Tuesday, 24 July 2007

Climbing, Suiseki and little vegetable worlds

Climbing has been a bit of a washout this season. Two months of unsettled and unsettling weather has meant that climbing is generally restricted to a strategic stab between showers, somewhere that you can get to, and from, easily. No long weekends camping high to make the most of inaccessible Lakeland gems, no languid days on hot rock with dips into plunge pools afterwards. Just damage-limitation climbing, at best.
Last weekend, planting ourselves optimistically in a place where climbing was in theory possible (weather permitting), the rain clouds once again put pay to our plans. Instead, a walk along some limestone edges. Inadvertently, this took us to some incredible little vegetable worlds. These micro-climate havens were smushed into tiny spaces between grikes (or are they clints?), where a little pocket of soil and moisture allows ferns to bask in the windless, damp conditions. There was a striking, minimalist beauty to these worlds, pretty much invisible unless you are standing above them.

In some ways, they are reminiscent of the ancient Japanese art of Suiseki, stones which, though only inches high, have the appearance of mountains, lakes, and other large landscape features. Microcosmic worlds intended to bring the spiritual uplift of mountain scenery into one’s every day world.

Anyway, I digress. A lovely way to spend a day, in a Suiseki sort of way. And climbing? The rain has got to stop sometime…

Tuesday, 10 July 2007

Coming Down from a Jelly Baby High

The day had finally dawned. Just another day in the Lakes, you might think. The road along Ullswater was gearing up for a day of slow weekend traffic and the Steamers were docked, soon to be up to the plimsoll line with passengers. Our destination was a field at Patterdale, the start of the Saunders Mountain Marathon. The anticipation was palpable, and the queue for the toilets was deepening.

So this was it. We solemnly made our way up the muddy track to the start and funnelled ourselves through the taped channels. Surely this couldn’t be the start line? It was on a slope only marginally less than vertical… And to my sleep-deprived brain, it looked like it was being policed by the Grim Reaper: the starting marshall was indeed carrying a large scythe… What were we letting ourselves in for here..?

We got slowly closer to a little box that was making blipping noises, a sort of electronic tagging system for those without criminal convictions (although insanity was clearly an asset in this instance). It was the first of many checkpoints that would record our slow progress around the fells with a cheery “blip”. We were off, and the first thing we did was find a quiet spot in the bracken to fix the positions of the checkpoints onto the map. Then we headed up the hill, deciding to take a different path than the other racers to the next checkpoint. This was a good move, as was getting Penny to digest Wainwright’s entire volume on the Eastern Fells in the lead up to the race. She was displaying an uncanny knowledge of these hills right from the start.
"Well, I thought you'd packed the compass"...the start line of the race

The exhilaration of hitting the first real checkpoint buoyed us on to the next. It was a like a kind of giant Easter egg hunt without the tasty prize. The intermittent showers came and went, but didn’t really matter. Hours passed in a flurry of uphill slogs, crashing downhills and squashed Powerbars. The biggest threat to our progress up till now appeared to be the danger of inhaling jelly babies rather than swallowing them. If you’ve ever tried eating anything small whilst breathing heavily, you’ll know what I mean. I followed the jelly babies with one of those Haribo fizzy jobs that make kids hyperactive. "You'll be as high as a kite if you eat any more of those", Penny warned.

We were now in serious country- the long ridge of High Street and its attendant centurion peaks. There were some long stretches between checkpoints, and on the horizon loomed a big slog up the leviathan of Branstree. But quite curiously as we plodded up, I felt a lightness as if I’d broken through a pain barrier. Yes, there was no pain…this was fantastic…hello, rocks, hello, grass, hello clouds..Was this the effect of the Haribo sweet, or endorphins kicking in? Whichever, I could see by the look of Penny that she hadn’t been so fortunate...

There is always a down side to chemically-induced states of euphoria, and over the next couple of hours, I found that out the hard way. It was difficult to eat enough squashed energy bars to keep going, but Penny was by now storming along, so there was only one thing to do. Keep going.

Home that night was a surprisingly dry and welcoming field at the head of Haweswater. In reflective mood with the flimsy tent hoisted, drinking half a cup of tepid tea from an old baked bean tin, it was clear that the day had gone really well. No major fluff-ups, no major injuries, and we were still talking to each other. We spent the next few hours eating and drinking our way through a variety of dehydrated and powdered substances in little ziplock freezer bags, lightly garnished with Ibuprofen. Mmm...

With thoughts of sleep came the need to blow up the balloons. Yes, it’s amazing what people will dream up, but I did indeed have a bed made by slotting large red modelling balloons into a series of nylon sleeves, like a lilo for minimalists. Being cushioned from the ground with so much air, it proved to be a surprisingly comfortable bed. The sound of exactly seven balloons popping in someone else’s tent brought it home that it’s a bit of a gamble, but it was worth it… And so the sun set on a sea of very little tents. By 10 O'clock, the field was as silent as a nylon grave, give or take the odd snore.

The next morning, the camp awoke to a cacophony of popping balloons, and with a belly-full of powdered products inside us, we took to the fells again, but this time with slightly less enthusiasm. But the day had a very different flavour- the weather was great, and we just needed to keep it together for another four hours. This was no mean feat though, as it was probably equivalent to doing two marathons on roads back to back.
Stunning views across Haweswater

Mentally tired, we made a couple of navigational boo-boos, but thankfully small enough to cost maybe ten minutes at most. The course had been carefully designed to cut across the grain of the land, so there were several gruelling ups and downs before we finally made it into the marquee.

It’s hard to believe that it’s actually over. This was the culmination of six months of fairly dogged preparation. We are left with a legacy of bracken-scratched legs, bank balances denuded by the insatiable need for ever-lighter gear, and a clinical dependency on jelly babies, but it was worth it. Our finishing time was a little under 8 hours for the two days, we finished in the top third of the field in the Harter class, but more importantly, were in third position in the ladies team event.
We couldn’t have been more delighted.