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challenge

A DAY ON DENALI

A DAY ON DENALI

Below is one of my more memorable days on Denali. It definitely qualified as one of the most rewarding and challenging days on the mountain and I wanted to share it with you along with some chilly pictures. Step into the world that is Alaska... 

The snow had finally melted and the water trying to boil. Once poured into the food bag we’d have 10 more minutes and then fuel to feed the furnace that is our tummies.

It had been a long and exhausting day on Denali. The mountain was starting to show it’s menacing side.

With the temperature below -40C, things were serious. I hold the bag waiting for the food to hydrate. I can tell the food is losing it’s heat already. I’m cold, tired and clumsy. I caress the food bag in my lap but don’t realise my grip is too tight. The bag opens and water spills out into my sleeping bag. The food is now losing it’s heat rapidly. I give it a try anyway in the hope for some much needed calories. Cold. Crunchy. Inedible. I look over at Tim. He is having the same problem. We have our toes in the same sleeping bag trying to share what little heat we have. Our full down jackets are on and never have I worn so many clothes and still be the coldest I’ve ever been.   

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Holiday? What holiday?!

Holiday? What holiday?!

“Going on another holiday again?”

People often think I’m off on another holiday when I commit myself to another expedition.

Truth is, I haven’t been on a holiday since 2011. Expeditions of my type are not a holiday. They are everything but. Yes, I look forward to them and get a sense of escapism from city life, but those are the only comparisons. They are hard going, they take grit and determination to get to the other side and a lot of questioning on why I’m doing it. They are often uncomfortable, scary, exhausting, make me hurt in ways I didn’t know could hurt, involve lack of sleep, (lack of oxygen a lot of the time too), are too hot or too cold, take a lot of brain power worrying and then there’s the making of quick life determining decisions. I cannot say enough how far away from a holiday they are.

The last time I went on a holiday! The difference!

The last time I went on a holiday! The difference!

Not looking my best! Sunburn, no shower, cold!!!!!

Not looking my best! Sunburn, no shower, cold!!!!!

On Denali, myself and Tim swore to each other that our next trip would be a beach holiday with no bag carrying. I can’t see that beach holiday happening anytime soon but I must say I do long to be by the Mediterranean! Of course at the same time I look forward to getting my teeth well and truly into the next big trip. It’s what I live for and I’m not complaining in any way about the toughness of them... The tougher the better!

Coughing my way up! Feeling pretty exhausted on this photo. Not a holiday but a test!

Coughing my way up! Feeling pretty exhausted on this photo. Not a holiday but a test!

The feeling of vulnerability and having to roll with whatever nature throws at you is a humbling experience. You have to know what you're doing otherwise things can easily get out of hand. Knowing you have a situation under control is a rewarding experience however, if anything goes wrong it's easy for that rewarding experience to turn nasty and life threatening. 

I know it’s a privilege to be able to actively put myself into such a challenging and extraordinary position but it is something I work hard for in order to make happen. I thrive on the better person I become after each trip and I am addicted to making wonderful, proud, incredible memories and addicted to the bonds I make with teammates that go on to become the closest friends life can give.

So next time someone uses the word holiday to describe one of my expeditions I’m going to crack down on them. I came back from Denali and it took me over a month before I had caught up on sleep and recovered. A month of bad sleep, lack of oxygen and being cold does that to you. I could not keep my eyes open after 12 noon and had to retreat to bed for 4 hours! Thankfully, I’m over that now and I’m now back after that hardship again.

This is what we woke up to every morning. We breathe in the night, our breath freezes to the tent, it snows on us in the morning. Not a pleasant start to the day and I'll never complain about getting out of bed again.

This is what we woke up to every morning. We breathe in the night, our breath freezes to the tent, it snows on us in the morning. Not a pleasant start to the day and I'll never complain about getting out of bed again.

Having hardship means that you appreciate everything again which is another addiction of mine. One moment that sticks with me after Denali was when we flew out from the glacier. A very short plane ride from the bottom of the mountain back to Talkeetna was out of this world. We went from full expedition mode in freezing temperatures on a barren mountainous landscape to landing in Talkeetna to their summer.

Leaving the mountain behind!

Leaving the mountain behind!

It was full of greenery, the smell of flowers was in the air, warmth on our skin and we were met by Sheldon Air Service crew who carried a plate full of fresh fruit all cut ready to eat! I’ve never felt so high in my life! If ever I’ve felt immensely happy to be alive, that was it!! That’s the closest that came to a holiday! (And knowing a shower could finally be had!)

Patagonia is creeping up. Fast.

Patagonia is creeping up. Fast.

Oh my, oh my. The weeks are flying by. Even though I am packing training and planning into every single day, it still seems like there isn't enough time to feel at ease. This weekend we were back in Dartmoor in the snow, wind, rain and even, sun. It was another chance to test out our kit and admin skills. We did a lot of navigation work and strategy planning.

Dartmoor is the perfect training ground. It's wet, the ground is rubbish to walk on and the wind bites through any layer. As I sit and write this I can feel I've got repercussions from the wind and snow in my eye... Goggles/good glasses needed. Noted.

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I am always so confident when we are all together but when I have nights alone, my brain has a freak out about everything I need to do.

We are a strong team. We just need to keep our cool and keep on plodding. We aren't trying to win, we just want to be able to get as close to the finish line as possible.

A few weeks ago we were down in Cornwall for sea kayaking practice. Sea kayaking does not come naturally to me. It's a nightmare on the shoulders and hip flexes. I know it will come down to me gritting my teeth and getting on with it. Why do I put myself into this pain??

Sea kayaking in a tandem takes concentration and those things can really catch the wind. Patagonia is wind central so we are going to have an effort on our hands.

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For me, this week consists of some cycling and walking with team member Tim, some running and circuits with my supreme trainer Greg Whyte and back to the Royal Geographical Society for a talk led by Ranulph Fiennes. It's all go.

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Training for my biggest challenge yet

Training for my biggest challenge yet

My training for the Patagonia Expedition Race has well and truly begun. See featured photo of me having a mare as I climb up a stream. I would be lying if I said I wasn't nervous. I am terrified. This is the only challenge that I've taken on where I haven't been 100% sure that I am going to make it. That's exactly what draws me to it.

The race is for athletes; seasoned adventure racers. I am not a racer nor an athlete. I purely enjoy putting myself into situations where I have to live in the present and adapt to environments. I thrive on surprising myself with what I can achieve.

In the last few months, I've had to put a whole new team together due to my previous team pulling out on me. I was left stranded and had an ongoing battle in my brain for weeks on end, on whether I should continue the race, as I struggled to find a new team.

I don't know why I didn't pack it in when my original team left me. They didn't think they had it in them to take part in the race so why on earth do I think I do? Naivety? Stupidity? Delusion?

I had half an hour of panic after finding out I was alone and had to build a team again. I snapped myself out of it and something stronger than me took over. I was on the phone, emails, social media, every kind of contacting format I could come up with to find new team members, I was on it.

Within a few hours I had my first team member, Tom. Tom and I had met once, over a year ago. We had been introduced to one another because we both enjoyed adventures. Tom said yes immediately.

The next team member came at a chance meeting. After arriving in Bastia, Corsica I met Marty. (Before beginning the GR20.) I needed to hitch a ride 2 hours south to the start point of the trek so scouted for outdoor looking people at the airport.

I saw a man who held himself in a military way. I darted for him. He wasn't there for a beach holiday, I could tell he was there to trek. He turned out to be a group leader and happily gave me a lift. During the 2 hour journey, I very easily got him on board the team! Marty is an ex marine and perfectly skilled for the team.

Our last team member, Tim, came at another chance meeting. Neil Laughton invited me to attend the The British Chapter of the Explorer's Club. I mingled with like minded people and when Shane Winser (Head of expeditions at the Royal Geographical Society) introduced me to Tim, I almost immediately popped the expedition question. (Granted I'd had a glass of wine to provide such confidence.) With my surprise, Tim said yes. Tim's background is global adventure photography and he's in the marine reserves. Done. I had a new team!

Tim and I met at the Explorer's Club in London
Tim and I met at the Explorer's Club in London

Ever since we formed our new team, we've been hitting the training weekends hard. With only 4 months to go, the race is the centre of our world. It has to be.

As a team we've been yomping and climbing in Wales. Last weekend we were soaked to the core by torrential rain and wind as we navigated our way through Dartmoor (realising we need new, better waterproofs!) We climbed and abseiled alongside some marines in training and spent our nights (when we weren't night navigating) snuggled together in a floor-less tent.

The team balances one another perfectly and there's a real sense of family. I can't wait to continue getting to know everyone.

My individual training has been created by Professor Greg Whyte and it gets me training twice a day.  I am given my nutrition plan tomorrow and as I write that, I question why I haven't got a cheese plate and cold, fatty meats in for my last day of food freedom...?

I am concerned I will be the less physically able out of my strong team but with the external help I am confident I can get there. I'm pretty certain that there will come to a point in the race where we will all be the same and our strength of character and mental power will be what pulls us through.

GR20: Not to be underestimated

GR20: Not to be underestimated

About a month ago I decided I needed to go for another trek as part of my training for Patagonia. With it being summer, I thought I'd treat myself to somewhere out of the UK and head for Europe. My adventures usually start with one initial idea followed by a Google search.

'Europe hard trek summer' is what I typed into the search engine.

Immedietely I was bombarded with links with the word GR20 in it. Research later developed and I was pleased to read that this GR20 was a trek in Corsica. Not just a trek though, this was named Europe's hardest trek of all.

Perfect.

I did my usual act of going around my outdoor friends (I don't have many) asking if they'd join me. One said he'd be happy to... This later (with only a few days to go) didn't work out and I was left to take on the GR20 alone.

On reflection,  I definitely underestimated the trek. I should stop saying the word 'trek' too. This wasn't a trek, you'd be lucky to see 20 metres of flat, 'walkable' terrain. This was a climb. A climb without ropes.

Concentration is everything on the GR20. I'd often find myself cursing in the early hours of the day as I sleepily began the 3 hour climb across boulders and rock faces. "Pay attention Lucy" I'd say. No one was there to help me if I fell, it was up to me to get through this safely.

Distance isn't a factor on this route. To put it into perspective, on some stages I'd only be walking 5 miles as the crow flies and it would take 7 hours. This proved frustrating. Slowly I'd climb up a 15 metre boulder that stood in the way, then carefully lower myself and my giant rucksack down to the ground.

For the entirety of the trip, I slept in a tiny hooped bivy bag which meant I didn't get the sleep I needed. I was cold at night, waking up in shivers despite the 35 degree Celsius midday heat. All of this added to the infamous name 'hardest trek in Europe.

The route was gruelling but after a while, my balance improved, my leg muscles grew stronger and my confidence to climb without ropes and with chunky boots and a rucksack, grew enormously. There were times I questioned why I was even making myself do this in my spare time, but like anything worth doing, it felt incredible to finish and was a phenomenal way to spend the last few weeks of summer.

Sadly, over half a dozen people have died on this route since June and many are still missing. This is a result of a storm where people were trapped in a landslide and also struck by lightening.

This was a big reminder to take care when on the GR20 and treat it with respect, it won't be kind to anyone.