#ScotSlog Part I: Gretna to Fort William
It seems that I can only write a blog when I have gotten to the end of some kind of arch or learning curve in my life. Which is the reason that I have found it impossible to write over the last few months, when perhaps it was expected after returning from the Scottish Slog expedition.
The last time I wrote was when I was about to set off, more or less, after the whole experience of planning the trip had come to a head and had, of course, taught me a few things. The expedition itself was full of lessons and experience and loads has happened since, so I am going to have to split the arch into sections again, starting with the former part of the trip, being the section from Gretna to Fort William, which proved to be pretty different from the latter.
So, back to Jan 16th, when I travelled down to Gretna Green on the train with Haggis and Stu, who filmed the first day for us, along with a small crew from ITV and some much appreciated supporters from Circle charity, with a pack that weighed 33kg, including a ridiculous amount of kit that I didn’t need, some of which got stripped immediately after getting shoulder pump walking to the start point, The Famous Blacksmith’s Shop, from the train station. And yes you would have thought I would have tested the pack before setting off and no I didn’t for a variety of reasons but mostly due to some distractions that I had to deal with before setting off in a mad rush after everything was done.
The day after I guess my pack weighed about 28kg and was much more manageable. I still had a solar charger, battery recharger, ice axe and crampons which never got used, amongst other things that got stripped at a later date. I clearly thought I was going to Antarctica then and in terms of cameras and recharging would have been self sufficient without going into a building for the entire two months of the Scotland trip. I didn’t expect to use my axe and crampons in the earlier sections, but wanted to keep them with me to get my back used to the weight from the outset, rather than adding kit later. As it turned out, this became irrelevant, but more on that in due course.
Above and below: Food packing!
Below left: Haggis not that psyched to keep walking on the first day.
Below right: Walking with Emma from ITV Border Life on the first day.
The first crisis was after only a few days of the trip. On the third night in the tent, I noticed Haggis licking incessantly at her armpit and could also smell something odd. I lifted her leg to have a look and discovered gooey layers of skin matted together with hair and the strong smell of rotting flesh. Haggis had pit rot! Since she is an ex (rehomed) fatty, she has a few empty rolls of saggy skin in the more saggy places on her body and the pack rubbing at them combined with the wet, snowy conditions had meant that her skin had degraded and now looked infected. For the first few days she had been stopping and looking at me in an “I don’t want to go any further” way and I had just thought she was getting used to the amount of walking. I now realised that she was trying to tell me she was in pain and I felt terrible. I would have to bail Haggis already. It felt like a total anti climax, but there were no options to keep her going. My good pal ‘Mr. Ian’ came to the rescue and picked us up the following day. Poor old Waggles.
Two days later I was heading back down to my previous point without her, joined by a friend, Fi who I had met on Ninja Warrior the year before. Given that taking Haggis home had used up a couple of contingent days, we thought it would be a great idea to do an overnight walk and cover a 54km distance in a oner, alongside the other ‘normal’ days we needed to do to get up to Edinburgh. Starting at 10pm, we walked through the first night in gopping weather and with poor kit management. By dawn, we were wet and cold and after eating breakfast in a very chilly public toilet, we decided to knock on the door of a pub to see if we could dry off a bit to correct our mistakes and start again with dry kit and with the idea of not letting it get damp a second time. The pub was closed for the season and unheated, but we were lucky to be let in anyway and caught a few very cold hours sleep before setting off again. By the time we rolled into Peebles, the end of the 54k section, after having to turn back by a few kilometres due to a washed away bridge, it was 2am and we were seeing bats for bags in trees and kangaroos jumping out of the hedges. I had also started to notice a niggle in my knee and was a bit limpy. Peebles was a food pick up and we were lucky that our hosts had left the door open for us so we could go in and get the food.
Over the following days, my knee injury got progressively worse and by the time we arrived at EICA Ratho, Edinburgh, I was walking in a crab action to stop the damaging feeling of pulling on the I.T. Band insertion. After being reunited with Haggis on the planned admin day that followed, I realised I was going to have to take more rest before setting off again.
Lesson - conditioning. Since I have always been able to grab a pack and walk for a long distance in the past and have always trusted my body to adapt pretty easily, I had not done huge distances to test my body in the lead up to the trip. What had happened in between those times and now, however, was breaking both my butt cheeks on separate occasions whilst heel hooking, meaning that my hip rotators and glutes were still damaged a year later. This is likely what led to the ITB injury on the side of my knee whilst walking. It sounds so flipping obvious to test your body before a trip, but I had used my past body and not my present one to judge it’s response to the distances. Perhaps another lesson from the same story is that I hadn’t seen the trip as being particularly hard in the first few weeks as it would be over rolling hills and I thought I would adapt en route. So something about respecting the task at hand rings true in hindsight.
Below: Haggis feeling a bit sorry for herself whilst resting at home.
Above: First usage of bandages in Peebles.
Below left: Arriving in Peebles, psyched and hallucinating.
Below right: Attempting to recover in the ten days after reaching Edinburgh.
I spent about ten days trying to recover, which was now eating into the time I had planned for the Cairngorms loop, which started and ended in Fort William and would take about 15 days before continuing north so that if I was forced to skip it I could gain extra time. I stretched LOADS, saw PT Ross for sports massages, met Tara the Chiropractor, spoke to physio Jules, applied creams, hots, colds, gave it constant poking and slept with my leg in a funny position to stop the swelling accumulating. I also made a plan to drag Mr. Ian’s golf trolley up the canal tow path to avoid reintroducing the weight for as long as possible.
One of the most prominent crux’s of the trip was about half way along the canal tow path when Claire, Annie and her kids from Circle charity, a charity that focuses on supporting people affected by drug and alcohol abuse in Edinburgh, had come along for support. We had only walked 5k and the pull I could feel each step on the ITB suddenly became much worse. It felt that if I kept walking I would risk doing damage that would at the very least mean I couldn't walk for a few weeks. Claire, Annie and co left me after feeding me a much appreciated hot chocolate at the Falkirk Wheel Cafe, where I stayed, reflected and tried to work out my options. Applying logic, I could not walk any more that day, so would have to find a camp nearby. The distance had also slowly been going down every day, so it was unlikely I could make five the next day. Any less than five seemed like such slow progress that it was silly. It would take me six months to get to Cape Wrath at that speed and I’d be into next winter! After the rest days and efforts to get fixed in Edinburgh, it seemed very unlikely that fewer now could make the difference. It seemed I was out of options and I had a word with myself about how it would be a healthy experience to have to accept the end of the trip, even if not the desired one. I wanted it so badly at this point and ran through all the planning, time, money and support that had gone into it, as well as what it would have been like to finally arrive at Cape Wrath after the two months of time in the hills I had planned. I needed to ring someone who would say the right things and give me confidence in my decision. I immediately thought of Craig Mathieson, someone who has become a friend through Antarctica planning, and who’s number I had thought to save in my brick phone at the beginning of the trip for such an event. I was lucky that he picked up straight away and whilst I was listening to him tell me all the things I needed to hear in exactly the perfect way, I remember shaking my head thinking how lucky I was to have such a good candidate for the job to hand.
I felt MUCH better after that call and actually now believed in the fact that it was a good experience this way too. So it was finalised that I was going home and I had told Craig to get in touch to get me to help him with any Polar Academy stuff (look it up!) over the coming weeks to give me something to focus on and contribute towards when I got back. I would be ringing Mr. Ian to see if he could do me a pick up but didn’t want to go home just yet. I wanted time to reflect and accept the experience so I thought I’d just squeeze out another k, find a camp and call later for a pick up the next day.
Over the days that had passed before this, I had been in contact with another friend, Jules the physio, who I had gotten to know through a climbing injury several years before. Being another amazing person who had offered any help with the trip through her field of expertise, she had been giving me lots of advice about how to manage the ITB injury and one thing stuck in my mind from the day before, which was that the support I was wearing could either be holding the swelling in or out. The support was one of those things that you buy from Boots with the hole in the front and offers mostly structural support to the knee. But if, I thought, my insertion point was pulling away from the bone and if there was the potential that the swelling was accumulating through the day and stopping me from walking any further, maybe I should try squeeze the thing together to try and prevent both of these things from happening? I had packed myself some cheap stretchy bandage for Haggis in case she got any foot injuries that I needed to waterproof over with a dressing. With nothing to lose, I wrapped it around my knee, pulling it tight in the direction of the insertion.
I set off back into the gloopy, heavy snow, which now seemed completely miserable, resigned to feeling a bit depressed about the whole affair, whilst trying to see the positives of the learning that I was doing. After a k, however, the knee felt a bit better. Hmmm, maybe I should do another one. And then it felt even better. This kept happening until I had done a further 7k! The distance, of course, was still way down on what I planned for each day by normal standards, but compared to earlier in the day, this was amazing! I even felt like I could go a little further but didn’t want to push it. And then I felt guilty because I thought Craig might check the tracker and see that I had gone against his sound advice given my circumstances during our phone call. The change in circumstances since then, however, was a bit of stretchy plastic that cost me £1.87 from Morrisons that I’d packed in my kit for Haggis. Result!
Above: Starting to look a bit sleepy en route.
Below: Haggis guarding the tent on the Canal Towpath.
Over the days following, the distances kept increasing and my legs got more flexible as I continued a very conscientious stretching routine in the tent morning and night and also sometimes stopping en route to help keep the bits attached to the insertion physically longer, counteracting their natural contraction over a long period of usage. Next lesson - flexibility. I knew this was incredibly important on paper, but had never experienced in practise just how much difference it could make. This is not to say that it wasn’t bloody hard work to keep my leg just together enough to complete an increased distance each day, so the trip became a different kind of difficult over the next few weeks of now adapted, fairly flat miles. Instead of beasting myself over the hills carrying a heavy pack and getting very fit, staying high up in the mountains and doing big ascents every day, I was stopping, starting, taking the bandage off to adjust, getting the tightness wrong so there wasn’t enough support or the blood couldn't get to my foot, massaging, stretching resting, etc., etc. And on one occassion, when it was feeling much stronger, I was hit up the arse by my golf trolly when the wind took it and ended up resting at Sandy and Allen’s house, who had come to meet me by surprise a few days before (which was awesome as I thought they were in New York!), in Stirling after I thought it was trip canned again.
The adapted route now followed the West Highland Way to make up time and avoid descents, which would obviously be more strenuous on the knee, as well as to keep the golf trolly for as long as possible before I had to take the weight on my back again. This, in my mind, could be the next potential end to the trip. I was just about managing with no weight. How on earth would the knee miraculously be able to suddenly take what was now stripped to about 24kg and start doing more ascent on rougher ground once the route got too bad for the trolly?
As a result, I hung on to the bugger for as long as I could and ended up doing some terrible days where I would take the pack off the trolley where it got rough, only to find it got better just around the corner. Or, if I persevered man-hauling it over very rough ground in hope of an improvement, it never came (until I put the pack on my back, of course). When I reached my food pick up in Balmaha, I was met by a friend, Leigh, who picked up some excess food and took the dreaded trolly away with him. The next section of walking was up the side of Loch Lomond and I had read and heard that it got very rough. So it was time to find out if my knee could hold up with the pack on my back.
Above: Soggy, slow days with LB.
Below: LB, Haggis and Harmony on the West Highland Way.
In the morning I was met by my friend and ex flying instructor LB who would walk with us, along with his dog Harmony, for two days. Initially, I walked VERY slowly and carefully as the knee joint felt very different with the weight and very vulnerable whilst it was warming up in the morning. After about 5k, however, I was able to start speeding up a bit and all was looking and feeling good. But then, pretty much out of nowhere, whilst walking up some shallow steps, a huge, painful ping occurred, forcing me to yelp, stop and sit down immediately. Fuck. I felt immediately like a school child being caught out and forced to admit responsibility for something which they already knew they were doing wrong. And I couldn’t see how I could carry on either. A gradual worsening would have been different, but a big, fat, unexpected ping was totally unpredictable, unpreventable and seemed like the kind of thing that could cause a lot of damage if it happened any more times. And even if I could carry on slowly up the West Highland Way, once I got onto the Cape Wrath Trail I would in far more remote areas with much more ascent and would be up to three days walk away from bailing myself if I needed to. Things looked very bleak in terms of completing the trip and I actually felt as though I should stop right there and then, on the step, to avoid risking a more serious injury. I could recover from the current issues I was having through time and physio, but if I totally destroyed my knees then I might never be able to go to Antarctica. So all from that ping, the steaks at risk seemed pretty high to me.
I was surprised when LB suggested just resting for a few minutes and carrying on. I suppose all those thoughts hadn’t run through his mind until I shared them with him, but he also just didn’t seem to see the ping as as higher risk as I did. I considered it and agreed to just test it a little bit more and started an INCREDIBLY slow and careful walk to the top of the steps. Again, it felt very dodgy at first and then warmed up a bit with time. In hindsight, I noticed that the ping occurred just after I had got pretty chilly when we stopped to eat some food. After another 7k or so, we stopped at a pub and had a pint. At this point I should probably mention something about my thoughts on ethics, or trip style, or whatever you want to call it. I had planned to live in the tent for the majority of the trip, which I did. But I had also decided that to strictly avoid going into any cafes or buildings was unnecessary. I wanted to do an exciting trip and to battle it out in sometimes arduous conditions, which I also did, but it felt a bit over constructed to do an ‘unsupported’ trip in Scotland. In an inhabited country, if things go wrong, having the option of buildings and resources around means that the support is there in reality, even if you choose not to use it for non emergencies. Whereas in an uninhabited environment, such as Antarctica, or some parts of the Cape Wrath Trail, you are unsupported by default which is a far more genuine and serious scenario. So as well as the fact that I decided I would enjoy visiting people, cafes and pubs on occasion, I also felt that, for myself, doing an unsupported trip in Scotland would seem like a false run. I would rather go to a more serious environment to do that, so that will be another trip!
So, with my justification in place, I can now admit to the fact that LB treated me to a room in the hotel, I think in large part because he was not that psyched for his van either, but in any case it was a real treat, followed by a pie for dinner, amazing! The next day, all fattened up from a hotel breakfast, we set off in much the same way as the day before - slow and steady to start with and getting a bit faster through the day. My expectation was pretty low at this point and I was kind of just continuing as there seemed no reason not to now that I had walked past the ping a bit already. LB left me at around 4pm as he need to return to his van after several extensions in response to my persuading him to stay for as long as possible. It had only been two days, but the thought of walking alone again was pretty demotivating. After an hour or two, however, it was back to normal - me and Haggis trundling along in now miserable rain. I reached the world’s worst campsite - a bowl in the ground with not enough space to put the guy ropes in properly and rocky earth where they would fit - just into dark and as the weather was picking up. It became more windy than I expected and by the morning we were sitting in a saggy, soggy tent just about still held up by the poles. I had learned by this point that it was necessary to put waterproofs on inside the tent, before sitting up or getting out of my sleeping bag, so that no moisture got onto the hood of my insulating jacket from the roof condensation. Otherwise, putting the insulated jacket into the dry bag would transfer tiny amounts of moisture onto the rest of my clothing and over a long period of time I would end up with slightly damp thermals and anything else stored in that bag. Again, this may sound obvious, but trying to eliminate every droplet of water from your kit that would usually have no implication if you were out for only a few days at a time before drying out is a pretty difficult task in Scottish winter!
Above: Early morning photography before heading to Tyndrum to drop off the trolly at lunchtime.
Below: Late night camps to up the miles.
A couple of days later I reached a campsite in Inverarnan. By now, I was expecting to reach Fort William and then can the trip out of responsibility. Still half expected another ping at any moment, I had considered that if something went dramatically wrong with my knee to the extent that I couldn’t walk, it could be a mountain rescue job to get us off the hill, and I really didn’t want that! So I was resigned to the idea that I would probably reach Fort Will, dump most of my kit and then venture up the Ben for a day to get some kind of closure on the trip. I had also made the decision to forget any time pressure, since I saw this as an added variable that could influence me to push into injury otherwise. The knee had felt pretty good for the two days since I left LB, until the last few k coming down the ascent into the campsite, and with all this in mind, I decided to take a rest day. Looking back, I also just think I really wanted one. There was a pub nearby and I spent the entire next day inside it, starting with a coffee, then pie, half a pint of Guiness and then wine… It was a bit of a pressure release and I woke up in the tent with a hangover. After not drinking much for a long time, the alcohol had made me feel terrible. Each hour I meant to leave the tent and each hour I didn’t go. I didn’t realise at the time, but I was depressed about the plan to stop walking at Fort William and looking back, it was the low point of the trip. I was down, stuck in the tent and my body felt rough. One rest day turned into two and I had a word with myself to set myself up better for the next day. Leigh had also been in touch offering to drop the golf trolly back to me, since I was now passed the rough section of the WHW. I wasn’t sure if it would be beneficial, but I decided to try it anyway. So the next morning, I set of with a renewed attitude, trolly in tow and the sun was shining.
Things started well. The ground was smooth and the trolly was easy. But, of course, it didn’t last long. More of the familiar stop-starting, taking the pack off the trolly and replacing it again not many metres later followed, and there were eventually sections where it was impossible to pull it even empty, forcing me to fold it up and carry it by hand, adding weight to my load! This went on for a few days until I finally reached my next food pick up in Tyndrum, where I could leave it behind for good.
Over the next few days, the knee actually started feeling stronger with the pack. It seemed that the stretching was reducing the pull on the ITB whilst the walking was strengthening my glute muscles and hip rotators, giving the combined result that my legs felt stronger and more robust, or at least, less likely to ping anyway. I had more confidence in them and felt ok with trying to up the mileage a bit, so suddenly became very disciplined at finished the planned distance rather than stopping short. So much so that I turned down an invite to a teepee party I found in the sticks somewhere approaching Glencoe, which for me, was a big indicator of motivation!
The day on Rannoch Moor was one of the most memorable of the trip. The weather was alpine, my legs felt great and the snow was crunchy and air crisp. I chatted to loads of happy people on the hill, some of whom walked along with me for a bit, bumped into a friend who was doing a running race in Glencoe that day and eventually landed in a beautiful campsite next to the Glencoe Inn. After doing a bit of photography in the beautiful weather, I bumped into a school friend from Dorset, who it turns out has also lived in Scotland for the last ten years or so and arranged to have a pint with him later that night. As soon as the sun was down, however, things got really cold. At around minus ten, I could feel the burn of the cold air going into my nostrils and there was no way I was leaving my sleeping bag - sorry Ben.
The next day was equally beautiful and I managed to catch a few snaps of Ben and his pals paragliding down whist I was walking up the Devil’s Staircase. I felt so happy and motivated - such a contrast from a few days before in the tent in Inverarnan. Apart from the time factor, I was now also feeling like the possibility of continuing beyond Fort William was back on. I was even bouncing downhill in the deep snow, confident enough in my knee to test what felt better. The other side of the ascent I was met by a friend, Lucy, who I know through climbing at Ratho, and we bounced back down most of the descent together into Kinlochleven. The knee didn’t like the hard path once the snow had dissipated, however, and it reminded me how quickly this injury seemed to be able to turn from ‘totally robust’ to ‘ooft, this feels damaging if I’m not walking sideways’.
Above: Enjoying some nice weather stops on Rannoch Moor.
Below: Catching my pal Ben paragliding down into Glencoe.
Below: A beautiful evening at the Glencoe Inn campsite before spending the night in -10C.
I met Kev at his house for my next food pick up, with only one day of walking left to get to Fort William. The weather was back to the characteristic grey, soggy and slightly sideways conditions of the western hills of Scotland and the final day of the WHW was a long, boring slog along a long, boring track of sheep filled moor, meaning that I had to keep putting Haggis on the lead at sheep heavy intervals to make sure she didn’t chase them, which is more of a pain in the arse than it sounds. I had a Ruffwear lead that attached around my waist to save me holding it, which was great, but it did mean that if she took up the slack in the lead for a second, my knee would be jolted slightly, which got very, very annoying. After a while, however, she seemed to desensitise to them and, combined with her being absolutely exhausted, I was able to walk her past the first few, take her off and tell her to leave them and be able to walk safely through the rest, amazing!
We rolled into Fort William in the dark, passing the Ben to our right on the way in. I realise now that I had already made the decision to carry on at this point as I remember looking at it and thinking that I was planning to go up there a few days before. I headed to the Grog and Gruel to find Ollie, who was harbouring more food for me in his house up the road. (The back to back food pick ups would have made sense if I were to now divert to the Cairngorms and back, which had obviously been ditched long ago.) Another pie later and with an admin day to follow, Haggis and I enjoyed the comforts of Ollie’s sofa and a shower in the morning before starting the rethink of logistics for the Cape Wrath Trail.
In Education and with a Screw Loose...
28th December 2015
Well it’s been a cr-cr-craaaazy few months since I was last forced to make the time to write. Back in May, I had just committed to my Antarctic expedition and was at the beginning of a monumental amount of planning, the majority of which is still yet to come. And shortly afterwards, I invented the Scottish expedition, which, somehow, I am already about to set off on.
It all started a little by accident when I decided to go to the hills for a couple of weeks with Haggis this winter for a bit of free phys. I went on the Walk Scottish Highlands website to pick a route but, typically, became distracted by a big red line running through the length of Scotland – a fairly recent invention called the Scottish National Trail. After reading a bit about it, I went back to trying to decide which route or circuit I should do, but couldn’t pick one. How could I? None of them had any particular significance to me and there seemed no defining features to base a decision upon. So the thought to do the whole of Scotland popped into my head. By a similar logic, how could I not do it when there was a great big red line staring me in the face? I could also feel myself getting excited, so I knew immediately that this would be the trip. I rang my Mum and told her (to which she said “Of course you are Jenkins”), then started planning.
It would take about five weeks and I planned for November and December, when winter should have arrived to give me the cold conditions I was after (yeah, thank goodness I changed that one). As time went on, however, it also occurred to me that there was actually no reason to follow the SNT either. I didn’t want to stay low level, but get out into the hills proper, staying high as much as possible - winter mountaineering as opposed to trekking.
Left: No longer my intended route but the original big red line that drew me in!
I’m not much of a walker anymore, more of a climber, but one of the things I love most about winter climbing days is topping out on a cold, crisp day with the sun low in the sky making the lines of the frozen snow sharp and hard. Crunchy snow to walk off on and air that smells different from the stuff lower down.
So that would be the trip – a high level traverse of Scotland from the southernmost point on the border to the northernmost point of the northwest. I estimated two months to allow for the extra ascent, rest days, bad weather conditions and any problem solving as well as having time to film, enjoy life and have the freedom to mix it up a bit if I fancied chucking in a few extra traverses along the way.
At this point, I felt it was something I could almost just set off on, without having really thought too deeply about logistics. How inaccurately I estimated the time it would take to organise such an expedition.
I thought of a few extra things that I would need, such as a good tent and sleeping bag, maybe a rucksack for Haggis, ooh maybe a bigger rucksack for me, food, food drop offs, a sat phone, a tracker?… Hmmm, maybe this trip is big enough to get sponsored kit for… Maybe I should do it for charity…
Above: Doggy kit test and training in the Pentlands. Photo credit: Stu Edwards.
Things started snowballing really fast and even though I was there, I still can’t quite work out how I have spent so much time on the planning of this trip over the last six months. SIX MONTHS! What? At times it has been full time, even with the help of some very awesome people who have worked on it with me. I’ve had to stop climbing in busy periods and completely ran out of savings where I didn’t have the time to generate more work. Financially, I am now in a position where it may just work. Or it may not, and I’ll have to borrow a bit more when I come back so I can cover the rent before I can get paid again.
Looking back over the last few months, I’m shocked at how hard it has been. There was a particular month where I had become so stressed about money that I thought I’d have to make myself effectively homeless to make the trip happen. This seemed a good idea on paper, as it would also save two months of rent whilst I am away and not using my house anyway. But after a while of being committed to moving everything out of my house and into a mate’s stable on Dec 16th, I started to realise how difficult this could make things. Firstly, what if the trip was cut short for any reason? I’d be coming home needing a sort out and start working as soon as possible whilst living out of a car in the winter. Not so bad without a dog, but anything I needed to leave her for would mean boxing her in a car each time. Not ideal for poor old Wagg Dogg. Then, the logistics of running a business from a large desktop computer in a stable with no heating would be, apart from miserable, potentially damaging to the equipment. Office spaces didn’t turn out to be too much cheaper and still wouldn’t save me enough money to survive.
My parents have always told me that if I got really stuck I wouldn’t be homeless as they’d be able to bail me out. But I had run myself into a corner with the idea that the whole situation was self-inflicted and that my Dad wouldn’t approve as if I’d just chosen to spend the time working instead of planning then I wouldn’t be in the predicament.
Above: Haggis in action after acclimatising to her Ruffwear backpack and Stu helping me get her into position.
Eventually, it was my Mum that solved the problem for me. Being my best mate, I had told her everything about my situation but had avoided telling my Dad for fear of having to weather him telling me that I should can the whole expedition and get a job in a good old pub (he’s quite old school). After a particular phone call, she decided that enough was enough and told him on my behalf. I got a phone call back ten minutes later from him saying he had paid some money into my account to tide me over with the rent. And there was none of the chat that I had expected. What a legend. And perhaps what a silly billy I was for allowing my situation to become so dire when I could have risked the lecture at the possibility of a solution. More lessons!
Another unexpected turn of events threatened meaning not setting off very recently, last week in fact, when the screw in my ankle started to feel as though it may come out of the side of my foot. I had had the foot (Frankie the Ankie) X-Rayed about four months ago in preparation for having it removed before Antarctica. For the last seven years, the plate and it’s seven screws has not really caused me any problems, but I had decided, as a potential source of complication, I should get it removed anyway to eliminate that particular risk factor in such an extreme environment. What I had not expected was that when I had the X-Ray done, the doctor turned around and told me that I have a screw loose! This would mean having the plate removed regardless, but there was no time to wait for an op date and recover in time for the Scotland trip, so it would have to happen afterwards. All fine so far. Last week, however, I suddenly, over the space of about three days, started experiencing very sudden stingy screw pains. I thought that this suggested movement and I started to believe that it was on it’s way out pronto. Typically, the timing was terrible as I had one day to leave before Christmas. If I waited to try get a hold of the consultant I’d be looking at potentially having emergency surgery in January and my chances of setting off on the 16th would be slim to none. So I took it upon myself to go to A&E and ask for an X-Ray.
Above: Frankie the Ankie at the time of creation.
Right: Seven years on and needing a bit of maintenance. Two X-Rays three months apart, however, have given much improved confidence.
Although I had rung and had been reassured that they would be able to do this, when I arrived the nurse, although very kind and sympathetic, said that she wouldn’t be able to. I was feeling the urgency of the situation and wasn’t really sure where to try for a solution next. She must have seen my desperation and when she looked at my records and found that I was registered all over the place and probably booked into the wrong hospital for the op anyway, she basically blagged it for me and sent me down for the X-Ray – another lucky escape had through the kindness and expense of another person.
And the result… the screw hasn’t moved much at all, so I am back to setting off and hoping the little bugger stays in place for a few months more. I’m being limited to Mantas as any other boot I try creates a lot of rubbing on the screw, with a plan to switch to trainers for the canal towpath (Mantas are very stuff soled so would be torture on flat tarmac for any sustained period) which, conveniently starts about where my house is, so I’ll be able to switch without carrying them up from the border. I’ll post them back to myself at the end of it and commit to walking in the Mantas for the remainder of the trip and will just have to tolerate them in the flatter sections. Anyway, I could go on about logistical plan for hours…
In good news, everything is looking to be pretty set now. I have a mental two weeks left in Scotland to separate food, do a Cosco run, do all my food drop offs, update the website, embed the tracker to it, finalise my route and test my tent, solar chargers, learn a new camera and a lot of other fiddly bits, but I feel like I can just about get it done. Just!
All in all it has been another very strong learning experience. I eventually realised that a ‘wee walk’ through Scotland in the winter that would last two months, without support, carrying everything and keeping Haggis safe at the same time, would actually be quite hard (I hadn’t really thought of this at the time of inventing it), but what I really hadn’t anticipated was how difficult the planning part of the journey would be. I suppose I may have thought 10-20% effort would be planning and 80-90% would be the expedition itself. But from where I’m looking now, I feel that I have completed 50% of the journey through the lessons and honestly gruelling amount of work the last few months have been. The trip itself will be a different kind of effort and my set of problems will change to a new one, but what I now realise is that the problem solving starts from the moment you decide to take on a big project and I am consequently more mentally prepared for the logistical and problem solving efforts that will be required to complete the trip. Let the games commence!
Blog Video - Haggis Gets Exciting Goodies From Ruffwear!
As you may have read elsewhere on this site, my best pal Haggis and I are going to set out together, on foot, self-sufficient and in Scottish winter in January 2016. We will walk from Gretna Green on the border of Scotland with England, through the whole of Scotland, eventually finishing in Cape Wrath at the northern tip of Scotland sometime in March 2016. The idea developed from the thought of going for "a wee walk in Scotland this winter to get free phys for Antarctica training” to doing the whole of Scotland over two months!
We are lucky enough to have gained some sponsors for the expedition, including Ruffwear, who have kitted Haggis out from head to toe in kit that she will need to stay fit and healthy in Scottish winter. Haggis' first blog video shows her trying on her 'booties' and not quite understanding why I keep trying to zip her into a sack...
Unfinished Business – Part II: The Catalyst
12th June 2015
Right, part II, the week in Cape Cod. This won’t be such a long one, I promise.
About five years ago I read James Cracknell and Ben Fogle’s book ‘Race to the Pole’, their account of their journey to the South Pole as part of a multiple team race. The inter-competition element of their adventure didn’t appeal to me so much, but I remember being completely absorbed in the otherworldly nature of Antarctica they described – bizarre sastrugi formations that made Ben hallucinate and conditions on the plateau so harsh that pretty much nothing lives there. I immediately knew it was a place I wanted to go, but I didn’t know in what capacity. For a second, I thought I might do an MRes in Biology at St. Andrews and get there via the science route, but instead listened to my instincts and committed to film-making, taking up a place on the MFA Film Directing course at ECA. So Antarctica sunk to the back of my consciousness and went unnoticed for a little while.
Then last year, I saw by chance Cas and Jonesy’s film ‘Crossing the Ice’ at a film festival in the UK and Antarctica got into my head proper. Cas and Jonesy, along with Alex Gamme, who did the same journey solo simultaneously, were the first men to walk to the Pole and back from the edge of the Antarctic land mass unsupported. Their journey seemed horrendous in many ways, with the men suffering from incapacitating blisters on their lips and frostbite that threatened to take their toes. But the self-discovery they got from the experience and joy they got from finishing it was immense. I was totally hooked on and fascinated by the idea.
Above: Cas and Jonesy.
I got home, downloaded their book to my iPhone and read it in a oner. The experience was quite different from reading ‘Race to the Pole’ as, by this point, I had realised that the way I would end up in Antarctica was through an expedition of my own. I wasn’t a safe, distant observer anymore. Instead of thinking ‘Wow, that sounds cool’, it was now more like ‘Shit, I’m going to have to do that’.
I decided I would do the same journey, which has not yet been completed by a woman, although I also need to say that I’m a bit cautious about labelling the divisions between men and women doing the same things as I’m not sure how much it matters in the end. In general, men are heavier than women (I am 5’2” and 53kg) so the weight of the sled is relatively harder for a woman to pull, excluding considerations of any other kind of physiology. But women also eat less and have a higher pain threshold. In climbing, women are generally shorter and naturally weaker than men, but also light and flexible and their shorter limbs use less torque. Obviously, the argument goes on in any sport. The discussion of what motivates me is another subject, perhaps for another day, but I guess what I’m trying to say now is that doing a first would be great, but it’s not my main motivation.
Next, I got in touch with Jonesy. I didn’t really know what to ask at first as I didn’t really know where to start. I didn’t have any adventurous credentials, so how would I convince sponsors to invest in me? How would I get credentials if I had no sponsorship? Jonesy did a great job of offering me advice based on my not-quite-questions and we talked about the challenges of setting up sponsor relationships from nothing. Cas and Jonesy had been the first to kayak the Tasman Sea on their expedition ‘Crossing the Ditch’ before they went to the Pole, so they had access to previous sponsors from a smaller, less expensive expedition and, after exchanging a few emails, I felt that I would need to look elsewhere to do the same before heading south. I was also coming back from an injury at the time that had meant no climbing for almost two years and further justified putting off the South Pole so as to not let it interfere with training.
So Antarctica sunk away from my mind almost completely and by the time I reached Cape Cod last month, I was all climbing and hadn’t thought of the Pole, as far as I can remember, for months.
Being around Sarah in Cape Cod, who was on the adventure of her life, however, as well as being immersed in a world of expedition planning, seemed to jumble up everything in my head and spit it out in a different order, in different sizes and with different colours. For a few days I felt genuinely depressed and as though there was a big void in my chest, despite the fact that the three of us were having a great little holiday together. There was something burning deep down and I absolutely couldn’t put my finger on what it was.
Above: Filming fun down at the boat yard in Cape Cod.
Below: Sarah and Lucy preparing Sarah's boat'Happy Socks' for the launch.
It took until about mid week for my conscious to catch up with my subconscious and start thinking about Polar stuff again, albeit tentatively. I was cautious to commit to the idea as I didn’t want to be half-arsed about it after thinking I had committed the previous year, only to find myself retracting it for some floppy justifications a short time after. Despite Sarah and Lucy’s enthusiasm and encouragement, I couldn’t say I was going. I had to check with myself that I was serious first. But by the last evening of the trip I had realised that I had to do it now. Apart from the powerful emotional spin I’d had earlier in the week, there were other, rational reasons too. Firstly, postponing something so big would probably be a good way to make sure I ended up wondering in old age how I never got round to doing it and, secondly, I don’t know where I’ll be and in what condition in ten years time. Maybe my knees will be knackered or maybe I’ll have ten kids and three more dogs to look after (although I find the latter two unlikely).
Another part of the break through came from talking to Sarah about her journey. She had no real adventure credentials when she decided to row across the Indian Ocean seven years ago and had no idea where all the funds would come from, but she started the process anyway by ordering a boat (which she didn’t know how she would pay for at the time). I was surprised at myself to realise that, for the first time in my life, I had been intimidated out of starting something. Now this may be completely cheesy, but I found a quote in Sarah’s book, which I absolutely love:
‘Whatever you think you can do, or believe you can, begin it.
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.’
I think the words boldness and genius really do it for me. In climbing, many people don’t achieve what they are physically capable of as they are inhibited by fear and, in lots of climbing, the fear is irrational. For me, the most reward doesn’t come from the physical difficulty of the climbing, but from the fluidity of movement over rock that can only be achieved when you're headspace is sound. If I get to the top of something knowing that I wigged up it, incapacitated by fear, the reward of succeeding on the route is tainted by knowing deep down that I wasn’t able to control it well. Conversely, my most happy andmemorable experiences of climbing are of when my headspace has been perfect and I have moved over rock with zero fear. And to be able to control your head, you have to be pretty cunning and get to know yourself and your psychology very well. I was shocked to realise that I had not applied this thinking to the first problem I encountered with getting to the Pole. Point taken.
Revelation in place and starting to believe myself, I was finally able to get excited about it and was completely bursting. Whilst Sarah cooked dinner and at her suggestion, I wrote down action points on a timeline on a big piece of paper. I was going to the friking Pole! I drove myself to the airport the next day, my head filled with tick lists of what to do when I got home.
Above: Three happy people next to 'Happy Socks' at the end of the week's filming.
One of the most useful bits of input Sarah gave me was to talk to as many people about it as possible. It’s really easy to shy away from this as, for one, you feel like a bit of a fraud as you technically haven’t done anything yet. It’s also easy to feel like you’re holding back some kind of control for yourself if you don’t tell people, just in case something happens and you don’t go after all. But neither of these things are useful, so I heeded her advice and told an unsuspecting woman in Heathrow Airport all about my plans. The woman had commented on the amount of luggage I had with me and asked me what I had been doing, which lead to climbing, Sarah, filming, expeditions and, of course, the Pole. It felt like a guilty pleasure to tell her all about it and initially and she actually told me not to do it and certainly not on my own! But by the end of our chat she had noted down my name, wished me luck and said she’d look out for me. It may sound odd, but it was a real boost of confidence to see her reaction change over the course of a ten-minute conversation. This is exactly what Sarah was talking about. The more you tell people and see them being convinced by you, the less you feel like a fraud and the more you believe in it yourself. Cheese-o-mometer maxed out, I know.
My Mum wasn’t surprised at all. I thought she might express a slight concern, but her initial question was actually what I was planning to do with the dog whilst I was out there! When I asked her why she wasn’t acting like a normal parent and worrying that I would end up a lump of wasted, frozen meat at the bottom of a crevasse somewhere, she simply said in her forced comedy Australian accent that if I had the gonads for it then I should ‘blaady well do it maate!’. Legend.
So that’s it, I’m going to the Pole in 2018 and in the four weeks that I’ve been back in the UK the idea has totally absorbed my thinking. I’ve arranged a training expedition to Iceland next May when I will meet with polar explorer Felicity Aston and have decided to walk the Scottish National Trail this winter, which I’m sure will be completely miserable but obviously, I can’t do anything in summer anymore. (And, just by way of a caveat, as a climber, I fucking hate walking unless it’s en route to a lump of rock somewhere...) Of course, there’s a load more to be said about these mini expeditions, but, as promised, I'm keeping it short so will save that for a later date.
However, if anyone fancies doing a leg or two of the Trail this winter, please do give me a shout – I’m not planning to train the how not to go insane on your own for two months aspect of the Pole trip just yet.
Unfinished Business - Part I: The Nose
29th May 2015
Wo-ow-ow. I feeeeeeeeel! That is, I just feel a LOT at the moment.
Trips tend to have that effect, yes, but I didn’t expect to feel so much this time round. The two months I spent in the States last year were pretty fucking pivotal for me. I learned a lot about myself, a new way of thinking, how to deal with feeling shit a bit better than I had before and how to man up and take my circumstances into my own hands when things weren’t working out just a little bit more than I have before. I got all Zenned up in Yosemite, connected with the place more than I have ever connected to a place before and knew I had changed as a person when I came back. The trip felt hard at times and I knew I would feel the difference the other side.
This time, however, Yosemite wasn’t a new place. I knew where I was going and I knew what I wanted to do. I was going back to reconnect with the Valley and, most of all, I wanted to do a big wall – something that caught my attention last year when I discovered the place but wasn’t able to due to partners, time and skillset. It was unfinished business. I expected it to be awesome, a bit hard and involve some learning. But, as ever, a bit more stuff than can be anticipated happened and now I’m feeling contented absorbing it all again.
Before I go too much into what happened in the Valley, I’ll mention that the second part of the trip involved travelling to Cape Cod to shoot some footage of adventurer Sarah Outen, and also fiancé of my old RAF pal Lucy, set off on the last leg of an epic adventure she’s been on. For the last four years, she has been cycling, kayaking and rowing around the Northern Hemisphere of the globe (apparently it’s important to say that it has all been in the Northern Hemisphere because there are people that are into the grammaticism of this and simply saying ‘around the world’ would be incorrect). She has now just set off across the North Atlantic in her boat ‘Happy Socks’, which will occupy her for around 100 days, reaching the UK in August, all going to plan. Although I knew Lucy before the trip, we never really best buddies and I had never met Sarah before. It was the work part of the trip and I didn’t expect it to be pivotal in my thinking at all. But, unexpectedly once again, a ton of stuff hit me whilst I was there and I have completely changed my five-year plan (if even I had one before) as a result. So, it too was a really impacting part of the trip. Anyway, more about Cape Cod later.
So, back to Yosemite. Pwoah! Where to start… I suppose last year seems a good place (don’t worry, I won’t cover everything in between). So, last year in the Valley, during my two weeks of mental-for-a-wall psyche, I pretty much stalked anyone I could think of via any means I could think of (such as messaging people tagged in photos with Alex Honnold, mostly because he was the only Yosemite name I knew at the time, plus any of their friends and any of their friends who had big wall photos on their timelines. As I say, I was mental for it, so sorry if this was weird…) to try find someone to do a wall with me. I got lots of responses, but none of them lead to doing something immediately as everyone had either left the Valley or were bouldering. Knowing what I know now, perhaps they just thought “Fuck that!” after reading a message, copied and pasted to their buddy sitting next to them in the room, from some over-psyched British chick who had never jugged, hauled or been on a wall before. And I’d also now say: Fair enough!
Above: First days - leading 'Outer Limits', my first good battle of the trip.
From the class of promisingly positive responses, one guy, Reed, was (a) notably good at replying and (b) pretty damn enthusiastic, so stood out in my memory. Eventually being forced to accept that a wall was not going to happen this time around, I turned my attention to reducing my outgoings back at home to facilitate getting back to the Valley as soon as possible. I arranged for a buddy (now my housemate, Ross) to go sign up to a house I found on Gumtree from a rainy tent in Curry Village and decided that I’d be back out in April – as soon as the Valley would be climbable again. By Christmas, however, I realised that finances were still not going to allow it (it turns out furnishing is expensive, so my gains were made up for by my losses) and receded to that fact that my not-in-the-real-world-at-the-time daydream would have to be postponed until at least the following season.
But then something very well timed came up when Lucy got in touch, all excited that I was a film-maker after seeing my Facebook page, coincidentally after I posted a photo that I had taken in Bishop on last year’s trip. Funny how things go in circles sometimes. She told me all about Sarah and her adventures and we rapidly became best Whatsapp buddies. I cut together a teaser from the mountain off footage from Sarah’s expedition so far and they asked me if I was free to come to Cape Cod to film Sarah’s final launch. Yes, I was fucking free! And just before they booked the flight, it also suddenly occurred to me that I would only have to rearrange a couple of very rearrangeable things in April to be free for the whole month. And I was already going over the Atlantic , soooo…. it was obvious – I could get back to the Valley for April after all!
Reed picked me up from Fresno airport on April 2nd. We had until April 25th to climb, when Reed was leaving to visit family. Our main motivation to go after ‘The Nose’ on El Capitan was in despite of it’s reputation of being one of the world’s best and most popular routes, but more because it is one of the easier and safer walls to aid in the Valley. The piece of rock wasn’t up for question, as it was El Cap that made my chest go all funny when I drove into the Valley for the first time last year. So that was the goal.
We drove to the Valley in Reed’s rickety van, complete with bottle tops to line the roof and about 200 too many 5.10 stickers on the window (he claims he was trying to use them to block out light), whilst I slept in the back. Each time we went over some of that noisy road paint, which was often, I’d wake up to dreaming that I was in an aeroplane that was landing. I’d been on four flights over five days and wasn’t used to cars. Arriving at about 2am, I found Mark’s door to be locked. Mark is a friend I met on my first trip to Yosemite and I had arranged to stay in his warm, comfortable and cosy house in Curry Village, complete with unlimited shower usage, a group of friends to drink beer with and Jack the Cat. A very sweet Valley deal indeed. So, with us locked out, Reed gallantly stayed on a pals floor and I enjoyed the memory foam mattress in his van once more.
I rested the next day and climbed the day after. It’s funny looking back to our first day climbing now. We did a couple of easy trad routes on Glacier Point Apron and I worked out that I hadn’t trad-climbed since the last time I was in Yosemite. It was a bit of a shaky start. I don’t know why, as it never feels like my head, but after some time away from trad my body always seems to function a bit strangely on the first few moves of the first route. Maybe it’s rock reading, I’m not sure. In any case, I did wonder what Reed must be thinking as he watched his climbing partner for the next four weeks step up and down the first few moves of a 5.8 to reset and start again!
We somehow managed to form a trio with a guy called Jimmy who we picked up at the staff communal area, and hung out with him for most of the month. Jimmy is a very small dude with a very massive personality, a load of positive energy and huge mullet to match. He says stuff like ‘man’ and ‘dog’ a lot and, to be honest, I actually didn’t warm to him much the first time I met him (sorry Jimmy, you were just so fucking loud! But yeah, I know, I can hardly speak…). Anyway, it was great fun being around Jimmy and he is now a friend that I will keep in touch with indefinitely. Going around as a three did mean, however, that we were basically cragging and doing bits and bobs here and there for the first ten days or so. Yes, Reed had taught me to aid and I had practised jugging, blah blah, but it all kind of felt a bit slow, easy and empty. By this point we had also already had a bad weather window, which made everything feel even slower, and we were both starting to get a bit de-psyched. It was like we had forgotten that we were on a mission, or that we had started not to be on one anymore. The serious ‘van chat’ that followed revealed that the second statement was the most true.
Above: Early days - very excited by the mechanics of my first lower out.
Reed had started having doubts about doing The Nose and, actually, about doing a wall at all. We had clicked well early on and became instinctively close during the first week, without really getting to know each other on a mechanical level. Of course, what follows is generally more rocky than someone you are instinctively less connected to and I remember feeling very vulnerable as he told me that he didn’t want to be seen as a silly kid that took on more than he was capable of, that he wanted to do The Nose with his fried Keith and a whole heap of other stuff that didn’t make that much sense at the time but all seemed very pessimistic in terms of getting on a wall together. I knew that he was struggling with lots of internal conflicts about being away from family and his sense of purpose in the Valley (and perhaps life in general!), but it was still pretty confusing to listen to. Looking back, a lot of it was also very selfish, but I know now that we hadn’t worked each other out by this point and as a result, there was a lack of mutual respect that was necessary to be able to commit to each other for climbing. What I had learned about Reed by this point was that he is quite internal and sometimes (not always) needs to be left a good amount of space to process things, which required a lot of disciplined silence from me. A positive swing on this is that, since I found this so fucking difficult, I it must have been a beneficial human learning experience for me!
After this, we didn’t talk about the wall for a while, maybe more than a week. It wouldn’t have been possible at this point without asking too much of each other. We did, however, find a new energy for big days and exciting climbing and decided to do ‘Freeblast’ the next day – the first ten pitches of Salathe Wall and all free climbing at about 5.11b, or ‘E4+’, according to UKC. Doing that route was one of the single, most memorable and best days of climbing of my life. We were both super-psyched, trying hard and taking multiple falls on dodgey gear with no irrational fear to impede on the experience. I actually popped my first cam from the roof of the third pitch too and landed below Reed at the belay too, woah!
We “French freed the fuck” out of the bolted parts of the upper slab pitches, as Reed elegantly put it, which seemed ridiculously thin, and I had a pretty sketchy moment on one of the pin-scarred trad sections. It was super-windy and I had to stop climbing and brace against it a few times before continuing. As I went up the pitch, the climbing got gradually harder and I suddenly realised that the last three pieces I had placed had gotten progressively worse and that I didn’t know how many of them, if any, I trusted to fall onto. Since they were all placed in pin scars, they were reasonably well spaced too and I had no idea where I’d fall to if I came off and they all failed. Since falling now felt like a likely prospect, it suddenly seemed that things had got all the more sketchy without me having really noticed. A few wobbly-whahay-that-was-close noises (and a couple of cheeky tugs on my last shit cam) later, I made it past the tricky bit. I didn’t feel relieved though, I felt uncontrollably and burstingly PSYYYYCCHED! I screamed down something like “Baaaaaah!” through the wind to Reed, who no doubt was enjoying the vibes beaming off me (that thing where, for some reason, it is genuinely hilarious to watch your mate wig a bit, in spite of the fact that they would be at genuine risk of hurting themselves a little if they actually messed up). When Reed took his pitch next, I remember him turning to make a similar selection of noises down to me and I knew that he was having the same kind of fun. I was psyched that he was psyched and he was psyched that I was psyched. We were super happy climbers by the end of that day. So-much-fun!
Above: The beginnings of the slab pitches on 'Freeblast'.
We did some other stuff in those first few weeks, but none of them stood out like Freeblast. I guess an essential detail was going up Washington’s Column. It’s kind of a mini-big wall and easy to climb in a day, but for the sake of camping out on Dinner Ledge just for the fun of it, we hauled and stayed up there for a few nights with the intention of ticking off the three different routes that all left from this same spot three pitches up. All-in-all, it was a complete cluster fuck. We went up late on the first night, climbing and hauling in the dark, which was fine. We then drank a whole bottle of ‘Fire-something-or-other’ (cinnamon whisky, of which Reed says I had two thirds) and got up late the next day. I was to aid the first pitch of ‘South Face’, and set off without really a Scooby about, well, anything actually. It was all pretty relaxed and later became a lesson to both of us to check understanding before setting off, which proved to be very valid one for us later on in the trip. I aided the Kor Roof, which culminated in a traverse, removed too much of the gear and made it impossible for Reed to aid without leaving a draw behind (we got it back later). I realised I had royally cocked it up when he stuck his head around the roof to inspect what I had left for him and started shaking it in disapproval. Since I was dehydrated from my whiskey hangover, I had also necked a lot of water before getting on the route and by this time was dying for a pee. By the time Reed reached the belay, we’d been on the pitch for I’d guess around three hours. It was also incredibly windy again and I was shivering. We decided to rap back down to the ledge, but were using a lead line and a thin tag line and the roof looked sharp, so we rapped to an intermediate station instead. After pulling the ropes, I let go of the lead line and the wind whipped it upwards into the roof above, which duly ate it. FUCK. I would have to aid back up to the roof to get it. I now needed a pee so badly that I had bladder pain at the slightest compression or effort. That is, proper pain that actually forces you to make involuntary noises. (I didn’t even know it was possible to hold a pee this long before that day on the Kor Roof.) I aided back up to the roof, trying very hard not to piss in my pants (I thought it was happening at one point) and got the rope back. By the time I got back down to the ledge I guess it had been another hour and by this point I had entered such an extreme realm of wee compression (or bladder expansion) that I couldn’t even work out how to get the damn thing out! Anyway, enough about my pee. After finally ending that atrocity of a urinary experience, I set about untangling the tag line, which the wind had knotted into a mangle of twists and loops, including three overhands along it’s length (including one right in the middle – what?) taking me at least twenty five minutes, so that Reed could also rap down. CLUSTER. Any learning experience is a positive one, however, and the next day, freshly reminded to check I knew wtf I was doing before setting sail, we went up South Face again and did all the aid pitches. It was actually a pretty fun day and I had the benefit of falling whist aiding, which was definitely needed I realised retrospectively as I had felt sketchy (in an uncomfortable way) aiding before this. It kind of felt to me as though I wasn’t protected by the rope since I was standing on fabric ladders that were part of a different system. Whether that makes any sense to anyone else or not I don’t know but it was definitely an irrational concept that was solved by falling and feeling that it’s exactly the same as falling whilst free climbing. So all in all a good day.
Above left: Reed waking up on Dinner Ledge the morning after the whiskey night.
Above right: Reed solo-aiding the Kor Roof on our second outing on South Face,
with the ominous rope-eating roof visible above (so, where I nearly wee'd myself).
Below: Reed coming up the top aid pitch of South Face.
With the experience of Freeblast, the lesson of South Face and our little camping trip up to Dinner Ledge behind us, things had kind of started to flow again, but there was still something not quite right. Another bad weather spell hit us and things slowed down again. It’s all a bit hazy now, but somewhere along the way, things exploded between Reed and I and we more-or-less fell out. I think it started when Reed mentioned something about leaving the Valley, which firstly concerned me as I was still completely committed to climbing with him, but secondly pissed me off since he clearly wasn’t! I remember recognising that it was the right time to come out with it a bit and felt that I now knew him well enough to do so, as well as being necessitated by my own needs as I would have to cut and run and find other partners if Reed wasn’t sure what he wanted to do.
Some words of the non-mincing variety were exchanged and we went our separate ways for a few hours. In this time I realised that I had been feeling unnecessarily dependent on Reed for climbing up until this point. Preoccupied with sorting through things, I had put El Cap to the back of my mind for a few weeks and now had let go of the idea completely because it seemed an impossibility given the current state of our friendship. But then I realised how disappointing it would be to go back to the UK having been in the Valley for a whole month without even getting on the thing. I had expected to climb with Reed for the month and had forgotten that there were other options out there. It didn’t seem right to be out of control of my own plans because my climbing partner had doubts. It wasn’t, and all I need to do was change my headspace to make things happen. With this new wave of clarity established, I set about contacting some of the other people I had been in touch with the previous year and within a couple of hours I had a promising reply.
Having completely shifted my focus, I also felt pretty detached from Reed and I think this did us good. I know that part of the struggle from his point of view was to do with a feeling of obligation to do The Nose, which was a very important route to him and an experience that he had anticipated and preserved for a long time. He also had a sense of internal pressure in that he didn’t want to take on more than he could handle, especially since he would be the leader of the two of us on a big wall. These pressures were now gone – neither of us were committed to doing anything with the other.
Not sure whether I was expecting him to disappear for a few days, weeks, or even from the Valley completely, I was fairly surprised to see him approaching Mark’s house a few hours later with two ice-cream sandwiches in tow – a well considered offering, given that we had made the plan to give me my first ever ice-cream sandwich experience after getting off doing… well, something big. With my commitment to Reed reset to flexible, with a possible outcome of anywhere between zero and one hundred, and Reed’s commitment to me reset to just climbing, without the effects of any of the pressures he had felt previously, we were once again able to plan days together.
Not realising yet quite how healthy our little reset had been, we planned a cragging day with Jimmy and Reed’s friend Keith. It was now approaching the last week of climbing and, once again, I momentarily forgot about doing a wall. Thinking of it now, I have no idea how, but I guess I was absorbed in feeling my way around our newly rebuilt friendship one last time. But I also guess I hadn’t really forgotten about it at all as something popped into my head later that night…
Above: Reed and Yosemite local Dan McDevitt staring up at The Nose.
Why was there such a big THING surrounding The Nose? Why shouldn’t we just set off up the thing and see how far we get, rap down and do that for a day’s climbing? I mentioned this to Reed and, slightly to my surprise, he saw no problem with it. So far so good with the new climbing partnership. We started looking at pitches in the guidebook. And then we thought, why not just take enough stuff to survive with? Down jackets, enough food and water for two days, and just do it with a big pack instead of haul bags? Then Reed suggested that we just do the whole thing in one push. Why not? We just keep climbing and if necessary grab half an hour’s kip on a ledge if we get desperate, take the tag line so we can still retreat If necessary... Wait, why not NOT take the tag line and just commit to finishing it… The conversation went from one thing to the other until suddenly we were doing The Nose in a day – NIAD. Again, knowing what I know now, this was a ridiculous idea, but we didn’t know that at the time and the most important thing was that we were psyched and totally energised again.
By the time the NIAD conversation had started, it was the following morning and Jimmy and Keith were sitting in Mark’s lounge waiting for us to go climbing with them. Following on from seeing us fall out the night before, and not seeing the ice-cream-and-make-up part, poor old Jimmy was most definitely confused and I’m pretty sure concerned for us.
Anyway, we spent the day gathering kit and visiting Nose experts in the Valley. First was Alex Morris – NIAD regular and super hardcore bitch. Her reaction was pretty surprised, cautious, but also encouraging. She did suggest that we wall it out over a few days just for the experience, but, we had already considered this idea and had dropped it due to the bad weather that was due to come into the Valley in a couple of days. After that it looked as though thunderstorms would hit for three or four days, leaving us too shorter time to get it done afterwards before Reed left the Valley. Next was Erik Sloane, whose reaction was far more definitive. I wasn’t actually present for the conversation, but the long and short of his reaction was “No, that’s not how it works”. Although I found it a bit of a strange description, it definitely does the job of describing The Nose… It’s like having sex with a virgin: if you go too hard at it when you don’t know what you’re doing, neither of you will like it. Pretty graphic, even for me, but definitely true!
Erik suggested that the weather report was debateable enough to give it a bash – Valley weather reports have a habit of being pretty wrong most of the time and it’s just a case of being able to judge in which direction. So, we were back to walling it out. Shit, now what? Okay, another day of prep. We organised haul bags, food, a fucking expensive saucepan and all the other stuff we were short of the following day.
The plan was to set off the following morning, after spontaneously fixing lines late the night before on Erik’s suggestion. Another parties’ were already in place, so we could use them to avoid the first four pitches, which we decided we could allow as we had done them a week before (yes, if we were doing anything exceptional then we may have been bothered about strict ethics, but we were doing something pretty standard with the knowledge that no one gives a shit about the ethics of Reed and Jen and just wanted to get up the damn thing, so pipe down!). This meant that we were super tired by the time we set off, but we didn’t care. We were psyched to the nuts!
Above: Kit prep outside Reed's rickety van.
Below: Ready to go (and prepared for darkness)!
We slept in Reed’s van in El Cap Meadows and got up at 5.30am, after sleeping through our 4am alarm. We jugged the first four pitches slower than expected and got to Sickle as it was getting light. The party of three who had fixed the lines we had used were still in their beds and were suffering from a massive blow of low psyche. They justified a little that the weather was turning, but it was obvious that wasn’t the real reason they were retreating, although I’m sure they were happy watching us battle it out in a thunderstorm the following day from the comfort of the meadows…
The first day was pretty intense for me. I had learned to haul on the route and was leading the first two pitches from Sickle Ledge to Dolt Tower, meaning that I was constantly doing something – leading the pitch, fixing the lines, hauling the bags, docking the pig, re-racking and setting off to lead again. It reminded me how much juice it takes to set up systems that aren’t second nature to you and I was also finding it very hard to bring up the haul bags (pigs) since my body weight was at least only about equal to them, meaning I had to stand upside-down in my harness and push off the rock above me to get them to budge. When Reed almost guiltily announced that he wanted to lead the Stove Legs, I had no sense of even caring how good the climbing I would be jugging passed was. I was more then ready to hand over the lead and belaying has never been such a pleasurable experience.
Above: We took these with us...
Walling in the style that we were, the leader free-climbs and the second mainly jugs for speed. I’m pretty sure that Reed dealt with some horribly wide sections of climbing that I wouldn’t have enjoyed if they had been my pitches, but I hardly noticed the climbing I was passing them. We were racing the weather, had been climbing since 6am, my brain was fried from double- triple-checking that I had everything right with my newly learned hauling system and I was now concentrating only on getting up the ropes as fast as possible. I was also still in need of honing my aiding technique a little, okay a lot actually, which I nailed before we were off, but it wasn’t on the first day.
We got to Dolt Tower as it was getting dark and decided to pitch the portaledge in case of rain – the reason we had decided to bring it along. The double bolt belay was too low to get it set up high enough above the bouldery surface, so we hung all our eggs off just one and decided to sleep attached to long lengths of rope leading out of the portaledge to the safety line in case it blew. Even so, if it had it would have hurt a LOT as the boulders beneath us were huge and the added tumble until the lengths of rope pulled us tight would have probably polished us off. But the bolt was shiny and new and wasn’t going to, so we weren’t too worried. The portaledge was surprisingly comfortable and, apart from initially finding it hard to sleep with Reed’s nose squeaking away, I had a good few hours kip. I did had some very strange dreams, the details of which I can’t remember, but I think they were nice dreams as I remember being absolutely devastated that the alarm that had started making them bad dreams was in fact real and that I did in fact have to get up at 4am not long enough after we had crawled into bed.
We were climbing by 6am just as the sky was light enough to see without headtorches. It was still Reed’s block until after the King Swing, when I would take it through the Lynn Hill traverse and The Great Roof – the main pitch of anticipation for me. For the first few hours I felt pretty drousy, but woke up through the day and by the time Reed got to leading up the inside of the Texas Flake, I was wide awake. As in, totally horrified to see that he ever had to lead that pitch. Obviously I’m biased towards not going up wide, unprotected cracks as I’m British and much prefer crimpy, unprotected faces, but this thing looked horrific independently of any bias. There is a bolt low down inside the flake but it’s completely useless higher up and if you clip it, the second has to jug up the inside of the flake, which is far more awkward. I have to say I would have been very tempted to clip it if I was leading it, but Reed stuck to his guns and saved me the hassle. There is no way to protect the rest of the pitch and by the look and sound of it the top out is the scariest part as it involves converting whatever weird body jam (this is undoubtedly the incorrect terminology for whatever kind of ‘climbing’ this is) into whatever manoeuvre you choose to gain the top of the flake, which is about 4’ away from the main wall. I was intimidated standing on the freeking thing when I first got up there, let alone soloing onto it from a ‘body jam’! Anyway, I guess I’ll have to lead that pitch one day but I’ll think about that sometime that’s not now.
The next pitch was the King Swing – an enormous 30’ lower out, followed by some running across the rock-face shenanigans to gain some holds somewhere far off to the left that I never got to see. It took Reed a few attempts to realise that he needed a bit more rope and a lot more running to get across and it looked super fun. After a couple of attempts, I noticed a crowd cheering him on from the meadows. He ran, they cheered “wooooaaaaaaah…”, he missed “ahhhhh!” It was so exciting to hear people encouraging him from far below, knowing they could see us in our world from theirs. When he eventually made it and received the “whooooo!” from below, I woah-woah-woah-woah-whoooooped back at them. One of the things I love about Yosemite is the crazy psyche that is kind of allowed, where it might be a bit weird elsewhere.
So Reed had made the swing and was all set for him to finish up the rest of the pitch, when suddenly the weather than had been looming in the East forever arrived on El Cap. We had seen it coming, but often the angry looking clouds would cling to the tops of the higher ground surrounding the Valley and would never actually make it down to us. But this evening it had finally made it and the weather turned from pleasantly sunny to an upward cold, fast wind bringing snowflakes from below us in minutes. Suddenly we were in the middle of a storm. I also had a bag of cams on my back and there was lightening filling the air behind me. Not ideal. The details of the next seven hours are in places a blur, but the sequence of events of what happened are more or less as follows.
Above: My face says it all on making it back to the top of the Boot Flake after leaving the haul bags anchored to the rock below me in the thunderstorm.
Initially, we decided that I would lower across to Reed on the small ledge that he was on mid-pitch. It was good enough to sleep on if the storm didn’t stop and once we were in the same place we could at least pull the tarp over us and add some more clothes to our layers. Usually, once the King Swing pitch is finished, the leader and second are level with each other, so the lower out (necessary on any pitches with large traverses in them) is standard, meaning that the second first sends the haul bags across, then descends down a bight of rope thread through a bolt at the belay they are leaving behind. This means they can pull the bight through the ring afterwards and retrieve it (if they abseiled down a fixed rope, there would be no way of getting it back to continue climbing). This works because one rope (the lead rope, which the leader has now fixed) pulls the second across towards the leader from where he stands above (but to the side), whereas the bight of rope (the haul line) stops the second from swinging towards the leader prematurely. It works so that the second lowers and traverses simultaneously in the shape of half a pendulum until they are directly below the leader. Then, they can pull the bight of rope through and ascend up the lead line as normal.
But now I was above Reed on my belay, meaning that the lower out would be a bit different. At this point, the wind picked up even more so that I could now hardly hear Reed at all, but only snippets of what he was trying to tell me. We were changing plans based on I’m sure great suggestions, but I couldn’t fully hear them, meaning that I’d half set up one system, get a bit more instruction, change it, then change it again. So after a while I decided that I should just come up with something that I thought would work and stick to it. I decided to lower out with the haul bags attached to me on a bight and a half of rope, which was the only way I could think to get the upwards part of the system I needed in place whilst being stuck above Reed. At the same time, Reed would pull me across using the lead line, achieving the traverse part of the lower out. We had managed to roughly communicate this and both seemed happy, although I now know what Reed was trying to tell me was that I should thread one end of the rope, rather than a bight and a half, through the bolt as this would be simpler. Both systems worked, however, and if it wasn’t for the size of the lower out (as in, if we had been on any pitch except the King Swing), there would have been no problem. What we didn’t expect to happen, however, was that the extra half a bight of rope would mean I didn’t have enough rope to make it. So when I reached a place about level with Reed, I had run out. Now I was stuck hanging in space with two haul bags, a portaledge and a poo tube attached to me. I couldn’t jug back up the ropes with that kind of weight on me, so I decided to make an anchor for the kit (thank goodness there was a crack system close by), leave it hanging there, jug back up the ropes and start again. After Reed sent me some extra cams across on the lead line, I attached the kit to the rock and got myself back to the belay I had left at least an hour beforehand. At this point, based vaguely on a discussion about weather, we decided that we were reversing the pitch, rather than continuing up it, meaning that Reed would be coming towards me rather than the other way round.
The weather had started to lay off a bit for the time being and all I had to do now was chill on the ledge until Reed reached me. I enjoyed my time there and was kind of disappointed when it was over. After a half-laughing, half that-was-an-epic kind of hug, we reset our minds for the next shift of work still to be done. First, I had to descend back down the lines to release the haul bags, jug back up and then help Reed finish hauling them up. Once this was done, we were back in the position we had started in five hours before. That is, at the belay, complete with haul bags, at the start of the King Swing pitch. It was not a large belay and, now resigned to bailing the following day without question based on a 70% chance of thunderstorms, we still had two pitches to retreat until we were back safely on El Cap tower – a comfortable sleeping ledge.
Retreating two pitches of standard, straight up climbing would have been a fairly easy and quick affair, but of course, it wasn’t going to be that simple. We knew what was coming and that it would cause problems – The Texas Flake. It would have been awkward to descend with haul bags in any circumstance, as they were bound to sink down the void between the flake and the main wall, rather than outside of it, but Reed now had both haul bags attached to his waist. This was because we were unable to undo the knot in the haul line (since it was weighted by the haul bags) that I had tied to make the anchor earlier on when leaving the kit behind, meaning there was a short section of rope that couldn’t be pulled through the pulley system on hauling. This little fudge of a solution earlier had now lead to another problem and we hadn’t decided how to solve it yet.
It was now completely dark and we used the only handy spare batteries, aka not inside the haul bags, in my torch as it was the dimmer of the two, but both were fading. There was also a renewed urgency for speed as the weight of the haul bags were cutting into Reed’s in waist and compressing his organs painfully. As expected, the exceptionally long string of kit descended into the gap between the flake and the main wall as Reed descended down to the anchors, crippling in pain as he did so. We tried multiple things to get the kit up and out of the flake – a mini pulley system; swinging the bags out to the side and around it; grabbing the lower bags with the tag line and putting this through a screwgate… but everything only nearly worked. Reed was getting desperate and in the end, for want of a better idea that could be executed quickly, we braced ourselves against the rock, grabbed the bags and man-hauled them over the flake, blood bursting behind the eyes suitably in the effort of lifting the weight.
Above: The effects of post-epichigh spirits.
Above: Reed enjoying the morning sun on the final morning, El Cap Tower.
Below: Last photo before packing up.
It was a relief to be back down on El Cap tower, which we had set off climbing from something around 9.5 hours earlier. Yep, that was definitely a proper epic. There were a couple of mini bottles of red wine in the haul bags that I had bought for the top, which duly got drank and we ate as much of the enormous quantities of food we had left (for two more days on the wall) that we could manage. It was pretty chilly and we had both jumped straight in our sleeping bags to eat. Reluctant to get out to do pre-sleep admin, we both took turns at falling asleep mid-process – Reed as he was drinking his (first) hot chocolate and then me as I was drinking the second (or third) batch later on. I woke around 2am and only mustered the determination to leave my sleeping bag to go to bed proper because I was desperate for a wee again and then slept soundly until the sun was beating down on us in the morning. Pleased that we hadn’t been rained on, but also dubious that the weather looked so good based on the 70% forecast, we contemplated for a second carrying on up, but we knew how quickly the weather could change and fully expected to be caught out again if we did, perhaps not even any further than we had got before. No, it was decided, we were definitely going down.
The final task was to get ourselves safely off El Cap without having any more epics. The rap route was not straight forward as it involved a lot of traverse pitches and areas where the ropes could easily get eaten by crack systems if we were not careful. But the experience of the day before had focused our minds sharply and we were alert and thinking clearly and cautiously. The first few pitches were the worst, one pitch involving flicking the rope over bits of rock to stop us swinging into the face to our right and it felt good once these were behind us. We didn’t relax too much, however, as we were also expecting the weather to come and eat us up at any minute. But it didn’t come and get us and we were pleased that our concentrated focus saw the whole day through without error.
Above: Rapping down the last few pitches happy climbers.
Below: No fingertips left! (Photo Lucy Allen)
Just before I rapped the last pitch, I felt a little sad to be getting off El Cap and leaving the experience behind me. This was definitely the effect of type-two fun I realised, however, as I remembered a moment the day before when there was nothing I wanted more than getting down, to somewhere anyway. I looked back up The Nose, absorbing the experience as much as I could for a few seconds, and then lowered to Reed on the ground.
Shortly after, Erik and co came to meet us at the base of the crag, greeting us with a beer to sip from. It felt like a very nice gesture that they had bothered to see when we were rapping the last pitches so that they could come and speak to us. We sat there (still in good weather, which didn’t actually go bad for a few days after all) chatting and laughing for about half an hour, relaying the events of the day before and generally feeling contented with the experience. Although we had not finished the route, there wasn’t an ounce of disappointment in either Reed or I in this moment. We felt happy with our decision to retreat and, although we had had an epic, we felt satisfied with the way we had battled through it, dealt with the problems we had encountered and that we had got down safely. We had functioned well as a team when we needed to and we were still buzzing from it.
We eventually gathered our kit, well actually everyone else did, which I hadn’t expected at all, so it was a total luxury to bounce down the path to the road almost weight free. After dumping it in Reed’s van, our friends slowly dispersed and Reed and I walked to the meadows for the compulsory post-climbing stare up at and reflect on the magnificently towering El Cap to cement our experience. We talked for an hour or two and exchanged words of approval to each other about the route, the problem solving, our actions, ourselves, the whole trip and how our whole friendship had all worked out in the end. It was a warm time of absorption and calmness and felt like a rounded end to a memorable and impacting trip. I had learned a lot and had experienced an amazing adventure up there and needed no more from my time in the Valley.
I did have a little more time, however, and enjoyed resting for a few days instead of climbing. Reed was leaving soon and we spent time eating bad food and drinking beer in the evenings along with Jimmy, who seemed happy to see us back down. Sadly, the weather did eventually turn bad again and the unhealthy feats and beer drinking extended a little longer than was probably healthy, but it was great to have the time to spend with friends at Mark’s, after having neglected that side of the social a bit by being pre-occupied climbing all month. We had lots of fun times in the final week and, although not nearly as skinny as I was when I had got down off The Nose, I was completely contented and ready to leave the Valley for Cape Cod.
And that is where I will CUT and save the rest for the next blog, as Cape Cod was a different and also very impacting fish altogether.
Strange Leaves, Sheep Shit and Tree-Hugging
24th February 2015
Since leaving the States I feel like I have been slowly changing as a person. I really feel different from whoever I was when I left the UK last October. Here’s the briefest explanation I can manage of why…
At the time of my previous blog, I thought I had reached the crux of some kind of change, but it wasn’t quite done. I climbed for the last week in Yosemite and had some great and really memorable days out with some amazing people. I also felt totally at home in the Valley. I remember sitting on a belay ledge one day and suddenly remembering that I was a visitor to the place - and it was a shock. In only two and a bit weeks of being there, I really felt like part of the environment.
Then it came time to leave. I hadn’t been sentimental about leaving a place previously during the trip, but something was bothering me. I felt a bit sad, but I also felt that something wasn’t quite finished and I couldn’t work out what it was.
A few days before leaving I had lost a cam to the first pitch of a route called ‘Nutcracker’. This, coincidentally, was probably the most memorable day I had in the entire two months. It was Thanksgiving and we were late off the crag after faffing trying to get my gear back earlier. I sat, belaying by moonlight, happily absorbing the vibes of people partying in the car park at the base of the route. It was also my climbing partner, Katie’s, first multi-pitch trad route and we only had one head torch between us. We ended up doing the last pitch in complete darkness and, in the end, I had to climb it on one rope and pass the headtorch back down on the other. Thank God for that British two rope thing that Americans don’t get. I left the torch on so I could see it’s whereabouts, but when it disappeared over the crag beneath me and she still didn’t have it, I started to doubt myself. Shit, maybe I crossed the rope underneath a piece of gear somewhere… Bollocks, can I remember how to do an assisted hoist? When I asked her if she had it the second time I could hear the nervousness in her voice as she replied “NO!”. This was all getting a bit exciting, so when she did eventually get it after a lot more rope wiggling, I was pretty damn happy!
Above: Amit lowering off after messing about on top-rope on'The Bluffer', an amazing, techy 5.11d slab on the base of El Cap.
Anyway, en route out of the Valley, I decided to go back to the crag to see if my cam was still there or if someone had nabbed it the following day (we also forgot the nut key… yeah). There was no real logic to this as I wouldn’t have been able to climb up to it, but I felt instinctively drawn to go back there anyway. I went with it and parked up, wondering what I would find when I got there and ignoring the fact that I still had a four hour drive to Sequoia with a broken arse cheek, meaning it would probably be more like six or seven.
Again, following an instinct that drew me from place to place, I scrambled up to the base of the route. I considered soloing up to try get my cam, but the thought of how angry my Mum would be if I cocked it up entered my head so I decided against it. I spent some time looking up at the route and remembering the day we had up there. I wasn’t really sure what to do with myself next, but I didn’t feel like leaving, so I sat down on the belay ledge. Then I started experiencing all these really peculiar sensations. I started feeling really in touch with everything around me - the rocks, the trees and the leaves moving gently in the wind. I ran my hands along the hard granite boulders, concentrating on every detail of the rock - little fragments of quartz, rough bits, smooth bits, bits that had been polished by people setting off on the route, thinking about where the rock had come from and how it ended up here being touched by me and lots of other people’s climbing shoes, where the rubber on their shoes had come from and how everything is just a big collection of molecules that move about in different forms coming into contact with other molecules that have ended up as other things. Next, I stared at the leaves blowing around on some distant trees and realised that my head had become completely empty. I did a test and tried to think about what I was going to think about an hour down the road or what I had done previously, but I couldn’t make my brain function in the normal way - it felt incorrect. So I just let my head be empty. Then I leant against a tree, feeling it’s bark with my fingers. They started to feel like they were an extension of the tree, like everything in the environment, including me, had almost no boundaries. They actually started tingling at the tips and I got a strange, hot sensation in the back of my head.
Then something really weird happened - I felt the urge to hug the tree. Yep, hug the fucking tree! Eh? Christ, what happened to me in Yosemite? So, I did! Er… I’ve always thought of this as a pretty strange past time. Each to their own, of course, but I still think it’s pretty odd to see a large group of people caressing trees at music festivals whilst others are walking passed eating ice-creams. Anyway, I got a bit of insight that day. It wasn’t really about hugging the tree or loving it or whatever else I might have guessed beforehand. It was more about experiencing more of what I had felt in my fingers - that my body was just an extension of molecules and energy linked to everything else around me. And being in more contact with the tree seemed the natural way to achieve this. So, yeah, didn’t see that one coming!
Above: Lars chilling at the base of El Cap.
Fortunately the weather was shit so I was on my own. I was actually getting a bit wet by now too, which was also pretty pleasant. Once I had finished hugging my new little friend, I still didn’t feel that I could leave, so I sat there for about another 45 minutes. I felt completely overwhelmed by the experience, to the point of feeling the need to cry to let out all the intensity, but no tears formed and I was stuck with all this crazy energy inside me.
By the time I was eventually ready to go, I felt completely happy to leave the Valley. It was like I had found a connection with nature that I could leave there in a memory, making it okay to now depart. Happy as anything, I set of up the road, overwhelmed, excited, touched, amazed and happy about everything in the universe.
When I arrived back in Vegas following my month of venturing around in beautiful, natural environments, I realised how disgusting I found the place. It reminded me of how amazing the places in the world that we have chosen to preserve can be. It was also strange to be back at Benny and Marty’s for a night with all these rich experiences floating around in my mind after setting off into the unknown what felt like ages ago. It was back to reality, but it felt different from before - I wasn’t really part of it again yet.
Following this, I had two weeks in New York until home time to shoot something with Sandy. I’m not really a city tourist and I’m not at all bothered about going to see monuments, etc., so I didn’t do any of that! Sandy and I brainstormed for a few days on what to shoot, however, and realised we were both pretty into the same kind of themes. In the end we shot the beginnings of an experimental documentary, which we are going to continue shooting when Sandy comes to the UK in May, but more about that then.
Above: Shooting in New York with Sandy.
What this blog is really about is the affect that the moment in Yosemite had on me. I didn’t realise the lasting strength it would have at the time, but it has been slowly changing me ever since. First of all, I felt a LOT more chilled when I got back to the UK. I went straight to my parents house in Dorset for Christmas and spent over two weeks there - probably a record in the nine years since I moved out. My totally awesome little brother, Bryan, has also been getting into Zen Buddhism and we had some lengthy chats about Zen and meditation. As a result, I realised that I think I had accidentally meditated in Yosemite. Cool! In normal times, I’m the classic monkey-brained person who gets bored and agitated when they try and haven’t yet found the discipline to push through it, so it’s great to have got an insight by accident.
I also found that things going wrong didn’t stress me out in the slightest. There was a bit of an incident in Sequoia the morning I was due to drive back to Vegas to get my flight to New York. I got up in the morning and got out of the back door of the car, which duly locked behind me. I needed the loo, had no food, water or anything else that’s quite nice to have when you wake up and I knew I had to leave within a few hours. Hmmm. The surprise, though, came from my reaction, which was pretty much “Oh, I’ve locked myself out of the car.” I’m pretty sure a few months beforehand I would have sworn a few times, gone over how stupid I was and dwelt upon how annoying or terrible this situation could be, but there was none of that at all. I postponed thinking about it for ten minutes and went off into the trees to find a pee spot, with no idea how I would address the problem. When I came back I spoke to the people in the campsite next to me and was very fortunate to find that the man of the family was pretty familiar with breaking into cars (he told me he had a lot of stupid friends). He went and fetched a coat hanger, a pair of pliers and a rag, bent the corner of the door backwards and poked the coat hanger in. It was looking pretty pessimistic, but amazingly, after about ten minutes, he managed to hit the lock and the door opened. And that was that. No stress, no swearing and someone to give my spare beers to. Yes, okay, it could have been much worse, but the point is that everything seemed fine regardless. It was noticeably odd!
Above: Brandon and I on the last belay of 'Serenity Crack'.
I could go on, but I think you get the picture. There’s just one more thing that happened to me on this topic, only a few days ago in Scotland, that was another surprise. I was feeling pretty deflated and went for a walk round my garden for a break from work (I also moved house to the Pentlands after Christmas, a master plan I hatched whilst sitting on my laptop in a tent on Yosemite when I was trying to figure how I could get back to th eValley as soon as possible…), and I suddenly noticed the leaves on the trees in the field next door in a similar way to how I had noticed them in Yosemite. I could feel something coming, but I was so demotivated that I couldn’t really be bothered to go through the two gates in between me and them to investigate further. I stood at the fence for a bit trying to imagine sitting underneath them to see if I could get something out of the experience the lazy way, but it wasn’t really happening. I tried to walk away, but it was bugging me too much to be able to. I convinced myself that it’s always worth investigating and I basically had no choice anyway, so I went through the two gates and wondered into the cluster of trees. Again, I felt the bark on the trees and then felt drawn to a particular spot in between them. It took me a while to find the exact right spot - the sky and arrangement of trees around me had to look right, like they had to be composed properly around me. There was also sheep shit everywhere, so I didn’t really want to lay down in my fluorescent yellow down jacket (alright, it’s already part brown) but then realised that the long, tough, clean grass was enough to make a little nest in without getting sheep poop imprints all over me.
I lay there in the grass looking up at the trees blowing around in the wind. It was REALLY windy that day, but I was sheltered low down and felt completely safe surrounded by the trees and the grass in the calm pocket surrounding me. The experience I had was not as intense as what I had discovered in Yosemite, at least not physically anyway, but I just felt really, really nice all of a sudden. I spent about twenty minutes laying on the ground and then got up and leaned my head backwards onto a tree, letting the wind hit my face. I was fucking cold, but I didn’t really care (I did end up pretty snotty the following day though, so more clothes may have been an idea). This time, I felt like the wind was the part of nature that was in contact with me, partly continuos with my body. It was whipping over the rugged land, becoming part of my face for an instant and then moving on to wherever else it was going. It felt pretty liberating.
Above: My new local reservoir out in the Pentlands back in Scotland.
So now I have a little nest at the bottom of my garden where I can go lay in sheep shit and feel all happy when I need to. Amazing. But the main point of mentioning this was because I had previously thought that Yosemite had been a one off. The uppy-downy experience of the trip, along with the complete change of environment, would be a pretty good explanation. And I’m sure it was the start of it. But I now realise that there’s a bit more to it than that. I think I’ve found a calmer place in life in general and that I have become more open, enough so at least to have these meditative-like experiences with nature - something I don’t think I could have done before. I also don’t think I would have admitted to hugging a tree, or a whole load of other stuff I’ve chatted to people about over the past few months, and it’s pretty nice to be able to do so. I think the more you chat openly to people, the more you are forced to be okay with yourself and everything going on inside you, and that feels healthy.
So now, instead of reflecting on this amazing experience that happened to me on the belay ledge in the rain in Yosemite, as if it’s something that has passed me, I’m trying to stay open to exploring instincts more than I did before. So if the leaves start looking a bit odd to you after some kind of low moment, perhaps you should try hugging the tree!
25th November 2014
Right now, I’m sitting in a rainy house in Yosemite National Park and have been thinking about how I’ve been so absorbed by the experiences that the past three weeks have brought to me that I haven’t found the time to write it all down.
The last time I wrote was in Vegas, which seems like AGES ago. Looking back, it was a really difficult time for me for a few different reasons. Firstly, the physical reminder of having an injury was wearing me down. It was hard to sleep, stiff to walk and if I caught my leg strangely or corrected my balance it could be really painful. Having climbed almost every day until this point, I was in the zone of worrying about not getting training in and counting the days I was having to take off. I didn’t really have any independence, since everything is a drive in Vegas and I had no wheels. I was also not really surrounded by people. I was staying in an empty house and wasn’t able to distract myself with social. It may sound trivial, but I felt really alone.
After not very long of Skyping my Mum way too much, I decided to rent a car and set off on a road trip. The morning I picked up the car from the airport I felt pretty emotional and took the opportunity to have a little cry on the drive back. I expected that this was probably the head of the difficult time and that some positive feelings would follow.
Setting off had a pretty strong effect on me. With the rollercoaster of emotions that I’d just experienced, I felt a strong sense of freedom and adventure setting off down the road. I actually spent the first half an hour squealing with excitement as I navigated my way out of the spaghetti of traffic that is Vegas.
Once I got off the main drag and out into the desert, the landscape was mesmerising. It was dry, flat and incredibly empty. I found myself working out how many days of food and water I had in case I broke down or had to change a tyre (which could take days to work out). I had about five –long enough to see someone else, I thought. I drove through ghost towns and past rusty trains sat rotting on tracks. I almost felt as though I shouldn’t get out of the car in case I got shot!
Above: Driving through the Mojave National Preserve.
Eventually arriving in Joshua Tree National Park after five and a half hours of driving (it should have been three, but I had to keep stopping to take photos or to rest my incredibly sore butt…), it was dark, COLD and I was tired. Lucky to find the last campsite available in the Hidden Valley Campground, along with a pile of wood that had been left, I pitched my tent, made a fire and settled down with a box of red wine, staring contently into the flames and absorbing the day’s experience.
Later that night a couple of girls swung by and asked to share my spot. We climbed together the next day on some super easy ground – a good bottom test. It felt okay, but it was definitely too early to start trying anything more difficult and even some of the easy moves were a bit tender.
The following day, I left a note on my neighbour, David’s, car as I’d identified him as a lone traveller and we ended up sharing a fire over the next couple of nights. We had some interesting chat about some of his conspiracy theories and it was nice to have the company, although, by the end of my four days in Joshua Tree, I realised that it’s a different kind of effort to be on a trip on your own. In the past, anything I’ve done alone has been with a specific goal in mind, like cycling a long distance, so I’ve been perfectly occupied in my own company whilst being active. Now, without such a clear purpose, it was taking some adjusting to get used to.
Above: Big Horned Sheep in Joshua Tree National Park.
Below: Skyline dotted with the instantly recognisable Joshua Trees.
Next, I headed to Bishop for the Craggin’ Classic Alpine Association Meet. I knew it would be a good place to meet people as hundreds of climbers would be milling around in the same place all weekend. Initially arriving in Bishop, again, felt hard. There was something very familiar about arriving in a US town with a bunch of admin to do – get map, stove (last one knocked out), fill up water bottles, find shower if possible, set up camp, get to that night’s film screening of Valley Uprising (totally awesome if you haven’t seen it). But there was something very unfamiliar about doing it alone. I felt the absence of someone next to me in my car and it felt lonely.
Feeling a bit sad and running out of time, I decided to get a motel for the night. I determined a budget of $35, based on what we’d had to pay for a Motel 6 a couple of years ago when we hadn’t made it to Moab on time. I thought this was reasonable, so I was shocked when the first motel I tried was $59. I drove to another two. They were worse. Fuck. Feeling too guilty to spend the money, I had a word with myself to man up and go camping. But then, driving up the road, I realised how rubbish the prospect seemed to me at the time, so reversed my decision AGAIN and decided to let myself off the hook. Phew. I hated handing over my bankcard, but once it was done it was amazing. I had a huge, comfy bed, shower, tap and kitchen all in one place. Amazing!
Following the same rule as the day I left Vegas, the tricky part was followed by a high. I met a lot of really good people over the weekend and took some cool climbing snaps. I couldn’t help but to try a bit of bouldering, of course, which quickly ended when I re-tore my butt slightly. I was a little annoyed with myself for trying and then hurting myself, so slowing the healing process, but I had to find out I guess. So bouldering was off the books for a while.
Above: A Joshua Tree backlit by moonlight.
Below: Colton Edson enjoying an evening solo in the Buttermilks, Bishop.
I was invited by Ryan – someone I had met at the party on Friday – to stay in his house, shared with three other climbers, for the weekend, which was a pretty awesome offer compared to going back to camping in the cold. The people living there, as well as all the others that seemed to draft through all the time, were totally chilled out and I was enjoying the social, games and communal eating. I was surrounded by good people and felt happy, so my stay extended into the next week.
By the Wednesday, I decided to try a bit of sport climbing. Apart from being really sick (initially I thought I had an uncharacteristically bad hangover, but when it lasted four days I realised I must have picked up some weird virus), climbing was surprisingly okay, provided I didn’t go on the steep. Wow, I could actually climb again. Amazing!
The following day I felt the sudden instinct that it was time to leave and decided to head to Yosemite the following day. By this point, I was used to the independence of travelling alone and when the Tioga Pass into the Valley was closed, meaning I’d have to divert by five hours, I noticed that I reacted differently to the situation than I think I would have before. Previously, I would have dwelled on the fact that if I’d left a day before, I would have saved several hundred miles and two days of travelling. But instead, I felt happy to embrace the change of plan. I chose to head up to Tahoe South Lake for a night, a beautiful ski resort town, and I hardly spent any time at all comparing my new situation to what could have been perceived as the more perfect scenario.
I booked a super cheap last minute deal on a motel and treated myself to a steak – a first since leaving the UK. I was also incredibly excited to stumble across my Mum’s Christmas present en route to the restaurant, so that’s my Christmas shopping officially started!
The following morning I got up at 5am and drove to South Lake to take some sunrise pictures. Unfortunately, there was no sunrise to be had, but it was refreshing to be out and about with my camera next to the beautiful lake and, instead, I played with some reflection shots. At this point in the trip, I felt like some kind of internal change had happened and that I was happy and motivated to be spending time with myself, even without a well defined purpose to what I was doing. I felt freed by not needing to achieve a goal the whole time, which was a new and liberating experience for me.
Later that morning I set off for Yosemite, when unfortunately the virus returned for one last kick and I spent the journey stopping to throw up by the side of the road every few hours. After realising that the sickness was induced by eating, but that I could keep down chocolate (how unfortunate), I happily munched my way through two 600g bars and had started to feel more normal by the time I arrived.
Above: Playing with reflections early in the morning at Tahoe South Lake.
Below: Caples Lake on the drive from Tahoe to Yosemite National Park.
I was incredibly excited to finally be entering the park, having planned to come earlier in the trip and cancelling due to weather, injury, or any of the other reasons that have incapacitated climbing over the past five weeks. Yosemite is a place with an immense amount of climbing and photography history and as I drove down towards the Valley I felt a nervous excitement about what I was about to discover. With everything that had happened over the past few weeks, I felt a strong sense of being in a highly evocable emotional state.
When El Capitan came into view, I was amazed by the size and stature of the piece of rock. Photographs really don’t capture its’ presence like seeing it for real. Although I knew I was emotional, I hadn’t expected the reaction I had. It was mixed and strange, something I had never experienced before and difficult to explain. I was completely moved. Whatever culminated to create that moment for me, it has had a lasting effect and I am now completely drawn to Yosemite in a way that I never have been to a place before. I hope to spend a lot of time here.
Above: My first sight of a Yosemite sky on my way down into the Valley.
Below: Half Dome catching the last rays of evening light, Yosemite Valley.
I have now been in Yosemite for a week. Initially, I met up with Matt, a friend of someone I met in Bishop, which led me to more people. I’m now staying in the original house of Mother Curry, the woman who built Curry Village in the early 1900’s – the first collection of log cabins that tourists could rent out for a visit. I have again found people to socialise with (as well as heating and hot water, and it is far from warm here right now) and I feel happy where I am. I’ve done bits and bobs of climbing but weather and partners have been on and off. Next week the weather is good, however, and I have seven days left to climb, so I’m hoping to get out and get some good stuff done before I have to leave for New York.
Climbing aside, however, I feel that this trip has ended up being a lot more for me. It has been completely unexpected and highly impacting. I’ve learnt to be alone in a way that I never have before. I’ve learned that I don’t need to be achieving something the whole time, but sometimes just being. I feel like I’ve chilled out a lot and worry about things less. I’ve also changed my focus in life. Although I want to make adventure documentaries in principle, I feel that what I want to do right now, more and more, is to focus on climbing and having my own adventures. So I’ve decided not to do a film project next year. When I decided to change from drama to docs, I thought I was realising the value of not focusing on a future image of myself. But now I’ve realised that I can go further with that. I’ve always been highly motivated by success and the natural way to feed that motivation is to focus on career goals. But actually, I think film-making for me may be about doing what I want to be doing anyway and maybe filming it if I feel motivated to at the time. How nice is that? No pressure, no goals of success, just filming something because you genuinely want to document it. And I’m comfortable with knowing that this may not happen for several years. I really feel like a different person to who I was several months ago – I could never have imagined myself being so unfazed by the question of success. I dare to say it, but I think I may have become more Zen!
WTF, I Broke My Butt.
2nd November 2014
Well this first two weeks in the States has been a complete whirlwind of ups and downs.
The Colorado stint...
…was pretty awesome. I met some great folk, did lots of climbing and drank a fair amount of beer. Perfect. I ended up staying at Kate’s house, a friend of a friend who I’d never met before, for pretty much the whole ten-day duration. This was an extension to the original plan, so massively grateful to her on that one. She also kept me topped up with wine and cooked me the best gnocchi I’ve ever had. In fact, I don’t think I would have ever eaten gnocchi again had she not demonstrated how good it can be. Forget that packeted shit. She made it with butternut squash, cream cheese, ground almonds and fresh rosemary. It really was awesome.
Above: Keith warming up for an attempt on Matt's project 'Clouds in my Coffee', 5.13b, Staoked Bowl, Clear Creek Canyon. FA: Matt Lloyd, October 2014. SA: Keith North, October 2014. Photo: Matt Lloyd.
I climbed through the week with Matt Lloyd – another friend of a friend and a full-time climber. He dragged me up some easy stuff, some hard stuff and some stuff that I didn’t get up, which basically provided a tantalising taster to Colorado climbing. There is SO MUCH to do there and I hope to get back to do a month just in Eldo (Eldorado Canyon) sometime. The grades can be a bit sandbaggy, especially at the dubious 5.10 grade (there was a time in the States when climbers were reluctant to add another grade, so you can get piece of piss or likely airmiles depending on your route choice), meaning you have to be a bit careful, but the climbing is immense. It’s a beautiful, big, trad playground and a lot of the crags are basically roadside (although Americans will tell you a ten minute walk-in is a bit of a hike). A must on the revisit list.
Above: Matt on the scary run-out of Candallegro, 5.13b, Redgarden Roof Routes, Eldorado Canyon. Below: Tyson seconding Kloeberdanz, 5.11c R, Redgarden Roof Routes, Eldorado Canyon.
Matt also lent me his moped half way through the week, which was frikin’ awesome and gave me some independence around Denver, meaning I could get to the climbing ‘gym’ in the evenings and also provided some ground training in the ridiculous, dangerous and scary road system of the USA for the road trip I’m about to do. More on that later.
I did a wee bit of filming of a project that Matt was trying (and got) but mostly chilled out climbing without too much self-imposed pressure. One thing I’ve learned over the last few years is to only film something if you really want to film it. If the circumstances are any different, you’ll end up with a hard drive full of crap footage that never makes the edit suite. Unfortunately, troubleshooting with the quadcoptor continued meaning I wasn’t able to play with it in Colorado. Amazingly, however, just as I’d started to really hate the thing, I finally got it working this evening with the help of another friend of a friend, Sunny (I’m now in Vegas). The issues boiled down to a dodgy gimbal tilt switch, which I’ve managed to set manually by going inside the controller. It’s not a perfect solution as adjusting the tilt now involves screwdrivers and about ten minutes for every adjustment, but it means that I can film stuff that’s not just the ground for the rest of the trip. Phew.
At the end of the ten days, Kev, the actual friend from back home in Scotland, who came on a climbing trip to the States and more or less never went home, took me up to his house in Evergreen for my final night. He lives in a wooden mountain hut that smells of burning pine, at 6,000 feet, overlooking beautiful scenery, with his dog, wife and baby. Two years ago he was on the trip I am on. I love the way that life does that sometimes. We had a great night and I wished I could stay up in his cosy, picturesque log cabin for longer, but the following morning he dropped me off at Denver airport to head to Vegas. I actually got a bit psyched for winter climbing that morning as, despite having climbed in 32 degrees earlier in the week, at altitude, the car was frozen. I got the familiar, sharp, cold smell of frost mixed with exhaust fumes and the sense of early, dark winter starts when we left the house. Yum :)
Left: Moped fun in Denver (the only day it wasn't blistering sunshine). Right: Me attempting to second Kloeberdanz, 5.11c R, Redgarden Roof Routes, Eldorado Canyon. Photos: Matt Lloyd.
The Vegas stint…
…so far, has not been so much of a success. I touched down around 10.30am and by 2pm we were climbing in Red Rocks Canyon. It was really, REALLY nice to catch up with an old RAF friend, Benny, and to meet his wife, Marty, when I got here. We had a great afternoon playing on some sport routes and, for me, remembering how to use a Gri Gri (it took a few attempts to put the rope in the correct side, despite the climber picture hint). But then, devastatingly, disaster struck. I got on something that would require a bit more climbing effort that I’d eyed up before arriving – Fear and Loathing, III, a steep 5.12- sport route that would guarantee to get the blood flowing around my stumpy little forearms. I rocked onto a heel hook fairly close to the start of the route and suddenly my whole right ass cheek felt like it tore apart. It made a horrible noise and I felt the whole thing crunch. Shocked and concerned, I let go and got lowered to the ground. Not knowing anything about bottom anatomy, I was initially convinced that I’d pulled some kind of a joint out of it’s socket. On Google diagnosis en route home I realised that this was, however, pretty much an impossibility since the only joint I could have done this to in that region would be my hip. Yeah, that diagnoses was a bit off. We concluded that I’d torn my gluteus muscle - I had broken my bum. I walked around on it as much as possible in an effort to stop it from stiffening up. The following day I even tried to climb on it, which was a painful mistake. Fortunately, Marty teed me up with a physio friend, who poked me around whilst stripped down to my pants (proper British pants, not American trousers) and confirmed our diagnosis, with the addition that I’d probably pulled my hamstring a bit too. Bummer. Literally. On the upside, because one’s ass is in the middle of one’s body and because it is huge (mine is actually quite small, but relatively speaking), it heals pretty quickly. Depending on the extent of the tear it can take between one and six weeks to heal. I have four. I did it on Tuesday and it is now Sunday and it still feels pretty ropey, so I’ll be psyched if I get to climb again on this trip.
Above: Matt being an idiot.
Like with any injury, and when you’re totally psyched at the time of incident, you generally ‘allow’ it a day or two of climbing loss. This is obviously a ridiculous exercise, as you have no control over the compulsory healing time whatsoever. Then, as things carry on, you resign yourself to the fact that it will take longer. Okay, one week, that’s okay, that’s better than the rest of the trip. And then longer. Okay, it’s not healing as fast as I thought, I’ll have to do something else for now. And then… Oh well, it’ll be a bonus if I get to climb again on a six week climbing trip.
So, to save myself the torture of sitting in a house and waiting for my bum to heal, I’ve rented a car (trip budget now well and truly blown) and am heading down to Joshua Tree tomorrow. I get more of a sense of being on a trip when I camp, as opposed to staying in a house, as I am in Vegas, and I find it more memorable too. Even whilst not able to climb, I think that camping and socialising with climbers will be a fun and memorable adventure. Fortunately, I also have film-making and photography to get up to, so I’ll see what I find when I get there and do something productive with the time, which is something I now have plenty of.
So, injury = bad and all too-familiar. But, opportunity to do other things = good and excitingly unknown. Perhaps I’ll make a film this month, who knows.
Following that, I still have a film to shoot with Sandy in New York in December. I didn’t know it until recently, but apparently I’m the DOP and Sandy has just bought a C300, so that’s also pretty exciting! Lots of time and lots of things to come. Positive. Good.
Above: P1 of The Bastille Crack, 5.7. Beautifully easy and fluid climbing. Photo: Tyson. Below: Matt soloing up a bit of unknown rock on demand for a GoPro shot.
Premium Gold Moments…
18th October 2014
Okay, so I’m sitting in the United Premium Gold Lounge at Heathrow Airport waiting for a flight to Denver. Well that’s a surprise!
I always find that travelling alone, especially when gazing out of a window somewhere, stirs some kind of deep reflection in me. Scenarios, smells and sounds always remind me very strongly of what I was doing, thinking or saying when I last saw, smelt or heard them. Sometimes they seem completely trivial, like remembering the thought I had when I was on a particular bend of road on a long bike ride, or where I was when I last smelt Nivea hand cream (Indian Creek three years ago – I now LOVE that smell!) but, of course, there is something that singles them out and makes them stand out in my memory. Apart from journeys generally making you think about where you are going in your life (I mean this metaphorically rather than literally - hopefully you know where you are going by the time you are on the coach to the airport), they also mean that old music collections come out and places visited years ago are visited again. This morning on the coach to Heathrow, I listened to a Queens of the Stone Age track on a really old iPod that I dug out whilst packing. It reminded me of a particular run I went on and exactly where I was on the path when the track came on, in my second year of Uni – eight years ago! Obviously, I’ve listened to that track loads of times but for some reason that moment resonated with me. I remember the details, like that there were lots of leaves on the path making it slimy and slippery to run on, that it was very sunny but only on the grass next to me (I was in the shade of the trees) and that I was thinking about the fact that I had given up smoking at the beginning of the year to pass the RAF fitness test (yes, you’ll be glad to hear that that now sounds laughable, but all achievements are relative!) and was now suddenly finding myself motivated for running and other sports, including climbing. So, in short, I was thinking about big life changes.
I think that travelling puts me in a reflective mood because journeys tend to signify the beginning or end of something. During my time of warm reflection wobbling my way down the M3 this morning, I realised that I have mixed feelings about this trip. By far the overriding waves are of excitement and freedom, but there’s a little nervousness mixed in there too. The reason for this is because I’m not just going on (a very long) holiday – I’m trying to achieve something bigger and more important to me than that.
I’ve made some massive changes in my life recently. Things are completely different than they were just a few months ago. I’ve come out of a five-year relationship and I’ve completely changed my career plans. For a while – about three years – I’ve had a feeling of time running away with me, like I’ve left it too late to get the things done I want to get done before I’m to old to achieve them. I’ve also found myself reviewing all the things I did before those three years and feeling impressed with myself, that is, impressed with myself then and not so much now. I’ve wondered why I’ve not felt as on it as I was before. “Is that age too? I just don’t quite have the drive I had before, the energy. So maybe that’s just what happens when you get a bit older...” NO! I’m pleased to say that this thinking was completely and utterly WRONG!
For those three years, I’ve been focusing solely on the future. Previously to that, I was doing everything in my life purely because I fancied it and I was totally on the ball. I seemed to be able to juggle a million things at once and never stopped to wonder if I could be bothered. I just got on with it with unfaltering motivation and was incredibly productive. I then turned my focus to getting around to tackling that ‘career thing’. Error!
Firstly, I had the wrong idea about what I wanted to do. This is not too insightful, I know, but I need to include it to explain myself. I had created a future image of myself when I was about 16 and was adamantly sticking to it, thinking that this was an honourable and determined way to proceed. You have to work your ass of to get to where you want to get, right? Well, yes, but there’s a big problem with that statement. It gives the impression that you should be gruelling away at something your whole life purely for the end goal. But if you’re doing the thing that you really want to do, then working your ass off becomes something you don’t even think about. It might be hard work but it doesn’t have to be work that you don’t want to work at. If you’re natural motivation to get your work done is low, then maybe you’re working at the wrong thing. And if you’re working at the wrong thing, then perhaps you’ll feel like time is running away with you – because deep down you know that you’re not getting the things done you want to get done.
Secondly, my focus on the future was all wrong. A future image of yourself is theoretical. By it’s nature, you can’t ever reach it. When you get there, your future will have moved and you’re image will have changed – probably to something that you think is bigger and better.
Fortunately, your subconscious is far more intelligent than you are and these instinctive feelings of discontentment generally bubble to the surface and let you know that something is fundamentally wrong. Having said that, I think it’s a hard a skill to learn to recognise and listen to it. Fortunately for me, I did suddenly recognise my own feelings of discontentment and confusion during a conversation with my friend Evie about a month ago, and realised that I have been barking completely up the wrong tree.
My ‘incorrect’ future image had been to direct feature length fiction films and there are a couple of reasons why I think I had rigidly stuck to this plan, despite the growing feeling that everything about it wasn’t really me. Firstly, I’m incredibly stubborn and each time someone asked me the obvious question for someone who is into climbing and the outdoors – “So, are you going to make adventure films then Jen?” – it spurred me on to ‘prove them wrong’, as if they were suggesting that I couldn’t do something that wasn’t expected of me. Hmmm. Secondly, I had for some reason put the world of fiction on a pedestal compared to documentary and other forms of filmmaking. Perhaps because it wasn’t me it felt more unlikely, spurring me on to do it, or perhaps just because making money out of directing fiction is generally perceived as unattainable, I became determined to do it. Lesson? Determination can be a misplaced, self-imprisoning quality, as well as a useful one.
So, during that conversation with Evie, an influx of revolutionary thoughts (revolutionary in the bubble of my little world anyway) occurred and overnight I changed everything on my to-do list. The issue of knowing what I wanted to do was distilled down to the simple question of what I would do if I didn’t have to care about what I wanted to do – if I didn’t care about success or failure or what I perceived to be a ‘good’ career. It’s painful to admit it, but as much as I have always believed in the principle of not caring about what other people think, the truth is that it’s unlikely I’ve ever really achieved it. With this realisation, I asked myself the question “What do you want to do right now?” And the answer was: climb, and go on adventures.
There’s also something in relation to climbing to me that I noticed about the word “just”. Over the past few years, I’ve come back again and again to saying things like “Fuck it, I might just sack everything off and just go climbing”. It’s a massive give away. I used to think that it was a throw away comment for momentarily fantasising about the freedom of ditching all your ambitions, choosing an unacceptably easy or non-meaningful option. But I now realise that it’s the part of you talking that wants to just do what it is that you really want to do. It is a simple statement because it is stripped down to your core, simple needs.
I am not an elite climber. I’m still a pretty average one on the scale of things. I have been injured for nearly two years and am still coming back from that. Of course, being reintroduced to climbing after a very long lay-off has massively contributed to my newfound motivation, as has evolving out of a long relationship and slapping myself in the face with regards to my career choices. And as a non-elite climber, there is also the question of making a living, which muddies the simplicity of the answer “climb”. I do, however, already identify myself as a filmmaker and I feel comfortable with and excited by that. So really the simple answer of “climb” is actually “climb and make films”, it’s just that half of it was already in place and climbing was the half that was missing from my life.
There’s a phrase I learned through studying directing drama: What’s the itch you can’t scratch? It’s about making sure that you need to make the films you make. Every film you invest in should be about something you need to explore. It’s an itch that you can’t scratch. For years, I’ve been looking for those itches. I’ve found topics and characters that interest me immensely, but I’ve never quite gotten that definitive itchy scratchy thing going on. My interest in a script always tends to dissolve away after a few months of development, or when I’ve explored the topic enough in my life that I’ve solved my interest in it without the needto make a film. It was such a supremely happy revelation to me to realise that my itch has been itching me in the face for years, I’ve just never noticed it – my itch is absolutely, definitely and definitively climbing and adventure!
So, I’m a filmmaker and I finally have my itch. I have my answer (for now, anyway). Filming allows me to go on adventures whilst having a career and climbing allows me to film stuff that’s itchy for me. Good. And over the same night that I rewrote my to-do list, I got the energy, drive and motivation back that I had been missing for the past three years.
With that done, I started seeing opportunities that were staring me in the face that I had failed to see before. For starters, this trip took on a different meaning. Initially, it was planned as a trip to New York to shoot and edit a film with a friend, Sandy, who I met on the Film Directing course at ECA, with some climbing tagged onto the beginning. Post-revelation, I was astonished to think that I was going to go on this trip and NOT FILM IT! That is kind of ridiculous for any filmmaker, even if the trip doesn’t fit into their ‘designated genre’ (not that anyone reallyhas one), let alone someone who’s into adventure as a hobby, and it just goes to illustrate how blinkered you can become to the opportunities around you by having all your energy focused on the future, or on some other prescriptive life formula. The trip has now become three film projects – the New York project with Sandy, a film of the trip and maybe a second film of some ‘real’ climbing at Creek’s Giving. But we’ll see what happens and I’ll make sure I stay open to all options at all times!
And just by way of a quick caveat, all this talk about documentary filmmaking doesn’t mean I’m not still interested in and open to all projects. It just means that my natural focus is very different to what I thought it was before.
My final thought is about not focusing on where you want your actions to take you. If you’re freed of thinking about this, then you’re free to make instinctive and passionate choices about what you do in the here and now and you’ll probably see and create opportunities around you that you may otherwise have been blinded to. Things just seem to fall into you’re lap in this open state. It’s always the choices made in this state that seem to turn into the unexpected and unfathomable successes that people have. Those in seemingly unbelievably ‘lucky’ places have always travelled there via winding and unpredictable paths. They can’t be planned for or predetermined, so trying to control them not only puts you in a closed state but may also be a waste of energy!
Not planning for the future is hard and scary, especially if all the people around you are warning you otherwise. It’s viewed as reckless and irresponsible in our society and it’s engrained in us from playschool to have a plan B and maybe C for when plan A fails. What a depressing thing to teach kids. I hate plan B’s. They sap energy from plan A and I think that the way of thinking has the ability to utterly crush people’s creativity and freedom of ambition.
Not planning also involves a certain element of risk, which conveniently brings me back to where I started (after my pre-ramble, that is) – that I have slight nervousness I have about this trip. I fear that I can’t make the film cinematic, that the kit, limitations and environment that I’ll be working with will make it too hard, that I won’t find the characters or the footage to make something worth watching. I’m nervous that there won’t be a story to follow. But at the same time, rationally, I don’t feel worried at all as I trust myself to find something when I get there. It would be easy for me not to admit this, but I’m purposely exposing myself and forcing myself to be honest. If I wasn’t nervous, then I either wouldn’t care enough or wouldn’t be trying hard enough. But I am, and I think that’s healthy. And really, the worst case scenario really ain’t that bad! I could fail to make a single film - not that bad. If that does happen, then I’ll learn from it.
I know that this blog has been very long and self-absorbed, but, despite my inclination to write “sorry about that”, I’m not going to. If it’s only my Mum that reads this then that’s fine by me (Mum – you better not be skim-reading). But if you’re not my Mum and you have made it this far, well, then that’s an achievement for both of us! By way of compensation, I promise to make the next one less intense and will also include some pretty pictures! ;)
Oh, and the Premium gold bit – that’s down to Sandy using her airmiles to get me over - thanks Sandy. The houmous sandwiches were rubbish but the cheesy wraps were awesome.
8th October 2014, Scotland
So, Stu, Vadim and I ventured out to test the GoPro / Quadcoptor set up last Wednesday. It wasn't exactly smooth. We forgot half of the kit (okay, I forgot half the kit), then got so overexcited by the prospect of flying it, chasing each other around with the thing and testing out the speed and height capabilities (which are both very impressive), that we flossed over GoPro settings, sacked off reading the instructions properly (very naughty) and didn't look up the functions of the controller. But hey, we just wanted to fly it!
This was so incredibly fun it bordered on becoming dangerous (I mean this literally). After we'd used only one battery (about 20 minutes of flight time), I could feel myself getting way too overexcited and knew it was time to land and go home before we pushed our luck any further. So, we're yet to do a test with the monitor and control of the gimbal, (which we now know how to use). But, for the time being, here's a taster...