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Friday, 22 March 2013

What goes in our bags

We are off to Scotland for the Easter holidays on Sunday, we knew when we were booking it that the weather may make it hard to go as high as we'd like, didn't quite expect the coldest winter in 50 years to come along! We are still going as everything is booked but plan to spend out time exploring waterfalls, woods, coast & history. If we get a break in the weather might try and get up the odd low level hill if the weather is favorable.

I've just been getting our kit ready and I thought I'd share my thoughts on winter gear. To start here is our kit all laid out (minus first aid kit which I'm still sorting out)

This is Emma's (just turned 9) kit. If Emma is coming winter hiking it will tend to be lower level hills, I wouldn't take her anywhere requiring ice axe/crampons. She has microspikes which are really useful for frozen ground and paths. I've found these adequate for the conditions we've had this winter where we are and where we tend to walk.

Emma like me suffers from cold hands so she has three pairs of gloves in her bag. She has a thin pair of sprayway gloves which sit nicely under her mittens. They were fairly pricey and came as a Christmas present, you can probably get cheaper versions in somewhere like Trespass or mountain warehouse. The best buy were the pink waterproof mittens - they came from Mountain Warehouse which people have been quite derogatory about but these mitts have been really good, they've kept my daughter's hands nice and snug in the rain and snow and they is plenty of room for a second pair of gloves underneath. As a top layer I prefer mittens as trying to put a pair of gloves on top of a pair of gloves is not easy, having mittens allows for the top layer to easily be taken off for a lunch stop or when more dextaritory is required. She also carries a spare pair of insulation woolen mittens. Loads of places sell cheap kids gloves - wooley gloves can be found for cheap on Ebay or for ski gloves keep and eye out in Lidl and Aldi. 

She also carries a buff, hat, fleece buff & balaclava. For both me and Emma getting balaclavas were our BEST purchase ever. I don't care what I look like in one, they are so cosey when the wind is howling around and sit so much nicer under a hood than a had does (although when it is really cold I add a hat on top too!) Most your heat is lost through your head so keeping it warm is essential. I sometimes stick my balaclava on during lunch stops to hold my body heat in. Who cares what you look like on the hill, it is not a fashion parade and your probably not likely to say anyone else up there anyway! The buff can be used as a hat when it is hot and is ridiculously light, it too can be made into an improv balaclava. Ebay is full of cheaper versions.

We both carry Petzl torches- Tikkina2 - I can't rate Petzl enough I have seriously abused my other Petzl torch when caving and it keeps on going. There battery life is excellent. I've used it on many occasions on winter walks. I've only even used it on fairly easy terrain though, I think if I was tackling more rocky/scrambly conditions I'd go for a Petzl Myo which is extremely bright. Head torches can be picked up for as little as £4, just make sure you test it before you need it to make sure it is bright enough for your needs!

We always have waterproofs even if no rain is forecast (I am probably over cautious in this sense, but having been caught out on a coastal walk in forecast by a torrential downpour 3 miles from our accommodation I do now always take them - we were shivering by the time we arrived back and our boots were full of water) For waterproof trousers we both have Berghaus - for me given the level of walking we do it's not something I'd scrimp on. When we first started walking I got the cheapy Regatta ones which are fine for a walk in a woods but if your spending a whole day in the rain you will be soon soaked through, and they tend to rip very easily. I also tried Sprayway, but their zips did not go high enough and they could not be pulled on over Emma's boots which is no good if your in a hurry - no-one wants to be taking their boots off in the rain! You can often get these by finding the cheapest price online and taking it to Go Outdoors to get them to price match. If you have a Go Outdoors card (which can be purchased in store) they will price match and take off 10%. In respect of waterproof coats we both wear Sprayway - which is more of a budget line but I've found them to be good as long as they are reproofed at intervals (you can buy reproofing spray at most outdoor shops).

From November until present date (March) we have been wearing thermals under our clothes for walking. If you have no thermals at least make sure you layer up - when I first started walking I'd wear leggings or tights under my trousers and would take a few extra fleeces. Aldi and Lidl often sell thermals during the winter and I've picked up spare ones in Premark too. For winter I wear my winter lined trousers which I got in Lidl about 3 years ago, despite lots of abuse and repair they are still going strong. I recently treated myself to a merino wool thermal top from Trespass in the sale, it was around £20 which felt expensive at the time but it has been excellent, despite getting hot and bothered going up hill it's still felt comfy and sweat free. I used my Christmas money to purchase it so it didn't feel like a huge expense!

Also with Christmas money we bought ourselves a down jacket each, this was to go in our bag as an extra layer for emergencies or to wear when it's really cold. Down is really lightweight so you hardly notice it is there, it is also really warm too. Emma's is a Karrimor one which came from Sports Direct for around £20. They have been useful for lunch stops when you often need an extra layer to keep the chill off when you cool down.

We use dry bags which also came from Sports Direct as a gift, but for those on a budget a black sack or plastic bags do just fine. I use mine to keep my hat/gloves etc separate from everything else so I can get them out quickly when in a hurry.

I carry a big orange survival bag and we both have a whistle on our packs. I read a book recently which contained a tale about a child getting separated from their parent on a mountain so also purchased my daughter a whistle as I'd assumed one was enough before. We also carry OS map/Compass/basic GPS. My GPS is garmin and is good for getting a grid reference from if you are stuck. It doesn't display maps though. 
A year or so back I purchased a survival shelter (also known as bothy shelter) They look like the picture below, but cram down really small into a stuff sack. Mine weighs about the same weight as my survival bag, you pull if over your heads and sit on the edges. It's like a single skin tent without poles. When it is cold/wet/windy these are great for lunch stops, in an accident I imagine one of these would be worth it's weight in cold to keep off the elements. My daughter begs to get it out even when it's not raining as she loves the novelty of a lunch stop in a 'tent'!

My daughter received a thermal mug from Father Christmas which has been good for carrying hot squash. She also has one of my walking poles which has lost a section. As she is only small it is the right size for her. I also carry walking poles - I know people are often cynical about them for young people, but I've found them really useful. They really help for going uphill and are especially useful in slippery conditions for keeping you upright. I don't use the hand straps as I worry I'd break my wrist if I could not release my hand if I fell

For boots I have struggled to find good heavy duty boots for my daughter, we do so much walking most kids boots will get trashed. The Hi-tech ones we tried had no removable insole so after many a wet walk despite being dried out the inner sole simply rotted! The last pair my daughter had was Brasher Tora - these can be purchased in Field and Trek/Go outdoors etc. The uppers don't last long as the stitching eventually degrades but in terms of the ankle support and tread on the boot they seem to be the best of a bad bunch!

Above is the contents of my bag. Also pictured are my gaiters - Emma also has a pair. When I first started walking I always associated them with rambling type groups, but after a few boggy walks it wasn't long before I bought a pair for me and Emma. With Emma being so small on boggy ground water can often reach the top of her boot - the gaiters have been excellent in keeping her feet dry in those kind of conditions. 

My axe has made it into the picture - as I will be walking with my daughter this holiday we won't be doing any mountains, but I may take the chance to practice some winter skills if I can find a decent slope. 

In terms of drinking we tend to use hydration bladders - easier for a kid to drink from one of those than to stop when it's cold and faff with a bottle. If your in conditions below freezing I find it keeps it unfrozen if you blow back down the tube every now and again. When it does freeze I find if I stick the tube down my top my body heat is enough to unfreeze it in a few minutes.

Bag wise Emma has a Vaude kids rucksack - again as she only has a tiny frame I needed to find a bag small enough and light enough to suit her. I have two bags, the smaller one in the picture and a bigger one for if I'm carrying axe/crampons 

Emma and I learnt to hike together and learnt to stay safe in the mountains together. She has carried her own gear since 4 years old without complaint and we love exploring the mountains, woods, hills countryside together. I think people think I sometimes overkill it in terms of what we take, but when walking even at low level in the winter I want to keep my most special person safe.

Lastly I am a bit of a planning obsessive. A really excellent website I use for mapping walks is Walk Highlands. It allows me to plot my route (for anywhere in the country) and will tell me how long a route will take (minus lunch/camera/faff stops) and how far/how much ascent there is. It has been invaluable at times. 
For those who know me I am also obsessed with the weather! Before embarking on a trip I tend to check Met Office mountain forecast. They also now do a summit forecast. Mountain Weather Information Service is useful too 
Local webcams also provide good information - I have only link a few as examples but a simple google will find more

I am also Facebook friends with the mountain rescue teams in the areas I walk in - their updates regarding weather conditions on the hill are often the more comprehensive and tell what is actually like out there, as opposed to the forecast which will tell you what it going to be like.

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Waun Fach and chums via the Dragon's Back March 13

We've driven past the Dragon's Back a number of times (the nickname for the undulating ridge leading up Waun Fach) and Mike had his eye on it for quite a while. I'd done it before and really struggled up it, but that was years ago so I was hoping it would be easier this time. We'd had some debate about the route - me in my usual thoughtless style was suggesting a ridiculous route. We ended up agreeing we'd plan the route as we went depending on time once we'd reach the top.

We parked at the Castle Inn - there is a small fee but it goes to Mountain Rescue. The route heads straight up a steep field to Castell Dinas - this is a worthy walk in itself if you are out with children and fancy a bit of history. -it's possibly of Norman origin.

You can see the rest of the humps of the Dragon's back in this photo

King of the Castell!

Mike insisted on going over every hump in the Dragons back rather than around them. As we started up the humps we saw a couple who'd skirted out the edge of the farthest one, we commented that they weren't doing a true Dragon's Back, but soon realised why as why climbed higher the wind really picked up and was whistling over the ridge (I love the wind when it whistles) Thankfully like every other ridge in the Brecon Beacons it's not a very narrow one and the wind was strong enough to be fun, but not enough to blow us off it.

As we climbed higher it became very cold, the wind chill factor was high and the ground covered in ice. It wasn't long till we have ice rime on our clothes. The forecast had been fairly reasonable not forcasting winds as strong as we were experiencing. I was glad I had my thermals on!

The top of Waun Fach is a bit of an anti climax after the exciting ridge. It had been so long since we'd been there I wasn't even sure if we were at it or not! We checked the map though and confirmed we were.

 We took a bearing for our next top as viability was nil & it was off to Pen Y Gadair Fawr which has a nice humpy top which looks like a nipple from a distance! Our stomachs for starting to grumble so we were on the hunt for a lunch stop - there isn't much in the way of shelter on Waun Fach. We were going to get the survival tent out, but came upon a rather nice peat hag which blocked the wind from all directions. We didn't stop for long and soon reached the top of Pen Y Gadair Fawr having found the correct path skirting the woodlands (it all gets a bit confusing up there as the paths aren't especially clear and some of the woodland has been felled). We had no views from the top, which was exactly how it was last time I was up there. The sheer volume of times I have viewed this top out of cloud from a distance, I must just be unlucky!

We weren't planning on continuing to the next top, but it was still really early so we decided to carry on to Pen Twyn Mawr and decide on our route on from there. The viability finally cleared and it was nice to have a semblance of a view at last!

Still chilly on Pen Twyn Mawr

We then contoured round the side of the hill to head towards the top of the forestry in the valley below, we did this so not to repeat our route along the top and also to not lose too much of the height we had gained. We passed some wild ponies en route. It was a lovely desolate little valley.

Whilst walking off path we found this bottle. I thought it was just rubbish and try to pick up any I find on mountains, it was not till I got home I realised it must be a old bottle maybe from the 30's or 40's perhaps.

We hadn't noted on the map there was a standing stone so it was a nice surprise on our route down - it is named as Maen Llwyd on the map. As we reached the valley bottom we crossed the Grwyne Fechan river.

As time was on our side we decided to go up Mynydd Llysiau - we had two options take the bridleway which would have taken us beyond the top and would require a walk back or head straight up the steed side of the hill. As time was not on our side we decided straight up would be quicker.

Behind us you can see where we descended from

Straight up it we went pretty much without stopping, my fear of heights kicked in near the top and I felt unable to stop so got to the top very out of breath not far behind Mike. I was chuffed I'd made it up without too much of a struggle as steep slopes and asthma always make these things harder.

At the top - as we reached the top we passed a walk who'd not seen us come over the lip, he must have wondered why we were all red in the face and out of breath on such a flat path!

It's always windier over this side, and yet again it was much windier than it had been on Waun Fach despite it being lower. We got a bit of a blasting as we walked along to our path down. The sun did finally come out - I'd quite like a walk of sun all day please!

My fave photo of the day

Dragon's back in the evening sun

It was good to have such an interesting and varied walk in the Black Mountains, I really enjoy walking off path and discovering places and things which would not always be seen. An unconventional route can sometimes work out okay!

Black Mountains 16/3/13

Mike had not walked in the Black Mountains before so I agreed to do a walk there last Saturday. Having really struggled up the path from Capel Y Ffin on a previous walk I was not looking forward to it. We had a bit of a delayed start to the walk as where we'd intended to buy sarnies from (Subway) was shut so we had to detour via Abergavenny on our way to the start point. Thankfully the small layby in Capel Y Ffin only had one car in it - the weather forecast of rain/sleet/snow must have put most people off.

The path out and up from Capel Y Ffin wasn't as bad as I remembered it - it was steep, muddy and slippery but I must be more hill fit than I was a few years ago. We paused to catch our breathes as the path levelled out - I remembered sitting at this point with my daughter a few years back and her telling me it was a classic example of a 'u shaped valley' (she'd been reading her Eye Spy book not long before)

Although I had my microspikes in my bag I hadn't anticipated there would be snow on the tops, but having seen the tips of it during the drive in it came as no surprise there was soon snow underfoot. Only one set of walkers appeared to have been up there since the snow had fallen looking at the footprints. Last time I'd been up in these hills I'd seen a number of rambling groups - one particular walk stood out where no room had been made in a shelter cairn for us. Being on the Offa's Dyke path it does tend to get allot of footfall along the ridge too. It wasn't long before we passed a group coming up onto the ridge. Not feeling social I increased the pace to put some distance between us. I do like to be social on the hills sometimes, but sometimes find it a bit much being stuck behind a large group if I'm after peace and quiet. It's been particularly busy in work lately and it's nice to just get away from the noise for a short while.

Views over to Pen Y Gadair Fawr

Black Mountain South Top

I love how the broad ridge allows for big dramatic skies to take centre stage

Snow clouds coming in..

Somewhere around this spot in the unmarked top of Black Mountain

I was busy testing my new boots (Alt-bergs) out in the virgin snow

It's always nice to have a good zoomed in view of Pen Y Fan

Our summit from the previous weekend's walk

Background - Waun Fach, foreground - our ridge down

Approaching Hay Bluff

For once the top wasn't too boggy

Our path down to the Gospel Pass was quite slippery - Mike managed to slip over right in front of some other walkers, but righted himself quickly  - they did have a chuckle at his expense though. The Gospell pass has a high level parking area and the walk up to Hay Bluff from there probably takes about 40 mins to an hour depending on how fast you go. We passed allot of people without rucksacks and proper walking kit, it did make me wonder what they would do if they had a slip or a fall. At least we had the reassurance of provisions, layers, survival tent and bag in our packs.

Heading down to the Gospel Pass - Twmpa (Lord Hereford's knob in the background)

Once onto the slopes of Twmpa the snow which had been threatening all day finally kicked in- we hoped the people on their way up Hay Bluff managed to get back in once piece.

The top of Twmpa

The dog was not mine but made us jump when it appeared with it's other doggy buddies ahead of it's owners

We took a bearing and headed off in the direction of our next top - Rhos Dirion

The amount of snow which fell in 30 minutes was so significant it covered all tracks on the ground and became quite deep. Finally the sun started to come out as we neared our top.

Rhos Dirion

We headed to the edge for better views

Grwyne Fawr Reservoir. We had been planning on staying overnight in the bothy there the night before our walk, but the forecast looked quite bad and we didn't fancy camping if the bothy was full. One day though..

We were so busy looking at the views we'd not realised we'd taken the wrong path of Rhos Dirion and had broken the cardinal sin of not taking a bearing on leaving the summit - we realised we were on the path heading towards the Waun Fach ridge, so we then had a good 15 minutes of tussock bashing to return to our correct path  - lesson well and truly learnt.

The ridge on to our final top of Chwarel y Fan was horrendous - wet snow on top of boggy peat meant that every step felt like 3 as you kept slipping backwards. I nearly suggested abandoning the walk and heading back down, but a stop and a bit of high energy rocky road steered me on. We both enjoyed the top once we'd reached it too.

We didn't stop for long as more big snow clouds were coming back in. Rather than taking the sensible option and following the path back the way we had come to eventually reach a path down we took a short cut through heather which I had done before. I did that a bearing this time, but the snow was starting to come down quite heavily and we missed the path I wanted to descend on. The terrain which we'd reached the top of was too steep to head down on, so we contoured round and reached the other path which we'd taken the short cut to avoid!

We were however glad that we were on that one as it took us virtually back to Capel Y Ffin which was reassuring given the rate the snow was coming down.

I was glad we'd chosen a fairly low level mountain walk that day given the conditions we experienced. It was reassuring that given the weather and despite the odd navigation error we managed to right ourselves and kept ourselves on track. We heard later that evening there had been a rescue around the Pen Y Fan area and the teams had to go out in the conditions we'd had late into the night. Huge respect in the teams in terms of what they do as just getting yourself across the terrain in those conditions felt tough, but having to carry someone over it must be hellish. I do like the big sky black mountains, but  I think the Rhos Dirion ridge is best kept for dry conditions!