The Route: Neuadd Horseshoe
Distance: 22.00 km (13.6 miles) | Time: 9 hours | Ascent: 1330m (4363ft)
Start: SO062170 | Map: OL12 | Date: 19th June – 20th June 2010
Billed as ‘The most essential hike in the Brecon Beacons‘ this route has been calling out to me for ages. Over the past couple of years I had done various elements of the hike, but had never combined all the different elements into one grand all-dayer. The route encompassed all that is so glorious about this part of the Welsh mountains. It would have fantastic scenery, amazing views, plenty of height, some real mountains, beautiful valleys, dense woods and plunging waterfalls, all that was required to make it happen would be a sunny weekend.
A plan had been hatched several months earlier in a pub in Essex. There would be four of us that would all camp in Pencelli near Brecon and wake early to hit the trail on a Saturday morning in summer. My companions would be Paul, Graham and Barry all of whom I used to work with way back when. Many alcohol induced macho commitments had followed about doing the route, how we would all eat it up and non-completion was not an option!
Eventually the time had come on this sunny weekend in June, and all the best laid plans would now hopefully come together in unison. We set up tents on a campsite just outside the village of Pencelli situated in the shadows of the mighty hills. An early night was going to be a prerequisite, but there we were staggering back to the tents at 11.40pm from the village pub having sunk several pints of Red Dragon Ale. Then there followed some star-gazing in the crystal clear night sky. The universe gave a memorable performance as shooting stars darted across the clear night skies. Eventually, and the wrong side of midnight, we hit our sleeping bags and tried to sleep, fighting against our excitement at the day ahead.
Daybreak came and so did the headaches! Not the best way to start an all-dayer, not only that but the forecast was for intense upland sunshine and minimal winds. We slapped on the sun lotion and left.
Rucksacks packed we parked at Blaen y Gwyn at the bottom of the neighbouring valley. This would add a near half kilometre in distance and a bit of extra ascent to the hike but it would make it as pure an ascent as was possible and from as near to sea-level as could be achieved.
The forest track weaved in and out of fallen tree trunks and alongside rocky overhangs plummeting down to the depths left by the cascading waterfalls we passed. Many a photo opportunity occurred, but as the route was so long only minimal time could be spent in such a stationary manner. On such long routes there is always a nagging anxiety that you may run out of time or puff. But the daylight hours were long and despite the thumping headaches we were all in good spirits.
We headed out of the woods and into the upper woodland car park and then out of the blue the first signs of dissent in the team appeared. Although knowing, (or maybe not knowing), what lay ahead, and the size of the physical task needed to complete it Paul appeared to not have trained sufficiently in preparation and the first signs of overheating and fatigue were showing on his furrowed brow. He soldiered on though adamant that he was OK and would be able to keep going to complete the route.
After this brief respite, and the situation dealt with, we started to ascend for real up the steep sides of Craig y Fan Ddu, past more waterfalls and out onto open upland more’s. The climb here is steep but the beauty in the Brecon Beacons is that after a hard initial ascent the Ridgeway once having been gained is very rarely left, this means maximum time up high without all the burning knees of descent after descent to follow.
The summit was achieved but once again Paul was having a real moment of self-doubt. Not wanting to slow the team down he gallantly had decided in his own mind, (during his slow torturous climb up), that he would be better off bailing now and not holding the team up any longer. The key word here is ‘team’ and we were all determined that we would complete the day as a team. We had not come all the way to Wales to go back a disjointed unit. A small meeting on the slopes occurred and we all decided we would complete this challenge all together. The confab over and we pressed on along the escarpment to Graig Fan Las.
The view down into the small valley below was magnificent. The tiny Blaen y Glyn meandered its way through the post-glacial landscape, skylarks sung in the morning air, the sky was a bright blue. Our quick procession along the escarpment was only interrupted by the odd stray sheep and their lambs.
Soon we rounded on a col where there was a profusion of crossroads leading in all manner of directions. We chose the Bwlch y Ddwyallt route and were rewarded with our first views of the 4 central peaks of Fan y Big, Cribyn, Pen y Fan and Corn Du sprawled out in front of us like a line of sleeping giants.
No more motivation was needed upon seeing our main goals of the day in all their stupendous glory. We hiked excitedly along the Craig Cwareli escarpment and onto Craig Cwmoergwm before turning north towards the first objective of the day the comically named Fan y Big. Before we attacked the summit though we hankered down in a slate hollow for a touch of nutritional supplement before pressing onwards and ever upwards in our quest to complete the horseshoe.
Fan y Big has the famous ‘Diving Board’ where all self-respecting idiots have their iconic mountain day shot taken. I duly obliged as did Barry but the other two more sensible members of the team chose the more mature option of watching the rest of the idiots (myself included) nearly kill themselves for ‘that’ photo.
Silly photo’s completed it is a steep descent from Fan y Big to ‘The Gap‘ below in the col between said peak and Cribyn (our next goal). A steep and sweaty climb up the side of the iconic Cribyn was rewarded with the best views of the day so far from the summit cairn.
After a round of pats on the backs we descended once more down the Craig Cwm Sere on and towards Pen y Fan. On this descent you are rewarded with what I consider the best view in the whole Brecon Beacons, the North Face of Pen y Fan. The size and majesty of southern Britain’s highest peak really comes to the fore from this angle. From down in the col it looks almost impossible that in about 20 minutes time you will be standing on the top of this lofty peak, – the highest south of Snowdonia. At this point you do not need reminding of why you are here. A few deep intakes of breath later and we were on our way up.
Pen y Fan proved why she is so immortalised in photos and books, we struggled stopping and gulping for breath many times on the way up, the relenting stone pathway digging deep into our reserves of energy. This colossus of a mountain, like all good mountains has a sting in her tail, as you near the summit there is a small crux to be navigated with some hands on scrambling, its nothing much but after 20 minutes of steep up hill slog it reminds you that you are on a proper mountain.
As the icon of the national park you will never get the summit to yourselves so we touched the summit cairn and made the small hop along the ridge to the final peak of the day Corn Du. Corn Du is unremarkable in her self except for the views which are magnificent for 360 degrees from her summit.
Views having been observed and having bagged all the peaks it was time to turn our attentions towards the descent and heading in a southwards direction we hit out for the Taf Fechan Forest. Following the Craig Gwaun Taf route off Corn Du we pressed along the Rhiw yr Ysgyfarnog ridge as it narrowed and the valleys on both sides drew up alongside and into view.
At this late stage in the day the aches and pains and blisters were starting to mount up and conversation was at a minimum as we were all too preoccupied with our own thoughts at this point of the day for idle chat.
Finally we rounded on our route off the escarpment, a steep scree slope heading in only one direction, down! From a distance you would dismiss the route as impossible but up close and personal it reveals its true aspect to you which is far less frightening and intimidating. This all combined with a longer trek to the next escape route made the decision simple, we headed down the tricky steep scree for all we were worth. Scree slopes always seem to occur at the end of a long, energy sapping, day in the mountains and this is just the time when you are most prone to injure yourself. With this in mind we soon became more cautious as we made our way down the tumbling, twisting rocky strewn path. A few boulders dislodged and we were back once again on terra firma.
Back on track we trekked across boggy grassland until we came upon the entrance to the Taf Fechan Forest. This is the point in the day when you are tired, fatigued, sweating profusely and just want to lie down and die. It is not when you need two super fit ‘paratroopers’ to come yomping past you at breakneck speed and not even appearing to break into a sweat in the process.
We picked ourselves up off the dirt, not a word was mentioned, it didn’t need any commentary, on we pressed.
Rucksacks tight to our backs, boot laces tightened, we set off into the forest. From here there is no more ascent so we wallowed in the shade of the trees in the forest and the pace slowed to a crawl, but we knew we had done it, it was just the matter of getting back to the car from this point on. We followed the small twisting Taf Fechan stream as it wound its way around the trees in the dense forest until we eventually emerged onto the metalled road at Pon y Llwyn.
At this point strictly speaking we had completed the hike but we knew we still had to reach the car and so no handshakes were given, instead we resolved to press up the 1km of road which lay in front of us. We reached the top in a bad way all blistered and out of shape with burning kneecaps and aching limbs. Yet still we had to travail along this blisteringly hot tarmac road some more. After a steep decline back to the foot of the valley we collapsed in the car park and threw our backpacks to the ground.
We had achieved our goal a 20 plus km hike through the heartland of the Brecon Beacons bagging all four major summits along the way. We had no skin left on our feet, we were broken men momentarily one and all but we had big grins on our faces that evening back at camp! We had all achieved something special we had set out as a group and all arrived back as a group.
After some rest and recuperation the pain quickly dissipates, but the memories linger on, and as such Paul, Graham, Barry and myself are already planning our next mini adventure. Stay tuned!