out is unquantifiable – and that thing is the element of luck.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Mountains for All

A full Storey Arms car park was a good indication of the number of walkers heading up the pitched path into the mist in the direction of Pen y Fan but we left the masses and took aim for the rarely visited Nuttall of Y Gyrn.  This would be the only summit we had to ourselves for the rest of the day.

Continuing into the mist we reached the path curving around to the lip of Cwm Llych and paused for a moment at Tommy Jones’ memorial, an obelisk marking the point where the body of a lost 5 year-old was found in 1900.  It is a poignant tribute funded by the jurors at his inquest, donating their fees, so moved they were by the fate of little Tommy.  Although we were still in the mist, it was hard to imagine the fear and confusion of a little boy lost in the dark on these hills.

Continuing up the north-west ridge of Corn Du to the summit brought us back amongst the throng, with a fair few walkers resting near the broad sandstone summit cairn.  We walked easily to Pen y Fan’s top, joining many more walkers and taking summit photos before being asked by other walkers to take photos of them.  We beat a hasty retreat to avoid being overwhelmed with requests and headed east towards Cribyn.

Summit cairn

Pen y Fan has easy access because of the high start at the Storey Arms and the ease of terrain, most of it being pitched paths, which attracts the usual inappropriately-clad day-trippers.  Many people were wearing jeans, trainers and one group of walkers were wearing judo suits, one of whom – a little girl – was being carried.  Pen y Fan is probably the south Wales equivalent of Snowdon, attracting many who wouldn’t otherwise head for the hills.  Although the way to the top is fairly benign, I feel uncomfortable that the day-trippers probably finish their day out with an unrealistic view of what hillwalking entails.  I fear that my view is somewhat elitist, as dangers exist and novices are unaware of them, but the positive aspect is that people are introduced to the hills and may well be sparked in to continuing hillwalking and mountaineering in the future.

Continuing towards Cribyn the clouds started to clear and some impressive views were revealed.  No doubt that the enjoyment of the day had improved for the hundreds of walkers on the tops but the following day’s events provided a stark contrast as the hazards of being in the hills made national headlines.


On the way back to Pen y Fan, all the more enticing in the sunshine, we enjoyed the views of the mountain ponies grazing with their two foals snoozing in the sun.  On the slopes leading to the summit we were passed by some young men in camouflage and carrying big bergens on a challenge walk to replicate part of the SAS Fan Dance selection.  It’s an admirable way to raise money for charity but as I get older I always think back to my early walking days when I carried far too much weight and the effects it may have had on my now aging knees!

Pen y Fan north-east face

The stroll to Corn Du along the escarpment was easy and as the crowds made their way down to the main road, we took the time to seek some quiet on the minor summit of Duwynt. 

Pen y Fan from Corn Du

Sometimes the least trodden tops are the most enjoyable.

Friday, 14 August 2015

A South Wales Evening

An early start meant a mid-afternoon arrival at Penwyllt, the base of the South Wales Caving Club and my accommodation for the weekend.  Unload the car, drink a cup of tea and then head for the hills, albeit a couple of easy summits.  First stop – Abergavenney.

The car park at Llanwenarth Breast effectively makes the ascent of Sugar Loaf a simple stroll, gaining only about 850 feet.  It’s a TRAIL 100 summit and walking up the myriad wide grassy paths in the late afternoon sun is as restful an uphill walk could be.  Sugar Loaf is one of those community mountains, a backyard summit that no doubt shapes many people’s first experience of hillwalking, familiar to locals and easily accessible as well as offering tantalising views of the higher mountains of Pen y Fan and its supporters.

Sugar Loaf summit

The Heads of the Valleys Road headed west before I turned south towards the Rhondda Fawr valley and parked near the summit of the pass.  The highpoint of historic Glamorgan was the objective and a scruffy track headed into the forest which had obviously seen more mountain bikes than walking boots.  A clearing led the way to the top of Cefnfford (known to some as Craig y Llyn) which was marked by a trig pillar, but it was easily the least impressive county top I’ve ticked, being surrounded by trees and sited on ground flat enough and expansive enough to totally disguise the fact that it is a 600-metre summit.

Glamorgan's highpoint - Cefnfford

The walk back to the car along the escarpment had some good views of the Brecon Beacons highest summits, making me just that bit keener to walk over them tomorrow.

Thursday, 13 August 2015


Different from every angle.

Unique from every angle.

Magnificent from every angle.

For the anglo-centric hillwalker, the monolithic outline of Suilven may not be familiar.  And that’s a shame because it is one of the most magnificent mountains in Scotland.  Looking at it head on from either end, its shape appears to dare you to dare you to climb it; even its profile is defiant with the foreshortened view disguising the fairly straightforward route up to the ridge’s low-point.

Suilven has long been on my list of mountains that must be climbed and even though its height doesn’t qualify it as a Corbett, let alone a Munro, its isolation and form begs an ascent.  Through my eyes there are some mountains that are poorly qualified for inclusion in the TRAIL 100 list, but Suilven is wholly deserving of such status as it is definitely one of the “UK’s finest mountains”.  A couple of readers’ polls by TRAIL magazine placed it at number 9 in the list of the “UK’s Greatest Mountain” and at number 9 in the list of the “UK’s Ultimate Mountain Routes” – not bad for a hill which is a 650-mile drive from London!

Suilven from the north-west

An easy track leads from Glencanisp into the heart of Assynt, passing the path to Suileag bothy, keeping a course parallel to the spine of Suilven,  At the point where the path takes a turn for the mountain, you are faced with a boggy morass, masquerading as a path.  Many yards wide, it’s a challenge to find the least deep way forward to avoid being sucked into the peat before reaching the plateau of lochans that lies below the ascent gully.

Suilven from the north

Aiming for the lowest point in the ridge, Bealach Mor, the way up looks steep.  But foreshortening is always deceptive and height is gained quickly as the slope is never at an angle where walking transforms into scrambling and the caution that comes with it.  As the ridge became closer the gully narrowed and the sandstone walls with their overhangs looked as though they might provide some good rock-climbing for those with a thirst for adventure.  Staying to the right to gain the ridge would only involve a struggle in a very narrow sand gully and would just erode it even further.  Staying to the left reveals some right-trending ledges that top out at the bealach.

And here the view reveals magnificent Assynt.


The full extent of the landscape is mesmerising.  From the Quinag massif to the pyramidal Canisp and all the way around to Cul Mor, Cul Beag, the intricacies of Ben More Coigach and the decaying tooth of Stac Pollaidh, the landscape is a hillwalker’s dream.  But as you ascend the ridge westwards towards the summit, the best view is behind you, along the ridge to Meall Meadhonach.  Reaching its top from here looks challenging and by all accounts it is terrain for competent scramblers only and I’m not sure that I would do it solo.  Perhaps one day in the future though.

The ground ahead was crossed by the oddity that is a drystone wall prompting the question “why here?”  Easy scrambling yielded a subsidiary summit, a flat grassy area that would make an impressive wildcamping pitch.  A small descent to a very narrow col – any collapse of the path here would make reaching the summit a significant problem – and then easy walking led to the summit cairn of Caisteal Liath and one of the best 360° views I’ve ever seen, of the Assynt hills inland and the Summer Isles just out to sea.  Here is a place to linger.

Canisp, Suilven summit cairn, Meall Meadhonach