Monday, 27 February 2012

Looking for Lemons

As we organise expeditions, charity challenges, training weekends etc, we are always asked to provide our risk assessments.  These two words, “risk assessment” strike fear into most people but we have a simple explanation of what it is all about from a story once told to us in Canada......... read on.......

The Story of the Lemons

It is a summer evening in Northern British Columbia.  The water is clear and glassy as the paddle stroke hums through the water.  The Douglas Firs are reflected in the lake’s mirror like surface.  The canoe is edging toward the end of a nine-day trip and the taste of our first cold beer is on the tips of our tongues. Not far now, the cedar deck is fast approaching with the promise of hot showers and a mattress. 

Our party of four sit with post trip smiles studying the cold beers in front of us while the lodge owner joins us:

“You have an amazing place here, the lake is so beautiful and peaceful” Richard chirps up looking out over the picture-book view.

The weathered face turns slowly and considers, “It’s not always like this, last year two people had their lemons come up”.

We make eye contact around the group, perplexed expressions from all and Richard leads on, “How do you mean ‘their lemons came up’?”

She turns “well life’s like a one armed bandit slot machine, and if four lemons come up you’re out”

Still confused we press for more; “Sorry to be slow on this but we’re from the other side of the pond, could you explain about the lemons?”

“Life’s about looking out for lemons, each lemon is a hazard which unless it gets sorted could prove a problem.  If you get four of these it is not looking good.  The paddlers last year had the lemons lining up:

  • They were novices and not confident swimmers - Lemon 1
  • They were not wearing buoyancy aids – Lemon 2
  • They ignored advice and were paddling in the middle of the lake - Lemon 3
  • It was 4.30pm in the afternoon and starting to get dark, the wind picked up and they capsized - Lemon 4. 
Four lemons and sadly they died.”

“So it is like a risk assessment looking at hazards and what can go wrong.” 

“You can call it what you like, but it’s common sense - we just talk about looking out for lemons.”

Monday, 20 February 2012

Pre-Expedition Training Weekend

We are once again looking forward to running our first Pre-Expedition Training weekend of the year later this month.  The following blog is taken from one of our regular challengers, Heather Bentley.  She has completed the 3 Peaks, the Welsh 3000’ers and attended 2 x Pre-Expedition Training weekends with us in the past .  She has now climbed Cotopaxi and Kilimanjaro on charity challenges and this blog is all about the summit night on Kilimanjaro.  It is very accurate and evokes all the emotions of that last night trekking towards the summit.

After 6 days of trekking through amazingly varied landscapes and practicing walking 'pole, pole ' which means 'slowly, slowly' we were about to embark on our final ascent of Kilimanjaro to a height of 5,895 meters above sea level.

At 12.30 we set off.  We were bathed in bright moonlight from the huge full moon, the massive silhouette of the mountain rose ahead of us and tiny specks of light twinkled from the path from other trekkers already on their way up. By now we automatically walked 'pole pole' but tonight it was because you could not go any faster.  The pace was very slow but steady and when the guides suggested we rested for a few minutes you immediately felt cold and your limbs began to stiffen.  Some of us did not want to stop but rather go on slowly making progress.  However the guides were strict and we all moved together and all rested together.  As some of us found it hard and tried to rest longer they chivvied us on and would not let us sit down.   'Don't sleep Don't sleep You die!' I heard them say to someone squatting by a rock with his head in his hands.  It was steep and hard and slow but when you stopped or had the energy to look back we were making definite progress and the disjointed train of lights behind us got longer.  We trudged mainly in silence each of us wrapped in our own determined worlds, shrouded in our own thoughts, one step at a time, each step one step nearer the summit, one step nearer our goal.  

For my water supply I had decided to use my camelback first as it had an insulated cover and then the platypus which I wrapped inside my rucksack and as I had managed, with a great deal of difficulty, to acquire an insulation cover for the pipe,  I thought that should last me well into the ascent. I also remembered I had to blow back into the bag to clear the pipe after every drink to prevent the liquid freezing.  I had not appreciated quite how hard that would be and how breathless I would become after each sip.  However, despite the preparations, within minutes the duckbill mouth piece froze making sipping difficult and within half an hour both water reservoirs were frozen.  My insulated pipe had lasted no longer than anyone else’s with no insulation !  That meant rather than sipping as you went, at each stop you had to take off your rucksack, unscrew the pipe which was freezing and drink the semi frozen water directly from the bag.  The icy water struck your warm stomach like a knife but I knew I would need to go on drinking if I was to make it to the top.  We rested for a few minutes quite frequently and sometimes I nibbled a hard cold cereal bar or crunched on a semi frozen jelly baby.

The air on my face was cold but I was toasty warm so long as I was moving.  In fact after a couple of hours I was too hot and removed my waterproof jacket and undid the side zips of my waterproof trousers but then they flapped around my feet as they were slightly too long for me and I kept standing on them.  I stopped to take them off.  It only took a few seconds and I quickly stuffed them in my rucksack but when I looked up the person I was following had got a fair way ahead.  It was probably only 20 yards or so but they seemed miles away.  I tried to quicken my pace slightly to catch up and immediately was gasping.  I was probably walking slower than I had ever walked and yet I was gasping for air.  There was nothing I could do just plod on 'pole pole' and hope they did not get further ahead.  Eventually they stopped to rest. I was tempted to speed up but knew I couldn't.  It seemed like minutes before I reached them and as I got there and was ready to rest, they were wanting to move on as they were getting chilled.  I felt better though without the constriction of the extra layer of my waterproof jacket and felt pleasantly warm rather than overheated.

We trudged on and on, up and up, so, so slowly but always onward.   I felt strangely happy, and at peace.  The moon was so bright it was almost like the watery sun on a winters day and you expected to feel it's warmth rather that the steely cold.  Walking became automatic, almost trance like.  I was so tired, totally exhausted with limbs so heavy I could hardly lift them and yet I felt like I was drifting along.  It was a strange experience as if I was drifting upward in another dimension watching my bodily self struggling.  It was if those exhausted limbs were not part of me.  Random thoughts flitted through my mind. I must try to concentrate.  Was this a sign of altitude sickness?  Was I becoming confused? Was this dissociated state real or imaginary?  I looked around me.  Upward the shadowy mountain still loomed, downward a long trail with small head torches glinting along it's route and around me the rest of our team all totally absorbed in their own worlds, all plodding on like old tired machines.  They looked how I felt.  Were we all feeling the same I wondered?  I wanted to ask but I felt I did not want to intrude.  I was completely happy in my little world and did not want to share it.  I assumed every one else was the same.

As we rested we talked a little, sometimes we shared snacks, sometimes we changed our order but when we were moving we all retreated into our private worlds and slowly, slowly the summit got closer.  I could not remember ever being this tired. Once I was desperate for a drink and throwing off my rucksack said to Lee 'I'm giving up'.  I meant just for a short time for a drink but he immediately retorted 'No, you're bloody not! '  At one point Kay was struggling and started dropping back, at first others encouraged her but within a few minutes she was feeling really ill and vomiting.  It was a shock, jolting me back to reality.  Kay had always been one of the fore runners on every trek and of all of us seemed to have been one of the best prepared.  How could it be she was now ill?  Would she have to turn back?  How disappointing would that be especially as it was soon going to be dawn.  Surely it could not be that much further.  We were getting cold and needed to move on.  The rest of us set off again passing Kay who was with a porter and Matt.  I felt a pang of guilt but deep inside we all knew we could only help each other so much and at the end of the day each of us could only get to the top on our own personal inner strength.  However after a few minutes Kay was on her feet again and at the back of the group was still striving for the summit. 

I had lost all concept of time and suddenly a faint orange glow began to form in the sky and it rapidly grew and stretched across the purple, grey sky.  Dawn was breaking.  My heart leapt at the thought of sunrise.  I suddenly realised it had been a long, long night and now the sun was rising, it was a new day. A bright new day, the day on which we would reach the summit.  I looked up and realised the top of the ridge was not far away.  It really was attainable.  We were almost to Stella Point.

We almost fell to the top of the ridge at Stella Point.  This was a significant landmark.  We had reached the top of the steep face.  We had done the most difficult bit, now we just had to walk around the crater rim and we would be there.  We rested a while in the shelter of a large rock, drank some strong warm tea from our flasks and prepared for what I thought was a gentle walk around the rim of the crater.  Sure it was still uphill but you could see the ridge ahead of us.  It did not occur to me I could not see the rickety sign post of all the summit photos I had seen.  It was tempting to set off quickly, after all the end was in sight but immediately we realised 'pole pole' was the only way.  So we began again, one step after another and so, so slowly the ridge got closer.  I was with Steve but we walked in silence and finally reached the ridge.  As we stepped up onto it at the same time we realised it was a false horizon.  Far far away in the distance the summit taunted us.  We had really believed we were almost there.  A string of expletives filled the air, we threw ourselves on the ground, I was crying.  I couldn't go on.  I didn't even want to go on. I wanted to stay here lying on the ground.  For me this was the top.  I thought Steve felt the same and later he admitted he just wanted to stay there and everyone leave him alone.  Scott had joined us now.  He too had thought this was the top.  All three of us stared in silence.  Then Scott was speaking to us, encouraging us.  I don't know what he said.  I don't know if I even heard him.  I just heard his voice not his words..............  then I was walking again.  Walking very slowly and deliberately but walking. Walking to the summit.  And Steve was too and Scott, we were going to make it to the summit.

The view was amazing.  The glaciers were stunning, standing serenely with the sun reflecting off them and a blanket of cloud behind them.  We walked between ridges from frozen snow and looked down towards the snowy crater.  It was fabulous.  All around us were the most marvellous photo opportunities but I was too tired to notice, too tired to get the camera out.  All I wanted now was to reach the crooked old signpost.

I reached the summit alone.  Gordon was already there sitting alone on the rock beyond the signpost.  I took off my rucksack, laid down my walking poles and sat on the rock.  I was here.  I had made it.  Suddenly I was crying.  Sitting on a cold rock on the tallest free standing mountain in the world almost 6 kilometres above sea level staring at the amazing scenery through a veil of tears.  I don't know how long I sat there.  I don't know how many people will get their summit photos back and see a pathetic women in a green down jacket huddled in the corner crying. 

After a while I realised I wasn't tired now and I wasn't crying.  I was at the top of Kilimanjaro I needed to take photographs.  I needed to find the rest of the team.  We needed to be together.  I took a photo of the sign and of my rucksack propped up against the rock even remembering to check the 1000 mile logo was visible.  Then I walked over to Gordon.  We didn't speak at first, we just hugged and then we were both crying.  We went back to the signpost and started meeting the others, Dave, Scott, Paul, Steve.  We were all hugging each other, most of us were crying.  It was such an emotional experience.  I do not know if it was happiness or sadness, relief, elation or just total exhaustion.  The rest of the team were joining us now, we were jousting for chances to get photos at the summit of each other and trying to get everyone together for a group photo.  Dan had removed his shirt and was smoking his victory cigar. 

This was it, this was what we had come for.  For some people they had waited two years for this moment.  We had reached the summit of Kilimanjaro.  I wanted that moment to go on forever.

Monday, 13 February 2012

London to Paris Winter Challenge Recce

We have just returned from Paris after completing the final recce on the new London to Paris cycle route via the Portsmouth to Caen ferry crossing.

Some things of interest that happened on the recce:

·       Searching for the top bunks on the ferry. After a 10 minute search, I heard my wife’s voice in my head “just read the instructions”! The beds magically appeared from the ceiling

·       Enjoying French cuisine and wine

·       Towing a few cars up hills to assist with the French transport system after 20cms of snow fell overnight at Evreux

·       Driving through a medieval arch between Normandy and Bretagne

·       Searching for the actual road surface when the quiet route we had chosen travels across open countryside and both the fields and road look the same with 20cms of snow over them

·       Enjoying French cuisine and wine

·       Passing the famous Bec Hellouin Abbey

·       Driving through the “Valley of the 7 Hills” finding a great cycle route that avoided all of them

·       Oh – did I say enjoying French cuisine and wine?

·       Discovering a fantastic 40km cycle path that is both flat and has beautiful views

·       Knowing that when asked for a wine choice, they really mean only French wines!

 p.s. Enjoying the French cuisine and wine.....

Monday, 6 February 2012

London to Paris - February 2012

We are off on a recce this weekend for our new London to Paris route via the Portsmouth to Caen ferry crossing to sort out water stops, lunch stops and hotels.  This led me to thinking about past London to Paris cycle rides and I found this poem written by one of the challengers on the Newhaven to Dieppe route:

London to Paris, it’s time to start
Crystal Palace steps, we depart
One hundred and eighty miles, a long distance yet
All determined to finish, the challenge is set.
Wind and rain lash, torrential downpour
Slowing our progress, punctures galore
Cycling to Newhaven, regrouping to meet
Catching our ferry, day one complete.
Day two, Dieppe we leave behind
Sweeping across France, its drivers kind
Tooting as passing by our peleton
Undulating roads rolling on and on.

Stages defined by the top of a hill
Gazebo awaiting, for us to refill
Serving drinks and energy bars aplenty
Ensuring we’re never running on empty.
Expert organisation, Expedition Wise,
All problems solved, whatever their size
Ensuring that no one needs to ask
To ride in the van, all complete the task
Rising early, it’s now day three
France is sleeping, we ride for Paree
Bois de Bologne, now it’s only an hour
Forming our chain to the Eiffel Tower
For the Railway Children we don our kit
For those less fortunate will benefit
Through the efforts of colleagues from far and wide
Completing the London to Paris bike ride.