Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Late developer 

Sit a starving man down at a table laden with gastronomic delights and he’ll stuff himself, with little appreciation for the finer flavours of his feast. He wants to consume – hugely, endlessly, randomly - quality takes second pace to quality.

So it is so often, to a degree, when I go into the hills. After months of urban living, I’m so desperate to gorge myself, sampling every delicacy that the outdoors has to offer, that I set a punishing schedule, trying to cram into a couple of days as much as I can, and so risk defeating the very purpose for which those days were intended. Through eagerness to reconnect with the natural environment, as untainted as I can find it by all those works of humankind that would keep it from me, I inadvertently start to pile block upon block that if I’m not careful starts to build an unseen barrier to that very connection I seek.

Even had we set off on schedule, Saturday’s itinerary would have left little time for tranquil appreciation of our surroundings. But somehow we unintentionally used up our entire potential ration of such time through our rather leisurely start. So it was that, by the middle of the afternoon, still with several kilometres to go before we’d reach our proposed camping spot, at the furthest point of our horseshoe route, I was watching the angle of the sun closely, gauging by its height the time we had left before darkness fell. Curious, I thought to myself, that even though I’m wearing a watch, I still go by that ancient method of assessing the progression of the day, gaining a feel for the point at which found ourselves in the endless cycle of light and dark.

We pressed on, but it was becoming clear we’d not reach our intended goal before nightfall. True, we could have stopped and camped wherever we happened to be, but any miles left incomplete today would have to be added to tomorrow’s total, since running down the axis of the horseshoe walk were three large reservoirs formed by damming the River Derwent – no short-cuts to be had through them! In any case, on the very top of the moors, the northernmost point of the Derwent watershed, the ground was exposed and offered no chance to replenish water supplies from a running stream, so we’d still benefit from a detour into the head of the valley.

So onwards we went, into the gathering gloom, until a compass bearing on a small summit off to the south marked the place I’d identified as the best point at which to swing south-west, leaving the featureless flat-topped “ridge” and drop down into the valley. By this time, 5.30pm, the sunlight had all but departed and the moon, although full, was hidden behind thickening cloud, which as luck would have it chose that moment to release its load upon us. The thought wasn’t lost on me that, had we kept to schedule, we’d be comfortably installed in our tent by now. Time instead to don waterproofs and pull my head-torch out of the rucksack.

It’s easy to see how easy it is to go round in circles when there are no visual cues to mark your direction. When we got moving again, I nearly set off in precisely the wrong direction; although I’d set a compass bearing, in the darkness I nearly followed the wrong end of the needle since that was the way my senses were telling me to go. Thankfully, reason hadn’t quite been usurped by haste; its alarm bells, faint as they were, were insistent. Check, check, and check again: was the needle stuck? Was I inadvertently holding something ferrous nearby? Did P.’s compass show the same? Yes, it agreed with mine. Turning somewhat disbelievingly around (it’s hard for an outdoors junkie to admit that his sense of direction has been fooled), the rapidly fading outline of the hills fell into place as I recognised over to our left the low summit I’d used earlier to locate our position, just discernable in the murk against the darkened sky.

Although the ground was still relatively level on a large scale, on the step-by-step scale revealed in the pool of light from my head-torch we still had to negotiate hollows knee-deep in heather and peaty ice-bottomed groughs. Time and again our path was turned by these obstructions, compass checks showing how readily we diverged from our set course.

All the while we’d been stopped, P. had been laying back on his rucksack, getting wetter and wetter. I made the suggestion that he might like to don waterproofs and find his headtorch too, but the suggestion fell on deaf ears. I let it go; he’s adult and can make his own choices – he didn’t need his dad fussing around and ordering him about and I had no wish to add a relationship chill to the physical chill of our circumstances.

Ideally, I was headed for the more level area of grassy ground next to the river,

but that was still a kilometre or so away, down a steepish, trackless heather-covered slope, scored by muddy gullies where the streams gathered speed as they left the plateau to descend the slope to the river. Some were clearly quite deep – I could make out a deep V-notch in the near horizon. It wouldn’t have been easy ground to negotiate at the best of times – with clear vision of a circle only a few feet across, progress was slow since we had no desire to step over the edge of one of these gullies and find its bottom many more feet away than we’d imagined. So when P. spotted a relatively level patch of ground, it seemed worth checking out. Yes, it was as level as we could expect to find, on a patch of heather still thin from one of last summer’s moorland fires. There were enough streams about that water couldn’t be more than a few yards away – yes, here would do.

P.’s 2-man tent is quick and easy to pitch, even in the dark by torchlight. At this point, fatherly concern took over from avoidance of dictatorship – anyway, it was entirely logical that, since I was the one wearing waterproofs, I should stay outside in the rain and prepare our evening meal, whilst he removed his wet outer layer of clothing and organised the tent. By now it was raining steadily and as we’d stopped moving I was getting chilled and starting to shiver. We still had enough water between us to prepare our meal – dehydrated pasta in sauce – so I didn’t need to go water hunting just yet. In theory, we didn’t really need to go to the trouble of carrying stove, fuel, pans etc just for one night’s stop, but I wanted to “do it properly” – just to know what a fully loaded pack felt like when carried over that kind of terrain. I was glad I did; in our tiny tent out on the moors, a hot meal made all the difference. Outside it was dark, wet, windy, cold;

inside, sitting crouched half in sleeping bags, eating hot pasta by torch-light, the relative comfort was of 5-star hotel standard and we were soon warm again. Just two thin layers of nylon separated us from wind and rain but the protection they gave felt almost womb-like, especially when snug inside a down-filled sleeping bag. The only fly in the ointment was that I wasn’t prepared to sit outside again with a pan of water on the stove for a coffee, and the porch was full of rucksacks, boots and wet weather gear - no space left to use a stove safely under its cover.

At least a late camp reduced the amount of time in which we had to find amusement for ourselves before sleep. Sharing the earpieces from my MP3 player, we lay in the dark listening to Jacques Loussier's interpretation of Bach, followed by Diana Krall. Perhaps not as spiritually inclined as we might have been in such a remote, peaceful spot, but at that point in the proceedings R&R assumed a higher priority than one-ness with our frankly rather inhospitable environment. Laying out under the stars could wait for another time.

It all turned out rather differently to how I’d pictured this evening to be in my imagination. In my mind, I’d seen us reaching a level grassy shelf next to a bubbling stream,

surrounded on three sides by peaks (of a peaty kind!) with a view down the valley. We’d pitch the tent as the sun dropped below the horizon, watching the light fade as supper cooked, then when darkness fell we’d spend a few moments lost in the wonders of the moonlit view – may be even see the Milky Way, something invisible against the light-pollution of south east England - before retiring into the tent and enjoying one of those discussions on the meaning of life, the universe, and everything. P. is rarely short of enlightened – and enlightening – conversation.

Was I over-ambitious? Perhaps. Did it matter? Not one bit. Yes, I was sorry to have missed that idyllic evening under the stars, but I have a perverse streak that relishes this kind of challenge; even the minor hardship that accompanies it. On the scale of things, this may have been nothing special – a night out on the moors in the UK, even on a cold wet February night, is hardly the stuff of survival epics – but it was a first for me and brought with it the same kind of innocent excitement in the novelty of it all that I might have experienced as a teenager. And although I have no specific plan yet, this is also a first step along the way to fulfilling some of these dreams.

First wild camp at 51? Maybe I’m just a late developer.

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