When cold weather and snow mean that it’s not easy to run or climb I start to feel frustrated! Last year I attempted Striding Edge in the Lake District and the CMD arête up to Ben Nevis, but failed due to my lack of experience in winter conditions. This year I signed up for a winter skills course run by Mark Eddy of Mountain Journeys.
In July I solo hiked the Tour du Mont Blanc, camping along the way. It was physically the hardest thing I’ve done so far, involving 9 days of sustained effort to carry all my camping gear through three countries, over 170km, and up and down 10,000m of accumulated ascent/descent.
It was also one of the most rewarding experiences, with incredible views, physical and mental obstacles overcome, and many lessons learned. Here are a few of the highlights of my trip: Continue reading
I hiked the Tour du Mont Blanc over nine days in July 2015, camping every night, and I wouldn’t have done it any other way. I was able to stay outdoors rather than the shared dorms of the Refuges. As there is no pre booking I had more flexibility about the distance and route I covered each day, the cost was lower, and it was satisfying to feel totally self-supported. Unexpectedly though, finding the campsites at the end of a long day was one of the most stressful elements of the trip for me.
I used the Cicerone guidebook, which is aimed at walkers staying in Refuges on the route, but I found that it didn’t provide adequate information for me. Some campsites were a little off the standard route of the TMB, meaning that I had to walk further at the end of the day on a route not described in the guide. In some cases it was necessary to extend the day described in the book to reach the next place to camp. These are not real problems, but I would recommend a little extra planning to supplement the guide.
Here is the information I wish I’d had for the route I followed (all prices are for one person, one tent, one night): Continue reading
The first ‘proper’ scramble I did was Pinnacle Ridge on the Scottish Isle of Skye. It’s an 11km hike involving easy rock climbing and an abseil over 6 Pinnacles on the Cuillin Ridge. It reaches a high point on the summit of Scurr Nan Gillean, a Munro with a height of 964m (3162 feet). I’d never done anything like it before. I didn’t know what to expect or how to prepare, and I carried all sorts in my bag including, for some reason, flip flops.
As I gained more experience, I learned to focus on what is fundamentally important, the basics of survival – warmth, water, and food. Anything beyond that becomes a luxury. Continue reading
This weekend I planned to go away for a couple of nights to test my new ultra light tent and get some hill training in with Bo. The weather forecast was horrendous – wet and windy everywhere, so we decided a one night trip would be wiser. Short on time, our target was Snowdon, Wales’ highest mountain at 1085m. We planned to camp in the Llanberis Pass and run to the summit via the Crib Goch ridge.
Arriving at lunch time we quickly put up our tents, the only ones camping in the extended garden of a farm in Nant Peris, a small village located at the bottom of the Llanberis Pass. From there we had a view up the pass to the ridge we would soon be on. Although it wasn’t raining in the valley and there was little wind, the top of the ridge was hidden by cloud.
The steep sides of the Pass host some of the UK’s most famous rock climbing routes, and from the bus window we took the opportunity to admire the scale of the landscape. Looking up to the familiar shape of the Cromlech, there were no climbers to be seen on the open-book Cenotaph Corner, just darker grey smears of wet rock.
Jumping off the bus we began running from the Pen-y-Pass car park. The well trodden trail trends steadily upwards over a mixture of polished rocks and sandy gravel, good running although not the easiest warm up. It wasn’t long until we reached the point that our route separated from the trail, the ground quickly got steeper and soon the only option was to scramble and climb.
The Rhyolite rock is almost crystalline in appearance, formed from a series of small angular blocks that create large handholds and decent footholds. Scrambling higher we entered the clouds and I felt very aware that I was clinging to a steep surface with no ropes. My view obscured in all directions I could see nothing but rock dropping steeply away below, while more rock rose to an unknown and invisible point above. With Bo leading, the only way was up.
Finally there was no more up, we had reached the ridge and there could be no worries about route finding. We scrambled happily along, keeping our hands high on the pointing tip of the ridge and our feet low on the blocky sides. I took a moment to enjoy the incredible position. Cloud cover was coming and going at this point, the steep drop on either side intermittently revealed, the lakes below scraps of tin foil reflecting the silver grey sky.
Reaching the end of the ridge we laughed as we realised that we had clocked some of the slowest kilometres ever. Pleased to run again we joined the trail that passed the marker at Crib y Ddysgl, the second highest summit, then followed the train tracks leading the way to the busy Snowdon summit and cafe.
After a quick dash to the actual summit of Snowdon we began a swift descent down the Pyg track which involved hurdling a few tourists. The terrain is perfect, stepped and rocky, not too steep, and a lovely long run down hill back to the Pen Y Pass car park.
If you are short on time but want maximum adventure, Crib Goch is one of the best days out you can have. You can find more information about the route on UK Hillwalking http://www.ukhillwalking.com/logbook/hill.php?id=2032.
With snow and ice still in command this weekend I gave up on the idea of a 10 mile training run and took the opportunity to visit Kinder Downfall. We started from Edale up Grindsbrook, planning to hike across Kinder, then loop back down the Pennine Way to Jacob’s Ladder back to Edale, a round trip of about 8 miles.The usual trail was buried in deep snow and we reached the top via an icy gully. Not a problem with good boots, although we were concerned about the tourists in trainers who were picking their way up behind us.
The view across Kinder was spectacular and intimidating, completely white with no points of reference. Thick cloud was blowing through, so visibility changed from just meters to miles and back in the space of a few minutes. I was cautious about setting off into such a featureless landscape, but once we found the Pennine Way it was easy to follow…
…too easy really, and it wasn’t long before we decided to leave the trail and make our way across the totally pristine landscape and aim directly for the Downfall area. What an amazing experience, there were no footprints except rabbits, birds, and then our own. The wind blown snow has a fluid feel, forming in peaks and troughs like waves, and at times the clouds seemed to be below us so that I felt even more that I had washed up somewhere totally separate from reality.
After some time surfing and wading in the general direction of the Downfall the view suddenly changed and a rocky outcrop was visible. At 30 meters Kinder Downfall is the tallest waterfall in the Peak District, and in winter conditions it becomes a beautiful and precarious pillar of ice. Nearing the top of the Downfall I noticed strange formations of ice coating the gritstone boulders, glittering in the last of the day’s sunlight.
There was nowhere safe to stand, so unfortunately I couldn’t take a photo of the frozen Kinder Downfall. Two climbers were reaching the top and reported that conditions at the the bottom were not good, although it hadn’t deterred them from their ascent. As the clouds parted again the view down to the valley was spectacular.
The sun was beginning to go down and after one last look around it was time to leave. This is the first time that I have been to Kinder Downfall and what an incredible time to visit.
It was an easy walk home from here, whipping down the Pennine Way – actually easier in snow than on a normal day as all the awkward rocky sections became soft snow to wade down. What an amazing day, I can’t wait to come back in the summer to see what it looks like when the water is flowing, the ground isn’t frozen under ice and snow, and the rock is dry enough to climb.
This week Sport England launched a campaign “to celebrate active women who are doing their thing no matter how well they do it, or how they look” www.thisgirlcan.co.uk. It features women participating in activities like cycling, zumba, and climbing. It’s so liberating to see these real women, and I have personally been reflecting on how important it is to have female role models to encourage and inspire me.
Although I train and climb with equal numbers of men and women, I particularly value the time I spend with female friends. We are more evenly matched in terms of strength and performance, which means that we participate on an equal footing and are more likely to share common goals to work towards.
I find it empowering to take decisions and plan together, and feel especially proud of what I have achieved through team work with my female friends, whether climbing a hard route or navigating a race in the hills. Beyond training and performance, being active together creates real quality time, shared experiences, and lays the foundations for strong and supportive friendships.
In the media and coverage of the outdoors world I generally find strong women’s voices are less common. I don’t know if that is because there are proportionally fewer women participating, whether fewer women seek to publicise and share their adventures, or whether they struggle to have their voices heard in stereotypically more masculine environments. Or maybe I just haven’t been looking in the right places.
I don’t need my role models to be exceptional in terms of performance. It’s great to celebrate women that are at the top of their game and pushing the boundaries, but regardless of your level of performance I love to see the places that you are being active, and the things that you are doing, because if you can do it, so can I.
How women are presented in the media and online is important, and This Girl Can feels so right because it has a message that all women can relate to. We need to see realistic images of healthy women. We can celebrate using our female bodies without sexualising them. We do not need make up or air brushing to make us look healthy and vibrant.
Packing light and having access to minimal facilities has challenged my assumptions about the ‘essentials’ of life, including realising that in certain circumstances make up has no practical use. Pushing my physical and mental limits has taken me to a place where there is no room to think about how I look. Being active gives me a sense of wellbeing and achievement that feels so good that it pushes out the insecurities about how I might look while I’m doing it.
It can be a vulnerable feeling to share your thoughts and experiences, but I believe that we are all role models and mentors, encouraging and inspiring each other. I would like to see active women increasing our representation, and this means building confidence in our skills and abilities, finding our voices and being comfortable sharing to a wider audience. It means recognising that our opinions and experiences have value.
My small part of it is to keep sharing the joy of being active outdoors in all seasons in the best way that I can, and to keep reading and being inspired by you…
I am standing in the middle of a bog somewhere south… or possibly west… of Grindslow Knoll blinking mist out of my eyelashes and peering hopelessly at the 10m circle of tussocks visible in the dense fog that has suffocated us all morning. There is a checkpoint somewhere close by – at a ‘fence/wall junction’ according to the scant description. I would love to be able to see a fence. Or a wall. Or anything other than this damp white blanket. This is the Rab Mini Mountain Marathon, my first Mountain Marathon experience…
If like me, you’re not familiar with the format of mini mountain marathons, on arrival entrants are given a map and have 4 hours to navigate to up to 25 checkpoints. Each one is worth a number of points that varies depending on the distance and degree of difficulty finding it. If you are back late, you lose those points. The checkpoints are tiny boxes deposited on crags, in gullys, and behind crumbling dry stone walls and are distributed in an area around 25 square kilometers. I have entered as a team of two with Bodil – we are regular trail runners and have high hopes of speedily picking up a respectable number of points. As entrants can choose what time to set off between 8.15am and 10am there is no rush of start line adrenaline, and no other runners to lead the way. Bo and I have a quick scan of the map, loosely agree a route and set off running.
In no time we arrive at the point where the little circle on the map indicates that the checkpoint should be. Locating it is not as easy as expected – we are in the right place but we just can’t see it, and suddenly the little circle feels a lot bigger. Three steep gullies join here and it’s somewhere in one of them, so we split up and search until we finally locate the checkpoint. It has taken half an hour, but we have 15 points! We decide to take the direct line to the next checkpoint and enthusiastically thrash our way up one of the gullies through running water, boggy black peat, and springily resistant heather. There is no trail, not even a sheep track, we are forging our own way and I realise that this is not going to be normal running or racing. At the top of the gully we join a path as expected, and feel pretty sure we know where we are. According to the map there is another checkpoint relatively close by, I can see a trail and I just want to run down it so I urge Bo to follow me. However, after about a kilometer of enjoyable but fruitless running, we are forced to admit we are not where we thought we were and there is no checkpoint here. We give up and retrace our steps, uphill.
Our next checkpoint is at Ringing Rodger and the clue says simply ‘top of rocky outcrop’. I know that this is a familiar landmark and on any other day would be easy to spot, but we can’t see any rocks at all, and definitely not an outcrop. Feeling slightly guilty about leading us astray down the previous trail, I decide it might be better to let Bo navigate, she has the compass and seems more confident about where we are and where we’re going. Following another well-defined trail, we sense we are close as figures begin to appear and disappear in the mist. The scene feels a little surreal as we press on until suddenly there is a steep drop to our left, and a checkpoint nestled in the rocks right in front of us. Another hour has gone by, but at last we have 20 more points.
We quickly eat fruit bars to keep our energy up, and now that we have located ourselves we are on a roll. On the edge of the Kinder Plateau Bo leads us to the next three checkpoints and we earn 65 points with relatively little trouble. The third is located at the bottom of Grindsbrook, one of my favourite hikes in the Peak District – to make it more interesting we follow the river itself rather than taking the less direct but easier footpath. I feel at home again, scrambling on rock in a small gorge, wintery water gushing past us as we descend maybe 125m back down the valley. From this point we decide to leave the comfort of the path and strike out south, to a checkpoint that I don’t realise is on the other side of the highest point around. Having just descended, we power up a steep hill, the top of which reveals another steeper hill. We climb rapidly and then then speedily descend, but in all of the striding up the hill and the wiggling down it, we have lost our bearings and find ourselves somewhere south… or possibly west… of Grindslow Knoll. After trotting around the tussocky field for a while, the fence/wall junction checkpoint is suddenly visible just ahead of us and we have 15 more points.
Now with about 25 minutes to go, we are almost back to Edale. It’s too soon to go home, but to attempt the next checkpoint is risky. We know that it is doable though it will be tight and it takes us just seconds to commit to it, knowing that it is uphill all the way there but downhill on the way back. At this stage, what would normally have been an easy run feels like crazily hard work. A stream of people finishing their race stroll happily past us in the opposite direction as we plough our way upwards through a series of exceptionally muddy fields of sheep poo. We finally see the checkpoint… at the top of a steep embankment. My legs are burning, my heart is pounding… but it is within my grasp and I am so determined to reach the top and those 10 points. Bo must feel the same as she seems to leap up the hill and is at the checkpoint well ahead of me. We shout to each other as she dashes back down, “Come On!!!” As I catch her up we have 8 minutes remaining… and I know we can make the final kilometer. This feels like my kind of racing again and although the road through Edale has never felt so long I am full of joy as we muster up a sprint finish after four hours and make it home with three minutes to spare!
In total we ran 10 miles including around 850m of ascent, and collected 125 points from 7 checkpoints. I’m so glad I entered with Bo, it felt great to put in a team effort and I would have felt a little lost on my own. It’s important to take this event seriously – it involves being out in all weather conditions on sometimes difficult terrain for several hours, but for me it was a safe and fun way to practice carrying the right gear and test my navigation skills and endurance. Four hours flew by, and I would definitely be up for a longer event next time. As I start to write my tick list of challenges for 2015, I feel good that the preparation has begun for next year’s endurance events…
If you fancy entering a mountain marathon next year, you can find the website for Dark and White events here http://www.darkandwhite.co.uk/mountain-marathons.asp
In September this year I was fortunate to travel around California for the best part of a month, and I was looking forward to the holiday as a period to take time out and reflect on the big questions I felt life was asking me.
It’s the longest time I’ve travelled and I was able to take so long because, as a result of the continuing public sector cuts, I was offered voluntary redundancy. After five years at the same place the time felt right to move on and I saw it as an opportunity. But needing to take potentially life changing decisions naturally caused me to question… What do I really want to be doing? Where do I want to be heading? What am I doing with my life??!
We flew into LA, driving for hours through hellish traffic to arrive at Joshua Tree national park in the dark, grateful to find a free space at the Hidden Valley campground. Our headtorches illuminated the bulk of the boulder-like formations that the camping spaces nestled beneath.
We were woken by coyotes howling, one group yelping frantically nearby and another replying from somewhere in the distance. It was 6am, but with an alarm call like that there was no way we were going back to sleep. The sun had just come up, and looking around at the unfamiliar rocky landscape I felt I had travelled to another planet.
Scrambling to the top of the tall ridge that formed the far side of the campground, I looked back down and saw an expanse of white sand and pale yellow-white granite. Over the other side lay a vast and perfectly flat plain crowded with the Joshua Trees themselves, their unusual shapes poised like joyful dancers.
Joshua tree is beautiful and like nothing I had ever seen, and as the sun rose, the mountains on the horizon glowed a deep wild-salmon pink.
When you’re car camping in California, life is simple. Finding it too hot in the south, we travelled up Highway 395 through Inyo County, the High Sierra mountains always visible to the West. Passing through Bishop, Mammoth, and on to Yosemite National Park, we stopped off at Pleasant Valley, Twin Lakes, and Tuolumne Meadows campgrounds.
The days assumed a rhythm that started with the ritual of coffee. I love that solitary time in the morning before most people wake up, listening to the muted blaze of the stove for the moment that the pot bubbles announcing the arrival of coffee. The day seems suspended in that moment of waiting, perfect in its possibilities before caffeine catapults me into action.
Each day we would climb, locating new crags, navigating walk-ins, and tackling the routes. Or I would hike, almost disbelieving at the start of the day that I really would be at that highest point of the horizon, and back again before dark. As darkness fell the various climbers, boulderers and hikers would reconvene at the campground to hear about each other’s days and plans for the next day. Food and drink tastes better when you’ve earned it, and as we clustered around the blue stove flames to cook we savoured the taste of local brewed ale, inventing ingenious ways to remove the bottle tops.
Some nights the milky way would appear bright in the clear sky, and I watched its rotation feeling insignificant, peaceful, and incredibly lucky. As each day started with coffee, it ended with making the beds, another ritual which involves clearing the back of the car and making sure the roll mats are smooth, creating pillows out of down jackets, laying out the sleeping bags in the exactly the right position. And then – glorious sleep.
Moment by moment by moment, I was absorbed. I didn’t think about the future, or worry about what might or might not happen. As a way of living, it felt so simple and so pure, focusing all my attention on each event in my day as it happened. I know it’s not possible to be on holiday constantly, I don’t want to run away from my life and become a rootless traveller. There’s a danger in living for future plans, as much as there is in living in the past.
I went away thinking that time out would give me perspective, and I came back wanting the opposite of escapism. I want to be present right here, right now. Too much reflection can become a distraction, so maybe I did find the answer to the big questions… stop questioning.
I have mixed emotions when I look at this picture. It was posted on UKC and was voted into the top 10 two weeks in a row. The route is Bony Fingers and as you can see it’s a continuous finger crack on an otherwise blank granite face which is dotted with round black ‘knobs’. What you can’t see is that I was crying with fear and frustration as I struggled to second this route.
The day started full of promise in the Pleasant Valley Campground just outside Bishop, with a drive through towns with truly American names like Independence and Lone Pine. The road climbed steeply into the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and in no time we rose from an elevation of 4,000 feet to over 8,000, Highway 395 less than a hairs’ breadth in the panoramic view of the valley we’d left behind. At Whitney Portal, granite towered above us on all sides, framing the jagged peaks of Mount Whitney.
The walk-in began on a beautifully soft trail of pine needles where in the higher altitude and thinner air an uncompromising clear blue sky contrasted against greywhite rock and occasional vivid green pines. Looking up we saw The Whale, the hump of rock split by our route, but we missed the approach and the walk in became a sweaty and frustrating ascent through a boulder field. We finally reached the route feeling dehydrated and testy.
The 90 meter finger crack is undeniably beautiful. And yet as I watched my partner lead the first pitch, beginning with a hard thin slab and then a run out traverse, I just felt a flat sense of dread. As much as I’d trained, I find finger cracks painful and difficult to climb. I’m scared of traverses and this one definitely required as steady a head for the second as the lead. I began climbing already defeated. I struggled, I pulled on quickdraws. We left gear to protect me on the traverse. I was terrified, and couldn’t muster the spirit to climb English 5c move after 5c move. Something about the whole experience overwhelmed me, and just below the first belay my partner lowered me off with tears in my eyes.
I don’t know if I defeated myself, or if the route defeated me. I left Bony Fingers disillusioned and frustrated – unsure if I even love climbing any more. One of the things I do love about climbing is the places it has taken me to. Although I didn’t have a great time on what should have been a classic route, my lasting impression is the feeling of experiencing that place for the first time – the sheer expanse of granite, the sense of distance from the valley below, the summit of Mount Whitney another 6,000 feet above us, looking so near and yet so far. I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but Mount Whitney is not only the highest peak in mainland USA, it is also the start of the John Muir Trail. I still haven’t figured out how I feel about climbing, but when one door closes another one opens. I have a feeling that next time I go through that Portal the journey might end in more Happy Isles…