Following my mild panic and questionable lack of preparation, I found myself in central Wales. I sat in the boot of my car, coating my exposed pale skin with suncream. I hauled my pack on my back, tightened the straps and committed. One foot in front of the other. Repeat until failure. Every few hundred meters I passed small wooden posts with blue triangles nailed to them. Those triangles were printed with a little white tent with a thick red cross slapped across it. If that wasn’t obvious enough, beneath the tent were the bold, all caps words ‘NO CAMPING’. With my tent strapped to the outside of my bag, my intentions were obvious to everyone.
The gravel track I was following to the perceived start of my route was a solid 2km uphill. I’ve learned that when I start doing anything, my body and mind are very much against whatever it is. My legs were telling me I was carrying something on my back, the voice in my head was whingeing about what does and doesn’t count as a good time. I was silenced when I reached the first plateau on the shores of Llyn Y Fan Fach. A footpath wound around the hillside to the top of Bannau Sir Gaer and I hesitated. The high road, or the low? Oh how I’d love to go up, to cruise along the ridge line and descend later in the day to set up camp. I knew it wouldn’t be that easy so I compromised with my legs and my inner voice; we’ll take the low if you shut up. I turned my back on the carpark crowd, those free from the weight of overnight gear, and walked away from the lake.
To my surprise I spotted the orange dome of a tent perched on a low hill. A total disregard for the wild camp mantra of arrive late. Down on the shore of the second lake on my route, Llyn Y Fan Fawr was an inflatable blue canoe. Whoever these people were they’d been here for a while. At the far end of the lake, a twisting line of smoke gave away the location of further residents. I pitched up on the flattest, driest point I could find out of sight of the other campers and set about preparing my evening. My first priority was water. I walked to a fast flowing, clear stream with a little plant life beneath the surface and held my water filter’s collecting pouch beneath the flow. Nothing happened. None of the water was going in. I checked, just to be absolutely certain that I had taken the cap off. I had. There was a small puddle of water in the bottom of the pouch. I tried holding it under the tiniest of waterfalls tumbling off a pebble and my position didn’t improve.
When have I drunk water maybe I shouldn’t have? In the Scouts, I was maybe 15-16 and we were hiking in the Lake District, or maybe it was the Beacons? I remember we stopped to fill our bottles up at a stream and someone suggested we go higher to make sure a sheep hadn’t died in it. Nothing bad happened. Around the same time, with probably the same crowd I went swimming (not deliberately) in the Thames. Later I found out I had some Haribo in my pocket and ate them. To the surprise of nobody I was violently ill. I felt that I was probably safe enough, I had even seen comments on the internet that said it was safe to drink the water from the lake. So I gambled. I filled up my containers direct from the stream. It wasn’t Italian alpine water delicious, but it tasted a little better than the tap water I’d started with. Now all I had to do was hope I didn’t get cholera.
Across the evening several other hikers arrived and picked their spots. One father had carried all the gear and firewood for him and his young son to spend the night. A couple came without a tent and bivvied on the low mound spitting out into the lake. This was easily the largest number of people I had ever broken the law with. It was worth it. The sun had been behind the mountains for some time and I wasn’t going to be watching it set. Instead I watched the spectrum of colours rolling across the hills and valleys to the East. The double humpback fin on the horizon of Pen Y Fan and some other marginally lower summit turned a dusty purple. I tried to sit up and wait for it to get dark but the ground was getting damp and my arse was numb from sitting on the warmer, drier but significantly firmer rocks. I went to bed hoping to wake up at some point in the night so I could pop out and see the stars. It happened. Just past midnight my body told me I had to get up. I crawled out of my sleeping bag, pulled on my loose boots and looked up. I’ve enjoyed a few spots with little-to-no light pollution in the past and this was exceptionally dark for Britain. The layers of varying brightness suggested the incredible depths of space, and only back towards England was there the faint orange glow of civilisation. I crawled back into my tent and hoped to wake up early enough to catch the sunrise over the peaks to the East. In the end I slept in, being awoken at 6am by a skylark jamming in the sky. I raced out to find the sun well on its way up, the peak of Pen Y Fan a hazy shade of blue. I looked up at the ridge line. The steepest path I could imagine shot up the far side of the lake. I wanted to do it. I always want to do it but sometimes I decide that playing it safe is the sensible option. I loaded up and committed one of the ultimate walking sins; I returned the way I’d come.
I watched the a figure march across the landscape with what appeared to be a folded blue inflatable canoe strapped to their back. I came to another route up to the summit, not as steep but just as daunting. I started. Up and up I climbed without ever really getting anywhere. I might have been making good time, it might have been because I had a choice. I decided I couldn’t, didn’t want to, not this time, do it. I justified the decision to myself with talk of the single lane track to the car park, the glorious weather, and the flow of traffic I’d be driving against if I left it too late. It was OK, I told myself. I’d done a two day hike with my full pack and nothing was broken. This was all I had set out to do. I could go home now and if nothing else know I’d done slightly more preparation than last year.