Friday, 19 October 2012

Sir Ranulph Funnies

Ringing my socks out whilst sitting on a stone wall in the middle of the Yorkshire Dales can be a sobering moment for a man. A man who thought that in hiking, he'd found his new passion in life, a recent raison d'être, that also offered heath benefits and fundraising opportunities for charity as a reward for his immense toil.

"You must always try and change your socks, at least, every 10 miles," Phil scolded me, father-like, whilst unwrapping, from crinkly plastic, a brand new pair of fluffy, warm, mega-tog, woollen socks.

Phil was a seasoned walker and frankly, in comparison, I wasn't. He'd clearly enjoyed the angle of mentoring me through the art of hiking, whilst we tramped the first 9 miles of the three peaks challenge. And, until now, I'd felt I'd benefitted from his experience and learned a great deal. But right now, with cold, wet feet and the prospect of 16 more miles of squelchy hell in wet socks in front of me, I did not. His advice felt far too condescending for my liking.

Through gritted teeth, I asked, "Don't suppose you have a spare pair you can lend me?"

"I'd love to mate, but I need those for the last 10 miles. You can wear those if you want?" He pointed down at his recently discarded pair, that lay curled like grey, woollen snails, steaming in the cold air. The sight of them was too comical for words. We both laughed suddenly and heartily, after which I felt much better.

  Thank god we British can laugh at ourselves.  It's not a gift that's only associated with the British, of course, but we do it so well. Rarely are there times, when things are looking really dire and grim that a good one liner can't perk-up the spirits and turn everything on it's head. The British seem to have an innate ability to recognise the absurdity of a situation one finds oneself in and laugh hysterically about it and about themselves. It is a wonderful 'human' trait that sets us apart from the animal kingdom, the insects and Victoria Beckham.

I once met Sir Ranulph Fiennes, the 'worlds greatest living explorer', a title bestowed to him by the Guinness Book of Records. He was conducting a book signing, in Brighton. I was there for a conference and was enthralled by his pre-signing lecture when he gave a packed auditorium an awe-inspiring account of his adventures around the globe.  He beguiled the audience with an anecdote of his first venture across the arctic wastelands in the 1970s. He travelled with his friend and companion, 'Charlie'. Together they faced months of great hardships in the frozen tundra. By the time they had reached the South Pole Charlie had suffered the worst of it, losing all the skin on his fingers and feet to frost bite. Despite suffering excruciating and unrelenting pain, Charlie valiantly marched onwards.

Finally, Fiennes described the moment when, on hitting his head against a rock, Charlie's eyeballs filled with blood. On seeing yet another tragedy befall his calamitous comrade Sir Ranulph turned to him and said, "You're not going to start winging now are you?"    At this, the two off them, reportedly fell into hysterics - right there and then - in the middle of the South Pole and hundreds of miles away from another living soul.  

Is it just me, or is that not bloody marvellous? That's it, right there; humour and cahones personified. Can there be any greater qualities required in a world-class explorer? Qualities shared, no doubt, with histories greatest explorers; Sir Edmund Hillary, Roald Amundsen, James Cook and Amy Johnson...yes, even Amy Johnson had the sort of cahones that her husband could be proud of.

Yes, laughter would be a great weapon for me; my greatest weapon, in the face of disaster,  disheartenment, discomfort and any other words associated with the negativity of the dis-  prefix.  Perhaps, with the exception of the word 'disco'. That word is too fun and one which we must endeavour to take back into the light. Although, it's probably an abbreviation for 'discoordinated' and not, as many foolishly believe, 'discotheque'.  Let's face it, it sums up the standard of the majority of dancers that have ever gyrated like a demented jelly fish to anything by the Sissor Sisters, in a public place. Is it any wonder that every nightclub, planning on people actually turning up for a boogie,  insists on selling alcohol?

Anyway, I digress as I am prone to do. I fear it will soon take as long to read these blogs about my three peaks challenge trek, as it was to walk the bloody thing.

So back to our intrepid travellers who, after a short respite at check point two, were back on the Yorkshire trail.

The land had flattened out considerably and walking became easier as we followed walls and tracks to a most impressive feat of Victorian engineering; the Ribblehead viaduct.

The Ribblehead viaduct is undoubtedly the most impressive structure on the Settle-Carlisle Railway. Known affectionately, locally, as  Batty Moss viaduct, it boasts 24 massive stone arches, 104 feet above the moor. Tragically however, with its construction came atrocious loss of life. Hundreds of "navvies"(railway builders) lost their lives building the line, from a combination of accidents, fights, and smallpox outbreaks. So much so, in fact, that the railway paid for an expansion of the local graveyard.

Our paths took us parallel to the structure and gave us plenty of time to admire it's splendour. Several diesel trains passed along it's length and I pictured in my mind's eye what an illustrious sight it would be to see a steam engine, chuffing across its back, leaving a trail of plumes of billowy white.

Happily, lost in an antiquated railway fantasy we marched on until things suddenly became significantly darker. Looking up I could see the viaduct was now dwarfed by a much larger structure and one carved not by the hand of man, but by millions of years of grinding glaciers. Whernside stood tall and dark like a Goliath about us.

Phil must have noticed my slack-jawed gawk, as he said with a half-smile, "Yup. That's where we're going"

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Friday, 5 October 2012

Dangerous Derrière

Four hard hours in and one peak down, Phil and I maintained a steady jaunt into the wetlands that surrounded the grandest of the Yorkshire peaks.  

The spring of 2012 will go down in history as the wettest that the British people have ever had to endure and , believe me, we've had more than our fair share of seasonal washouts. April to June alone was the wettest since records began in 1910

The aftermath that this appalling spell of weather had had of this expanse of Yorkshire countryside was clear to see.   The terrain undulated markedly, with islands of spongy, mossy turf dispersed over a sea of sodden, peat soil.

Footfalls now had a audible squelch to them and in the worst places, to avoid our boots sinking into subaqueous depths, we had to pick out tufts of grass and skip between them like stepping stones.

Our precarious descent from Pen y Gent had required careful foot placement to avoid slips on loose scree and slippery mud. Now, concentration was heightened as we selected firm, foot-sized, patches of ground to step on and, as a result, all chatter soon ceased. This was my first experience of serious marshland. This was Horton Moor.

Suddenly, Phil's wide brimmed hat popped up and he interrogated the area around us with squinting eyes.
"This wasn't the way we came last time I was here". He looked puzzled.
"Are you certain? It all looks the bloody same to me," I suggested.
" Yeah, I'm sure." He raised a walking stick and pointed away to the north. " We went that way, toward Plover Hill then east, to High Bickwith. It was all like this; really nasty, boggy stuff!"

"We've changed the route," came an eloquent voice from behind. It had more than a trace of authority about it that commanded our attention.

It was a marshall dressed in a bright, yellow jacket, with matching pack cover. A tall, well built woman in her late 40's strode up beside us. "We usually run it to the north of here and then round to the Cam Fell, but the ground is treacherous over there. We couldn't risk it.

The lady had a regimental, almost officer-like, air about her and I guessed she must have served in the forces. " The landowner has lost three cows in the last two weeks".

"Where did they go?" I asked naively.

She threw me a sideways look. "Straight down! They were sucked down into the bog."

"Bridge is the name", Phil and I introduced ourselves and forgo the need for handshakes. This was a probably a blessing, as I could imagine that Bridge, had a vicelike crushing grip, which would have left me whimpering like a big girl's blouse. I guessed 'Bridge' was short for Bridget, but it might have easily been a nickname, perhaps earned during her army days, for her formidable reputation and robust stature. Or, perhaps it was her unique ability to straddle deep crevasses and allow articulated lorries and tanks to ride over her back.

She was not attractive, in the classic sense. She wore a black bandana, pulled tight over greying, dark, shoulder-length hair. Under this a deep, scar forked down her forehead and created a flash of white in her left eyebrow.

With a long, loping gait, Bridge pulled ahead of me. Despite a sizeable burden, of what I assumed was medical and /or first aid supplies, by the green cross emblem on the back. Head held high, back straight, her arms swung rhythmically in pseudo parade style, I had to work hard to keep up with her. However, my eyes were, suddenly, distracted by motions further south.

Black, lightweight trousers covered her long legs and, above, the focus of my attention, was a prodigious, immense posterior. Like two undulating medicine balls, her imposing buttocks moved majestically under the stretched, black fabric. In my meagre defence, it was simply arresting.

It immediately occurred to me, as my mind works in such ways, that Phil and I might have eaten well, for the next mile or so, simply by tossing an assortment of nuts into the vice-like, crack-percussions and catching the debris that would be expelled. It would, not only, be a fun and nutritious game, but it would help break the monotony of our marshy march.

Seriously now, the movement was absorbing, captivating, almost hypnotic. The remarkable rump morphed into alternating yIng and yang shapes, come the ying again...and now, the yang...

So, it served me right, that at that precise moment, that I be dispatched a very important lesson, which might be remembered, from that day forth with the wise words,  a distracting derriere precedes a fall, or, perhaps, fear the rear if thou should see not what is near ,which, just about sums it up. As whilst my attention was taken on that dynamic display, my feet had blundered their way, knee-deep , into a quagmire.

Phil guffawed with amusement. "You were too busy looking at her arse weren't you?"

"I was not!" I protested, feebly and reassured myself, that Bridge was already well out of ear-shot, or my embarrassment would be been augmented ten-fold.

"SEE YOU AT GROUSE BUTTS!" Bridge called out without looking back.

Buts?? Oh my God, now I am mortified!

"This is why I wear gaiters." Clearly enjoying the moment, Phil leaned sideways against his walking sticks. "And I always carry spare pair of socks".

"Is there anything you don't have in your bloody pack?" I couldn't help but be spiky with him.

"Yeah, I had to leave half my kit back at home", he said, as if it had been a difficult decision making process. I imagine he would have completed several risk assessment documents in the process.

"It must have pained you to leave behind your flare gun." I gibed, sarcastically.

"No, I've packed that". If he was joking, his face didn't give it away.

"Come on, mate! We need to crack on. " He offered me his hand to me and with a raspy suck-slurp we managed to extract my clay-clad feet from the mire.

My feet and shins were saturated and, for the next half an hour, each step brought with it a discernible squelching of water between my toes. Mercifully, Bridge and her rear distractions had now disappeared over the next fold in the land.

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