Most of us wouldn't think of the UK as a prime ski location. Scotland might make the list, but how about Wales? This week we're joined by Mike Richards, poet, photographer and ski instructor. Mike describes how, when the conditions are right, skiing in Wales can be as good as anywhere!
I get to the school gates as the bell rings, and join mothers, fathers, grandparents waiting for their children to cascade from the classrooms on to the playground, wet and dark like a polished piano. Against the black, grey, and stone of the schoolyard my ski pants and jacket make it look as if I've dropped from another planet, and it feels like I have. Only 30 minutes drive away and 200m higher, I spent the day above the mist and drizzle of a Winter Wednesday in the South Wales Valleys, in a sun drenched lunar landscape, skiing the Brecon Beacons National Park.
Although I'd skied in South Wales a number of times, as far back as 1998, this day in early December 2004, whilst spending a winter at home looking after a mate's three children, was the first time I felt that I could have a Winter's worth of turns practically in my backyard. That winter I got a dozen days on skis in the Brecon Beacons, including my first drop off the flanks of Pen-y-Fan into Cwm Sere.
I bootpacked up the North East face of Pen-y-Fan to the summit plateau, to gauge the steepness and features of the terrain, but it would be another 5 winters before conditions were right for me to make the first descent of this coveted line. There are a lifetime of lines to be skied in the Brecon Beacons National Park, from the Black Mountains in the East to Mynydd Du (Black Mountain) in the far West. From gently rolling upland moors to steep, glacier gouged faces dropping from rocky buttresses. But Mother Nature is fickle in these parts, with many Winter months receiving little or no snowfall.
The best chance to see and ski snow in South Wales is at the heart of the Park in the Central Beacons Massif, either side of the A470 road between Merthyr Tydfil and Brecon. This road provides easy access to the highest peaks in Southern Britain.
Skiing the Beacons is not something which can be planned for and waited on. It's a matter of following weather forecasts, and when snow is on the horizon, heading up and having a look for yourself. You never know until you go! And with the exception of the 2009 and 2010 winters where snow lay on the slopes for a couple of weeks at a time, the snow can disappear as quickly as it appears. Often in front of your eyes.
In a good Winter where you can drop everything and chase the snowstorms, 10-15 days on skis is realistic. Christian Morris from Pembrokeshire, my latest ski partner, managed 15 days in the Beacons and 17 days overall skiing in Wales this past winter. His first! And the skiing? From rock dodging on frozen grass to knee deep powder. And everything in between. But when the stars align and the weather is benign; when you can see over to England and down to Swansea Bay; and ski from the summit of Pen-y-Fan back to the car park, it's as good a day out as anywhere in the world.
SANDSTONE STAIRCASE, by Mike Richards
A well travelled path, less so in winter
When frost and snow glaze the rocks and mountainsides.
Made by hand, worn by foot and hoof.
In plain view, often hidden in mist,
This sandstone staircase to a windswept plateau.
Wild mountain ponies
With frayed flag manes and coats of wet chainmail,
Lean quietly into the wind.
Walking towards a night which never gets nearer
Our breath and the first snowflakes caught in the projector triangle of the headtorch.
Corn Du, black in the pre-dawn blue, to the left,
Pen-y-Fan curving up and away to the right.
And the first glimpse of Cribyn's pyramid, grey against the olive.
Clouds draped over the other side of the valley,
The grey white of Big Top canvas
Folded, creased, from countless set ups and strike downs.
A waterfall of wind fills and empties the valley with mist.
Then the canvas is lifted,
As if someone is trying to sneak in, or out,
And from that crack
The lights and energy and warmth of the show inside
Spills on to the ridge and down the slopes to the river.
Dragon's Breath aflame,
Candyfloss clouds swirl over the Whorls,
loops and arches of friction ridges and furrows on fingerprint faces.
Looking down on ravens, shadows, adrift.
Ridge lines and summits whitecaps cresting above the green of this ancient ocean.
Rarely is the snow Christmas white and light.
Mostly it's shouting, not wanting to stick around.
Angry grains of salt bouncing off the path.
The feathers on the freezer walls and coils.
Spilled cement dust.
Dropped ice creams on a summer lawn.
But there are days when the weather is a spectator.
And on those magical days the snow is quiet, inviting, comforting.
Exhilarating as you float from the summit to the valley floor.
The Brecon Beacons are not 'The Mountains of Indecision',
The 'Manana Mountains', of some unspecified tomorrow
They are the 'Mountains of the Here & Now'
In the Spring sunshine the snow line recedes like the tide
Leaving a thin cap of snow on the highest peaks
Gannets on Grassholm's green.
See and read more about Mike on his Instagram page @mikethesnow
If you're feeling inspired for more check out The Journal for more epic adventures and stories.