The Pen Y Fan Horseshoe Hike and Wild Camp

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The first outing in ages, away from the South West, Trev and Summit or Nothing has, ventured up to Brecon Beacons for a couple of days of mountain hiking and wild camping with workmates, Den, Frank and Sean. Their first outing was a visit to the waterfall country, and a three or four-hour stroll, which culminated with a visit to the impressive Sgwd yr Eira. Now they gear up ready for the Pen Y Fan Horseshoe and a wild camp somewhere up top of the Brecon’s tallest mountain.

Camping On Pen Y Fan – An image edited for our YouTube thumb

Eat, Hike, Repeat!

It was late afternoon, the Four wtare Fall Walk complete, and so we made our way back to the camp site (or more specifically, the car park), where I treated the lads to some of Thom’s (Off The Beaten PotChilli and Choritzo Pizzas – although this time I substituted my Trangia Mini stove for Frank’s heftier camping stove and frying pan, so that I could mass produce. They went down well, as predicted, and Frank even saved his second to take up the top of the hill to enjoy for his supper.

We all ate and then took it in turns to wash off in the nearby river, removing that thick layer of grease from a day of humid hiking, and freshening up ready for the laborious climb to the top of Pen Y Fan. After washing and changing, we set about packing our backpacks.

Predicted to be the hottest day of the year, a low level of cloud had thus far managed to keep the glaring heat of the sun at bay, and so the conditions were actually preferable. The cloud was supposed to break up overnight, but the wind was due to come in, especially up top, with gusts of over 30mph due to come in. This helped decide which tent I took with me on the hike.

I had bought both the ultralight Lanshan 2 and my newest version of the Cloud Up 2, a dark green model. As the weather hinted at gusty winds, and I had still not had a chance to master the Lanshan and to be honest, the last two times I set it up it looked like a firm sneeze would have knocked it over (that being said, I have since managed to get it out on two occasions and am increasingly confident with its performance – its fast becoming my tent of choice) and so tonight I relied on the faithful free-standing Naturehike.

Overloaded Ultra Light Camping

So with that decision made, I strapped it to the underside of my lightweight 50 litre Quechua Forclaz backpack, which I had packed and unpacked and repacked, until I got somewhere close to a preferable weight. The bloody thing still felt and looked untidily overweight, bulging at the seams as my backpack always seems to. I didn’t really know what else I could have cut from my pack, nor where my weight was actually coming from. I didn’t take too many more layers, now that summer was finally here, I had a fair bit of food, I guess, enough for supper and breakfast plus snacks, and I guess I was carrying water with me (it is often hard to find a water source up high, after all).

This is how we ultralight camp – Overloaded again!

It seemed that I wasn’t the only one struggling with weight, Sean’s backpack seemed equally as heavy. Den’s gear (including my Vango Banshee 200 tent) was crammed into two packs, one of which he wore on his front like a pregnant belly, and even Frank was daunted at the prospect of carrying such a heavy load up such a big hill, and his was by far the lightest pack of the lot. If I had my bag anywhere near the weight of his I would have been happy (its also worth noting that he too had the same backpack as my own, but looked far tidier – don’t they always?).

Regardless of our heavy packs, we were ready to embark on the Pen Y Fan Horseshoe in an anti-clockwise direction. It began as a steady climb, with views opening up ahead of us, the hills of Pen Y Fan, Cribyn and Fan Y Big rising off into the low hanging clouds, and as we rose, we passed by the bank of trees that surrounded an empty reservoir below to our left. As we clocked up the first miles, it soon became apparent that there was a considerable difference in pace between Sean and Frank, who started to pull away rapidly and Den and myself bringing up the rear.

Cribyn looked daunting from this elevation

Cribyn – The Long Haul

The route that we had chosen today, would bring us out at the dip between Cribyn and Fan Y Big, both of which Nath and I had visited on two separate walks in the Brecon Beacon’s back in 2017 (Pen Y Fan one day and then Fan Y Big the next).

The section between Pen Y Fan and Cribyn seemed a quick down and up, back then, but from our current approach from the Southern side, Cribyn looked quite daunting, rising over a great distance, levelling here before rising sharply again. We reached the glacial bowl, the stunning views from which were shrouded behind the enveloping mist, thinning occasionally to hint at the vast sprawling valleys beneath.

Den and I took our time with the climb, Frank and Sean soon disappeared into the mist. To really rub salt into our wounds, we were continuously being overtaken by an endless stream of fell runners, partaking in some competition. Cribyn, on this night, with the weight of the packs against us, seemed as daunting as it had appeared from beneath. It was a long and arduous climb, and each time we thought that we had finally reached the top, it proved to be another false summit.

As we did approach the top, I received a phone call from Frank, they were at the summit and wondering if we had decided to bypass Cribyn altogether. I assured him that we were on our way, and (surely) wouldn’t be much longer now. And we weren’t. They patiently waited a little longer whilst Den and me recovered from the climb, but we didn’t wait around long, as the inevitable cool down was made worse by the wind and the damp cloud. We soon set off once again, down the Pen Y Fan / Cribyn dip.

The plaque at the summit

Pen Y Fan – The Effort Pays Off

We were all pretty much together as we descended, but the climb soon saw Frank and Sean accelerate away from Den and me once again. However, this time, Frank soon began to tire a little (his method of counting to a certain amount of steps before allowing a rest had slowly seen the numbers decreasing) and he soon joined our little party. We met Sean at the steps just beneath Pen Y Fan, where he waited so that we could all Summit the mountain together.

There was a biting wind on top. And a strange golden mist descended, the sun trying to breakthrough. We found the plaque on the cairn, wrapped up whilst we waited for some of the runners who’d made it ahead of us to bask in their moment of glory before we made our way over and took turns in taking each other’s photos. Then, as we stood there, we witnessed the clouds blowing past us, thinning and clearing until, in almost an instant, they were gone and we were left with the most amazing views we could have hoped for.

Above the clouds – The Views From up top!

The low lying evening sun cast its golden sheen across the green landscape, the remnants of clouds beneath us, clinging to the ridges beneath us, drifting in the wind; that sought after spectacle – the cloud inversion, slowly passing under us, a blanket of cloud beneath us, the summits of distance mountains protruding like little islands across an ocean of boiling clouds. We took our photos, (and video), and marveled in the wonder of this eye-watering vista until the chill from the wind was too much to bear, and so we made our way down from the summit and in search for a spot to wild camp.

The obligatory summit photo

Now. Where to camp?

At first it seemed we may have found such a place beneath Corn Du, to the South, so keeping on our path, and we ventured across to where the horseshoe route turned back on itself by Bwlch Duwynt. We saw nothing that sprang to mind as an ideal pitch along the way. We looked over the ridge to the west, once more taking in the compelling views on the outside of the horseshoe bowl, before the low cloud once again moved in and engulfed the tops of these hills. Then we proceeded back on ourselves, edging lower down the basin in search of our pitch.

Cribyn taken from the gap

The time was getting on by now, it must have been approaching half nine at night, leaving us not much time to set up before sunset, and some kind of panic must have set in, because without pause or debate, we all started to spread out; Frank heading up, Sean heading down, Den heading up and down, and I just skirted the lower path we had found, all in our own personal search for our camping spot. Having only ever hiked with one other person at a time, this seemed like bedlam to me.

I didn’t know where we would end up, but I was adamant that I didn’t want to follow Sean down to the basin floor. It may have looked level down, but I wanted to be up as high as possible in the morning. Not just for the chance of witnessing another inversion, but mainly because I didn’t fancy climbing these heights again to reach the ridge for our morning return walk. I guess we were all secretly happy when he returned having not found anywhere, the level ground was a bit bog ridden.

On our way up Pen Y Fan, an hour or so ago, we had passed a solitary tent on the Eastern side, just a little way above the Cribyn / Pen Y Fan gap, and as we skirted beneath the hills, it seemed that we were getting closer and closer to that area. I kept thinking that if I was in that tent, and four rowdy lads from Devon pitched anywhere near me, I would have been miffed, to say the least. We ended up pitching literally meters away from this lone tent, but the sun was fading and we literally hadn’t managed to find another spot.

We were all happy to have stopped, Den even collapsed into a heap on the floor and declared, “I’m sleeping here!”

A Night on the Hill

Four tents on a hill in Wales

Within an hour we had all managed to get our tents up, and sure enough, night had befallen us. I, as I said, was giving my new Dark Green Cloud Up 2 its maiden voyage, Den was in my first tent, the Vango Banshee 200, Frank had himself a Naturehike too, the slightly larger Star River 2, and Sean had himself a one-man tunnel tent that he purchased from Argos for less than £20 in about as many years ago. He swears by this tent, another testament to the fact that this camping malarkey doesn’t have to be an expensive hobby.

I haven’t seen or used the Vango in well over a year, and apologised in advance in case the thing smelt bad or had rotted out or anything – it hadn’t. Den managed to get it up in a reasonable time, and I only assisted him the once to help him untangle the excessive guy ropes which do seem much longer than necessary (I’m not sure if these ropes were always this way or whether the previous owner had lashed these together at some point). My first thought at seeing the Banshee up was that it seemed much bigger than I ever remembered.

My tent went up easily and looked much less glaringly obvious on the hillside than my previous grey and red model. Frank had a little trouble with his, having set up the outer skin inside out, but then I recall finding my own Star River 2 a bit of an awkward one to set up the first few times. There’s an inside, an outside, a front, and a back, and when it’s all flapping around on the side of the hill it’s not easy to identify which is which.

We were soon all set up, and after feeding ourselves and getting a hot drink inside of us (I supplied everyone with a hot chocolate) we chilled for an hour outside of Sean’s tent, looking back over the day and relaxing in the calm night on the hillside. Then we all retired to our own nylon cubicles for the night.

It was a dry night, but the wind picked up. We could hear it before it hit us too, roaring in across the valleys, momentum building for half a minute or so, its volume increasing like waves on an ocean, until it was upon us, shaking our tents violently. We all had the same thoughts, would our tents hold up. This went on throughout the night, some gusts more violent than others, keeping us all poised on the edge of sleep.

The Morning After

Franks tent (inside out) overlooks the valleys

At some point between five and six in the morning, I needed to pee, and woke to see Frank already up, and sat in the empty carcass of his tent, the outer skin only, his bedding all packed away, cooking breakfast, and ready to leave. He had had a shit night; the snow skirt on his tent had been flapping dramatically all night (I recalled the same issue from my own experience with the Star River 2).

It was a grey morning, and the tops of the ridge that we would be walking along was not visible, buried in the cloud. Whether this weather was due to break up as the sun climbed remained to be seen. I walked out over to the glacial basin to our north, and the views were quite awesome, even through the dense precipitation. On my way back to the tent, I passed the lone tent who’s privacy we had invaded, just as the gentleman climbed out. I apologised for our intrusion, and he was fine about it. (It would turn out in a day or twos time that when I shared the images of our camp to the Walking the Brecon Beacons facebook page that this gentleman happened to be the page administrator).

The Return Home

Sean taking in the misty morning views

It was another hour before the others woke, I think we made a bit of noise to wake them in the end. And it was almost 8 am by the time we’d all eaten, packed up and were heading back for our return walk along the ridges on the opposite side of the bowl.

We didn’t realise just how far we had dropped down from the path, until we faced the off-road climb back up the steep, tussocky bank of Corn-Du, which was a complete ball-ache, especially first thing in the morning. I felt it in my knees almost immediately, and so extended my tripod to act as an aid to get me up to the path.

We found the path, and so made our way across to the ridge, where for the majority we all kept pretty much together. The mist produced that clingy rain that soaks you without even trying but occasionally would thin enough to allow us to take in the views, even allowing us to get the odd photo here and there.

The highlight for me on the way home was when we passed a handful of hikers walking the opposite direction, and in front of my friends asked, “Excuse me? Are you Trev from Summit or Nothing?” It was one of those moments when you were glad to have witnesses, getting recognised a good couple of hundred miles from your home turf of Dartmoor. Brilliant!

The rest of the walk took us a good couple of hours, and the trip was about 6 miles. We were all pretty done in when we returned to the vans. We had intended to take in one more hill, Sugarloaf, but we all agreed that we would sooner get back on the road home. So after a quick game of Chocolate Russian Roulette (one promised to a hellish firey chili flavoured chocolate… but wasn’t), we ended our weekend. Despite the cloudy weather obscuring the views, it had still been a great time. We are now in the process of planning further outings together.

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