Originally, this was to be a blog about my preparations to enter the TGO Challenge in 2012. For a variety of reasons that didn't happen, so this has now become the repository for my outdoor musings.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

BMC Winter Skills

After getting back from my jaunt round the Brecons on Friday, I had about 45 minutes to get myself freshened up before I shot back out again. One of the BMC Winter Skills lectures was being held in Cheltenham and I had a ticket!

Hosted by the Worcester/Cheltenham-based outdoor store Mountain Shack at Pates Grammer School's Outdoor Education Unit, this lecture lasted about 2 hours and covered a wide range of subjects, from kit and clothing to avalanche awareness, taking in weather, decision making and movement skills along the way. Tamsin Gay and Tim Blakemore were the presenters, and they kept the hundred or so in attendance entertained throughout.

I would say that a lot of the information was not new to me but it was put in to a specific winter context which was very useful. Stuff on avalanche awareness was extremely interesting, particularly in light of my trip to the Highlands in January.

Overall well worth the time and money to go, and it meant Friday was an Outdoors-heavy day! I was properly shattered by the time I got home and slept like the proverbial log!

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Fan Fawr

My aim is to get in at least one half decent mountain walk every month. It doesn't necessarily have to be long-distance, but perhaps in a new area where navigation will be tested, over tougher, pathless terrain or in "interesting" weather. My jaunt around Fan Fawr on Friday definitely ticked all these boxes.

All week there had been talk of unseasonally cold weather, and as Friday drew closer the Metcheck and MetOffice mountain area forecasts for the Brecons showed cold but bright conditions, with the chance of snow later in the day. Perfect. I left Cheltenham just after 7 a.m. and enjoyed a beautiful drive along the A40 to Brecon where I headed south to the Storey Arms. There had been some high cloud to the west and as I parked up fronds of grey were reaching over Fan Frynych. The view east was very pleasant though!

Corn Du, looking all frosty.

Suitably geared up, I headed up the path that tracks along the edge of the escarpment, rising towards Craig Cerrig-Gleisiad. The ground was rock hard and the frozen boot prints made for awkward walking at times, but the frozen water formations around the little rills and streams were beautiful.

Grass or glass?

A short while later I was at the top Craig Cerrig-Gleisiad and I could see the delightful, low, snow-bearing clouds to the west. Lovely. Occasionally little bits of hard snow would ping of my Berghaus Mountain Cap, a tiny foretaste of what was to come. There was something about the solitude and the muted colours of the landscape which I found very pleasing though. Looking west the Black Mountain was gradually being engulfed by the advancing weather.

The White Trig Point of Ecthelion

On Frozen Pond

Black Mountain Panorama

I left Fan Frynych and headed towards Fan Dringarth and then Fan Llia, stopping along the way to put on my overtrousers and shell as the snow started coming down in earnest. Navigation was not too difficult here as the path was about as wide as a B road! Just after the "summit" of Fan Llia, I turned left, straight down the hill towards the Ystradfellte Reservoir. I crossed the dam and stopped for a bite to eat. An aborted attempt to rescue a sheep that had jumped in to the dam spill way followed, unfortunately the sheep didn't want to be rescued and as I didn't want to slide down the Afon Dringarth I clambered out to resume my journey.

As the next section was across rough and pathless ground I took a bearing, set my sights on something at the edge of visibility and set off. The next couple of hours were a thankless trudge. The ground was tussock-tabulous, slippery, featureless and with visibility reduced there wasn't even any view to take my mind off things. My original plan had been to traverse Fan Fawr, but in light of the conditions I thought I'd bypass it, head towards the Beacons Reservoir and pick up the Taff Trail back to the Storey Arms. What a slog. Anyway after what seemed like an age, but was probably only an age, I was striding purposefully up the A470 in to the lowering cloud and finally back at the van, ready for a slightly nervous trip down the increasingly snow-covered road to Brecon. All in all, Grough Maps says 18.7 km, with 617 metres of ascent (and descent). Time taken, including breaks, approx 6 hours. Naismith reckons 4 and a half but then what does he know?

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Every Cloud Has A Silver Lining

When I finally talked myself in to gearing up for the TGOC 2012, one of things I realised was that I would need to get comfortable walking in all conditions. It can be very easy to cherry pick those perfect sunny days, when the snow is crunchy underfoot, and ignore the claggy, wet, nothing days. On the Challenge that won't be possible, hence my determination to get out whatever.

Yesterday was a prime example. I'm a self-employed window cleaner, not my dream job, but then who has one of those? I went to work yesterday morning, stuck it out until about 1, then realised that no matter how much I hoped, it wasn't going to stop raining. So, an opportunity to get walking appears. Do I take it, and spend two or three hours trudging in the rain, or do I spend a pleasant afternoon in the pub, drinking Doom Bar and reading WH Murray's autobiography? Hmm...

Well, waterproofs on, boots on, off we go. Up out of Cheltenham towards Leckhampton Hill, in to Daisybank Road and then sharp right up the footpath beside the Tramway Cottage. A short steep climb to the ruins of the old lime kilns, and then track round on the path through the woods under the Devil's Chimney. The path finally pops out of the woods and in to the weather, hood fastened nice and tight and then turn in to the wind towards the trig point. From here follow the edge of the escarpment to the path that descends towards Sandy Lane, down that and on to the lane which is heavily eroded after all the rain. Slip and slide down this until I hit tarmac and then walk back through Cox's Meadow and Sandford Park to town. 6.5 miles maybe, just over two and a quarter hours and time well spent I reckon.

So grotty weather = training time! A Silver Lining!

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Inspiration Part 1 - Things I Saw

My mum and dad are not particularly adventurous or outdoorsy by nature. We did have a holiday on the edge of the Black Mountains when I was a kid which was cool, but I remember grinding to a halt as we walked along the Cat's Back, petrified by the steep (in my incredibly inexperienced eyes) drop on either side. I liked the hills but had no confidence that I could survive in them.

Time passes, and growing up in Bournemouth meant further exposure to mountains was pretty limited, apart from one rather awesome school trip. I had just started the second year of senior school, and I remember bringing home a letter about a trip to Switzerland the following April. I am pretty sure this was an excuse for a number of teachers to have a bit of jolly every April. I had no thought of going along, it was a bit pricy, and so in my mind it was just another letter to bring home for the parents. I don't recall having any emotion about it, good or bad. So you can imagine how stunned I was when dad said “Would you like to go?” “Err, yes?”. “Ok.” Six months later, in April 1982 I boarded a bus with a mixed bag of fellow pupils and headed to Interlaken, where we spent a week exploring the Bernese Oberland. I saw the north face of the Eiger, and although I had no idea of the mighty and often tragic stories that had unfolded on it, I was in awe of it's dominating presence. I do recall feeling so deflated on the journey home, leaving the Alps for dull old Dorset...

A French Alp, not a Swiss one, but you get the idea!

There were a couple of other holidays, where hills and mountains struck a chord, even though they were incidental to the trip. One was a canal boat holiday on the Llangollen canal. I do find canal boat trips can be a mix of relaxing (travelling at 4 m.p.h) and alarming (trying to moor/turn/steer 70 feet of lumbering barge) but one thing sticks in my mind to this day; the almost instant change in landscape as we crossed from Shropshire in to Wales. Suddenly rolling farmland gave way to sheep-clad hillsides, and the further we went the steeper they got. I definitely felt a landscape-based pang. Actually, I also remember on that holiday looking out the window as dad drove us up the M5 and seeing this incredibly distinct range of pointy hills. There was nothing else around them, they just rose up from the plain, about 10 miles from the motorway. I was entranced by them and their possibilities. Years later, after moving to Cheltenham, I discovered the name of this mighty range. Yeah, you guessed it, the Malverns! I told you we didn't have any mountains in Bournemouth, I had to get my fix where I could.

The other holiday that was a real eye-opener was a trip to visit mum's family in Dublin. We were taking the ferry from Holyhead, so that meant a drive up the A5. I was gradually being further and further blown away by the increasingly cool scenery when we passed through Capel Curig and approached Llyn Ogwen and the fantastic mountainsides that surround it. The weather was not great, and the cloud was well down, which just added to the overall effect. I didn't realise that there were mountains like that in the UK. I was stunned, but still scared (it must have been my inner Victorian coming out).

It was not as sunny as this... (Sorry about the quality, camera phone pics stiched in Photoshop)

On that holiday, we did climb the Great Sugarloaf in County Wicklow, and also have a scramble up the waterfall at the end of Glendalough, so maybe I had been inspired...


For many people the idea of walking across Scotland, a land of rocky peaks, icy rivers, bogs, midges, deep-fried Mars Bars and the worst weather in Britain, is an odd one. If you tell them that you'll be carrying your clothes, food and shelter while you do it, sleeping out in all conditions, they will, in most cases, think you're the odd one. Yet every year the TGO Challenge is over-subscribed, and there are no doubt many others who wish they could do it. I guess everyone has their own reason for putting themselves through it; love of the outdoors, love of Scotland, an opportunity to push themselves, freedom from work or other responsibility, a chance to recharge, meet with friends or drink single malt. Maybe a combination of some or all of these things! I got to thinking about why I feel drawn to the challenge, and what has inspired me to gear up to do it. I realised that it's a big subject so expect a series of posts in the coming weeks.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Back to School...

I managed to nip over to the Brecon Beacons yesterday for a little tramp through the murk and the clag. I wasn't feeling wonderful so didn't go to far, but I did feel like a kid going back to school after the summer holidays, with all my shiny new clobber.

I recently bought a Mountain Equipment Kongur jacket to replace my old ME Makalu, so that got a run out along with a new pair of waterproof overtrousers (Berghaus Deluge, £45) and a new pair of gaiters (TrekMates Cairngorm, £30). So I looked very shiny and new as I set off up the hill side towards Fan Fawr. Overall everything worked very well, the only disappointment being the chest pockets on the Kongur. They are Goretex lined and sealed with waterproof zips, yet my phone was decidedly moist when I took it out, and had to be put on the radiator when I got home to get it even vaguely working properly. I don't think this was external moisture, more trapped perspiration (ewww!), anyway, makes me a bit nervous about storing anything in them...

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Gratuitous Mountain Pictures

I've just been browsing through some pictures on my PC, and I'm feeling inspired! We're off to Ardnamurchan in January and it can't come soon enough...

See what you think:

Cloud rolling between Cribyn and Fan Y Big

After climbing through the clouds, I spent the rest of the day in the sun. Neuadd Reservoir Horseshoe.

From the same walk, taken from the summit of Cribyn, I think.

Corn Du

Coming off of the Black Mountain. It was forecast to be sunny!

On the Five Sisters of Kintail, well one of them anyway...

The view north from the Five Sisters.

Frozen Fronds on Pen Yr Ole Wen


What's Twenty Months Between Friends..?

In some ways 20 months seems a long time. A loooong time. Then you start thinking about the entry deadline, which will probably be mid-October next year, so that brings it down to twelve months. Our plans involve doing a four or five day backpack during the 2011 TGOC, in order to get a feel for conditions, terrain, kit, our level of fitness and to hopefully meet up with 2011 Challengers, for brain-picking purposes. (That sounds a bit Zombie-esque, but you know what I mean!) That means we've got six and half months. Eek.

So, it's time to get moving. What have I done so far?

Well, I've started posting on the TGOC messageboard and the TGO community forum. I have to say I have been really impressed by how willing people are to offer help and advice. And not just snippets of advice, but really well considered (and lengthy) missives, that are full of useful nuggets and tips. Thanks in particular to Colin Tock and John Jocys who got in touch with encouraging and informative emails.

I dropped an email to Nicki Strouts at Cotswold Outdoors in Brecon. Nicki sorted us out with some brilliant kit and deals when we did S2S and wanted to hear if we ever did anything crazy again. Here's hoping we might be able to get some Spa2Summit Old Boys discount!

Pete and I started our training on Saturday, by sitting in the Bath Tavern drinking Doom Bar, and looking at a map of Scotland. Man, it was tough. In between sips of ale, we came up with a lot of questions, and some answers. Overall, we felt very positive about the whole thing. There are kit issues to be sorted, but we feel fairly confident we know what we want and further message board posts should clear up any other queries there. We also feel very motivated to get out walking. Everyone's schedule is different, but we're trying to do short walks most days, with something longer once a week (maybe eight miles or so), and then at least once a month getting together to head for the Brecons or Exmoor, or maybe Snowdonia, to push ourselves a bit harder. We have planned a simple overnighter in April to fine tune kit and routines before we head up to Scotland for 4 days in May to watch Challengers in action. Further Scottish backpacking in September will hopefully see us as a lean, mean camping machine...

Twenty months.... I wish!