Monday, 21 June 2010

Spectrum Magazine 20th June 2010

Out of depth. Part 2

So I am out on the water in Pease Bay near Dunbar, learning to Kayak surf with the world best Surf Kayaker and one of the worlds most unsympathetic friends.

I had just picked up my first wave, yea! I surfed for a moment. I like to think I pick these things up quickly. So after I had played on a small wave I thought I should try a slightly bigger one. I moved out in to the zone where the bigger boys were playing.

I managed to get into the pick up zone with only a couple of trouser filling moments and waited for a wave. Paddling with all my 10mins of skill I kept missing the lip. Just not fast enough. When it did come it was a much bigger wave than I was ready for, or wanted to see. It picked up the stern of the boat and it shot up vertically behind me. Lesson, always brace your knees in the cockpit because if you don’t you slip into the boat out of your seat and then you have no control. With the kayak at an angle, that to me felt vertical and with no purchase, I could feel the onset of a disaster.

The horizon disappeared and I found my self-staring down at the curling face of the bottom of the wave, holy crap…

Ok focus, at least make an attempt at trying to surf this, I quickly tried to turn left by sticking the face of the paddle onto the breaking face of the wave, it felt as though for a moment this was working, but I did not have the paddle at the right angle. Instead of holding me up the blade simply pulled me clockwise into the face, Opps…

Nature decided to teach me a lesson, the wave closed out over the bow, and rolled me over into the surf, I can remember the force of the wave catch my buoyancy aid, forcing me, at speed into the wave spinning, it pushed the boat down. In all disasters in white water it a good idea to relax and let the water do its thing, its going to push you down for a while and when the world is ready, it will let you pop up to the surface. Only this time I popped up upside down head facing the bottom of the sea.

I can roll a kayak in a swimming pool in 18 degree water, if fact it easy if you set your self up well, but this is a whole different story. After I got over the shock of the cold water, I twisted right under the water and tried to scoop the blade across the surface to perform an Eskimo roll, I remember thinking is it still PC to call it that? Anyway the first attempt failed, because another wave hit me just as I was just surfacing (that my excuse) I made a second attempt. My head and shoulders popped up out of the surf, but breaking white water is full of air, moving and scary, once again I failed. Time to bail. I let go of the paddle, bad form, ripped the spray deck off and whilst under water pushed myself out backwards and down out of the kayak. Green, brown, white water moved around my head and quickly gave way to air. Phew.

Exhausted, and slightly shaken I crawled on to the beach. Five minutes later I was back in the sea, but I decide to practise in the shallows. But what I did not know is that in shallow water the nose of the boat as the wave breaks digs into the sand. The boat went completely vertical and as the bow was firmly planted in the sand. It tipped me completely over. I landed with a watery thump in the shallows the paddle grounded just before my head did forcing the shaft into the bridge of my nose.

On the beach, there was dog that liked chasing sticks. That afternoon he got a lot of exercise.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Spectrum Magazine 13th June 2010

Out of depth. Part 1

I really don,t like deep water very much. I think it stems from getting dumped by a wave as a small child and dragged out to into deep water on Oldshoremore beach. Maybe to vivid and imagination, maybe I should never have watched Jaws. But suffice to say I am more earth than water. Funny this whilst at school I did lot of sea kayaking and some river canoeing. The more time I spent on the mountains the scarier I think water is. Also, I am a pretty crap swimmer.

So when Neil Baxter, ex world champion Surf Kayaker, and ex best man at my wedding finally managed to pursued me to join his dedicated little band of Kayak surfers for a session at Pease Bay I reluctantly accepted. After all I have been bullying him to come to the Alps to rock climb on some big routes and this was his bargain with me. If I tried kayak surfing, he would come climbing. We squeezed in to Jock’s White Transit and headed of to the Caravan Park at Pease bay. Why do all good surf breaks I visit seem to be near nuclear power stations? The treat of drowning, and being irradiated at the same time, great.

Neil is an expert in Carbon Fibre design, and performance kayaks are his forte, so we had no shortage of boats to paly with. I watched the team pull out from the van a selection of three grand surfing boats, until they cam to mine, and there in front of me was dumped on a plastic bathtub of a kayak. I was assured this was a good thing to start with. I really think the just did want me to total one of the completion boats. This downgrade equipment trend continued as I was handed a very large over stretched wet suit, I am not saying that these guys are fat, bulky, beer bellied paddlers but the wet suit was not figure hugging. Even before I “hit” the water the suit gaps, suggested a cold nether region and a shrunken manhood. This is a hard sport, one for dedicated and tough people. Standing on a wind swept beach squeezing into a wet suit, in conditions that were defiantly not Hawaiian, takes a degree of commitment similar to that required by Scottish skiers and ice climbers.

I sat in the boat and pulled on the spray deck and paddled out in almost a straight line to the line where the wave were breaking, Neil said “just paddle stargat” as the first breaker hit it first pushed the noe of the boat down and then it poped me out the other side, the wave passed but I had been pushed back towards the shore. Ok its time for some effort, trying not to wobble to much I pushed through the next set and found my self in the pick up zone waving for a suitable wave to shred. It took me three attempts to pick up a wave, they move fast an I just was not paddling fast enough to catch one.

On the forth attempt I found my self on the lip of a nice, and quite big wave, the tail of the boat went up the nose dropped down the wave face, hey I was surfing.

Trying to copy the big boys I lent left dropping my paddle onto the wave face for support I surfed for a few second, wow. For a moment I felt it, harmony between man and wave, water and boat, a rush of adrenalin and pleasure. The cold beach was worth that moment.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Spectrum Magazine 25th May 2010

The Risk Business

“The irony of man's condition is that the deepest need is to be free of the anxiety of death and annihilation; but it is life itself which awakens it, and so we must shrink from being fully alive. (Becker, Ernest)”

So that’s it, to feel “alive” we must at times be close to death whilst our survival instincts try and protect us from risk.

If there is a thing such as acceptable risk, who are the custodians of that risk? Who decides where the limits lie and the value of risk to the individual, and society as a whole? A constant bleat from the tabloids is about the risk to the rescuers, the cost, and stupidity of those needing help. Putting aside those who patently are ill equipped, the majority needing the services of rescue teams are exercising their rights to take calculated risk given their respective abilities and experience. Rescue teams are, for the most part, volunteer enthusiasts, and in the case of the professional rescue services eg. the RAF, they have cleverly integrated pilot and crew training into the fantastic cover they provide.

The real question is, as a society, is risk for the individual acceptable or valuable for the country as a whole? We are living in an increasingly risk adverse or controlled country where the prevalent health and safety culture has seeped beyond the necessary need to protect the individual from the unscrupulous, into the realms of infringing onto personal responsibility. I feel at times that we are also drifting towards a more litigious culture where individuals having genuine accidents are encouraged to seek damages and find fault. In the USA the situation exists where Layers and insurance companies hover around every mountain accident, looking to sue the guide, the outfitters or the equipment manufacturer. Those who they think may provide the biggest post accident nest egg possible. Some time ago I broke my back and was smashed up in a climbing wall incident. I was advised to sue or at least find fault. I declined to do so. As an adult entering an adventure sport I automatically take on those genuine risks associated with the sport myself, stone fall, lighting strike, avalanche and genuine human fallibility. I don’t need to be told, like some idiot in a hamburger chain, that the cup contents are hot when there is steam pissing out of the lid.

The arguments surrounding the need for business to take risks are well understood and accepted. It is an economic argument; as those who succeed will genuinely profit the country. Personal informed risk is a little trickier, but to live in a culture where there are no explorers, no adventurers to inspire, no stories to marvel at, will be a grey and much less rich one. One where the grey suits have won, the bland conformity of game shows and celebrity gossip will be our only reference points for vicarious living. When you read “Into Thin Air”, or “Touching the Void”, you should celebrate the struggle and be thankful that someone is actually still willing to push himself or herself to the limit in order to feel fully alive.

If you are unpacking your rucksack today having surfed a monster, climbed a great route, jumped a huge kicker, you should toast yourselves. You are part of the same sprit that sent a man to the moon. Is does not need to make sense or be logical. Don’t listen to the doubters who say you are mad, and ask you why? Just be polite and quietly know that when your heart is pounding fast, the blood is coursing through your veins and you palms are sweating with fear and anticipation, that you and Neil Armstrong are brothers and sisters in adventure.

Spectrum Magazine 6th June 2010

The steel horse I ride.......

Of all the sports I do, Down Hill Mountain Biking is the hardest and most dangerous. It amazes me that in the last 15 years, Scotland has become one of the best MTB countries in the world. The piece de resistance is the world cup Nevis Range Down Hill Track.

Looking at the bike warriors in full body armor gathered at the uplift (gondola) entrance, it’s reminiscent of a waiting area for Gladiators. Unlike the cross-country scene, the down hillers are a bit bigger. There are more shaven heads and tattoos, and more mud spattered. Despite the tough exterior there is a general calm in the collective knowledge of shared experience Despite the raw courage required to hurl yourself down hill on a £3000 pedal bike, it can be intensely geeky. Every bike in the queue is scrutinized for the latest gear mec. or hydraulic break system. I am an occasional down-hiller. I do not have the ingrained comfort with my equipment; a signal to those in the know that I am nothing but a well equipped part-timer.

I like padding up. It’s a ritual, the musty aroma of sweaty days past; the cuts and scrapes telling tales of near misses and the odd unfortunate impact with an immovable object. Mountain sport that is serviced by a ski lift or uplift truck seems overly consumptive, too much metal on the mountain, too much power used to haul people up a hill. This is down-hilling; electricity, diesel fumes and steel. Whatever the dubious economic benefits there are to running ski resorts in Scotland, they are there, and today I am complicit in their existence.

As the gondola leaves the station and drifts up the hill I try and study the course. One third of the way up I give up looking for tell tale loose boulders jumps and drainage channels. All I am doing is filling my head with jumbled information. The best riders practice the same run many times in there head before blasting off for a timed run. For me I know nothing.

I jump on my Iron Horse, the 8” inch suspension sags under my weight. Rolling down to the start of the run its fat tyres whir with a great buzz heralding faster times ahead.

I let machine run, feeling the balance, moving its weight below me, behind the helmet visor, clad in armour I feel strangely disconnected from the rocks and boulders I am riding over. That’s until the first slip on the loose surface brings me sharply to the awareness of what I am doing. The rear wheel kicks out on a dusty berm. I instantly feel my break hand receive an instruction from my over loaded brain, “break, slow down, survive” it shouts. But I know to touch the break would mean instant grounding and send my body crashing into the granite hillside.

After a minute of pounding, my forearms are screaming from breaking and trying to hold on to the bucking steel bronco under my feet. I pull over and catch my breath. I shake out my hands, which are fused shut; It’s intensely physical, intensely exiting and very scary. My heart is pounding and my breath quick. I try to breathe into my chest deeply to release the tension, a fast exhale and I set off again. And so the run unfolds before me. Inside my helmet, I am surfing a fine line between riding at the edge of my abilities and letting the steed run out of control. Processing the feeling of childish excitement and the basic human desire to not hurt myself.

This dilemma is in all adventure sport. There is an addictive balance between the supreme thrill of being alive and a basic sense of self-preservation. Those with the greatest skill, ride this addiction on a knife-edge between success and disaster. The most balanced completely accept that to flow close to the edge of supreme performance, hurt is a necessary companion. For me the knife is a little blunter, but as the bike and I blend for a brief moment on the track, I can hear the sound of a knife sharpening in the background.

Spectrum Magazine 30th May 2010

16. Imelda Marcos

I own a freighting number of shoes. It was simpler when I was first given the school equipment list. It said; boots - one pair.

Caught between wanting to fit in fashion wise and not knowing what I was doing, I asked the teacher whether Doc Martins would do. He said yes. I told my parents this and we dully trooped out to by a brand new pair of maroon 12 hole “Docs”.

It was the worst boot purchase I ever made. On the grassy decent from the top of Sgurr Mhor in the Fannichs it was like wearing ice skates; no grip, no support, and the biggest blisters I have ever had. So at the age of 13, I learnt a painful and valuable lesson. Get the right footwear for the job. Now looking at the “boot room” I think I may have taken this to excess. There in front of me are 13 pairs of shoes and boots, not including a few random pairs that I still hold onto, because they might become useful some time in the future. Shoes for long routes, short routes, indoor climbing walls, ice climbing, hill walking, cross country cycling, road biking, mountain biking, down-hilling, long crag approaches, warm weather South of France sandals, canyoning , snowboarding, the list goes on. Some are comfortable and become friends, heavily worn and honestly used, other like my wet suit boots, gifted for my BBC Adventure Show work and only used once or twice.

Today though, it’s a simple choice. I am in Sutherland looking at the eastern flank of Quinag. I put on an old pair of Sportiva Boots. The sole is becoming detached from the uppers, which are cut and scarred from a couple of rough days on the Skye Gabbro; a rock as rough as a cheese grater. Cool to climb on, but vicious if you brush against it. Leaving the kids on the beach in the sun, Simon and I have escaped the duties of respective families, to bond on the hill. Simon is a true mountain enthusiast, walking and climbing all of over Scotland. We know each other a bit, but he has only known me in rock climbing mode and even then mostly in meeting at Alien Rock in Edinburgh, pre Ratho days. I think since then I have mellowed a bit and finally we have a chance to breathe in the same mountain air for a few hours.

Today there is no hill or climbing agenda, no “target” pushing me forward, just a rare chance to walk and talk in the sun. We park the ubiquitous VW camper beside the road and decide to head up the eastern ridge. After a few minutes of sandy trail we are moving over huge slabs of sandstone with quartz crystals embedded in them. We are walking quite fast, enjoying the light pacs we are carrying. Almost running, we are speeding up the slabs. The boot friends, roll from one slab to another on the ascent. The pock-marked rubber biting into the ancient friction rich rock. It’s a great feeling. You can feel the texture of the mountain beneath your feet, every step different, some long hops, some little short stutters, some with biting friction, others wet and slippery. It’s a joy. The sound also varies; the occasional sandy slip, to the tap, tap of the boots on the clean rock slabs. We talk about family and life, or more specifically, how or if, family life with young kids has restricted our mountaineering freedom. Do we approach risk and commitment in a different way now we have small footed responsibilities? We talk about film, work and relationships. It’s a lovely flowing day. On the summit we pause for a bite and a drink. I have typically forgotten a flask and Simon has not. We share, staring out over the wondrous scenery of Wester Ross and Sutherland. It is truly stunning, lochens and moor, sky and sea. Russet browns and reds, blue sky and silvery sea. The foot path has cut trench in the earth on the summit and is slightly shocking, the deep erosion telling the tale of many other boot prints and personal journeys. On the descent we run and jog back to the van. My feet are now tired and getting sore. The old boot friends are complaining. It may be their last outing, but they have served their purpose. However, a “new-old” friendship has been cemented, no longer wary of each other in that slightly male stand-offish way. We have bonded though sharing.

I keep the old boots.