The last 1483 days

Enjoying some sun on the Cuillin Ridge

Enjoying some sun with Davide and Gregoire on the Cuillin Ridge, May 2016

The last 1483 days

That is right – 1483 days, or four years – between my last two posts.

I’ve not hung up my boots or sold my rack on eBay yet, although more time on the hill may have been nice.

In any case, this is a quick update on those intervening 209 weeks!

Overview

The big idea was to complete a series of outdoor awards and then get stuck in with launching and running The Mountain People (an outdoor pursuits business), ultimately moving to and living in the High Atlas mountains in Morocco.

Sadly, this did not work out, which saw us deposited back in the UK after a lot of travel, and we eventually ended up in Derby. Happily, this is close to the Peak District – an area stuffed with climbing and amazing outdoor places!

2013

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On the Lancet Ridge (I) with Sam in the Ben Alder region

Winter Mountain Leader award – tick

My last post here was in December 2012, and I packed my bags and set off to Scotland to prepare for my Winter Mountain Leader (WML) award assessment.

The six weeks I spent in Scotland were some of the most memorable I have had on the mountain – I wrote them up in a mini-series called ‘Highland Hobo‘ (scroll down archive).

I alternated between three days on the mountains, travelling from bothy to bothy, with sleeping in the back of the car and a day off in a bunkhouse.

I spent my days practising mountain skills (such as ice axe arrests and basic emergency ropework) and honing navigation and map reading.

As I was walking solo for most of the time, I spent a lot of time in thought, observing the landscape and reflecting on themes.

I saw the latest James Bond film ‘Skyfall’ immediately before leaving, which featured Glencoe and Glen Etive, and a notable quotation from Tennyson’s poem ‘Ulysses’. This dominated my thoughts throughout the time.

I passed the assessment with no real problems, assessed by now aspirant Mountain Guide Mark ‘Chadders’ Chadwick.

The key to the assessment was unsurprisingly in the preparation and attention to the syllabus, and I hope to write an in-depth piece on this in the future.

Matt at work in the sun

Matt at work in the sun

Goodbye to France

Unfortunately, by the end of the WML assessment, my knees were really suffering, and I experienced acute stabbing pain when making dynamic step ups.

After a bit of rest, it was manageable, but this would be a recurring issue for some years.

In the short term, it didn’t stop me from a last blast of sport climbing on Les Dentelles de Monmirail (Vaucluse) and trying out a shunt in St Montan (Ardeche).

This was basically fun in the sun, and I realised I missed the physical tussles and mental battles of traditional (trad) climbing and general British mountaineering.

Crux moves on Right-Hand Route, VS 4c

Crux moves on Right-Hand Route, VS 4c

Single Pitch Award – tick

This marked the end of our time in France, and we relocated back to the flatlands of Oxford, although mercifully for a short time.

To complement my mountain leader awards, I focused on rock climbing, and spent ten days in North Wales to prepare for my Single Pitch Award (SPA) assessment.

In the same vein as the WML, I filled ten days leading climbs, practising ropework and managing groups, which paved the way for a smooth assessment.

My climbing came on a great deal, and I finished on a high, lead my first Hard Very Severe (HVS) climb – Bruvers, HVS 5a **, at Holyhead Mountain on Anglesey.

HVS is basically the grade at which you enter serious climbing (as the name might suggest).

The average grade of a typical leader in the UK is Very Severe (VS), at which standard you can find regular points to rest and the climbing is not too intense. On the other hand, HVS:

“Introduces the world of steeper (often overhanging) and/or considerably more technical rock. Unless you can read moves accurately and place runners quickly you’ll soon get pumped hanging around on a typical HVS and falling off becomes an increasingly possible outcome.” Libby Peter, HVS grade tour

Back home, I joined the local climbing gym at Oxford Brookes University – Rock Solid – and established an ideal routine of cycling across at lunchtime for a short, intense session.

I spent a lot of time working on traversing to build up stamina and finger strength. Combined with the advice in the excellent book, ‘The Self Coached Climber‘, I improved my footwork and technique quickly and efficiently.

Inevitably, with my enthusiasm at a fresh outlet and the dramatic initial gains, I soon popped a tendon in the finger on my left hand. This effectively put me out of action for the rest of the time in Oxford, although a new move was imminent.

Foolishly, I continued to ignore the advice and warning signs about my knee. This would soon dominate my focus.

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Goodbye to Morocco

The journey to Morocco ended for a number of reasons, although happily The Mountain People (TMP) continued, and I bade farewell by leading a trek across the satellite valleys of Toubkal, culminating with a summer ascent.

As with all large, mixed ability groups, the challenge was looking after the clients themselves, managing the broad spectrum of ages, fitness and aspirations.

Some of my highlights were getting to grips with a new DSLR camera, which produced some good images (some of which made it into TMP literature), and getting the confidence rope out on the descent of Toubkal.

The remit of the Mountain Leader award excludes planned ropework, but allows for emergency use of a rope, such as lowering an individual down a rock step and to assist on ascent or descent of steeper ground.

The summit day on Toubkal is always a long day, with an early start and many hours in the intense sun. By the end of the descent, which is also the steepest, I took out the confidence rope to help steady a client and provide some assurance on the loose, rocky ground.

2014

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On the North Ridge of Stob Ban in the Mamores

Scotland winter & move to Derby

After a hiatus of a year, the annual Scotland winter trip was back on the cards, based again in Aviemore and the Cairngorms.

The weather and conditions were as ‘Scottish’ as ever, which means challenging, unpredictable and a mixture!

Nevertheless, we put together a fun week including a tour of the Northern Corries of Cairngorm; navigating in whiteout conditions over the Cairngorm plateau to Ben Macdui.

There was a day on the western hills, taking in Sgor Gaoith from Glen Feshie; a climbing team ticked off the ever popular winter climb Invernookie III, 4; and to finish the week off, a day in the west on the North Ridge of Stob Ban.

Apart from that, there was little else to report because of house moves and general lack of stability at home.

However, I continued to keep a base of fitness with running, stretching and body weight exercises.

2015

Knees officially trashed

With our move from Oxford to Derby also came the crushing realisation that my knees were officially trashed from the intense winter mountaineering that went into gaining the WML award.

I pulled up in agony on a local trail run soon after arriving in Derby, and the nail in the coffin was wincing with pain when playing with my children at the park.

I swallowed my pride, saw the GP, got referred to the physio and then diligently went about trying to restore myself.

Thankfully, the diagnosis was not too grim: the pain in my kneecaps had been caused by a lack of development in the muscles in my hips, quads and ankles, which had caused the knees to overcompensate on the hill.

The bulk of the physio was stepping up and down in a slow, controlled manner to strengthen muscles in and around the knee, mirroring the kinds of movements found on the hill.

In the early stages I also did lots of hip abductions and adductions, including the use of a theraband, which contributed in some complex biomechanical way to the general fitness of the knees.

The Climbing Unit

Thankfully, the physio made a long term impact, allowing me to progress onto ever more demanding and dynamic exercises.

By the end of the programme, I was able to some surprisingly demanding physio, such as the pistol squat (bend down on one leg and stand up again), which was also helping my core strength.

This allowed me to return to my running, which was a joy after several months laid up, and later in the year I made my choice between the two main climbing walls in Derby – Alter Rock and The Climbing Unit.

I plumped for The Climbing Unit, as it offers a decent lunch time discount; is near to work, so I can fit in a short, sharp lunchtime visit; and the quality and volume of problems is impressive.

Despite this return to action, I continue to fit in physio exercises whenever I can, nipping into an empty room or snatching a few squats in the toilet!

2016

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Davide enjoying the situation on Suinish Pillar

Isle of Skye trip

This year’s main event was a trip to the Isle of Skye with friends at the end of April, with the objective of the Cuillin Ridge.

It was my first time to the island dedicated to climbing and mountaineering, so I prepared for the long mountaineering days with lots of fitness and endurance at the climbing wall.

In the event, we encountered a lot of poor weather, and the ridge was still in its very last throes of winter, so had to do what we could to salvage the week with a couple of Munro tops and a local scramble.

My personal highlight was the one rock climb of the week: Right Edge * VD on the wild sea cliff of Suisnish Pillar, which is on the way to Elgol in the south east of the island.

It wasn’t a hard climb, only Very Difficult standard, but the sensation of skin on rock, the wild outlook and the incredible sense of remoteness more than made up for it.

My reflection was that we were quite a weak and inexperienced team, with plenty of enthusiasm, but lacking the package of skills and confidence required to make the most of Skye.

What next?

Life’s definitely not the same anymore – three young daughters, commitments to work and volunteering at my local church, home improvement projects, to name a few.

However, over the years I have learned to keep my hobbies and interests alive in the margins.

I came across this concept way back in 2012 through the blog ‘Find exercise in life’s margins’ on the Harvard Business Review.

I finally managed to make in happen in earnest with the recent wild camp on the winter solstice in Dovedale.

Looking forward, I have planned one week away per year in the first instance, which is another Scotland winter mountaineering trip in February 2016.

Around that, the aim is to make the most of local rock climbing crags in Derbyshire for short trips, and potentially one wild camp a month (inspired by Gavin Macfie’s month outdoor sleep).

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Thorpe Cloud winter solstice #microadventure

Thorpe Cloud winter solstice #microadventure

Alistair Humphreys first gave me the idea of a winter solstice #microadventure (check out his Lap of the M25). The idea is simple: grab a sleeping bag, bivvy bag and a mate, and sleep out on a local hill on 21 December.

The winter solstice holds no real significance to me, other than being the shortest day of the year with the longest night. It’s also an excuse for a bit of manly fun before Christmas.

The forecast seemed to suggest that the solstice itself would be rather wet, so we delayed to 22nd and headed to the nearest prominent hill we could think of – Thorpe Cloud, just outside Ashbourne in West Derbyshire.

Mark, my friend from church, came with me, and had suggested Thorpe Cloud. I’d wanted to do a winter solstice #microadventure for a few years, so with a willing partner, the game was on!

The logistics were simple: sleeping bag, thermarest, bivvy bag, stove, a few layers and a rucksack to carry it all.

We set off from Derby just after 8:00pm, and were soon parking up – maximum 25 minutes after leaving town.

We took in the traverse of Thorpe Cloud itself (a mere 285m or so), the limestone slopes of which were very muddy and greasy, and then found the bivvy spot soon after.

It was a lovely, cold, clear night and ice crystals were soon forming on all exposed surfaces. Sadly it clouded over before dawn, with the front of Storm Barbara coming in, so we missed out on a dawn photo shoot.

This #microadventure was no different to any of my other trips, prompting plenty of thoughts.

Fresh memories

I was vividly reminded of my last Christmas outing in 2009, when I slogged up Great Gable (899m) on Christmas Eve in deep powder with my brother. We were greeted by amazing views and I remember just standing in silent wonder.

It made me appreciate the time I had taken to document and write down my experiences in words and pictures. Until a few days ago, I had not looked over this blog for years.

I was struck by the importance of making and recording good memories to enjoy adventures and the company I have been in for many years to come.

Real company

It was a pleasure to spend a few hours with a friend, enjoying the landscape, fresh air and experience itself.

Too often when we are closeted in the office, car or indoors we miss the opportunity to be real with each other and talk.

It was refreshing to strip away the comforts of modern living for a little while, make fire and experience the elements as they really are.

Field notes

I’ve purposely not pinpointed our bivvy site to reduce impact on the environment. Please be aware that as a wild camper, you have no legal rights in England and Wales. Check out this UK Hillwalking article for further advice.

I used the following kit (excluding discontinued items):

  • Rab Andes 800 – 4 season down sleeping bag. Warm, packable and not too heavy
  • Therm-a-Rest ProLite – go-to, do-it-all insulated mattress
  • Rab Storm bivi bag – a simple, robust bivvy bag that can get you started. Look out for seconds on UKClimbing.com
  • MSR EGK-EX stove – sounds like a jet engine, but is an extremely reliable multifuel stove. Not the lightest with fuel bottle and pan added in
  • Black Diamond Icon headtorch – solid mountaineering headtorch. Winter glove friendly and has a button lock
  • Scarpa SL boots – classic leather 4 season boot which has gone through many iterations. Crampon compatible. A bit heavy, but a workhorse
  • Montane Flux Jacket – solid but lightweight synthetic insulation, with lots of pockets and a good hood
  • Rab Baseline Jacket – a decent alternative to the classic Patagonia R1 hoodie
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