A Winter Wander

It was a crisp winter afternoon at the end of February when I left the car in the layby just outside of Eisteddfa Gurig on the A44, a weak winter sunlight shining wanly down from an azure sky. The pack felt unfamiliar as I shouldered it and trudged along the side of the road, a steady but meagre traffic beetling along beside me between Aberystwyth and the Welsh border.

A lot had changed in recent weeks and while all of the change was positive, the pace had left me with that familiar longing for the head space offered by the hills and mountains, and where better to come to than here, the familiar Plynlymons? I’d recently left a job and career in Dudley to make a much-anticipated move back to the place I’d come to know as home over the last decade; West Wales. I’d taken a job with a well-known outdoors company and at a relatively blistering speed had packed up my life in the West Midlands and hit the road. Now, several weeks after the move and gradually becoming established in my job, I had a moment to pause, a free afternoon where the weather was relatively promising and I had time on my hands.

Over the previous five years I’d lived all over the UK while in a long distance relationship with my partner who had been based here throughout. Cardiff, Exeter, Leeds and Dudley had all been a home from home and down through those years I’d spent an enormous amount of the time on the roads and rails travelling between one far flung outpost of the country back to here, usually with only the time to pass through the mountains rather than get out and about and explore them as I’d done over my years at university here.

I’d done so little in the hills over my time in the West Midlands that I’d started to wonder if I really had the right to regard myself as a mountain person in any appreciable sense any more; surely someone who loves the hills and mountains needed to climb a few every now and then? There had been jaunts out to the Shropshire Hills of course, and the odd excursion into the mountains when I’d had a few days leave on my hands but I couldn’t escape a growing feeling that the mountains had been slipping away from me. It was time for things to change. So it was that on New Years Day 2016 I’d hiked up to my then local hill at Trycrug, starting the year as I meant to go on.

By roundabout ways, and partly through the moral encouragement that comes from being employed in an outdoors industry company surrounded by people who spend their spare time hiking, climbing, sailing and canoeing, I’d set my mind to getting out and about as often as possible, and so it was that I was trudging by the roadside on this fine winter’s afternoon.

I was unfit. Really unfit, and it bothered me. I’d been unfit for months and it had always been gnawing at me in the back of my mind to do something about it, but moving house and jobs has never been conducive to keeping fit, and now I was paying for several months of taking it easy. Still, my new job involved tens of trips up a steep hill every day and although I was still unfit as I hiked, I reflected that I was nevertheless in slightly better shape than I had been when I left the West Midlands behind. At least I was alone, I mused to myself, and the only person who knew just how unfit I felt was me!

The path wended a peaceful way up behind a farm and along the side of the Afon Tarrenig, gradually climbing through a landscape of rough moorland and blasted rock. The path ascends by the riverside as far as an old mine, where it branches off, the right hand fork continuing through the mining detritus and the left fork peeling off and further up over the boggy flanks of Pen Pumlumon Fawr. The mine looked melancholy today, a place that had formerly been a hive of activity now abandoned and, it seemed, forlorn and all but forgotten.

As I moved off to the left and onto the heathery moorland, I felt relief to be back on a ‘proper’ hill path again, and to know that I was on my way towards a summit after so long away from the mountains. The previous week had seen considerable snowfall across Wales and as I moved gradually up I got closer to the snowline, which I finally hit at about the 600 metre contour. I love snow on the hills and relished the transformation it had on the character of the walk. Below the snowline lay a sunlit winter afternoon stroll, while above lay a walk that gave glimpses of what proper winter adventure could entail. Plynlymon, by Welsh standards, is a bit of a tiddler of a mountain when all was said and done, but imagine a jaunt up a snowbound Carnedd Dafydd or Pen Yr Ole Wen!  I made a mental note as I trudged into the snow to get myself on a winter skills course as soon as possible so that I could head out in the snow more often and get the most of each hiking year.

The peace and solitude of the walk was wonderful. There were footsteps in the snow ahead of me but they looked at least a day old, and I’d not seen a hint of another hiker on the trail that afternoon. On I plodded until, pushing through the grass and the snow, I could spot the first traces of Plynlimon’s summit rocks and the trail began to level off. Finally I could see the huge summit cairn and rapidly tacked up towards it.

The vista around me was spectacular. Below me stretched the icy blue waters of Nant-Y-Moch Reservoir, and I traced the valleys, roads and forests beneath my gaze as far as my eyes would allow. Many of these I knew and many of these I’d soon come to know as time went by and I settled into my new life here. The summit was strikingly beautiful under its blanket of snow and huge icicles clung to the summit trig pillar and the fences running across the summit ridge, belying the direction of the prevailing wind. My reverie was broken as I met another hiker who’d come up from the Nant-Y-Moch side; we were the first hikers the other had seen that day.

I lingered for a little longer before beginning to beat a retreat down from the cold, snow-covered, icebound world back to the warmth of the valleys below, the sun continuing to spread its weak light around as I dropped steadily down the way I’d come. This was my first ‘proper’ peak in months. I’d deliberately started small rather than with some huge multi-day epic (which given the appalling state of my general fitness was the sensible way to have gone!) but a mountain peak was a mountain peak regardless, and I was glad to have ended all the months without summits in them. Every hike always has something to take home from it and for me, this was it; this was the hike that had got me back on the road, and what’s more, it’d been done on a day with copious snow on the ground, which had added a real charm to the day. There were no photographs, sadly, as my phone had taken one look at the cold temperature as I’d tried to snap a summit shot and promptly died. Still, as I write this almost six months later the memories of the day are strong, and in the end, that’s what counts.