I think I’m getting old. The tell-tale signs are there. I won’t go into detail on all of them, but I think it’s healthy to admit it. One of the reasons I have for thinking this is that I seem to be fighting a lot nowadays. I don’t mean going down the pub and smashing a bottle over somebody’s head. Those days are well behind me. Luckily, last time, the victim didn’t press charges anyway, so I was quite fortunate. She was my mother-in-law after all. Anyway, I digress. By fighting, I mean standing up for things. People with flash LinkedIn profiles probably call this passionate, if at all they know what passionate means. I’ve discussed my job before here, and I think the main reason I hate it and seemingly suffer there is because I try to do my job right, and thoroughly, and I seem to be the only one. Everyone else has a wonderful day scraping by on the bare minimum required so they don’t get sacked. Whilst this mentality causes me to suffer at work, it does give me the strength and determination in other areas of my life to fight for something I feel is right, and is more likely to be a worthwhile cause, unlike my job which is feeding fat cats so they can get even fatter and do ridiculously unethical things with their money.
Despite feeling exhausted on Sunday morning when I woke up (a couple of hours before my alarm), I knew I needed to get out. I set out running just before six, heading off in the bright sunshine, heading in one direction – out of town.
It may be a modern human condition or something deep within us from generations gone by, but a lot of people feel the need to get outdoors to relax, escape and deal with various stresses. It is widely known that green is a relaxing colour, and I can’t help but feel this is deeply wired in us from when greenery surrounded us more than it does today.
Two miles in, and the houses are getting fewer and fewer. Hedgerows appear, copses, circling swallows and insistent skylarks. By the time I get to the woods, the silence and the low morning sunlight flooding in makes me stop and just sit. I sit down on a fallen tree and just soaked up the surroundings, immersing myself in nature and the feeling of breathing in the new day, replacing the negativity.
During the 1980s, the Japanese developed Shinrin-yoku, also known as forest bathing, which involves taking in the forest with the senses. You can either sit, or walk in a forest and soak everything up, just as I did. It doesn’t involve any high intensity exercise and has been proven to be very successful. A 2-hour forest bathe helps you to unplug from the working day, laptops, phones and other modern day distractions and stress enhancers.
It is predicted that by 2050, 66% of the planet’s population will live in cities. With cities and towns getting bigger and bigger, this is not too surprising. I always imagine cities like giant octopuses, spreading their tarmac tentacles out into the countryside, swallowing it in chunks and expanding their concrete mass as they go.
I know I will always favour the outdoors as therapy. It works for me in many ways to cope with modern life. Plus it’s much more interesting than 99% of what’s on television and spending hours reading silly blogs online. Oh, hang on…
A neighbour told me a story about one of his school friends who moved out of town, went down south, started windsurfing and now makes a living out of teaching it around the world. “Git”, thought I. He’s barely twenty.
Whilst I’m still lagging far behind where I’d like to be in my life, I’m a bloody hell of a lot closer to it than I’ve ever been. I hate my job. I live for my hobbies. I’m a little too old to start looking for new careers (as I mistyped careers then, autocorrect suggested carers instead. Apt.) I’ve got tonnes of interests, if only I could be paid to do them. Twenty minutes at my allotment is more rewarding than a week of my job. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not career driven. I’m quality of life driven. Having a crap job that makes me feel pointless is all well and good, but sticking at it until I’m too old to go to the toilet alone is unacceptable. It’s this kind of thought process that keeps me physically fit, keeps me outdoors, keeps me writing, keeps me daydreaming and keeps me searching for something I’ll never find.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.