Disconnect

You know you’re in for a good few days away when your backpack doesn’t fit out of the door properly.

That is what really happened.

Last week, being in-between jobs, with a bit of time on my hands, I wondered what I could do to fill the void. It didn’t take long at all to figure it out. Practically as soon as I resigned from my previous job, my map was out on the floor and I was measuring up. I probably knew the solution before the problem even arose. I was going to head to the hills and mountains.

I knew it was going to be a different trip to anything like I’ve done before. In front of me lay two days, and a few peaks as yet unexplored by me. In addition to this was the idea of wild camping near one of the summits at the half way point of the trip.

First things first. I’d spent the larger part of the last three months umm-ing and aah-ing like someone with haemorrhoids over what to get – a one man tent, or a bivouac. I opted for a tent after much deliberation, reasoning that full cover was better in the long run for potential all year round use. Then the fun began – deciding which tent to get. The internet can be a minefield to the indecisive and those on a budget. Searches threw up a few suitable candidates, but I had to weigh up suitability with cost and, yes, weight. With the impending trip, a fast decision was needed, and make one, I did. I am not one for dropping in brand names, or writing an ostentatious review of kit I use, so I will say that Brand X’s one man tent ticked all the boxes. Plus, I managed to find it on a reputable website for a reduced price. Too good to be true? I hoped not. Anyway, it turned up, I tested it on the lawn and was impressed with its ease of erection (I remember those days), weight and build quality. Just enough room inside for me and Ingrid (my Bergen). A bivouac would not be sufficiently spacious enough for Ingrid and I and she would have to go outside. If it rained, it could be a depressingly damp day two. In addition to the tent, I needed to find a smaller cooking system as my usual stove is large, awkward and heavy. The best way to go in my opinion is a gas cylinder with a screw in burner system. In case this fails, I have my trusty multi fuel burner, which brews up tea in a frightening time, usually at the expense of eyebrows, fingertips, and sometimes, tent.

All of this deliberation was conducted at the same time as I was planning the actual route. I must confess, I got summit greed. I counted all of the summits I could see in the given area, and measured the distance between them as the crow flies to give me a rough idea. From this I could plan a route. My idea was to avoid main footpaths and cut across open ground as much as I could, the prime reason being to test navigation skills. The final route came out at over thirty miles.

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The funny thing about planning a route from a map is that you read the landscape from the contours (the swirling lines, indicating rises and falls in the land) to give you a picture of what it will look like. In my experience, what I perceive as steep on a map is actually really steep in reality. The other thing gained from certain maps is their ability to tell you what the ground will be like underfoot. In my two days of this trip, the majority of the ground was damp and in places, boggy. The drawback of straying away from the main paths unfortunately. In one or two places, my whole boot (which are military boots, high up my leg) disappeared into the mire. This wouldn’t normally be a problem as bodyweight is generally on my side, except when my backpack weighs 24kgs and I could easily sink like a stone.

I could write a whole blog entry about the trip, and probably will, but here I will cover briefly the sleeping arrangements. There was a farce surrounding the tent (my life is peppered with farces), which I will have to go into at some point, but the pitch up and night spent up in those hills was near perfect. The only downside was a cloudy sky. After walking 18 miles on day one, setting up the tent and getting the (safe) stove cooking away couldn’t come quickly enough. So as my boil-in-the-bag pasta and meatballs was er…boiling in the bag, I swiftly got the tent up. Warm meal down, it was into the sleeping bag. I read a couple of pages of my book and…zonk…I was gone. I did have to get up in the wee small hours for a wee small wee, and witnessed blanket fog slipping into the valley below me like marsh mallow.

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There was no wind as such so it was really still and quiet, so all I could hear was the occasional bleating of sheep. No cars, no people, no mobile phones. Nothing. It was two days of mental clarity from a modern life aspect. I just thought about problems arising in the trip, hour by hour, that’s all that’s real for that given time. Being an extremely remote and quiet part of the world, I glimpsed one farmer on a quad bike over the two days. The only words that passed my lips were words said to myself, usually in wonder at something or cursing as I nearly got sucked into another mire.

This definitely needs another post. Too much to cover to do it justice. If you do get the chance, go and try wilderness wild camping. It is a must I feel in this him we call modern life.

Leap of faith

My life is changing. I have a new job. Regular readers will remember well my blog meltdown a few weeks ago where I typed the immortal works “I hate my job”. Since then I’ve been through a few job applications, a few interviews, a lot of self belief and what do you know, some fools have decided I’m the best of the bunch to fill their vacancy. Only time will tell how it will turn out, but the main thing is, everything feels positive so far and I haven’t felt like this for years. No matter how cheerful I become, and how full my life feels, there’s always this snagging thought slithering through it all like a venomous snake in the grass, like a permanent Sunday afternoon, going “yoohoo, yes, yoohoo, it’s me, your job. You know you can’t outrun me, so make the most of this outdoors malarkey cos tomorrow, your arse is mine”. So I am looking forward, for a while at least, to not dreading Monday like I used to when I had PE with Mr Raisin (yes, that was really his name) in his pink shellsuit, screaming at us, going all red in the face because we couldn’t quite grasp the concept of basketball at the age of 10.

No, from now on, Mondays will be spent riding a glitzy unicorn called Derek all the way to work and bloody well enjoying it from start to finish.

But.

There’s always a big, oversized, pulsating but. And this is it. While regular readers may remember my meltdown, they would be wise to remember one of the positives I somehow managed to extract from my misery-inducing job. It was the fact that my job and the handful of inept lunatics I had to answer to actually drove me to spending more time outdoors, planning outdoor trips and daydreaming about great walks, trails, runs and mountains. What if I enjoy my new job so much that I forget all of that. Gulp. I can’t see it happening personally. But anything is possible. I am at a dangerous age where I could just give it all up for a less energetic lifestyle and after work drinks. Never say never. But I hope not.

In-between my two jobs, I will be taking off for two days on my most ambitious mountain trip yet. A two day walk, ticking off some six (I think) mountain summits, and about 27 miles, with a night wild camping in the middle.

Not that I need many excuses, but I’ve simply had to buy some new kit for the trip. A ultra light one man tent being on the list, a new pair of boots (this was a perfectly legitimate purchase as the old pair finally gave up the ghost on the last trip after NINE years service), single stove pots and pans, and best of all, some new maps.

With the route all planned, the last major task for the trip was to pack all of my gear into my backpack. My backpack is a 66 litre military Bergen which has been on quite a few sorties with me, but even at 66 litres, it heaved under the strain of the kit and supplies. The tent had to be attached on the outside, as well as the rollmat. Everything else has to be packed carefully depending on weight, size and most importantly, access. Objects that you are less likely to need can go at the bottom, working to the top for the more frequently used bits, like extra layers. The outer pockets contain things that I will definitely need, like food, waterproof, and hat. Some of the more luxury items can stay behind usually. I was hoping to take my camera to get some landscape shots, which is still possible, just that I’ll have to carry it outside of the bergen. To take decent landscape shots, it’s handy to have a tripod. Mine is far too heavy, so will definitely have to stay behind.

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After a pretty much miserable day at work today, despite the finish post being in sight, I found work being on my mind on the way home in an unacceptable way (more the people I have to work with than the job), and the only thing I found in my mind that lowered the pulse rate and brought more Zen-like calm was a mental image of myself, compass in hand, walking away from it all in to the vast all consuming beauty of the mountains. And there, movers and shakers, is where you will find me. Don’t wait up.

Hold on tight to your dreams

Life catches up with all of us. Dreams become forgotten memories if you are not careful enough to water them and tend to them. My mind these days is like a perpetual carousel of ideas and trains of thought, very much as though I am spinning plates. So far I haven’t smashed any…though it’s been a close call a few times. One day, my priority is my training, the next day it is revision, the day after it’s planning a trip. Add in places to be, things to pay (‘orrible grown up stuff) and it’s no wonder things get unceremoniously shoved down the crack of life.

It dawned on me a couple of weeks ago that I haven’t spent nearly half as much time out in the mountains this summer as I’d like to. So I decided to plan a day walk. Pencil to paper, I came up with a pretty full on 10 mile slog which included five mountains. Now, let me just clarify what a mountain is by British definition before any international readers get the idea that I’m some sort of athlete. In Britain, as decided by the Queen (I call her Lizzie as that is how she signs off her Christmas card to me), a mountain is defined as any area of high ground, grassy or rocky of a decent area, with an elevation of 600 metres or more. By this definition, I planned five, although really, it was only two, but they are so close together, you could count them as one. So, let’s say five anyway.

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The whole experience was magnificent. The weather perfect, if a tad too hot. In the space of five hours I saw four different species of birds of prey. One was effortlessly soaring on the thermals over the summit of the highest peak. It will be one of those days that will live long in the memory. That is what it’s generally all about, and up until now I thought all it was about was putting one leg in, one leg out, in, out, in, out and pretty much shaking it all about.

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On Sunday evening, whilst enjoying my dinner al fresco, I couldn’t help but overhear my neighbour speaking very loudly to his daughter on the phone. This guy is mid fifties perhaps, leaves the house well before me each morning and is seemingly in a prestigious job. When we do speak, it’s often about my latest exercise escapades, for which he calls me the “mad man”, which then turns to all the things he used to do. He was obviously very active until work took over. He’s a living warning to me about the pursuit of “success” and what it means in later years. Anyway, the gist of this loud conversation was that he is going away to spend a few days in a log cabin by a Loch in Scotland. In his words, he said it was time he started making some memories before he’s too old, and it’s been work, work, work for too long. I’m pleased he’s making choices like that, as he’s spot on.

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Back on the mountains, the day was filled with pleasant chats with other walkers, busy footpaths followed by deserted ones, views to kill for and just that satisfying knowledge that you’re here. If there’s nothing else at all, you’re here. It’s great to be in the present, seeing it, appreciating it and living it. It’s the way I want to be in all aspects of life. Back to plate spinning again.

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Fighting

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.

The point I’m getting to is as I’m aging, I’m realising that you suffer the most for things you fight for the most. Love Island would bore the living crap out of me, so I don’t watch it, but this same piece of asinine “entertainment” (can you tell I don’t like it?) could be the cornerstone of somebody else’s life. They could be involved in brawls over it. It bothers them, so they suffer for it. Football supporters are the same. Manchester United fans don’t give a rodent’s rear end about how Bristol City are getting on and vice versa but they will fight tooth and nail with City and Rovers fans all the same.
What is important to me are things like the environment, conservation, my own health and wellbeing and the health and wellbeing of my family and closest friends. I will stand up and fight for those when needed. I hate to forget my principles. I don’t feel they’re shallow and they are for the greater good.
I also believe that every little step in the right direction, no matter how small, is worth it. I’ve talked before about litterpicking and plastic pollution. Very small efforts everyday to fight these is still better than giving up. I sign petitions even though the odds are stacked ridiculously against the petitioners winning. I guess it’s called integrity.
Fighting is good, as long as it’s for the greater good. That definition is still too ambiguous to me however but it’s the closest I can get to a definitive one. Most of the problems we have in the world today are conceived from people fighting for the greater good until they work out their visions of the greater good are different. Then they fight each other.
My 18 year old self would look at me now and call me a miserable old git. I look at my 18 year old self and ask him why he didn’t fight enough for real things. That’s maturing though. I probably fall into the grumpy category. I struggle to recognise much today that I deem real enough to form an opinion on. The environment and self development are two big factors for me, and they go hand in hand. The environment and the state we leave it in will be our legacy in centuries time. It is a selfish act to harm our planet knowingly, saying “It’s not my problem because I won’t be around in a hundred years”.
If you’ve read this far, I think it’s worth mentioning that despite all of this, I do actually enjoy Christmas.

One life – live it.

One life – live it. Four simple words. Clichéd perhaps? Over-used perhaps?

The first time I saw this as a slogan was as a sticker on a Land Rover. Since then, I’ve seen it hundreds of times as stickers on Land Rovers. Does this mean that in order to live this one life to the full, you need to be behind the wheel of a Land Rover? I think not. I get that Land Rover drivers might go off-roading, therefore getting their kicks, however, most of the ones I’ve seen carrying these stickers are in immaculate showroom condition. The nearest they’ve been to off-road was when they had two wheels on the pavement outside the post office for five minutes.

I imagine it could be a status symbol, or a way of generating envy. I get it when I’m crawling home after work in very slow traffic, and in the ever-so-slightly quicker moving lane there is a camper van with a surfboard strapped to the roof. It’s a symbol to me that says, wow, they’re living their life. In reality, they might not be able to surf, or even, underneath the cover, it could be an ironing board. One life – iron.

Perception vs reality can be a venomous trap. Judging people’s lives and means. What they choose to show you is only the tip of the iceberg. Smoke and mirrors. That’s a big mistake. An even bigger mistake is to take that perception and let it make you feel sh*t about your own life.

On Sunday I competed in a trail run half marathon. On any day it is tough enough, but this year, in 29 degree heat, it was nearly impossible. The field was strung out, and I overtook many runners and in turn was overtaken myself. The instinct to fight back, latch onto their heels and keep with them kicks in, yet you realise you haven’t got much left in the tank and a with few miles to go the mere promise of finishing isn’t guaranteed, so I find I have to carry on as I’m going and just run my own race. Adjusting my gameplan and tactics from comparing myself to another runner is ludicrous. Those runners are probably fitter, or train harder than me. Hitching on to someone faster and fitter is only going to end one way – in a big fat DNF.

Incidentally, in another trail run I was running a few weeks ago, I ran for a stretch with a guy who had an Ironman tattoo on his leg. I see these tattoos a lot. At every event more or less and to me it means they are fit triathletes who have completed a World Triathlon event, as the tattoo bears the event’s logo. I think to myself that these guys and girls are serious, the ultimate endurance athletes and are forces to be reckoned with. At this said event, for the first time, I directly asked the guy a question about the tattoo, and I posed it to him that this event would be easy, given his World Series Triathlon pedigree, to which he responded, “Oh that? I did a sprint (short distance) triathlon last year, I haven’t done a full distance one. I didn’t finish either, I ran out of juice on the final leg”. I was somewhat amused as I’ve been a fool all these years, measuring myself against people, when not all of them are completely truthful. I did appreciate his honesty however.

Like I said, run your own race. What you measure yourself against could be smoke and mirrors. People will show you only what they want you to see, in all aspects of life. That bumper sticker should say One life – yours. Live it – your way.

Modern toss (and the art of Shinrin-yoku)

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…

{Insert suitable sullen emoji here}

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.