I don’t know what it is about this particular week in August which makes me throw caution to the wind and decide to hike up a Welsh mountain. Three years ago, it was Snowdon. At the second attempt. This time around, it was Pen y Fan, located in the Brecon Beacons National Park.
At 886m above sea level, Pen y Fan is the highest peak in the southern UK, and just 199m smaller than Snowdon. Yet all the research seemed to suggest that walking up to the summit would be a doddle. In fact, the route from the Pont ar Daf Car Park on the A470 is affectionately known as the “motorway route”. Kids can do it. Pensioners can do it. Short-legged doggos can do it. So accidental hikers like me can definitely do it.
It is Wales, ergo it is raining. However we are suitably equipped with a plethora of waterproofs, and I rustle around in my bin bag-like trousers. We are definitely more kitted out to climb a mountain than some of the people around us. I see shorts, flip-flops and children in party dresses. I feel overdressed. Even more so when it stops raining and the sun makes an appearance just five minutes into the start of our walk. Off comes the raincoat. Then the bin bag trousers. There’s not much else to come off. And I’m still hot.
As the route starts somewhat high in the valley, the actual ascent to the summit is only a height of 450m, and a distance of 3.5km. But it’s all uphill. Which you would expect from a mountain. But there’s no relief from the incline, no levelling off, no meandering ups and downs to break the relentless ascent. Which means I have to apply my standard mountain-climbing technique:
Step 1: Show enthusiasm and determination and charge ahead
Step 2: Stop to have a quick look at the view behind me. My interest in the views behind me increase as we get higher.
Step 3: Carefully study the path ahead. Decide that I absolutely 100% definitely cannot climb this mountain
Step 4: Get overtaken by a pensioner wearing flip-flops, a short-legged doggo and a child in a Disney Princess outfit.
Return to Step 1. Repeat until summit is reached.
I silently thank Lucy Wyndham-Read for her Youtube fitness videos over the past five months of lockdown, but curse her for not focusing on my mountain-climbing muscles a bit more. I put a short bout of lightheadedness and nausea down to altitude sickness. And not the fact that I am still trying to shake off a Britpop Brunch induced hangover from the day before.
Eventually, the summit is in sight. Except that’s the summit to Corn Du, with Pen y Fan behind it. I have the opportunity to summit two mountains in one day! Except I notice that there is a path which circumnavigates Corn Du. Why climb a second mountain if you don’t have to? I keep my eyes on the prize. And the prize is a photo opportunity, spectacular views of Welsh countryside and a turkey sandwich.
The descent is unsurprisingly quicker than the ascent. It’s steep enough to put a bit of pressure on the knees, and to bruise a toenail or two, but there is definitely more of a smile and less of a grimace on my face. And less stopping to admire the view.
As mountains go, this route is definitely doable for most capability levels with strong legs and good lungs. The path is wide, and well-maintained by the National Trust. There’s no scrambling involved, just a relentless slog uphill. There’s little chance of getting lost, or wandering off-piste. And thankfully, there are no waterfalls to jump over or streams to wade through. Which I suppose makes it a little boring.
But it’s still a mountain. Which means that flip-flops are not suitable footwear. Plenty of water should be taken with you (in fact, take more than you think you’ll need). Turkey sandwiches are optional but I find that a summit lunch is one of the most rewarding. The weather can change quickly, so waterproofs and breathable layers are handy. And sunscreen, lip balm and sunglasses. Never underestimate a mountain. Even a “family-friendly” one like Pen y Fan.
There are a bunch of other routes you can take to get to the top of Pen y Fan. Longer routes. More challenging routes. But don’t forget, you all reach the same summit, no matter which path you take.