After bagging the Ironman biggie in 2015, I rolled into 2016 with another challenge to conquer, that of climbing a mountain.
Having had a pesky fear of climbing hills all my life, I was ready to face it — some CBT coupled with Ironman gave me the confidence I needed. But when I say ‘mountain’ I am not talking Kili or even Ben Nevis. I was starting small, the Welsh Three Peaks: Pen y Fan in the Brecons, Cadar Idris in Snowdonia and Snowdon itself. I ran up and along Pen y Fan in May, ran up Cadar Idris during an ultra duathlon in June, and then spent the rest of the year procrastinating about Snowdon. Suddenly it was December and I was running out of time…
So a plan was born – cycle from my house to Snowdon, and clamber up the thing, before the year is out. I wasn’t mad or brave enough to undertake this journey alone in the depth of winter, so I raised the question after four glasses of Prosecco at a Specialized ‘Ride into Winter’ ladies event, and it was all of two nanoseconds before I had keen co-adventurers.
The plan was to ride from Bristol to Snowdon, right up through the middle of Wales. 226 miles, 18,208ft (5,500 metres). Something that looked a little like this:
Add to this lovely lumpy route over the hills of Wales the fact that this was to be undertaken in the middle of British wintertime, with its quickly passing daylight hours, and the recent sub-zero temperatures, and you have yourself some worried little icicles, namely myself (worried icicle numero uno), Rosie, a hardy and strong rider (worried icicle numero deux) and El, a rider new to this long distance riding malarkey, with big, nay HUGE plans in the shape of the Transcon. El was icicle numero troix, but did not seem worried a jot.
The day before we were due to depart, Bristol was covered in patches of ice. ‘My friend just slipped over outside my house,’ Rosie said, ‘Are we mad?’ to which I replied, ‘Yes’, before quoting: “the only impossible journey is the one you never begin”. Despite reciting cheery quotes, I was panicking a little, twitchily tidying my flat, packing and unpacking the 13L seat post dry bag, whose contents included:
Headtorch for Snowdon
Waterproof for Snowdon
A pair of trail shoes for Snowdon
Spare base layers x 2
Loads of chocolate
Somehow this was heavy enough to make me get on my carbon bike loaded with a bag for the first time and think, how ever am I going to ride this thing out of Bristol, least of all over the Welsh mountains. Yet somehow, it was absolutely fine, and not only did I make it up the climbs, albeit sometimes walking and crying simultaneously, I even grew to love the extra weight I was carrying, which provided an extra kick on the descents…
Imagine my delight on the morning of Le Grand Adventure, to walk out of my flat in the dark at 07:20 and discover not a hint of frost. I whooped in delight, and set off to meet the girls. We rode off on time, out of Bristol at 08:00, through the Friday morning rush hour traffic.
Heading out over the suspension bridge into Wales felt somewhat magical. As we wheeled out, we were so shiny, our faces fresh, our overshoes clean, our bikes a mirror for anyone caring to peer at the toptube… ah, if only we knew what was to come.
The first drama happened in Abergavenny. Upon arrival via a beautiful descent, Rosie shouted ‘FLAAAAAAAT!’ and with that we were peepers-a-peeled for the nearest bike shop. Around three seconds later my bike suffered the same fate. We got them fixed, and headed northward to our first ‘Warm Showers’ hosts, near Talgarth at the top of the Brecons, where El and I enjoyed baths to warm the toggles and pints of Welsh ale. As we wheeled up through the Brecons that first day, the rolling scenery became increasingly impressive. On day one we were treated first to the views of Sugarloaf, then Pen y Fan and its friends, Cribyn and Fan y Big in the distance.
That first night there was some light snoring from team icicle, but thanks to lights out at 9pm, we got some decent shut eye and were packed and ready for the off just after 07:30, ready to head off for the big day; 80 hilly miles from Brecon to the south of Snowdonia National Park.
The girls were both unusually quiet at breakfast, I could sense nerves for the big day we had ahead of us — a pensive silence broken only by munching noises. But as soon as we hit the road, the sun rose and with it, our spirits. El started singing welsh songs, and we had pastries in the cutest little cafe, chirping to anyone who asked, ‘We’re cycling to Snowdon!’.
The climbing that day was brutally tough, but the reward was utterly immense, and arriving in Snowdonia by bike in winter as the sunset was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen and felt; thanks to that unique combination of seeing and feeling that you get with cycling! When we first saw our final destination for day two on a signpost, we were relieved, and then amused, for it said ‘Machynlleth’ and then in tiny letters, ‘via mountain pass’.
On top of the mountain our aching limbs were replenished with an energy that being bathed in an incredible sunset brings. We were suddenly stood amid this utterly breathtaking bright orange scene, oohing and ahhing. Little did we know, we’d even been spotted by cyclist Emily Chappell’s mother, who later sent a lovely message to Emily:
‘On the way back over the mountain road we watched the hill tops turn pink as the sun set over a frosted Glaslyn, when suddenly three female cyclists came over the top, reaching it just at the right time…they looked like they’d been at it a while, but they had those crazily exhilarated looks on their faces, they looked hardcore, you know — your sort.’
I was in awe from that moment until the bottom of the ascent, and if it hadn’t have been so very cold, I would even say the shivers and skin prickles were down to the views. I did feel like crying, but I didn’t. I decided to save that for day three…
Darkness fell after the descent, and we tried a bit of chain-ganging to get us to our second night of accommodation. After another 9pm lights out, which was working well, we were up and ready to go again at just after 0730 for our final push to Snowdon. Push, being the operative work, since that’s exactly what I was doing around an hour later…
Our first coffee was set to be at 25 miles and the home of Cadar Idris, where I’d been six months earlier for the ultra duathlon. This time, it was after walking my bike up a relentless mountain, avoiding ice on the way back down, and then trying to grit my teeth and nail it up another climb. I don’t usually get defeated by hills, but the combination of multi-day riding tiredness and weight on the back meant that I got to experience some serious leg burning, along with that moment where your brain weighs up pushing through, versus trying to unclip with zero cadence on a 15% incline. Unclipping won, but the anxiety that the moment brought me was a little too much, and for the first time of the weekend, I ended up with my head on the handle bars, whimpering. Tears had arrived.
This lasted for all of two seconds, before head was back in rightful position and I was pushing again, for that coffee and cake…
As we cycled deeper into Snowdonia, the scenery became grander, more beautiful, more stunning, sort of like the Brecons on steroids. We stopped for photos, and finally, for lunch before El left us for her final destination of Bangor station, whilst Rosie and I climbed the final mountain road into Pen-y-Pass, at the foot of Snowdon. As we did so, the sun was setting again.
We’d done it.
It’s a strange thing when something imagined becomes a series of memories. Sitting in YHA Pen-y-Pass, sucking on a hot chocolate with a post fish & chips slump and aching thighs, the memories of the preceding 200 miles were hard to recall.
Yet it felt clear to me that journey as a whole, from my front door at 7:20 on Friday morning, to the nesty hold atop a mountain road at 5pm on Sunday, felt as much a contrast as many of my two-wheeled adventures, cycling along peaceful roads with stunning backdrops, all the while being greeted with climbs that took me to the edge of my ability, breath and wits, and on this particular adventure, icy temperatures to boot.
Was it terribly awful or wonderfully life affirming? Of course, it was both.
The cherry on top awaited me-a climb up Snowdon at sunrise the following morning. During the four hours that we walked, I felt calm and exhilarated without a shred of that fear of heights, it was the perfect end to an amazing year of discovery, new beginnings and adventures.
About BikePacking in Winter
The shorter days are an understandable reason for avoiding winter backpacking, yet on the flip side, if you’re cycling eight hours per day, it’s a fantastic way to get the pink skies of morning and night, adding a beautiful dimension to the experience.
The cold is not to be underestimated but it is manageable with the right kit and some rule 9. We rode through 0–3 degrees celsius across the three days, my body constantly trying to keep me warm and regulate temperature, which is not an easy task when constantly climbing and descending. On the ups, beads of sweat would gather under my hat and make me feel suffocated, and on the descents the icy wind would penetrate my neck warmer, jacket and jersey and send icy bites to my clammy back rendering me shivery. The only solution at such times, is to dance a little on the bike, and use the final item I packed-a sense of humour, without which I’m not sure any of us three little icicles would have made it.