Grade B+. 7 miles.
Date: 4 December 2015. Weather: Blustery, light rain.
Fan Brycheiniog is the highest peak at 2633 feet (802.5 m) in Y Mynydd Du (the Black Mountain) region of the Parc Cenedlaethol Bannau Brycheiniog (Brecon Beacons NP) in southern Wales. Picws Du and Fan Foel are the adjacent fans (peaks, summits, “beacons”). Llyn y Fan Fach is a dammed lake of approximately 10 hectares on the northern margin of Y Mynydd Du. It lies at an altitude of 1660 feet, or 506 metres.
This walk was an opportunistic reconnaissance, with a future weekend group ramble in mind. A mild, dry weather forecast offered a small opening in a period dominated by rain and high winds. For me, it was the first time I’d ascended a mountain on my own. The occasion provided object lessons in reading the landscape and observing how the weather on top of a mountain can differ markedly from that just a couple of hundred feet below.
The route is accessed from a car park lying down a lengthy track, accessed via the village of Llanddeusant and the hamlet of Blaenau. The walk begins with a steady gradient, with increasingly panoramic views of the fans (peaks, summits) lying ahead. On this occasion, cloud was swirling lightly around the Picws Du. My hope was that I would be upon it in around an hour and a half’s time.
For the first mile, the track follows alongside the fast-flowing Afon Sawdde.The river provides a dramatic, burbling accompaniment, as it descends over a number of weirs. It is fed by numerous tributaries, as well as draining from a set of filter beds which are passed after about a mile. The track is firm and well-drained, all the way to the edge of Llyn-y-Fan-Fach (“the Peak’s Small Lake”).
Shortly, after this the route bridges a drainage channel from the lake, via a small concrete slab. It then crosses the open moorland of Waun Sychlwch, in the immediate shadow of the escarpment of Cefn Twrch (“Boar Ridge”). At this point, the weather was blustery and dry. At the same time the weather atop the mountain was visibly changing. Whilst Picws Du was visible, Fan Brycheiniog (“Brecnock Peak”) and Fan Foel (“Bald, rounded Peak”) were enveloped in cloud.
At the 2.4 mile distance, the route approaches Pant y Bwlch (“Valley pass”). The pass is narrow and tricky in places, including some overhanging rocks that must be navigated carefully and without haste. At the same time, it provides dramatic views of the escarpment below Fan Foel and, looking backwards, the valley below Twyn yr Esgair (“Down the Long Ridge”).
Once through the pass and onto the roof of the mountain, the weather was immediately distinctly less bright and the wind stronger. At this point, cloud had not enveloped the mountain and the top of the Picws Du was visible. My route now ascended 150ft gradually over the course of a mile. This brought it to the edge of the ridgeline of Fan Brycheiniog and the trig point, which marks the highest peak of the Myndd Du (Black Mountain).
During the course of this mile, the weather closed in markedly, with cloud entirely enveloping the moorland atop the mountain. Visibility was reduced to 100–150m. I was conscious that this meant the peat-bog terrain was now considerably more dangerous than on a clear day. I was grateful to discern the trig point coming into view. The presence of the nearby stone shelter offered me welcome refuge from the wind, which was now whipping strongly towards the nearby edge of the ridge.
Before setting out on this walk, I had studied the topography carefully. I knew that there was a clear path along the ridge line of Fan Brycheiniog. Yet the wind had now become sufficiently powerful to be pushing me around and preventing a sure footing. Accordingly, I kept well back from the ridge, which necessitated walking through marshy land, rather than the relatively level limestone pathway of the Beacons Way.
A cairn emerged suddenly out of the cloud, warning me away from the twisty ridge-line of Tŵr y Fan Foel (“Bald Peak Tower”). With the cloud now reducing visibility to less than 50m, I decided to take the shortest route back towards the pass, rather that following the Beacon’s Way around Fan Foel, as I had planned to do.
Although it was a short distance, it was without sight lines, such was the cloud cover and ferocity of the wind. Accordingly, as I crossed potentially treacherous moorland, wind and rain now full in my face, I regularly checked my path and orientation with a GPS tool, the functioning and battery level of which I had assessed repeatedly throughout the walk.
Gratefully, I soon re-encountered the path of the Beacons Way. It was now abundantly clear that the circular route around the ridge-line of Glastir y Picws should not be undertaken. I chose to descend immediately, via Bwlch Blaen-Twrch (“Summit Pass”).
The pass swiftly took me 120ft down from the summit. Immediately, the weather was again transformed. It became mild, rainfall was light and the wind blustery, rather than fierce. The next mile across moorland provided a gradual descent back to Llyn y Fan Fach. The final mile a rapid descent to the car park.
All in all, a fabulous experience, with useful experience gained.