I had to get out. It was the middle of March, and spring was coming into bud. The sky had turned from grey to soft blue, and the ice was melting into rushing streams. It was the perfect weather for getting out in the hills. But life has a fiendish way of jumping in the way of all the things you’d rather be doing, waving its arms about, and saying, ‘Hey! If you don’t clean the windows right now, who will? And, while you’re at it, don’t you think you should really get around to repainting the bathroom?’ The highlands of Scotland and the jagged scrambles of the Lakes were a little out of my reach for an impulsive adventure, but I had had enough of using that as an excuse to not do anything at all. I rushed through my to-do list in the morning and threw a bivvy bag and Wilderness Weekendsin my rucksack for the afternoon. I packed my gear into the car and drove to a car park at the very end of a road in the Brecon Beacons National Park.
It was late afternoon when I arrived at Blaen-y-Cwm. The car park was in the middle of a lofty pine forest. The sinking sun leaked through the gaps in the canopy and scattered drops of light over the shadowy forest floor. I pulled my bag onto my back, and made my way to the footpath that would take me out into the Black Mountains.
Once it split away from the road, the footpath shot upwards. I barely had time to take in the fresh mountain air before being ploughed into a relentless ascent. The path cut straight up the hill so, while it looked like a fairly short leg on the map, it took a good deal of wheezing, staring angrily up at the slope, and sending general grumpy thoughts in the direction of whoever felt it was best to send this path heading straight up without throwing in so much as a zig-zag for respite.
The positive side of this, though, is that once you get up in the Black Mountains, you stay up. The ascending path deposited me on a wide track which followed the flattened top of the ridge. The pine forest had been left below in the valley, and the ridge opened up to a sea of green-gold grasses. The ground up here was damp, and glistened in the late afternoon sun. The navigation would be easy: the route to my wild camping spot for the night involved simply walking along this footpath in a straight line until I ran out of ridge and the ground tumbled away into the villages below.
There was one slight fault in my plan for a pleasant and simple walk. It appeared that the steep hillside which had caused me so much bother to start with was actually protecting me from another little treat: the wind. Once I popped up onto the top of the ridge, out of the cover of the forest and hillside, the wind socked me full in the face. With all of the visible terrain sitting flat and at a similar height, there was no protection or relief; the wind howled across the landscape unencumbered. I pulled on an extra layer and set about making progress along the path.
After a very long 45-minutes of walking in the same direction on the flat ridge top, dodging boggy puddles and staggering in the wind, I saw some figures emerging from behind a gentle slope ahead. As they came towards me, I saw that they were teenagers. They looked like they were on a Duke of Edinburgh’s Award expedition. They had the look on their collective faces which comes with being made to walk in the hills, with big bags, against their will. When I thought the whole group had passed me by, I noticed another figure, a good way back. It moved slowly and with a lumbering gait. It became clear that this was a teenage boy – part of the same group. The others had continued without him, and he was struggling, alone, to catch up with them. As he came down the slope, he slipped and fell. With the same difficult movements, as thought he was not entirely comfortable moving his body in such a way as would propel him forwards over grassy ground, he hauled himself back up. As we passed each other, I could see that his face was red with effort. He stumbled under the weight of his bag. One of his boots was threatening to come undone, and his trousers were damp and ill-fitting. But the boy kept going. Not once did he stop. I tried to give him an encouraging smile but his energy was focussed far beyond me, on the teenagers who had paused briefly to allow the gap between he and them to close before they moved further along the slope and out of sight.
Beyond the trig point, the ridge plummeted into the valley. Mid-Wales extended in front of me from my vantage point at the summit of Rhos Dirion. The wind threatened to blow me over the edge and send me rolling down into the valley. I began to hunt for a good spot to settle down for the night. I had walked here with visions of lazing luxuriantly at the trig point, romantically pondering the view until the sun disappeared and then settling down to make dinner, curled around my stove on the hillside, with the steam from my hot food wafting into the blue-white light from my head torch. Instead, the wind nearly turfed me straight off the ridge when a particularly big gust whooshed through. I abandoned my search for a spot that was ‘good’ and conceded to go for one that was ‘ok at a push’. I dropped my bag into the shallow rut and proceeded to wrestle with my tarp, pegging it out and using my walking poles to prop it into a tent-like shape for a little relief from the gale. I made my best effort of cooking dinner, using my body to block the worst of the wind from zipping around the tarp and blowing my stove out. Eventually, my dinner heated through enough to be edible. The wind whipped all the heat out of each spoon before it got to my mouth, and it chilled my body under my layers. Wales twinkled before me, but I only made it half way through my summit beer before I had to give up and snuggle into my bivvy to get warm.
In the morning, the roaring blue sky from the day before was smudged in pastel shades of red and orange. Twmpa, standing proud to my right, was watercolour-washed in yellow and green. There was nothing around to spoil the serenity of the morning – apart from me, wrestling with the crackling and snapping tarp, trying desperately to get it back into my bag without letting any of my other belongings be lost to the sky, 700 metres over Wales. With my gear finally packed – much less neatly than when I did it at home the day before – I headed off across the boggy ground for two more summits, and home.
Back in the car park, I spread my damp sleeping and bivvy bags out on the picnic table, and put the stove on for a cup of tea. I ate a Snickers and sat dozing while I waited for the sugar to kick in. I looked up from checking the water in the kettle to see a police car pulling into the car park. I gulped. I was sitting in a car park which was surrounded by big ‘No Camping’ signs, and I had camping gear obviously stretched out on the table next to me. This car park was in the middle of nowhere, right at the literal end of the road. I had not prepared for this. The patrol car drove to the end of the car park, and turned around. When it drove back past, the driver was facing me. He wound the window down.
“Alright there!” He called.
“Have you been camping?”
I was flustered. “Um. No, I mean, well, yes, but not here – up on the ridge – not here in the car park-”
“Oh!” He said, “I’m not bothered about camping. I wanted to know what the midge situation was like out there. I hope you had a good time!”
Reassured that the ridge was far too windy to be plagued by midges, the police officer drove away with a cheery wave.
I poured the now boiling water into my mug and poked the teabag so that golden-brown swirls swished through the water. My brush with the law had made me think. There’s a joy which comes with enjoying the outdoors responsibly. Seeing other people doing things that are slightly bonkers makes people happy. Doing slightly bonkers things definitely makes people happy. I hoped that the boy in the DofE group – the boy who struggled and slipped but who did not give up – chose to carry on to the end of his award, and beyond. There are always going to be walks that we go on which turn out to be harder than we thought. There are always going to be camps which are colder than we’d prepared for. But moments like this one, sitting quietly in the shady pine forest, sounds muffled by the soft carpet of needles, a cup of tea brewing, and the busy rest of the day still not quite here, are irreplaceable, and are hard to get any other way.