I’ve just finished reading The Arctic Grail. Tales of slightly unhinged explorers in the 17th Century spending multiple winters in the high arctic in their quest for the North West Passage, it somehow galvanised me into wanting to experience my very own arctic night.
The choice of date was hardly romantic but as my wife was away, it seemed too good an opportunity to miss. A surge of excitement ran through my veins as, on Valentines Day eve, sun setting bright behind hills, I followed a loose stone path onto the open hill. Having planned to pitch my tent in a picturesque valley, its low altitude was suddenly too soft and didn’t seem to fit my quest. Glancing at my map, I noticed the word “DRAMA!” scribbled on rocky ramparts to Pen y Fan.
That was it then. The 500 metre height contour beckoned me, as stepping over bubbling springs, three welsh mountain ponies stared down at my clattering pans. Spotting a likely place, streams dividing the land into moraines, snow on the slopes, I pitch the tent at the head of the valley or cwm.
Spreading my meagre rations on some nearby rocks, a wisp of cloud eddies onto the cwm. Sensing a change of weather, I immediately become aware of feeling the cold of my stone seat. Cutting a handful of reeds to insulate my backside, breathe condensing on chilling air, I wonder if the eight layers are sufficient. While eating, I extinguish the torch to sample the stars and after my eyes adjust to the dark, the distant lights of Brecon make it a great metropolis in this thick dark valley.
I love camping near water – a stream tumbling, swirling close by – but once learnt a lesson on reminded me of when overnight rain caused a tiny stream to overflow through my tent. Thus, to avoid this, I set about canalising my local watercourse; rocks removed from the bed, flow rushing past faster, reducing chances of flood, shrimps, caddis fly larvae squirming to other stones from disturbed torch lit mossy rocks.
Job done, fat from the frying pan solidified, pitch black, it was time for bed. Peeling off layers, but still keeping plenty on, numbing cold can be felt through the ground sheet. My Thermorest proving its worth in insulation and with hat and gloves on, dip into some of Krakauer’s Into Thin Air. Lack of sleep plays its hand and I soon drift off into a slumber.
Woken suddenly with rough gusting wind, drowning out otherwise drowsy stream, rattling the tent. More than that. Threatening to rip it down. Heart leaps, blood pumping. Eyes wide open. Imagination running riot, secured by ropes to the North West face of a mountain, sixteen times taller than present location. The wind subsides. Warm sleep returns, fitfully until about 6.30 am.
Slightly breezy outside, I wake feeling good, refreshed even, even after the incredible gushes of terrible wind causing heart flutters during the night. Cooker now working well, I set the water, then, to get the blood going and savour a spring, stomp off around the cwm.
Looking back, I can now see what caused the noise in the night. Mini tornadoes, down draughting from the mist high tailing over the ridge, around cliffs, causing waterfalls to spume uphill, then searing across the reeds. Seeing steam rising from my own camp, I hurtle down the tussocky slope to a boiling kettle.
Soon steamy bacon smells fill the air, fried tomato on bread, fuel to the hungry body. Is it time to go home or perhaps a quick jaunt over the ridge to find out just where this devilish wind is coming from? I can’t resist it. Raising camp, returning rocks to the stream, tables to the scree; leaving no sign of me having being there, bar flattened grass and a muddy entrance. I shoulder the rucksack, tighten boots and head up towards the snow patches.
No sooner have I moved 100 yards than a pair of ravens circle, land atop my camp site, scavenging detritus. There’s nothing for them there. Mist pours over the top of the slope above me as grassy rushes convulse below me. With so many layers on, albeit providing a warm night, dehydration rasps my tongue, so finding a spring, I drink from the finest, chilled mineral water. Reaching the snow, push onto the ridge, breaching the crown.
The wind is unbelievable. It’s hard to stand. Pots and pans make a hell of a racket, rucksack straps slap my face, Army boys pound up the other side as a raven flies straight into the gale.
The walking is precarious, worth staying away from the edge of the ridge until its time to summit Fan y Big, drop over the edge, legs wobbly with adrenaline. I slip on a rock, feeling my heart surge as another roar approaches, massive Atlantic breaker, mist swirling lower, roar, grasses flying past, brace yourself…..
Maybe not a traditional Valentine’s night but one that I’ll remember for a long time to come.
Rucksack – Macpac Pursuit 50
Tent – Force Ten (Vango)
Sleeping bag – (Mountain Hardware)
Sleeping Mat – Thermarest
Coat – Arteryx Theta AR jacket
Fleece – Alf
Thermals – Alpine Lowe
Boots – Columbia
Cooker – Mountain Safety Research Whisperlite
Torch – Petzl Tikka XP
All images © Rob Yorke.
Rob Yorke is a countryman with two hats: one as a chartered surveyor, and the other as a rural commentator chairing debates and writing articles on wildlife, fishing, conservation, farming, shooting and other rural topics for the likes of The Times, Trout & Salmon, Waterlog, Shooting Gazette and BBC Countryfile Magazine. Rob compiled The Little Book of Fishing for WH Smith, and has presented two series for Discovery television channel: ‘The Great Escape’, a Welsh farmstead reality series, and ‘Reel Wars’, a fishing/outdoor survival series. He has lived in west Scotland, north England, London and now permanently in the Brecon Beacons. A regular contributor to the The Times’ letter pages on countryside matters, Rob can be followed at twitter.com/blackgull and via his website robyorke.co.uk.