Friday, 26 August 2016

Me, a compass and three burly blokes

So I can now officially read a compass and an Ordnance Survey map. (Yep, the certificate is even winging its way to me in the post as I write.)

After my minor freak out on the rain-driven and cloud-covered slopes of Mt Snowdon last year, and my stupidly ambitious desire to climb 40 volcanoes by the age of 40, I thought it best to actually get some outdoor skills.

So there I was on a Monday morning sitting inside a concrete shed on a farm with three middle-aged blokes looking at a compass. The four of us scribbled notes furiously as the instructor discussed the bezel (the bit you turn) and the romer (for measuring the distance in a grid reference).

I was the only girl. When I’d turned up these three burly blokes were already waiting – dressed in a mixture of checked shirts, camouflage/combat apparel and sweat-wicking outdoor tops. Facial hair added to the weathered, outdoor look. Their hand shakes were strong and firm, and they had manly names like Steve and Andy.

Beer bellies aside, these guys looked the real deal. I felt slightly intimidated.    

But looks can be deceiving. Sure these guys liked the outdoors – all of them had done a bush craft course, lighting fires with flint, living off the land and building shelters from trees – but in the real world they were something else entirely: a stage manager for a rock band; a London black cab taxi driver; and a former IT university lecturer. You couldn’t get more motley than that. 

And so these were my survival companions for two days. After learning the ropes of compass and map reading, I was putting my trust in them to direct me on a four hour course through the Surrey Hills near Guildford, UK.

We were given our co-ordinates, located them on the map and designated a leg each to lead. Stocked up with compass, water, tuna salad and 35 pence Tesco sweet mix, we were off.
Lunch stop with a view

By and large, I was impressed. These men could actually read a map. They were going great guns, picking up paths where I was left scratching my head. Then we took a wrong turn. Only we didn’t realise until we came to a cross roads that wasn’t supposed to be there. Fortunately, it wasn’t the end of the world, as we soon navigated our way to where we needed to be – a minor detour really.

But then it came to me. It was my turn. The pressure was immense.

I puffed out my chest and strode off at a pace, looking every bit the wannabe female version of Bear Grylls (as a friend suggested on Facebook). It was all going fine until I got lost – twice.

I mean it wasn’t proper lost. I knew where I was – sort of.

The first time, we were on the right footpath but the turn-off was confusing. A tiny path hidden by overgrown grass meant we spent 10 minutes trying to figure out where exactly we were on the map and what direction we should be going in. I say we, because the men decided their input and expert map reading skills were required. A joint effort, however, saw us head off in the right direction, me feeling a little less confident.

The second time was a result of taking a path that was not indicated on the OS map, believing it to be the one I needed to turn on to (so clearly I can’t take full responsibility on this occasion). We spent 10 minutes walking backwards and forwards scratching our heads trying to figure out where the next path was that we were supposed to take. What was annoying was the fact that the car park and finish was literally 200m east. We ended up just pushing our way through the ferns – which is when we discovered the path we should have been on. From there we found the car park (thankfully).

All in all, it was an interesting experience – particularly having to use the “toilet tent” that was about seven metres from a busy road and in the perfect line of sight of car drivers. My confidence has vastly improved now that I can read a map and compass; however there is still a lot to learn before I will feel sufficient in navigating mountain ranges.

Now the challenge is to put my new-found skills to the test. What better excuse than to get outside!

Have you had any navigation hick-ups?

The course I attended was with Trueways Survival. I attended independently and all opinions are my own.

Saturday, 6 August 2016

Feeling the pain: When not to give up

Say you’re running a marathon. You love running, you’ve trained hard and you’re running for a good cause, yet about halfway through you hit a wall – not literally but figuratively. Your energy levels slump, every movement creates a shockwave of pain radiating through your body, and your heart wants to leap out of your chest. Tears prick your eyes as the evil little thoughts start to infiltrate into your head – “You can’t do this,” they say. “You’re tired,” they say. “It’s ok to give up,” they say.

It’s at this point, as the experts claim, that you need to dig deep and find the mental strength to push through the pain and negativity. In a way, it’s not so much finishing the marathon that is the achievement (although I salute everyone who has had the urge to run a marathon – you are troopers). It’s almost more the overcoming of the desire to give up. You faced the prospect of failure, gave it two thumbs up and triumphed.

My dig deep moment

A month ago I was in the Lake District, UK, halfway up a small mountain. We were marginally lost, I was feeling decidedly unfit and exhausted, and I just could not be bothered trying to find the summit of the mountain. I was that close to packing it in and retracing my steps back to the hut.

It was one of those dig deep moments. So I consumed four Haribo sweets in quick succession and chugged back some water. Then putting one foot in front of the other I forced myself up the hill.

About half an hour later, I reached the summit, celebrating with a rather embarrassing victory dance (thankfully we had the mountain to ourselves). The view was stunning – green rolling hills all around, the valleys dotted with the cool, sparkling waters the Lake District is famous for. I wouldn’t have got to experience the summit’s beauty if I had given up back down on the mountainside.

When not to give up

Since that trip I’ve been thinking about my dratted 40 volcanoes. I mean seriously, what was I thinking? Forty volcanoes by the age of 40. All that cost, all that planning. It would be so much easier to just bin the idea.

And then I had a revelation. Although I wasn’t in the middle of running a marathon or climbing a mountain, although I was neither physically tired nor in pain, I had somehow stumbled to that crossroads where I could either give up or plough on.

I was surprised by this. In my head, I thought I would face the prospect of failure as I physically strode towards the top of a volcano. That it would be physical pain and tiredness that would put an end to my quest of climbing 40 volcanoes. But here I was, at home, sitting in front of the computer with a cup of tea and a plentiful biscuit supply. I wasn’t even breaking a sweat and yet I was thinking of packing it in.     

The realisation made me feel uneasy. Somewhere buried in my subconscious I was actually considering giving up based on the thought that the whole quest was just too much hard work, that I had too much other stuff going on – but worse, I considered this a perfectly permissible reason to give up because it felt “better” than if I gave up during the physical act of climbing a volcano. How cowardly is that?

Yet scarier still was the realisation that I hadn’t even recognised, up till that point, that I was subconsciously willing to accept defeat in this way. It was like I was giving up before I’d even begun (or just begun if you count two volcanoes climbed so far). And that is just downright shocking.

And then I thought, good Lord, what else have I given up on in my life just because my brain had had a minor meltdown? There are probably university classes, job applications, first dates, holidays, new experiences, healthy eating plans, exercise regimes – hundreds of things that I’ve chickened out on without fully realising it. Things I wanted to do but fear or excuses got in the way.      

Life is hard. It’s easy to make excuses. I’ve learnt that that crossroad with the neon sign advertising defeat and encouraging you to give up can appear on the horizon at any time. You don’t have to be physically out of your comfort zone to come across it; a mere unguarded moment of doubt is enough to have it come careening around the corner.

It’s at these times that it’s most important to dig deep. Don’t give up.