Braving Pen Y Fan (September 2018)

Saturday 15th September 2018

Pen Y Fan, as you may well know, is the highest mountain in the southern half of the UK. It resides within the central Brecon Beacons of South Wales and is a popular place for all sorts of people, with a car park situated around 400m beneath the summit in terms of elevation.

I don’t often venture here, for the likely possibility that it is going to be bust. Perhaps not ‘Snowdon busy’ but, still. In fact, I’d not been to this particular mountain top for almost two whole years.

This was a group walk led by Andy H. In the height of the summer, I’d have probably given it a miss, due to the inevitable foot traffic and overcrowding on the summit. But I wanted to participate in a group walk on this weekend. My choice was to either attend this option or wait twenty-four hours for a longer walk further west… On a day that was forecast to be a washout.

I’d convinced myself that it would be worth braving Pen Y Fan, post-summer and with a group of others for company. We’d be starting from the National Trust-owned car park at Cwm Gwdi, to the north of the mountains. Parking is free for Trust members, like myself. Otherwise, it costs only £3 to park all day and, rolling in after 10am, I wasn’t too surprised to find almost every space had been occupied.

As a passenger in someone else’s car (someone from South Wales, who could correctly pronounce “Pen Uh Van” and “Corn Dee”), we travelled up the A470 to get here and passed the absolute chaos of near-reckless car parking running for half-a-mile north of the Storey Arms visitor centre (somewhere I’ve never visited, simply because I like to avoid the “tourist” route to the top).

Navigating the many hectares of Open Access Land, we began our long ascent. For me, this was a first time of approaching Pen Y Fan from the north, having only done Cribyn from this direction previously.

Turning our heads back to the north-east and there were the Black Mountains – a range where, most of which resides within the Brecon Beacons National Park boundary.

I was supposed to be leading a walk there seven-days after this, which would’ve be on the Saturday just passed… But the weather forecast was awful and I ended up leading a shorter route much close to home and sea level, which you’ll soon be able to read about.

There is no “easy” route to the summit of the highest point in South Wales, even when some ways are deemed to be ‘easier’ than others. We took our time with this climb, pausing for frequent landscape photos.

I don’t know many people who blog about anything in particular and I know a few people in this group who ‘don’t do social media’ of any kind. So, to see them out taking photographs, well, I’m often intrigued. People often ask me what I did with mine and I have an answer, here within these very pages… But a number of other people I’ve spoken to admit that they don’t ever do much with them, if anything.

That pointy-feature to the left is Cribyn – I’m assuming it translates in to something related to ‘ridge’, as the knife-life Crib Goch in Snowdonia converts to ‘Red Ridge’ in English and Cribyn bears more of a point than any of its immediate neighbours.

Some way behind and beneath us was the town of Brecon, where temperatures had been forecast to reach as much as 16°C.

A couple of people had made the error of relying upon the ‘local’ forecast for a day of hiking in the mountains at a significantly raised altitude… I always rely upon the Met Office and their nearest mountain forecast for this. Temperatures on top of Pen Y Fan were set to feel as low as 6°C around lunchtime, thanks to the wind chill.

I often see photos across social media through the winter, of people heading to the top of these mountains after snow has fallen. It’s an experience I’ve not yet managed in this portion of South Wales although, it is something I’d like to one day experience.

That lake you can see is Llangorse Lake, standing beneath Mynydd Llangorse [not technically a mountain] to the western edge of the Black Mountains. I’ve been meaning to head there for a hike all year, having first glimpsed the surroundings during a navigation course weekend in November 2017.

Ahead of our final push to the summit from the path of Cefn Cwm Llwch, we waited to allow a significant number of young kids and parents to begin their descent. They were making quite a bit of noise, as kids do and we were collectively pleased to let them pass.

From this angle, heading up the northern slope of the mountain, you can see the ridge-like path that we’d later follow to reach Cribyn. It’s certainly more Striding Edge than Crib Goch, though.

Not everyone in Wales is a ‘fair weather walker’, as can be seen by this small crowd on top of Cribyn.

Naturally, we formed an orderly queue – 886m above mean sea level – before having our group photo taken on top of Pen Y Fan.

People were piling on to its neighbour, Corn Du, which we wouldn’t be heading to. It was almost as bad as the number of fruit flies frequently hovering around my lidded fruit bowl in my kitchen.

While this wasn’t exactly a quiet day to explore the Brecon Beacons, I’ve been on this summit when the footfall has been much greater. Or perhaps my perception has changed, after conquering Snowdon in July.

I was disappointed and quite frustrated to find a group of people sitting on the steps that lead the way down from Pen Y Fan and in to the pass between Cribyn. Yes, we would all like to find a wind-sheltered seat  to admire these views but that should not be done at the obstruction of a public right of way, making it more difficult (and potentially dangerous) for anyone else heading up or down this route.

We lost more than 200m in elevation, following Crag Cwm Sere and the Beacons Way to the east, before beginning our climb up to Cribyn.

I can still remember the first time I climbed this one, back in May 2015. With the good company of a friend, we arrived at this point somewhere about 19:00; having set out far too late to complete all four peaks before dark (we’d only done two of them). My friend was understandably concerned with getting back to the car (and camp site) before dark, while I was keen to bag one last mountain, having come so far…

I think she’s since forgiven me.

Corn Du and Pen Y Fan.

I find Pen Y Fan is most impressive when viewed in profile from the east.

A long descent follows the 795m heights of Cribyn. It goes on and then, down, suddenly, with a real challenge for the durability and comfort of your knees, Interestingly, the Beacons Way path bypasses the summit of Cribyn altogether.

But it does then climb Fan Y Big from Bwlch Ar Y Fan (a mountain pass), as we were about to do. You can see the zig-zagging path, which I witnessed being installed in 2016. Also worthy of note are the small crowd of people on top and near the infamous diving board.

This climb of barely 100m would be much tougher if it went directly up the mountainside, in my opinion.

Corn Du, Pen Y Fan and Cribyn.

All other visitors had departed, by the time we reach the top of Fan Y Big.

Within our small group, I was surprised to find that I was the only one brave enough to stand on ‘the diving board’. Perhaps the experience of Crib Goch in July has softened my fear of height and falling.

From a height of 719m above sea level, we’d then begin our long descent along Cefn Cyff, heading north-north-east. I think we’d already seen the worst of the day’s very brief (and un-forecast) showers.

Further photo opportunities were taken, as the cloud began to gather around Pen Y Fan.

A series of stone cairns would act as a visual guide, beside the fairly-obvious well-worn footpath.

Next time I’m in South Wales, I like to think I’ll be hiking in the Black Mountains. But, who knows. They’re rarely as busy or attractive to the crowds as the central Beacons.

Our return route to the cars would lead us across farmland and along numerous narrow country roads… Narrow by the Welsh standard, which seems to be twenty-five per cent narrower than a country lane in England!

An enjoyable day out with the group and I had no regrets about choosing this walk and revisiting Pen Y Fan for the first time since 2016. Perhaps I’ll do it again and sooner than expected.

Distance of this walk = 11 miles

Thanks for reading.

Author: Olly Parry-Jones

I live in Weston-super-Mare, close to the Mendip Hills in Somerset and I enjoy time spent outdoors, whether that's walking, camping or backpacking. My day job involved making furniture from recycled wood (I'm a furniture maker and carpenter by trade). I have two blogs: Olly Writes (woodworking, DIY, baking) Walks With Olly (walking, camping and kit) You can also find me on YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. My second YouTube channel is titled 'Walks with Olly'.

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