Monday, 13 May 2013

Snakes and Ladders, Friends and Falling

We're just three tops in and already we've made the decision to bail out. We'd started our attempt on the Cumbrian Traverse in less than promising weather, but what little promise there was has now all gone. A stiff challenge has deteriorated into a foolhardy venture.

Coming off Caw, a tentative suggestion had been made by Dave. 'If this doesn't get better, I can see us getting rained off.'

I'd made a joke of it at the time - 'I thought you guys from up North were tough buggers!' I'd told Dave and Chris A. But, just half-an-hour later, things have changed.

After going off-piste, we're heading back in the direction of White Maiden. Crouched behind a huge boulder in a futile attempt to gain shelter, I pull out my GPS, get our exact location and take a bearing to the next summit. When Dave suggests going down to Coniston, this time there's no smart-arsed comment. We're cold and need to get off the hills. It's strange that until that moment, I'd felt ok - chilled and very wet, but uncomfortable rather than in trouble. However, as we crouch behind that rock, the realisation of how cold I am really hits me. After putting my hand-held into the waist pocket of my pack, my fingers are so numb that I can't pull the zip closed. My hands are rapidly becoming useless. It takes an age to get my winter gloves back on.

At this point, five minutes of good sense were definitely in order. What I should have done was pull out my extra base-layer and micro-fleece and put them on straight away. What I should have done was dig in the bottom of my pack for my water-proof trousers and put them on too. What I do is neither.

Knowing we'd be sat in a caff in Coniston within an hour lures me into a false sense of security. A deluded laziness means I can't be arsed to layer up properly. Standing still, I'm cold and just want to get running again.

So that's what we do. And that's where things start to go wrong.

There's times I look on my running as a game of Snakes and Ladders. Running's a game I choose to play. It has few benefits aside from the intrinsic enjoyment of playing the game.

I play a lot, and my consistency shows itself in steady progress. Starting from a lowly square, I move slowly along the board, gaining fitness, improving in performance and accomplishing challenges as I go.

At times, the dice thrown for me are blank and my progress up the board is halted temporarily. Other times witness a sudden dramatic increase in performance, motivation or confidence for no apparent reason. I climb a ladder and reach a higher square much more rapidly than I dare dream. Now and again, after weeks or months of climbing steadily, something happens and you can't help falling. It may be the onset of an injury or a disasterous performance in a race. You tumble down the back of the snake, unable to stop, but hoping that the square you eventually land upon isn't one on the bottom row of the board.

In recent months, my progress has been steady, but pleasing. I've climbed short ladders, but generally moved along just one square at a time. However, I guess part of me knew deep down that a snake was waiting.

The last month's weekends have been busy and exhilarating. Two days on the Coast-to-Coast, a trip to the London Marathon, a blast round The Three Peaks, and a run from Side-to-Side. Future weekends also beckoned with adventure - the Windermere Marathon, receeing in the Peak District, our club's summer relay and numerous BG supports. Lucky then that I'd put a weekend aside to stay at home and have a rest.

All would have been good if Dave Swift hadn't got in touch with an offer too good to refuse. 'What are your thoughts on the Cumbrian Traverse on 11th May?' his e-mail had read. Of course, my thoughts were, 'Yes please.' We'd had our eyes on this one for quite a while. Starting at Broughton Mills, the Cumbrian Traverse is a 35-mile high-level, South to North crossing of the Lake District, taking in 21 summits and finishing in Keswick. Taking around 12 hours to complete, it is, by all accounts, a fantastic day out. I'd let Dave down a couple of times last year due to injury, so when the possibility raised itself again, I jumped at the chance.

Setting off on Saturday morning, spirits had been high. The weather was iffy, but no worse than we'd been out in many times before. My fitness was better than it had been for maybe a year. For ages, the dice had been kind and I'd been playing the game well. As we jogged off from Broughton Mills village hall in the direction of mountains, I was blissfully unaware of how far I'd fall.

Reaching the Walna Scar road a little later, a potential problem rears its head. Debbie, Tammy and the superheroes will probably be at the Three Shires Stone, waiting for us at the point where the route crosses the Wrynose Pass. It's almost certain that phone reception there will be zero. If we descend to Coniston, we've no way of letting them know where we are.

At the point where Walna Scar intersects with the path to Brown Pike, we opt, instead, to go for Plan B. We'll turn left, go over Brown Pike and stick to the path, eventually dropping down Wetside Edge to reach our support. Chris A. pulls out a schedule and we make quick calculations. Instead of being in a warm caff inside half-an-hour, we're faced with another couple of hours of travel.

By now, I'm freezing, but still feeling upbeat. The wind, however, is ferocious. The percipitation swings between rain, hail, sleet and snow. We keep moving, but soon I'm struggling. Dave and Chris A. are leaving me behind. Why the great increase in pace? On the verge of being pissed off, I soon see that they're stopping at regular intervals to let me catch up. Sharing words with each other, I guess they're talking about me. As I reach them, Chris A. says, 'You ok, Chris?' 'Yeah,' I reply, but the look on his face shows that he doesn't believe me. Off we go again, but, try as I might, I can't keep up. I realise that, far from the lads' pace increasing, it's mine that has slowed dramatically. I'm a stubborn bugger, and I never like to admit my failings, especially where running's concerned, but slowly I begin to realise I'm in the shit.

I force myself to stop and put on more layers, but it's a job I should have done ages ago. By now, it's too late. Dave and Chris A. fuss around me, helping me get my jacket off, my fleece on, and my coat back over the top. Their actions tell me that they're concerned I'm not doing well. We press on afterwards, but I'm still hopelessly off-pace. The muscles of my upper body are sore from shivering, my shoulders ache so much I find it difficult to lift my arms. Each stride is fuzzy, hard work. My eyes fight static, my mind running over a story I wrote about a television some weeks ago. Dave drops back, talks to me, asks me questions that I can't be bothered to answer. 'Leave me alone.' This is what's going through my head. 'Leave me alone and don't talk. 'Cause I don't want to talk. Talking's too much effort.'

There's a touch of panic in Dave's instructions to Chris A. 'We need to get off the hills. Get to a road or a house or anywhere. Get warm again.' He doesn't mention my name, but I know he's thinking of me. This is confirmed by his next question. 'Chris - you got an emergency bivvy?' I nod, but I'm thinking there's no way they're leaving me here. Where they go, I go, no matter how long it takes.

Dave takes a descending path to a cascading beck, and I follow. The wind is less threatening, but I'm so tired. Each step is a challenge. We find shelter while Dave and Chris A. make important decisions. By coming off the ridge at this point, we're unsure of where we are. I'm no help. I'm past caring. Chris digs out my GPS and the lads figure out our location and where we need to be. I put on my waterproof trousers and realise I don't feel cold anymore. Why then is my shivering so severe?

For the next half-hour I trudge. Time's slowed down. I take a glove off, but can't get it back on. Chris A. forces one of his mittens on my hand and Dave stays with me, talking about loads of stuff that I can't recall. He's keeping me here, I know that. I must look terrible. But I really don't care. He gets me to take a cake bar from my waist belt - the thought of eating hadn't occured to me - but I can't break the plastic wrapper. He does it for me, hands it back, makes me eat it.

And I trudge. Keep going. Because it's the only option.

Before long, we're on a good path. As we drop down, the cloud clears and the road comes into view. By the Three Shires Stone, there's a couple of cars. I've never been so glad to see them.

Arriving at the fell-wagon, Chris A. orders me to get inside, get my wet clothes off, get dry ones on, get warm. 'I'm ok now,' I tell him, but do as I'm told. Within ten minutes, in warm clothes and a down jacket, my shivering's subsiding. Tam brings me soup and a roll that Debbie's prepared and I wolf them down, suddenly ravenous. Feeling much, much better, a tiredness now takes over me. I'll close my eyes. Rest for just a moment.

When I wake up, we're turning into Coniston and heading for the lakeside cafe. Over an hour has passed while I've been flat out. Tam sees me wake and says, 'Thank God for that. I had to nudge you a couple of times on the way to make sure you weren't dead.'

I feel right as rain again. After pulling up in the car-park, Debbie greets me with the words, 'How are you now?'

'Alright,' I tell her.

'Dave's been saying on the way that it's nice to see that you're just human like the rest of us!'

I laugh, apologise to the lads for holding them up and offer my gratitude for the way they looked after me up there. Chris A. explains the ins-and-outs of hypothermia, but - stood there, chatting to him in the sunshine - I find it difficult to comprehend how different I felt only an hour ago.

As always, I've plenty of time to think on the long drive home. Tam asks if I'm ok at frequent intervals, and I tell her I'm just fine. She tells me of the conversations she had with Dave and Chris A. at the Three Shires Stone whilst I was busy getting changed in the car. How worried they were about me. How glad they were to be off the hills in one piece. She tells me of something Dave had said - something that's sometimes so easy to forget. 'That's why you go into the mountains with your friends,' he'd told her. 'It's a social thing, a good crack. But, you know, sometimes it's dangerous out there and it's then that you need each other.'

His words struck a chord, and as the miles passed, I thought about them a lot.

Snakes and ladders. Friends and falling.

Whilst I may often choose to play this game alone, I look forward to the miles I spend with friends. The conversation, piss-taking, laughter and company can't help but enrich an outing. Most of the time, it's a fun thing, just great being together. But now and again, you realise that friends are there for another reason.

In this game of Snakes and Ladders, it's sometimes inevitable that you'll fall.

And, at times like this, it's comforting to know that your friends will be there to catch you.

On Saturday, two friends caught me. I'd just like to say thanks.

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