Friday, 2 November 2012

A Walk Up the Dragon's Spine

It's amazing how much jealousy one can feel, staring up and tiny figures silhouetted against the skyline. Especially, if those figures are people who are at the very top of a mountain that you are about  to climb.

It would be several hours before Phil and I would be where they were now.  The thought of it seemed to bother me more than Phil. My companion was a seasoned walker, who had  attempted the Yorkshire 3 Peaks Challenge two years earlier, but, foiled by severe knee pain, had to pull out on the descent of Whernside. He eyed the summit, now,with the grim determination of a man with a score to settle. He wasn't going to let the mountain beat him this time. Or was he?

For me, this was the first time I had attempted anything like this before and, with one climb  down, I was feeling fatigued from the excertion.

I think Phil picked up on this, as I must have started to drag my heels. "Try some of these". Phil handed me a couple of white pills. I looked at him suspiciously.

"What are they?" I asked.

"It's alright they're amino acids. They will help your body recover quicker."

"Really?" Ordinarily, I would not accept any pill from a bloke I'd only just known for a few hours. But in these circumstances, and in a relatively short time, I had built up a strong trust of Phil, based on... I don't know what, but it was profound and genuine.
So I popped the two pills.

I noticed Phil swallow another with a swig from the pipe that came out of his pack.

"Is that water?" I asked, noticing that, if it was water, it had a odd neon-glow about it.


"Why is it yellow... and glowing? " I persisted in my inquiry.

"It's got some extras in". He smiled across me, with a such a curious twinkle in his eye, that it had a twinkle it it's eye.

Phil had already produced a range of performance enhancing items, including super boost jelly beans,  caramelised glucose packs and brightly coloured shot-drinks, which looked like the peal-and-pour milk containers you find in hotel rooms.  Phil had already shown me on this trek that he had prepared for every eventuality. So, as far as managing his body intake went, it didn't surprise me that he'd brought with him all that latest discoveries that medical science had to offer, to ensure he was continuously fuelled-up, if not, altogether buzzing.

"You better hope that that you don't have to give a urine sample at the end of all this." I joked. Phil chortled.

However, I made a point of taking a banana from my pack and peeled it deliberately  in front of him. I took a large bite and said with bulging cheeks,  '"sh'e natrer'ral. "

"My stuff is natural too. Kind of! Anyway, I'm sure it works," He hurumphed, "and anyway, you'll feel better in the morning for it. It helps the body recover faster." He was sounding a little defensive.

 The topic of what is and isn't  good for the body became the subject for discussion for the next few miles. It eventually turned into discussion about food. Phil was a trained chef with his own catering business. So, soon were in deep discussion about foods that made our mouths water and bellies tingle; succulent steak dinners, and lamb recipes and a roast chicken dinners that he described cooking with attention to every delicious detail. Phil shared with me a secret sauce recipe, that works beautifully for both fish and meat dishes that I swore I will take to the grave. And so I will.

It was the most we'd spoken in the entire day and it certainly helped take our minds off things. The miles passed quickly, as we followed the babbling, brown waters of Little Dale Beck, which flows into the the River Doe. The track took us to the starting point at the north-east foot of Whernside.

To my great relief and some generous folk had at some point in the past had the foresight to build steps of large, regularly placed, flat square stones up the steady rise to the summit. From where I stood they looked like huge exposed vertebra, running along the back of a colossal, slumbering dragon. I fantasied that the footfalls from one hundred weary walkers, up it's spine,might awaken the beast and we'd all be thrown 100s of feet down into the dales of perhaps chargrilled by flames from it's nostrils, perhaps with a little of Phil's secret peppercorn sauce?

Our ascent brought us close to a walker, perhaps in his 50's who, by the sounds of his rasping breath, was well overdue a sit sown and, perhaps, a totals reconsider. He looked enough like Boris Johnston, to warrant a second glance, but if it were, indeed, the man himself, I feared that London might soon be requiring another mayor.

Red faced and sounding like he was making the most of a lifetime's supply of El Lung-Shredder cigars, I was honestly concerned for his condition. I considered the genuine possibility that our Boris had, only this morning, left a letter of fond-farewell for his wife on their kitchen table at home and was attempting to commit, what constituted, suicide-by-mountain.

To the man's credit he kept pace with us, sticking just behind Phil and I for a couple of miles, before Phil suggested we step things up a little. I think the constant sound, like someone continuously working bellows having attached party blowers to the end, was stating to grate on him. I agreed to moving on, but not without checking on the poor man's wellbeing  first. I couldn't bear to leave this man in the sate he was in, without saying something, " How you doing, mate? It's heavy going isn't it?"

With blood shot eyes, which were clearly struggling to focus on me, he gave me a yellow toothed grin. The dry, white patches, that bookended the corners of his mouth cracked audibly, as he spoke. " Arrghh.. beautiful isn't it?  Makes you feel lucky to be alive".

Lucky to be alive? I thought.  He would be lucky to be alive, if he made it off this mountain, without the need of a rescue helicopter. I bid him farewell and wished him the best of luck and meant every single word if it.

Close to the summit, we were rewarded with a most beautiful view of Winterscales Pasture and the dales beyond. Oh my God, but it was beautiful. Lush, green, wild and gloriously England. Down below we could see ant-like people, moving imperceptibly across the landscape, who were undoubtedly looking up and thinking , 'lucky bastards, up there,' just as we had done some hours earlier.

We were joined at of vantage point by Julie, from Liverpool,who had been separated from her colleagues. She had been persuaded to do the challenge by her work mates and had reluctantly agreed, but now she had been left behind as she was 'too slow'.

" I didn't even want to do this soddin' thing, but 'dey persuaded me, didn't dey? Now the buggers have pissed off and left me on me' own," she explained, in a wonderfully, broad Liverpudlian accent, which always makes me laugh, no matter how serious the subject matter. I can imagine courtrooms in Liverpool falling into chaos as defendants give their testimonies or witnesses recount harrowing details to rapturous laughter from the jury and perhaps even the judge.

 Julie joined us without invitation, as none was required on this sort of venture, because if you wanted the pleasure of someone's company, you simply took up pace with them and started a conversation, if not, you had the choice of stepping up the pace and leaving them behind or slowing down a touch and letting them pull away. Right now, it looked like Julie needed some company and despite Phil's grim expressions that suggested she might become a liability, or worse, very, very, annoying, we shared each others company in our approach to the summit.

Now, have you ever heard those who are familiar with the great outdoors, in particular those with experience with mountaineering say, something along the lines of, " The weather can change very quickly up there you know?"

Well, they are right and, what is more, it did.

Due to the shear height of Whernside, it had with it it's own micro climate, which was, at this very moment, a crown of thick, impenetrable cloud.  Combine this with the sudden drop in temperature and I knew this might be turning nasty. A large grey, stone wall ran alongside the track that we now followed. Right along the narrow ridge that defined the highest point.

In true British fashion, there were those who thought this might offer the perfect place to stop for a picnic. Several hardcore picnickers we're sat with their backs to the wall, Tupperware boxes propped precariously on their knees, tucking into soggy, cheese sandwiches and cups of luke-warm tea . Stoically, and to their great credit, they managed to smile and gave a very plausible impression that they were actually enjoying themselves. That was, until they pissed off the dragon through their provocatively, pious, picnicking and heavens really opened.

Without any warning it started to hail. I mean really hail. Nothing that I had ever experienced before prepared me for the ferocity of hail that travelled almost horizontally, as if it had been fired from a canon on the other side of the wall. People screamed and shrieked at the speed and violence of the downfall. With the hail, came an almighty wind which had everyone cowering for shelter in safety of the wall. So that's why the wall had been built . To stop people being blown off this thing.

The ice stones stung my hands and legs like a hundred razor nicks, but what was worse, what was much worse was the merciless cold. My body temperature seemed to plummet uncontrollably. All the walking and sweating I had done and now I was shivering, violently.

"We can't stop, we must keep going!" Phil shouted above the deafening crackle of the ice-fall.  He was right of course, as much as the natural impulse was to adopt the foetal position and pray, it made more sense to move.

I was suddenly aware of Julie's frame, curled up next to me, she grimaced and shouted something to me I couldn't make out

She tried again, this time at the top of her voice , "IS MY MASCARA RUNNING?"

I must have looked perplexed, but obliged honestly, "Yes, a little. Look we are going to push on are you coming?"

"No, fuking way," was her immediate and unambiguous answer, and despite the severity of the situation, because it was delivered in the unmistakable scouse accent, it still made me grin.

   So, to a rousing chorus of Four Seasons in One Day,  which some comic had started singing and it soon caught on, we descended the Peak.

The downward trek was to prove more dangerous than the last. There was no 'yellow brick road' going down that had been constructed for going up and it certainly took it"s toll. Shingle and scree gave way easily underfoot. Even embedded stones were slippery and the muddy parts were slick. All of which meant that almost no footfall was guaranteed to stick securely.  I saw several people fall heavily.  One notable misfortunate, having chosen to go slightly off track, suddenly found himself sliding rapidly down a steep gradient on his bottom, like a child on his sledge.  He must have travelled 30feet before a sharp pinnacle of rock stunted his progress, as it defused to yield to his crotch.

Worse, however, was the sight of one of the fell runners who had passed me on Pen-y-Ghent and had so impressed me. I had called them mountain goats and had gaped in awe at their sure-footed skips down the steep gradients. The girl of the pair had clearly fallen heavily and was sat on a boulder being comforted by her partner. Her face was a mess; a dash of blood, which, on seeing, took my breath away.  As I said, he was unfortunate.

Thankfully, a Marshall was there to administer first aid. It was Bridge and I immediately felt reassured. I thought, if I had an accident anywhere on this mountain, I would be comforted to think Bridge was about to help. I'd  hardly met the woman by she had air of assured experience that demanded confidence from those around her.

"This is where my knee gave in last time and I was forced to pull out?" Phil look more darkly grim than I had seen him before. This, of course,  was his ultimate ordeal and self-confirmation.

"How's you knee holding up, now?" I asked.

"It's burning like hell, " his face confirmed the discomfort he was clearly feeling. Don't forget, there is another peak to climb after this, was the reply I stopped myself speaking, but it now occurred to me that I might be finishing this venture on my own.

The descent down the south side seemed to last for ever. My knees, too, were aching by now and I had every sympathy for Phil, as these joints had always been his Achilles heel. I presumed his actual Achilles heels were holding up fine.

Very gradually, but mercifully, the gradient levelled out and once again were were walking on the flat.

I reflected on my sudden bout of shivering that had given me such a fright at the summit. I was to read later that as many people can suffer hypothermia in relatively mild temperatures, as do in the more extreme if conditions.   The words of Sir Ranalph Fiennes rang true; "There's no such thing as bad weather, just bad preparation".

Eventually, we reached the last check point and it was time for another change of socks for Phil, he certainly came from the Sir Ranalph school of preparation. He offered me a glucose sachet, which, on this occasion, I gratefully accepted as I was utterly bushed, operating on fumes and willing to try anything. Phil smiled.

"Don't have it all at once and keep drinking plenty of water. " he warned. " or it will dry your insides out! " Phil was now sitting on a rock and  airing his pale, white and wrinkled feet.

I squeezed a small, dark-brown, slug-looking amount into my mouth. It was like treacle; very thick and sweet. I searched for my water bottle in my pack and took a couple of glugs, with the slugs.

 "Take that would you?" Phil handed me a clear, bag of white powder. Now this was serious drugs-ville. Phil had brought with him an array of lotion, pills and potions but this looked just like a illicit substance.

I know it sounds bad, but I was so tired. No really; I would have chewed on a badgers scrotum, given me by a witch-doctor, had I thought it might have the slightest chance of perking me up a little.

The powder looked like sherbert and I was certain it would be glucosey-sweet, if nothing else, and would probably offer me the boost of energy I needed right now. So, with my back turned to any onlookers, I tapped out a small pile of powder into the  palm of my hand. I stuck my tongue into it. It tasted terrible and chalky. The vile and unexpected taste made me inhale a little of the powder which, in turn, triggered a involuntary, convulsive cough. The remaining powder in my hand exploded in a cloud on white, completely covering my face.

"Jesus Christ, Rich! " Phil exclaimed, " What the hell are you doing with my foot powder?"

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