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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