It has been a long time since I have looked at the words in my notebook, a long time since I have even thought about it. I suppose now’s as good a time as any. If anything sums up DAY 6 of our trip it is the first 3 words scrawled onto the page in capital letters.
‘INSANSE CLIMBING. INSANE.’
We had slept well after our pub dinner the night before and when I finally forced myself out of my sleeping bag the sun had just begun to reach the valley’s base. I pushed my tent door back and rolled a cigarette.
After showering and packing down we said goodbye to our neighbors and headed out of the camp onto the road to begin our climb of the Pen-Y-Pass for the second time. Ascending the pass from Nantes Peris is significantly steeper. It was so difficult, encumbered as we were, that we took a number of breaks on small lay-bys. I remember standing on the pedals and gripping the handlebars as tight as I could, muttering words of encouragement to myself. Every time I stopped I would look back to Adam and then ahead to the halfway house, gauging how far we’d come up the pass as well as how much remained. I would allow the burn of lactic acids to subside in my thighs and the oxygen to refill my lungs before clambering back onto the bike again. We executed this routine at least five times before we reached the top.
We treated ourselves to breakfast in the halfway house café and sat in disbelief at the difficulty of the climb. It wasn’t even something we could laugh off. It had scarred us.
Adam mentioned that the road back to Betws-Y-Coed was mainly downhill and this brightened our outlook up a little. We finished our food and hit the road again, our vigor for the day somewhat restored.
We flew along for 11 miles, only having to turn the pedals every now and again. It was the same landscape but this time round it glowed in the morning sun and as my eyes were not fixed on the tarmac I could appreciate the landscape far more than 2 days previous.
We passed through Betws-Y-Coed quickly, stopping only for a coffee. We took the B5106 out and followed the Conwy, the road hugging the banc as the river flowed amber and white beneath us, glimpsed through luminescent chlorophyll.
We left the road at Llanrwst and joined another b-road that guided us into the heart of rural North West Wales. It was in this territory we encountered hill after hill. The scent of the Conwy had subsided and was replaced with the harsh smell of manure, the views to our right now obscured by brons that propped up farms and outbuildings. The road began to climb, endlessly. After a long ascent, standing in the pedals I spotted a gravel road that marked the entrance to a farm. I pulled in and propped myself up, still on the bike, against a metal gate. Adam came slowly up beside me and climbed off his bike and removed his lid. He said something along the lines of the hill being a difficult climb. We cooled off, drinking from our water bottles and looking back down the road to Llanrwst, distant and hazed. It was around this time we both noticed that the gate next to us had been covered in the rotting carcasses of 20 or so dead mice, strung up by the tails. We looked at each other and couldn’t decide whether or not to laugh. I was so delirious I almost expected to blink and it would be gone – but it was real, not something dreamt in exhaustion. 20 mice were dangling from a gate by their tails in the midday sun. We concluded that it was the actions of a psychotic farmer and then pressed on. After a little research I discovered this is done to attract birds of prey to the farm, in turn these birds will return to the area and ultimately protect a farmer’s crop from further rodent infestations.
The hills continued. We rode in these conditions for a few more hours, passing only small clusters of houses at a time. The roads were devoid of traffic, with us only encountering a handful of motorists, a number of which were agricultural vehicles. Our legs grew weaker and weaker, our heads began to throb, and every hill conquered was followed by a cigarette and a silent break in which little was exchanged. Fighter planes screamed overhead at one point, the thunderous sound of their engines momentarily drowning out the ever-present bleating of sheep.
We began to worry that we would not reach our checkpoint for the day and so we decided to push on without breaking. We knew that we were closing in on Denbigh and that we could get something to eat and drink before moving on again. After several more horrendous climbs we reached a tarren that was being used as a footpath of a kind. We cautiously made our way down, front and back brakes held halfway on, until we were reunited with civilization.
In Denbigh we gorged ourselves on fish and chips and sat eating on the steps to a town hall. We must have looked destitute and starved but we couldn’t care less. We smoked and let the food go down before popping into a supermarket to pick up dinner and breakfast. The road out of Denbigh was flat but we had noticed on our map that the Clwydian Range stood in our way. The hills and mountains of that range were immediately visible as the road headed straight for them; dark shapes that rose high above the flatlands. Approaching them we made a joint decision to set up camp early and rest our legs – we both knew there was nothing left in reserve and that it would be better to face that challenge in the morning. The wind picked up as we sat under a tree in a field off the road. To give ourselves the best possible chance at a good nights sleep we found a handsome ditch to make camp in. This ditch wasn’t your average ditch; it was grassy and wide enough for two tents. It was about 5 foot deep and blocked the wind perfectly. Trees arced overhead from both side of the ditch and blended neatly to create a dense canopy. This did mean that the grassy ditch floor was littered with twigs and branches. We cleared the ground routinely went about stripping the bikes of their burden.
It would be an early night for both of us. In my tent I massaged my thighs and dreaded how they might manage when the time came to climb back on the bikes in the morning.