A few months ago, my oldest friend Tara asked me if I wanted to walk up a big hill in Wales for the Alzheimer’s Society. It’s a cause that’s close to both our hearts, as dementia has affected our families over the years, so of course I agreed and immediately started looking at water bladders for hiking backpacks. How hard could I be, I thought – if it’s for charity, surely anyone can do it? In my haze of spending money on expensive anti-blister socks and pestering friends for donations, I missed the fact that we would be walking up Pen y Fan, the highest peak in south Wales. Standing an impressive 2,907ft above sea level, and used as a training ground for the UK’s Special Forces, I probably should have been a little more cautious.
I’ve known Tara since I was 14 years old, and one of our greatest pleasures in life is egging each other on. We have a shared love of the outdoors too, having spent our teenage years buying illicit wine to drink in parks (that counts as outdoorsy, in the suburbs of Surrey). On a bright, hazy late summer morning, we set off together from Bristol for the hour-and-a-half drive into Wales – over the bridge and up through winding and increasingly picturesque roads towards the Brecon Beacons.
Upon arriving in the small town of Brecon, we met up with Tara’s uncle, also along for the trek, munched on our complimentary pastries and blew on cups of tea as each group of hikers set off in half hour intervals. We had opted for the 13 mile route, a half marathon – estimated to take between six and eight hours. Finally, we shuffled together into our starting group and trotted through the starting gates at 9.30am.
The walk through Brecon itself was uneventful – it’s a typical small rural town, with a couple of pubs, some takeaways and an old concrete bridge over the River Usk, described when it was built as “functional and safe, but extremely ugly.” It might not win any awards for beauty, but it did the job as we tramped up out of the town and towards the base of Pen y Fan.
Our early route took us through lush woodland, just heating up at the start of the day. We followed a route along a small stream, spreading out to sheep-grazed pastures scattered with granite rocks as we started our climb. Our first rest stop (time for a sandwich, toilet break and to refill our water bladders) nestled at the base of the mountain, and I remember thinking “ah, this isn’t so bad!” as we picked ourselves up and set off once more.
Of course, this enthusiasm was short-lived, as the climb up the mountain got steeper and steeper. The heat of the midday sun, combined with an increasingly dense cloud of insects following us up the trail, eventually started to wear me down. Looking back at our progress was satisfying as we climbed higher, but the way ahead didn’t seem to diminish at all – each small peak conquered was replaced by another, looming in the distance. I tried to distract myself from thoughts of “I hate walking, why did I decide to go outdoors, what if I can’t go on and they have to airlift me off the mountain” by taking a few photos along the way – I’d brought my old faithful, the Olympus XA4 that I’ve written about previously on Casual Photophile. Loaded with my last roll of Kodak Portra 400, it luckily weighs hardly anything – perfect for hiking.
With some gentle encouragement from my bestie (“Pull yourself together, you absolute walnut”) I managed to get past my fears of being stuck on the side of a mountain, doomed to be consumed by flies, and made it to the last scramble before the top of Pen y Fan. It’s an almost vertical climb up a rock face, during which I definitely heard some of the other hikers swearing under their breath, culminating in some of the best views anywhere in the UK. We sat and dangled our feet over the edge of the world and looked out over breathtaking valleys, a little bit emotional at how far we’d come together, and the reason for the climb.
The summit of Pen y Fan is marked by a National Trust plaque atop a bronze age stone cairn that would have once held human remains. Now, it’s mostly used for selfies – a polite queue had formed of people happily waiting to get their snapshot of the day (the British are nothing if not predictable). We decided in less polite terms that we didn’t want to get to the top of the world and then stand in a queue, so we set off down the other side, for the long gradual descent back down.
After the grueling climb up, the way down was a welcome relief – we rounded the base of the second peak of Pen y Fan, Corn Du, and carried on skirting the mountain until we reached another wide, wonderful valley. Stopping here for a sit down and some bara brith, we watched the other hikers on our trek pass us by. Old and young, fit and not so fit, all out enjoying the last of the summer for a good cause. Our route took us past a glacial lake in the distance, Llyn Cwm Llwch, as we daydreamed about going for an ice cold dip.
As our path leveled out and I reflected on how I’d never stubbed my toes so much in a single day, our boots hit asphalt again. The road back into Brecon at the end of our walk seemed never-ending, and it was after a total of nine and a half hours that we eventually crossed the finish line. Tired and sore, we nevertheless downed our celebratory glass of bubbly and had a lie down in the cool grass as the sun started to set.
I’m hugely proud that we made it, especially since I’ve spent the last two years sitting on my bum at home. We’ve already decided to sign up for another trek in Cumbria next year, and I’ll be bringing the XA4 along then, too – it’s the perfect camera for a trip like this: one you don’t have to think about to use, and that weighs about as much as the can of bug spray I forgot to bring. Next time we’ll be better-prepared (more training beforehand!), but this walk was the perfect end to our summer.
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