I wake up with my nose pressed against the side of our tent. The movement dislodges ice, which falls to the grass with a shiver; more ice slides down the fabric when I unzip the tent door, and I look out. The sun is shedding the first of its deep orange light across the tops of the Welsh mountains. The cloudless sky is changing from a sea-blue to Arctic blue, and our paddleboards are frosted like ice sculptures. That it is so cold shouldn’t be surprising – we are camped at almost 600m, just below the highest peak of the Black Mountain range in the Brecon Beacons, and it’s April – but what I didn’t expect was just how deep the cold would be. I click on the stove for coffee, and then I see it: the Dragon’s Breath, and it takes my own breath away.
Almost a year before to the day, I had been walking along the ridge of Fan Brycheiniog, the highest point of the Black Mountain range. Like much of the Brecon Beacons, it rises slowly from the south before crashing dramatically to the north and east. At the bottom of this geological tumble is Llyn y Fan Fawr, one of two major lakes in the Black Mountain range (not to be confused with the Black Mountains, confusingly).
It was foul weather when I was here last, driving wind and horizontal rain – barely any visibility. I could see about three steps in front of me on the narrow ridge path, but the ranger I’d spoken to beforehand had told me of this incredible lake 400m below. He told me how the sunrise hits the jagged peaks of the escarpment and illuminates it in golden light. He told me how rolling morning mists can often be seen below, far off into the distance, and sometimes over the water. He called the phenomenon the Dragon’s Breath. This I had to see.
And so a plan started to form over the last year: to bring a stand-up paddleboard up the mountain, to paddle the remote lake, and experience the daybreak spectacle. With a few casual WhatsApp messages to friends, a token glance at some old OS maps, and a serious sacrifice to the weather gods, I eventually found my way driving with a couple of compact SUP boards, minimal food and minimal camping equipment to the far end of the Brecon Beacons to meet up with a couple of willing participants. I had around 24 hours, and couldn’t think of a better way to spend it.