An Ice Cold Winter Wild Camp at Grwyne Fawr, Brecon Beacons

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Ah, Grwyne Fawr. A beautiful reservoir set in the stunning Black Mountains of the Brecon Beacons. My first visit was back in the Summer, and after seeing the bothy, the leading line of the river, the beautiful valley and the possibility of a sunrise in the Winter, my mind was set on coming back. Since the beginning of December, I’ve been looking for an opportunity to shoot this location, yet it required a fresh layer of snow with a clear sunrise in the morning, never an easy combination for our weather to achieve. After looking at the weather forecast for last weekend, the opportunity looked promising. So, I planned my shoot.

The Route

I was tempted to take the gentle hike from the car park named Mynydd Du approx. 2 miles away from the reservoir, but I much preferred the idea of reliving the hike from Llanthony as there’s a beautiful 360 view at the top plus I wanted to make sure I was well and truly knackered for the long Winters night, even only at 6 miles to the reservoir, with an 18kg pack, the weight certainly takes its toll.

Starting From Llanthony

Saturday arrived and Kesha & I were ready to go. We made our way to Llanthony Priory car park for a relaxed 10.30am start and as we left the car park, a flurry of icy rain fell – a sign of the weather to come higher up. The route is quite simple, walk past Llanthony Treats (the B&B place) over a metal bridge, then follow the signs to Bal Bach and the gates that take you up. From Bal Bach, you take a right where you climb Bal Mawr and from the top, you’ll see the reservoir about 4 miles in the distance.

As we reached about 400m though, everything was engulfed in cloud and as we neared the top of Bal Bach, the snow really started the fall.

Reaching The Top

Soon we reached the height of Bal Mawr which is when the wind picked up, big time. The weatherman wasn’t kidding when they forecasted gales that could take you off your feet! The next 2 miles to ‘Blacksmiths Anvil’ took its toll. The snow turned into more of a BB pellet constantly slapping my freezing face with the unrelenting wind. At some point during this section, with the bitter gale and snow, my hands felt like they were receiving the initial stages of frostbite as I only had a thin pair of gloves on at the time. I was so glad when I realised I had brought my thick pair of Winter gloves with me. Honestly, I remember I had debated bringing them and if I hadn’t, then I think it might have been a different story – a lesson learned that being prepared is so vital.

Unfortunately, no pictures as we were in such a hurry to get off the mountain. It was such a relief when the Grwyne Fawr Dam came into view as we descended out of the clouds.

Kesha captured at an awkward moment. Maybe she’s looking to produce some yellow snow?!

I remembered from last time just how boggy the section from Blacksmith’s Anvil to the reservoir was. Thankfully with all the snow, the pockets of mud were mostly frozen over but there was still that one patch that caught me out as I crushed the ice and my boot went deep into the depths of mud! Thankfully my new Hanwag Tatra GTX mountaineering boots kept my feet dry.

It was about 2pm when we reached the reservoir and took the path up to the bothy.

Finally At The Bothy

As we neared the bothy, my heart sank just a little as I saw someone come out from inside. Immediately my desire for sleeping in the bothy went. To be honest, that didn’t bother me too much as I hadn’t had a proper winter wild camp yet, so this gave me an excuse to ‘make the most of it’. The route down to the bothy was steep and icy, two combinations that don’t go together! I knocked on the door and out came Jamie, Martin and Jordan. Three very sound lads who were staying there for the night with a massive bag of wood, whiskey and the hope for a clear night to see the stars! Sounds like a great night to me.

After about an hour of faffing around with my tent in the wind whilst I chatted with Jamie, I was back in the bothy with the lads, taking it easy whilst replenishing mine and Kesha’s dwindling food levels. The rest of the night was spent with the fire blazing and then me heading off to bed stupidly early at 7pm. Yep, I was knackered.

Most people seemingly call me mad for wanting to sleep in sub-zero conditions but to be honest, it really ain’t that bad. I had my down sleeping bag which kept me toasty all night plus Kesha added to the warmth with a movie on my phone to send me to sleep. Quite relaxing if you ask me! However, unfortunately, the wind kept up all night, making the tent sway in all sorts of directions. It was quite a noise and I could see that Kesha wasn’t comfortable with it.

The Next Morning

As I finally woke up the next morning at a surprisingly late 7.30am, the sunrise looked promising from inside the tent but oh damn was it cold which made getting out my bag a struggle. By the time I was ready and just about to put a brew on, I checked the horizon and… damn. Cloud. Bummer. Plus many other words were said in my head! As soon as I saw cloud, I thought the sunrise wouldn’t happen which demotivated me to prepare for my planned composition early like I normally do. Fast forward 15 minutes and the sun was just about to rise, so I ‘begrudgingly’ made my way down to the bothy as the cloud still didn’t look promising. Literally just as I was about to cross the river, the sun exploded light on to the clouds – Crap! I’m gonna miss this I thought as I bolted across in search of a composition. My tripod has never been made ready quicker as I perched my camera and fired some shots. Relief.

This image was a combination of six high dynamic range images of two sets, one set with my finger blocking the sun to remove flaring and one without. This allowed me to make the image feel more natural as normally shooting into direct sunlight you will capture a distracting flare.

This is where I made my next mistake – straying from my original composition. Because I was so hyped that I captured the image, my mind decided it was best to focus elsewhere.

Whilst I do like this image, I much prefer the other as I feel the composition is much stronger. My reasoning for why I made a mistake is because, in the other image, it would have been interesting to see whether it could be improved with the sun a couple minutes higher. Never mind, I’m still happy with the results!

I was even more delighted to hear that Jamie was offering a bacon and sausage sandwich – couldn’t say no to that! After spending time with the lads and saying my farewells, I headed back to the tent to pack up.

Kesha looking alert, guarding our B&B for the night (a Force Ten Helium 2).

As I put my tent away, the feeling of accomplishment was present after waiting over 6 months to capture this location – it really made me appreciate just how lucky I am to be able to photograph such a beautiful place and have the freedom to do so. Soon all my kit was packed up, making it about 10am, and after making my way up the steep icy hill of doom, I looked down on the composition I photographed earlier.

Beautiful!

Making Our Way Back

Now I had the 6 mile hike to conquer. Thankfully there was literally not a cloud in the sky, so the walk back looked to be a joy. Just before leaving the reservoir, I decided to fill up mine and Kesha’s water bottles (she carries her own) in an ice-cold mountain stream. Just as I was finishing, a couple came up to me and asked “Are you Pete from Two Feet Forward?”, at the first I was shocked having realised someone recognised me from a YouTube video, the chances of that! Then, they said they actually recognised Kesha initially… never mind, ‘fame’ was not meant to be! It was quite a cool feeling though, and the couple, Maggie and Rob, were experienced hikers in the area and were inspired by Austin & Lucy’s videos and were on the lookout for a spot for their first wild camp in the Spring. Really nice people. For me, that’s what YouTube is about – not incredibly distracting cat videos, a place for people to be inspired to go out of their comfort zone and experience new things.

As we ascended up to Blacksmith’s Anvil, the wind started to pick up although actually quite pleasant with the warm sun illuminating the white landscape and the crunch of snow underfoot. Any water was well and truly frozen, even a stab with my walking pole did nothing to break the ice.

Crazy Gales At The Top!

But once at the top, holy crap. The wind had turned from a pleasant brush of the hair into a 50mph+ human lift-off gale. I had to get behind a rise in the mountain to have a break. Just to show how bad the wind was, here’s a quick video of yours-truly fighting with the wind. And yep, the wind pushed me over.

What’s even more worrying though, is the fact that the carbon-fiber poles were able to withstand the wind! (in fairness they were hidden behind the mountain!)

From here I decided it was best to stay on the protected side of the mountain, which was hard on the feet due to the incline. After another 30 minutes of walking, I decided to take a break. With a galaxy chocolate bar in hand, a nice rock to sit on, cold mountain water, no wind, beautiful sunshine and a view like this, I don’t think you could blame me! 🙂

With a sugar rush in place and getting on past 12pm, I pushed on to get back to the car. I thought I’d try my luck with walking on the top of the ridge and whilst it was still bloody windy, at least the path was flat. It must be said whilst the whole weekend was awesome, seeing Llanthony Priory in the distance was quite a relief.

Once I reached the car park, the Mountain Rescue were in a large group probably finishing up some training. Seeing them brought back a memory from the day before on top the mountain with my hands quickly becoming painful due to the cold. Thankfully I was prepared, but if I wasn’t then I do wonder if I might have needed their great service. This put things into perspective for me, knowing that just because we may not have the steep mountains of the Alps, the weather can turn just as quickly in our relatively smaller mountains. Reinforces the ‘always be prepared’ statement.

Whilst an important lesson to learn, let’s not end the blog post on a negative. Here’s an image of Kesha that I captured just after falling over. She looks like a proper mountain dog with her huge coat and side bags! You can just make out Grwyne Fawr in the distance.

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Sarah Smiler
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Great blog! Sounds like pretty awesome adventure!
Planning to do an Astro shot at that Bothy in the Spring!

Maggie
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Maggie

? It was great to meet you! It made our day! We now have all our wild camping equipment gathered together, now for our first wild camp adventure! Don’t think we’re quite hardy enough yet to have our first camp in freezing conditions though! ? You CAN claim fame Peter, as it was you Rob recognised and I noticed Kesha… you’re both famous! Your photographs are beautiful… who’d have thought from looking at them you edured freezing conditions and high winds! Well worth it though and you had an unexpected bacon & sausage butty to boot! Rob & I look… Read more »

BrooksImaging
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BrooksImaging

Excellent. By far your best blog so far Pete. Sad I’m not young and youthful enough to join you on these types of trip, awesome!

Valentina Sorokina
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Valentina Sorokina

Wow! What a great story and the beautiful pictures 😉
Kesha is an amazing dog and deserves to be a YouTube star!