Gratitude – in memory

Eighteen months ago, I made a routine phone call to the walking coordinator of the organisation where I volunteer as a walking leader to review the walks we had done between us and discuss plans for the coming year. I knew he had been unwell, so I asked him if he was ok. Expecting him to say he was fine, he replied, in a matter-of-fact way that he had cancer. An inoperable brain tumour. I was taken aback by the news and tried to keep the rest of the conversation as positive as possible. He was planning walks and trips and sounded like he was going to make the most of the time he had left.

Sadly, I found out last week he has finally lost the fight. Whilst we were never close friends, we always had lengthy chats about the outoors, and would see each other four or five times a year for group walking duties. He was, however, one of the most important figures in steering my life towards the path I’m on now. Through mutual friends, news for to me about volunteering opportunities, and his number was given to me. After a long chat on the phone, we met face to face and I began to organise and lead walks for his groups. That was 2011, and since then, I’ve carried on with my ambitions to spend more time outdoors.

See, in 2010, a previous voluntary opportunity had disappointingly wilted away to nothing. When this one presented itself, I fully took it.  Steve took me on (probably because he was desperate) but I like to think I paid him back. Together we introduced a winter walks programme that operated in the off months when he organisation wasn’t so keen to put on any walks, but had interested parties. Numerous pub lunches all over the place, and great memories like the flighty pony that chased him down and stole his hat, which I then had to retrieve, despite having an 18kgs backpack on. I managed to get it, while he and everyone else hid in the next field (I couldn’t jump the gate – my bag was too heavy).

A great guy, as always, taken away too soon. His enthusiasm and energy will mean he will live on in the stories told about him.

Finders, keepers. A strange story.

On my last mountain walk, I experienced a very strange happening near the summit. I was thinking about other peculiar things that have happened to me when I’ve been out walking. Too many oddities have occurred to mention when I’ve been running or cycling.

I suppose the weirdest thing happened last last May. I was away camping and went on a fairly tough long walk. On the return leg, the footpath briefly joined a lane, which was banked on either side by high hedges. Being late spring, the leaves were really starting to cover the hedge, yet all of a sudden my eye was drawn straight to something that didn’t quite look right. There was a patch of hedge where the green growth was slower and the woody workings of the hedge inside could be seen. In the middle of the patch was a the tip of a thick piece of wood and I felt compelled to grab it. Sure enough, I pulled on it and it lifted right out of the hedge like a dagger out of its sheath.

In my hand was a staff, essentially. Probably three feet tall, and very smooth around the thicker end, presumably from years of use. Its texture and colour reminded me of a wooden chair that my nan used to have, which also had smoothed out tips of its arm rests. I walked with it for the last couple of miles of the day. I ended up taking it home and I still have it, although I haven’t used it since then.

Having an overactive imagination, I began to think up all kinds of ideas. Where had it come from? Who put it there? How old was it? How long had it been there? It wasn’t casually leant against anything; it had in my opinion, been deliberately placed there.

I have an idea that it was a walking staff of a well travelled man, who nearing the end of his days, left it there on a final ramble to be picked up again to give it a new lease of life.

Or it put itself there and has a mind of its own. I do know that I regarded it with suspicion for a long time and left it at the top of the stairs waiting to walk past it one morning only to find it gone. I did think about putting it back where I had found it, but realised that fate had brought it to me and fate must take it back again. I feel the story is only just beginning…

The warmth of the sun

Steeped in folklore and adventurous tales, there is a valley. Overlooking this valley are hills and mountains, with lakes high up in the clouds and steep, winding paths. It was this valley where I decided to spend my last full day in the mountains.

As usual, the walk was well planned, maps studied, satellite images printed off and compared to the map. Having never been to this area before, I was apprehensive. As soon as I set off though, I could sense something special here. The first leg of the path took me to a long lake, higher up than the valley floor. It was surrounded on three sides by what felt like a rock-made amphitheatre. It almost did feel like a huge room. The path around the lake was calm, peaceful and sheltered. It was a shame to leave it behind, as I made my way up and over one of the sides, to be greeted by another lake much higher up. Looking down on all of this was the mountain summit I was here to climb.

I’ve always thought how walking, running or cycling hills teaches you a lot about yourself, and these hills were no different. You can draw endless analogies between life and moving uphill. Far too many to cover here. It’s true I think, that the outdoors provide pathways to answers to any number of life’s problems and questions. Maybe it’s the simple act of being outside, back to basics, facing the elements. My first day in the mountains this week cut some of my problems down to size, I can tell you that much.

Once at the top, the descent was along a gently sloping path, high up, but sheltered from the wind and by this point of the afternoon warmed up by the sun, radiating from the rocks. It felt very spring like and quite serene. It will have to be covered in a further post but I did have a strange experience up on this path. One of two strange experiences to recount from walking in the last twelve months I dare say.

It was the perfect end to the week and it left me feeling hungry for more, so it won’t be long until I’m back in the clouds once more.

Is there such a thing as an easy mountain day?

On the second day of my mountain trip, still recovering from the previous day (emotionally and physically, as well as mourning the loss of a decent pair of walking trousers which ripped at the crotch), I fancied an ‘easier’ walk. There was no better way to spend the day than on the highest peak in the area, some 3500 feet. Being a popular mountain, there were a few well marked (and busier) paths to use. It was the complete opposite of the previous day, with not much need for navigation, and plenty of opportunities to chat to other walkers. The weather was also worlds better.

I got a sinking feeling in the car park when a car screeched to a halt, and five loud twenty-somethings jumped out, claiming they were “going to smash it” and if they didn’t go hard, they would inevitability have to return home. I’m not sure what they meant, but I assume it was perhaps a sexual mountain fetish. I got the feeling they were a retail team attempting a charity mountain climb. Nonetheless, I checked my pack, layered up and hit the path before they’d even started taking gratuitous selfies. #smashedit.

Compared to the non-existent paths I was on the day before, these were relatively a six lane carriageway. Before long I was chatting to new friends, taking in the views and enjoying myself. I felt somewhat lazy just meandering along a marked path, but felt I’d earned it. To counteract the feeling of a stress free day, I did ponder over the idea of doing a different descent to what I’m used to, but thought I had better wait to see what the weather was like on the summit.

It’s lucky I did. The summit was cloudy, windy and wet. The climb up there was fairly pleasant though and I  thought it funny how 12 months ago the same climb I thought of as tough seemed quite easy, especially in comparison to the day before. I had a tea and a chat with a fellow walker at the deserted summit who recommended an alternative route up the mountain and also confirmed my feelings about the other descent I had in mind. With conditions up there pretty unpleasant, I set off back down. Once below the cloud, it again became mild and dry.

The relaxed nature of the return gave me chance to reflect on my goals for the future, and how I could go about achieving them. Things felt harmonious for the first time in a very long time. It is a comfort to know that no matter what happens in your life, there is always the outdoors. Always nature. Neither will judge you, respect you or castigate you. And that is fine with me.

Misty Mountain Hop

Last month, I spent three days in the mountains. It was a solo trip,camping, and completing three quality mountain days. Each day would be a specific route, meticulously planned, and hopefully, safely completed.

Day one was to be a little over 10 kilometres, with plenty of ascent, and bagging two summits, before descending and retiring to the tent to enjoy a well earned biscuit and flask of tea.

The planning stage was quite fun. Poring over the map weeks ago, looking for the minor paths (and therefore, more interesting) picking a route was followed by working out distances, elevations, timings and navigational details like bearings. To be a bit more assured, I used satellite images online of the area to help me to visualise the terrain. Printing these off and adding them to the route card was a handy idea. The one false sense of security that the satellite imagery lures you into is that they were all taken on bright, sunny, cloud-free days, and for good reason too.

At ground level, I realised the satellite images and map contours were quite easily underestimated. What looks steep on the map is actually practically vertical.

The day forecast rain, but it was quite bright and sunny as I set out. As I started my climb onto the ridge, I noticed two walkers ahead of me. There was only one path, pretty well established, and I was gaining on them. Eventually they stopped and began looking at their map. I caught them up and we worked out that we may have lost the path. So together we struck off straight up the hill through heather until we found the path again some one hundred metres further on. By this time, we were up in mist that clung to the hill side. One thing in my mind was clear however, was to keep climbing until I hit the top of a ridge with a sudden drop the other side. The older of the two guys (turned out to be father and son) revealed he’d walked up there a few times, but he didn’t recognise where he was. After a bit of muttering between them both they decided it was too risky to continue. I said I would carry on and try my luck. They turned, and went, disappearing into the mist like ghosts, and then I was all alone, not knowing exactly where I was and not knowing exactly where to head. I decided to start out in a North westerly direction, steadily climbing. On this tangent I kept on until I saw something huge lurking ahead in the mist. It looked like a mountain. In that morning, one of the many things I learned was how the mist distorts sizes of objects and distances. It turned out to be a large pile of boulders, still big enough to scramble up, but not a mountain.

A couple of times I became convinced I knew where I was, but was proven wrong. Still I remembered what I’d learned and followed instinct, knowing what slope aspect to expect, and terrain. And so this continued for over an hour until something happened that made me stop in my tracks.

I knew I’d need to start descending at some point to hit the path home, so when the land began to fall away, I was a little suspicious but rolled with it anyway. I lost a lot of height until I slipped below the mist. As the mist cleared, dead in front of me, some two hundred feet below, was a road. Immediately I felt relief, which almost instantaneously changed to anguish. A road should not have been in front of me. It should have been a valley with a lake. I turned and looked back the way I’d came. Surely I couldn’t climb back up all that way again. There was no way down as I quickly realised I was on the grassy upper slopes of a cliff effectively. I sat down and contemplated my next move. I had something to eat and within moments I had a mental second wind. I orientated the map, and picked out some features on the road below me – two significant bends and a waterfall, found them on the map and bingo. For the first time in over an hour I knew where I was. From there on in it was a case of setting a compass bearing, following it, and finding the path down.

Getting my feet back on tarmac felt great. Getting out of wet clothes and into a dry car even better. I learned more from those three hours up there than I have in 10 years of lowland walking. I still wonder where exactly I was up there among the mist and I still wonder how the other two guys got on. I wonder if they wonder how I got on?

A few days later, I bought a 1950s guidebook to the area and it stated in there in no uncertain terms not to go where I did in the mist. I’m fully aware it could have ended much differently, but I’m still glad I did it and I’m proud I got through it.

First ultra

Previously I threatened to bore everyone stupid with a day-by-day account of my week in the mountains. Fortunately, I completely forgot that inbetween that post and the next planned post, I took part in my first trail ultra marathon.

For my first attempt, I chose the second longest distance available for the weekend, which was 45 miles. It was a beautifully scenic out and back course, with the middle section being the hills that make up the highest ground of my home county. The whole trail followed a long county-wide path that carries the county’s name, so it was quite special to compete on home soil.

It was as much about fact finding as it was about running, having never ran that distance before, it was all unknown – distance, elevation, nutrition – so it was a kind of suck it and see exercise.

It generally went well, I ate to plan, little, often and regularly. Kept hydrated, walked the hills, ran the flat bits. Inevitably, the pace dropped somewhat in the last third. By that point however I had acquired a running pal who was running a shorter distance than me and had fresher legs, but insisted in staying with me. It was nice to have the company, and being honest, he probably indirectly pushed me to run many sections towards the end that I may not have attempted on my own owing to fatigue. On the other hand, as we were chatting most of the time, I wasn’t keeping an eye on the time and missed a few vital feeding slots. As I continued to slow, I instructed him a few times to carry on without me, although he refused, and we finished in tandem, crossing the finish line together.

The worst part, as with most endurance runs, was the end. Dealing with the need to lie down, but knowing that stretching and keeping moving is best. Feeling ravenous but feeling sick at the thought and sight of most foods. Being completely knackered and wanting to sleep but being unable to due to excess sugar consumed in energy foods, muscle fasciculations, and the buzzing of adrenaline still pumping. It’s probably the only time I would happily take a sleeping tablet.

I did manage to finish 12th, although at times I thought I was last. I have another slightly longer, yet more hilly, ultra in a month’s time. I couldn’t bring myself to think about running again until yesterday. Let’s hope I can put what I’ve learned this weekend to good use for the next ultra.

With ultra runs, especially trail ones, the main element for me is enjoyment. Enjoy it, complete it, make friends, learn from it, and come back again, and again.

The freedom of the mountains (after careful planning)

It’s been a couple of weeks since my last post. There is a legitimate reason for this and it is relevant. It’s not an excuse, honestly.

Radio silence was the fault of spending four days and three nights in the mountains. I’ve been trying to get away since winter really and booked a week off work to get some quality hikes in. The planning of the trip was quite full on. Booking the campsite was easy, but it was the three or four days leading up to the trip that required the most organisation. I like to think I’m well organised, but I have been known to forget obvious things. Example one; there was the time I drove 20 miles to watch and photograph a friend’s band, only to discover as they walked out on stage that my camera battery was at home, still charging. Example two; the time I drove 100 miles for a weekend away taking part in a civilians version of a military test march, only to discover that the bag with all of my (quite expensive) nutrition for the march was still at home.

For this reason, I am quite methodical in the way I pack for trips. I pack in stages, after a few days making lists of what to take. If I don’t pack in stages, or leave those stages half complete, I’m that scatty that I’ll return to the task and completely lose my train of thought and overlook something blinking obvious. Think walking boots, maps, tent.

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This trip was particularly difficult to pack for because it involved three things – the tent and all the camping paraphernalia, the clothing and equipment for three separate hikes, and clothing and other items for the day-to-day activities. I had to start very slowly and be very thorough, and I am proud to say, didn’t miss a thing.

The biggest part of the planning process was actively planning each hike. And we’re not talking about grabbing a map, choosing where to go, and following it without getting lost. Those simple days are behind me! Those wonderful lowland walks. Gone. No, in the mountains, every step must be planned, distances, expected timings, speed, elevation climbed, compass bearings and weather conditions. Not everything goes to plan however, as my account of the week will reveal.

Whilst the hills and mountains can’t be made 100% safe, the risks we take while there can be minimised. One way of doing this is having a contactable person elsewhere who knows exactly where you are and where you last were, so if you’re not back when you said you were going to be back, the appropriate action can be taken.

I had a very pleasant, but at times, testing, three days, which I will describe in the following three blogs in the coming weeks.