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.

DSC_0904

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.

Reconsideration. Reconciliation.

After a couple of weeks despairing over losing what we have, I thought I’d lighten the mood a little today by writing about my weekend where I got out and enjoyed what we have instead. After all, if I spent all my life fighting for something I’d probably neglect to enjoy it during the process too, leading to an awkward paradox.

In preparation for my ultra marathon in a few weeks time I went and ran some of the route on Sunday morning. It was the best day weather wise of the long Easter weekend, a little chilly but bright.

The route is a hilly one, but the paths, trees and views help you forget all of that in no time.

The woodland that I ran through were flooded with spring sunlight and birdsong. The brown woodland floor starting to turn green in the glades and a few wildflowers popping up, such as the Wood Anemone (Anemone nemorosa). 

Among the many highlights were hearing the woodpeckers drilling, seeing buzzards soaring and seeing the first bees of the year. My favourite part was glimpsing a fox across the field as it nonchalantly trotted away, occasionally pausing to glance back at me as if he were daring me to pursue him.

It truly is a beautiful part of the county, if not the country altogether. After considering the countryside we have lost, I’m proud we’ve managed to keep hold of some – and may it always be so.

 

The war on litter

I read this week that Her Royal Highness Liz has declared war on single use plastics on the royal estates, effectively banning their use. Good on her, I say. More should follow her lead (unless it’s attached to a corgi).

It has been a gripe if mine for a while seeing how much litter lies around, not only in towns and cities but also in our countryside too. Our beauty spots, areas of refuge and escape, blighted by litter and debris. I’ve spoken personally about carrying out litter picking trips in my neighbourhood recently but as yet haven’t managed to do it. It’s something I feel is very helpful for both the community and ourselves. How many of us hate seeing litter? I can say hand on heart that I have never deliberately dropped litter, yet I feel compelled to pick other people’s up.

I know of walking groups that take bags on hikes with them and pick up any litter they find, actively enjoying and improving areas they love.

I sometimes find my day job very frustrating. Amongst other things day-to-day, I find myself dissatisfied. I imagine it is to do with the nature of the industry I work in, and not being able to see results. The fruits of your labour if you like. One night I was walking to my allotment and I saw rubbish everywhere I looked, so I started picking it up. Within a few strides I had picked up an armful of fast food wrappers, plastic bottles, all sorts. I saw instant results.  The pathway was clear. I felt satisfied. That was it I thought. The reward for putting in the effort. The benefits for myself, the community (who probably dropped the litter to begin with, he says, sceptically), as well as the environment outweighed the ‘inconvenience’. Mental health organisations call it ‘ecotherapy’. I’ll cover this further in another post.

For many, we think we shouldn’t have to pick it up. I didn’t drop it, I’m not picking it up. Like we’re idiots for working for free. What if everybody thought that? Granted, it’s not our job, but the fact is, local authorities do not care. That’s the sad part. It’s too expensive to do it, so leave it. A study in the UK showed that areas where littering and dog fouling were tolerated had higher levels of crime. The general feeling is the majority will drop litter if they see litter. If a neighbourhood looks neglected, it attracts further neglect.

I bet if there was a reward scheme for litter picking (financial), we would see a shift in visible litter. In the mean time, volunteers do it for the most part. The people who really make a difference to where they live and other areas too, and I’m going to join them. Look at your own area if you can and get out and make some changes, see how you and your area change along the way. It could be really good!

If you’re in the UK, use the link below to find litter pickers in your area.

https://www.litteraction.org.uk/

Stay tidy!

Out in the cold

Opening the curtains this morning brought no surprise but a test all the same. Ever had that feeling of having a monumental task looming over your head? That’s what I felt today.

The sky was grey, and it was snowing. It was the snow that surprised me. Straight away, the task in front of me grew in stature, like a playground bully. The task I’m talking about was an 18 mile run. The first ‘proper’ run on the road to my ultra marathon running goals for this year. I knew I was definitely going to go, I just wasn’t relishing the thought of it.

I thought it might be a huge mental victory to get my arse out of the door, but soon came to the conclusion that it might be the opposite. I had set my alarm early so I could fuel up and get out and back before mid-morning. This romantic notion of being up and out before anybody else, with the elements bashing me, shot in grainy black and white with (what the youth call) ‘grimy’ soundtrack playing over the top. In reality, the grimy music was snuffed out when I switched the alarm off and went back to sleep, shot in glorious Technicolor, with a decidedly un-grimy Rodgers and Hammerstein ditty floating over it.

Two hours later than advertised, I got out of the door. Not so mentally strong after all, but still strong enough to leave the warmth of the house and get soaked.

The run itself was good until the 14 mile point where my gloves got so wet it was warmer to take them off. A mile later, my hands froze. A mile after that I had lost all feeling and dexterity in them. Luckily for me it was only confined to my hands, and not my bodily functions. Wetting myself would have iced the cake. I did end up doing a mile more than planned, so not too bad. Out of the blocks. Bring on the challenges of 2018.

Ch-ch-ch-ch-challenges

Another long run in the bag on Sunday. Three and a half hours by myself out on the road. Quite unimaginable really. The human body is amazing. Compare the time spent on that run with other things that you could do. You could watch two films or two football matches. It’s half of the average working day. And yet, even without music to listen to, I didn’t get bored, or negative. I thought about a lot of things, a kind of therapy. Definitely not a meditation though. I think in order to do that, I would have to focus on my feet. By definition, meditation is the art of focusing on a single (hopefully virtuous!) object or thought, so rolling countryside and lanes don’t tick the boxes. It’s a great way of getting to know yourself though, seeing where your thoughts go, and finding out what you’re capable of. I don’t talk about my running at work unless I’m asked about it mainly because most people find it difficult to understand why I would want to do it. Equally, I find it difficult to understand why they want to spend their free time in bed until lunchtime, then switching the TV on for the rest of the day. If pushed, I always reveal that I’m just happy doing it and constantly pushing my ageing body to achieve things I never dreamed of. In other words, finding out what I’m capable of.

I think a life testing yourself in any way is a virtuous life. A meditation I guess. Challenge yourself to run a marathon, walk every street in your town, spot every species of wildflower that you can, count every star – whatever it is. It will fill you up. It will help you to dream. It will give you something to talk about when other things fail. And guess what? Keep doing it! Keep reinventing challenges. You’ll discover the outdoors, yourself and your next big move.