A tale of adventure and obsession on the South Wales Traverse By Paul Colley-Davies
Part 1. The Hospital
It’s 21st April 2019 in the Intensive Care Unit of Neville Hall Hospital, Abergavenny. At least that’s the date I believe it to be after just waking up in bed, bemused and confused. I ask a nurse what time it is. 7 she says. Ah ok…I think back. I came to hospital last night after 15 hours on a hot Easter Day on an attempt at the South Wales Traverse or SWT. 125km of mountain running with 5500m of height gain was what I was attempting. A fell running challenge. But then Paul found me collapsed on the pavement at Llangynidr and ended up doing the right thing and getting me to hospital. I remember being asked lots of questions..how much water had I had? I remember being taken in for a CT scan and being sedated. There are huge gaps in my memory, as I apparently dropped in and out of consciousness. I remember being violently sick and being initially treated like any Saturday night reveller. But then I find out…it is 7pm in the evening 2 days after the challenge day. I have been in a coma and on a ventilator and under sedation for over 40 hours due to fear of seizures.
I have suffered hyponatremia. Too little sodium in the cells due to consuming too much water without electrolytes. The cells begin to expand, particularly in your brain, hence the CT scan. It seems I could easily have died. Although having trained with electrolytes, the information on the packet said not to make up quantities more than 24 hrs in advance. I was doing food and water drops at several key road junctions several days in advance for a solo attempt. I figured therefore on leaving only water…way too many litres too…and popping a few salt pills as I went along. But it was very hot and I drank a LOT of water..but not through need..through thinking I OUGHT to…drink plenty, it’s the hottest day of the year, next water is 4 hours away etc. I had also done a good job of carbo loading/eating carbohydrates in the days leading up to the challenge, which means you retain water. I didn’t need much at all, after all. I figure that I started feeling dizzy under halfway through the challenge in the midday heat near Fan Fawr. I got very dizzy by Cefn Yr Ystrad (peak 19 of 31) and put out a shout on a whats app group that I was calling it a day. It took me a few hours to do just 8km down the road to Llangynidr.
I turn on my phone and see concerned messages from friends and family. Fellow club members Paul and Tim have been to see me. You will recoup and you will do it again they tell me. I know. I don’t need to be told. I’m obsessed with it.
Part 2. The long preparation
It is January 2019. The Black Mountains are in perfect, crisp, winter condition with a couple of inches of snow. I have just completed a traverse of all the 610 metre summits within this range of undulating mountains. I am walking down the road from Llanthony Priory, and as I pick up a lift halfway to Crickhowell, I begin to think that completing the SWT within 24hrs is possible. My friend Paul had introduced me to the idea, a year before I moved to Brecon. I had been trying the Bob Graham Challenge, a similar event in the Lakes. I had got 15hrs round before calling it a day in May 2018. A far cry from 7 years earlier when I couldn’t run for 440 days due to a completely torn Anterior Cruciate Ligament or ACL. I’d had it repaired…best choice I have ever made. A better choice would have been not to play football with a bunch of kids.
Almost 2400 people have finished the Bob Graham, yet less than 40 have completed the SWT. Harder or less popular? The jury is out.
I am used to the specific training and a good diet. Some say that for around ten weeks, you need to do 80-100km per week over fells that allow 3000m of height gain per week. That’s my benchmark. I had better get on with it. I’m no spring chicken.
Part 3. Let’s do it
It’s just before 9am on July 6th 2020. I am at the start of the SWT for the third time at Herbert Quarries near Llanddeusant. Tim has driven me there, and I take off after a photo session, descending into a small quarry whilst checking my viewranger navigation app. Embarrassing way to start, but maybe Tim hasn’t noticed. I have brought the attempt forward 2 days due to worsening weather, so it looks like it will be solo and unsupported as people have things to do like work. Technically, I have been ready since March when I had to cut a preparatory fast pack on the Pembrokeshire Coast Path short due to illness. I still don’t know if it was Covid 19 but for sure C-19 has prevented me from accessing the route since then. This is the first day that the Brecon Beacons National Park has been fully open. Last night, I was dipping in and out of sleep, and having trained largely without alcohol, I somehow decided it was a good idea to have a guinness. It felt good and right though.
There are 31 peaks above 610m on the challenge, and 4 mountain ranges, all separated by road junctions. Black Mountain (singular), Fforest Fawr, Brecon Beacons, and the Black Mountains (plural). The idea is to go west to east if you can with the wind at your back. And at times there is a wind, largely from the right direction. There is clagg/low cloud on the first section but this clears to produce a clear afternoon.
I make the first road junction on the A4067 after 3 hrs, 5 minutes. Ten minutes ahead of schedule. I immediately empty what I have left foodwise from my bum bag and replace it with another quantity from a food container left secreted with water at the roadside. Full of food, mainly carbs for the next section. I had practised just 5 minute stops. I had a light pack with essential battery power and waterproofs, as I had thought I might be alone on the challenge. I had practised with twice the weight. I planned not to carry too much water on the challenge itself due to weight issues and drank from streams. With the salt tablets of course.
The rest of the afternoon goes well. It feels right and I have prepared well. I make the second major road junction at Storey Arms within 6.52 hours and crossed the Brecon Beacons (Pen Y Fan, Cribyn, Waun Rydd) with surety..I live locally and know it well. I make Abercynafon for the approach up the outlying Cefn Yr Ystrad within 10.5 hours. My lowest target was 11 hours. A potential of over 12 hours might have meant giving it up as a bad job.
I pick a great line through the quarries and descend to the road to Llangynidr. From here, I cross the Glanusk Estate with prior permission, as it gets dark. I cross the River Usk on their bridge to a layby at the foot of Pen Cerrig Calch at the start of the Black Mountains. Here, I have extra food, clothing and a survival bag for a night on the mountains. Things are going well. But I have spoken too soon. A farmer has closed some big gates on the bridle path. Definitely a message to stay away. But this is on route. After some struggling, I open them, only to find the rest of the path overgrown with bracken. I find my way through but am slowing down, and I haven’t noted this.
Then I hit a wall of 6 foot high bracken in the dark on the slopes of Pen Cerrig Calch. I find the main path and run up and down several times looking for the way through the bracken. Eventually, I just have to keep my cool, and just as importantly, keep my heart rate low. I say ‘up is the mountain, just go up’ I fight for at least for half an hour through that bracken.
Back on track, the Black Mountains section goes seemingly well in the dark, with one or two slight navigational errors, but, in fact, I slow considerably. The weather is clear, yet I haven’t practised enough in the dark, and also didn’t expect to be doing this section in the dark, having brought the attempt forward 2.5 days. I get geographically embarrassed in sections of the Mynydd Du Forest and arrive at my final food drop at Blaen-Y-Glyn car park at dawn. I sit and pack food supplies into my bum bag. I do the mental calculations re getting it done in 24 hrs and it isn’t looking good. A strange calmness comes over me..you will try your hardest and if you miss it, you will do the whole thing again. I find a trod/small path I haven’t seen before, despite having looked for it on other occasions, and I chance it. Bingo! It links to the path I know up Chwarel Y Fan. It’s good and it saves me well needed minutes.
I do my final calculations whilst cramming in food and water. I have no time to send text to update a facebook messenger group. But I activate a buddy beacon through the viewranger map app. I have 3 hours left. I figure if I can make Rhos Dirion peak in 45 mins (I had done it in about 55 mins in training but was fresher than now) and Gospel Pass with about 1 hour 50 left on the clock, then it was just possible. I take off at pace. If I can’t do it, I will still try. I will do it again, Plan B if I have to. Knowing I am being watched on the viewranger link was an added incentive, providing entertainment, perhaps, for early risers.
I make it to Rhos Dirion in 49 minutes. I am buzzing with the possibility so the energy level remained high. I was excited and motivated by the remaining challenge ahead. I give myself to Gospel Pass at this pace, and would carry on at this pace if it looked possible. Gospel pass comes and goes. I make Hay Bluff and remember that this final section was done 3 weeks earlier, but fresh and early in a training session, in 1 hour 31 mins. I have 1 hour and 34 mins left. I cram some last energy chews and water in…there is no chance to stop again. I take off again. I’m confident. Tim comes up to meet me off the ridge as he had seen a ping on Rhos Dirion on the buddy beacon. I don’t let him take any gear as it is now solo and unsupported. Andy also comes part way up and we all descend to the Priory. I touch the wall. 23 hours, 56 minutes. Done. Achieved. Relieved. And proud of it!
Part 4. Logistics
South Wales Traverse Facebook Group
Ultimate Direction 3 litre pack plus Innov 8 Bum Bag. Full waterproofs, windshirt, thermal, t shirt, shorts, dawson gloves, socks, buff, sun cap, spare buff and socks (not used), compass, android phone, battery pack charger for phone, SOL bivvy bag, bandage and plasters, paracetamol, Salomon Speedcross 5 running shoes, Black Diamond Z folding running poles
Snickers, peanuts, oatcakes, clif black cherry bloks with caffeine, jelly babies, granola bars, aldi paleo bars, rice pudding
Water and Support Points
Water, salt tablets and food left at A4067 Brecon/Swansea Road, Storey Arms/Brecon/Cardiff Road, Abercynafon, bottom of PCC, Blaen Y Glyn, Gospel Pass (unused).
Based on around 250-300 carb calories per hour. 1 saltstick tablet or 2 salt stick fast chews every half an hour.
Water sourced from streams at Cerrig Las (not utilised on attempt) Fan Brycheiniog, Afon Tawe/Nant-y-moch (not used), Afon Llia, Fan Fawr (not on this attempt..unreliable quantity), Allt Lwyd ( not needed as I reached my supplies), on way up Cefn Yr Ystrad (not needed), and Blaen Y Glyn Car Park area (not needed). The last place for water is on the way up Chwarel Y Fan (not used on this attempt).
The adventure continues 4th September 2020 at 7pm Bob Graham Round… live tracker link below