Tuesday 26th Feb – What makes a house…?

I haven’t been able to write for a while.  Not that I didn’t want to – but there was so much to say, so much in flux, my own feelings too tumultuous to commit them to the keyboard.  So I couldn’t.

Things feel calmer now, there’s less going on.  My head has room to write.

What’s been going on?

My reasons for needing to change our life, for ripping M from his very happy existence as guest-house proprietor are clear when I explain them.  Getting to the point where we could both acclimatize to the need for change has been acutely painful… one that I’m not quite ready to put down on paper.  The subject of “What next?”, after the guesthouse, has been looming large over the van as we’ve trundled up hillsides and slid down to valley depths.  

Our questions are of existential importance: Where?  What?  What for? Who for?  How?

They are equally nebulous and important; necessary to consider and yet seemingly impossible to commit to an answer.  So we’ve towed them behind us, these questions, a large bunch of heavy-grey helium balloons inextricably attached to our travel, bobbing in the mountain breezes, often out of sight but we’re never free of them, they are ever-present.

We’ve avoided discussing those orbs of unknowing, never ‘bottoming-out’ the issues.  It’s unusual for us to do this, we’re ‘peel back the scab and let’s sort it’ kind of people.  But we didn’t want to mar the trip.  Plus… we didn’t have any responses.

So, we get back to Gary and Lesley’s haven on Monday 18thFeb with a speculative date to visit a couple of houses for sale.  There’s the possibility, tenuous at best, the idea that Spain might be the answer for us.  That we might travel again in November, after waving farewell to our last set of guests.  It’s super-hazy.  Those balloons are still on long strings, we haven’t pulled them closer and tried to peer at their patterns, much less taken a pin of certainty and burst the buggers. But even having a dimly-lit vision of what could be right for us makes their presence less intimidating.

‘Kev’, whose birthday party we went to when we were last here, is a builder, in the middle of reconstructing G&L’s bathroom.  He and his wife have a home here and are looking to relocate within the area.  He’s been to see loooaaaddds of places.

One of them was a five-bedroomed house over three floors in a nearby town (Benigembla, look it up, it’s gorgeous) – tiny Spanish town of 600 people, which quadruples for the 10-day fiesta in August.  We view the house on line.  The wall tiles are only slightly more stunning than the original floor tiles, that lead to the inner courtyard that you can spy onto from the roof terraces above. My heart stops.  M’s heart leaps.

We get the estate agent’s number from Kev, drive out there to find it (not hard in a village consisting of around six streets) arrange a time to see it next morning. The local deputy mayor will be there too.

And… oh my. The bottom two floors would convert very nicely into a Spanish guesthouse, lots of space because (and this is the real biggie) the top, third floor, is entirely separable from the rest, its a gorgeous terrace-flat and I am hooked.

I see it. Crystal-clearly.  How we make M’s new business, give me privacy, start a new but familiar life, create an income… it’s all there.

Or it was until the Mayor and the estate agent start (Not) answering questions, not quite saying outright lies, feeding us information that seemed so suspect. Their words called into question all legal house-purchase practices, the antecedents of this lovely building and the potential trouble we’d have got ourselves into if we’d bought it.

It takes a couple of days for me to let go of my sunlit attic-space apartment, with the sound of M’s happy Spanish guests drifting up from below.  The need for certainty rose up, grabbed my brain cells and plugged them with a solution.  I could almost pick up a pin and set away disposing of our ever-present not-knowns. The process of relinquishing this fantasy is uncomfortable.  

But let it go we must, because we were on the verge of being solidly duped, a point clearly emphasized by a recommended property agent in Jalon who has showed us a number of other places.

One home, the one I thought could be ‘the answer’ was similar to G&L’s place, out in another valley.  Nestled in the mountainsides, with 6000sqm of vines, almonds, olives.  I pushed open the car door anticipating a rush of love and enthusiasm, and felt… nothing.  

As M walked around the plot, working out various logistics, I felt worse than nothing. As he said “You know, I think we could buy this” I apparently recoiled, physically moving backwards.  

What on earth is wrong with me?

If you’d said to me two months ago that we’d decided to move to a part of the world that has 320+ days of sunshine, every year, and find a mountain-loved hut where we could set up an eco-tourism/cyclists/walkers holiday business (by putting cabins on the terraces)…

Next day I went back there, trying to work out what wasn’t happening.  Simple – this house wasn’t…

Then I found her, forgotten at the bottom of a lane, unloved, abandoned.  My heart became an auditorium of nerve endings, on the stage, a virtuoso played a single note that reverberated around the room. A collective intake of breath was held as the sound captured every synapse in the space.  I saw me, on the whitewashed terrace, writing, looking up through the branches of the carob tree to the mountain top spikes punching into the blue above them.  Turn 180 degrees and the house faced the chasm between two tiger-striped walls of rock that plunged to the river-bed hundreds of meters out of sight.

Entranced was I.  Less so M, G & L when we snuck around to find not one intact window/door; two floors of rot and decay, of badly needed new wiring, plumbing, internal everything. Plus: an owner who might be in the care-home of one city or the mental-health institution of another; a daughter untraceable; and no idea of price, if, indeed, it was up for sale.

Contrast this with a 1980’s build at the back of a conurbation, three well-proportioned bedrooms, views over the valley, it’s back to the mountainside, just 500 yards from some of the best rock climbing in the area.  The ground floor is easily convertible to a guest-house/Airb’n’b living space.  Upstairs boasts multiple balconies, rooms to ‘be’ in, lots of potential to change the bland ‘holiday-home’ fittings to something you’d want to run your fingers across with loving pride.

Or then again, some of the really nice places we’ve seen, rented for €300-400 a month, hassle and maintenance free, on long leases that leave their occupants at liberty to move/return to the UK without the inconvenience of arranging a sale.

So… I couldn’t write.

If we’ve decided anything, it’s that we need to keep on looking.  Renting here for six months is the least that we’ll do whilst we feel our way up those balloon strings.  I’m less anxious about them now, catch them in the sunrise and they look almost pretty.  I won’t burst them, but one by one, as we’re ready, I’ll untie them and watch them glint in the sun’s rays as they disappear into the cloudless skies above.

Why we do what we do…

Jules is a bit busy at the moment so she’s asked me to do a blog. Please be warned there is a little bad language but I think you’ll agree it’s in context.

Growing up on our street of 8 houses, the only people to have a car were Tommy Anderson and his son Peter. In fact it wasn’t a car, but a Commer Camper Van. An exotic vehicle especially when it drove past as I held hands with my mam waiting for the bus.

It was that camper that was used to carry my first bike back from Leiths Bike sShop in Houghton. Peter driving, my dad and I sat in the back holding the bike. I remember being nervous that the pedals would scratch the wood panels either side.

It was Peter and his dad who would together wash the camper.
I’d sit on the kerb stone on their side of the street and would watch, entranced as the water ran along the edge and under my legs. It was a treat if I could get outside as they were setting up, as I’d have the sheer delight of watching the stream as it set off following the camber of the road.

In 1978 Peter and Tommy had a win on the pools, it was a source or conversation in our house, as no one knew how much was won, but that didn’t matter as you could imagine and dream with gut aching envy.
When the brand new T registered red and yellow Dodge Auto Sleeper Camper pulled up outside their house it was clear it had been a big win.

By now there were two more cars on the street but nothing as entrancing as the ’Ice cream van’ as other less reverential folks would refer to it. They were jealous and although I was too, it was never that spiteful resentful kind.

Peter was one of those quiet men, shy but knowledgable, the handy lad on the street, who knew how to fix the puncture on my bike and had the tool to do what ever job needed doing. His dad was braggy, funny and loud, the world according to Tommy Anderson and if you didn’t take note, you were the fool. Peter always seeming to hang in his shadow.

How many times did Tommy say to me “ Your dad could have one of these if he didn’t drink or smoke.” I knew he was right but I equally knew my dad would never speak like that to another man’s son. 

As the years went by that camper was used to transport two more pedal bikes and on one occasion I rode in the front seat next to Peter driving. 
I was 18 and he was being my knowledgable chaperone whilst I went to see a motorbike, but that is a story for another time.

I looked up to Peter and so admired the quiet way he got on with things.

What’s this got to do with camper vans, Julie and me? I hear you ask. 
Well, I’m getting there.

Tommy, was a rather prescriptive man and Peter had his instructions, a lot more I imagine than I ever knew, but i was never allowed past the front door or inside the wondrous workshop, I’d knock on the garage door as a teenager and when it was opened ajar I’d say “Peter might you have a …… “ the door would close and open moments or minutes later with Peter kindly hand me the said request. I didn’t need to be told to return it, I’d dash, do what ever it was needed for and have it returned in a ridiculously anxiety inducing manner. I’m not much different today, I hate asking for a hand or to lend something.

Anyhow, Jules and I had been together 6 weeks when Tommy died. It was a sad time on my Mam’s street and his passing meant one of those old anchors was gone. 
In hindsight it was perhaps a mistake, when, because Jules and I were skint, I bought a second hand three piece suite off Peter. It wasn’t my wisest moment when I happened to mention to my new prize, that Tommy died on the sofa. Needless to say that settee never made it into our home and languished in the garage. It was a superb piece and it wasn’t as if he’d oozed on it. Honestly, women!

No one had ever driven the camper except Peter and his dad, no one, it simply wasn’t allowed. So the fart from a passing gnat could have blown me over when in the summer of 1998 Peter asked me if I’d like to borrow the van to take Jules and Vicky off to a weekend in the lakes.


My mam had happened to mention to Peter we three were off camping.
Unbidden and certainly not as a result of a hint, the message came to me that Peter would like us to take his camper. I’ve no idea why and he wasn’t the type to curry favour, he had always been sweet on my mam and although she was 17 years older they made a lovely couple when they started courting in 2001.

I can’t tell you how nervous I was. This was a creaky wallowing land crab but with the promise of cosy magic. A country cottage on wheels, a park where you like, put the kettle on and admire the view mobile. It was Peters pride and joy and I was the first man in 20 years to drive it other than the two Anderson’s. 


We had a fabulous weekend, we three. 

I wasn’t to know what part worn tyres were. I’d heard the term but never got round to trying them. Peter, forever the economist,make do and mend man was a huge fan of them, after all, why pay £50 new when you can pay £5 at the car boot and yours are the skills to fit them. 

I knew I was being enthusiastic trying to overtake the van.


There was a bang. 


As the steering lunged left to right and back again and the rear end whipped and cracked back in Six-Million-Dollar-Man slow motion, with me at the wheel and my two new girls in the van. My throat swelled, stomach heaved and arse did more than twitch as the Police advanced training on the skid pan kicked in from 10 years earlier. Reverse lock, counter reverse lock, is this bloody thing ever going to stop.

“Fuck me, please stop, stop soon, stop soon…. Jesus Christ what the fuck was that? Sorry Vicky, eerrr…” shaking.  Thank god we did not crash, we were alive and so was Peters van. 

I was the first out of the van and had to sit on the kerbstone. Jules and Vicks were supremely chipper. How were they to know what my heart, head and guts had been through? The only clue being my colourful outburst. I was a blamange but as the minutes passed I took on more solid form.
That overtake going down hill on the A66 not long before the Barny turn off was one spurt over 50 mph too much for that rear near side tyre.

That experience stays with me today, do you know your tyres have a set of easliy found and deciphered numbers on their walls telling you when they were made? They do, allow me to be a little Tommy Anderson-ish and if they are over three years old, please replace them. I do.

Back to campers. Two years later and one year into caring for Julie’s newly disabled dad, I decided either Jules and I were probably going to end up at a divorce court or we were going to end up in the countryside.


A camper van was just what we needed. One weekend a month, Vicks would be minded by Bill, and Jules and I would have two nights away, anywhere along as it was alone.

£1100 later and Jules and I had a Creamy white 1982 VW camper. (Not the classic shape, I’m the man who looked at a 1971 model, one owner selling for £3000 and said, “I’m not paying that”. Anyhow, I digress.)

 
We didn’t know the term “wild camping” but all we really did was follow Peter’s lead. Our first spot was Stape, a sleepy area on the North Yorkshire moors by a stream. His favourite and by default mine and ours.

That 120 mile-an-hour heart aching race down the A19 in the twilight of July 20th 2011 answering my mothers call of “ I think somethings wrong with Peter” was longer than that bloody blow-out, but much much more terrifying. 


There sat in his chair by the fire was my old friend, not much older than I, but a father and brother a man to me, some one I’d loved for years. Once again my Police training kicked in. I knew what to do. How many deaths had I been witness to? I knew what to do for my friend.

So why do we do what we do?

Jules and I stayed away from those divorce courts. The five campers we have had have all been our friends, they have taken us far and wide. Sheltered us from many storms and given us a perspective that we would never see any other way. 


We get ourselves in some arse twitchy situations, over reaching the van’s traction or dimensions, all in the search for that great spot. That slice of heaven, the spot where no one else is – it belongs to us and woe betide any bugger who wants to park alongside.

When in May last year, Jules said to me:

“Michael, I think we should build our own van”. My reaction was that of dread and

“Are you mad woman?”

But build our newest friend we did and I must say, so long as our other vans aren’t listening, this one is our favourite.

How many times over the years have I said to Jules “Peter would love this…” In making this van I’d have loved to have involved him, but in truth I have, in so many ways. When ever I see a passing brook or stand by water I think of him. I take off my shoes and rest in the cool water, and I’m by that kerb stone all over again.

My wife is usually right about most things, she’s the blue-sky thinker, I’m the one who’ll put the fire on, set the kettle and start with tea. When she comes out with a crazy idea, I usually recoil but the strength of my resistance is often due to the fact I know she’s right.

So what do I do when the latest idea is a move to Spain..?

Day 27, 30th Jan – Filling station for the soul

The battery’s not happy.  M’s not happy.  Stan wants a walk, so he’s not super-chirpy either.  

Well, the only issue I can have any influence over is the dog.  I leave M on his tummy once more, feet sticking out of the van, up to his elbows in wiring.  I think I hear him utter a tight “Okay” as I leave, but I’m not sure. He’s fully engaged in (a) not electrocuting himself, (b) not buggering up the sad battery or (c) damaging the healthier one. 

Stan and I explore what I think is the back end of another footpath.  I love the European way of organizing country walks. In the UK you get a map and find your way by carefully trying to discern between one large copse of trees on the horizon or that smaller one, whilst holding your compass onto a wind-torn paper map that wants only to escape your frozen-fingered grasp.  What fun?

None of that nonsense in France, Spain or Italy.  The maps are horrendous if you want detail, but that’s because the paths are signposted (with actual signposts) and have markers all the way round.  A colour coding system tells you if youre on the correct route, a painted cross in that route’s colours indicates if you’ve gone the wrong way and then arrows on trees/rocks show where the route changes direction just to clear up any confusion.  It’s simple, effective and much, much more reassuring than finding yourself knee-deep in semi-frozen bog that (according to your OS map) should have been 300 yards to the left and not where you’re presently sinking.

So, when the puppy and I get back to find M listening to the radio, putting away all his electrical gubbins and generally smiling, I’m delighted.  Brill!  We make a flask of tea (just because it’s 22 degrees and sunny, that’s no reason not to have tea) I put together sandwiches and we set off for the walk that I’d given up of having time to do.

The footpath signs take us almost immediately into pine forest.  We climb steeply up rocky slopes that might double for riverbed when it rains.  The light differs here to that in deciduous woods.  At home, the wafting leaves give intense patches pure gold on the dark earth below the canopy.  In winter it’s only the skeletons of branches and tree trunks that break up weak yellow daylight.  More of the sun’s rays settle their way down to the leaf-mulch carpet underfoot and birds flit in plain sight.

The pine forests that wrap themselves around us here have no canopy as such. We walk through foliage clearings but from little more than head-height the branches intertwine so that the sunshine is diffused, gentler, filtered by many feet of finely meshed pine needles. The air is full of their scent, warmth caresses my cheek.  I can hear but have no chance of spying the fauna that invisibly shake branches around me.  

Breathing hard from climbing 500m in one long swoop of the mountainside, we can finally raise our eyes from the rumbly terrain to look at the majestic craggy spires, bidding for freedom from their tree-clad roots.  I cannot talk.  My vocabulary is utterly inadequate for capturing the verdant green set against grey and rust towering rock, set against the crisp cloud-free heavens.  I can only drink in this loveliness, try to sate my thirst for such wonder.  Perhaps if I gaze intently enough I can greedily keep this soul-food within me, be nourished by it when we must eventually return home.  

In this singular space, this moment before the second hand moves onward, I am enchanted. My heart may never have been so full. I look across at M who’s similarly still.  Even Stan pauses, raises his snout to test the air and offers a languid wave of his tail. 

Gratitude, blessings, fortune has favoured us, does that mean we’re bold?

Day 7 – 9th Jan – Too much adventure…?

So, yesterday I confidently asserted that we wouldn’t be driving anywhere.  And we very nearly didn’t.  

Sitges is lovely to look at, like Eastbourne on solar steroids.  After watching a tango-orange sun lighting up the dawn with an almost perceptible “Ta-Daa!”, I set off for a jog along the couple of miles of seafront promenade. Gorgeous.  

Points to note about Sitges’ inhabitants:  

  1. Jack Russells are the dog breed of choice.  This makes sense: they’re small, easy to care for and will be ferociously protective of their owners and territory.  Unlike Stan, who if an intruder tried to rob us in the night, would ferociously attack the invader with long, slobbery, loving kisses
  2. Everyone who lives here clearly thinks it’s freezing.  M’s in his shorts and I’m in cropped running leggings, the locals are in puffa jackets, scarves, gloves and hats.  
  3. There are sisterhood activities here.  On my way back to the van, I ran near the beach.  In front of me was a perfect circle of women, most of whom listening avidly to one of their group; she leant forward as if divulging some precious secret.  I circled away from their communion, not wanting to distract them with my trainers flapping on the concrete pathway.
  4. There’s lots of poverty here.  Sitges’ ‘Hippy Area’ is a palatable description for the financially and socially disenfranchised.  There’s also a murmur in the campervan community about frequent robberies of vans parked in the vicinity.  

The sense of vulnerability made M think we should move on.  I was not massively enthusiastic, but as he was concerned about our safety, I assented to packing up and setting off to a UNESCO castle with a parking site that’s happy for campers to stop by.

This involved driving up into the tranquil pine-green forest.  We often use an app: ‘Park4Night’.  The subscription version (£8 per year) links with Google Maps to navigate you to out-of-the-way and often very lovely spots to stay.  We’re cautious about the amount of power that we give Google Maps. Several times it’s given us sub-optimal routes.  But when you’re tired and in unfamiliar environs it has its uses.

Which is how, when we were given the emphatic direction of “Turn Right Now” with a beeping and impatient set of drivers behind us (we’re inevitably much slower than cars on these steep, twisty lanes), we obeyed without really scrutinising where we were going.

“Thump” went the left front tyre.

“Thump” went the right front tyre.

We looked at each other in alarm, but were now committed to going forward.  

“Thump” went the left back tyre.

“Thump” went the right back tyre.

“CRUNCH” went the tailgate, followed by a long, screeching, grating noise.

We stopped. 

Attempts to move forward failed as the tyres spun on the loose dolomite and then dug themselves into a trench.  Attempts to go back left the gearbox complaining as the tailgate dug itself deeper into the gravelled tarmac.

Stuck. With our backend sticking out 3 feet into the road.

I’m so used to us being able to work our way out of any vehicular issue that I was cheerfully optimistic.  In twenty years of camper-vanning, we’ve never been beaten… 

We got out and had a look.  Even I was forced to admit, it didn’t look good.

A couple of park rangers in their ‘Foret National’ van drove by, then came back a few minutes later.

Could they help?

Well, they certainly tried to.  And, once they understood M’s solution, and if the bottle jack they were carrying had been both operational and larger, then yes, probably they could have.  Sadly, nearly an hour later we were still stuck.  Vanessa, one of our would-be rescuers called a local garage before she and Frederico disappeared off to finish their rounds, leaving behind their cell phone numbers and an assertion that we should call if we needed them.  As he drove away, with a rueful smile, Frederico called out “Welcome to Catalonia my friends” we smiled and waved, grateful at the very least to have had their concern for our welfare.

Thirty minutes more, Junerio (my phonetic spelling of his pronunciation) turned up with his ENORMOUS truck.  Rather than leveraging the back of the van off the ground with the rear edge of his tow-truck, he responded to M’s shouts of alarm and stopped pushing before the chassis buckled irrevocably out of shape.  

In the end, the three of us used two van ramps, an assortment of rocks and Junerio’s trolley jack to hoist the van high enough to clear the road ledge.  Then we were following him to the nearest town to withdraw the €150 we now owed him for his trouble.

Who cares? We were now free and his time wasn’t. We’ll sort it out tomorrow with the insurance company (who were stunningly unhelpful at the time).  

For the moment, camped up on a hilltop, beside an ancient castle, overlooking cobalt-blue lake below, we’re content.  A note to selves though – less trust in Google and more in our own judgement for the next nine weeks.

Light and ‘Aire’y

Jan 4th– Day 2 – Bruges to Troyes

It’s my turn to do the first dog walk of the morning.

Stan and I set off along the canal.  It would appear that ALL dog owners in Bruges use dog leads, at ALL times, when exercising their moderately behaved and docile hounds.  So, the prospect of my 3-year-old Labrador bouncing across the cycle lane is apparently unwelcome.  Mostly, the bi-wheeled locals divert with restrained forbearance.  One ‘gentleman’ offers me the benefit of his wisdom as he speedily disappears into the gloom indulging me with incomprehensible Flemish insults.

We walk on. As Stan enthusiastically sniffs and relieves his internal organs, I notice the offices that sit alongside ancient monuments.  At 8am, glass-walled enclosures are lit by warm yellow lamps, densely populated with engaged-looking individuals, already focused on the tasks of the day.  Beside these loom turreted towers that have clearly been in place for centuries.   Such is Bruges’ magic that these structures appear to heave been lovingly completed just before Christmas, I mean this Christmas.  They are immaculate.  I stand with my back to one such spired tower, gazing across the undisturbed waters of the spotless canal towards the Bruges Business Centre, it’s warm light casting gentle reflections on the rain spattered pavements.  Across my line of sight, other cyclists glide seemingly effortlessly toward their industrious days – panniers and backpacks full of importances.  I am in an alien land, awed at the sense of order, so sad that we are striving to reject our European partnership.

Stan and I wander back toward ‘home’.  We find the Van and M fired up, ready to rumble, route mapped on Google and impatient for the off.  Scrambling inside, Stan retreats to the calm of his bed, grunting with pleasure as he flumps into his covers.  I tidy away the bits that would have hurtled across surfaces at any sharp corner. We’re away.

The plan is to stop for the night at Reims.  There are 32 things to see and 7 potential places to stop.  But just before we reach our destination, we halt at one of the road-side Aires and reconsider.

The Europeans do ‘Aires’ – think spotless, free, service stations, offering washing up points, some with showers, all with loos, on tap fresh water, black-water drop off. These are used by vehicles of all sizes, from juggernauts to motorbikes.  Open 24 hours a day and maintained, it appears, at the state’s expense, there is never more than 20km between Aire, whatever the motorway, A-road or town.  This means that travellers need never be overcome with tiredness; these pit stops are designed for sleep-overs.  It is one more of those long-term, thought-through solutions that make traversing Europe accessible and relatively painless.  As each 100 miles passes behind us, M and I realize that the ‘road trip’ we had built into such an obstacle has been done many times before us, with much ease.

We rumble past Reims at our glorious maximum speed of 65mpg.  One of the unfixed issues of our van is its speed limiter. The CPU on the engine has been reset set to normal but there is an additional limiter on the gearbox.  This has confounded the four mechanics we have tasked with its removal.  On the up-side our miles-per-gallon performance is (relatively) great.  On the downside, a two-day journey for a car will take us at least three overnight stops.  We often debate whether conditions are ok for us to overtake a slow vehicle in the right-hand lane – we cannot go faster, so unless we’re going downhill with the wind behind us, we learn to be patient and appreciate the subtle differences between various back ends of HGV vehicles before us.

Troyes is a medieval delight.  Sacked by the Normans in 887, its old churches, unbalanced Tudor-style buildings, separated by narrow, higgledy lanes are charming.  We wander, taking in the sights, gazing into churches, shops, before the cold pushes back toward the van.  As the sun sets, the daytime ‘high’ of 70C plummets.

We tuck into the slow-cooked chicken dish (powered by solar panels), open up the wine we’ve been saving and I pick up my laptop, ready to write.  We’ve learnt so much already.  What, I wonder will the rest of our odyssey have to teach us. We’re booked (according to our ticket) to return on 9thMarch unless we bail and come home earlier. I’m glad I checked the print, I thought we were going back on the 10th– wishful thinking maybe?

South tomorrow.  From Troyes you can go left (East to Perpignan) or right (West to Pau and Lourdes). We have toyed with a central crossing over the Pyrenees but it’s been snowing there since November and current temperatures climax at around minus 50C.

Vicky’s parting comment yesterday morning when we dropped her at her London-bound station was “Listen to your husband, don’t push against his instincts” – Solemn wisdom indeed from one’s daughter…!

Padders

They are plucky little buggers, my padders, my feet, but they are not pretty. 

Being somewhat short and overwide, they end abruptly with a set of stubby toes. The heels are shallow so that socks and the backs of high-heeled shoes slide off.  Pregnancy saw that proud insteps collapsed into humbler shapes over time.  The tops of each foot are not only criss-crossed with knarly veins but also sprout vertical hairs.  Thankfully these are blonde so it’s only when light catches that an unsuspecting observer gets a sudden shock of follicle horror. The toes are perhaps the worst; oblong in shape with tiny toenails, set at odd angles, and each little toe on the outside shares the family curse of a knotty claw-like substitute for a nail.

“Oh, Come on…!” I hear you protest, “No  one has feet like that… they sound like trolls feet…” Whereupon I raise one sardonic eyebrow in your direction and leave you to your own conclusions.

Twas long ago confirmed that I have unlovely padders.  In 1978, by Mrs Hurst. She, the proprietor of The Sheffield Modern Dance Company whose lessons I attended each Saturday morning (the dance studio being accessed through a converted garage, lined with School benches and pegs for the students to change and await their lessons). 

Mrs Hurst took a dim view of my feet. Despite gaining distinctions and Highly Commended grades in tap and ballet exams, she decided that I would never ‘Make it’.  She drew my mother and I aside after lessons one week, to explain why my feet were unsuitable for a lifetime career in dance. The problem, she explained, was my toes. The lady removed one of her own shoes to reveal a not-pretty but considerably longer proportioned fleet of toes.

“Julie’s toes don’t point properly.  See how mine point like this?” She extended those podiacal digits an unfeasible length. My mother and I couldn’t help but acknowledge the extent of her improbable pointing. 

“Well, Julie’s don’t do that. Show them dear.”  By which time we had a small crowd and I reluctantly allowed Mrs Hurst to securely embed my humiliation as she said:

“Now point yours and compare them to mine.”

There was no favourable comparison to make and the audible tittering just behind me confirmed the fact. I had I’ll-shaped toes. Images of my prima ballerina tutu on a floodlit stage instantly receded, replaced by a picture of tears by the dance bar and unending mockery for the shape of my feet.

Which, in my book was a completely unnecessary conversation. The alternative cosy chat could have been: “Really Mrs Sterling, your daughter has no more than a modicum of talent at dancing and you share the same level of ability in paying my fees. I suggest an aspirational change to long distance running; which should sufficiently remove you both as far as possible from my door.” It would have been no less disheartening and would have hastened the end of my dancing days almost no quicker.

Mrs Hurst’s message about my lack of sporting prowess was echoed by other voices, and by the age of eleven I knew for a certainty that I was “not the sporty type”. My feet then, went untested. Other than nightly Jane Fonda workouts on my bedroom floor, it was clear to all that I wasn’t meant for exercise.  Fifteen years later, on the way out of an unhappy, lonely, first marriage was when these prodigious wonders came into their own.

I was SO angry. 

I tried walking to dispel the rage, but it didn’t take even the skin off my fury. Occasionally, I broke into a trot, as long as there was no one to witness. I knew and everyone else would instantly recognise that I couldn’t run if they saw my angular loping.  If anyone appeared on the horizon, I drew back the throttle on my medication, slowing to a walk. Until I couldn’t anymore. The further I ran, the more I needed to keep on going. Eventually, careless of the audience or my ineptitude, I just ran.

My marvellous, wonderful, stoic little padders held me up. As if they’d spent one and a half decades waiting for me to get on with it. They ran over the South Downs; kept me upright as I furiously paced up and down the length of Eastbourne sea front. I pounded the ground anywhere I could get up to speed, working out my pent up exasperation and disappointment. My hardworking padders took me in every direction they were pointed.

Aged 26, like a newborn who discovers their appendages in the pram, I made friends with my feet. 

Which is when they really got to work. Wrapped in bouncy trainers I jogged my way to half marathon distances. Training with my fearless daughter we splashed, mud soaked together to fifteen miles.  Learning to climb, squished into bent-over climbing shoes, I would balance my weight on tiny slivers of rock, trusting my toes to keep me stable as I groped my hands across a rock face hunting for somewhere safe to place my hands. Encased in heavy walking boots, I not only hiked but discovered how limited were the boundaries set in place by others over what I could achieve. And each discovery broadened the horizons of what I would next require those padders to do. 

Invited to do the Yorkshire 3-peaks, 24 miles in a day and it was my knees that I fretted over, not my stumpy feet. By the end, grumbly arches muttered rebellion as I pushed to the finishing point, but we made it, those padders and me.  They didn’t much care for spiky crampons and rocking at violent angles to maintain a desperate stability on ice and snow, but they complied and carried me down slopes of white without mishap while my brain was screaming “Lunacy” In my ears. An expanding set of expectations took me to Nepal, to 200km of dusty track walking up hills and down vales. They picked me up each morning and together we saw the Himalayan peaks scraping the top of the sky where the air reaches up to the rest of the universe.

Mischievous, these feet of mine, they play tricks if perceiving neglect.  Dire the consequences of ignoring warnings; running with a tired frame. Twice my right big toe has spied the edge of a paving slab to snag on to, sending the rest of me hurtling forward and downwards to surgical interventions on my knees. After cycling sixty miles and then punishing the achievement with a jog, plantar tendons screamed in protest and insisted I be still awhile.  

I have learned respect for their opinions. I know I am lost without them, so take more care in latter years, though doubtless not enough. But they are on my side. With stumpy-1 and stumpy-2 I am rewriting my identity and how I view the world. It may be that at 50 I have started this journey too late. Perhaps my feet would tell you of their impatience to be getting along. 

Mrs Hurst, my padders did indeed fail at superlative pointing, but I would like you to know this doesn’t matter now. Because what’s really important is that my padders have made remarkable achievements possible. 

And for that, I thank my friends, my padders, my feet.

The Janitor

My ovaries have been, are, and struggle to continue being, my hormone factory. And the factory has a janitor. Now, as the factory nears the end of its useful life and the janitor approaches his retirement, he is cleaning out the cupboards.

Each time he discovers an old batch of eggs at the back of some dusty corner, he clears them out, regardless of how long it has been since the last one was moved from my system. Through calloused hands, he sweeps from the shoulder, pushing away the remnants of my fertility. Another space is empty and the door behind him locked.

We have never been great friends, this janitor and I.

Unlike other women, intuitive and in-tune with their body’s managerial systems, my janitor is huffy, easily upset. The slightest emotional disturbance and he took to his back room with a party pack of lager, settled in his saggy armchair, refusing to emerge from the sports channel. Whereas other women had punctual if punctilious carers, mine turned up when it suited, swept down my monthly if he felt like it and then wandered off to do something more interesting.  If, say, the cup match final was on, he disappeared, never mind the disarray created by his negligence.

And he extracts his final revenge now. Revenge? For having a female form to work in. Not for him a low-slung set of testes, from whence he could pump endless testosterone and exult in the power of the male form. This janitor has resented his lifetime and exacted petty vengeance’s from the start. Like giving me my first period, on horseback in a riding lesson when I was eleven. Having me heave with seasickness in pregnancy, leaving me bereft or mad with hormonal rage when premenstrual. His life-long employment has been my torment. All for being female.

And now that he and I are almost done, his ire knows no bounds. Some cupboards contain not eggs, but vats. These brown, nondescript tubs are tightly lidded. The janitor approaches his latest discovery with eager anticipation. His eyes gleam as he prises up the lid and light falls on the liquid emotion contained inside; shiny, unstable, volatile.

“GNah!” He shouts in glee. Other janitors might replace the lid, gingerly moving on one edge at a time towards the lymphatic drainage system that would allow all that pent up energy to harmlessly dissipate away. Not my man, oh no. He grins that gap-toothed malevolent smile, wraps knarled arms around the drum and throws the container with shimmering contents high up into the air.

Up, up, up and CRASH, down, down. With his movements up, up, up, go my emotions, utterly out of control and when anger over some indiscernible trifle is spent, then down, down, down I crash, dissolving into sobs; lost at my inability to control this rollercoaster that my janitor deliberately revels in creating. He stands triumphant at the chaos from his actions and steps over the damp patches on the floor. The puddles of spilt emotion will leave indelible salty watermarks, not dissimilar to those of tears. My janitor, free of concern, shuffles on his rounds.

I have not been the helpless victim of my janitor these four decades. I have strategised, planned, regrouped and tried again. When he pumped my muscles full of retained water, I ate cucumber and kiwis; natural diuretics. When he thickened my waist, I took to exercise, running, walking; anything my besieged body would allow me to do. When he weighted down my arms and legs so that even raising my head from the pillow was an effort, I pushed onwards, seizing what tiny medical help was available. I continued, despite his best efforts.

I have been waiting…

This last phase, wether it takes months or years are the foregone conclusion of womanhood. It is much documented, feared. There are patches, creams, pills, devices, but all invigorate my janitor and prolong the inevitable. Age now offers a promise of comfort. Additional wrinkles are the price of retiring my lifelong foe. This will end.

I look down at my janitor, leaning on his broom and glaring in my direction. We both know the truth; his time is shortly up. Soon he will sleep, somewhere in the mothballed factory halls, within his sanctuary, lager cans stacked and the TV remote resting on the frayed chair arm. I cannot predict how long our war will continue, but it’s cessation is nigh.

He raises his fist, shaking it at me in anger and I look up to the wall. There hangs a dial resembling a clock face. Where the noon-day pointer would be the face is deep red. It is paler at three, pale pink by nine and white approaching the vertical once again. I hear him growl from below, making my stomach ache and tender breasts sore. But I smile as almost imperceptibly, the single hand on that clock moves another notch closer from red-pink to white…

Day 4 – The Final Countdown

This morning I was determined to be on the ball: weather, wind and avalanche forecasts were at my fingertips; pack all sorted early; by the requisite 8am I was ready to rumble!  Rob suggested a route with more walking than climbing, but then we hadn’t talked about me having previous climbing experience.  The weather looked glorious, temperatures of (only) -2 to -4.  I was confident now about my layers: one merino top, a hardshell and a padded jacket just in case.  Sunglasses, gloves, and most essential of all… flapjack!

Back in the pass of Glencoe we travelled up the valley on a gradual slope.  Lots of slippy ice and snow patches underfoot.  The river was sufficiently frozen that we donned crampons for the crossings as we zig zagged our way to the mountain foot.

The pace was steady.  I had said during the briefing “I cannot walk at your pace”.  Rob seemed to clock this and the beginning of the day felt less rushed.

We reached the base of the ridge that was planned for today, walking up Lairig Eilde to a long steep ridge that took us up to the cornice and from there we could gain the munro some 1072m above the road height.

It was proper climbing!  Rob led the first pitch and I seconded him up, waiting at the bottom unsure of how much communication would take place and what was taking so long for him to create a safe pitch.  Finally, he called down “safe” which means he was now tied in to something solid up above, I responded with “Off belay” which means that I was no longer protecting him.  He shouted “Climb when ready”; my signal to  remove myself from the piece of metal holding me onto the hillside and when I’m ready start moving up the ridge.

Using crampons on a mixed surface of ice, snow and rock was a new sensation.  At times, I found footholds that felt more secure than toes through a rubber climbing shoe.  Sometimes I was considerably less stable.  The massive advantage of using an ice axe was that it gave me another 55cm of reach.  Amazing!  If there was nothing much that I wanted to grab hold of, I could extend my axe and hook it over a ledge, into a cranny.  Height was no issue!  Brilliant 😀

When I reappeared, grinning, next to Rob we chatted about the climbing process.  Running through the communication drills.  He generously passed over his nuts, slings, and spare gear.  My turn to lead.

The grade of climbing wasn’t an issue; on a summer’s day you probably wouldn’t have bothered with rope or traditional climbing gear.  But this was a new terrain for me and the reassurance of taking up nuts and slings and creating a secure belay at the top was welcome.  The route was lovely; lots of positive hand and foot holds; good ice; a nice manoeuvre over one ridge edge to another that Rob didn’t want to make on second which surprised me.  Lovely, lovely, lovely!

And on…

And on…

We had made several hundred metres of good snow or rock.  My energy levels were slipping and each time I thought we approached the pinnacle there was another level beyond.  Our route moved round to the right to the final two pitches of seven.  The penultimate section involved a short thin ledge across a 20m space;  a short down climb and at the end, one shard of rock on to which to set up the belay.  Rob led this and I watched his progress with care, feeding rope and relating the amount of spare remaining.  The sun had been shining all day and now at 1:30, it was warm.  The ice edges were starting to melt.  Below us on either side of this thin walkway were sheer drops, with just rocky outcrops that might, or might not delay a fall.

Rob secured a belay position and I prepared to follow, moving downwards from my solid foot space to a crumbly ledge below.  I fail to hook my axe over the nearest piece of rock, focusing instead on where my feet were on the slush beneath me.  Suddenly, they weren’t beneath me any more and I was slipping.  In a panic, I turned toward my axe which was above my head, not where it should be, close to my chest where I could use my body weight to slow me down…  Ahhgh…

The axe bit and my crampons found purchase.  My heart thudding, I remembered to inhale.

In total, I had slipped about six inches.  In emotional terms, I had fallen several hundred feet.  And I was on belay, so in reality I could only ever have fallen five or six feet.  On wobbly legs I got vertical, looked for secure foot placements and steadied myself.  Phew…

Across the remainder of the ledge and up to Robs belay point, He asked if I’d enjoyed the pitch.  I said it had it’s moments and related my fall.  We prepared to move on.  There was a long steep section to finish the climb.  45 degrees of softening snow and a new rhythm.  Ice axe in, toe push, toe push, steady.  Over again: axe, toe, toe, steady…

On top of the ridge it was stunning.  Beneath a perfect sky was a huge vista of snow-peaks.  Sitting near the edge and looking behind to our left, there is the summit of Stob Corrie, a long gradual rise away.  Leaving that pristine height we walked beyond our point of ascent to the lowest point from where we could descend to the valley floor.

At the point where we needed to drop over the the ridge edge, my stomach was lurching again.  From a horizontal surface the hillside fell away at 45 degrees once more.  I paused.  Not one single fibre in my whole being wanted to go over that edge and onto the slope.  Rob looked over at me in surprise.

“Are you really concerned about this, after the last few days?”

I looked back at him and thought:

No shit sherlock, what sane human being wouldn’t be nervous about throwing themselves off the edge of a precipice relying on 20 small bits of metal to keep them from plunging to the bottom of the mountain…?

What I actually said was:

“Well, there’s only one way down and I’ll do it one step at a time”  My face moved in an approximation of a smile.  Off we set.  One foot at a time.  Back to yesterday’s routine: pole, axe, step, step, steady; pole, axe, step, step, steady.  All the way down…

Walking back through the uneven ice, grass, rocks and ahead was a herd of deer.  One large stag, maybe ten does and younger fawns.  All perfectly colour co-ordinated with the brown-yellow scrub that we were travelling over.  They watched us and our progress through the valley, unconcerned, nibbling at the semi-frozen stalks as we left them by.

It had been a great day.  I had done my first two leads on snow and ice, wearing crampons.  It was my first multi-pitch experience.  I had walked along snow-ridges and had images in my head that rivalled any climbing experience before.  Most of all, I had conquered my fear of the cold.  It’s all just about gear.  I have gear.  I know better how to use it now.

Back at the hotel, after farewells Rob drove home and  I was absolutely done.  An enormous effort meant that I could stay awake for supper, but ideas of sitting in the bar with the treat of a second glass of wine were hopeless.  With a happy, satisfied but exhausted smile.  I bid goodnight to the warm and friendly staff and finished the trip lying in bed thinking…

Well, that was wonderful… what next?!

 

Day 3 – Rock and Empathy

A new day, sunshine, an additional guide and even more importantly – another pair of boots! I’ve gone down half a size and the ‘new’ boots feel a lot better. Still a bit too much room, but my feet don’t rotate each time I walk and my heels don’t leave the boots behind, so we’re onto a winner.

Plus (and it’s a biggy…) as we were on our way out, my huge blue pack towering above me, Chris suggested that I ask Andy if I could use his bag instead. He may have been joking, but like a drowning girl, I grabbed at this straw. Andy, to his eternal credit, paused (it was his new, lovely bag, used only once by himself and set up for his eventual trek round the Himalayas) said “of course…”. I hugged him; couldn’t help myself. Thank you, thank you thank you… Andy disappeared to empty his bag of his own things and presented me with his sack, compeed plasters, just in case, additional sets of hand warmers and his emergency bivvy-bag.  Hard to imagine how he could have been any kinder.

So, the day started with a bacon sandwich, boots that rubbed less and a bag that was only slightly too big for me… could it get any better?!

Yes, as it happens, it could, but then….

During the briefing we met Tom, our new guide.  He watched as Rob briefed us for the day  Had any of us checked weather and avalanche reports?  I had checked the weather.  Ok…

Rob’s irritation at our lack of proactivity is not unreasonable.  The aim of this course is to leave us reasonably self-sufficient in terms of making sensible and safe choices in winter mountain conditions.  We can’t afford to be passive about the elements and Rob was trying to get us to take responsibility for our future activities. The rest of the briefing covered route, quizzing us about likely risks, avalanche likelihood, wind speed and direction and so on…  We were doing a grade I winter scramble, using ropes and would ascend the nearest munro if time allowed.

At the start of the day’s adventure the split of the group was clear. Rob would take the ‘better’ group (Alex and Duncan), Tom had me and Chris. In other circumstances, I might have been insulted to so clearly be labelled as ‘less than’; today I was delighted. After yesterday’s emotionally and body-bruising experience, I no longer cared where I stood in the rankings, I just didn’t want to chase up another mountain side feeling like a vague irritation.

We (obviously) weren’t doing the “normal route” (i.e. footpath for tourists),. So instead of taking a gentle rise, we headed up a frozen waterfall in order to quickly gain the 500m height that would take us to the start of our winter scramble. Half way up and my base layer (nylon tights) and wardrobe malfunction (failed elastic in my walking trousers) were combining to leave me somewhat exposed. I stopped, ordered all five blokes to look the other way, stripped off, removed the tights and used Andy’s rucksack waistband-strap to loop through my trousers so that they would stay approximately around my waist. Finally, on day 3, I could walk without impediment – wonderful!

Then an hour of ‘up, up, up?!

We paused, at the bottom of the snow line, crampons on at the base of our first buttress of rock. The climbing had started.

Tom roped us up. Tom first – then me – then Chris. 2.5m of rope between us. Chris’ job was to maintain the distance between me and him, so that we could avoid a shock-load if he slipped. For those of you who haven’t climbed; avoiding a shock load in a rope system is one of the key elements of climbing safely outdoors. The rope is dynamic (i.e. it stretches a bit if you fall off). This is a good thing, it provides ‘give’ in the system and reduces the risk of serious injury. However, having that safety lag depends on the system (the people attached to each other) having a little bit of tension in the rope. Imagine driving a car: you can feel the pressure on the acceleration pedal, so that if you put your foot down, the car’s engine is already working with you and can accelerate in response to you lowering your foot. If you were stationary at a red light, tried to put the car into 5th and pull away, the engine would stall.

In rope terms, the stall means that whoever’s at the front of the system hasn’t had a chance to prepare and at best they’re struggling to hold you if you take a slip or fall. At worst, you’ve yanked your lead climber off their feet and you’re both off the mountain, free-falling the hundreds of metres to the bottom of the valley. Sometimes, a bit of tension is a marvellous thing…

But this was Chris’ first time on rock. In his head he was trying to keep up, so the notion of staying back and having a bit of stretch on the top between us must have seemed foreign. However, we progressed easily. Our pace wasn’t much behind the other group (a few minutes?) but the going was easier, Chris under instruction not to apologise for stopping, Tom was very relaxed, cheerful company. And, because we were well within my comfort zone, for the first time this trip, I could enjoy the cloudless deep blue sky, crisp white snowy peaks and miles and miles of visibility. Stunning: mountains behind mountains all the way into the distance…

And then we were on rock. Lovely, lovely, positive holds, foot ledges where I could jam my crampons into cracks and gain secure spaces to move up from. Crisp, icy snow between crags; each toe thrust held and the front of my crampons bit into the ice, making me feel stable and safe. My ice axe either dug into the snow or served as an additional 55cm of height. So I could always find something to grab hold of. It was… delicious….

Chris did brilliantly. As I finished one scrambling section, I looked back and watched him reach around a precipice, feel for and find a hand-hold. Then came his head, and his left foot. Finally, he hoisted himself onto his left leg, bringing round right hand and foot until he had swivelled in the air and traversed a corner. He was awesome. Go Chris. Below him was a 500m drop and he didn’t flinch for a second. Coming up to meet me (oh, well, never mind the shock-load) he stood beside me – we giggled for pure joy. Look where we were and what we were doing. This is what climbing is all about

Eventually, we neared the summit (boo, too soon). The others, maybe 5 minutes ahead of us, were eating and taking on fluids. We took pictures, shared congratulations, smiled and relaxed in the sunshine. There was only the descent now to finish the day…

Ah yes, the down bit…

Crumbs.

Of all the ways down, this was not the route I expected. Rather than following the slope further down the ridge, we turned a sharp right, down a corrie at least 45 degrees in slope.

Seriously? It was as steep as a 90m ski-jump slope, but five times as long. You’ve got to be joking… I only put on these crampons for the first time 40 hours ago…

Rob is calm and implacable. “If you fall, it’s a very icy surface; you will struggle to do an ice arrest. So don’t fall…”

(gulp)

With my stomach somewhere around my knees I follow Tom and Alex over the edge and onto this impossible slope. One tentative step at a time. I stab my crampon spikes into the snow. Trekking pole down next, ice axe plunged into the surface above me. Left foot down at the same angle as the slope. Right foot follows. Pole, axe, left foot, right foot. With each move I listen intently for the crunch. Did all points engage? Did the surface shift at all? Am I stable? Then repeat. Pole, axe, left foot, right foot. Check. Pole, axe, left foot, right foot. Check. Each repetition gains me 3 feet forwards and 2 feet drop in altitude. It is a slow and laborious process. I am utterly focused on the task at hand.

Tom’s voice intrudes on my concentration. He points out the route we need to take and how to zigzag down the slope. Pole, axe, left foot, right foot. Check.

Then I hear Chris’ voice above me. “Rob, my knee has gone”. I check for stability and then look behind and above me. Chris is sitting in the snow, collapsed on his injured left knee. He’s only made it four feet from the top.

Rob moves back towards Chris, Tom is alarmed and annoyed. In his opinion it wasn’t fair to let Chris make this call; that’s the job of the guide. Chris had struggled with his knee on the ascent, it wasn’t a surprise that the descent was more difficult. Tom stays with me, Duncan and Alex; it becomes his job to see us down. Rob will find an alternative route that Chris’ poor knee can tolerate.

Pole, axe, step, step, check. We continue downhill. Alex and I find a rhythm and move more easily.

Duncan falls, he slips and calls out. I watch him slide a few metres down the mountain.

We watch Tom run to his aid some 50m above us. Duncan is caught by an exposed patch of heather. Both men wait, catch their breath. I start to breath again too.

Tom helps Duncan regain his feet and shows him how to take toe-steps down, facing onto the hillside. It is an exhausting way to retreat, but has the comfort of staying close to the ice surface with your ice axe permanently engaged in the snow.

Deep breath. Pole, axe, step, step, check…

The four of us drop to base of the snow line and stop to remove crampons and climbing gear. No sign of Chris or Rob. We continue down on surfaces that are unpredictable. Sometimes frozen and slippy, other times boggy and sinking, other times again, full of roots that catch on our boots. We have a mile in distance and 300m of descent through this terrain. Each of us slips and falls at some point. Poor Duncan does a full 360, Tom at his side, he steadies D and then helps him locate his glasses. Alex and I pause, check that no serious injury has occurred, then we all continue down.

I’ve enjoyed conversation with all my companions, but perhaps had most to chat about with Alex.  This time our route down is less hurried.  So when I need to take off a layer he waits for me to get going again rather than needing to rush on by.  The lack of pressure is a relief and I appreciate his patience.

Suddenly behind, there are Chris and Rob. Yahoo! Chris is moving. Slowly. Clearly in pain. Rob is some 50m or so ahead of him. I watch, i move down a few feet, then pause and recollect. It’s the same as yesterday. Chris brought his car to the base of the route, so in theory he could be left on the mountainside. I cannot be left behind. There is no way that I’m going to let Chris be subjected to the lonely and miserable experience that I had the day before.

I pause, let chat briefly with Rob, but let him pass by and wait for Chris. We talk for a bit and then Chris says “On you go Julie”

“No” I reply “I’m behind you”

Poor bugger is in too much pain to argue. He sets off. On occasions we chat, often we’re in silence. But I will not pass in front of him and I will not let him descend alone. As a result he speeds up a little, and we make a companionable route to the base.

Eventually, we make the car park beside the school that gave our route it’s name: The School House Ridge. Chris collects email addresses, but I don’t have his. I will set up a Dropbox file and sharing our digital memories, I need to get his email at some point to do this. We share a companionable hug farewell.

Chris sets off for Edinburgh and home. The rest of us go back to the hotel. I return Andy’s bag and go to Fort William to purchase an alternative that will see me though tomorrow’s adventure with Rob. The evening is spent with the lovely Jo, who’s event managed a team of 10 Jewish fundraisers ascending Ben Nevis, a new mountaineer doing a course with my company and one of their guides. It’s a cheerful evening, but I’m too tired to keep up conversation long after dinner. By 9:45 I need to be in bed and just manage to haul myself up the two flights of stairs to my room.

Who knows what tomorrow will bring but the last thing I do before I sleep is check the weather forecast – tomorrow should be lovely…

Day 2 – The View from the Back

I got down early for breakfast, hoping to write up the blog, but was joined by Andy. He was sad but resolute, no climbing for him today.  He recognised the signs of pleurisy and wanted to get to the nearest A&E for treatment.  Chris appeared and he, too, was signing out.  His knee hadn’t recovered overnight and he was going to hunt for a new brace.

That left me, Duncan and Alex for the second training session: rope skills and snow safety. Our day started with the briefing: had we checked the day’s sheets? We mumbled that we hadn’t. Rob said naught…

Then map out, avalanche and weather forecasts were compared with the suggested direction of travel. Which of our slopes (north, south, east or west) would be most at avalanche risk? Where would the wind be coming from? What other hazards could we anticipate between the map and the forecasts? A gentle drilling in being mountain aware, considering our options and their inherent dangers. All aimed at inculcating us with decision making processes that we might rely on in the future.

Rob had obviously been listening to my fears about the cold.  He presented me with a pair of mitts to borrow.  These were his wife’s and had been all the way to Antarctica.  I’m honoured and worried – can’t afford to lose one of these babies then.  They are deliciously warm.

The minibus ride took us to the start of a footpath up to Stob Ban. On the slippy, icy way we halted in a small, snow-filled corrie, happily sheltered from most of the wind that was forecast for 30-40mph today. We started with digging a snow belay – a hole in the snow in which to sit to belay a climbing partner. But not just any old hole. Ours must each be big enough for ourselves and our packs, deep enough that we sunk up to the back of our knees; undercut so that the front ledge pinned us in and gave us maximum possible security. Then an axe anchor behind the hold. Next, belay techniques and a few knots that I found familiar. I team taught with Rob, showing Alex the belay routine whilst Rob worked with Duncan who found rope management less natural.

More lessons, creating a snow bank to abseil down from, general snow safety, judging the ice pack, it’s dangers and likelihood of stability. Rob’s instructions were patient, detailed and clear. Everything we learnt was geared to safety, safety, safety. Lots of questions; he asked us to think out our answers as well as take additional information on board. He linked back today’s new chunks to yesterday’s and this morning’s. The training section of the day went quickly and we adjusted to grabbing mouthfuls of food when the opportunity arose.

Five freezing hours after leaving the minibus, Rob suggested that we “step up” and do the ascent of Stob Ban, an hour’s climb away. If he’d suggested that we go home for a cup of tea and hot shower before dinner I’d have readily agreed with him…

My legs were still aching from the day before but Duncan and Alex seemed unaffected, marching effortlessly behind our Leader. The further ahead they got the harder it was to maintain motivation. As for yesterday, the guys were moving at Rob’s Everest-ready pace. Alex is just phenomenally fit and ate up what each day offered him.  Duncan I think found the going more difficult but simply refused to be left behind.  Occasionally they paused and I caught up. By the time I reached them, they were rested and ready to move. This cycle worsened as we progressed.

Eventually, I decided that I’d just have to walk for myself. There was NO way that I would be giving in, or giving up, but I simply couldn’t chase them up this mountain. On one occasion, I got to them as they were inspecting the ice pack so I walked on past. It helped to be ahead, if only for a short distance. I maintained this lead for as long as I could, such a relief not to feel like I was being abandoned at the rear of the line. But as the gradient steepened towards 40 degrees near it’s summit, I inevitably fell back once more.

It didn’t matter if I walked left-side up, toes in first or right-side leading, muscles were lactic-heavy and reluctant. Plus my bag was so big that I couldn’t raise my head to see where I was going. It was also excruciating to wear. If I had the belt where it was supposed to be, it cut off the blood supply to my legs. If I hoisted it to the top of my ribs I could walk but with restricted breathing. If I loosened the belt and held it up, I could mitigate both issues, but then had no way to use my ice-axe, which I needed. In addition, my boots were a size too big and so my foot rotated when walking up the slope and changing foot direction.

I felt my emotions rising, and  when I paused, pushed back my sack and looked up, the guys were further ahead than ever; disappearing over one high, steep ridge after another. When we were just 100m from the summit, I found them waiting on a ledge for me. I didn’t take the rest, but went forwards. Rob seemed to approve and said “Good”. But it wasn’t good, it was desperation. We were not on Everest, we did not need to race. This was one of the most miserable days I’d ever had out on any mountain.

The top, at last the top. The boys were shaking hands and all happy. I tried to match their sense of achievement, but could have easily growled. So I kept quiet and smiled for the pictures.

And down we go…

More of the same, them ahead, me behind, feet, back, bag, legs, emotions.

When we reached the end of the snow line, it was time to remove harnesses, helmets, crampons. I fumbled and was so slow that Rob sent the others on ahead and came over, unceremoniously stuffing my bag with the things around me. He gave me a deeply reproachful look. What did he think I was doing, going for a Sunday ramble? Then we were back on catch-up…

I won’t repeat the woes above; you can fill in the blanks. Feeling like a hindrance was mixing with a whole bunch of unrelated emotions that I’d been carrying around for a while. My self esteem resembled a pre-packed block of Wensleydale; in it’s packaging it appears whole and firm but peel off the wrapper and it soon starts to crumble. Tired, with the others miles ahead, I turned into a rebellious teenager.

“Sod the lot of you.”

Unless they were going to drive off without me, all their rushing was pointless, they would have to wait at the bottom. So in a state of mutiny, I reduced my speed, not to a recalcitrant crawl; I wanted to get back too; but not doing the break-neck pace over loose rocks and black ice, so that I could be more sure of my footing.

Eventually, the final gate at the bottom appeared in view. Rob must be in a hurry. I saw him get in the van, start to move when poor Duncan appeared from the right, struggling with his trousers and running to get to the van as Rob drove off in my direction. I walked to the centre of the road, the bugger would have to stop or run me over. Duncan opened the side door and I was commanded to get in. I wanted to get in. My bag needed to come off first though. At the repetition of the order I agreed and said “I’m taking off my pack”. Silence emanated from the driver’s seat.

I climbed in the rear and Rob threw the van round corners. My stomach lurched. I’m not a good traveller in the back of cars, so the combination of the day’s exertion and being tossed around in a minibus was threatening to have dire consequences. I stayed quiet for as long as I dared, but after a particularly jostling bend I had to speak up. Could I come and sit in the front, next to Alex? If not, I might just vomit.

Unsurprisingly, Rob screeched to a halt and we played musical minibus seats. Rob constrained his speed and we trundled back towards the hotel.

“What time is your dinner at the hotel?”
“Not til 7-7.30, we have plenty of time. Do you have a timetable you’re working to?”
“I said I’d be back for dinner at 6”

The dashboard clock said 18:37.

Aha.

There we had it. It was domestic issues that had us running up and down the bloody hillsides. Because of course, Rob wouldn’t get to just drop us off. There were ropes to sort and gear to stash and then he had a 20 minute drive back to Fort William.  When in charge of his own environment, Rob was calm, focused, and his level of experience meant that we could have absolute faith in his ability.  But at the wrong end of the day, when he was late for family routines and well past the 8am-5pm daily timeframe, then he got tetchy.

When we pulled into the hotel car park, I staggered into the reception area, pulled off my big, painful boots and slowly wound my way upstairs to my room. I had no energy to bid friendly farewells and needed to get horizontal before something dramatic happened.

I just got into my room in time. Lying down didn’t help and very shortly I was leaning over the loo getting reacquainted with my ham and mustard sandwich. Then a lie down and a chance to let my system settle.

I was not in the mood to be sociable; didn’t want to eat. But tomorrow was another full day.  I needed to replenish energy stores. So I gingerly crept downstairs and into the bar where there was much joviality. Andy had received wonderful NHS Scotland treatment and was buzzing on a cocktail of relief, antibiotics and steroids. Chris had found an adjustable knee brace and was also full of medication. Duncan and Alex, like myself, were wiped from 10 hours of effort, but it was.a cheery meal, with lots of chat and I was considerably brighter by the time I crawled back upstairs at 9:30pm.

Just before I’d retired to my room, Alex called me back: Oh, Julie, before he left, Rob said to tell you well done”.  I managed to smile in response.

Tomorrow we would have an extra guide, and split the group. Andy couldn’t take part.  The others were all leaving that day and Andy wanted to start the long drive back at 3pm, taking Duncan with him. So I would vote to be in the short-day group and try to recapture some strength before my final day on Tuesday when it would be just me and Rob…