18:00 on the 16th of January, around 140 people huddled near a red phone box in the Brecon Beacons National Park. Gone the day trippers who had come to sledge and enjoy the snow and whose cars had lined the road, all but blocking access. It was now dark, cold, snow was all around us and we were wondering when to activate the cyalume sticks that were tied to our bags. Me and Mr Tiger were about to embark on our first event of 2016. We had done the Winter Fan Dance in 2015 and were now going to take part in the first edition of the winter High Moon, the latest addition to Avalanche Endurance Events‘ calendar.
We were called out one by one to pass the kissing gate, and there, at the bottom of the hill, we waited for the start. As each of us crossed over, I couldn’t help thinking of the legendary Styx separating the dead from the living. Would we, like Ulysses who had crossed the Styx and come back alive be smart and resourceful enough to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield?* I was called before Mr Tiger and as I waited for him to join me, I reflected on the days leading to the High Moon, most of these had been spent in a state of limbo, casting aside doubts, resting and mentally assembling my Pack. You know, the Pack, not the wolf type, the one you carry on your back and that contains stuff. The Pack that makes you independent and self reliant. Now was the time, ready or not, I still would never be readier than this, empowering stuff.
The safety briefing was concise and to the point. The Brecon Mountain Rescue Team volunteers were there, they’re entirely funded by donations so a fund-raising bucket went around, it got filled, we clapped, the sound muffled by gloves and… We were off! Mr Tiger bounded off and I was alone, as I’d known I would be.
From then on it was upwards and onwards to the top of Corn Du, the blue cyalumes we carried made our procession look like a forgotten Christmas garland winding up the mountain. Stillness and focus in my mind as I climbed, a nice place to be. Then an unexpected shock and a short rush of adrenalin as I fell for the first time tight-deep through snow. Followed the dreaded heave to come come out, it would definitely worth be watching out for deep snow from now on or this could become exhausting.
The path, marked here and there by red cyalumes, still went up. The wind made itself felt. We had been warned to leave the cyalumes to our left as there are some cliffs near the top. In the mist and snow, I could make out the dark drop and suddenly humanity took a step back, it was us, nature and the elements. Now you’re talking. This is when I noticed that I’m fitter than last year, I remember gasping for air on that climb, instead I just took off my gloves and scarf because I was too hot. Bliss.
Finally! The top of the hill and then off into the snow and the darkness, I tried to run at this point, fell through some deep snow and ended up sliding down the slope, followed by a couple of other people. Sliding, slipping and running, we found our way to the top of Pen y Fan where another strange atmosphere waited. I’ve been there twice now and don’t particularly like it: simply put it feels as if some mountain spirit totally disapproves of us humans treading its ground and lets us know. Anyway, on we went, all downhill for a while but downhill doesn’t mean easy. Last year I ran down Jacob’s Ladder but that time I just slid and wasn’t alone on this crazy joyride: there was a handful of us sliding down like out of control penguins. I kept to the right and made sure my heels were ready to stop the slide, hey, I’ve got a 9 year old who relies on me back home, no crazy stuff there!
Then a long “easier” section, snowy then slushy then stony and occasionally criss-crossed by a stream. Part of it follows the “Roman road”, meaning it’s paved, but not the way you’d think, the stones are laid edge up, rather than flat, probably as they’d be too slippery otherwise. This makes running tough. There, on the flat, in the dark, I twisted my ankle, twice in a row and then a stone caught my foot and I landed flat, hard and heavy on my front. Awww, my knee! I’ve had some bad injuries before but never screamed in pain, I did then, and laid flat, suddenly exhausted and doubting I could get up. For an odd moment something inside felt like giving in, I almost cried but decided to to pick myself up instead, tried out the knee, yes, it was still working. Shaken and in pain, I walked on, assessing the situation and decided I had enough time to complete the march before it all began to seize up. A little further at the command station, I declined the offer to show my knee to the medic, I knew it was injured, I knew it could hold, I didn’t want to look at it until it was over. On I went, the night was darkening: the moon was becoming hidden by clouds.
The second big climb was just after the command station. I’d looked at the contour lines the day before and suspected it would be fiercer than Jacob’s Ladder. “Be careful it’s a bit boggy” warned one of the DS. As I squelched on uphill I realised how funny this sentence had been, the path followed a gully so we were in fact walking up a stream, all the way, and yes, it was a bit boggy and seriously steep. I felt desolate and empty at the bottom of that hill and expected it to be long. I thought of giving up but instead took ownership of the SBS moto “by strength of guile” and made a stupid bargain with myself: “walk just one kilometre and then, if you’re still exhausted, you can stop”. The twist was, I knew the hill was about 1 km long. I took small steps, ate, decided that this was harder than the long distance Alpe d’Huez triathlon and still pushed my wet feet upwards trying to pick the least strenuous options. Then suddenly boots appeared in front of me. They belonged to one of the DS in place at the last checkpoint. Joy! I couldn’t believe the hill was already over!
Arriving on The Ridge was like landing on a different planet. We’d been sheltered from the wind and suddenly we were very exposed, the snow cover was deep again, the moon was gone and it was snowing. I knew the ridge was long but the conditions made it seem even longer. Ahead of me, walking in a faint and eerie halo was another person, we ended up sticking with each other for the whole length of the ridge and both agreed that it was good not to be alone, if only to pick our way along the hidden path between distant and barely visible cyalumes. I loved The Ridge in all its harshness that night, that place stripped all the unnecessary and left what is pure. I had another experience like that in the middle of a storm alone at the helm of a boat. These are rare, and precious.
The final descent was long but very pleasant, one last river to cross (there was a bridge too) and I saw a few men waiting for me, I got a handshake, a badge, heard that I’d made it in 3:59 then got not one but two hugs, the first from my ridge companion who’d waited for me at the bottom and that felt very nice and the second from Mr Tiger who’d been hiding in the dark, that one felt like relief, it was done and I was home. The finish was peaceful, warm and very human. A perfect ending to an out of the ordinary event.
PS: after one week and a lot of rest the bashed knee is getting better 🙂
*Alfred, Lord Tennyson