Sunday, 23 November 2014

Point 2 Point - Is the point at which you find out who you are...

Articulating an extreme personal experience in writing, with the express intent of conveying how hard that experience is to the reader who's not been through it, is tantamount to impossible. That said, it is possible to empathise with the writers experience, and draw some parallels that puts the subject in some sort of context that can be related to. So here goes...

A blanket of stars lit up the night sky, unspoilt by light pollution that typically obscures the beauty of  the worlds beyond our own, and the low November temperature forced us all to keep moving around clumsily as the weight of our Bergens prevented us from making significant exaggerated movements. As a result we took to shuffling around with 50lbs strapped to us as we waited for the Directing Staff (DS) to bid us forward in that clipped military tone that denotes it's game-on..."On me".

We encouraged Mark, our Nav expert, forward to the DS to receive the 6 numbers that would set us off on a journey that my narrative skills will never be able to do justice to. Grid obtained our four man team huddled together, pouring over the map with the faint glow of red torchlight spilling across the fablon sheen as we desperately tried to identify a route across what would turn out to be some of the most inhospitable terrain that the Brecon Beacons has to offer. In agreement we knew where we were, where we needed to go and the route we should take, we set off in good spirits but deep in our own thoughts, as banter from the day before gave way to trepidation. Crossing the metal road we immediately hit the first of an untold number of impossibly steep inclines, and as the nursery rhyme goes our Nav man "...marched them up to the top of the hill and marched them down again..." and on and on and on we went. We crossed rivers, walked through streams, schlepped through bog water and tried to walk on what many SF narrators have described as "babies heads" (tufts of grass you can't step on or between with any degree of comfort), all within an hour of the off.
Very quickly what we thought was good progress was checked by an eye opener. Stuart had taken a step to the left of where Karl had walked and within a second he was up to his ball bag in muddy water, his left leg being sucked down into a sinkhole, the speed of the sinking element exagerated by the near 50lbs Bergen on his back meant that there was not even a sound as he fell down. Pulling him up we checked to ensure no damage sustained and realised we we're in such unfamiliar territory we weren't even aware of what to look out for, target fixation on the 6 figure grid had forced us to pay little attention to the actual dangers that lay underfoot. "F*uck me, I thought you we doing a Dr Glouster impression" I said, trying to make light of what would now be a miserable time for Stuart as he now had to contend with a soaked left leg for the remainder of the tortuouse route march, however his right leg would be wet enough as the miles unfolded before us like ants traversing a sheet of corigated iron.
I was designated comms man, an honour I bestowed upon myself as I had the radio, and the thought that at some point I might get to call in an air strike or scream down the radio "incoming", however the reality was that the use of the radio was purely for instances of assistance, not guiding in the RAF to wipe out fellow competitors. Whilst on the subject of comms, I can only say that to be in the company of Dave Humm was a privilege and an honour, this guy is supremely proffessional and an expect communicator, just as well being in charge of comms. for some 70 odd civvies, hat's off to you Dave! He also said I had a nice Paras10 jacket, which means he's allright in my book!

At this juncture it's worth covering off the DS and ancillary Staff: Proffesionalism personified! Ken we know is nails, enough said about Ken as he is a legend in his own ParaSmock. Matt, well Christ I could listen to that guy all day, I wish I knew what he'd forgotten about being a tramua casualty medic, i'm contstantly on the look out for Venus bleeds and telling everyone in earshot what I know about tourniquet treatment (don't apply on a two bone compartment!), however I get the impression that if he's your GP you'd better have a real case that needs treating as feeling a "...bit ropey..." won't get you much tea and sympathy. A first class practionar and no doubt a class leader in his field of expertise. I'd heard a lot about Stuart, and his reputation certainly proceeded him! Hard as a coffin nail and as direct as ever a man can be, but he's the guy who will save your life in the teeth of the storm I have no doubt, and is (when allied to the other DS) what makes the backbone of our SF so Special...! He probably doesn't know it (as he couldn't pronounce my name right all weekend..."Daonaldson...? Donti what?....Dantison...? Donford...? Dunford...?..." I could hear his mind, "FML why doesn't this bloke just have a proper name!" For the record Stuart, Donati-Ford... But aside from that, when I was at one of my lowest points (above RV3) he drew me into conversation about me doing the Paras10, and what my time was etc, it was an inocuouse enough of a conversation, but came at a time to distract me from the demons rampaging around my head sufficiently long enough for me to dig in and crack on a bit more, Stuart I thank you more than you will know! And from point 2 point we happened across other Staff, camped up on top of mountains, at the bottom of VW valley and appearing from the mist, all of whom were either the same person or different people (my addled brain had difficulty distinguishing them all), but to a man they were switched on, professional and keen to make you crack on. And holding up the foundations of the event next to Ken was Jason, a true gent, every fibre of the man was SF and he spoke only what you ever needed to hear in a manner you never needed to ask twice what he might mean. To say you have met the guy is a privilege, to be in his company is an honour.

So the miles dragged on, the hills turned to mountains the streams into rivers and my mind descended into darkness. Early on I'd started to struggle, at breakfast I'd eaten the steel porridge Ken had kindly humped back from the US, I'd choked down pints of water, electrolyte and chia seeds and my guts were trying to process all of this whilst being expected to TAB across ball busting terrain. My mind protested, I felt faint, sick and drained and was disgusted at myself for feeling so shite this early on. I clammed up, my usual banter gave way to just focusing on grinding out the miles, I felt I was holding the guys up, they merrily chatted, I sank further into my own negative thoughts. I tried to lead from the front, more so as I could control our pace but I could feel that I was holding us up as the guys kept coming past me then I'd be 30yards behind. I'd trained like a beast for this, I'd out Tabbed the guys on the Winter Fan so new my phys was not the problem, it was the dark clouds swirling round my head, thicker than the clag we were enveloped in for much of the day. I didn't let on that I was struggling but I sensed the guys knew that somthing was rotten in the state of Denmark, or high up in the Beacons as it transpired, but they never let on, no doubt focusing on their own issues rather than mine.

The climb to Trig 642 will be an abiding memorey, not for the fact that it was just a bastard of a climb, they all were, but for the fact that mid way up the brute I was struggling to maintain my balance, with the 50lbs serving as a pendulum as I took uneven steps up the mountainside. At one point I got a tank-slapper on and proceeded to veer hard left, I thought "ok this is where I go for a burton, buckle up" but at the tipping point I felt a vice like grip on my right bicep, the fist clutching a handful of smock and muscle with the pain of one of Matt's tourniquet, it dragged me hard right pulling me upright and balanced once more. Ken, rampaging up the mountain like King Kong up the side of the Empire State Building, had seen me getting out of shape and simply sorted my shit out for me sharpish, and then in one continuouse motion bounded on up at breakneck speed. I simply marveled at this moment, stuttering to the guys behind to "grab hold of his legs" in a vain effort to hitch a ride to our destination a further 500mtrs above. Ken, all I can say is thanks, you simply cemented the legend even further right there! The climb ended, eventually, and then 6 more numbers meant more pain ahead...
VW valley had been waiting in the wings and now it was center stage. It was in the belly of the beast that I confided to Mark that I was struggling, quaffing a shit tasting pasty I'd bought the day before (M&S it was not), he pulled up a Bergen opposite and simply said "look if you're worried about not wanting to VW because we'll take the piss out of you we won't..." I could have kissed his bald head, it was just the type of response I'd have expected, the thing that mattered to him was that he wanted me to know he felt my pain and would not let it be used to belittle me if I jacked, true mark of a man. I said I'd crack on, trying to make some rebble rousing statement like "let's crack this f*cker out!" but felt the bravado draining away in the river that was flowing either side of us. Fast forward on to RV3, we were faced with climb that made Jacobe's Ladder look like a speed bump, it was at this point stood on the side of the road that I though "F*ck it, I can get a cab to the FOB, pack my shit up and get the early flight back to Jersey and all this goes away", turning to Karl, Stuart and Mark I said I was done, game over. What took me most by suprise was their look of dejection in their eyes, that I'd dare proffer up the notion that I was jacking. They all had a look of utter exhaustion, knowing what was ahead they were preoccupied with getting their own shit in one sock, so it came as a suprise to them that I'd be even contemplating it. Karl stared at me intently, I could feel his eyes boring into my skull, "you're not VW'ing, just start up that hill, it'll be alright!" Mark and Stuart chimed in,"come let's just have a crack at it, come on.." We crossed the road and I knew with every step up the mountain was a step further from the end of the pain. And in a funny way I knew that this was the way to make me crack on, if I could break the link with the road below and thus the chance to bin it then I'd be forced to move back into the mountains deeper and on to RV4. Thier words ringing in my ears RV3 faded in to the distance below and it was game on again. Head down and crack on, it was now about grinding it out to FRV.

The Fan swept by quickly, Jason chastising us for clogging up RV4, just to let us know that our responsibilities to clear RV's were not over just because it was our penultimate one, and down Jacobe's Ladder we descended, a small sense of relief washed over me as I knew we'd not be ascending this beast and it was familer territory to be gunning along the path to Windy Gap, having been on this route some 11 months before. By now bearing fixes and grids were being bared down on with rapier like precision, it was all about reaching the strobed FRV. The miles ticked by, darkness enveloped us and the clag never truely thinned out to make us feel we weren't on the set of the Truman Show. As we began our final descent to the strobe that marked the end of a mind bending two days, I thought I'd best just let everyone know I was comms. designate "FRV this is TIM13, ETA 8mins over", it was wishful thinking on my behalf but gave me hope value that soon we'd be in tha van, headed back to the FOB. We descended down the natural staircase until we hit the metal road, bashed another 400mtrs to FRV to give our details and be told it was EndEX. Emotional hugs and backslaps ensued, the sense of relief was near all consuming. And that was it, done and dusted. We threw our Bergens in the van and headed back to get our kit squared away, strike camp and head our separate ways.

Listing the names of those I shared this monumental experience with would seem a feeble attempt to show my gratitude, and this word-salad would go on another 5 pages, so I'll be in touch in person to all those that made an impact on me that will forever shape my future, but for the 3 guys in my team I have to simply say thank you. Karl, Mark and Stuart you guys are family now, pure and simple!
Aside from that, to Ken, the DS, support staff and those at the FOB, life will look a little different from now on and I'll be a different person, not that others may notice, but I feel it and I'll treasure it forever!
Tim13 OUT.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Fan Dance Winter 2014...

It felt like I was trying to go up an escalator the wrong way. Legs heavy, breath short and for the first time the wind and rain beginning strip me of my body heat. Needles of rain stung my exposed face like when my brother used to twirl a t-towel into a rat's tail and flick me with it on the arse, but this time it was on the cheeks, but it hurt the same amount (an odd memory to conjure up at that moment in time)! Each step forward was followed by two steps sideways, which was a result of the Force 10 winds scything across the valley and up the mountainside. Course corrected and on another step, forwards and upwards followed by two steps sideways...repeat to fade... I new if I stopped the ascent I'd struggle to get going again, so on I plodded, happy the small progress was just that, progress, and with the mountain shrouded in mist and fog I was secretly pleased that my destination was obscured from vision, however this was a double edged sword as whilst it cloaked the monumental angle of ascent it precluded me from knowing how much further I had to go before reaching the top. I continued to pigeon step precariously up the track, looking no more than 6ft in front, all the time thinking "don't stop..just keep going"!

Let's wind the clock back pre-face lashing and pigeon steps, to a point in time at Nant Du Lodge when the air was thick with laughter and warm friendly faces were-a-plenty. This was my second Fan Dance, however I'd rather not talk about the Summer one, poor prep and food poisoning beforehand was enough to serve as nothing short of an "epic fail" (as the cool kids say). So chalk the first up to experience, the Winter one was where it was going to happen or not at all. I'd got to Brecon a day before and drew-up to the Storey Arms to see if the legend that is Ken was bobbing about doing some prep, however what I witnessed humbled me greatly. 4 tonners, med-wagons and troops everywhere, I'd stumbled right into Selection proper, with young guys streaming off the mountain looking like they'd just seen the Devil. I stood in bewildered-awe, rooted to the spot by the old red phone box, just watching and standing there like one o'clock half struck. After several minutes I thought I'd better get out the way and bobbed into the Storey Arms. Ken was apparently 'up the Fan checking out the route and conditions' (one of three times that day!), so I bid my leave and bolted back to Nant Du Lodge for some grub and to faff around with my kit.

After a while of said 'faffing' I had a an odd feeling to look out the window, and as I did I saw a sight that made me shout aloud with delight and punch the air, and I never punch the air (what's that all about!?). A Jag swept into the car park and I bolted out the room as if it were on fire. Karl, Caz and their new bin-lid Charlie were here, it was like family turning up that you've not seen for ages. After many man hugs and back slaps I got to see Charlie, what a little cracker, just like his dad, cheeky little grin and bright eyes, soaking up all the commotion! Caz was looking wonderful, as ever, and greeted me like one of the family. While this welcoming ceremony was unfolding Rob and his good lady wife popped out of their car, another round of back slaps and hugs ensued. Rob looked lean and fit, and all of a sudden I began to doubt myself, he cut a striking figure as all his prep had honed him into even more of a racing snake than he looked in the summer! Rob is the sort of guy you want to be as fit as but know you never will be, no matter how hard you train. I tip my hat to Rob as he's a tremendous Tabber, but the guy is so bashful and down to earth about his ability it makes you sick!

Fast forward and some of the other Twitter battalion arrived, Sean, his lovely wife and cracking daughter Poppy, wonderful people and the sort that are just instant friends. Then the clocks stopped and all stood to attention as Ginger Limb turned up with his wonderful wife. The great thing about Twitter as we know is that you get to know people very well before meeting them, so when you do it’s like you've never actually not met, thus it was with Simon, a legend of a guy and every bit as mad as his Tweets portray, he's nails! So we dispensed with dinner, bowled back up to the Storey Arms to register and put more Tweets to faces. Great to finally meet people, and everyone one of them as genuine and as humble as you could hope to meet, great characters all with different backgrounds, different abilities but all there with a common purpose. Meeting Matt Walby was a privilege, the poor guy had been struck with nerves from the moment he'd signed up for the Fan, but over the months he'd been encouraged by the support his fellow Twitterers had given him, he'd trained hard and made the long journey down from Newcastle full of trepidation but a gut load of courage, we chatted and I could see he was up for giving it a thrashing, and he did, good on him!

Other people to come across were the Bear, Matt L, Emma, Ian, Phil Williams and his son Callen (doing CF but nails all the same! Top parenting Phil, hope I can get my daughters up the Fan (so to speak!!) and Olly, all top blokes that made you feel right at ease and of course Daz H, such a funny guy and a real character, a bubbly lively bloke who you just want to spend more time with, but unfortunately time just did not allow. Gerald was in the mix, looking fitter than the summer and raring to go, how the guy does it I'll never know, I just hope I'm cracking out the Fan Dance when I'm his age, good on you Gerald! Bergen weigh-in done and a good chat with Ken was enough to humble you and calm you all at the same time. Linda was racing round doing a cracking job of checking people, sorting out accommodation and handing out books and t-shirts as more and more people filled in to the admin block, conscious that we were adding to the mayhem Karl and I dashed back to the Lodge, for a pint and some banter before then heading to our respective bashers to try and sleep, which of course did not come in any shape or form.

Before all to long it was up and at'em, kit stowed in the car, Sean and Karl loaded up we crept out of the Lodge with nervous banter trying to hide our trepidation and anxieties (mine more so as Karl's as cool as the other side of the pillow and Sean does this stuff in his sleep!). Rocking up to the Storey Arms once more we were taken aback by the change in weather, wind Force 5 was now in effect and the cloud base low! We grabbed our Bergen’s, buddy checked one another and headed for the start line. Then the Massey brothers appeared from nowhere, these guys are top Twitter blokes, and top blokes in every other respect. I have a great deal of admiration for them both, and their ability to slate one another takes sibling rivalry to a new level, they are funny as f@ck, genuine and all round straight up and down kind of guys!

We gravitated to the start, Ken was in full effect but the sound bites were lost to the Force 5 and we just stood like pack horses reflecting on what was to come. Then we all started to shuffle off and it was game on, but the pace was dictated by those immediately in front of us and we were somewhere near the back so it was slow going to start. Rob at this point was probably somewhere near the top of the Fan! Simon and I found ourselves together and we chatted a little as we strided up to the first kissing gate, kissing done we then crossed the stream and he let his dog's off the lead and he was gone, melting into the mist like a scene from a black and white Sherlock Holmes film. As I say, he’s nails that guy! So it was time to crack on and make time, but skirting round the summit of Corn Du Force 5's older brother, Force 7 turned up as he obviously wasn’t doing a good enough job of smashing us to bits into the mountain, (evidently farther Force 10 would make an appearance later, just to ram the point home!) and then as the Yanks so eloquently say 'Sh*t just got real', viz was negligible and sideways walking was the best you could hope for.

I was soaking wet already, a mixture of sweat, rain and water from the streams and puddles, however I was warm and didn't feel cold as my core temp was dumping heat built up from the ascent, lactic acid drained out from the muscles as the ground to the Fan summit flattened out. The DS appeared like an apparition and simply guided us to the top of Jacob's. Treating it with the respect it deserves I gingerly made my way down, then descended the Ladder trail at pace picking up the right hander under Cribyn and started to get a shift on. It was along this route I came upon Stuart Massey, and I couldn't believe it, this lifted moral as he's a fit guy and rinsed me on the summer Fan, I asked him about his brother and he informed me he was further ahead, this was all the motivation I needed, we'd been winding each other up about who would finish first and I had a point to prove. Stuart and I pecked our way down to the RV and gave the DS our race numbers, then off we set to tackle the Roman Rd. I turned to Stuart and said let's just keep up the momentum and keep Tabbing along, 400mtrs later I looked round and was on my own. I could see Stuart still making progress so new he was ok, but we were just at a different pace, so I just decided to blat on, and Tabbed the sh*t out of that Road, trying to purge myself of such a shocking effort in the Summer. I came across Mark, he'd been struggling with an injury for months and his prep was completely hampered by it, even doing the event marks him out as a real Trooper. I passed on my best and kept the hammer down.

Off Roman Road and onto a shocking bit of track all the way to the turnaround RV, wet grass, mud and weight don't make for good bedfellows and traction was almost non-existent, I felt like a shopping trolley with a wonky wheel, just unable to keep a straight line. Finally the RV crept round the corner, same drill, number to the DS and I looked around, some people were taking the chance to sort personal admin and get scoff onboard, however I knew if I stopped it would be tough to get going. I felt good, bang-up for the return leg so I just cracked on. Shopping trolley mode engaged again until I hit the Roman Rd (I passed Karl soon after, we exchanged good wishes and checked one another was ok, I felt a pang of guilt as we should have been shoulder to shoulder, but he looked good and knew he'd want me to just bash on with it, so I did). Going up Roman Rd is a different ball game, it's like it says "yea, you just whip on down and we'll see what happens on the way back shall we..!" I battled marched it out, unable to flat-out Tab it, got to the DS again at Windy Gap and at this point I could feel I was staring to flag, I looked back down the Road and could hear it saying " d'ya like them apples, douche!", fair enough I thought, however every step was a step closer to the Patch so I scorched off back on the route under Cribyn. The route back along under Cribyn was just garbage, it had turned into a complete stream and rocks just stuck out from everywhere hoping to trip you over and give a "ha ha" Nelson from the Simpsons esque style laugh. I still felt good, warm and strong but cramp was beginning to become a real problem, I could feel that it had been in the mail from half way back up Roman Rd, but zoned it out (also necking three sachets of salt and a mouth full of water, it felt like I'd just drunk half a pint of sea water and wretched like a beast, but kept it down, this was enough too stave it off but it would later come back to haunt me). I hit the bottom of Jacob's Ladder and then things began to go awry.

I was in full DPM military clothing, Para smock and combats with an Under Armour base layer, which whilst wet was warm due to the body heat being produced, however coming back up Jacob's Ladder it was such hard going that the heat loss made the wet clothing cold, I could feel my core temp starting to drop as the wind-chill now took effect on my cold wet clothing, and with very little heat being produced by my body as I was ascending so slowly I felt that I was going to start to go down with the effort of climbing the Ladder, if I did then that’s when I’d be in big trouble. Even with dry kit in the Bergen there was nowhere to get out of the driving wind and rain to change, it would have either blown away and landed on Ken’s head down at the Storey Arms or just got soaked straight away.

I had no choice but to press on, my glove-soaked numb fingers gripping my Bergen straps were like claws and despite wearing waterproof tactical military boots my feet were sodden and my toes were involuntary cramping and curling up. This is where the cramp came back with vengeance, as the muscles were getting cold and blood flow had slowed to them, preferring to stay at my core to protect the vital organs in favour of warm hands and feet!

I ploughed onwards and upwards, eventually reaching the summit. This on its own served as a boost as I knew it was only two and a bit miles back to base, nearly all of which were down hill, however it was at this point I was at my most coldest and felt like I was going down. With my numb claw-like hands I fished out of my pocket a Torq gel, washed it down with water from my hydro-pack and grabbed a bar of Kendal mint cake (I became a bit emotional at this point, as the Kendal mint cake served to act as a reminder of my late father, who used to trek out to random parts of the world and swore by the stuff, maybe it was because of the rag order I was in but the back of my eyes began to prickle and I just stood there reflecting on him, yet it was a cathartic moment and whilst tinged with sadness served also to act as a moral boost) it was sickly sweet and I quaffed half down before gagging, then what felt like a dog bite ripped at my calf, cramp took me down to the ground with me screaming in agony, the sort of cramp that grips you when you're asleep and it feels like your leg is bring ripped open. Fortunately two guys behind me saw me go down and assisted (many thanks fella’s, unsure of who you are but appreciate the assistance!!), we were at the highest peak in South Wales, over 800mtrs up and I was on my back in agony lying in pools of water writhing around, they lifted my leg and eased out the cramp, then I bid them on their way, I knew I had to generate heat and the only was by moving, and moving fast, but with toes like a troll and cramp ridden muscles it was just impossible.

Up and off again I just had to grin and bare it, fortunately the gel and mint cake kicked in and the adrenalin feeling of being close to the end was enough to see me down off the mountain and back to the old red phone box. As I dropped down off the mountain with a few hundred meters to go I pulled out my phone, struck up Strava and it gave me the good news, I was going to get down in under 4hrs 40mins, which banished any demons hanging over me from the summer effort. Going through the gate I felt unsteady but elated, I had to give my race number to the DS and could not remember the 3 digits, I could hardly articulate myself and was immediately and acutely aware that these were classic early stages of hypothermia, I pulled it together, spat out the number gibbering it and asked him to confirm it off the back of my Bergen. In like Flynn, job done.

Then it was into the Storey Arms to pull my dry kit out and get off the saturated gear, fingers so numb someone had to help me off with my trousers and undo buttons! Dry clothes on, warm soup, sausage roll down the Gregory Peck then the blood came back to the extremities. I ducked back outside to welcome back the other guys getting in, big back slaps and man hugs all round. There are simply not enough superlatives to express the admiration that I have for the people I have met doing the Fan Dance. However, the folk I have met are some of the most urbane, erudite, tough as coffin nails and funny people I have had the privilege to ever meet, and I class them all as friends of the highest calibre.

A mention in despatches must go to my brother @Fordario (follow him, he’s a good guy!), prior to the event he crafted an email with advice that was invaluable, and ensured I had my head in the game. Thanks bro, you squared me away big time!

And as for the DS and admin team, you are without fear of contradiction the most awe inspiriting events team on the map!

Of Ken I would simply steal a quote from Plato; "A hero is born among a hundred, a wise man is found among a thousand, but an accomplished one might not be found even among a hundred thousand men..." Ken is a hero, wise and that accomplished man. #nails