UK's Black Mountain Blast|
Monday, May 08, 2006
|Photo by Gaereth Robinson
|Climbing Black Mountain
This is a confusing tale of two rides a fortnight apart, the second to find a legal version of the route. The first ride was hotter than Melinda Messenger's underwear, the second wasn't. This is not a ride for wingers or the faint hearted. It's long and, at times, dangerous. The climbs are steeper than I normally like, but it is all worth it in the end for the ultimate "Grand Day Out."
We met our guides, Rob and Alan (of Afan fame), at the Pandy Inn, then drove in convoy the five miles to the car park in the Grwyne Fawr Valley. The sun was already high in the sky and we took our time getting ready. I carried all the essentials to a life as a mountain bike writer: GPS, Dictaphone, bandages, fig rolls. When we finally set off I was chomping at the bit, but the first climb sorted that out, as it went straight up from the car park. The climb slackened after a few hundred yards and looking back the view was really something.
The route goes high along the right side of a steep, narrow valley and after two miles you reach the East side of the formidable Grwyne Fawr Valley reservoir dam. It continues in a straight line North Westward and follows the right bank of the reservoir, with its impressive granite flank, then climbs up a short pitch onto the moor proper. This is where the going gets tougher as the track splits into multiple, narrow, rocky/earth lanes (does it do this on all moors?) some of which are quite difficult. We found the leftmost track the easiest, but still tricky. And they'll play hell with your pedaling rhythm, as the lane you're in ends with frustrating regularity and everyone else's lane looks a much better bet.
About half a mile after the reservoir the tricky tracks get trickier by turning into stream beds. I was well up for following the course of one, which did in fact turn out to be a stream, DUH! Actually the trail goes across the by-now-shrunken-to-a-dip end of the valley and up the left bank on a barely rideable rock bed. This time the right hand lane is the easiest (is there some kind of rule here?) but unless you're feeling strong, it'll probably beat you and turn in to a push job. As you crest this short pitch the trail reaches its plateau and stretches out across the bleak moor top going always in the same direction. We followed the dips and gullies the half a mile or so to the gentle down-slope at the top of Death Valley.
The rain and mist were blowing across the valley from right to left, an eerie light played across the landscape from the mist-shrouded east and we wished it would stop playing and get on with the job properly. Somewhere way off a man cried out in pain, no, wait a minute, it was just a sheep. The mist cleared a little and suddenly the sun broke through and revealed a perilous trail running round the side of the mountain/cliff. The lads looked at me in a pleading whiny sort of way and Mat spoke for all of us, the sensible words, "we're not going down there are we?" I decided to consult the map, but somewhere deep down I knew this scary trail was indeed part of my carefully planned route. We flew the map in the wind like a kite without strings (Outdoor Leisure 13, the number seemed appropriate). Tom stood with the map against his back and I doublechecked that the sane looking dashed line on the map, was the insane one we could see.
Yes, that's definitely it, I commanded, feeling like a field-promoted officer enthusiastically recommending we go over the top. Amazingly the lads agreed, not so sensible after all I realized. What's more they raced off ahead and soon found that the trail was a lot wider than it had looked from across the valley. Not a lot safer though. The top 200 yards were really impossible, being composed of slippery broken stone slabs and loose rocks. However, a bit further down things improved a little and the surface changed, to possible slippery broken stone slabs and loose rocks. So we fools jumped merrily (HA!) on our trusty gravity sleds and threw caution to the wind, there was plenty of this anyway. Rocks of all shapes and sizes were the flavor of this perilous plummet, oh and drop-off's and a couple of hairpin bends. The right hand line can be ridden and is a bit smoother, but the sheer drop to your side may put you off balance and test your parachute, you did bring a parachute? Excellent. A final straight run spreads out onto a grass field where we were filled with elation, inspired by our unbroken and un-bloodstained bodies.
The weather noticed this unbridled happiness and chose the moment to let forth a great and final shiver of heavy freezing drops to dampen our enthusiasm. The map threatened to melt in my hands and with a quick look we turned left off the bridleway and on to a cutesy little Welsh road. We joined another bridleway soon after and turned left on this, where after a small rise the trail turns left again and (on the day we were there) its surface resembled red automotive grease. Remarkably we all slithered a good three hundred yards down here to join another road without sliding off altogether, shame. A right turn here took us two miles on another cute little road to a left and the start of the second climb. We started the slippery climb with gusto but soon lost rear traction and began the long slog to the top of the hill. This is not an easy climb. Hats off to you if you can ride all the way up it; we're just not fit enough (it should be possible in theory).
The trail goes up on grass through two gates then turns left and heads for the lowest point of the ridge. When we finally made it to the top the lads were full of appreciation for my route and humorously threatened to throw me off! What jokers they are, anyway in no time at all I'd scrambled back up the cliff and bandaged my abrasions. Straight over the top on the trail gets you a right hairpin onto a seriously long and fast bridleway descent. I led us out at a really silly speed and jumped a few of the large ditches and potholes, which in retrospect was madder than a bucket full of ferrets. Right at the bottom was a race for the Tal-y-Maes bridge which presents a 90-degree turn and has stunningly low parapet walls. The air was blue as we skidded to a halt narrowly avoiding the short sharp drop in to the rocky brook below. A couple of miles more of those tiny tarmac backroads and you reach a gate on your left.
The bridleway sign is in the hedge and you won't see it without looking backwards, but you can't miss the concrete tramway going up the one in three. This gut-wrenching climb gives you no excuse to stop, as it has perfect traction. DOH! After a switchback turn the trail continues right behind the back of a house and gets even steeper. Up through two small gates then left and more, steep climbing back up onto moor land. By this time on the first trip we were pretty dehydrated, the second time I was short of food, don't the Welsh do pubs or cafes?
The route follows the left edge of the moor with fantastic views, then crosses a ridge before it bears right towards the forest. The heather hides the potholes here and I had a really embarrassing get-off whilst my good buddies sniggered in time-honored fashion. I took my revenge on the downhill, a route that goes through a gate on the right and gets jiggy wid it on a bumpy, rutted, open doubletrack.
I pulled out all the stops to make it to the bottom first and had more than the usual dodgy moments in the ruts as a result. Straight across a wide forest section (after politely waiting for the guys) we are warned by Rob that the next section is rocky. I curled my lips back in to a contemptuous sneer, "rocks, we ain't afraid of no steenking rocks!" and put the pedal to the metal as I entered the curvy doubletrack into the trees ahead. I know there's a moral here somewhere because Rob had really been trying to warn me that this downhill kicks butt. Going at a speed a couple of miles an hour faster than way-too-fast, I rounded a bend and hit the big stuff. Rob later complimented me on how I handled the situation. I seem to remember a lot of bad language and panicking on my part with a desperate leap on to the right bank followed by more curses and some serious and quite passionate fear. The right bank turned out to be my savior though, even though the fir trees thrashed me mercilessly in their indignation at this desperate assault.
The final straight section of this mad descent is more rock strewn mayhem out in the open, but just a lot steeper. A third, shorter, rutted section brought us to the end at a left turn. Right through the farmhouses, then follow the forest road around the bend and straight across at the crossroads. We did this last section on the second trip and the sun had really come out again. A right fork leads to the corner of a fire road where we turned right on to a singletrack with a very steep end, which drops on to the road back to the car park. Well that was where we ended the ride on the first trip.
Without Rob's sane and cunning leadership, we crossed the river here at the lower car park and went straight up the hill on what I'd maintained would be a fairly easy climb. The reality is a straight one in five for a good half a mile. Oops. The lads were at mutiny point by now and we reached the top of the climb not a moment too soon. A final blast on a fire road following the river and then a short singletrack dropped us back at the car park, and a sorry and weary lot we were.