Monday, 31 March 2008

Rain drops keep falling on my head...

Last week we moved from "Aerobic Endurance Training phase to "Build-up Training" phase. It's only a minor step-up in effort, we do an extra run on Saturdays and run Thursday's run at a higher intensity.

Last Saturday, however, we were entered to walk the Three Peaks Trail Challenge Walk in Abergavenny (in Wales) - the Gold route, which is approximately 20 miles, so no run on Saturday but trekking up three 600 metre (ish) hills more than made up for it.

Jo and I did the walk with my eldest sister, Am, who lives in Cardiff hence has over 30 years of experience of walking in these Welsh hills. When it comes to trekking and hills, Am is no slouch, so when she later declares that this walk was the hardest she has ever done then you'll understand that it was an epic!!!

We started the walk at 8:20am. The weather was cloudy and mild...perfect walking weather, but the forecast was not good. The three peaks we were tackling, in order, were Blorenge (561 metres), Sugar Loaf (598 metres) and Skirrid (aka Skirrid Fawr - 486 metres). (Sorry I haven't given the welsh spellings, but man that language does my head in!!!).

So, anyway, first up was Blorenge. Thankfully the rain stayed away as we ascended this mountain as the way up was steep. The ascent to this peak was pretty busy as all the walkers were pretty much bunched up at this point, and most were taking layers off as it was hard/hot work going up. Initially it was probably almost a 1:2 incline, but later it became a 2:3 (or worse). Basically we were on our hands and knees crawling up this mountain. It was pretty hairy to be honest (especially as the ground was quite slippery due to weeks of rain) but somehow we managed to get to the checkpoint at the peak without incident. At the top we were buffeted by a strong wind (probably around 50 mph) but it still felt great - oh how things would change pretty soon!!!

It was pretty cold at the top, so we took shelter, put our layers back on and had a small break to take on food and hot fluid. The decent was nice and gradual and the route down was an easy boggy (if a little muddy) path, but then it started to rain :(

We took a break under a canal bridge in Gilwern as we figured it would be our last dry spot for quite some time, unfortunately it didn't protect us from the wind hence because we were stationary we did get pretty cold as we ate - so we didn't hang around for too long and headed on our way asap. The route up the 2nd peak (Sugar Loaf) wasn't as steep as Blorenge, but it was longer and it still peaked at around 1:2 incline. The weather was becoming brutal - the wind speed had picked up (around 60mph, plus gusts), the temperature had dropped and the rain had become heavier.

There was no smiles or rejoicing once we got to the Sugar Loaf peak checkpoint, five and a half hours into our walk. It was just too damn cold and miserable. We were in a hurry to get down to safer ground. There were several paths down, in a rush we picked one that headed in the right direction. The path down was pretty treacherous...steep and rocky and with a brutal wind blowing. The rain and wind worked as a well coordinated team - the rain tried to knocked your resolve and the wind tried to knock you off the mountain :(

It turned out we had taken the wrong path, but it didn't add much to our route, but we figured the right path would have been more sheltered from that blasted wind. We got back on track via a path that ran through some woods. It was nice to have some shelter from the wind and to hear yourself think again, but it was pretty grim....the woods were like a scene from Mordor (Lord of the Rings); grey, twisted and lifeless. We were cold and flagging, so we raided the chocolate in our "emergency rations" - with hindsight we should have taken a longer break in the shelter of the woods and taken on more fuel. We had been on our feet for over six hours and had taken on the bare minimum of food - not very wise in these conditions but it was just so wet out there that we had very little desire to stop and rummage in our back packs (even though the food was in waterproof containers).

The next checkpoint was outside a pub, the Crown. Note sure if the rules allowed us to seek shelter in the pub but we had to - just to dry out a little and to get a hot drink. We took a thirty minute break at the pub. There were other people in the pub from the walk, but they had decided to chuck in the towel and quit. It was tempting - but Am was raising money for charity hence we had to carry on, otherwise I'm pretty sure we would have called it a day too.

So we headed out, still feeling cold and miserable, to tackle our final peak, Skirrid Fawr. Skirrid Fawr mean sacred hill or holy mountain - it felt the gods were not pleased with us walking on holy ground because it rained and rained. As we were approaching Skirrid I knew we were in for a tough time as the summit was enveloped in a cloud. Even though this was the smallest peak it was the coldest and wettest. Thankfully the path up was pretty good - being part of a well used Beacons Way, otherwise we may have been forced to quit. We got to the peak at 5:45pm, 15 minutes before the checkpoint was due to close except there was no sign of the checkpoint tent. Visibility on the ridge at the top was limited to about 40 metres, so we weren't sure where the checkpoint was. I headed off in one direction and left Jo and Am resting as best they could in the elements. After about 150 metres I saw a vague outline of a tent and then headed back to Jo and Am...they had been a bit worried as they had seen me disappear into the mist. As the three of us made our way towards the tent the mist cleared and the wind died...almost as if the gods conceded defeat. Jo described it as being like the scene from "The Truman Show" - Truman is battered and almost drowned by the storms created by the producer, but he wont give up and in the end the producer knows there is nothing he can do to stop him and so the storms are stopped. I'm sure the gods could have thrown more at us - but you get the point, right?

Unfortunately our storms did not stop - after the checkpoint we headed right into the very strong wind to make our way off this final peak. Again, the path was very good, especially once we got lower down and out of the wind. The rain was relentless and now it was getting dark (and even colder). Eventually we hit the main road into Abergavenny and began the long march to salvation. This final leg was hard and wet, but thankfully we made it to pavement before it got too dark and we got flattened by the speeding traffic. We had passed about 7 people after our decent from Skirrid - I did not envy them behind us.

We finally arrived at the finish at 7:20pm. Eleven hours of hell!! The volunteers on this walk have been magnificent, from the poor souls stuck in tents on the peaks to the marvellous people that plied us with hot drinks, soup and cakes at the finish. Thank you.

As we left to get into our car and head home to a hot shower one of the volunteers shouted "see you next year". My reply? "Yeah, definitely. See you next year"!!! :)


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