Seven Peaks

A long, beautiful, sobering walk yesterday. A stupid walk. I’d tried to plan for it but my anxiety made me flipflop at lightning speed a thousand times about doing it. In the end the only way I walked at all was by taking the dogs out and then getting K. to bring me my rucksack once I was already out. Because of that I was walking up to the Roman road, instead of up the Dulyn valley as I’d meant to, so I ended up going up Drum, Foel Fras, Carnedd Gwenllïan and Foel Grach before heading up Carnedd Llewelyn as I’d meant to. Then on to Carnedd Dafydd and Pen yr Ole Wen. So, seven peaks instead of the three I’d meant to do.

Going up Drum I didn’t think I’d got enough fitness back after being ill. I had to keep stopping and sitting to get my energy back. I missed out the secondary peak of Drum and just made for the top. There were people there, in the cairn, so I sat on the outside and ate a little lunch.

On the way up Drum

Then I pushed on up Foel Fras, which is the most dragging, punishing slope; just a constant slog up and up and up over the smooth, rounded side of the hill. At the top it turns into a moon landscape – maybe more a Mars landscape – of chaotic, tumbled stones. There were people there too, some British, some American, one man in a Royal Mail baseball cap. I had a bit more lunch and carried on, down to the little stony crown at the top of Carnedd Gwenllïan, then up to Foel Grach. Somehow I’d forgotten about Foel Grach. It’s not the same slog as Foel Fras, but just enough.

The slog of Foel Fras

Then up Carnedd Llewelyn, second highest mountain in Wales, another minor slog over mountain grass and through more tumbled stone, onto another Mars-scape, a big flat top with views of everywhere; the mountains spreading away south, rain coming down in little veils over the Llŷn, the curve of Yr Elen. Gorse fires, the scar of industrial quarrying to the west, towns and villages sparkling in the sun. A mountain rescue helicopter was buzzing around.

The helicopter below

So then I carried on along new ground, down and along the ridge to Carnedd Dafydd. There was a river in the valley that looked like a dropped ribbon of silver. On the other side, Ffynnon Llugwy, a bottomless blot like black ink. Up to the shelter on Carnedd Dafydd, again with people in it. Getting tired now. I was scared of descending Pen yr Ole Wen, but the only other option would be to backtrack up Carnedd Llewelyn and down the Melynllyn track. Maybe that would have been sensible.

Pen yr Ole Wen is a flat, featureless top with no real summit. I knew there were two options down, one with shale and one with scrambling. I wasn’t confident in my ability to scramble, at the end of a long walk, so I took the other.

On the edge of Pen yr Ole Wen

It was awful. What felt like a sheer slope, picking my way down a trodden path between loose rocks and heather. My thighs and knees giving out, using walking poles all the way. All I could see was how high and precipitous it was, how far the lake was below. It seemed a long, long way to fall. I wasn’t on the path on the map but it seemed to be the only path, so it was all I had to trust. I was afraid of leaving it to track sideways and finding myself in a position I couldn’t get out of. So I kept on downwards, grateful for every foot lower. I did a lot of it sitting, sliding very carefully. Then the path disappeared.

I could see the awful loose rock dying out not far below. I needed to get down to that. But what if the smooth areas ended in cliffs? I felt sick with exhaustion. My legs barely worked. I ate half a granola bar but I felt too sick to eat the rest. I was trying very consciously to make good decisions but I didn’t know if I could trust myself.

There was a lot of bottom sliding over heather and bilberries. A lot of wobbling and easing myself down over stone. I deliberately didn’t look at my watch because I knew that K. was waiting at the bottom and I didn’t want to feel hurried. I knew I had to take it as slowly as I could.

Still a long way down

I got out onto a spongy flatness. I was grateful for it – but what if there were cliffs at the other side? A sheep felt like a friendly presence. There weren’t cliffs, just another section of heather and shale, which I slid down, hardly able to stand.

The lake was suddenly very close. I saw K. pacing on the road. The land was flat and it was easier to walk. My legs didn’t work for going down but they seemed to work for the flat. I’d had visions of having to crawl to the car. So I walked, leaning on the poles, until I found K., white faced, filled with worry. A final struggle along a rocky path, a moment of anxiety crossing the road, where cars and bikes rush along at 60mph, and I was in the car. Sick. Broken. Full of guilt and self loathing for all the worry I’d caused. But I hadn’t had to call out Mountain Rescue and I had got myself down.

On safe ground

I never want to climb that mountain again, up or down. But at least I’ve done it.

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The Thunderstorm

Mid-afternoon in August. I wanted to go up Tal y Fan, a reasonable but strenuous walk from my back door. I’d wanted to go up there all day, but I felt sluggish and inert, and I had a blister on my foot from walking two days before. It was a lovely hot, sunny day, but humid and rather oppressive. It wasn’t until about three in the afternoon that I finally got myself going.

On the slopes of Tal y Fan, with Pen y Gaer and Pen y Gadair wreathed in cloud. [Image description: a slope of tussocky mountain grass with two mountain peaks in the distance, partly obscured by cloud.]

I had been learning about rock cannons, a Welsh quarrying and mining tradition of drilling holes in rocks and setting off gunpowder in them as makeshift fireworks, to mark celebrations. I’d found a rather impressive one a few days before, in Cwm Eigiau, and had heard of one on Tal y Fan, but not been able to find it. The drive to find it was stronger, in the end, than my inertia, so I harnessed up the dog and started out up the hill.

It was hot, humid, stuffy. There was low cloud over the mountaintops, over Drum (760 metres) and Tal y Fan (610 metres), drifting slowly. I made reasonably good time, I think, puffing up the lanes in the humid heat. I got up to Cae Coch, which is a cottage on the side of Tal y Fan sitting at 400 metres above sea level. That’s where you leave the road to go up the mountain. So I climbed the stile and started up the mountainside.

Part of the way up the slope I became aware of how dark it was getting. It was about 4pm, but seemed as dark as dusk. It felt weird, almost like the build up to a total eclipse. It was growing darker and darker. I looked around and was amazed to see mist behind me. The whole valley had disappeared without my realising it. There was mist in front of me now, too. I was alone in a little bowl. I felt a few spots of rain spattering down.

Suddenly, the mist came down. [Image description: a slope of tussocky mountain grass disappearing in mist.]

I carried on up, higher, over the second stile and the third, where the mountain changes from grass and gorse to lots of bilberry bushes, heather, crowberries, and rushes. The rocks start pushing through the skin of the mountain like the bones of a starving person. I was almost up at the point where you can cross a stile to descend the other side of the mountain, a little pass high up. From there there’s a lot of steep rocky stuff to traverse to get to the summit.

That’s when it really started raining, when the thunder started rumbling. It was impressive, if a little scary. The thought of being caught in the mountains in a thunderstorm is always in the back of my mind when I walk. And here I was. It was coming fast. The rain started really coming down. I could hear the thunder rumbling all around, ricocheting through the higher mountains that rise beyond these ones on the edge of the valley. Lightning was flashing, and then the thunder would come afterwards, rolling across the sky.

The rain started in real earnest. It was hard to know what to do. I didn’t want to be the highest point around. I didn’t want to turn back and walk across the open fields and be the one lone thing standing above the gorse. So I moved a few yards further up the hill to where there were two outcrops of rock, a big crag that forms the start of the ridge of Tal y Fan, and a smaller one on the other side. I thought if I could make myself low and small then I would be as safe as I could be. I was afraid of trying to find shelter under something – which would have to be rock – and have it be hit by lightning.

So I huddled down, foetal position, on my side on the grass and heather. I didn’t think I could get much wetter, and at least it wasn’t too cold. The rain was driving through everything. I took my rucksack, with its metal walking pole, off and put it aside. I took my glasses off and put them aside. I pulled my hood over my face and waited.

I thought that being separate from the dog would be best. I thought if one of us was hit, the other would be spared. But after a while I realised how scared she was. She was huddled down, shaking. The thunder sounded like something mythical by now, like the wars of the gods being played out above me. It would rumble over, slow and languorous and brutal across the sky, up in the clouds. It seemed to go on for so long and fill so much of the space above me. It seemed so present, so immediate, even though, when I saw lightning flashings, counting for the thunder put the lightning some miles away.

The poor dog, soaked and in terror. [Image description: A small light brown frug dog with pink harness and black lead, huddling down and wet on wet grass and small shrub plants.]

I pulled the dog in against me and huddled over her, trying to keep her warm, to give her reassurance. I think it helped, but she shook the entire time. We lay there and I got wetter and wetter. Every inch of me was wet, down to my underwear, all of my skin, inside my boots. The rain just seemed to come through everything. I wondered about the likelihood of being hit by lightning. It must be an extremely small chance. But it seemed so powerful and ubiquitous. I felt a sense of peace, a bit like when I’d been stung. The feeling that there was nothing I could do either way. I could just lie there through the storm.

Eventually it started to ease off. I could feel it getting lighter almost as much as I could see it. The rain started lessening from torrential to heavy. I was starting to see light places in the clouds. There was still thunder and lightning, but it was moving on.

All the heather, bright purple in the new light. [Image description: a waterlogged path with heather and bilberry bushes on either side, leading down the mountainside, with higher mountains and low cloud in the distance.]

In the end I got up. It felt safer now. It felt as if the storm had passed. It’s funny how quickly this enormous storm faded. There were a few blue bits in the sky. The mist was gone. We, the dog and I, got up and carried on up the mountain. I was determined to find my rock cannon. Everything seemed refreshed and beautiful, all the purple heather flowers more purple than they had been. There were rays of light coming down in the west, puffy towers of cloud catching the sunlight. We got up to the top, drenched, and searched for the rock cannon.

The summit of Tal y Fan. [Image description: the summit of a mountain with a square stone built trig point on top of it, and low cloud with a small glimpse of the valley beyond.]

I searched high and low and could find nothing. I was afraid it was buried under moss and bilberries and heather. I could feel rocks in places, hard under the moss. I had rudimentary directions – about twenty feet east away from the trig point, on the south side of the wall. Eventually I found it. Of course it was the place I’d first looked when I was up there a few weeks ago. It was the place that instinctively looked right to me. But it was such a tiny, modest thing that I hadn’t seen it then. Two holes drilled in the bottom of this big outcrop of stone. That was all. Two little holes.

The rock cannon; two little holes, at the base of the rock. [Image description: A large fractured grey rock, wet with rain, standing at an angle in grass, with two inch-diameter holes drilled in it close together at the bottom.]

Perhaps the quarrymen of Penmaenmawr were less exuberant than the ones of Eigiau, where the rock cannon was large, impressive, and complex. But, I found it, at least. Perhaps they got more adventurous elsewhere on the mountain, but if they did, I haven’t seen it. At least I found that one, and that’s enough for now. Meanwhile, I feel as if I’ve passed some kind of trial, perhaps gone up a mountain an ordinary mortal, and come down a poet. Something happened to me on that mountaintop, at any rate, that might never be repeated.

[Later, I discovered that these two small holes are not the rock cannon I was looking for. The actual rock cannon has seven holes. I found it later, on a beautiful September day, with not a thundercloud in sight. Here is my account of that day.]

For contrast, this is the more complicated rock cannon at Cwm Eigiau. [Image description: a close up of a flat grey rock with inch-wide holes drilled in it, one with a wider, shallower round hole about it, and gouged lines connecting the holes.]
The hills seeming to steam in the aftermath of the storm, with sun shafting down in the West. [Image description: a wet lane with an overgrown hedge. Beyond rises the mountain of Tal y Fan with a small amount of mist clinging to the lower slopes. Pylons stride into the distance with sunbeams cutting down across them.]