The Fan Dance. A test that is the cornerstone of British Special Forces selection. Since 2013 thanks to the fine folks at Avalanche Endurance Events it has been possible for civilians to attempt this course, under conditions as close as possible as to what those attempting selection for real go through.
“The Fan Dance is a grueling 24km non-navigational race over two sides of Pen Y Fan, the highest mountain in the Brecon Beacons. This infamous route has long been a part of SAS (Special Air Service) and SBS (Special Boat Service) Selection and is considered the yardstick of a candidate’s potential to perform well on Test Week and ultimately pass the Special Forces Selection programme.” AEE Briefing Information
The course itself is 24km on an out and back route over Pen-Y-Fan, in the Brecon Beacons. Unlike the latter parts of SF selection, there is little in the way of navigational requirements. However it’s still recommended to have a map of the route and compass to hand, and not just follow the people in front! Several members of The Training Adventure have undertaken this challenge on multiple occasions, including myself (Olly 5 attempts and 4 finishes), Dave (3 finishes), Naomi, Lisa, Scott (2 finishes), Craig (4 finishes) and numerous others dragged along and ‘encouraged’ into taking on the challenge. As several of us have undertaken this on numerous occasions, this review will be more of an overview of the event in general, as opposed to a review of a specific iteration of the event.
Olly and Craig Tabbing along the ridge toward RV1 at the Fan summit Winter 2015 Fan Dance
The anticipation and build up for the Fan is the same every time I book onto it. Soon after you are signed up, a series of emails arrive into your inbox, covering the important aspects of preparing for the event. Kit requirements, fitness and training advice, and as equally important, an email outlining the event, and it’s history and pedigree.
Start point at the Storey Arms, where everyone gathers nervously awaiting the start!
When the day of the event comes around, it’s an early start. Arriving at the race HQ, the Storey Arms Activity Centre in the dark, you head up to find the check-in tent by torch light, and nervously hanging your Bergen on the weighing scales with a UKSF veteran member of the Directing Staff (DS) checking to make sure you make weight (35lb plus food and water). Everything is well organised and thought out with the expected military precision.
Then it’s a case of ‘hurry up and wait’ until everyone is checked in, and everyone is then herded past the iconic old red phone box for the safety briefing, usually framed by dark skies and falling rain or snow (summer or winter it’s the same!). Usually at this point, surrounded by a few hundred fit and determined looking people, it either goes 1 of 2 ways. Either the excitement creeps in, and the adrenaline starts flowing, or doubt seeps through you, and you wonder whether you’re prepared enough!
Before you know it, the safety brief is over, everyone is lining up on the cobbled path, staring straight up at the side of Corn Du, with the Fan summit hidden away behind. Then you are off. Climbing straight up pretty much toward the fan on the path leading from the Storey Arms. The climb to Corn Du is broken only twice, once to drop down from a false summit about half way up, only to climb up an even steeper path, up to the first Mountain Safety Team (MST) station, and a second time just before the ridgeline, where you track right and then left under and up to the ridgeline between Corn Du and the Fan summit. Once you reach Corn Du the going is easier up to RV1 on the summit of Pen-Y-Fan. This is one of my favourite views, as you can see down into the valley towards the reservoirs, all the way to RV2. This can be seen in the photos above and below.
Looking south from near the Fan summit down toward the turn around point at RV2. The Roman road can just be seen off to the left of the photo.
At RV1 you wait to give your race number to the DS manning the RV, usually accompanied by the Doc from the DS team, who keeps an eagle eye on participants to make sure all are safe to continue.
After checking in, you drop off the Fan summit, down the steep steps of Jacobs ladder. The brave run down this, others take their time, especially in the winter snow and ice! From here you can get your TAB on around the base of Cribyn to the Windy Gap, past the MST member always stationed here, and the long slog down the Roman Road to RV2. If you’re going for it, the Roman Road is the place you can make up time. Slightly downhill on the way to RV2, you can TAB/run this all of the way in, past the forestry blocks and onto the track into the checkpoint by the old railway.
Craig getting on it during the Winter 2018 Fan Dance
At RV2 the check in process is the same, race number is given, followed by some check up questions by the DS. Those looking for a good time are straight back out again, usually ‘encouraged on’ by some choice words from the DS! You can stop here though and get some food on-board, as well as topping up water from provided Jerry-cans if needed. From there it’s about face, and reverse the route!
The Roman Road now feels 10 times longer, and the decline you didn’t notice coming into RV2 is now a small but steady incline that encourages you to slow down all the way back to Jacob’s ladder. However if you’re going for it, you push just as hard going back toward windy gap as you do on the way down. I always hope that the weather is shit during this bit, as if the clag is in, it means you can’t see what is coming, and can just crack on without the mind playing games with you! Chucking a left back around the base of Cribyn toward the base of Jacob’s Ladder is always fun, and if the weather has been it’s usual (rain/snow and wind) this ‘path’ is usually just a stream with rocks sticking out by this point.
Reaching the base of Jacobs Ladder, the fun begins. This is a steep climb up uneven stone steps all the way back to the RV on the summit. Completely exposed, any wind (which there always is!) tugs at your clothes and the lump of bergen on your back, trying to blow you off your feet! Reaching the top of Jacobs ladder is a great feeling though, and after a quick check in at the RV, for me it’s always get your head down and get the last leg into the red phone box done! The final descent down is always tough on tired legs, especially as the finish comes into sight on the final downhill.
The finish is the way it should be. A handshake and a patch from Ken, followed by the best hog roast and beer you will ever taste!
Olly receiving his finishers patch from AEE founder Ken Jones, Winter 2017 Fan Dance. Note the famous red phone box of the Storey Arms in the background
The Fan Dance is an experience that no-one I’ve met who has done it has ever regretted. It teaches you lessons about mental fortitude, perseverance and how far you can push yourself. Furthermore the organisers at AEE are top notch, and although this is designed as it should be-a physical and mental challenge, the backstop work that goes on around the event to make sure that all participants are kept safe is nothing short of incredible. On the hills are not only the RV’s themselves, but stragically positioned members of the company’s Mountain Safety Team. These are backed up by a military grade radio communications network, a rescue and medical team, and even Commandos from the Royal Marines Reserve on at least one winter Fan that I have taken part in.
If you ever want something to test your physical and mental fortitude and endurance, the Fan Dance is the place to do just that.
Dave proudly displaying his well earned finishers patch Winter 2015 Fan Dance (first of 3!)