It's always sunny in Douglas Wilcox's blog. Never a grey sky or a drop of rain (ok, there's some fog in one of the latest photos, but just look at the number of azure-blue-puffy-cloud photos there are).
But you know, I think Douglas is missing a trick. Whilst I envy the way he can charm the sky into being blue for a photo, the care-free look of a happy paddler in the foreground, I feel there's something missing.
Whilst I know it's the opposite (for him and everyone else), Douglas paints an idyllic landscape. He is the Constable of the kayaking world. Feted by the new, glossy magazine of the moment, his photos are scattered throughout Ocean Paddler. Full page spreads. Big, blue skies sell copy... There's no storm on the horizon...
'It's easy paddling from here' it is whispering to the subconscious mind.
There is a delightful contradiction at the heart of this.
We were recently holed up in our tents on the beach while a storm whipped down the loch. For a day we watched the sea make crazy, salt-flavoured Pollocks over and again on the shore. It was a fantastic piece of down time.
I guess how you see things through a lens is a good reflection of your inner world. I find the subtle moods of the darkest Scottish sky intriguing.
I am conscious of a strange noise dragging my brain from 2 hours of fitful sleep. I can’t place it. It’s an unusual noise to hear at 5.30 am. And it’s very close to my head.
Oh, yes, it’s a bagpipe.
Somewhere in the back of the brain, there’s a synapse of recognition. You get woken up with bagpipes on the Lowe Alpine Mountain Marathon.
THE LAMM? How did this happen? The panic slowly subsides as the memory comes back. It’s not a horrible dream. Penny and I did enter the LAMM.
Outside, the midges are amassing in numbers. . Everyone’s got black midge nets on. It looks a bit like an outing of 900 suicide bombers. I put mine on. It’s marginally better than not having one. For a brief moment I snigger at people trying to conduct normal morning operations through nets. Brushing teeth. Drinking tea. Eating midge-flecked porridge. Then I try it for myself. I scrape the raspberry smoothie stalactites off my midge net and make a mental note to bring a straw next time. 0830 hrs
Well, this is it- the start. The sun seems to have moved closer to the earth, it’s baking, and there are still midges making the most of this unusually large feast. They probably haven’t had so much fun since the Battle of Culloden.
We’re nearing the second check point. We’ve been contouring a deeply incised hillside for 2 hours. We crash down to a stream and drink like wildebeest.
We’re looking for a checkpoint. It's not here. It’s the worst possible place to lose a checkpoint- a series of enormous hummocks. It could be any one of these monsters. Backwards, forwards we trudge. I can feel the will to live leaving. I have started to stop caring. Then a strange thing happens. I start to worry about food. I haven’t got enough. My brain is going, I think. Has my body had enough, or my brain?
“Charles!! CHARRRRRRLESSS!!” An elderly man behind is shouting at the top of his lungs. He’s miming the international symbol for a checkpoint to his partner, although it seemed a little superfluous. He’d attracted the attention of everyone. Including us.
I confess my food concerns to Penny and tell her to leave me to die right here. I can’t go on.
She makes me sit down, feeds me a breakfast flapjack. Takes some weight out of my sack. She knows what’s happened, and deals with it. The experience of an Alpine mountaineer.
It’s been the hardest 11 hours out on the hill in a long time. A tough decision had to be made to climb up and over a set of Munros, not down the valley to disqualification. Walking like an empty shell, nothing left inside. A never ending, drawn out pain. The silence of the LAMM.
Every last atom of energy has left my body. Penny has got outside of her rations, while I cannot eat a thing. It’s a bad sign. The midges cluster around the squashed remains of the raspberry smoothie.
There’s a strange sense of having learnt a great and valuable lesson. To know where our limits lie is a powerful thing. Do we learn more from our successes, or our failures?
The course planner, Andrew Spenceley tells us that our course had twice as much ascent on the first day as it would have normally. It makes me feel a little better about having scraped the barrel of my endurance and my being. Now, a month later, the pain has gone. And what are the memories? A perfect herd of deer thudding close by, the light splintering through pines, the dance of a thousand folds in the rock, pressed by unimaginable heat and time as we ran past in a moment.
0530 hrs 8th June
The piper digs out another tune from the wheezing bag.
It’s ‘For A’ That’ by the great Rabbie.
"Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine, A man's a man for a' that. For a' that, an' a' that, Their tinsel show, an' a' that, The honest man, tho' e'er sae poor, Is king o' men for a' that."
"This leaf which is being persecuted by the wind, Let her beware of her fate. She is old though only born this year."
A while back, squeezing between tree roots along the banks of the Eden, we came across a beautiful quote carved into the rock. It is reputed to be the work of William Mounsey, an eccentric botanist. It turns out he carved a few things along Eden's banks, and recently, we set out to find one of his more eloquent ones. Of course, being Welsh, it was the vague rumour of an ancient Bardic poem by Llywarch Hen that was the lure. An old Welsh poem did seem a very strange thing to carve in deepest Cumbria, but then again, maybe not. When Llywarch was penning his words of wisdom (early in the 9th century), Wales and Northern England were linguistically one. Mounsey carved his eulogy to Llywarch on St. Constantine's caves, a series of monastic, multifunctional cells variously attributed to meditation, storage, and retreat from the dreaded moss-troupers...hmm..
The caves themselves were a curious mix of surprise and disappointment. Others had followed, rather less creatively, in Mounsey's footsteps and covered the walls with names, italics, childlike scrawls and finally, spray paint. It was madder than the walls of a mental institution.
The final act of vandalism was sprayed right in front of William's wonderfully sonorous poem, and laid claim to the fact that members of a certain eastern European immigrant community had been there.
It's interesting to chart the way that, over the course of human civilisation, drawing things on rock has gone from the ultimate expression of a timeless sprirituality to...well...something rather less profound.