Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Things I have learnt: Cooking porridge when camping is very technical (hindsight)

The taste of burnt, blackened oatmeal stuck to my tongue and the roof of my mouth, saliva glands pinching in disgust as I assaulted them with mouthful after mouthful of the gloopy, foul-tasting muck that was supposed to be breakfast. I thought nothing could compare to mum’s burnt spuds (sorry mum), but the acrid taste of charred porridge was, by far, winning the worst-foods-to-overcook competition.

I looked down into my bowl at the blackened and congealed sludgy bits that pretended to be raisins among a sea of lumpy slop and thought of the cancer risks. The porridge couldn’t be salvaged; the rank taste had outperformed and permeated its way through the entire breakfast. Not even a sprinkling of cranberries and a generous dollop of honey could disguise the contamination. It was a painful experience of spooning and swallowing. Even Oliver Twist wouldn’t have asked for more.

Who would have thought cooking porridge on a gas burner when camping would be so difficult? At home, I could do it blindfold – pop porridge in a bowl, add milk or water, zap in the microwave for two minutes and, as if by magic, a steaming, hearty breakfast results. Takeaway the microwave though, and suddenly cooking porridge becomes a bit more technical.

It should have been straight forward. All I did was add oatmeal to cold water and warmed over a gas flame…

The news story I was reading on my phone was interesting; I didn’t stir the porridge as I waited for the water to heat. Next thing I knew and the breakfast erupted into an angry hot-mud-pool-like bubble. Shit.

I threw the phone aside and vigorously stirred the mixture, feeling a sticky sludge congealed at the bottom of the pan. Scraping at it frantically, large chunks of black started to rise to the surface as if I’d chucked in a load of crushed Oreo biscuits (which, ironically, would have been the better-tasting alternative). I looked glumly at the mixture. The damage was done – this was no Michelin-star breakfast.      
But hindsight is a beautiful thing. Two weeks later and we were camping again and porridge was on the menu. This time I wasn’t making the same mistakes (at least my boyfriend Del was making very sure of that). Cold water went into the pot – no oatmeal – and I set it to boil; only adding it to porridge oats in bowls once it had boiled furiously. No further cooking of the mixture occurred. 

And yet it was another porridge fail. The undercooked goo that dripped from my spoon, while not burnt (hoorah for that!), had the consistency of cooling gravy and was only marginally tastier. I was obvious, I had to admit defeat.  

Do you have the secret for cooking porridge on a gas camping stove?  

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Destination: Hanging out over the ocean

Me at the Cattle Troughs, Swanage
I was positively sure I was going to die. Tears streamed down my face, my body shook uncontrollably. “I can’t do this,” I heard myself repeat over and over. But, against the self-preserving urge, I took a deep, shuddering breath, grasped the rope, pushed my bum out to oblivion and attempted the two-metre abseil to the first ledge – some 10 or so metres above a wild, white-crested sea.

This was crazy. Below me, a knobbly depression in the cliff face – known as the Lecture Theatre – was my only way of getting down to the ledge that was currently being pummelled by the ocean. I gripped the rope tighter and squeezed my eyes shut only to open them when two seasoned rock climbers scrambled past down to the bottom, without the assistance of ropes. I pretended I was taking a breather and enjoying the view.

And, indeed, the view was lovely. A mass of empty blue-green ripples stretched out to the horizon where it was met by the grey smudge of sky, while around me, steep, chiselled cliffs loomed out of the froth. If I didn’t know better I would have said I was standing on the edge of the world.

My boyfriend Del and I had come to Swanage, on the South West coast of England. The coastal path was wild and windswept. But we weren’t here for the sea air, nor to stretch our legs along the cracked-earth path. We were here to experience climbing sea cliffs for the first time. At home, it hadn’t seemed quite as scary – the photos picturesque with blue skies and promises of picnics. But standing there buffeted by the wind, amid the gloom of an overcast day, I wasn’t smelling any roses. This was the real McCoy, and boy was I scared.

But I had somehow accomplished the first part of the abseil down so I figured I might as well carry on – the irony of having to get down to climb back up did not escape me, nor did the fact that this was probably the easy part of the whole process. Before long I reached the water’s edge and the immensity of the sea cliffs reared up around me, dwarfing me. I had been warned that Swanage could be overwhelming. It was true.

This, however, was just the start of what was to come. What goes down the sea cliffs must come back up again. As Del set off on the trad climb – an easy route, I had been promised – I watched nervously, feeding out the rope, as he clung to the rock with one hand, the other putting in place the equipment that needed to hold his weight. Then he climbed over a jagged edge and was lost from view as he continued to the top. For near on 30 minutes I patiently fed out the rope when he tugged for more, watching the waves crash at my feet, feeling the spray on my face and trying to push dark thoughts from my mind.

Then Del was at the top, waving at me, though I couldn’t hear his shouts against the background chorus of wind and waves. He signalled for me to get ready to climb. All the bravado I’d put on evaporated in a rush. I shook my head. “No way, I’m not going up there,” I shouted, though it came out more like a whimper. He put his hands together in prayer, pleading with me to make the climb (and collect his valuable climbing gear that he had wedged in the rocks during his ascent).

I pondered the situation. I was literally stuck between a rock and a hard place (and a wet, angry ocean). The only way out was up. I took a deep breath, gathered the courage and tied myself in. I began to climb. The rock was jagged, nasty and sharp under my hands, slicing into my flesh as I hung precariously, one hand holding on for dear life, the other removing the costly and precious nuts from the cracks. Then all of a sudden I was over the worst of it and the rest of the climb was not so much steep cliff but more a relatively straight-forward scramble up a slope. It was almost easy.            

The last scramble to safety
I got to the top and sought safety. It was only then I looked back down at the waves, foaming as if in anger, rearing up as if to nip the ankles of climbers. Relief flooded my body. I did it. I made the climb, all the way to the top. I mini fist pumped. What a thrill; my first trad climb.

But I achieved more than just climbing a sea cliff. I also fought the negative demons in my head; the ones that stoked the “I can’t” fires. If I had listened to those voices I would have continued to sit at the top of the cliff feeling sorry for myself, woefully watching the other climbers with envy.

The unknown and new is always scary. Getting over that mental hurdle is the tricky bit but it’s not impossible. It’s also easier when you know the rewards are great for achieving it. The one thing I have learnt from this experience is that getting over that initial hurdle not only boosts your confidence, it also makes it that little bit easier to fight the other “I can’ts” that might plague you. That’s when you know you’re mastering your fear – and that’s a bloody great feeling.

Thursday, 3 September 2015

Inspired by British mountaineer Kenton Cool

Kenton Cool – yes that’s his real name – leans against the desk in Stanfords bookshop. “I assume you all know who I am,” he suddenly says to the crowd in front of him, interrupting his spiel on his love of books and desire to have a house with a library. “In case you didn’t know, I’ve climbed Everest 11 times.”

Selfie with Kenton Cool, one of Britain's top mountaineers
It’s not the first time the British mountaineer goes off tangent – he even warns us of his tendency (supposedly high altitude affects short-term memory) – as he discusses his various escapades and promotes his first book One Man’s Everest, which he jokes he was “bullied” into writing.

Besides climbing Mt Everest 11 times, the chiselled 42 year old was also the first person to climb the three Everest peaks in one climb and is the only Briton to have skied down two 8000-metre mountains. Cool now works with individuals who are interested in climbing the world’s highest mountain.

Why does he climb mountains? Because he loves it – actually, he corrects himself, he “adores” it. “Mountains give us freedom, a sense of reality, of what is important to us,” he says. It saddens him that climbing Everest is becoming political because it detracts from the beauty of it.

Cool also admits that his climbing has been driven by a competitive and jealous streak. “I’ve always wanted to be the best; to be Britain’s best mountaineer.” He pauses, contemplating. “That’s very vain,” he adds. Then he elaborates, saying his motives for climbing have changed over the years, and now he climbs for more “romantic reasons”. For him, there is nothing better than watching the sun rise from the highest point on earth with people he considers his friends.

But it’s clear there is the nagging issue between following the call of the mountains and being a husband and father. Last year he spent six months away from home – it can be difficult to get the balance right, he says. “Mountaineering is a very selfish thing. I justify it as work.”

Even though Cool has climbed Everest 11 times, he says he doesn’t take the mountain for granted. “There is a real risk you might not come back.” He ponders the question does it get easier? He answers: “I approach it each time as the hardest thing I will ever do.”

One thing is for sure, he isn’t climbing Everest just because it’s there.  

Kenton Cool's new book