A very snowy New Year in the Black Mountains

by backpackingbongos

These days I find the idea of a ‘traditional’ New Years Eve night out a bit of an ordeal, especially if spent amongst the sights, smells and violence of Nottingham City Centre.  So why not take advantage of some time off work, gather up some good friends and retire to a remote farmhouse deep in the woods of the Black Mountains?

We had been keeping an eye on the weather for a few days leading up to New Years Eve, as a large amount of snow had fallen over Wales.  We decided to brave it and the journey was snow free until in the distance we could see the distinctive profile of the Sugar Loaf coated in snow and looking all pointy and mountain like.  In fact the roads were snow free even into the Grwyne Fawr valley until we got to the forestry gate leading up to the farmhouse, where there was suddenly a few inches of the stuff.  The Bongo got almost to the top of the track before ice and gravity got the better of it and we found ourselves stuck.  Corrina was put to work with a spade in hand whilst I photographed her hard work.  After a while we realised we were going nowhere so started unpacking for the 15 min walk along the bridleway to the farmhouse.

It was at this point that Rob, Na and two year old Danny appeared, slowly plodding up the track weighed under a ton of gear.  Their car could not make it off the public road.  Having a two year old in tow meant that their car was still piled high with kit so I was persuaded to reverse the Bongo the three quarters of a mile back down to the road (not easy in snow and ice) to load up.  This time a bit more speed up the track gave me enough momentum to reach the top before becoming stuck again.  Something that I would try not to think about for a couple of days!

Our accommodation for the next few days was like stepping into a time warp, no road access, electricity or mod cons.  Just bags of atmosphere, gas lights and a huge roaring fire.  For us it was bliss!

At about 9pm we noticed that a huge moon had risen over the snowy landscape casting an amazing combination of light and shadow.  A good hour or so was spent trying to capture the scene on camera, not easy but here are a couple of my efforts.

Somehow we managed to miss the magic moment and at 12.40am we realised that another year had dawned, so outside for fun with sparklers.

Happy New Year!

10 Miles with 630 metres ascent

For a map of this route click here.

For the first day of the year I really wanted to ascend one of the finest Black Mountain summits, Pen Y Gadair Fawr, a pretty quick and easy stomp from where we were (well it is without snow on the ground).  I failed miserably in persuading anyone else to go with me, so at a rather late 11.00am I set off up the path.  The narrow path through the trees was even narrower than usual as the sheer weight of the snow on the trees meant that the branches were touching the ground.  The combination of snow, trees and the bluest of skies was magical.

The 500 metre contour brought me to a forestry track which can be followed north for a few miles, contouring high on the hillside.  Up here anything not covered in snow was decorated in thick clear ice, such as this tree which looked like it was made of crystal.

It was slow progress as I plodded on through deep powdery snow, my footprints disappearing behind me.

As I got higher the snow got deeper with drifts making progress more difficult and slower.  However the views got better, especially to the south with the valley leading the eye to the Skirrid in the distance.

I lost track of time and as I reached the end of the track I suddenly realised that it was nearly 3.00pm, how could it have taken 4 hours to walk only 4 miles?  It dawned on me that I would be doing fair bit of walking in the dark!

Leaving the comfort of the track I found myself in an arctic wilderness, everything covered in a rhime of ice.  Grassy fronds sticking out of the snow tinkled like wind chimes in the freezing cold wind.  An icy fence led the way towards Pen Y Gadair Fawr.

I was now finding myself taking a couple of easy steps on solid ice followed by sinking into hidden dips up to my waist.  It was hard going until the final steep slopes up to the summit where the security of an ice axe would have given a bit of comfort on the compacted snow.  From the frozen summit cairn the temperature was minus 3 c and I had a panorama of snow and ice as far as the eye could see.

Time was moving fast and the sun beginning to set so I reluctantly headed south again, until the light caught my eye.

The sun then started its fiery descent and I fired off scores of photographs, the next three are a bit indulgent but I have not seen a sunset like it for years.

I finally put my camera away and continued my struggle thought the snow, becoming increasingly tired and frustrated by my slow progress.  The icy crust was beginning to bruise my shins and when I disappeared up to my waist I struggled to get out again, crawling on my knees.  Darkness was approaching fast so I decided to abandon the tops and headed back down to the track and the security of my footprints.  It was much easier going and I could follow the trail I had previously broken through the snow.  At about 5.00pm I was treated to a red moon rising above the hills.

I began to worry that my friends were expecting me back before dark and that the text message I sent earlier warning I would be late was useless, with there being no reception back at the farmhouse.  Therefore when I staggered in rather tired at 7.00pm a worried looking Na told me that Rob and Corrina had set off ten minutes previously to go and raise the alarm.  I legged it shouting out to them, thankfully catching them up before they reached the road.  An embarrassing false alarm was diverted at the last minute.  It had taken me 8 hours to walk what is usually an easy 10 miles, I will definitely factor in the difficulty of snow on my next walk!  My apologies for making everyone worry.

I had planned to stay the Saturday night there on my own to do some more walking whilst everyone else went home.  However my aching body and the fact that the Bongo needed digging out again meant that I reluctantly returned home early on the Saturday.  A good choice as by the time we had cleaned up, done several trips to load up the van and dug it out most of the day had gone.

A great couple of days in good company in a special location.

21 Comments to “A very snowy New Year in the Black Mountains”

  1. Is your Bongo 4×4? I save about 20p a month on fuel with my 2 wheel rear drive Bongo. Oh what fun I am having here in Scotland.

    • Warren my Bongo is 4 x 4 although it did not help much in Wales. I would image it is pretty arctic up in Scotland at the moment?

  2. Very nice photos, and a belated “Happy new 2010!” to you, James.

    I’d rather would have been out in the wild as well, alas a bit of a cold and low temperature meant I stayed at home with the significant other, had a look at the money blown into the sky and went to sleep early =)

    Walking in the snow is tiresome and slow. I can do around 2 km per hour in the snow when without snowshoes, with snowshoes a bit faster and with skis really fast. But walking is really just a pain.

    • Happy New Year Hendrik, shame that your cold has kept you out of the wilds. If you think it is cold then it definately must be cold in Finland! I have very little experience walking in the snow hence being caught out with the amount of time it took. Looks pretty but not good to walk in.

  3. Fantastic Photos james. Been lucky here with the snow as well, but have not done as much outdoors camping in the snow as I would like. Good to see Wales so beautiful.

    • Thanks Roger, been experimenting with my new camera plus snow and blue skies make photo taking easier. Wales is always beautiful but even more so in the snow. Hope that you manage some snow camping soon.

  4. Hi James, top pics and write up as always. Glad to see you averted disaster with the search party!

    What camera have you got, seems to do a v good job to me.

    • Cheers Marcus. My camera is a Panasonic Lumix LX3, been pretty pleased with it so far. My technique is to take tons of photos with the hope that some will turn out well………….

  5. awesome pics buddy, very jealous, my 15 minute walk in blidworth woods with toby on new years day doesn’t really hold up so well against this. Look forward to getting out in a few months.

    • You and Trish’s company was missed over New Year Rich. We will have to start planning for the next backpack. How does another coast to coast at the end of April sound to you?

  6. James,

    back to one of my favourite haunts. I spend by far the most time when I am out in the Black Mountains. Truly gorgeous at anytime and superb in the snow. I am glad you had such a great time and a wonderful setting for the trip.

    I wish i could get up there this weekend but I think it would be a struggle…….

    • I never get tired of the area Dave and the snow was an added bonus, made the place sparkle. I too would like to hit the hills again this weekend but the roads are looking just a little bit dicey.

  7. Fantastic pictures, the Black Mountains landscape looks glorious in wintry raiment. Kudos to you for getting up there even in a 4×4, a braver soul than I!.

  8. Thanks Geoff, the landscape was out of this world with all that snow – love it! The roads were mostly fine when I went up, it was only the track that was snowy and I was a bit daft going up it! Would love to get out this weekend but don’t want to risk the roads now.

  9. and yes the roads around there are very icey at the moment. Uphill is an uphill struggle!

  10. Same here in the city although today it is a bit sleety and the ice is melting. Lets hope for a low level thaw so we can hit the snowy heights!

  11. well its snowed an absolute shedful again overnight and I am snowed in again! Was going to try to get to the Black Mountains on the weekend but I guess this may be a bit difficult again now!

    • I wish that I could get snowed in in the City! Did you get a day off work? This morning I set off on my walk to work with all the snow melted and what looked like wet roads and pavements. Turned out to be black ice from hell! Could barely stand up and any slope and you just slid down.

  12. why are panasonic not taking out full page adverts in tgo for the lx3. it is the best, lightest compact. i now take the smallest kelly kettle for cooking with wood. you just need hot water and it is so fast. it’s weight is low and bulk not too bad for bike touring. it is twice as quick as my bush buddy to boiling point and great fun plus dependable. love your work here

    • The LX3 really is a superb camera warren, do you use one? So far just using Auto and the scene settings but really pleased with it. Need to learn a bit more and start getting manual! I have a large kelly which does not get out very much, in fact I need to get the Bush cooker out on a trip soon. Thanks for the kind words, keeps me blogging……

  13. yes i use an lx3. i like the aperture priority which allows very shallow depth of field portraits which are very funky. used it on a pro job. get a small kelly kettle and stuff things inside and you have a fast boiling system that you can justify taking for weight and space. it never fails and i think we timed a pint to boil in 3 and a bit minutes.

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