“Can you be there in 30 minutes?”
It’s the kind of message that spells adventures.
It was late one weekday afternoon in this recent hot spell. The sun was bright. The sky a brilliant blue. And my desk suddenly seemed very unappealing.
Because the mini-adventure being suggested was something I’d never done: swimming – properly swimming – in a Devon river.
No contest. 30 minutes later we were here: toes tickled by sun-warmed grass beside a river that flowed through dappled shade.
Feet in neoprene socks scrambled down the bank, sharp stones dug into toes. Inching in was squealingly cold. Then it’s ‘oh what the heck’ (or words to that effect) and a deep breath and a step and a plunge and: ‘whoosh!’ – cold water gasps and puffs.
Then water-borne conversations about flow and eddies and learning to swim – generations of Devonians have sketched their first strokes in this water. And chats about using the water flow to perfect swimming technique – it’s a natural resistance pool.
Next we were exploring a mini-island, discovering another stretch of water, and playing in a swoosh – the section of current that propels you downriver faster than you can swim, to deposit you safely on a sloping bank.
Blissfully cool. Sunlight glinting on water. Squeals from playing children. Youngsters jumping in.
This is something to value – friends who can unlock new experiences and places.
People, sensations, wild spaces. Playing, learning, enjoying.
A grin-inducing way to GetOutside.
The practical stuff:
I was lucky, a friend knew just where and how to swim. If you don’t, do your research carefully – nationally the Outdoor Swimming Society is a good place to start.
Devon & Cornwall Wild Swimming provides sound regional advice.
While Ordnance Survey maps will help get you wherever you need to go.
In the overall arena of contests and endeavour, the Polkerris Biathlon doesn’t loom large. A 1.5km swim, followed by a 6km run – for some isn’t that far. But for me it was and it underlined five simple truths about why I love to GetOutside.
Completing Not Competing
“Are you competing?” said the guy pointing people towards registration.
“Yes”, I said automatically.
“No”, said my friend at the same time. “We’re taking part”.
And she was right. This wasn’t about speed and race positions. Yes, we were here to challenge ourselves and step outside our comfort zones – but it was more about finishing and having fun.
This is the face of someone who is really very nervous. I love sea bathing, but I’m not a speed or distance gal. 1.5km would be the furthest I’d done. At my painfully slow swimming that’s 45+ minutes in 13 degree seas (in a wetsuit). Worse still it was a blustery day with a four foot swell – from the beach it looked an awfully, awfully long way … Luckily I had two good friends to tell me I’d be fine. Could I do it? I kept wondering, eyeing a very bouncy sea. Their answer, always: “of course you can”.
Trying Something New
If the sea was off-putting, the transition zone was baffling. Great advice from the organisers saw me equipped with a washing up bowl (to rinse sand from your feet before putting them into trainers for the run). And friends had advised on how to dress (a bra under the swim suit was a top tip) but how to best arrange the gear was all very unclear. It adds to nerves when you can’t quite envisage how things will pan out. And everyone else seemed to know just what to do …
This is the route (marked up on OS Maps). While the swim worried me, it didn’t remotely phase my friend. While the run didn’t worry me, that was her bug bear. We could have chosen to do the event as a relay. But we wanted to help each other around. As I plugged away, horribly slowly on the swim, my buddy kept me company – encouraging, chatting, being chilled and calm. She could have swam four times as far (at least), but instead chose to help me. Eventually we made it (yay!!) and we headed onto a sometimes hilly and slippery course. It was now my turn to go a little slower than I could (note: not much slower), as we chatted our way around, taking in the views.
“Failure” & Success
Because of that determination to finish together – to match the pace of each other at our slowest, we came very spectacularly last. But you could also say we triumphed. Not just because that last place – and the spirit in which it was ‘achieved’ – netted a bottle of Prosecco each. But it was a kind of triumph because we’d been bold and stepped outside our comfort zones. Because perhaps the only failure is not to try.
We were there not to compete, but to complete. And we did that in fine style.
Fancy trying something new?
The Ordnance Survey has lots of good ideas on how to GetOutside in its Beginner’s Guides section.
The Polkerris Biathlon was run by the excellent Mad Hatter Sports – they have plenty more events in Cornwall this summer, over a wide range of distances, for you to try.
Let me know how you get on …
It was a challenging, exhilarating three days in the snows of the Scottish Cairngorms. There was leg-testing, wind-blasting and snot-streaming (sorry, but it’s true). But it was an unforgettable place to GetOutside.
This, my first experience of the Scottish winter hills, led to an article for the British Mountaineering Council. It covers the safety issues, challenges, rewards and lessons learned. It also features how you too can get up into the winter hills. For that article click here.
For the story and pictures behind the article, read on …
Creag Meagaidh Range
This is us high the Creag Meagaidh Range. My friend, Ellie, is guiding us from Carn Liath, via Stob Poite Coire Ardair and The Window to Creag Meagaidh. It’s a route of around 20km with an ascent of 1080m.
As you can see, it’s beautiful. What you can’t necessarily see is that the avalanche hazard is Considerable on certain slopes. That the temperatures on the tops are -6C, with winds of 30mph bringing that down to around -18C.
Cold then, with a stinging wind (hence the snot-streaming), some energy-sapping slogging through shin-deep snow and sometimes-treacherous gusts.
Wind-blasted, tested and awed by this environment. I can still see these views …
Hunting for Homer’s Head
This is us, a few days earlier, high in the hills of the Glen Feshie range, gathered round Ordnance Survey maps.
You’ll notice the full winter kit, including crampons. What you might not realise is that we’re looking for Homer’s Head. Not Homer the ancient Greek philosopher; but Homer the cartoon character. Why? Well, because although OS’s surveyors quite possibly didn’t have it in mind when they plotted the contour lines, these brown wavy marks do bear a sneaking resemblance to the profile of Springfield’s bright yellow patriarch.
So why are we so set on finding ‘Homer’? It’s partly because Ellie, who’s leading us, wanted to do a micro nav exercise – when you navigate short legs in difficult conditions, when accuracy is key. But now we’re up here, it’s more than an exercise. Because, as expected, low cloud and snow now means dramatically reduced visibility. In fact we’re in the midst of a whiteout – where you can’t see features or the horizon. Today – you can’t see them at all.
And these hills are full of very real hazards, some of these slopes today carry avalanche risks. And as those contour lines suggest, some of the ridge edges here are pretty sheer. But, our navigator nails that circuitous micro nav route spot on; skill and prolonged concentration mean she leads us back to precisely the right point – the path we came up, where we can still make out our earlier foot prints in the snow.
The biggy is having the utmost respect for people and place: serious hills and serious conditions require serious preparation, equipment and skills.
For more on the specific lessons learned and the ways you could prepare to GetOutside in Britain’s winter hills, see my BMC article here. The Ordnance Survey website has a wealth of hiking tips and location guides – start your explorations here.
By the way, there wasn’t room in my article to discuss the best ever winter hill snack. I’m putting down a vote for peanut butter, banana and honey sandwiches. You?
What are your British winter hill walking experiences; your favourite places & tips?
A huge thank-you to Ellie, Taff, Sarah and Sally, who helped me get up into the hills 🙂