Feeling the need to take control amongst all the uncertainty, I’ve started a new challenge!
An awful lot could happen between now and April with Covid-19, which has made me worry that it could affect my expedition to Svalbard again. I know that with polar adventures you are often in the lap of the gods and that resilience and stoicism is key, but I’ve found it hard to focus on training knowing there is a chance it might not happen again.
The mountains are only an hour or so away from me and are a perfect place to train and a place I love to be. But, Wales is still on a stricter lockdown as I write this and there is always the possibility that we all go back to a higher lockdown if infection rates rise again. I am also very conscious of the huge pressures the lifting of lockdown will have on local communities and facilities: the mountains aren’t going anywhere so I’d rather wait before returning. I needed to set a challenge that I can start ticking off now, is close to home, is good endurance training, doesn’t require any new kit or skills and could be done solo or with friends: it needs to be something that stands alone from the Svalbard crossing at the same time as contributing to it. So this is a challenge for Covid times.
The Cheshire Challenge
There are 22 long distance paths that start, finish or are wholly within Cheshire where I live. 1394 km (866 miles) in total. I unofficially started on the 7th June 2020 when lockdown began to lift in England but now, with a spreadsheet ready, I’m making it official! I’ve set myself some rules for the challenge:
The path must start or finish in Cheshire
The path can be done in sections
No double-counting distance if sections are repeated
It’s a small world, or more likely the Tough Girl Tribe is big! Waiting at Oslo airport for transfer to Kvitåvatn, I caught the eye of another woman and we clocked we were waiting for the same bus. Turns out we are also fellow tribees and spent a lovely hour chatting over coffee. All troops gathered the bus set off and, after a brief stop to collect Helen plus all our kit for the week, we wound our way up to our base at Kvitåvatn Fjellstoge for the week. Kit unpacked, stories were swapped over dinner and we settled into our dorms.
A hearty breakfast started the day well and we gathered for a briefing over tea. The basics covered, we headed over to collect skis and boots for our first lesson. We are all at different levels and I think I was the one with the least experience in snow, which in some ways had its advantage as I had no preconceptions. The morning was spent on the tracks around the lodge and weaving through the lovely wooden huts, ending with downhill and surprisingly few falls. Lunch and coffee set us up for an afternoon heading away from the lodge and across the frozen lake. My promising start faltered as I struggled to control my skis; a combination of poor skill and realising my feet didn’t fit the boots well. My feet moved far too much inside the thick, polar boot resulting in my skis not always following what my feet attempted to make them do, resulting in a few hissy fits. A post-lesson chat and a plan B for boots was formed and I took some time with Helen to review my kit for Svalbard.
Day two started with another big breakfast and making up a plate for lunch. I swapped boots from the big Baffin ones to an old but more adjustable, smaller pair of Alfa boots and we set off to explore Skipsfjell, a neat 1,100 metre peak overlooking the ski centre. We tried different uphill techniques, traversing the deep snow to the summit then finding our own routes down through the deep snow. I felt much more in control and hugely enjoyed the glorious sun and sparkling snow; fuelled by a celebratory Tunnocks my confidence grew. The afternoon brought the next new skill, meeting the pulks which added a whole extra dimension which resulted in lots of new ways to fall over. Back at the lodge, it was kit sorting time. First up was getting to grips with the stove, an MSR expedition, taking it in turns to pressurise the fuel and light the burner and learning, importantly, how not to set the tent on fire. Next up was pulk packing. Like all good systems, there is both a science and an art to packing a pulk, ensuring quick access to things like snacks, water and warm gear, and dividing shared kit so weight is distributed fairly but also so if you get separated, you have tools to keep you warm. Packed and ready, we had another good dinner in the lodge and attention was turned to the worsening weather forecast.
As anticipated, high winds resulted in a change of plan. Hardandgervidda is a mountain plateau with little shelter, battling the wind to pitch tents for the first time would not have been the best introduction; the bus was cancelled and we had another cup of tea. Instead, we stayed closer to the lodge and more sheltered peaks. We climbed steadily up the cut tracks, weaving through the trees and a slightly nerve-wracking traverse of the pistes with laden pulks. We stopped early to get camp set up in daylight, finding a spot tucked behind a wood close to Longetjønn, a lake at about 1000m altitude. We dug out a base, pitched the tent and stated the stove to melt snow. Being under the trees, the snow was full of needles and lichen giving the water a very foresty taste. Although I’m sure fancy cafes would have paid a fortune for it, with the cunning application of a hairband and an emptied tea bag, a filter was fashioned and the water was no longer full of tree.
The wind was high during the night but it was a comforting sound, sung in my sleeping bag. After the best night’s sleep in a long time, the alarm went off and the process of melting water began. It took 2 ½ hours from alarm to ready to go: a lot of room for improvement in our camp craft. With the weather clearing we set off for the bus following the freshly cut tracks, my downhill had not improved over night resulting in a walk down the final stretch to the ski centre. A hot bus ride followed by a cable car found us at the foot of a winding track up to the plateau. The track was rutted from snow mobiles so rather than slog up on skis we packed them onto the pulks and walked. As the track opened up we put our skis back on and with the beautiful ridge of Gaustatoppen across the valley we skied on uncut tracks searching for a camp for the night. The perfect spot was found and, with tents pitched we set about building snow walls against the wind to protect our tents. Stoves burning to melt snow, the temperature dropped and the sky turned pink behind Gaustatoppen providing a breath-taking view while eating dinner. I was getting slicker at organising myself in the tent, the faff factor reducing. Socks drying and celebratory Tunnocks consumed another good night’s sleep was had.
Morning brought a cloudless sunrise behind Gaustatoppen and a reduction in the morning faff by 30 minutes. Breakfast consumed with the addition of left over dark chocolate from yesterday’s rations, we slathered on the factor 50 in anticipation of a glorious day. We weren’t disappointed. We followed a marked trail under blue skies stopping every hour for snacks and water. Our target was a hytt (cabin) some 7km away, the furthest I’d skied in one go. The track wound through the hills, a few good pulls uphill to get the heart racing, and a few downhill with the inevitable fall for me. Arriving at Helberghytt, named after one of the Heroes of Telemark, we stopped for lunch. Sitting on our pulks eating cereal bars and trail mix basking in the sun it was possibly one of the most glorious places I had ever been and a truly perfect moment. Rested, we snuck into the cabin to have a nose; the stove was warm and the debris of evening drinks and a hearty breakfast were on the table. As we left the sound of snowmobiles disturbed the silence two obviously military blokes turned up: clearly relieved to hear that we weren’t planning on staying they waved us off as we set off for the afternoon. We took turns to lead the next leg, cutting tracks through the snow. This time our route took us across a lake where we took some time to practice climbing up and down the shoreline through deep snow with the sun warm on our faces. Camp was chosen in the lee of a small hill, this time we swapped tent buddies and I was one of three in a tent which meant a quick rework of the logistics for getting set up and the stove lit. This was our last night of camp so we set to digging a bench and fire pit, once done we made our dinners and settled around the crackling fire as the sun set behind mountains. We shared popcorn, toasted marshmallows and swapped stories, the highlight being Helen’s talk, with actions, on polar bears.
Overnight, the weather changed. We broke camp as a joint effort in heavy cloud and a rising wind, layering up before we set off for the last time. The snow made visibility poor so Helen lead the trickier navigation back to the track down to the cable car station. For the first time the weather was harsh enough to try my goggles, bought for Scottish winters but never used, the cheery orange contrasting the flat whiteness. We were all tiring and the contrast from yesterday’s sun set a grittier mood to the day, though the promise of waffles and coffee at the café set a determined pace. We picked up the track, which was still heavily rutted from snowmobiles. Multiple failed attempts to descend and I gave up, resorting to walking. My mood at this point sunk very low, I was worried I was not capable of this, if I can’t get down this without spending most of the time on my bum how could I possibly cross Svalbard? The demon of doubt took over and I plodded down the hill where Helen was waiting. With the others inside the café, I had a heart-to-heart with her. The moment she offered the possibility of doing a different expedition, I knew just how much I wanted to make the Svalbard crossing. So, planning to go back out and practice back at the lodge later that day once rested, we headed in. The warmth of the café enveloped us, the coffee was hot and the waffles smothered in jam: my demon of doubt was left out in the cold.
Back at the lodge and partially unpacked, I dug out my food rations from the four days. There was more left than I thought; it was instantly obvious to me one of the reasons my mood dipped so much. I stuffed my face with a cereal bar, chocolate and nuts, drank a mug of tea and got ready to head out. I had been contemplating on the bus back to the lodge how to deal with my continuing boot problem, the liners of the smaller boots were tight so I’d ended up wearing lighter socks which was OK for the conditions we had been in but no where near good enough for Svalbard. Using socks to create ankle cuffs, I adapted the larger Baffin boots to stop my heels from moving and got a pulk. A few times up and down the slope behind the lodge without a single tumble, I loaded the pulk with logs from the woodshed. I skied to the top of the slope, took a deep breath and… skied down with the pulk neatly at my side. Two more repeats to be sure it wasn’t a fluke and I decided to stop while I was ahead, taking mental notes of the subtle differences but also absorbing the clear fact that the real issue was in my head: as soon as I took the pressure off it all came together. I was ready for Svalbard.
If you want to learn all you need to participate in a polar expedition, this course was with Newland. Helen is a brilliant leader and hugely knowledgeable in all things polar, I can’t recommend them enough!
It started, as I think may adventures do, in the queue for mulled cider at Yestival.
I finished cycling the Camino in October 2017 (blog here) and was feeling a combination of the post-adventure blues and a lack of direction. My husband had given me a felt penguin as a present from a business trip – The Penguin of Future Adventures. I named her Isabella Bird. Isabella Bird was an explorer and the first woman elected Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, so it seemed a good name for an adventurous penguin.
I had taken Isabella Bird to Yestival, stuffed in the side pocket of my back pack. It was while queueing for the bar I met a friend i had made the previous year. We chatted about our adventures and he asked me what I planned to do next. I said I wasn’t sure: there were so many things I could do, another cycle tour, walk a trail, climb a mountain and that I was a little overwhelmed by the options. After listening to me a while, he said “well it has to be a cold adventure or the penguin can’t go”. And suddenly I had a direction: a cold adventure.
Cold is pretty much covered by places far north, far south or up high. Far south seemed expensive and too big a challenge to dare to do. Which left the arctic or a mountain. A smaller pool of possibility, but still pretty big. A opportunity arose in the form of the Fjallraven Polar, a dog sled expedition in the arctic. Even though I had no expectation of getting enough votes to participate, I was surprised just how many people voted for me. I liked the idea of a journey, maybe a traverse; and though I like the idea of a dog sled, the idea of a human-powered journey appealed. Years of stress at work had made me unfit, I was not comfortable in my body. I didn’t dislike my body, rather I had neglected it as was beginning to pay the price. A human-powered journey gave me a reason to train.
The final refinements of the plan came from talking to three amazing women: Sarah Williams, Adelaide Goodeve and Helen Turton. Sarah invited me on a Facebook live chat in the Tough Girl Tribe to talk about my adventure ideas and get some support from the tribe. This sparked the memory of Adelaide’s Svalbard adventure, after a good chat about it and allaying some of my fears she put me in contact with Helen and her company, Newland. A call to Helen and the plan was fixed. Svalbard!
Back at Yestival in October 2018, I stood on stage and told everyone my plan. No turning back.
I’ve always had a bit of a thing for maps. I could spend hours looking at them, exploring the wilds from the comfort of home. When it came to using maps to navigate, apart from a few basic school geography lessons, I was self-taught. This had its disadvantages, mainly in sticking only to well marked paths as I had no confidence in my ability which limited the walks I would do. The advantage was that I had no idea about how pace or time, or how to use a compass other than to know which way was north, which meant I had to interpret what I could see around me to what was on the map.
Now I have been taught ‘technical’ navigation, I need to practice before my assessment. The best way to do this is something called micro-navigation. If you look closely at an OS 1:25000 map, there are tiny details, perhaps a few millimetres in size on the map: micro-navigation is finding these on the ground. The trickiest can be something called ring contours. Contour lines, orange on an OS 1:25000 map, show the height change on the ground in 5 metre intervals. A ring contour is a small patch of ground that is just high enough to breach the next contour: the challenge is that this could be that the ground around the ring contour is 4.9m higher than the last contour and the area in the ring contour is 5.1m. Now cover this in heather and bilberry bushes and it all gets interesting! This is where pacing comes in: if you know how many steps it takes to walk a distance you can measure how far you need to walk on the map.
So that was today’s entertainment! There is a special kind of contentment when you look at the map, look around you, then back at the map and smile quietly when you know exactly where you are. And then you have definitely earned cake.
Starting out from Malham in the Yorkshire Dales, Sarah and I crossed the Aire and walked along field edges and dry stone walls heading towards Gordale Scar. After a gentle mile, we came to Wedber Woods, rich with mosses and the first bright green leaves of wild garlic. Pausing at Janet’s Cave waterfall, with its deep clear pool that on another day would be inviting for a swim, we left the woods up the rough steps to the road.
Onward to Gordale Scar and the steep limestone cliffs which funnelled us to a second waterfall on Gordale beck. The beck was running high and the limestone wet and slippery so, after snacking on boiled eggs and peanuts, we turned and stomped up the road to Lee Gate. An easy walk over grass cropped short by Swaledale sheep brought us to High Stony Bank. Unsure how clearly marked our intended path would be, we measured the map and paced the distance to find an old sign and we set out across the pathless moor.
Though the sky remained grey the moorland was alive with the dancing Lapwings, serenades of the Skylarks high above us accompanied by Curlews hidden from view. We stopped for lunch on a boulder drinking hot Vimto and eating sausages and home made trail mix. After the obligatory dance pose, we faced the challenge of fording Gordale beck which had turned the bridalway into a wide stream. With a little careful planning and use of walking poles our socks remained dry and we began to head back south. A herd of Belted Galway cows, complete with ring-nosed bull paid us little attention and after another short stomp on tarmac we met the Pennine Way.
The dance pose
Melanie Rabbit on the moor
Heading off on the Pennine Way
It was here, a few metres from its source at Malham Tarn, the river Aire disappears without fuss underground to emerge a mile away at Malham Cove. The polished limestone of Ing Scar demanded concentration as we wound down to the limestone pavement above the cove. Stepping across the stones like chess pieces moving across the board, we made it to the steps. Weary but happy with thoughts of the cake waiting in the car for us, we followed the Aire back to Malham.
Start time 11am, 5 hours 35 minutes, 16.6km with 303m ascent.
It’s been a real mixed bag of weather for February walks. Only one was an official Rando’ Girls walk with Sarah and her friend Amar in the Roaches: what was was supposed to be a nice easy explore around the fascinating gritstone turned out to be a short, sharp walk in horizontal snow. Keeping it short kept it mostly Fun Type 1 with some Type 2 thrown in to make it worth while! Located in Shropshire on the edge of the Peak District, the Roaches have been loved by climbers since the early 1900’s. On more clement days, its fascinating to watch the climbers as you walk along the foot of the cliffs. Mindful of the snow, we parked at in the valley bottom before following the river Dane and Black Brook steadily climbing through Gradbach wood. Leaving the woods, we walked along open moorland crossing the road to Roach End. The Magic Tent (my orange shelter) was pulled out for lunch and we sat inside munching boiled eggs and drinking hot Ribena, warm and dry out the weather. Fed and watered, we walked up through the snow and wind to the trig point. We called this a success and turn back to retrace our steps to the car. 8km, 3 3/4 hours, 385m ascent/decent.
Melanie Rando Rabbit doing some navigation
Amongst the Roaches
The dance pose!
Just a few weeks before (technically in January, but I’m ignoring that) in Capel Curig, Viv, Nick and I were treated to glorious skies over Snowdonia as we finished a walk that started in snizzle (snowy drizzle). After a slow start in the excellent Moel Siabod cafe, we headed out through forest to avoid the worst of the rain. We lunched on a deserted forest track before finding the lovely isolated Llyn (lake) Bodgynydd before heading back past Crimpiau through hills with a glorious mountain-y feel to them. 16km, 5 1/2 hours, 558m ascent/decent.
Faerie dell in Mynydd Deulyn
Hot choc for Viv and a sausage for Leelu!
The dance pose!
Cumulus clouds over Snowdonia
The last weekend of February was another non-Rando Girls weekend back in Eskdale in the southern Lake District which has a very special place in my heart. The weather was due to be epically awful, so a short stroll on the Saturday was planned and an anticipated soggy Sunday walk too. Saturday we set out towards the river Esk, which was in spate (sudden flood) and after some changes of route from flooded paths we had a suitably awe-inspiring, but safe walk. Sunday we were up and out to avoid the rain. High winds kept us from the fell tops but Eskdale moor is a beautiful place with great views of Illgill Head, Eskdale Fell and Kirk Fell (if they hadn’t been in the clouds). An unexpected cuppa at Burnmoor followed an invite from the Burnmoor Lodge club, which is undergoing restoration. Having walked past it and wondered who owned it its great to see it is loved and has a great group trying to get it to a basic but usable state. I’ll be adding that to places to stay! Keeping low we followed the river Mite along it’s valley, stopping for lunch before heading up over Brat’s Moss. Site of ancient habitation, there are stone circles and cairns it was especially atmospheric in the strong winds. A steady stomp brought us down to Boot and back to civilisation and a pint at the Woolpack inn. 13km, 6 1/3 hours, 734m ascent/decent.
Late on the 17th of January, I headed back to the hut in Llanberis for my Hill and Moorland leader training. I was super nervous; a combination having no idea of how my skill level would compare to others and desperately wanting to do well made my poor head churn for the whole drive over from Cheshire. I’ve faced tough courses before through work but this was different: this time it was for something I really, really wanted to be good at…
I don’t like running. Correction, I don’t like training runs. Consequently, when I ran the Thunder Run for the third time a couple of weekends ago I had done very little training, not great when its a 24 hour relay race round a hilly 10km trail. I was the token slow runner on the team, managing 3 laps of 1hr13, 1hr14 and 1hr28. The last was the dawn lap starting at 4am which is actually my favourite: starting in the dark with a head torch and finishing in the misty dawn under a pink sky. I’ll be honest, the first lap was awful. Running under a full sun in high humidity; I was so hot my skin was tingling and I had to keep willing myself forward repeating the mantra “it’ll be over quicker if you keep running, it’ll be over quicker if you keep running”. I got cross and a bit weepy and then told myself off for being silly and that perhaps, in retrospect, a bit more training would have helped.
Lap 1 at the 8km mark looking a lot better than I felt. Photo credit @PJHImages
Campsite with the course running through the wooded hills
Dawn on the trail
Now that the Thunder Run is over, I’m having a bit of a think about what’s next. First up, I have found a personal trainer, Jo. Part of my problem is I get so confused with conflicting recommendations I have read on how I should or shouldn’t train I end up making an excuse and not doing anything. Which I realise is a rubbish excuse. I’ve thrown myself upon the mercy (or not) of Jo to tell me what to do, when to do it and how much. So far it’s working, simply knowing Jo will check up on me is making me go out and just do something. So, what next? I need to be honest with myself, I like going for a run but training hard for running just doesn’t fill me with enthusiasm. When I look at the sports I love: climbing, hill walking and dancing, they all as much about mental and technical skills as they are about pure fitness. The obvious alternative to running is cycling. I’m lucky, I live close to good trails and quiet roads, I’m an engineer so bike maintenance appeals as well. Inspired by the film The Way, about the Camino de Santiago, I planned to walk the 500 miles in the Pyrenees however I’m unlikely to get the leave from work: but maybe I could cycle it in a fortnight. A plan forms…
In the Tough Girl Podcast on the 12th April 2016, Parys Edwards talks about being the egg not the potato: it’s the same boiling water that makes the egg hard that makes the potato soft. The Thunder Run was a boiling water moment for me, though I don’t feel very tough yet I think I’m almost soft-boiled. And in my world there’s no better way to start the day than with a nice dippy-egg.
“Tribe this is such a supportive and awesome group and I know many of you blog about your challenges – Please do share your blog page links below. We want to support you and get inspired by what you’re doing!!!”
“Haven’t got one… Maybe I should start one!”
And that, folks, is why I am here. A short comment on the Tough Girl Tribe Facebook group started this blog and we’ll see where it goes. I’ll admit I was sat in my favourite pub in Eskdale in a comfortable post-pizza and beer haze when it seemed like a good idea, when you forget the million-and-one other things you started but haven’t quite gotten round to completing.
So, in the spirit of Rando’ Girls, I decided the best way to think it through was go for a walk. It was raining hard and 10 o’clock at night but going to bed still stuffed from tea didn’t appeal so I pulled on my waterproofs, grabbed my head torch and headed out. Decisions like this need to be made in a memorable place so the foot of the Hardknott pass was the destination. At the phone box and last collection of road signs warning drivers of what was coming, I decided to turn Rando’ Girls from a Whatsapp group for organising adventures with two friends, into more of a Thing. Then I ran back to the pub.