Breacon Beacons: the joys of snow

Written on 28th March 2016 | No Comments

The obligatory selfie from the diving board on Fan y Big
May 2010: An obligatory self portrait standing on the diving board on Fan Y Big.

Hiking and photographing the big landscapes of hills and mountains have for me gone hand-in-hand for a long time. Travelling on foot that means you have plenty of thinking time: plenty of time to look around, to appreciate a view as it emerges and to study the changing light and shapes of your surroundings. One of my first photography hikes was to the Upper Neaudd Reservoir in the Brecon Beacons in 2010 when I did the southern horseshoe walk, taking in Corn Du, Pen Y Fan, Cribyn and Fan Y Big. That trip was in May on a sunny afternoon. I’d not been adventurous enough to visit for sunrise or sunset and my pictures were to record the trip than anything artistic. However, it sewed a seed that would see me return to the same peaks several times in the future.

Quite a few years have passed since that first outing and in the meantime I returned to the peaks twice via different routes. These trips had mixed success; one resulted in a picture of Llyn Cwm Llwch and the other was almost photographically fruitless due to hill fog obscuring the view. Always on my mind was the idea of returning for sunrise on a snowy winter morning but I was unsure how realistic that idea was as I didn’t own crampons and had no experience of hiking over snow.

August 2015: After nearly two hours on the peaks this was the most I saw from Corn Du, such was the level of cloud cover.

Earlier in March this year I noticed that the forecast for the Brecon Beacons was for snow followed by sunny intervals. I decided I might have a go at hiking up Pen Y Fan as fresh overnight snow would make a good surface to walk on. I read other people’s accounts of climbing Pen Y Fan in similar conditions and it seemed that I would have enough grip to walk safely.

Following a 4am alarm and an hour’s drive from Bristol, I was donning my walking boots at the foot of the hills ready to start the ascent via the footpath from the Storey Arms. This is a direct route with about 400 metres of ascent – nothing challenging but tiring if you’re in a hurry.

When I reached the top of Corn Du I was a little dismayed as low cloud blocked most of the view. A westerly wind was blowing steadily but every now and again my view would clear, teasing me with a view of miles of countryside and of snow covered hills stretching off like veins in the landscape. Clear patches of sky were too brief to photograph so for the moment I was left with hopeful anticipation of what might come.

A short while later the cloud I was enveloped in turned a soft pink hue. I knew this meant the sky was clear somewhere to the east and that the cloud couldn’t be too thick. For a few moments the view opened up and I glimpsed the sun, a pink ball hovering above the peak of Cribyn in the distance. The parting clouds glowed neon pink and orange while spin drift spiralled around on the snowy surface below. I tried to photograph this scene but I was stood in the wrong place and I knew the moment would be gone before I could reposition myself. You’ll have to imagine it for yourself in the same way that I resigned to enjoying it with my eyes alone.

I was so enamoured with the light show and experience of being alone on the snowy peak that by this point I thought I’d be happy even if I didn’t get any pictures. While my photography trips are often about creating images that will profitable I try not to let that dominate proceedings as it often sucks the soul out of the pictures I end up with. Fortunately a short time later the sky cleared a little and I was able to take some pictures. And so began a morning of beautiful light and one of the best times I’ve had in the hills.

A golden sunrise lighting snow at Pen Y Fan in the Brecon Beacons, Wales.
March 2016: A first glimpse of Pen Y Fan with some golden sunlight hitting spin drift. I’ve called this image “Arthur’s Ski Resort” because this ridge is known as “Arthur’s seat”… and I like fun names.

My favourite view of this walk, and arguably its most photogenic, is that of Cwm Sere sweeping upwards to meet the triangular peak of Cribyn. I photographed different variations of this view from Pen Y Fan over the next hour but with a clear sky overhead I found my pictures lacked drama. I waited for a while longer and was rewarded with a bank of cloud which transformed the sky above Cribyn, helping to frame the view and create an atmospheric picture. By now the sun was well above the horizon and with virtually no wind blowing it was quite warm. I was surprised as the forecast showed gusts of 35-40mph. Fortunately I guess the wind was being funnelled up the valleys and over the tops of the peaks on which I was standing. Near the edge of the peaks the story was different as a strong, cold wind blew straight upwards.

Perhaps the most photogenic view in the Brecon Beacons is that of Cribyn towering above Cwm Sere. Taken as a panoramic you can see the sweep of the whole valley below.

I continued onwards, walking down Pen y Fan and up Cribyn. I’d forgotten how steep this route can feel; something I was reminded of on my later return to the car. I knew that half way up Cribyn the view of Pen Y Fan’s north face was good so I paused to take a picture of it. The sky had partly clouded over, creating an interesting backdrop of grey and blue.

Pen Y Fan’s north face photographed from the west side of Cribyn. By now it was much cloudier but that added interesting detail to the sky.

By this time I’d been awake for five or six hours and had only had an apple to eat. Breakfast was in the form of muesli which I’d left in the car. I was a little hungry but my enthusiasm took over and I continued the hike over Cribyn to the foot of Fan Y Big. When I reached the foot of this last peak the sky was rather grey and I decided that my need for food outweighed my need to take more pictures. Besides, I knew that more snow was due and that a flurry would reduce visibility considerably. I turned around and began the return journey, choosing to stick to paths that avoided the peaks rather than climb them. Nearly two miles later I reached the bottom of Pen Y Fan again but was feeling pretty tired. The only way back to my car involved an ascent of 200 metres or so. Slowly, sleet progressed to snow and it began to fall more steadily. I started walking uphill, knowing that I didn’t have that far to go but nevertheless needing to stop every five or so minutes to catch my breath. It wasn’t such hard work earlier!

As I gained more height I decided to pause and take one final picture. Steady snowfall reduced visibility considerably so that the view of Cribyn became almost like a pencil sketch. I liked this effect so took a slightly more arty picture, composing the frame tightly on the triangular face of Cribyn.

Cribyn during a snow flurry
A far different view of Cribyn than earlier. Falling snow reduced visibility considerably.

After what felt like an age I reached the end of my climb at the top of Pen Y Fan. Fresh snow had quickly masked the footsteps I’d left on my descent. From here the walk back was mostly downhill, something I was very grateful for. For the rest of the return walk I encountered many more walkers trudging up from the Storey Arms car park. Most were dressed in multiple layers and were wearing hiking boots. However, I was surprised by how many people were wearing trainers or didn’t have a waterproof layer on. I felt sure they’d quickly turn back once the damp snow started melted into their clothing!

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