Saturday, February 07, 2009

Frozen and windblown

Every now and again I get a chance to get away from things and get out on my own and such was the case earlier in the week when I made a date with the Welsh hills. Truthfully I wasn't sure if I should risk it as for the two days prior to my departure the doom and gloom sayers at BBC (known as weather forecasters) were telling us the Island of Britain would be a solid mass of ice with possible mammoth sightings. OK, a little exaggeration on my part but honestly they were using words like WEATHER WARNING and SEVERE WINTER CONDITIONS on the screen. Unfazed, I hauled out my winter survival gear that has sat dormant in my shed and started off at a lovely 0230 to discover there actually WAS white stuff coming down from the sky!

Now because the majority of folks here haven't spent time in Alaska driving in snow on a daily basis the traffic was, well... nuts. Even starting at the crazy hour I did the traffic (and not the road conditions, the roads were darn near perfect by Alaska standards) my usual 5-hour trip to Wales took a leisurely 7 1/2 hours. But in typical Wales style the wind was blowing, the snow flying and the hills, oh those Welsh hills were a beautiful sight to behold. The purpose of this trip was to capture the Royal Air Force and US Air Force jets utilizing Low Fly Area 7 (LFA7) with the snow covered hills beneath them and the scanner told me what I already knew: all areas unfit for use. No jets on this day. But I was not here just to photograph but to test myself and get in some much needed fieldcraft time, so up to icy trail of Mynydd Gwerngreig I went and making the normal 45-minute hike in a lazy 1 1/2-hours in a biting wind. Later I did enjoy a hot lunch cooked Scout style on the side of the road while I took in great gulps of the fresh mountain air. A hot lamb shank supper later that night at the Dolbrodmaeth along with a frosty Guinness would have to do until the next day. The day the weather was supposed to get worse.

Morning dawned with much less snow that I had expected yet a quick look at the telly showed that most of England was shut down due to heavy snow. The area of Wales I was in was pretty much unscathed yet the weather was said to be moving in. To me this meant no jets for a second day so I might as well get some more time in on the hills and off I went. This time I headed to the rocky area of Craig y y Bwlch. Despite it being a short 10 minute drive from my hotel at Dinas Mawddwy when I reached the pass the deck was down to nothing, the wind howling and snowflakes the size of a 50-pence piece. In Alaska we call this... spring. So up I went. I pitched my tent and reclined inside with a sweeping view of the spot where aircraft converge from 3 different directions and with any luck bolt down towards Tal-y-llyn lake. But not today.

After coming down I drove the route through the valleys that the jets take and was able to explore little nooks and crannies I had not seen before and at one point watched amazed as a pair of juvenile red kites played around a stand of trees and rode the winds that swirled around the area.

Finally, after 2 days of being "skunked" the rumor was strong in the air that today would be a good day to see fast-moving pointy-ended things come swooping down the valleys. Lowfly spotters were out on both hills (we had met at the Bwlch but the weather was just too inhospitable there). So we waited, perched on the sides of of steep snow-covered hills ans joking between sips of hot drinks. The shouts of HAWK would break us out of the mood but the end result was 3 Hawks and another 3-ship of Haws too high to even point the lens at. But when they blast through the narrow valley at 500+ knots it is a powerful moment in time.

So was it a success or a bust? I'd have to say a little of both. Luckily I enjoy the mountains, I enjoy winter and I enjoy when my outdoor skills are challenged and put to the test. If I can take a workable image or two in the process that's good. If I can have my socks blown off my a modern piece of military hardware that's even better. So a hearty THANKS to all the guys who were on the slope with me that last day, as usual the company of rock rats is some of the best in the world no matter the number of movements.

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