The alien in the kitchen
Wednesday 3rd of July. “Mum, why is that Big Bag in the kitchen?” This is when I realised that kids don’t really pay much attention to what their parents get up to. “Because I’m taking it for a spin in the hills for an event this Saturday night, I’ve actually been training with it and it’s easier to just leave it here ready to go”. The conversation then went on to list the bag’s contents and what the event involved. The Cub’s conclusion: “Why are you doing this? It’s crazy” to which I had an easy answer “Well some people say doing an ironman is crazy. You just think this because you’re not used to it.” she immediately saw my point and took it in her stride.
Training and preparation
I had signed up for the load bearing summer edition of the High Moon in January, meaning that I had plenty of time to stress mentally over the weight of my pack: I would have to carry 25 lb, an additional 4 litres of water and food to eat on the way. All this at night and up and down over about 18 km and 800 m of ascent. If I fell over with my pack, would I even be able to stand back up (legit question, believe me and I even checked whether I could).
Training reminded me very much of my years in the wild doing self-supported expeditions that involved going up hills with all the field gear, food and water on our backs and little me trying to keep up with the boys. As always, when you put yourself out of your comfort zone, you learn stuff. This was no exception and I learnt something profound and therefore hard to put into words: I remembered how much I love being autonomous and, basically free, being my own master with my pack and gear. The body does have memories and stuff came back in flashes, imagines of bears, forests and hills, a lot of hills! Out with my big pack I felt again the draw of the wild I have known since childhood and wondered how on earth I thought I lived without it those past few years.
Come the 6th of July and I didn’t really know what to expect of myself on those hills. Yes, both Georges and me had done the winter version of the event in 2016 but not in the load bearing category. Yes, I had tried to replicate the level of ascent while training but the hills around us are smaller so to make it more challenging I had gone with a heavier pack. My last outing was at night, with a 21 kg pack and Georges, suggested I should run on the local golf course just for the fun of leaving weird tracks but I actually felt that going up and down hills would be more efficient. The overall plan was simple: power walk up the hills, run down the hills, focus on the path to avoid falling and never stop. I had also realised that the time at which we were starting would allow for a little extra light and was really hoping to hit the top of Pen y Fan and, more importantly the top of Jacob’s Ladder before having to turn on my head torch.
We arrived at Grawen campsite (following the DS’ recommendations, thanks) at around 1 PM on Saturday, with plenty of time to do some spontaneous wildlife watching (red kites soaring and two swallow fledglings waiting on a branch for their parents to feed them) as well as rest and eat ahead of the long night. Then it was time to register, get my pack weighed (yay, it was heavy enough). Weighing and registration, like everything for this event was super efficient and soon my pack was tagged, I had my number and all that was left to was do load up with my 4 litres of water and food and then walk to the start for 8:40 pm.
We all stood at the bottom of the hill, waiting for our names to be called so that we could pass the kissing gate and listen to the briefing. The briefing was perfect and to the point: “use your brain and don’t stupidly follow lights ahead of you because they might have fallen down a cliff, don’t turn on your head torch too early, if you’re going to be slow then start at the back”. Then a loud bang and we’re off. The Cub, who competes in athletic sprints, later told me that considering how loud the bang was we took off at a disappointingly slow pace.
I remembered that it takes me about 10 minutes to warm up and for my heart rate to rise so tried not to take off too fast, turns out the tactic was good as I actually managed to avoid the moment where I start clawing at my throat, desperately trying to catch my breath. Climbing actually felt quite good. I alternately sucked at jellied sweets and at my drinking tube and it seemed to work. All I could hear was the breathing of others, sheep talking to each other and a few skylarks singing. Just as it should be.
Safety is key on this event and each participant is meticulously counted and assessed for fitness to carry on at three rendez-vous points. There are also additional “mountain safety team” points and a course sweeper who follows the last participants to make sure all is well. Action can be taken quickly and efficiently if anything happens.
The first rendezvous point was at the top of Pen y Fan, were we all gave our numbers and names. “Do you know where you’re going?” “that way” I said pointing in the general direction of mist and more precisely towards the top of Jacob’s Ladder, which you couldn’t really see. The mist at the edge of Jacob’s Ladder actually blended perfectly with the flat top of Pen y Fan and for a microsecond I felt like I was about to launch myself into nothing but clouds. Fortunately, you can always trust the Welsh hills to deliver some solid rock and my feet did hit some firm ground.
Going down the very steep section of Jacob’s Ladder wasn’t as bad as I had anticipated and then you could run fairly comfortably for a while. This was the section where I had planned to take on solid food: nuts and dried fruits. I hit the fruit mix (figs, apricots, pears and… prunes – wtf?) and all was good at first: one delicious fig, one very nice apricot but then… a dried, bitter and fibrous fig as chewy as old leather. Massive internal conflict “no throwing away nutrition, keep chewing” and as the fig was slowly drying up my mouth, I remembered the life cycle of the fruits and that there is at least one dead wasp inside each and every one of them… Well, that really didn’t help me swallow it! I distracted myself by thinking that RV2 was not too far and embracing the scenery, which absolutely stunning: low cloud cover, a light breeze and very atmospheric end of day light.
There was more downhill after RV2, where we followed a wider and somewhat easier track for a while. By then the participants had were quite spread out and I was more or less on my own, enjoying the end of daylight. The mist lifted and tiny waning moon crescent shone red for a few minutes but the quickly disappeared and then it was just me and the stars. At one point I noticed a single light going up the hill on the other side of the valley, the leader was fast!
I passed RV3, which marked the end of the downhill section and moved on. The second climb was getting nearer and this one would be tough so I took a bit of time to walk and refill my drinks bladder from the rigid bottles I’d taken. Someone was a camping at the bottom of the hill, I smelt fire and thought that this was a very nice spot to spend the night. I remembered that the whole slope was extremely boggy in 2016 but the recent dry spell meant that it had mostly dried up. The path had also been consolidated with huge rock slabs that made it feel like a stairway intended for giants, although the local slugs did seem to make good use of it too. I suppose this is what hobbits feel like when they go up stairs meant for “big people”. Also, the slope of that second hill becomes sharper towards the top (it would be boring otherwise right?) and whoever built the path must have thought it would be a good joke to make the rocks even bigger there. I had to use hands and knees to get over some of these rocks but then suddenly you’re on top of the hill and along the ridge and you know you’re on the right side of the valley, hurray.
Picture this now: you’re on your own, the sky is still clear and because it’s so dark in the Brecon Beacons you can see hundreds of stars, there’s a bit of a head-on breeze, on your right – way too close to ignore it – there’s a steep drop and you’re walking on an uneven path with rocks of all sizes trying to trip you up or at least twist your ankles. Now carry on like this for about 4 km. I must have been getting a tired by then, I found the footing tricky and didn’t really manage to run on this section and instead tried to concentrate on the path and to avoid being distracted by the magnificent sky. A good benchmark to remember and try to improve on in future events. I also remember noticing the silence all around me and thinking how that was weird. Surely in summer there should at least be insects making some noise at night or even a couple of bats but… just emptiness, me and the stars.
Then I reached the end of the ridge, there was a cyalume arrow on the ground and it pointed downhill (yay). From then on it’s as simple as running down for about 2.5 km, which still felt like a long way. Halfway down there were some noises on my right, I first though it was my pack suddenly making a sound and then I realised it was ponies breathing. They accompanied me a short way and then I was on my own again. The gurgle of one, then two streams marks the end of the hill, then it was just a matter of going over the bridge and running all the way along the carpark that was lit up – runway style – with cyalumes.
The finish was almost a sensory overdose: light, sound, food and open fires (nice touch). I gave my number and name at the final rendez-vous and got asked my age (properly wrapped in a diplomatic “i hope you don’t mind”). Turned out I was the first load bearing woman to arrive so my pack got weighed again and I received the veteran women’s trophy along with my finisher’s patch. Well, that was most definitely not something I expected at the start!
I then had a bite of a very tasty buffet laid out for us, slipped on some of the dry gear I had conveniently carried around the hills and went on mission to wake up my support team. As expected, they were peacefully snoring in the car. Well, preparation is (almost) everything in life and there was a nice bottle of Chilean Sauvignon Blanc chilling in a nearby stream. Simple pleasures: we shared the bottle under the stars and reflected on how much better it tasted like that.
The next day we took The Cub and my trophy up to the top of Corn Du. A great opportunity to stretch the legs a bit and explain to The Cub how this amazing landscape was shaped by sedimentation, glaciers and erosion. and point out the various features that illustrate these various forces. At the top, I also took out the trophy so that we could soak up the energy of the place together and contemplate the course that made our paths cross. Yes, it’s just a rock, but it’s not just ‘any rock’.
So how do the winter and summer edition compare? It’s harder in winter. How do you prepare for this type of event? Simple: once you’ve signed up, the DS will send you a series of emails which you MUST READ, these emails detail everything you need to know, kit to be worn, kit to be carried, type of pack and boots, how to train and where to stay. It’s all there really and all you need to do is get the gear if you don’t already have it and consistently apply the training tips. Remember if you do commit to an event run by AAE: these are not your average event, all the staff involved is fitter than you so the least you can do is turn up intending to give it your best shot.
To conclude I was really delighted to complete this event with a majority of kit I still have from my field days. The boots were my main purchase for this and they performed really well. Four litres of water seemed huge but I used them all up: drank about three of them and used another litre to pour over myself when things got a bit hot in the valley. Food-wise, my watch tells me I burnt about 1800 calories on that walk, I certainly didn’t consume that much and I’m pretty sure I’ve got enough enough personal stores (aka fat) on my body to sustain myself for a while. All in, I might never eat a fig again, but I do need to find a reason to spend more time in the wild. It’s good for the soul.