Thursday, 27 September 2012

Mountain Goats on Speed

 A panorama like none other I'd seen before. A long sweeping, lush green valley with a small scattering of buildings like discarded Lego bricks. An immense, brooding sky crowned the view, with billowy, grey clouds that looked like the heavy brush strokes of an em-passionate painter. The sheer space. The air. The land. It was awe inspiring.

"Good innit?"  It was Phil, stopping alongside me to share the vista.

"Wow!" was all I could say, but it seemed to some it all up.

Isn't it great that we have so many small words we can draw upon, like 'Wow! ' , 'Oh my God', 'Yes!' and 'Geronimo' to sum up our most mighty feelings of awe, thrill and sheer ecstasy! Who the hell was Geronimo anyway and why does my wife hate it so much when I yell it when we are in the throws of passion?

Phil interjected again, "But this is nothing to views on top of Whernside.  Now that's something you want to see!"

There's better to come? Bring it on, I thought.

Over and between huge, dark, clammy boulders we trudged up to the top of Pen y Ghent. It was a tough couple of hours of plod, plod, plod, before the terrain, mercifully, flattened out toward the summit. Phil and I were able to march side by side and as soon as we were able to catch our breath we got chatting.

It turned out that my latest, ramble-buddy was a chef by trade, with his own catering business. For Phil, walking was his escape from the stresses of the kitchen. His excursions from his home, just outside Hull, often took in the wilds of Yorkshire, darkest Derbyshire and the romance of the splendour of the Lake District.
It was a family business that he ran with his wife, with whom he had a young daughter.

"Pick up a stone!" Phil surprisingly instructed. The hint of urgency in his voice intrigued me  enough to stoop for fist-sized, grey pebble. Phil had a similar rock in his hand. Surely we weren't going to take a pot-shot at the nearest rabbit or grazing sheep? Was Phil looking to impressive me with a demonstration of his cookings skills out in the wild. I pictured him whipping a gas stove out of his pack,then felling, skinning and braising a rabbit with fast, skilled hands, before tearing handfuls of natural, green herbs from the greenery at our feet and shredding it on top.
So it was, with equal amounts of relief and disappointment, that I saw him he toss his stone onto a man-sized pile that stood at the side of the path.

'Go on then!' He indicated for me to follow suit. So I did, hoping to God that I would not be made to endure 9 hours of pick up stone, put down stone, with 'fun-guy' Phil. Did he really think that is was a good way to pass the time?

I had to ask,"So, what did we do that for?"

He told me that the pile of stones was a Cairn. It was a marker, like a waypoint for hikers. "If everyone who passes a cairn adds one stone it maintains  it. When it snows they poke out and guide walkers," Phill added. I was impressed. Later I was to discover that Cairns have been around for 1,000s of year and are found, not just here, but in North America and Northern Europe. At regular intervals, a series of cairns can be used to indicate a path across stony or barren terrain, even across glaciers.

Phil enjoyed passing on his knowledge to one as green as I, just as much as I enjoyed learning from him.

"If the trail is unclear, it shows people the way and sometimes there're used to warn people  of a danger spot. "
"How can you tell the difference between a come here! one and a don't come here! one?" I asked.
"You can't. You just have to be careful" Phil shrugged.
The thought of  some poor bastard, staggering his way, blindly, through a blizzard, following the cairn's direction, only to find himself plummeting down an unseen drop, made me shudder.

An hour later we had signed in a the first check point and were greeted warmly by some Macmillan volunteers, who were acting as marshals for the day. Many fellow walkers took the opportunity to take a break, but Phil insisted we push on. "We'll take a break at the second check point, before we reach Whernside."
He'd clearly been planning this for months. My feet and legs felt strong, so I was happy to keep going.

"Try some of these". From one of his many zipped pouches in his back-pack he produce a small, plastic pot of, what looked like, multicoloured pills. Phil must have read the concerned look of my face. " It's alright, they're jellybean's, but they've got extra glucose and shit in them, so they'll keep you going." I tried some. They were sugary sweet.

Phil washed his down with a slurp from a clear pipe that clipped into his shoulder strap and the back into his pack. "Time saver". I must say, i was increasingly impressed with his gear.

Coming down from Pen y Gent was tough on the body. It's amazing how the muscles we use to walk down a steep descent feel entirely different to those we use to climb up.

"Argh!" Phil yawped, " This is the first real test for my knees".

Trying to pick out firm footings on the embedded stone islands that poked through the slippery wet mud and loose scree, took focussed concentration. The strain of slowing ones downward  momentum to a steady and manageable pace, plus the inevitable frequent foot slips, made my knees burn. I sympathised with Phil.

In two flashes, one of neon pink and the other green, two fell runners skipped between Phil and I. With the sure footing of mountain goats on speed, the young couple bounded down the steep incline. I stood in utter awe and admiration and watched a long, brunet ponytail, pulled through the back of a cap, dance snake-like over the next lip and out of sight.
I was overcome by the display of balance, agility, fitness and plain-old, balls-out, thrill-seeking bravery, that I had just witnessed.

Unkindly and unfairly, however, it suddenly left me feeling aged, feeble and rather faint hearted . But I wasn't having any of it! I gritted my teeth and picked up the pace, passing between  a group of walkers we'd had been tracking for sometime. Unsurprisingly, Phil was doing exactly the same.

Friday, 21 September 2012

The Shell-Endowed Turtle

Like brightly coloured beads on a string necklace, dropped carelessly by some Yorkshire Colossus, the walkers snaked their way up the craggy faces of Pen y Ghent. Like sheep, we followed, one by one, or in my case two by two as I now had a walking buddy.

'I'll bloody do it today, or break my arse trying", Phil Smith was steely and determined. He had attempted the three peaks two years earlier with his father-in-law. Only to fall at the final peak when severe pains in his knee had become unbearable.

"It's not the going up that does it", he told me. "It's the going down. Yer knees take all the impact".

He was certainly dressed like he meant business ; waterproof coat, lightweight trousers, gaiters and two telescopic walking sticks ( although I'm sure they must have a sexier name) and a rucksack that, by the looks of it, contained crampons, ice axes and a life raft (just in case, like).

In comparison, I looked like I'd popped out to the corner shop for the Radio Times and a packet of Digestive Hob-Knobs. His must of thought of me as a bit of a novice, though he was probably too polite to say so.

"So I take it you're a bit of a novice to this sort of lark are you?"
I knew it!
"Is it that obvious?" I replied.
"A bit".
"Do you think I'm lacking a bit of kit?" I nodded at his backpack. Packed to the gills, it made him look like a shell-endowed turtle.

"Well, the gear is only part of the preparation." He countered and suddenly went all distant and wise, like a father instructing his son, " Yeh, your body can let you down alright, but it's in here you got to be strong". He tapped the side of his head and fixed me with a glare.

At times like this Phil looked a lot older than his 34 years. His weathered features and stocky build added to his robust air. If I was going to make this journey to the end there was no better person to be hooked up with, I thought. This trek was no laughing matter. It would be hard and gruelling. Now, I had the experienced guidance of a man who had given it his all...and failed. Now he was back. Arnie-style.  And fixated on nothing but success. One way or another we would reach the end together, whether it was him carrying me or .... Well, it would probably have to be him carrying me, to be honest.

We started the clamber up east side of Pen y Ghent. So many walkers made it seem almost as if it were people climbing people. Perhaps a scene from a Hollywood blockbuster, where flood waters are rising and hundreds of survivors are desperately,trying to scrabble up to higher ground.

It would prove, for me, a wake up call for what i'd let myself in for. But for some it was proving a little too much already.

Two ladies with Macmillan T-shirts stretched tightly over their significant frames, like ceiling netting straining to holding back balloons at New Year's Eve party, were leaning against the side a huge boulder, red-faced and blowing hard.

 It was probably Brenda and Sue from the office, I guessed, who were  coaxed into coming along by their work colleagues, without being told, or fully appreciating, exactly what they were letting themselves in for.

"Where're the rest of them, Bren?" one puffed.
"They've gone on ahead, Sooz,"came the unsurprising news.
"Blimey, I could do with a ciggie, Bren"
"Me too!" Sue pulled out a pack and offered her friend a fag. Both keen to get some smoke down them, before anymore of that fresh air crap got in.

I was blowing a little, too and hot enough to take my coat off. It was clear that the first climb of the day would filter out the Brendas and Sues of this world, but soon I was to realise that the challenge was about to take no prisoners.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

The Ribble Runs

Settle station was opened in 1876 and is one of the Derby Gothic Style station types and at this unholy hour of the morning, it was all mine. So peaceful. I could have curled up on one of it's benches and fallen straight back to sleep. To dream, perhaps of a blueberry mountain and a huge, bald-headed falcon perched on its summit, staring scornfully down, ready to swoop on any poor, unsuspecting lost sheep (reference to previous posts). ' That would be me, ' I found myself saying audibly, not that anyone as around to hear it.
The distant clacketty-clack was the early signal of a train's approach and soon I was one of the handful of bleary-eyed passengers making their was along a very significant track line.

The Settle to Carlisle line, spans 72 mile of the most picturesque and stunning Yorkshire countryside. This journey was only made possible by the guile and expertise of the Victorians engineers. In all, on this amazing journey, the train descends through 14 tunnels and travels over 17 major viaducts spanning ravines, making the train the perfect place from which to admire views of a rich variance of stunning landscape.
However, for me, on this particular day, I would not have the opportunity to see this as, at the very next stop, I was off. Horton-in-Ribblesdale and don't you just love the name?

I was late for my rendezvous with 300 mad, macmillan charity walkers. It couldn't be helped, I had caught the first train of the day.

From a high vantage point, at the station gates, I look down into the small, sleeping village. A cluster of cars parked at the edge of a field and the muffled, fractured sounds of a man speaking on a tanoy system told me where I needed to be.

As I approached the field a stream of wired walkers were filing out. Feeling like a salmon, trying to make it's way up stream and against the flow, I navigated my way into a small marquee, just inside the stone gateway. Tea, coffee and a crate load of bananas, piled high on tables filled one corner and in the other was a cheerful-looking man sporting sporty shades and a tuft of gel-spiked hair on a severely, receding hair line.

Why do some guys do this? There comes a time when most men have to accept that the bountiful, bouffant of hair they once cherished, sculptured and preened is waving goodbye to them.   One has to admire the dogged, no nonsense chaps who will would rather shave the whole lot off, rather than have it slowly, sinking over the horizon of their northern hemisphere.

However, there are a few disillusioned blokes who will stubbornly stick to their old styles. Some are determined to keep it long despite having so little. Now they have a choice, either comb it over, or create Terry Nutkins-like mullet (front side for business, back for partying). This, in my humble... looks ridiculous.

The chap before me had a similar thing going on. His philosophy was clear; no matter how far back my hair retreats goes, I will still look cool! Yes, the hair is going, but if I keep it long and gel it so it sticks right up, I will still be able to see it when I look in the mirror. The only flaw in his plan is, so will everyone else!
God, I'm such a bitch. Sorry.
Like I said, he welcomed me,' Dude, your just in time. Do you have your declaration form?'
I gave him the form and signed the register. He gave me a tag on a lime-green ribbon, ' you need to fill this in and hang it round your neck. Keep it with you at all times'.
'What is it ?' I asked.
It's your next of kin details. If we find you at the bottom of a cliff face or down a pothole. We know who to call. ' He grinned, white and wide. He'd probably used the same line for all the other walkers who had asked the same question. I wondered if the colour had drained from my face any quicker than theirs.

 I accepted the invitation to take a couple of bananas for the journey, but I was keen to get going.

I joined the long line of walkers. Keen groups of people talked excitedly about the challenges to come and what they thought their chances would be of making it all the way.

We walked over a large stone bridge which spanned the treacle-coloured waters of the River Ribble, which churned in white flashes. Crossing at The Golden Lion we passed a beautiful little primary school. All grey stone of course. And then we were up and over a wall and off-road.

I' d only just noticed the chap walking in front of me with a large-brimmed, navy hat, and bulging rucksack when he suddenly turned to face me and held out an open hand. ' Are you walking on your own?'
'Yes' I replied.
' Do you want to walk together. It' ll be much easier'.
I hadn't counted on taking on this challenge with anyone else, but Lady Fortune had deemed that Phil Smith, from Hull, and I, would be facing all the grim challenges of the Yorkshire Peaks, together.