I came from a winter in New South Wales, then relocated up above and this is now my fifth winter in Old South Wales. The way they pronounce “A” is not the main difference between the Old and the New. From what we see on sign posts, the Welsh language does not really bother with vowels anyway.
I have been exploring as much as possible of the Welsh coastline and countryside either riding bikes or in trail shoes and we made some unusual encounters. But strangely enough, I only went twice to Pen Y Fan, the highest peak in Southern UK. Both times in January… and all thanks to Avalanche Endurance Events. This family-like team knows how to create inspiring, enriching, epic and borderline addictive experiences.
In January 2015, I discovered the Brecon Beacons in daylight with the Winter Fan Dance edition. Last weekend, I eagerly came back to explore the place at night with the first edition of the Winter High Moon. This post is all about my experience in the dark light, white snow and boggy climb.
The best way to prepare for the event is rather easy. The organisation sends you a series of emails that covers just everything you need to know and to do to be ready for the Dance. So unless you don’t know how to read or how to put what you read into action, you can be confident enough of a decent preparation on D-Day, well N-Night actually.
The HighMoon route is different from the Fan Dance and this is great. In addition, they send you the map of the actual route a couple of days before the event and that is also great. This is when my partner in crime and dearest Wolfy told me that the second climb shall not be uninteresting (not her actual words☺). She is the Contourlinist when I am the Mentalist. I mean she is a map reader when I am a don’t mind reader.
Before the start, everyone gathers around the famous phone box. Despite all the gear and prerace excitement, the general atmosphere appears switched on the meditative mode. The only explicit concerns are “when to lit up the cyalume stick” and “Switch off your f…g head lamp now”. Then everyone, one by one, is checked in and allowed through the gate.
I have listened to numerous briefings, on various activities and ground fields. Those of Avalanche Endurance Events are a piece of art. It should be trademark registered, even adopted by the NHS. No beating around the bush (there are no bushes anyway), straight to the point, all the What to do? Come with the Why not to do? The focus is on consequences and responsibility. Thank you for that. This is so refreshing when most of other events are about assistance for the dummies. The point is simply for everyone to be self sufficient and reliant, considering the environment, should the shit hit the (Pen Y) Fan.
Off we go. It starts with a long steep climb to Corn Du first then the Pen Y Fan. My game plan is always the same, walk only if you can’t run. I will walk most of the climb, only managing the burn from the glutes to the calves. I am not a happy walker but I know the fun will come after the Fan. The scenery is in quadri-color, white at the bottom, black at the top, with here and there some red and blue cyalume sticks to mark the route and the other dancers.
I almost forgot the first RV as I was looking forward to the infamous Jacob’s ladder. l love this section, both down and up. You need to be focused and it is technical but I could run very early in the slope and it is a great sensation. A few Holiday on Ice moves but no bum slides!
I got to RV2 with a happy pace and it turned out funny-weird. I told and showed my bib number, and the guy in charge asked me if I was Norwegian. I don’t even know how to say Oslo in Norwegian! My accent? I’m French, born in Laos, grew up in Madagascar and Normandy, and have lived a good third of my life in various countries abroad. I eventually put it down to my skating style, or my taste for baked Alaska – Norwegian omelette in French. I left RV2 with a smile, then fell in the snow a couple of times, then started the run down on the Roman road.
I tried to keep my nutrition plan simple. Eat when walking and drink when running. I carried 4 bottles of ½ liter, one with only water and one electrolyte only in pockets at the hips. The other two bottles were electrolyte with sugar, one with more concentration than the other just for more options. I carried them both at the front, in pockets specifically designed to be attached on the straps. Well it was a good theory that did not cut the mustard. While run rock and rolling down on the long stretch to the pump house station, the bouncing of the chest bottles went from annoying to hurting. I breast fed to reduce the weight but still I had to run hands on, trading lateral balance for vertical unbalance. At some point, getting in touch with my inner female, I fantasised about a sports bra, and then I hit a rock then another and had to refocus.
The High Moon walking Zombie
Exhaustion caught up with me on a flat and uneventful stretch of road right after the turn around. I was starving. I declined the hot brew offered at the station to indulge in my first energy bar since the start. The run by the dark lake reflecting the night had a peculiar beauty. Then my feet felt the wet and it was the start of the boggy climb. I was still energy depleted and walked like a zombie. The slippery slope made me moon-walk and I began wondering whether moon walking backward would be better. Then I went for a shot of gel and energy fully kicked back in. The scenery was dark wet in the middle, snow at arm’s length and beyond. The sky became cloudy. I could see on the left hand side some trees and I guessed that the end of it would be closed to the top of the climb so I focused on getting at the level of the last tree as quickly as possible. I guessed right, from there I could see the Crest of Trail RV3 and renamed the guy in charge Uncle Bob. Quick exchange of name and number before Bob told me to turn right and follow the track. OK, good, but which track?
Up there it was another planet. Snow was everywhere. The wind showed-up and -off. Visibility went AWOL. I could not see any red cyalume markers so I literally snow probed my way to the elusive track. I sometimes went crotch-high into the snow (or hip high depending on your level of parental guidance) and it reminded me of my years of free riding in the Alps and the “How deep is your glove?” from the Bee Gees. Whatever, I regrouped to a simple M.O. 1/Scan the shadow on the snow to see the track 2/ Ankle high is on track, knee high is off track 3/ Spot the red light and run to it 4/Repeat. I was mostly alone all the way. I was firing on all cylinders and enjoyed the sensations. I knew the edge was close to the right but would never see it. It was a surprise to see the last check point busy with people coming from all directions.
Purple strain, purple train
The descent was stress-free despite my first and only bum-slide of the night. Another Highmooner asked me if I was OK then we had a laugh a couple of meters later when he also tipped over. I did not need to get creative and used his own words to check whether he was OK. I was confident about my foot-hold and could build up to a pace good enough to overtake a few others. Then I was alone again in the white before the final turn to the bridge and the gate to the finish line.
I did appreciate the value of the welcoming handshake and the patch. Purple is the new black☺
With a time of 3h09, my winter High Moon was slower than the Winter Fan Dance last year. It was expected considering the toughest conditions. But only 1 minute slower! It feels good. More importantly I am very happy with the epic experience.