It will be clear from the last post that the trip didn’t go quite to plan, as I stopped short of my intended end point of Llandovery. But that’s not to say it was a failure, and I’m looking at it as simply having altered the plan further as I went. Nevertheless, there were some things that didn’t go as I’d have liked, and also some things that went well or better than I’d hoped. So here are the main debriefing points that occurred to me both during the trip and after.
The Plan – how realistic was it ?
This depends entirely how you look at it. When I first mapped out the walk and calculated daily portions, I came up with a schedule that was just over 3 weeks to do the whole walk, with an average of just under 14 miles and just under 3,400ft of ascent a day. Of course that’s an average so there were days much harder than that as well as some easier. That average day was at the upper limit of what I would consider doing for a day’s hillwalking, and that’s before I take into consideration the backpacking aspect. 3 weeks was about all I could afford as a block to be able to do it in one – if I couldn’t make it fit, then I’d have to split it into sections.
Now I realised at the time that this was ambitious, and also that if I spread it out to make it easier then I couldn’t do it in one go. So all of my original planning and stage calculations were based on the premise of doing the whole walk in one hit. At that time I also hoped that the training I would be doing would either bring me to the level I needed to be do achieve that, or would give me a clear indication of what I needed to do to the plan to fit where I was at.
Things evolved, in particular on the professional scene, such that it became clear I wouldn’t be able to do it in one hit. Moreover, this fact didn’t become fully clear until quite close to the scheduled start of the walk, such that I didn’t have time for a comprehensive re-plan. Since the route wasn’t going to change, re-planning was just changing my overnighting points. So when I got the green light to do the first section, I purposely didn’t waste time reworking the plan (which I’m sure would have changed on the walk anyway), and instead treated my existing plan as highly flexible. Indeed I allowed up to 12 days to complete the 9 day southern section. I’d simply camp when ready each day. The only thing I treated as semi-fixed was the intention to get to Abergavenny in 3 days – and that was simply because if I didn’t achieve that then the chances of me reaching Llandovery in the time available would themselves diminish significantly. I did also build in the intention to take the Talybont variant so as to give me a night in a hostel half way at the 2/3 point – however, whether this would happen was dependent on what night I got there due to being full on the Friday and Saturday. Luckily, I got there on the Sunday and they had room.
So, if you took my original plan literally, then it was over-ambitious such that in the 9 days of the trip, I completed only 7 days of the planned walk. But I’ve already said that I regarded the plan as highly flexible, and certainly I treated it as more a set of information that I could use to help me calculate and judge the trip as it went. The tools I took with me on the trip were very effective in enabling me to flex the plan as I went. In that sense, the plan did everything I expected of it.
Finally, I’ll also make the point that the actual distances walked turned out to be longer than those calculated during planning, due to detours and just the accuracy of measuring from a map. I did take this into consideration when recalculating the schedule partway. The first stage to Abergavenny was about 15% up on plan, and I factored this into the calculation of how many days to allow for the next bit.
The Cambrian Way is a tough walk – indeed it’s one of the toughest long distance walks in the UK, beating the Pennine Way for instance. Only walks such as the Cape Wrath Trail, LEJOG, the 4 corners, the South West Coast Path and the UK coastline walk are really harder, and all but one of them is simply because they are longer. The Cape Wrath Trail is often considered to be the toughest walk, not because of its length (at around 200 miles it doesn’t compare), but because of the demands it makes on the hiker’s self-sufficiency due to its remoteness. It’s difficult logistically and difficult to bail out of. The Cambrian Way is relatively easy to get yourself out of trouble on – a few miles walk will put you on a road that someone will pass on – but it certainly takes the most demanding and remote route possible through Wales.
The Cambrian Way joins up several different mountain ranges and involves all the ascent and descent to travel between each group of hills. So it’s tough in terms of the amount of ascent. When I was researching the walks of those that have done it before, most people seemed to have stayed in roofed accommodation, and only the real hard nuts backpacked it with camping gear – one of these incredibly did it in 11 days. Even those doing it from B&B to B&B took around 3 weeks. So I knew it would be tough doing it with camping gear too.
What I didn’t really make enough allowance for was the cumulative effect of doing an intense walk day in day out carrying those sorts of loads. Days 2 and 3 were both in the high teens of miles, which is a distance I wouldn’t even usually do on a day walk (although I certainly have done in the past and know I am capable of). When planning I didn’t get too concerned about the odd long day.
I arrived in Abergavenny at the end of day 3, dead on my feet after a 17-miler and 2,500 feet of ascent. That followed an 18 mile and 3,300 feet day the day before. I was tired, but it was mainly my feet that were aching, which wasn’t a surprise on those sort of distances in trail shoes. So I took a rest day, which worked really well, as evidenced by the fact that I then followed it with 13 miles and another 3,500 feet of ascent without feeling too bad at the end of it.
Because this worked quite well, I then made sure that I managed my daily distances such that I had an easy day arriving in Talybont, so as to give myself at least a half day of rest. I figured that now being “into” the walk, my fitness would be such that there was no need for a full rest day. Indeed, I felt quite fresh when I arrived in Talybont. But that was more a comparison to how I felt at the end of a normal longer day.
The next day, the cumulative tiredness hit me, and I struggled with going uphill. But I did it, and indeed my pace wasn’t too bad. However, I was definitely feeling ready for a rest or a complete stop.
So what does this mean for the rest of the walk ? Well, it is already clear that I will use the experience and data gained from the first section to help the second be workable in terms of schedule and distances. Already it feels like I won’t be able to finish the walk in one more trip – I think I’ll need 3 – so I really can just focus on letting the schedule be naturally what it needs to be, without worrying about the total duration. What I will do though, is reinstate some of the upland parts of the walk that were culled to build in re-supply in the valleys – because I was so concerned about the 6 days between Abergavenny and Llandovery. As I now only have the last 2 days of that chunk to do, resupply doesn’t need to be a concern. (The other reason I chopped out some upland walking – in particular the bit across Fan Llia and Fan Gihirych – was because of access issues during lambing, which won’t apply by the time I return).
Long distance walking is as much about your head as it is about your ability to walk. I know from past experience that once I’ve got it into my head that I’m not enjoying it, or that I want to get off the hill, then it’s highly unlikely that I’ll be able to convince myself to stick with it. My maximum past trip has been around 10/11 days, so it’s natural that around that point I start subconsciously feeling it’s time to end. I think that’s as much a part of why I stopped as the tired legs.
The other factor was the weather – I was unbelievably lucky with the weather having some light rain in the evening of day 1, and a bit in the cloud above Crickhowell on day 7. I had some wind though, but coped with it. The point at which I felt ready physically and mentally to stop also coincided with the forecast end of the run of decent weather. The next day was forecast rain, then the following two days would get increasingly wet and windy, reaching character-building proportions on my final day. I’d simply got used to the nice weather and didn’t fancy having the trip end in rain and gales. This forecast was certainly a factor in the decision, although not the decisive one – after all I went to Wales expecting my fair share of wet and windy weather anyway. However, I think it is fair to say that I am to some extent a fair weather walker – at least in terms of my motivation.
The other point I’ll make here is that I wasn’t doing the walk as some sort of personal challenge – I was doing it simply because I wanted to do the walk, and with all of the aspects that would have added that sort of pressure to achieve removed when I broke it into chunks, there was absolutely no need to carry on walking past the point that enjoyment started to diminish. Sometimes, I have to remember that hill walking is just a leisure activity and hobby, not something I should feel I “have” to do.
The one “head” thing I did force on myself, was the requirement to carry on the walk to a suitable break point, as there was no point bailing out somewhere difficult to get out from or get back to when resuming. If need be I’d have walked into Brecon if that had been the best route in/out logistically.
On this trip I had 5 nights wild camping and 4 under a real roof.
I loved the 5 nights wild camping, although I felt slightly vulnerable on night 1 in the quarry – it was yards from the main footpath through the woods. The other 4 nights were all up on the hill, and I saw so few people up there that it wasn’t a problem. The night on Chwarel y Fan was again yards from the main path as the ridge is so narrow. I did get a shock on Mynydd Llysiau when a bivvying neighbour dropped in, but that chat with Mick provided a real morale boost. All in all I loved the wild camping and for once I was able to get up sensibly early in the morning. Every night I spend in Monica is a joy, even when there is weather of biblical proportions going on outside.
I stayed two nights at the Swan Hotel in Abergavenny, simply turning up and finding they had a room. It cost £40 per night for an en-suite single, which is top end as far as I’m concerned. The room itself was fine, about par for the course for a B&B room I’d say. The breakfast was terrible and consisted of the cheapest ingredients, especially the sausage. The margarine was put into little pots, which is ludicrous as it looked like they were trying to fool you into thinking it was butter. Everything about breakfast came across as being meagre and mean. The other inmates looked pretty miserable and underwhelmed too. The bar meals on the other hand were fine and reasonably priced. It’s the sort of place I’d stay again only if the alternatives worked out a similar price or more – there is something to be said for knowing what you’re getting.
I spent a night at YHA Danywenallt at Talybont-on-Usk, getting a dorm to myself largely because I turned up on a Sunday night. It was fine and the better of the two hostels I stayed in. The food was pretty good, especially the roast chicken cooked by Carol, which was both enormous and of good quality. The meal was worth the £11.95 just for the main course. Breakfast was pretty standard YHA, although I seemed to be unlucky as the only person who they portioned out the fry-up for, whilst everyone else got to help themselves. So I lost out a bit on that. It wouldn’t be so bad except it’s always so obvious that they’re carefully measuring the food – giving a spoonful of scrambled egg, then a tiny little bit more and then a further tiny bit more. I’m surprised they don’t weigh it out. It’s in complete contrast to the evening meal too, which I struggled to finish. I’d happily pay an extra couple of quid for YHA breakfast if they were less miserly about it.
The next night I stayed in YHA Llwyn-y-celyn just up the road from Storey Arms. “Upgraded” to an ensuite room which I shared with the only other single male inmate (who snored loudly all night). I ate in too, having the standard meal of tomato and basil soup (a bit thick) and cumberland sausage and mash. Usually they do a better job of hiding the fact that the mash is out of a packet. There were no onions in the gravy either. It was all perfectly adequate though and better than some hostels I’ve stayed at. I preferred Danywenallt though.
For reasons of economy, I booked an open return to Cardiff, aiming to simply buy a single from Llandovery to Cardiff on the way home. Clearly this changed when I aborted at Story Arms. A bus (the T4) ran past the youth hostel and took me to Merthyr Tydfill for £2.50 where I got the train to Cardiff Central for a further £5.30. This took 2 hours to accomplish (roughly an hour for each leg). It worked well enough to be workable for when I travel back to resume the walk.
Gear Choices – general thoughts
Overall I was quite happy with the gear choices that I made, some of these choices being dictated by other gear (e.g. the pack I took was dictated by how much I was going to carry). But, and not for the first time, I still came away with the feeling that I’d taken too much and that my load was too heavy. This was ultimately due to needing to hedge my bets in certain areas, coupled with the quite reasonable desire to be happy and comfortable on a long walk. I only have to look at the gear that remained unused though, to illustrate that I definitely did take too much and need to trim it down for next time.
The picture above shows all of the items put aside when unpacking from the trip, as having not been used. Unfortunately, I forgot the stuff that I’d posted home from Abergavenny, so I should really be adding the Rab Ridge Raider and a small belt pack to this. The unused items shown above are:
- Bad weather gear that didn’t get used, but I couldn’t really leave behind – Berghaus waterproof jacket, overtrousers, gaitors, warm hat, Rab gloves.
- Gear taken because I expected it to be colder at night – Sea to Summit Reactorlite Extreme liner and fleece blanket/throw. In the lakes in March I was cold even with these, but was fine in the Carneddau in November when noctural temperatures were similar to forecast for this trip. So not unreasonable to take them.
- Spare gear not worn – Sealskinz “waterproof” (yeah right ?! Not) socks, Lowe Alpine boxers, 2 buffs. Mainly not worn because the trip was shorter than planned and wasn’t wet.
- Other – poo trowel and sit mat. I simply managed not to need either of these, due to some judicious timing in the case of the former and not having to sit on anything cold or wet in the latter case.
- Food – I had about half the food left that I took, but this could be mainly viewed as the supplies for the final 2/3 days, plus the spare day’s rations that I took as contingency. However, among that lot there were items that I probably still wouldn’t have used. I didn’t always feel the need for a hot meal each night.
I looked at this lot, and it pretty much equates to the volume of stuff by which I couldn’t use the pack I’d wanted to. Next time, given that it should be warmer, an approach whereby I constrain what I take based around a particular pack is probably the way to go. Food in particular is something I need to be a lot more ruthless over.
Gear – shelter
My plan to use a hooped bivvy bag for stealth on the first couple of nights, proved to be unnecessary. The Ridge Raider was despatched home without having been used. Total waste of time. For the 5 nights I camped (all wild), I used Monica who performed superlatively as usual. Because of uncertainty of long-range weather, and a naturally cautious approach, the crossing poles were packed, and I did use them on the one really windy night as well as on the one wet night (they help hold the outer and inner apart and prevent water ingress from touching). I did also put them on a couple of nights I thought were going to be windy, but needn’t have done so. There is no question that I will take a different approach for the rest of the walk – it’s Monica all the way. I must remember to give her a good service before then though. She could do with a good sweep out, a bit of a clean, and some odd jobs that I haven;t got around to yet.
Gear – pack
I took the Lowe Alpine Khumbu 65:80 because it was the only thing capable of carrying everything. Having said that, it handles the load fairly well, although simply using this pack adds 1kg more than any alternative I have. The intention next time is to force myself into the ULA Epic.
Gear – sleep system
With a forecast of zero to sub-zero temperatures at night, I went with the same sleep system as used in the snow in the Lakes in march – Cumulus Quantum 350 sleeping bag, Sea to Summit Thermolite Reactor Extreme liner, POE Ether Thermo 6 inflatable mat and a fleecy blanket. To this I added a Karrimor Expedition Marrimat to deal with the problem I had with cold rising from the ground and to also act as backup if my POE mat gave up the ghost entirely. I chopped the karrimat in half (well 60:40) and took just part of it.
I didn’t use the liner at all, and the blanket I only used as a pillow in the end (and could have used something else if I hadn’t had it). In my bag, I was actually too warm at times. One thing is clear – the Karrimat was a huge success at providing the needed insulation. The only issue with it was size – even after amputating the small half, it still had to go on the outside of the pack and it took some damage from low hanging trees and the like. Next time I’ll look at using the 40% bit and seeing if I can get it in the pack. The issue I had in the Lakes with the POE mat wasn’t a major problem this time because of the Karrimat supplying insulation, and indeed padding. Much as I begrudge giving Mike Ashley any money at all, I think it’s fair to say that the £10 I spent on the Karrimat in Sports Direct was £10 well spent – I reckon it single-handedly solved all my issues with my comfort and warmth that I’ve been having. It also meant that I looked like a proper backpacker with it strapped to the outside of my pack.
Gear – Cook system
When deciding what to take it was a no-brainer to take the Trangia because I reasonably expected that at some point I would do more than just boil water, and knowing how much the Caldera Cone can get on my tits. However, the truth was I didn’t use it all, and the Cone would have done fine. I will consider taking it next time when space and weight is at a premium. I took 1L of fuel and had some left, and still probably would have if I’d got to Llandovery. In summer, I’d be happy to take the chance that I wouldn’t be able to replenish fuel and so take the smaller bottle.
I took 3 dehydrated main meals, and 4 breakfasts, plus a wet meal for the first night and still have most of it left, having shopped and bought other stuff on the walk too. I used pubs and cafés wherever possible. I took too many snacks (as usual). As it wasn’t cold, I felt less need to have a hot meal each night. Certain items in my food bag were the stars of the show, not that they were necessarily the healthiest options:
- biscuits. A pack of digestives at the start and then supplemented with chocolate hob nobs. Quick calories (80-95 per biscuit) and something I could eat when I couldn’t be bothered to cook or wait for a proper meal. These were my all-purpose food stuff along with cereal bars.
- Carnation Squeezy condensed milk – I actually ended up using this in preference to the powdered milk I was carrying. Excellent for hot drinks and pepping up porridge.
- Scones – I bought a pack of scones in Abergavenny, and some butter, and they were divine. They held up fairly well to being carted about and made a good alternative breakfast.
- Wet meals – especially Dolmio pasta sauces for one, served with mini macaroni.
- Hot chocolate – the single most effective morale booster in my food bag. Made with a dash of milk (or the Carnation) for optimum luxury.
- Hartley’s jellys – I found little pots of jelly in Tescos in Abergavenny, some with fruit in. They didn’t add a lot of calories but were incredible treats on a windy hillside. Bulky though, especially as they were on multibuy.
Of the 3 BeWell Expeditions foods mains I took, I only ate one (the Thai chicken) and hated it. But I know at least one of the others I do like as I tried it before. The jury’s still out for me though on whether it is better to take light food or pay the weight penalty and have something awesome. Food is a great morale booster on a trip like this.
I took my now usual system of a 2L platypus rollupable bottle for untreated water, a Travel Tap to filter and drink from on the go, and a new-fangled squashable and rollupable 1L platypus sports bottle for drinking safe water from. However, I also ended up with an assortment of bottled water at various points usually when heading out of town and before I got to somewhere viable for sourcing wild water. I found a Fanta bottle especially effective as it fit in my shirt pocket – I then simply topped it up as needed.
Every day I walked in an Icebreaker 200 merino baselayer, with a trek shirt over. In the wind I put my Haglofs Viper soft shell on if needed. Down below, TNF Apex soft shell trousers were worn every day. I wore a pair of Saloman X Ultra GTX trail shoes. This system worked beautifully and I was never too hot or too cold. See unused gear above for the bad weather supplements I had. The shoes were fine, although understandably my feet hurt after the really long days, which could have happened in anything. These shoes will be perfect on the SWCP in June.
I also had an off-duty kit comprising a pair of light trousers, and a lightweight trek shirt which I used as both civilisation clothes and nightwear when in the tent. This worked well too. I supplemented these with a Uniqlo down parka, a pair of bed socks and a thin liner beanie for keeping warm at night. A pair of £8 canvas shoes from Primark were adequate for wearing in town whilst being reasonably light. These are now permanent kit.
I also took a couple of spare pairs of boxers and 3 spare pairs of walking socks, trying to keep one for emergencies or having something fresh to wear for the journey home.
I was totally happy with my clothing choices on this trip, and really wouldn’t change a thing. Although there were a couple of days when I might have worn shorts if I’d had them.
I took my usual stuff. Geonaute Keymaze 500 gps watch (from Decathlon) to monitor distance, altitude and pace and provide key decision making info. Spot Connect to track progress on Social Hiking and to message home when no mobile phone signal. An Olympus SZ-30MR for pictures and a Kindle as my luxury item. I then have two battery packs having given up on solar charging – a Powertraveller Minigorilla and a TeckNet. I never ran out of power. Although this was in part due to keeping my phone on airplane mode for the majority of the time. I also had a small Sandisk Sansa mp3 player which weighs very little. This was invaluable on one hostel night due to the snoring of dormmates. All I would change for the future would be whether I take both chargers which would depend on how many nights away from the mains.
I packed spare batteries, tent repair patch, foil survival blanket, first aid kit, spare laces, multitool, duct tape, clothes peg and probably loads of other things I’ve forgotten about. I didn’t need all the spare batteries, as my Spot lasted off the same set for the whole trip.
OS 1:25000 maps printed onto Toughprint waterproof paper with some sheets of OS 1:50000 printed at smaller scale to give context and overview. I had a routecard made up of about 60 key waypoints, being the 14 official checkpoints, major summits, towns, villages and points where I might want to make decisions about detours. I also took the two OS maps for the Brecon Beacons (OL12 and OL13), which I did use as I found my Toughprint sheets were quite faint in some places. This wasn’t the fault of the paper – it was my printer cartridge running low. On the trip I bought the BMC/Harvey 1:40k mountain map for the Brecon Beacons which gave context and when trying to work out my best way across Mynydd Llangattock and Mynydd Llangynidr showed paths the OS didn’t. I made a mistake in taking maps for the next section, on the ill-founded possibility that I might progress faster and further than Llandovery.
The route card, although the distances became outdated when re-planning and due to the excess distances each day, did give sufficient relative information to allow judgements to be made. It also enabled me to calculate how much to scale up the plan distances for to allow for the overrun. I also took the Cambrian Way book with me which was useful.
Gear – summary
I could sum up the above by simply saying that next time I should hopefully not need to pack for really cold nights, and need to be massively more ruthless with my food (and hence my cook system).
So overall, although it’s fair to say that the trip didn’t quite work out as planned, it certainly wasn’t a disaster, and in a good number of areas it was a success. Even where things didn’t work perfectly, I got good data or experience that can help me fine-tune for next time. I’m still well up for completing this walk.