Monday 21 February 2011

Action Man 48

The Strahpuffer is an extraordinary event, if fact its quite nuts, really, honestly its one of the maddest events in Scotland. Imagine its January the nights are long, the xmas excesses are still hanging on your belly and its dark at 4 o’clock and light again if your lucky about 8 in the morning.

Add to this camping in a forest near Dingwall in conditions that might range from extreme minus cold to winter midnight rain and or all of these and ice and snow on the ground. Ok you’ve go the picture, add to this a mountain bike a looped course through a forest and over a windswept moor and 500 hundred riders all determined to ride continuously for 24 hours through day and night with 15 hours of darkness, and you have one of the top 10 toughest mountain bike events in the world.

The Puffer as its affectionately known, is as far as I know the longest night stage mountain bike event in the world. I have for my sins tried to compete in the madness, In the early days of my presenting Job for the Adventure Show we entered a team of 4, Dougie Vipond has fatefully tried it solo, only to have to forcibly withdraw, having head butted the frozen ground leaving more addled then he normally seems. It’s an extraordinary challenge, for almost all the participants winning is out of the question as at the elite end you have to produce almost incomprehensible performances. For a mortal, last years coerce was taking 2 hours to complete one circuit and riding more than 4 circuits is a pretty good day out; The best were riding the circuit in well under an hour and doing this every hour for 24 hours solid. It’s a testament to ultra endurance determinations and fitness, truly amazing.

For my part, my naive performance is nothing to write home about, I remember the day circuits the twilight and night circuits at 11-12 midnight. I also remember lying in my soaking wet sleeping bag with cramps running up my hamstrings. But most of all I remember failing physiologically to be able to bully myself into getting on the bike again. I do regret this and every year we film the event brings me to the same question, why did I stop when I did, why when many others continued did I bale out, maybe, working and riding is a weird mixed headspace to be in, maybe, I really was finished and not fit enough, or maybe for this sort ultra endurance activity I do not have the mental toughness to keep going. If it’s the latter I should try and rectify this, as I do think of myself as having endurance and stamina, after all I have proved this many times over to myself in other adventure situations.

Why put yourself through something like this you may ask, well the answer is quite simple. if you have to ask you will never know. The 2011 event is now past but there is always next year and the year after, and the one after that.


Action Man 47

We all abdicate responsibility for our welfare and safety in our daily lives, we happily let the bus driver navigate busy streets for us, the doctor peddling us medicines and restaurants selling us food for our health and well being. Some abdications however sit less well with us. Some of us are bad car passengers and would be a happier driving our own car into a brick wall. Worse still when flying off to you holiday in the sun, you “hope” the engineers have done their maintenance job well, the pilot has not got a hangover and the air will hold you up. These journeys we undertake knowing that our fate is in someone else’s hands. Statically we are well removed from air and car accidents, but sometimes we really feel anxious as a passenger when we are know longer in control of our lives.

I think this is why I don’t like my limited paraponting experiences, being strapped to some bloke who it trying to show you a “good time” is bad enough but being lifted into thin air on a sheet of kite material, to me is one step of abdication to much, I don’t like the physics and it’s a sport like scuba diving, where you are utterly reliant on material “stuff” not human power. So why given this obvious need in me to understand the systems that keep me safe, are we climbers so lax when it comes to our rope holding belay partners. It’s not the dangerous rock or ice climb I am talking about, but it’s when we are engaged in arguably our most social of the winters training activities, in the climbing wall.

Climbing walls are social fun and familiar, and this familiarity, as I know to my great cost brings contempt. When belaying (rope holding) we talk, laugh, drink from our water bottles, listen to the music and check out the fit bodies we fancy performing at the other side of the climbing wall. We happily tolerate our baleyers, who hold the thin rope that prevents us being hospitalised engaging in all of these activities and we do it our ourselves.

1 in 18,000 visits to a climbing wall results in a visit to the hospital, although death is very rare, when accidents do happen in climbing walls its usually as the result of partner/ belayer failure. I know this to my cost, I remember slipping off the route at the top of Alien Rocks lead wall, I remember falling and wondering why the rope did not slow me down. I remember rushing groundwards, face first, turning only at the last moment to slam into the floor from 12m up, being thrown backwards off the safety matting onto the unforgiving cold concrete floor. I remember my scream and seeing the distraught face of my ex-girl friend-climbing partner. I thank Peta, the now paramedic, for holding my head not allowing me to look at my arm and move my body at all. I remember the back splint, the slow worrying drive to the hospital and the fear of maybe, never being able to walk. Luckily, the body has long since healed, however the innate trust in belayers is not. I am a demanding climbing partner, and I now hate busy climbing walls and inattentive belayers and climbing partners. Never again will I abdicate such responsibility in such a relaxed manner when climbing. I urge you all to do the same, not only should you check your knot, but make sure you check you partner as well. At least in this life activity you do have a choice, train them or dump them, there are plenty more climbing partners out there.

Action Man 46

“There is no force on earth more powerful than the will to live” 127 Hours

There are few experiences any of us will ever have to go through unless we are in combat or unfortunate enough to be caught up in a cataclysmic event where we will ever be pushed beyond our comfort zones or be compelled to choose between giving up on life or struggling to live.

I luckily don’t think I have had to live though such an experience. However two stories in the climbing or adventure world stand out as glimpses into the souls of men who have gone beyond the norm and have lived to tell and sell there tales to a huge global audience. Touching the Void which tells the tale of Joe Simpson’s epic story of determined survival in the Peruvian Andes and the current 127 Hours which relates Aron Ralston’s enforced self amputation of his arm after becoming stuck under a boulder in the Canyonlands can be viewed in two ways; as vicarious entertainment or as a self probing tool. In the latter case, all those who engage in difficult endeavours will undoubtedly be asking questions of themselves: would I? could I?

Interestingly prior to their grand epics, both Joe Simpson and Aron Ralston had faced a series of “accidents” and incidents of lesser proportion in climbing lives which almost provided them with the skills they needed to employ in order to survive their ultimate tests when they came.

It seems to come down to this; if under stress your tendency is to become rigid or fixed upon one solution, this decreases your chances of survival. If, however, under extreme stress you can access information and are sufficiently flexible to seek alternative solutions obviously you will have a greater chance of living. Survivors know how to improvise: they try multiple strategies. If one action fails, they try another. They are optimistic and unflappable, can tolerate bizarre circumstances and do not freak out.

Whilst in normal circumstances self belief or ego are perceived to be unattractive traits to possess, in extreme situations may very well be those which become your saving grace. Fortunately these skills can be gained and/or trained for. Flexibility not pigheadedness, action over passivity; you can learn these by putting yourself in many varied and challenging circumstances and by playing outside in any weather, not just on the easy sunny days. Linear thinking also does not help and it helps to be an abstract thinker. According to some US military research into combat survival rates people who have had soft lives will also give up first and women, in certain circumstances will be better survivors. So if you’re a single mother of 5 living off your wits in a tent full of holes you’re quids in. If however like me, you’re not, we may not last so long. It’s an amusing concept whilst sitting in the kitchen on a Sunday morning, but in a white out at minus 25 degrees C it rapidly becomes more of a pertinent question.

Action Man 45

My snowboard was flapping behind my head, acting like great big heavy black sail. Each gust of wind forced me to admit that John Falkner, mountain guide, guru, ski man and my wife’s cousin, was right. Carrying a snowboard up a mountain was stupid and I should abandon being a “gay on a tray” and take up skiing. This feeling of being from “another tribe” was compounded by the fact that as I passed under the trees on the trail my 168cm Winterstick would catch on the branches inviting the entire tree to unload its snow load in a mini avalanche down the back of my neck.

We were hiking up Point De Marcilly just above the ski resorts of Praz de Lys looking for some untracked powder in the early part of the ski season. Just above the tree line at 1600m the tree branch challenge was replaced by the wind balance one. The ridge we were climbing was too steep and narrow to skin up and a bit too exposed to the wind for my liking. As we neared the ubiquitous summit cross found on many a French mountain, things were beginning to look good. However a bit of care was required as there was some wind slab avalanche prone snow just below the ridge crest where we wanted to cross.

Gustav my Swedish boarding mate and I removed our snow shoes in an effort to puncture the weak layer and penetrate into the solid snow below and avoid the potential of starting a slide that might take us over a small cliff below. I crossed the weaker snow layer whilst Gustav stayed back by a rock to watch and avoid loading the snow with too much weight. In a few moments the snow became consistent again and we took stock. 50m above us stood the cross but the snow getting to the true summit looked a bit wind blown and grey so we decided to stay on the ridge and start the descent from a safe distance away from any avalanche area.

The entrance to the face looked steep and a bit unsighted which meant that once Gustav had dropped in I would not be able to see him and if it slid (avalanched) I would have no chance of seeing him at all. We decided that I would watch him from a rock outcrop where I could see as much of the run as I could and not come on to the face until he had boarded down and had stopped in a nice safe spot. It all sounds a bit dramatic but this is defensive skiing and as such it is imperative to look after one another. Envious of the virgin tracks he would carve but also glad he was the slope guinea pig, I watched him fly off down the 40 degree entrance slope and float down the North Face in plumes of sky lifted powder. A little shout of Swedish joy the only audible indication of pleasure from an otherwise impassive Scandinavian. Gustav stopped just under a boulder and shouted the all clear. I stepped into my bindings, took a deep breath and popped over the small cornice onto the steep wall of snow. The first few turns of a run like this are always a little scary and heightened. You need to measure the angle, feel the snow, listen for strange bumps cracks and swooshes, and also make sure that it is only you that is moving downhill and not the entire slope you are carving through. It is by far and away the most dangerous moment. I boarded in a series of left trending turns allowing the sluffs from each turn to run to my side. After five or six small turns I was happy that the slope was safe and took the brakes off, concentrating on relaxing and flying fast down the hill. The plumes of super cold powder flew over my head, their crystals dancing in the air momentarily before rejoining there cloud mates lying on the mountain. I learnt two things that day: to enjoy good things some effort must always be made, and that Swedes do actually make a lot of noise if the time is right.

Action Man 44

John’s old Renault rolled up to the front door held to gather by rust and orange paint, it was a bright herald of freedom. God, Sundays were dull, all snoring and greyness. Especially in the winter, when playing outside was a muddy damp experience.

It was 7am and bitterly cold as I closed the door leaving behind me a house locked in Calvinistic guilt, and the perception of fun-less oppression. With the car heater as max and still totally ineffective, through the frost haze John guided the rusting freedom rain towards the locked stalkers gate near Garve.

In those days the chain and its many padlocks was often open, so the early morning visit to the stalkers house was avoided. The resistance to a Sunday morning disturbance for something as frivolous as climbing was always palpable as the key was reluctantly passed from gnarled wooden hands in to my excited youthful grasp. The private road to the lodge is 7 miles of ice pushing and bottoming out on snowdrifts. But every precious meter was two less steps in the icy wind. Parking in a drift off the main track we gazed at the huge cliff as the sun eked its way up through he leaden winter sky. It was plastered in snow and ice, the obvious recent thaw line cutting across the heather just below the crag. John had been spying a huge line with good potential for a new route and today conditions looked perfect.. We got to the cliff base cut out a ledge in the snow and had a quick flask coffee before strapping on our crampons and arming ourselves with our ice axes.

John took the lead weaving an intricate and completely unprotected line up the centre of the huge buttress. After 120feet of chopping, scraping and frozen turf, John stopped, hammered in a warthog ice dagger and belayed me up to the stance. My lead now, I moved out right on to a an ice covered slab, the crampon points were useless on the ice, as its cosmetic layering was just to thin to provide a solid enough base to stand on. I brushed off, as much of the surplus snow as I could to reveal the rock slab below, balancing on the steel points attached to my boots, progress was balance, luck and faith. Totally absorbed and completely engrossed in the task ahead, I inched up the slab, 20 feet out from the belay I found an ice choked crack and tapped in a metal protection nut, more use physiologically than providing any real protection my faith in this piece of rope and steel was enough for me to keep foraging up the cliff. A large lump of frozen turf received my axe blow with a welcome dull thud; this for me signified the end of the difficulties on the route. John and I traded another two leads to the summit ridge. Back at the car we looked in self-congratulatory awe at the huge wall we had climbed, a new route, at piece of history that we made, a first ascent. For 35 years this has been my religion, it has its own stories its own dogmas, martyrs and saints, its own preachers and sinners. However for me, instead of oppression, and limitation, instead of rules and godly guilt, climbing has brought me closer to the heavens and the earth, and offered me magical freedom, at best it’s a deeply meditative absorbing worship, at worst a chance to put you hands on the rocks that our world is built on. May your god go with you?

Action Man 43

The car lead us on towards Torridon, I had spied a new winter route of Ben Damph and the snow was low enough, so the line should be in “in”. Unfortunately we left my parents house in Dingwall just a bit too late and even after some judicious non-stop driving past Garve and Achnasheen we would be lucky to get to the base of the route by just before midday, and for an early winters foray, just too late. As we popped over the hill leading down to Kinlochewe a beautiful sight meet out eyes, full sun on the loch and the hills sparkling under their winters garb. For some time I had been spying some of the streams and small waterfalls that line these roads and as well passed the car park at the tourist lookout, I noticed a splash of blue-white in one of the stream-beds above the road. We parked at the viewpoint and traversed the hill side until we could look into the gully. There it was, a 150m or 200m long stream, completely frozen with rocks, steps of water ice and some mixed climbing. The other two did not fancy the lead so I strapped on the crampons and tackled the first pitch. The first, then became the second and then the third, steep short and very entertaining.

As the day wore on my compatriots not once volunteered to take the lead so by the four pitch I was slightly peeved at being the only one sticking my neck out. The final ice fall was by far the longest, but also the best formed, wide solid and about 70 degrees in angle and maybe 10m long . Using the excuse of needing to take photographs of this historic first ascent I cajoled Dave into taking the lead. I passed him the lead (sharp) end of the rope and then scuttled up the grassy hillside on the right of the ice fall to watch the show.

Dave set off slowly, and seemed to be having some difficulty getting his crampons to bite. Buy mid pitch the slow progress dropped to a painful scrape. I shouted across that he should put in an ice screw, no answer except another small step upwards. Higher and higher he went, protection-less, the ropes hung straight down to Robin who was belaying. There was nothing between him and Dave to slow a fall down. This now became very unpleasant viewing.

Dave still in compete silence had stopped breathing and every swing of his axes became less effective, they bounced of the ice, sending plates of frozen water crashing into the gully base, but still he pushed on with silent resignation and an increasing scene of doom. Far too high to climb down and obviously reaching the limit of his strength he reached the rounding at the top of the ice fall 5 feet from the end and safety. He swung his axe one more time, but as it struck the ice, the rest of the three points of contact failed instantaneously.

With a strangled wail, he disappeared from my cameras view finder and dropped like a stone, 10meters later there was a ice shattering explosion as Dave’s upright body connected with the base of the gully. On contract with terra firma he shot, back into the air and landed on his back, only to come sliding to a gentle stop and Robin feet.

Holly shit, if he's not dead, then he at least he has two broken legs. I scrambled down to the base of the gully fearing the worst. He was sitting up and talking and completely soaked up to the waist in ice cold water.

As he hit the base of the ice fall with such force, he crashed straight through the ice and into the deep pool below the waterfall. The collapsing ice had completely cushioned his fall. A quick examination revealed a very scared, exhausted and borderline hypothermic, but otherwise intact Dave. Having seen the rather rapid decent of the ice fall, Robin refused think about leading. Knowing that if we did not get out soon Dave was going to be unable to function due to the potential onset of shock and hypothermia, I tied into the rope to lead the fateful pitch. I think I enjoyed the lead, its funny and human, the ability to go on after disaster. Maybe it’s a key skill to surviving any challenge

The climb is called Helter Skelter.

Action Man 42

Its cold, warm, cold then warm again, it can turn Cairngorm powder snow into bullet hard snow and ice, or a raked brown hillside in a matter of hours. Streams that run freely in the Autumn rains become locked up in ice, then break free from their frosty shackles only to be slowed down again to a viscous crawl. This is the pattern of a Scottish winter. It’s unpredictable and at times frustrating. Planning a winter’s expedition to ice climb or ski, is not a certain thing, it requires a degree of spontaneity and readiness. Waiting for a climb or hill to come into condition, is a bit like being on constant fighter pilot scramble alert. The rucksack has to remain packed ready to go, head torch working, energy bars stuffed into zipped pockets and piles of maps at hand to aid any white-out escape if necessary.

It’s been cold for few days now and after a round of phone calls on Thursday evening, a plan is made. Its Friday evening in Edinburgh and a light cold rain is falling in the city and my enthusiasm is waning. The prospect of a warm evening in front the box seems at this moment a nicer prospect than a late drive into the winter conditions of the north.

Kenny’s car predictably draws up to the tenement door. The buzzer rings and its time to man up. After a quick discussion about the onset of a mild thaw, we head north with the blind optimism of the Scottish winter climber. By Perth we have decided to head east not west, as the predicated thaw is lightly to strip out Glencoe and the Ben before the “Gorms”. The stars are bright and the moon is clear and high, it is still cold. Kenny has been doing this for 30 years, tacking a calculated risk on the conditions and weather, driving hundreds of miles weekend after weekend, hunting for new unclimbed routes and notable ascents. New routing, looking for first ascents requires an encyclopaedic knowledge of the cliffs and mountain of the country, a comprehension of wind direction freezing levels and a deal of luck and timing, Spence is a master. The car grinds to a halt in the Cairngorm car park at the ski lift. Is 11.30pm on Friday night and is cold and still, it looks good for tomorrow. The plan is persuade ourselves out of our sleeping bags just before sunrise and walk into Shelterstone crag giving the maximum amount of daylight on the route. At an undisclosed location I find a public toilet door open. The floor is clean and the place is warm. I rig the hand dryer so it pumps out hot air and lay down the thermarest sleeping mat. The prospect of sleeping in the car as a six-footer, is defiantly the worst of the two evils. Here I have heat, light and the mild smell of cleaning solvents, I ignore the other perfumed undertones. In the car, lays twisted in a ball, a gnarly old climber and a dry cough. Once the “room” reaches a toasty 6 degrees, I stop the hand dryer and crawl into my sleeping bag. Needs must…

Sleep is fitful, but sufficient. The sound of a reversing vehicle serves as my alarm, the sun is already up… well its not up, its just a bit lighter than the night time, I quickly dress and force on my winter climbing boots and step out into the day ready for the long cold walk in, instead of milky morning sun I find a grey mirk, its pissing down and very warm, blowing hard and quite frankly crap. We have a resigned sense of relief and disappointment but with a sense of righteous resignation. Today will be spent in the Red Squirrel café with the other winter warriors, in that famous tea and cake ritual, know to all Scottish Climbers.

Action Man 41

For a few years now I have been working in a cross over world between corporate property developers, big brands and adventure sports. I spend much of my life advising companies how to work with adventure sports from the outside. The trick is essentially understanding your market, what do they like, what are there elegancies, what works within the sports language and what looks bad and ultimately turns off the core sports participant. A total classic was a well know shaving brand using images of clean shaven snowboarders rubbing there smooth chins, whilst performing inverted 360 spins, just too god dam clean and what was worse they dressed the poor models up in ski gear.

The overall affect is to make the brand look ill informed, too try hard and the laughing stock of every snowboarder in the western world. However if the same company then decided to sponsor a big air comp or a DVD with some top riders, i.e. actually invested in the sports they were nicking the imagery from, the snowboard community would cut them a bit of slack.

Essentially what I am saying is these sports are tribal and loyal to there own first and foremost, and do not like being told what to do, wear, eat or how to behave from beyond there sports. Understanding that market is key. It’s interesting also how quickly a company or brand that was seen to being linked positively with an activity can so quickly fall from grace.

In the marketing and sponsorship world, you do expect many investments to only last 3-5 years at the most and then the car, cosmetics or drinks company moves on, but if done well, the heritage of their investment lives on. Especially if they leave some thing positive at the grass roots level.

This I suppose brings me to the HUB of the story. For years (6 to be exact) Glen Tress near Peebles has been the centre of Scottish Mountain biking, hundreds of thousands of people have ridden there, making it the most successful cross country MTB venue in Europe. This is in no small part is due to the fact that the people running the facilities were bikers them selves. They are part of the tribe; in fact they are centre of that particular universe. Every regular rider at Glen Tress knows Emma and Tracy and has seen them work there butts off to build what is now to be taken from them and the mountain bike community they have build, served and educated. The rub is that the founders of the biggest mountain bike venue in the UK have not managed to win the tender to continue the lease at the HUB. The outcry amongst riders across the UK has been huge, the loyalty of the sport to its own heartening. The backlash towards the Forestry Commission is visceral and heartfelt, if they are evicted, of course people will continue to ride there, after all the trails are good. But the damage will be done; the Forestry Commission in one fell swoop will have gone from soft fluffy benevolent benefactor to an insensitive government quango. It’s a major PR blunder and it will do irreparable harm to their brand and development aspirations. Their desire to develop leisure facilities will be seen buy the MTB community to be flawed and ultimately to be not about health, and fun but money. I also would not fancy being the new café managers for the first few months of the lease; it might be just a little colder in the café on a winter’s morn.

Action Man 39

I am in the extraordinary lucky position to be able to work with mountaineering and snow sports clothing companies giving feedback and performing PR duties. It give me the chances to use the best gear year round. Moreover it gives me the ability to be in a position of knowing what works on the mountain and what does not. You find out pretty quickly which sleeping bag is most suited to an Alpine environment or which hard shell holds up to the dampness of a Scottish winters day, which innovations are practical and real and which are quite frankly, nothing more than gimmicks. At this time of year when many people are about to spend their hard earned cash on a new ski outfit or some climbing kit, an ice axe or a snowboard just exactly how do you go about avoiding the dud?

There have been some absolutely stupid ideas in the last few years as many gadgets have been added to kit purely for manufacturers to shout about and not really to enhance functionality. One of the most laughable in recent years has been the use of mini magnets to replace zips or poppers on the pockets of ski and snowboard clothing. To add to the idiocy of this “improvement” was the inclusion of a compass sewn into the sleeve of the self same garment. Imagine telling the rescue team that your compass would not work because magnetic north was actually in your jacket and not in Canada.

Another classic is the idea of cloth or leather covered ski or snowboard helmets. Absolutely ideal of course for soaking wet snow days in Scotland when just the sheer fact of increasing elevation can turn the head sponge into a helmet sealed in ice. Why?

When money is tight it is always going to be a temptation to buy cheap kit and for the occasional spring sun soaked ski holiday quite frankly pretty much anything will do, cowboy hats and jeans included. It’s a good look if you live in Durango, but not if you live in Dundee. I am the co-owner of The La Source Chalet in the Alps and week after week I find myself lending out rucksacks, helmets, gloves and clothes, and if the clients are big enough and not squeamish, in some cases thermals. People are often suckered into buying fashion and not function. It’s not their fault rather more the result of poor advice given in the shop and a lack of real knowledge about mountain conditions.

The adage amongst mountaineers and serious hill people that cotton kills just doesn’t seem to get through. It kills because it soaks in sweat and does not transport it away from your body and then cools down faster than a streaker in a police van. It’s not just a matter of personal comfort or safety. If you are properly dressed and your idiot hill partner has a crotch lower than his knees, a huge t-shirt hanging over his arse, and a set of earphones the colour of a green beetle, leave him in the half pipe and don’t go hiking into the hills in search of a few clean turns. I say this because when he inevitably gets cold, it’s not just going to be your day that may be shortened, it also could be your life. This principle holds true for any winter sport. So how do you make the choice between a nice looking piece of equipment and something that actually works? Well, my basic advice is to use equipment that is made by mountaineering brands, and the plus is that nowadays it often looks pretty nice too. There is no doubt that some more mainstream snowboard and ski companies are getting there, but keep your eyes open. If it looks fussy, has pockets on the knees, and does not have sealing tape on the seams, just forget it. Function is now fashion, keep the cotton tee-shirt clean for the pub, go hug a merino sheep, leave the studs in the nightclubs, and go buy something that will work in Nepal or on Ben Nevis instead.