… one of those epic trips …

Our family has a history of what we call ‘epics’. These are those trips which on the face of it, seem simple and straightforward, but in actual fact go so horribly wrong that you wonder why you bothered in the first place. I suppose my current trip to Seattle is not such a disaster in relation to what some people go through, but it’s gone sufficiently haywire in the last 72 hours so as to warrant a blog post, and I think at least the subtitle of ‘epic’. In fact … I’m sitting in a hotel just outside Seattle as I’m writing this, seeing as I’m stopping in the USA a day longer than expected.

It all started when I decided to attend the MVP (Most Valued Professional) Summit in the USA which is held every year.  For various reasons I’ve not been able to attend the last few, but this year I thought it would be good to go.  Sandra dropped me off at Digbeth Coach Station in Birmingham UK early Sunday morning and I boarded the coach and headed down to London Heathrow. Arrived in plenty of time, but for some reason the online booking system would not let me check-in, so I had to go to a special desk to check-in.  All well and good.

The next challenge was the seat I was in had no functioning in-flight entertainment, so after settling down and having had a meal, I was offered another seat which had working in-flight entertainment.  Except the woman sat next to me had a stinking cold and kept coughing and sneezing. I covered up my mouth and nose best I could and kept drinking the Orange juice …

Anyhow I arrived at Seattle and eventually found some transport to the hotel, got booked in and was allocated my room which I was sharing with a young Italian Hyper-V MVP by the name of Francesco.  We got on well, his English was really good, my Italian limited to “Ciao” and “Bella Bella” …

The summit passed pretty much without incident, but I was still pretty jet lagged even on the third day and  I started having difficulty breathing and developed a cough. “Thanks lady on the plane!” I thought, and sure enough next day it erupted into full blown headaches, coughing, sneezing, shivers etc, etc.  We had some sessions that day, and I ploughed on until lunchtime when I gave up and went back to my hotel room to crash out and try to get some rest.  This was plainly a sign of things to come …

After a terrible nights sleep I got up feeling pretty ropey but determined to do what I had planned which was to drive around the local mountains sightseeing and meeting some of the locals.  I’d hired a car at the start of the week and so I collected it, still not feeling great.  I found a chemist and got some super strength cold and flu capsules which I took and headed out.  The weather forecast wasn’t good in fact it was 90% chance of rain in Bellevue which meant snow in the hills.  It wasn’t raining when I started the car engine. By the time I hit the freeway 10 mins later it was hammering it down.  It continued to hammer it down for the next 2 hours as I doggedly drove first North then East heading for the Washington North Cascade Mountains.  Probably the height of optimism really, seeing as the cloudbase was about 500ft with torrential rain, and the Cascades are around 10,000 ft and above in height.  But to hell with it, I’m British, and those mountains damn well better show themselves eh what?

Having found out about now that I’d taken a wrong turn and I wasn’t in fact now heading for the Northern Cascades, but in fact heading towards Leavensworth, and feeling rather ill, I stopped for an hours power nap on the roadside.  An hour later I continued on feeling a little refreshed, so I decided to stop and get some food. I checked the weather forecast and was annoyed to see that it was the same or worse.  So I ordered 2 pancakes, 2 bacon and 2 eggs at the Sultan Bakery and was served two drain covers, two pieces of pork that looked like they’d spent the last 2 years inside Sellafield Nuclear Processing Plant and two runny anemic eggs. Yum.  And some people complain about the English cuisine? Ah well onwards and upwards, my unplanned change of route was probably just as well, I reflected, seeing the weather was so bad.  This route I was on now only went up to about 4000 ft or below, so I stood a better chance of getting through.

… or perhaps not …

2 hours later I was just about holding the car steady as I drove through driving snow with only about one tyre width of road visible ahead.  Discretion being the better part of valour I stopped, somehow managed to turn the car around and headed back down the hill disappointed. Only to be met by the snowplough  heading up the hill clearing the way nicely with a column of cars behind it … Doh!  I decided not to follow suit as I didn’t know the area and I still was not feeling great. But I’d paid for this car hire and I was damn well going to enjoy it when I did or not!

So onto plan B.  Visit Mount Rainier, which I’d already done on a previous trip, but hey, it’s a great hill, but I didn’t hold out much hope of seeing it, as it’s over 12,000 feet high.

Three hours later I was parked up at a viewpoint overlooking Mount Rainier … seeing nothing but rain, mist and sleet.  Not my day obviously.  By this time I think I’d gotten the message that this trip really wasn’t a happening thing and decided to stop at the next big town, get a meal and then head home.  So I took another dose of drugs, found a diner, thought about having a beer, decided it was a really bad idea the way I was feeling, ate some chicken pieces and chips and headed out for Bellevue.

By now it was dark, still pouring with rain and I only had a local map to get me home.  USA road signs are not great, not the worst but not great.  After a couple of wrong turns I found the right road, but whilst I quickly checked the map I must have drifted right and bumped the curb. No problems so I thought, car felt OK, so I drove on.  About 30 mins later finally on the right road, the 90 freeway, a police car lit up like a Christmas tree behind me.  I had no idea what I’d done, wasn’t even sure if it was me he was signalling, there was another car behind him, but I thought best  to stop.  I pulled over and wound the window down, and the policeman arrived and asked me to give him the car keys which I did, then told me that I’d been seeing bumping the curb a while back and I was suspected of drinking and driving.  I silently thanked my lucky stars for avoiding that drink earlier, as the policeman quickly followed up by saying that he could tell straightaway I wasn’t drunk .  I said something like “I did hit the curb, but it’s because the car and the roads are all the wrong way around for me here, I’m from the UK”.  Luckily this policeman had a sense of humour and he laughed and said he’d had the same problem when he visited Australia.  A quick license check and he was happy and I was on my way.

Never been so glad to get back to the hotel and crash out.  I was exhausted, feeling really rough and ready for bed.  Sat and watched “Air Force One” all about a jumbo jet being hijacked and crashing, just what I needed … and fell asleep.

Next day (today as I write) I’m ready to go home.  I’m feeling better, and ready.  I get to the hotel lobby and meet up with Liam Westley and Andy Westgarth two fellow UK MVPs.  I ask them what flight they’re on, they say the 18:10 BA49, I say “Oh I’m on the one an hour later at 19:10”.

Liam looks at me and says “Oh I think what’s happened to you is what happened to me, the browser form didn’t update correctly and it booked me in to 23rd March. I had to cancel and then rebook”.   I’m looking at him like he’s speaking Mandarin or Farsi to me.  No way, I couldn’t be that silly could I? I check my booking at sure enough it’s there and it says 23rd March not 23rd February. Holy crap. Perfect end to a fraught couple of days.  How the heck didn’t I spot that?  Somewhat panicky I contact British Airways and sure enough no mention of me being on today’s flight. Crap, crap, crap , crap  crap …

So, after nearly having a heart attack when the lady from BA says I can get on the flight if I pay the penalty fee of $3000 … like that is going to happen, I finally manage to arrange a flight the next day (tomorrow as I write) back home to the UK paying only a $170 penalty. Thank God.  The nice lady at the hotel I’m staying at feels very sorry for me and gives me an extra night at a 50% discount which is really sweet of her, and I rearrange the hotel- flight transfer no problem.

Note to self: in future either get Sandra or Katie (Admin lady at Ridgian) to book all flights OR triple check the booking and get the right month for the return flight you wassack! Honestly, at the honourable age of 50 you’d think I’d be able to organise the right day for my return to the UK.

Plainly not.

There is a serendipity to this sorry tale however.  The extra day, means I have to go straight to my course in London which I’m due to attend Monday, not that I don’t want to go home of course, but it does save on me having to go from Heathrow to Birmingham and then all the way back again the following day.  Also today was actually a nice day in the end, and I discovered Old Bellevue town and had a very enjoyable meal there, took some decent pictures for a change and met a few really nice people who I otherwise would not have met had I not been inadvertently delayed.  So every cloud does have a silver lining …

So, I think this counts as at least a mini epic , what do you think?

Cheers

Dave Mc

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2010 – A Scottish Odyssey: Part 4 – White Outs, Sunshine and Local Ales

At the end of Part 3 I had a fantastic stay in the Forest Way Bunkhouse as a guest of Iain.  I woke up the next morning and enjoyed a fantastic breakfast cooked by Iain.  My feet felt good, I felt good.  I packed my rucksack with some additional provisions which I’d purchased from Tesco’s in Ullapool the previous evening, but it still felt a little lighter this morning.  The sun was out, a few clouds scudded about but it looked promising for my last day.  So I said my farewells and with a little local knowledge gleaned from Iain, I went up a steep flight of steps through a stand of pine trees opposite the Bunkhouse to get the route for the day started.  I went as far as a path would allow then headed straight up the hill, clambered over a fence and found myself  on the lower slopes of Beinn Enaiglair.  My target for the day was Beinn Dearg (pronounced Ben Jarrak) and you can see my route for the day on the map.  It’s fairly remote but a straightforward hike.  I opted to get as high as I could as quickly as I could which meant going on a direct route to the peak of Beinn Enaiglair.

The wind was blowing a a steady pace from the North West, and I kept a weather eye out.  The air was so clear as I climbed I could see what the weather would be doing in the next hour or so.  I could see bands of clouds interspersed with bands of sunshine and they were all heading my way.  So I stepped up the pace and found that at last I had my ‘match fitness’ back.  I was bounding up the slope, hopping from tussocky mound to mound.  I found a track followed that for a bit then headed  straight up again.  Glancing behind me I could see a particularly heavy band of rain heading my way… or was it snow …?  Anyway the top of Beinn Enaiglair seemed close enough so I put in an extra effort and pounded up the slope until I felt the first specks of rain/snow on my head.  Checking again I could see the snow was right behind me. Glancing ahead I saw a cairn on what I thought was the summit of the mountain so I literally ran for it.  I got there just as the snow piled in and in seconds it had gone from a sunny day with wonderful views to less than 10 yards visibility with driving sleet and snow.  If ever I needed a reminder of the rapidity of change in mountain weather, I’d just been reminded! It wasn’t quite a complete whiteout, but it was no use really trying to go any further at present.  Also I had seen that the snow would not last long. I estimated about 20 mins max, it was a little longer in the end, but hey, I had a drink, a chunky kitkat and a bit of a rest.  It was a good job there was only me, as the cairn just about kept the wind off of me.  I put on my sunglasses and attempted to look to see if the weather was clearing but the snow was so driving and the wind so harsh that I could see nothing.  In the end however it passed and I headed off again and saw that despite what I thought was good navigation, I wasn’t quite at the top of Beinn Enaiglair.  I was just at a little secondary peak just to the West NorthWest of the main peak.  I was at the proper summit in another 10 mins. The sun had come out briefly, but then the weather closed in again for about 5 minutes.  This time visibility wasn’t so bad, and I could see my route, heading out along a ridge of small peaks curving away up to the main summit of Beinn Dearg.  The summit the mountain at this point was still shrouded in clouds but looking at the North West I could see the cloud base rising and I was confident that the top would clear in the afternoon.  So I went on looking for a path that would take me up onto the main summit dome.  I found it after about another 30 mins and set off up the ridge proper.  The walk was fantastic.  The clouds started to rise.  The sun peaked from behind them and I felt strong and good and really started to up the pace to the point where for about 30 mins I was nearly running.

After about a good hour I came to, unbelievably, a dry stone wall which stretched up the side of the mountain.  It was great for keeping the wind off and offering great hand holds to climb straight up the steepening slope.  I eventually reached the top of a steep rise after skirting around the head of a steep gully which dropped rather worryingly deep into the corrie on the North West of Beinn Dearg.  A pretty spectacular drop I might say.  I paused to take a picture of that wall, then cut across the peak and headed towards the summit which was now completely clear of clouds.  I came across some large fields of snow and enjoyed crunching through the stuff.  It was quite old , end of year stuff, but still wonderful to step across, in the sunshine at the top of a beautiful mountain.

I reached the summit a little later than I anticipated but what an awesome view it was.  However, with mountaineering, getting down is actually more than half the battle and I had a way to go.  It was 2.00pm and I’d set off at 8.30am, nearly 5 and a half hours. I could almost see my final destination for the day which was the Aultguish Hotel at the South Eastern end of Loch Glascarnoch, but it was a long long way away, a good 10 miles I estimated.  I found I had a signal on my phone so I rang the hotel and let them know I might be a little late.  I estimated I would not get there until after 7.00pm, unless I could make it down to the A835 and hitch a lift. I wasn’t too hopeful after the previous day’s experience though.  I really fancied a steak, but it looked like a heated Lasagne was in the offing, as you can’t keep a steak warm for hours!

So I set off own the Southern slope of Beinn Dearg straight down a smooth snow field.  I got out my slip on crampons, even though I didn’t really need too, but I’d carried them all this way, so I felt I should wear them even for a short period.  Coming off the summit was brilliant, I was crunching again through glorious snow, in sunshine almost effortlessly, loosing height speedily and heading out towards the A835 at the head of a small lake called Loch Droma.  Navigation was easy, the visibility absolutely perfect.  I made one mistake in that I went too far out onto a bluff and felt unable to wind my way down some rather slippery looking rocks.  So I backtracked a bit and found a shallower slope then headed down into the floor of the valley at a goodly pace aiming for a place I thought looked like it offered an easy river crossing.  This prove the case so I rested for 10 mins and refilled my water bottle.  I then head out towards the road which entailed trying to locate a path I originally had crossed that same morning when descending from Beinn Enaiglair.

After about 30 mins I found the path and pounded down it until I reached the road again in about another 30 mins. The weather now was gorgeous, it was sunny and warm and the mountains looked idyllic, the peaks rising around me, snow capped and inviting.  But it was the end of the trip for me.  I was at my final destination. Almost.  The Aultguish Hotel was about 7 miles down the road.  I was tired and it was just about 5 pm.  Getting to the hotel by 7.00pm would be tough, but nothing for it but to start.  I set out but immediately stuck out my thumb  in the vain hope that somebody might stop.  The gods must have been smiling on me because after only about 3 minutes a car pulled in just ahead of me and out popped 3 women who started rearranging their car.  I ran up the road as fast as I could asking if the had stopped for me.  “You do want a lift?” one of them asked. “Absolutely” I replied. “Just to the end of the next Loch”. “No problem” she said. 

So I had a very enjoyable ride with 3 lovely ladies from Manchester and Scotland.  The lady from Manchester joked saying that she wouldn’t have stopped if she’d been on her own, the other two told her “That’s not how we do things up here!”  It was great fun, we had a great laugh and within 10 mins I was at the hotel!  I gratefully thanked them and went inside the hotel.  The owner Dario showed me my room which was small but really comfortable and brand new. I was the first customer to stop in it.  I used the really awesome shower then I went back to the bar, ordered a great meal including that beautiful steak!  I highly recommend the An Teallach local ale, it was brilliant.  I found a couple of guys to chat to and I enjoyed a thoroughly nice evening there.  I met Dario’s wife Lesley later when she got back from Perth where their daughter goes to school – one heck of a drive! 

Next morning was cloudy and after an excellent breakfast Dario kindly offered to take me to Inverness as he was heading that way anyhow.  He dropped me at the station and we bid our farewells.  I promised to give his hotel a nice write-up on Trip Advisor, which I did, and it’s thoroughly deserved. It’s really hard running a hotel and Dario and Lesley have worked so hard to really try to improve it and make it a special place to stay.  Drop by them if you’re in the area, you won’t be disappointed I can tell you!  Unfortunately I just missed a train to Edinburgh, but I caught the next one and had a great trip home.  I started writing this series of blogs on the train, but it’s been nearly a month now since I made the trip.  I won’t forget the friendliness of all the people I met at Strathcarron, Torridon, Kinlochewe, Forestway Bunkhouse and the Aultguish Hotel.  It was a memorable trip, and even as I write, I’m deciding that I’ll probably be back there next year …

Cheers

Dave Mc

2010 – A Scottish Odyssey: Part 3 – Bogs, Logs, VW Vans and Tesco Workers

After the unscheduled visit to Inverness described in Part 2, I was able to continue my tour of Wester Ross with new Day3boots and a renewed determination that I could complete the trek I’d set out to do. I decided however on a change to the itinerary.  Due to the poor state of my feet after the affair of the boots, I scoured my maps for an alternative to the Shenavall Bothy which was a good 17 miles as the crow flies, not including climbing and descending.  I didn’t feel it was a realistic goal for me at the time.  This was a good decision!  With the help of Andrew at the Kinlochewe Hotel I located another Bothy on the banks of Loch a’ Bhraoin called the Lochivraon which seemed to be run by the Inverbroom Estate, and not the Mountain Bothies Association.  It was on the right route to where I wanted to be, so I decided to alter the route to suit.  Just as important, there was no major river crossing.  It meant heading North East from the Hotel out to a place called Heights of Kinlochewe and then to a crag called Creag Leacaidh.  This was all on good path, often suitable for a landrover. Thereafter I had to strike out North first to Mointeach Leacaidh, a very flat topped hill and then North to Groban at 749m which was to be my only real hill for the day.  After that North Wets down to Bealach Gorm then North to the path at the foot of Creag Rainich and a simple walk down to the Bothy for the night.   I estimated about a 12 mile trip which at about 2 miles an hour comes out about 6 hours.  Add in to that stops and I reckoned I’d be at the Bothy between 3 and 4 pm that afternoon if I set out at 8.30am.

On the path to Creag Leacaidh from Kinlochewe, I saw nobody, just some horses in a field and a bunch of nice waterfalls.  The day was cool, cloudy but bright. Pretty perfect for walking.  Blue skies and sun are great, but it can get really hot and you end up sweating loads.  I like it cool. So I plodded along the track at an OK pace.  My feet were still hurting so it wasn’t too fast.  I headed off the path at the foot of Creag Rainich  and struck out up the hill.  There were some diggers up on the hill to the South of me doing something, but I still saw nobody.  The walk to the top of Mointeach Leacaidh was to be frank, a slow slog which involved many, many changes of direction, backtracking, jumping and clambering over, around and through thick peat bog.  When you stepped in it, it stank.  I tried not to step in it.  I was thankful I was not in late May, otherwise this place would have been Midge Central and I’d have been eaten alive!  There were boggy patches, pools of stagnant standing water, overhangs of pet bog dripping water all lying in a tangled maze.

Eventually by midday I managed to get to the top of this annoying plateau which seemed to go on forever. I stopped and had lunch and took a panoramic view all around.  It might have been a struggle getting there, but it was a glorious view from the top.  I took the time to load these pictures into PhotoSynth to produce a Synth which you can see left by clicking on the image, it’s pretty neat I think and gives you an idea of what the place was like.  If you want a standard experience check out this PhotoSynth Link.

So after a short lunch I headed to the shallow beleach between Mointeach Leacaidh and Groban which was to be my only real hill of the day and not a Munro. Still it’s a nice looking hill an worthy a climb.  I headed up it and found it quite a climb. I definitely was not ‘match fit’ as they say.  I cycle everyday, swim a couple of times a week and eat pretty healthily, but it’s just not the same as getting out and doing it day-in day-out.  Still I made it to the top of the hill and managed to send a Tweet on my phone to Andy Maggs as promised!

Next was the bit I dreaded. Going down hill.  Still having the walking pole was a real bonus and I got to Beleach Gorm with no issues and from there I could see the path into the Bothy clearly and also the what I thought was the Bothy (a nice white house) way down the valley at the head of the loch.  Up to that point I’d had pretty decent weather, but then it decided to absolutely tip it down with rain and I was yet again ploughing through bog and peat to get to the path.  After ages again I got to it and found it was another track which had been made by or for a vehicle and so I headed down the path, dripping wet towards the Bothy.  When I eventually got there about 45 mins later I found a large white house all barred and locked up.  I checked what looked like the garden shed, only to find it was actually the Bothy …  To be fair it was pretty decent.  It even had a flushing loo which is almost unheard of in mountain huts in Scotland.  There appeared to be a leak in a pipe under the sink, so I turned it off and swept out the hut.  Most importantly it had a wood burning stove which looked OK.  Outside was a huge pile of wood all feeling and looking rather damp.  Some had been brought inside the bothy and had dried out, but I could see it wouldn’t last long.  So I got out my Trangia Cooker, got some water from the brook which ran down the side of the bothy and started a brew-up.  Then getting the saw left in the bothy which looked sharp thank goodness, I started sawing wood.  I also gathered wood chipping and gathered a bunch of long grass for kindling.  About 30 mins later I had a decent pile of wood and kindling.  So I started the fire in the wood burner and without using any firestarters got the fire going nicely.  There was a fair bit of smoke at first, but as the fire got going, the stove expanded and sealed all the joints and it was fine from that point on.  The front vent under the fire was stuck open so unfortunately it meant the stove was on ‘full’ the whole time. I’ve never seen wood burn so fast!  I started sawing again as I thought what I had done wouldn’t long.  I was right. I could barely keep up with this thing.  It was like a monster. In the end it beat me and it went out as I couldn’t be bothered to to keep sawing.  Still by then it was pretty late, I’d eaten a great meal and had several cups of tea.   I was feeling tired and relaxed, so I went to bed.  Trouble was, the bed was so hard, just a platform of wood, and despite having two roll mats under me, I couldn’t sleep more than a couple of hours before I awoke, cold. My bivvy bag and liner we no match for the Scottish nights.  So I got up and guess what?  Yep, I started sawing again and got that bloody stove going again for a few hours.  Saw, saw, saw, burn, burn ,burn, the race went on for several hours, by about 4.30am I gave up again and went and got another 3 hours fitful sleep.Day4

Next day dawned cloudy but dry with next to no wind.  I had a quick breakfast, tidied the bothy, and went on my way heading towards the A832 where I hoped to hitch a lift to the Forest Way Bunkhouse, my next stop.  My feet were still hurting and I was very tired, but I plodded along the path alongside the loch. My phone was dead, so I couldn’t take a picture, but Loch a’ Bhraoin was like a millpond with the mountains reflected in it like a mirror. Magic.  I met a few people out walking their dogs and a couple of ladies who were heading up a couple of really nice looking Munroes.  I hit the A832, but despite my best efforts I could not find anybody who would stop to give me a lift.  I’d heard people would often stop to pick up hitchhikers but not that morning!  I hobbled down the road, my feet very sore,  until I reached a nice viewpoint just off the A835.  I rested for about 15 mins and could almost see my destination which was only about 2 miles away. It felt like it was 50 miles.  I was very tired, I’d had a light breakfast so was feeling a bit hungry. I also needed to let the Kinlochewe Hotel know that I was OK, so I headed for a phone box about a mile out of my way on the junction of the A832 and A835, since my mobile was dead.  When I got there I found it took credit cards only! Doh!  Resigning myself to another hour of pain I headed down the A835, then though I’d try one more time to get a lift.  I stuck my thumb out and blow me, the first vehicle that went past stopped! It was an old VW van and the guy had been marshalling some kind of fun-run/cycle event so he understood tired legs!  Never been so glad of a lift.  Five minutes later I was standing outside the Forest Way Bunkhouse.

I met Iain the owner immediately and what a great guy.  Made redundant a few years back from a pensions firm in Edinburgh he pursued a dream and bought the Forest Way Bunkhouse which he had done up to a fantastic level. He takes in walkers and visitors all year round and provides an awesome place.  For £25/30 a night you enjoy a beautiful place, great breakfast and he was kind enough to drop me into Ullapool whilst he did his evening shift in Tescos.  He recommended the Seaforth Pub in Ullapool and boy was it a good recommendation!  If you go to Ullapool, go there, the food is superb!  I downed Thai Fish cakes made with local prawns, crabs and shellfish, steamed trout with steamed vegetables plus 4 granary rolls and a chocolate fudge cake!

I had treated my feet and they felt alright, but I would wait until morning to make a final decision as to which route I should do.  So at the end of Day 4, I had had a rest in the afternoon in Iain’s garden, had a great chat with him and gotten a couple of hours shuteye and a shower, and so I went to bed clean, relaxed and with a full stomach, ready for my last day which I was hoping I could make a good one.   You can see how that went in Part 4.

Cheers

Dave Mc

2010 – A Scottish Odyssey: Part 2 – Trainspotting and Bodge Tape

The Pro’s and Con’s of Rail Travel

After completing my preparation in Part 1, I decided to get to Scotland by train.  Moreover I decided I’d treat myself to first class. I was heading for the North West highlands and a few people said, “Why the heck am I going by train? Why don’t you drive or fly?”.  So here are my reasons for why the heck I went by train.  An off-peak return train fare to Strathcarron from Birmingham is about £126.00 (£314 first class – that was my treat).  A car trip to Strathcarron would require filling up at least twice if not three times with petrol.  Now, we’ve invested in an LPG car which means that fuel is about 60% the cost. Assuming I could find an LPG garage for all legs of the journey that would mean I’d have to pay about £80 in fuel.  Both journeys would require snacks and food, both would probably take about 10 hours.  I prefer sitting in a train with my laptop or music, sipping tea relaxing, rather than battling through Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow, Edinburgh traffic. 

How about flying?  Let’s see.  Cost of flight, not sure, let’s be optimistic, say £90 return to Inverness.   It means I still needed to get to Strathcarron by train or bus. I would have had to drive to the airport, or get the train, queue to check in, wait for 2 hours for the flight, spend about 90 minutes, taxiing, flying, landing.  queue for baggage. Get transport into Inverness, get a train or bus to Strathcarron.  Maybe I would have saved about an hour, maybe two.  It would have be just as expensive/cheap and again, it would have been all hustle and bustle, instead of a sedate journey enjoying the English and Scottish countrysides drifting past the window.  Oh, and trains don’t get grounded by volcanic ash clouds!  First class on the train is really nice! You get tea and snacks served to you all the time, plus nice comfy seats, plenty of leg room, free WiFi on some trains and no annoying people with tinny iPod sounds emanating from their headphones!

The Rail Journey

My journey really started at Wolverhampton then on to Carlilse, Carlilse to Haymarket, Haymarket to Inverness and Inverness to Strathcarron. The jo28042010149urney was uneventful and relaxing, with my only worry being the change at Haymarket station in Edinburgh.   I had a 5 minute window be28042010150tween arriving and the departure of the train for Inverness.  I needn’t have worried, we arrived at Haymarket early and within a few minutes I was back on board to Inverness.   First thing we did on that train was to go over the Forth Railway Bridge.  Even though you can’t see much of the bridge from the train, it’s still a bloomin’ impressive thing to see.  The girders and supports are huge, and it’s a long way down to the water!  You can see the Forth Road Bridge obviously from the Rail Bridge and having watched an episode of Coast on the BBC which showed how the cables are gradually snapping and there is only about 10 years of life left in the thing, it made me glad I was crossing on the train! 

The final stage of the trip was to Strathcarron via the Inverness/Kyle of Lochalsh railway, one of the  railway trips if you’re into that kind of thing.  The scenery is fabulous as you 28042010153trundle sedately across the Highlands and pass through many remote villages which have request stops only for the trains. As the evening wore on the clouds started coming down, the rain started to set in, and it was at a blustery, rain-swept Strathcarron railway station that I stepped off the train and made my way to the aptly named Strathcarron Hotel.  It was comfortable, tidy and I received a pleasant welcome.  I was able to grab some food and I sat down to watch “The Special One”’s Inter Milan frustrate Barcelona out of The Champion’s League.  Can’t say I was upset, I do love “The Special One”, he makes me laugh … I astutely avoided a cross-border confrontation I thought, when as sitting at the bar in the hotel, a rather large, bearded Scotsman ambled up to me.  I asked him if that was his mobile on the bar next to me. "

“Aye” he replied a bit sharply, “And that’s mah seat you’re in too!”

I decided that a tactical withdrawal was in order and said I wanted to get a better view of the footie anyhow …  You learn imagenot to mess with me I can tell you.

Next day I was up early, grabbed a full English Breakfast and headed out to the Coulags, a set of hills near Strathcarron.  The one I was targeting in particular was Maol Chean Dearg (pronounced Murl Chan Jarrak).  It was a Munroe (a Scottish hill over 3000 ft high).  I set off and did a bit of checking of my compass and map before I hit the hills.  Because I had bought the custom maps, there was no Magnetic data on the maps as each map is slightly different.  So I needed to work out what the Magnetic Variation of the area was by pointing my compass along a known direction, seeing what the map said the direction was and then checking what the  compass said. Luckily there were two straight bits of road just outside the hotel which I could do this correction on, so compass correction done, off I set for my days hike.   You can see my route for the day to the right.  The weather was pretty good to start with, skudding clouds , the tops of hill covered but blue sky between, a cool but pleasant breeze.  A perfect day for hill walking.  My destination was Torridon about 9 miles as the crow flies.

Maol Chean Dearg

I set off up the Coulags as they’re called from the South heading North along the valley.  The path was obvious and in reasonable shape.  I headed up past a river junction on my left until I reached the bridge across the river29042010156, which you can see in the picture here.  No problems with it and I carried on up the path, and stopped in the Bothy which was in good condition.  I sorted out any sore spots on my feet, had a quick drink and snack and off I set again past the small rock finger called Clach nan Con-fionn where apparently Fingal tied up his hunting dogs (yeah right!).  A couple of hundred meters on I picked up a track to the left which wound it’s way steeply up to the South-East Ridge of Maol Chean Dearg. 

It was pretty amazing, but as I climbed up, the clouds just seemed to part and every time I needed to get a grasp on exactly where I needed to go without having to resort to navigating by compass.  The views just got better and better and within about an hour and a half of turning off the main track I was standing at the cairn at 29042010170the top.  So that was Munro number one.  Of course if you climb a mounta29042010160in, sooner or later, you have to come down, and seeing as I needed to get to Torridon Youth Hostel that night I thought I’d better crack on.  For those of you who have done some mountaineering it’s a given, for the inexperienced and non-hill walker its a potential killer and that is, that going down a hill is way more tricky and potentially dangerous than going up.  On this particular instance, I was actually going down  the route most people come up, simply since otherwise I’d be going back on myself and I was on a time constraint, as I didn’t want to be too late getting to Torridon.  So I looked for the stone shoot which was the route down the North East slopes.  I found it quite easily and it was pretty steep and muddy and wet.  The soil and rocks underfoot were loose and seemed to threaten to take me and the whole mountain side down with them.  I came across a strip of snow, but it was old and flaky so I avoided it, but the descent got steeper and steeper and more and more slippery.  Well, there was nothing for it, I unhooked my ice axe and used it to provide me with an anchor as I descended further and further.  The footholds were becoming pretty small and still the stones kept on slipping away downhill.  I decided to hug the walls of the shoot in an attempt to get better grips.  Eventually the rocks turned into a mixture of rocks and grass and I was onto the grassy shoot below the rocks.  I kept having trouble with my gaiters which seemed to be loosening off.  I decided to stop and check them once again.  It is a good thing I did, as I found to my horror that both soles of my boots had parted almost entirely from the boots themselves!!! 

Boots and Bodge Tape29042010173

Equipment failures are fairly common in hill-walking but separation of soles of boots is a pretty serious one.  Somehow I managed not to panic, but realised I was about 4 miles from my eventual destination still, and I didn’t think I could do that over rocks and rough ground in effectively a pair of socks!  It was also starting to rain slightly now and the clouds were moving in.  So I whipped out the bodge-tape and strapped the soles to the boots and carried on.  The first lot of tape lasted about 400 yards after which the sharp rocks and now continuous rain wore through even this toughest of materials.  I applied another few rounds of the stuff and this time the right boot seemed to stay together better, but the left started to wear through again.  I had by now managed to get back onto the actual path to Torridon via Bealach na Lice but it was still between 3 and 4 miles to go.  I remembered some straps on my rucksack could be removed easily, so I took them off and as tight as I could strapped up my boots.  I now knew that I would definitely get to Torridon, the straps would hold out for sure. That was a relief and sure enough after a long trek with an annoying dog-leg at the end that took me way out of my way.  I eventually arrived at the very nice looking Torridon Youth Hostel.

That evening I spent on the phone with Sandra trying to work out a plan to get me a new pair of boots and to allow me to continue the trip.  In the end thanks to Sandra, we arrranged for me to pick up some additional cash in Inverness, and I would take an early bus from Torridon to Kinlochewe, dump my rucksack at the Kinlochewe Hotel where I was staying that night and then take the bus to Inverness, get a new pair of boots and then return to Kinlochewe by the evening bus.  I’d then be back on track and I would have just missed out a days hiking.  It was actually just as well, as my feet had gotten a little cut up by the lack of proper soles and were pretty sore. 

So next morning at 7.45am I caught what turned out to be the school bus to Kinlochewe.  Children of high school age in that part of Scotland attend Gairloch High School which can involve for some children nearly an 80 mile round trip commute per day!  Still I was just going about 8 miles up the road and got safely to the Hotel after having a good chat to the bus driver who was from Manchester and used to work for AV Roe aircraft manufacturers, who made the Lancaster, wow! I indeed managed to get to Inverness, got the money from HSBC as agreed and then went to Cairndom where I purchased a great set of boots and new gaiters (the old ones had also broken) for £170.  I then got a meal in the Highland Kitchen, a very nice Scampi and Chips and after a chat with Sandra on the phone, decided to take the train back to Achnasheen from Inverness from where I could hike the 10 miles back to Kinlochewe.

Arriving at Achnasheen the day was beautiful and I had a good hike for about 5 miles when I was picked up by the owner of the Kinlochewe Hotel and taken straight to my destination.  A lucky break, as my feet were really beginning to hurt.  New boots and walking on hard tarmac were not a great recipe for fit feet.  I went and had a quick kip, then headed for the Hotel bar for a great meal of Steak and Ale Pie, and had a nice chat to a chap from Southampton.  After a decent nights sleep in the hotel Bunkhouse and porridge for Breakfast and after leaving my travel itinerary for the next two days with the hotel, I set of for the final stages of my hike, which involved an overnight stay in a Bothy a rather tiring roadwalk and a beautiful last day in the hills!  More of that next time.

Cheers

Dave Mc

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2010 – A Scottish Odyssey: Part 1 – The Kit and Kaboodle

Good Decisions, Bad Decisions

I’m writing this entry on the train, returning from 5 days in the highlands of Scotland, walking and hiking.  It’s good I think that working in the IT industry, that we occasionally get ourselves away from the hustle and bustle and do something completely different.  I thought I’d share my thoughts on observations on my trip which overall I’d class as a success.  You may note a slight caveat in my tone there.   I believe all endeavours are a culmination of good decisions and bad decisions and they can be deemed successful if the good outweighs the bad.  In this case, good certainly outweighed the bad, but at one point it looked as if the entire trip might have to be abandoned almost as soon as it had started, due to a bad decision on my behalf, as you shall see later.

The Therapy of Hiking

For those of you who have never been hiking in the hills I can recommend no better medicine to cure you of the modern ills of working stress, trying to meet all the demands upon yourself and on others to deliver your goods or services.  It provides a reality check on our perception of our place on this planet, on the realisation that that which we all proudly call ‘modern civilisation’ is in reality, a very thin veneer over the fact that the world can be a harsh place. Beautiful but harsh. 

Preparation is The Key

To go walking in the Scottish Mountains in April, you have to be prepared for pretty much anything they can throw at you.  In the far north of Scotland winter drags on beyond the end of March and snow lingers on all slopes well into May.  The weather can be sunny and hot, rainy, freezing, blustery, snowy: and that is just before

Map picture

lunch.  I was heading for Wester Ross, the map shows you where that is.  You may spot some essential facts about the area from a simple glance. It’s remote.  Very remote.  Few roads, fewer trains, scattered hamlets and villages and therefore, few people.  Goody.  But few houses means you have to be prepared to protect yourself from the elements for hours at a time, probably even overnight.  Therein begins the first of many sets of decisions you have to make.  What should I carry?  Too little and you risk suffering from the cold or hunger.  Too much and you may waste valuable energy hauling around clothing and equipment you end up never using.  There is no silver bullet on this one I’m afraid, it depends upon your route.  That’s where I’d always start from.  Plan the route first.  This determines the mileage, height gained and lost, facilities available and so forth.  So I had decided with some urging from Sandra to opt for the Wester Ross area and I decided to traverse an arc from Strathcarron through Torridon, Kinlochewe, Dundonnell, Braemore and Aultguish.    These stops allowed me to stay in a Hotel at Strathcarron, a Youth Hostel at Torridon, a Hotel Bunkhouse at Kinlochewe, a Bothy (Mountain Hut) near Dundonnell, a Bed & Breakfast at Braemore and  Hotel at Aultguish.  Youth Hostel and Bothy mean self-catering, all the others meant I could get an evening meal from either the hotel or somewhere else local.  I ended up calculating I would need to self-cater 2 evening meals and 2 breakfasts.  First Bad decision, but offset by a good decision on places to stay.  More on this.

Food

How to make the meals?  More decisions.  I opted for two packs of vacuum sealed meals from Sainsbury’s by Alyson Taylor.  Good decision.  Really tasty and simple to cook.  I also included two packs of pasta mixed with a bit of salt for cooking (For those of you obsessed with reducing salt, trust me, you need  the salt in the mountains, whether it’s hot or cold, the effort you put in means you sweat, believe you me, and you have to replace that salt or you will cramp up big time!).  Breakfast is easy.  Porridge oats mixed with sugar and powdered milk.  Just add water and you’ve a power-pack of a meal for the day.  For lunches I added in nuts, mini-mars bars, flapjacks a rolos. Mars and Rolos are good for quick energy boosts (use with care!) and flapjacks and nuts & raisons for longer term energy. 

Drink

Now for a killer decision.  Drinks.  First off, easy decision, avoid power drinks.  You need water in the mountains as water is a key ingredient in ensuring that you maintain your energy output.  You need to stay hydrated and to do so you need to drink about 2 litres of water a day normally.  Add in the strenuous exercise and you loose fluids way faster so you need more than 2 litres of water a day.  This is now a really tricky decision.  Why?  Try carrying around a 2 litre bottle of water for an hour.  You will notice that it is bloody heavy.  For me the solution was easy.  I chose to carry a 1 litre water bottle.  I knew I could get drinks most evenings and mornings and also that one commodity that North West Scotland has in abundance is water.  It pours off the hills in rivers and streams and in April with the snow melt still under way I knew the rivers would be full.  If you’re squeamish about drinking river water, don’t be.  Scottish streams have eminently drinkable water, even if it does look a bit brown in places, that’s just the minerals.  I could easily refill my bottle.  Good decision?  Well, I could have carried a 2 litre water pouch with drinking tube which makes drinking on the go much easier.  I wouldn’t have to stop to refill so much, or stop to get the bottle out of the pack, but I decided not to go for this option.  I’m not against water pouches, I think they’re great especially for cycling and distance running.  But for long distance walking with a pack I’m not a fan for the following reasons:  Firstly, it’s easy to keep supping away at a pouch, not realising how much you have drunk.  Secondly the impulse can be to keep going, treating the whole thing as a race.  Thirdly, having a water bottle forces you to stop to take a drink, allowing you to relieve your back of the weight of the pack, and also you can judge how much water is in your bottle and ration yourself accordingly.  Although water is plentiful in Scotland, much of it can be in standing pools, do not drink from these! You need to get it from running streams and there may not be too many on your route. Finally pouches are not as easy to refill from a stream as a bottle is. That’s just my opinion.  If you like pouches, use them.

Clothing

Jeans are Evil!
For God’s sake never, and I mean never, repeat after me NEVER, wear jeans in the mountains, they are not windproof, they soak up water like a sponge and they are freezing cold while they take their own sweet time to dry out which may be never … They are a recipe for Hyperthermia!

We’re spoilt for choice these days for mountaineering clothing. For the sake of brevity, I’ll just go through what I took on this trip and which has served me well on all non-winter expeditions. Footwear was easy. I took boots, sturdy walking boots with a full shank, what you might call two or three season boots suitable for all but deep winter work. I took a pair of thin ankle-less sports socks over which I wore long Nora Batty thigh length woolly socks. If in doubt wear wool. It’s warm even when wet. Finally for the feet, I took a pair of waterproof gaiters. Trust me, you need gaiters, forget making a fashion statement.  Trousers were also easy, I took the tough Rohan style trousers (not jeans – see side-panel on Jeans are Evil) , loads of pockets but most important they dry out in no time at all. I didn’t take water-proof trousers.  Some people may not agree with me on that, but I’ve never needed them in non-winter conditions, thanks to the quick-drying Rohans. I took a thermal top, again quick drying, a Norwegian style army shirt, quick drying, with a strange ability to be cool when it’s warm and warm when it’s cool, and a Goretex shell jacket; windproof and waterproof.  For headwear I took a fleecy balaclava which doubles as a hat and scarf.  For my hands I had tight-woven woolly mittens.  Mittens are better than gloves unless you’re doing technical stuff with ropes and things, they keep your hands much warmer. Wool because … wool is warm, wet or dry.  For spare clothing, I took one pair of underwear, a spare pair of the long woollen socks and a micro-fleece which is light and warm.  How do you judge what spares to take? Experience. It allows you to make good decisions.  Usually though to get experience means you have to deal with some bad decisions. My overriding concern was to carry the least possible amount of equipment which was commensurate with safety.  Weight means effort, effort means sweat, sweat means thirst, thirst means drink and drink means water, water means weight which you have to carry …  it’s a vicious cycle.

Other Kit

Walking in the mountains means doing your own navigation which means being able to read and navigate by a map and compass.  I pride myself that I’m pretty good at this and so of course I took a good compass and a couple of maps of the area.  Here’s a tip.  The Ordnance Survey Web Site allows you to build your own maps.  They cost a little more, but it worked out cheaper to order two bespoke maps rather than buy the 5 standard maps I would have needed, plus the faffing around joining them altogether.  I took a single walking pole. Good decision. A better decision would have been to take 2 walking poles.  Walking poles look like ski poles but are telescopic.  For people like myself, the superior side of 45, the knees and ankles take a real pounding coming down the hills. Poles help to relieve this pressure and also can help you cross annoying obstacles like sticky peat runs much more easily.  I’ll be taking 2 from now on.  I took an ice-axe.   Good decision.  Not for ice climbing and purists would baulk at my use of it on this trip, but in my humble opinion it saved my backside on day one.  I also invested in a pair of lightweight crampons which had a rubber frame and slipped over my boots neatly and easily.  I never really nee ded them, but I did use them.  Very impressed.

I took a stripped down Trangia Stove for cooking out at the Bothy.  Good decision.  I’ve had this stove for years.  It runs off of methelayted spirits, is small, not trangiapressurised and comes with a package of tins which makes it easy to store your food and fuel and cooking and eating implements in one neat, tidy space efficient bundle.  The only downside is you need to carry the meths. This burns really hotly and boils water quickly, I’d forgotten how quickly until I was reminded on this trip,but the meths can evaporate seemingly instantaneously  if care is not taken to keep lids and so-forth screwed on tightly.

Sleeping bag.  I chose not to take one, instead I took a Gore-Tex Bivvy bag and a fleece sleeping bag liner. Bad decision.  Should have stuck with a sleeping bag.  I was worrying too much about getting stranded outside and not wanting to get a wet sleeping bag.   The Bivvy bag/fleece liner combination would work in real summer, but in April it was still too cold and damp and I was never warm at night, but luckily that was only two nights, so no great problem.  Naturally I took a sleeping mat, but trimmed down to my body length and width so that it fitted inside my rucksack.  I dislike lots of things hanging off of my backpack, especially if I find myself on narrow ridges or in confined gullies.

For that midnight wee when it’s pitch black outside or inside the bothy a head torch is important.  I’ve taken to having a wind-up one. It’s a bit noisy when you wind it  up, but it saves having to rely on batteries, again more weight.

I took a small roll of duck-tape (bodge-tape/elephant tape) which can be used to fix just about anything in an emergency. Best decision I ever made on the whole trip.

I have a kit for first aid, washing and cleaning which rolls up into a neat pack.  I have a minimal set of medication, Ibroprufon, Paracetemal, Anti-Hystermines and plasters.  (If you’re squeamish, skip the next section). An absolute necessity is Zinc-Oxide tape which I use to tape up my feet to prevent blisters.  A lot of people swear by Compeeds which are great, but I find I get blisters at the very end of my toes which Compeeds are not good for.  I also take anti-pile cream (trust me – at my age I need it!) and baby powder which is a must for feet and them bits which tend to chaff (you know what I mean chaps!) as it helps absorb sweat.  Lastly I take a small tube of Savlon which I think is the nearest thing to a cure for cancer that we currently have. Well, it treats just about any skin infection/complaint I know of.

I took my mobile phone which served as camera and alarm clock as well as a communication device (sort of). Coverage in the Highlands is patchy, check with your service provider as they say!

So that was me kitted out ready to go.  In Part 2 we’ll take a look at getting there and on the first two days.

Cheers

Dave Mc

There is Life in the Old Dog Yet … (4th and Final Part)

So to the main The Team : Steve Smith, Dave McMahon, David Hobbs-Malyon, Tim Leung, Steve Loader, Gavin Osbornevent, if you’ve been following my series on the Challenger Event this year, you’ll know by now that Team Tutti Frutti started to gel together really well in the third weekend training in the Peak District.  So now it was to the real event which took place over three and a half days from 10th to 13th June 2009 in an around Aberystwyth in Wales.

The final team was (from left to right as shown in the photo) Steve Smith (SharePoint User Group), Me, David Hobbs-Mallyon (Microsoft), Tim Leung (VBUG), Steve Loader (Microsoft) and Gavin Osborn (Vista Squad/The Edge).  Some essential facts:  We had never actually managed to all come together as a team prior to the final itself, though we all knew each other through various training meetings; our average age was 38, with 4 team members being over 40; Gavin was the youngest at 27; I was the oldest at 47; Tim had never done any sort of training prior to January 2009;Steve Loader had seriously injured his foot in the final training in May;David is a really tall bloke! 

The event eventually consisted of 8 stages in total, you can see the official commentary about them here.  A team is scored in terms of cumulative time taken over all the events.  Teams can earn bonus times (i.e their overall time is reduced) by doing extra things such as visiting optional bonus point locations or carrying out optional tasks.  The opportunity to earn bonuses is pretty much outweighed by the seemingly infinite amount of ways to incur penalties (i.e the overall time is increased!).  You avoid penalties by doing the minimum amount required by the rules of each stage, by not going over the times allotted for the stages – this means you really have to read and understand the rules of each stage and to spend time constructing a strategy for each stage.  Overall Team Tutti Frutti did this – though we failed on a couple of occasions which cost us – but not too dearly thank goodness!

I thought I’d give my personal slant on each of the stages so here goes:

Stage 1 – (One Hundred and) 24 – Night Biking/Navigation

This event was pretty simple all told, a quick dash around the Welsh hills on Mountain Bikes after a brief dash to the start line by Tim Leung to get the full instructions and maps.  I paired off with Steve Loader, whilst Steve Smith and Tim did the other pairing.  Strategy?  Simple, “Do No More!” meaning, if you hadn’t already gathered – do no more than the minimum required.  We did the bare minimum of getting in a couple of checkpoints and headed straight in.  No real problems, found what we needed to find, dipped our electronic dippers into the relevant points – job done – nice easy start. 

Lasting memory – trying to determine which of 2 dipping points was the correct one, as several ‘dummy’ dipping points has been placed to really test your map reading.  We got the right one by just spending a few minutes checking and double checking!

Stage 2 – Tucking Hell – Daytime Run/Navigation/Problem Solving

This event was the first of a two-parter and involved gathering up fictitious driving licenses for different typeTim and Gavin plan out Trucking Hell ...s of vehicles which we would ‘drive’ in the second part in the afternoon.  Certain vehicles could only carry certain loads and only go on certain roads, so it was important to plan correctly and to get the strategy right. 

I didn’t do this phase ‘cos I hate running and also keep injuring myself when I do it and Steve Loader of course still had a dodgy ankle, however the Stage Team of David, Steve Smith, Gavin and Tim certainly did the business.  In the end, we got a couple of Articulated Lorry Licenses which could ‘carry’ the biggest loads but could not go on all the roads, as ‘low bridges’ prevented them from passing.  We also got a couple of 3 Tonne Truck Licenses which could go on all the roads but could not carry the biggest loads.  The boyz came in with 3 seconds to spare!  Gavin says he was sweating over that one.  Coming in before Stage Close is very important, as otherwise you get hit with progressively bigger and bigger penalties.

 Stage 3 – Keep on Trucking – Daytime Biking/Navigation/Problem Solving

Having gained the licenses in the morning, we then had to ‘deliver’ loads of goods from various depots to various locations.  You had The Competitors wait for the start of Stage 3 to deliver a certain amount of Goods A  to So from the starting point you had to decide which routes you were going to travel with which loads.  It definitely paid to spend a decent amount of time planning this one out, which we did and again, sticking to the “Do No More” we succeeded in delivering our various goods to and from the depots without incurring any penalty points.  The only thing that could have been improved here, was our final meeting up point prior to heading back to the finish, as if we had studied things properly it would have saved Steve Loader and Me having to slog it up a huge hill twice! 

My lasting memory of that Stage is the phenomenal amount of bikes rushing madly about the narrow hill biking tracks – it was manic.  There were people screaming past through narrow gaps between cyclists, overtaking on brows of hills at breakneck speeds – a road safety nightmare – but funny all the same.

 Stage 4 – Pentago

OK, so this was a bit weird and different.  All we had to do was play a game – yep that was it.  Nice and easy huh?  Simple game, a a bit like naught and crosses (tic, tac, toe) but played on four little boards, and you aim for 5 marbles in a row of the sMC-2009 S4001ame colour. if you want to find out about it go here.  The idea was were were in groups of 5 teams and we have to play 5 matches, so we’d play one team twice and just win as many as we could!

Never been so stressed or nervous!  It was weird.  A room full of people, but intense concentration.  Team-mates could help you but when it was your term it was one-on-one with the opponent.  We had actually as a team worked out a couple of strategies which worked really well.  We had a Plan A and a Plan B.  In the end we did really well we won 5 and drew one!  The Draw was amazing, the opposing team thought they had us and for a moment so did we, but then I noticed that we both had a row of five marbles!

Overall we cam 4th in that event – our best ever event and after this the Tutti-Fruttis would be in 18th Position – height we would never reach again …

 

Stage 5 – I May Be Some Time

The Friday morning saw us heading for the source of the River Severn and a kayaking,running, biking event.  We had 4 Checkpoints we Getting ready for the Kayakshad to visit, plus we could visit bonus points and also do ‘expeditions’ which could gain us more points. This was a long and arduous event and involved initially a kayaking session which was hard work and of course wet … followed by a very long cycle ride up a very long hill.  Still it was a great mornings effort.  In the afternoon we elected to do the water expedition and headed back out into the lake.  This was a fairly arduous affair again and Gavin now has a fear of kayaks which probably has something to do with having an iron support digging into his back for 40 mins!  I was in the back steering, or at least so I claimed, but I think we did a few more hundred meters than we needed to after several zig zags …

After that it was back onto the bikes for David and me and we shot off to get a bonus point and if we’d planned a bit better, two other guys could have got another but hey, that’s the way it goes. We were happy and it all worked out for us.  We booked in inside Stage Close and set off back home for a nice shower and tea. Job done!

Stage 6 – Intelligent Sport Frustration

Stage 6 saw us joined by Alex Hoy our team exec who was to accompany us on the next 2 stages.  The execs don’t have to do too much running, but they do get involved.  It took me ages to figure out what this stage was about.  Basically it wasJames Crowley (Developer Fusion) from another Microsoft Team does 'Frustration' based around the board game frustration.  The idea was for us the team to run around and get ‘dice throws’ and give them to Alex who would plot them on a board and get our ‘counter’ home.   You couldn’t land on the same spot twice and you had to get two counters home.  It took a whole lot of calculation by Alex and Steve Smith to work out which dice throws we needed to get. Luckily the area wasn’t too large and Steve and me did the nearby stuff whilst David and Gavin did the longer stuff.

After a few jogs around the forest we had our counters home “we hoped” and we all set off running back to the finish.  It was a nervous wait for us as we waited for the computer output to confirm the results – but we’d got it right!  Well done to Alex and Steve for getting the strategy right on that one!  Some of the top teams made errors and didn’t get the results they wanted.

It was a late night and we headed for bed after a brief discussion about the next stage which was a build stage.

Stage 7 – Anoga One Bites the Dust

By now we were starting to feel a little bit tired.  The long day before had done it’s damage and we ended up paying for it on this one.  By now we were about 27th overall – but this one nearly sent us plummeting …  Why? We didn’t read the instructions properly!!!

Dave looks on prior to the near disaster ...Very simple – retrieve an egg from it’s resting place on a golf tee using only the bits and wood and string you were given.  There were areas you could not step etc, etc.  One egg was inside a hoop the other behind a board.  We got stuck in quickly building a long reachy arm thing, only to immediately be penalised as NO WOOD COULD ENTER THE OUT OF BOUNDS area.  Simple rule but we missed it!  Not only penalised, but had to wait 40 mins until we could attempt the next one.  I was furious with myself for missing that.  Several choice expletives were uttered.  But we decided to get ready for the second egg.  When our 40 mins were up we set about using a pulley system to retrieve the egg through the hoop, which we hid on the second attempt breaking only one egg!  We rushed around to the finish and managed to get in a reasonably decent time – success snatched from the jaws of defeat … we hoped. 

Stage 8 – Intelligent Sport Grand Prix

And so … to the finale. No strategy on this one – this was a pure muller it around the course as fast as we could, but try to solve some puzzles on the way.  The start was on top of a dam which was pretty impressive and involved Nice Dam, Shame about the Hill!a run  down a hill for a km to get the map and then up the hill for a km.  I had not had a good morning, after the screw up in Stage 7, I’d left my carefully prepared camel-back rucksack at Stage 7 and whilst I knew it would be safe and collected it really threw me as it had the water, snacks etc I needed for the Grand Prix.  Steve Loader was a real hero here. He sorted out his camelback – refilled it with what I wanted and gave it to me. Meanwhile I stripped off in the heat so just my underpants were under my jumpsuit, I felt a bit silly but boy did it pay off! 

As I got ready for Tim our runner to return from his gruelling run, the guy from Airbus team came storming in, got his backpack, got on his bike and went off with the team!  Unbelievable!  When Tim arrived we decided to solve the first problem whilst we still had oxygen in our brains, as if we got puzzles wrong we ended up in the ‘brain cell’ for a penalty period.  All around us team members were coming back from the start run exhausted and just lying on the ground, Tim did a great job and was totally shagged …

Still we were off now, with Steve Smith leading setting the pace on the Bikes followed by David, Gavin and me at the back.  Cycling was always my strongest event, and we needed to stick together.  We pounded it up to Checkpoint 1, handed our answer in and set off for Checkpoint 2 at the top of a hill. Nothing like the hill on Friday, but still a decent climb.  We were pretty tired by now and the puzzle was to work out the area of carpet in a house which was not drawn to scale.

Tutti Fruttis Are Coming In! “I can do it! I can do it!” yells Gavin, he sits down draws out the house then spends the next 5 mins just staring blankly at the paper as he attempts to get his oxygen starved brain functioning.  Meanwhile David and me are bickering over which way to add up the squares, in the end we spend 7 mins gettin g the wrong answer – so into the cell we go!  We should have just taken the hit! Still we had a nice rest for 7 mins then headed off to checkpoint 3 at the bottom of a long long downhill.  That was great.  Steve Smith was in his element and went roaring off with David and Gav close behind.  Me being bit more of a chicken went a little more sedately but I always caught them up on the flatter bits :-). 

Puzzle 3 at Checkpoint 3.  Locate NSPCC collecting boxes hidden in a roped off area.  Get it wrong and it was a 10 minute run up and down a hill.  Gav counted 6, David counted 8, Steve counted 5, I counted 10 three times, 11 once.  How many? The guys asked. “Ten” I  said, “But … I probably missed one, and 10 seems too obvious a number, so let’s say eleven.”.  The answer?  Ten!!! Doh!  So up the hill we had to run!  One the run back down, I started to laugh.  There I was with only my underpants on under my clown suit (they looked like clown suits!), my reading glasses in my pocket running down the Welsh hills – bizarre!  Quickly back onto the bikes and then to the bike drop-off point and onto the running stage which was up a big hill and across a couple of small peaks back to the finish.  At this Tutti Fruttis Finishing At Last!point I was dreading the running but off we went.  As we got along I felt great and started to really enjoy it.  We stopped for short sessions and then carried on.  Steve Smith like me doesn’t really do running so David and Gavin helped by greatly pushing Steve which helped him keep up a pace.  I helped too every now and again, but mainly I set the pace.  We got over the mountains in good shape back to Checkpoint 4, very out of breath – had a puzzle to try to identify city names from a grid – knickers to it – take the hit, into the brain cell for a nine minute penalty.  Out we came last stretch, a simple run back to the finish about 2 miles, boy did it seem to go on and on, around each corner we expected to see the dam and the finish, but time after time, no finish to be seen. 

Finally there was the finish, we upped the pace a bit, there were Steve, Alex and Tim waiting for us.  Onto the dam, poor Steve Smith having to pound every step but still going, we linked arms and ran into an amazing crowd of cheering teams, we were exhausted, the stress flowed out of me, I felt my eyes water up with the release, but managed to just not blub like a baby.  What a great event! A bottle of champagne was thrust into our hands, photos were taken, hugs, slaps on the back, what a feeling!  We were some minutes over Stage Close but we felt we’d done enough to maintain a reasonable position.

We joined the crowd cheering in the teams, another emotion stirring site.  People of all shapes and sizes running in exhausted but jubilant.  The final team came in about 20 mins after everybody else and we lined the whole dam and clapped them in.  What an event! What a feeling. 

After that, more photos, more shaking of hands and we returned to home for the evening celebrations.

Stage 9 – PARTY!

The evening was kicked off with the awards ceremony, where many prizes were awarded for various categories.  Airbus were again the overall winners (many congrats) and 15 teams including 2 from Microsoft qualified for the semi-finals in Portugal in November – so good luck to them! Just after that we found out we had finished 39th overall – a result we were all really chuffed with.  Top 40 for the old buggers!  Job done! 

After that it was party on!  Everybody was so tired the booze hit pretty quickly so we were all in bed pretty early.  Next day it was packing up and leaving.  Like with all really enjoyable things it was sad to have it all finish.

Final Thoughts

Firstly a huge thank you to Microsoft for the invitation to take part.  I nearly didn’t do it but I was so glad I did.  It was all immense fun.  Hard work, but fun.  My thanks to UPH (now Monkey Business) for organising the various training weekends which helped tremendously.  Thanks to my team mates of course: David, you were a great example All the Microsoft Teams Togetherof a top team captain, we’d have followed you anywhere! Steve Loader – you were the guy who always kept us going when things didn’t go so well, heart of the team!  Steve Smith – what a cyclist and what a great mind for strategy! Gavin – you were the driver in the team, kept pushing us when we needed it! Tim – you were the inspiration in the team as you never knew how to quit!

So finally, remember in part 1 I mentioned about exorcising some personal ghosts?  Well I did.  What ghosts?  Well way back in 1983 when I was going through my RAF Officer Basic Training there was an event called “Top Dog” which was a gruelling run over hills in Northumbria.  It was the event to win and much kudos went to the winning team. I’d injured my achilles tendon in an earlier event and early on in the event I pulled out.  I’ve always wondered did I pull out too soon?  Could I have kept going?  Did I just not want to go through the pain barrier?   Well I had similar thoughts going up the hill on the running part of Stage 8.  My legs were hurting, but you know I just kept going this time, I went though the pain and came out the other side brimming with confidence – I’ve never run so well in years.    So Challenger was a Challenge for me but I’m definitely a better person for it and I have a bunch of awesome memories that will be with me for ever. Would I do it again? In an instant! I’m just waiting for that invitation …

Cheers

Dave Mc

There is life in the old dog yet … (My Microsoft UK Challenger Story) – Part 3 of 4

In the last two parts of my Microsoft UK Challenger Story I’ve described the first two training weekends.  Now we started coming into the real stuff.  First off though we had news that due to family commitments Ray Booyson, decided that he would pull out to let somebody else have a chance and that somebody was Steve Smith of the UK SharePoint User Group.  Now Steve is a biking man through and through, and at the fair age of 41 he again boosted the average age of the team to over 38, so we thought there might be a chance that we could get one of the over 35 trophies in the final event!

Spurred on by that thought, everybody in the team got right down to some serious training.  David also set up a Friday conference call and sent out puzzles by email each Friday for us all to have a go at.  These were great fun and it was good to chat with the other team members at least by phone since we were all so scattered around the country.  Pretty soon however the final training weekend came around and was in fact a Mini Competition to give us all experience of the real thing.

Mini Competition

So in mid May we all met up at Ilam in the southern Peak District and what a beautiful place it was too.  We were staying in Dovedale House, an old vicarage in a wonderful location.  David unfortunately could not make the weekend, so yours truly was nominated as stand in team captain.  I arrived first at the location and was soon joined by our newest team member Steve Smith.  More people arrived but the remainder of the Tutti Fruttis didn’t turn up until right before the evening Quiz night was due to start.  With the team together at last, we set about the Quiz with a vengeance and managed to finish 2nd!  A great start to the weekend, unfortunately that The Mini Comp Team, Steve Loader, Gavin Osborn, Tim Leung, Me, Steve Smithwas the highest we ever went …

The next morning we were up and off to Carsington Water for Stage 1.  This naturally turned out to be a combined water/biking stage.  We had to visit 6 Check Points with a code.  The code could only be gotten by visiting 6 buoys one at a time  which were placed out on the lake, buoy No 1 was closest, buoy No 6 on the other side of the lake.  OK … simple enough you think.  The problem was you could only have one boat on the water per team, the Check Points we up to 4 miles away by road and you had to visit in a pair and we only had about 3 hours to do it all in. Oh … and you only had one oar to start with, the other was at Check Point 1.  There were Bonus Points available too.  It was a fastest to finish. 

We decided that we’d get the Check Point 1 code first and fetch the oar back when we got there.  The only problem was, there was a heck of a wind blowing on the lake which made rowing and steering the boat really hard.  Anyhow, Steve Loader and Gavin headed out first and after about 30 mins managed to get back with the code for CP1.  Off went Steve Smith and Tim to get the oar and to visit the CP.  Gavin and me then went out again with still one oar to get CP2.  The wind was getting up again at this point, but we were getting the hang of this and we managed to get back in 20 mins with the code.  Steve and Tim hadn’t returned from CP1 at this point, so we decided to go for buoy no 3 with CP3 code.  This was our first mistake ….  We should have been checking our strategy at this point and actually gone for CP4 which was the closer CP by road. CP3 was miles away.  Still buoy No 3 was closer than Buoy No 4 and we still only had one oar.  So off went Steve Loader and me and boy did we struggle.  The wind was up still further and though eventually we got to buoy 3, getting back proved a real pain in the ass.  We visited the bank a few times including some willow trees and rocks, I was heard to utter several colourful expletives but somehow we got back just as Steve and Tim pitched up with the second oar ready for the second CP. 

I volunteered to get back in the boat with Gavin to this time go for Buoy No 6 and out we headed.  What ensued next can only be described as a mini version of Captain Bligh and Mr Christian trying to go aroundThe Team after Stage 1, a bit damp but happy! the Horn.  By now the wind was really up and I kind of thought we should row up the lake and let the wind blow us into the buoy.  Good plan apart from the fact that we weren’t allowed to carry it through as the safety boat said we had to move down the lake to get out of the way of the Windsurfers.  At that moment we saw a blur of this geezer zipping through the water like nobody’s business.  We saw his point and headed down the lake.  So thereafter for the next 30 minutes Captain Bligh and Mr Christian paddled like lunatics getting nowhere fast and eventually we had to row backwards for 10 mins just to get within viewing distance of the buoy.  At last  we spotted the code and we started back.  By now the kayak had a fair amount of water sloshing around in the bottom and a couple of of near misses on capsizing made for a tense row back.  But … we got there just as the lake’s management decided to close the lake to rowers as it was too windy!!!

So we got back to the start point and met up with the rest of the team and we decided to get to a couple of other points, but by this time we realised we weren’t going to have time to get all the CPs, so Gav and  Steve Loader headed off on Bikes to get a third CP and Tim and me went for a BP.  After a gargantuan effort by Steve and Gav which included scything through a crowd of fun-runners, we checked in but were hit with a bunch of penalty points for not getting all the CPs.  We weren’t too downhearted as not many other teams had either, but we realised we could have gotten another CP with a little extra thought.

We had a break after that and got ready for the evening stage which was a running stage. It was a fairly easy stage a number of points to find on foot.  So Gav and Steve Loader set off on the longer section, Steve Smith, Tim and me did the shorter but steeper section, we found our CP and headed back to the Rendezvous point having decided to ‘Do No More!’ i.e do the minimum required.  We waited and waited but no Gav or Steve.  Then we got a text from Gav saying Steve had injured himself getting over a wall and sure enough after some anxious waiting, along can Steve L hobbling and hopping but still going – a sight to make you proud to be English!  We lost time, but hey, we still got in ahead of Stage Close.  However, we’d lost Steve one of our key team members  …

Next morning, Steve’s ankle was pretty swollen and painful, the room didn’t smell too sweet after a night with 5 Tutti Frutti’s snorting away either, still the weather was good and we had a build stage next so Steve could still do that.  The aim was to get water out of a well (represented by a paddling pool) and take it to a village, using only a few bits of wood, bolts, pulleys etc and a bucket.  We won’t dwell on the build stage except to say – if you ever do one of these – read the instructions!!  We did OK, had a good design, but we could have got loads more points if … we’d read the instructions!!!

The afternoon was a biking/running stage which was down to Steve Smith, Gav, Tim and me, poor old Steve had to sit out and I know he was gutted about not taking part.  Still he could help with Strategy.  We had a gooden, “Do No More!” that is get to the Check Points, then make sure we got a few Bonus Points then beat back to finish before Stage Close.  We started off running in the pouring rain. Within a few minutes we were drenched through – but hey – water won’t kill you.  We went at a good pace, me navigating initially.  We got to the 4 checkpoints despite going out of bounds (marshals missed that one!) and then split up with Steve and me heading back to the bikes to get 2 or 3 BPs and Gav and Tim heading out for two BPs on foot.

Steve and me pounded it back to the bikes, hopped on and then mullered it to 3 BPs. An everlasting image I have is of Steve careering down this rubble-strewn , muddy, water logged track at an unfeasible speed disappearing into the hazy distance …, whilst I tootled along behind a bit chicken like … still I beat him UP the hills heh heh.   We got back with about 10 mins to spare unfortunately to find that Gav and Tim had unfortunately strayed out of bounds and this time the marshals did see them … doh!  Never mind everybody had worked their socks off, we’d learnt some lessons and more importantly we’d started to really gel as a team. We felt ready for the main competition and were excited and couldn’t wait for June.  How did we do? That’s in part 4 …

Cheers

Dave Mc