Marrakech Express

“Give me back my debit card!”

“Non!”

“S’il vous plait?”

“Non!”

My schoolboy French negotiating vocabulary exhausted, my conversation with the cash machine just up the road from the hotel in Marrakech ended in defeat. I wasn’t quite penniless, thanks to the friends I’d met on the trek who all offered to lend me local currency. But I was afraid to use my credit card lest it go the same way, and I wondered what would happen to the debit card now it was in the bowels of some machine in Morocco. For the sake of literary tension, and to encourage reading the whole blog, I shall now time travel back six days to my arrival in Marrakech before telling you the outcome.

I hate the actual, mundane physical travel part of ‘travelling’. If you read a recent blog ‘Travel Fun’ you’ll get a few of the stories. Getting to Marrakech was no different. I flew from Gatwick and I have to say I preferred the experience to that at Heathrow, thanks largely to it being a smaller airport and having better transport links to the local hotels. A slight delay due to armed police confronting and arresting a man on the outskirts of the airport aside, the journey to my seat on the plane was straight forward.

The plane set off for the runway, and 5 minutes later was still taxiing. I decided that we were clearly going to drive to Morocco and I wondered who we’d get through the Channel Tunnel. But eventually, the plane found the right bit of the airport and, in an effort to put aside any more fears of hesitancy, the pilot swung on the the runway and accelerated without first pausing. We were off. There is always a moment as I’m pushed back into my seat that I wonder what on earth I’m doing subjecting myself to man made flight. But it soon goes as I look out of the window seconds later to see a live version of Google Earth below me. Today was slightly different, in that someone had painted the ground a slightly grey white colour, similar to the colour of clouds but no matter. I was soon chatting to my neighbour, a geography teacher from London, and we quickly found a common interest in trekking when I explained where I was going.

The flight was relatively short, about 3 hours plus taxiing time, and Marrakech was warm and sunny when I arrived. The following extract from ‘Travel Fun’ sums up the airport transfer:

“After a mix up with the transfer arrangements, I was taken in a car to the hotel. The driver was clearly under orders to get there and back as quickly as possible and so we shot off at high speed. My attempts at conversation were hampered by my lack of Arabic, my poor schoolboy French and the drivers need to concentrate on the road lest he hit something. Except he didn’t really seem to mind about the impact side of things in his mission to get to the hotel in record time. We sped across pedestrian crossing barely missing people who were already half way across the road. I watched in horror as the face of one man, mouth agape, passed by inches from the side window. We overtook on corners, undertook on other corners, undertook on roundabouts, forced motorcycles out of the way and generally sped through the busy streets to finally arrive outside the hotel. To be fair, we hit nothing, knocked no one over and got to the hotel in half the time it took to transfer back at the end of the trek.”

The mix up involved a second group of people, a group of Cypriot cyclists on a biking tour of this part of Morocco, and the transfer bus. It sounds like the start of a complicated joke that inevitably won’t live up to the promise. It was, in a roundabout way, as the group were in the same hotel as my group, and we had our briefing immediately after them. It turned out they were not a happy bunch as they were expecting a better hotel (there was nothing wrong with the hotel), and they let their guide know in no uncertain terms. When we saw him after their briefing, he was clearly stressed. “They are definitely not from Britain,” was his cryptic remark to our guide as he left, probably for a mint tea and a lie down.

Marrakech is a beautiful place. It’s called ‘The Red City’ because most of the buildings are painted with an ochre wash, which glows pinky red in the sunrise and sunset. The French, in an act of wisdom, developed a new city around the old town and left the ancient settlement alone, preserving the style and culture of Marrakech in the process. The old town, or Medina as it is known, is surrounded by a mud brick wall and a number of towers. Within, the narrow streets are lined with little shops, restaurants and pavement cafes. On our last day there, we had a tour of the southern part of the town in the morning and I explored the northern part of the town walls in the afternoon. Our morning tour, led by Mustapha, was interesting and frustrating at the same time. Interesting because he took us to all the right places to get a flavour of the old town in the limited time we had. I would not have know to go to half the places he led us, and we managed to avoid the crowds (it was a local school holiday) because of his timing. Frustrating because his English was poor and heavily accented and it was hard to understand what he was telling us. It was a shame because he clearly knew his stuff. But by concentrating hard to understand what he was saying, we risked missing the sights, and sadly we concentrated on the sights and not his narrative.

In the afternoon, I walked around the outside of the town walls and at one point ventured in to a decidedly untouristy area, which I immediately sought to leave. I had a feeling of unease and while nothing happened (other than the classic scam of someone telling me the main square was ‘that way’ when I knew it wasn’t), I was glad to be away from that bit of the town.

All roads lead to Jemaa el Fna, which translates variously as the ‘place of the lost’ or ‘the place of the dead’. The latter is most appropriate as it was hear that the heads of criminals and conquered foes were displayed many centuries ago. Now the only victims here during the day are the may tourists who are hassled for money when stopping to watch the snake charmers or Barbary Ape owners. Both are cheap tourist traps and when I was there they looked tacky and, to be honest, fake. The animals were real enough, and clearly unhappy and I wasn’t happy even being in the square with them around. I read later that the apes are an endangered species and people like those in the square only make the situation worse. Anyone who gives them money is funding the problem. There was little else to hold my interest but I knew that come sundown, the place changed it’s vibe to one more like the descriptions in the guidebooks. The previous night, as we’d waited for a bus following our celebratory meal, the exotic drumming and music, the lights and smoke bearing the delicious aroma of freshly cooked tagines all combined to make me want to return.

We made our way back to the square the following night. In the dark, it was exciting, definitely exotic and a little scary, particularly when the girls in the group were accosted by a large woman offering henna tattoos. It was quite a persistent sales pitch and when the woman finally got the message, she left saying “if you change your mind, remember Fat Mamma”. We stifled giggles, because she was quite a large lady. We did laugh, however, when one of our group pointed out that she had probably said “remember Fatima”.

There was no sign of the cheap tourist acts. Here were little groups of talented musicians playing tradition music on traditional instruments for the gathered crowd. There were dancing and whirling performers, singers, drummers and story tellers. This was what I had expected and it hadn’t disappointed. I quickly overcame my initial nervousness at the large crowds, mostly locals, and relaxed to enjoy the sights and sounds and smells. In a long line at the centre of the square tables radiated out from large stalls on which tagines were simmering enticingly. The touts for each stall were very enthusiastic but as we had eaten we didn’t partake. One waiter even told us that his prices were “cheaper that Aldi”.

We wandered around, taking in the atmosphere. On the periphery of the square were carts selling figs, prunes and other fresh fruit. Stalls sold mint tea, coffee and freshly squeezed orange juice and for 4dh (about 30p) we each had a glass. It was gorgeous. We must have spent over an hour in the square altogether and it was late enough that some of the traders were starting to pack up. While one of our group haggled over a couple of decorative metal candle holders, I took a few photos and then we left.

As we reached the edge of the square, I was suddenly surrounded by six or seven little boys, all clutching glow sticks in their hands and hassling me to buy one. In the past, I’ve usually dealt with this kind of thing by a curt ‘no thanks’ followed by completely ignoring them but it didn’t work this time, so I took a side step to try and break out of the ring of kids. By now I was isolated from the rest of the group by the kids and before I knew it, I could feel a hand dragging the zip of my left hand jacket pocket down. I slapped it out of the way and shouted “this kid is trying to pick my pockets” loud enough that the others could hear me. I pointed at the kid and he looked scared, unsure of what I was going to do. And then I felt the zip of my right hand coat pocket being undone, so I turned and pointed at that kid, shouting the same thing again. As I did so, a local man cuffed him on the head, and the kids all disappeared. My camera, in the left pocket, was safe. My phone, in the right pocket, was almost completely out and in another second or so it would have gone.

I was a little shaken for a few minutes but soon overcame the shock. And I refused to let it taint the impression of Marrakech that I had got to that point. I don’t know what drove the kids to picking pockets. It’s simplistic to say they steal for personal gain. That may be so but its more likely that there was some threat to them if they didn’t bring back a certain amount of goods or money each night.

And the card? I phoned the bank straight away and despite having to provide details that were only on the card, I managed to get it cancelled within 10 minutes of losing it. And two days after I got back, the replacement arrived. One of my friends changed £20 into local currency and I ended up changing £30 of local currency back to sterling at the airport, which saw me through the journey home.

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Climbing Jebel Toubkal

As usual, the riskiest part of any climb is the descent. You’ve concentrated hard to get to the top, expended all your energy, sweated all your sweat and all the training, planning and mental preparation has been to get you to the summit. At the top, you’re cold or dehydrated or tired, or all three. Coming down is an afterthought (although quite an important one). Anyway, it’s all downhill from here, right?

We had three nights booked in the Atlas Mountain Refuge des Mouflons. Mouflons, I hear you ask? It’s a kind of mountain goat local to those parts. So yes, I was in a mountain goat refuge. Get the jokes over with now so I can continue.

The plan was to quickly get to the refuge on day 1, climb Toubkal on day 2, climb Ouanoukrim (another 4000m peak) on day three and combine a swift ascent of Tizi n Ouanoums with the descent back to Marrakech on the fourth day. The trek started well – we got to our start point, where the technical kit was handed out. I’d picked this particular trek because of the winter skills training and experience and so I was expecting the crampons and ice axes. I wasn’t expecting the avalanche transceiver, which we all had and were told had to be worn at all times while we were in the mountains. The transceiver would enable members of the group to find other members of the group in the event some were buried by an avalanche. Or it would enable the trekking company to recover their ice axe and crampons. Either way, the concept that we were at risk of an avalanche was sobering.

We walked for 7 hours in the increasing heat of a North African day to get to the mountain goat refuge. It was tough going – climbing around 1300m in total. The accepted norm once you get to the mountain sickness altitudes is to climb no more than 300m per day. But the idea was that we would be at altitude for no more than three days and it shouldn’t be a problem. And apart from exhaustion, it wasn’t. Almost immediately after we got to the refuge, we started our technical training with the ‘ice axe arrest’. Rather than some local constabulary technique for apprehending villains, this was a skill that would (hopefully) stop us from sliding too far down a snow or ice covered slope while climbing. The basic drill is this: Once you find yourself sliding towards a horrible and drawn out end, you twist and roll and dig the sharp bit of the ice axe into the snow/ice. The skill is in the twist, in the grasp of the ice axe and in not skewering yourself with the sharp bits of the axe. Our instructor picked a gentle slope, created a slippery channel in the snow and demonstrated a perfect ice axe arrest. Then it was our turn.

The risk was minimal – if we got it wrong on this bit there would be laughter which would probably continue as the unfortunate soul trudged back up the slope to have another go but no drawn out slide as the refuge was in the way. One by one we shot down the slope, twisting like it was last summer and rolling like it was the 1950s. Eventually, we got it and we took the opportunity to keep practising because it was important to do it without thinking and not because it was great fun. Then we tried it left handed.

They all laughed as I lost control of the ice axe and ended up sliding head first for a few yards until the slope tailed off. I did too. And I laughed as other people got it wrong. But in the end we were pretty good at the ice axe arrest, as we found out the following day when one of the group slipped for real on a properly steep section of ice and executed a perfect arrest. We all clapped. And we all gripped our ice axes a little tighter.

The morning after our training we were due to climb Toubkal. But we woke up to a howling gale, sleet and mist. Our guide said it was too dangerous to go up and indeed we saw the group that had left the refuge early to catch the sunrise returning a few hours later, having turned back before the top. The weather cleared up in the late morning but it was too late safely climb and descend the mountain, so we went on an acclimatisation walk up the valley for a couple of hours and practiced more crampon techniques. It was here that our real ice axe arrest took place.

On the second full day with the mountain goats, the weather was perfect for an attempt on the mountain so we set off just after dawn. Despite being only a few miles north of the Sahara desert, there were great sheets of frozen snow for most of the climb up and the technical kit was most definitely needed; the first 2 hours would have been impossible without crampons, and the next hour extremely difficult. Unusually, the higher we got the less snow there was an the final hour of climbing was on relatively snow free scree and rock. Our crampons had been left at the snow line. The wind picked up at around 4000m and despite the strong sun and cloud free sky, it was bitterly cold. The summit marker, a large pyramid frame, was invisible on the way up until we were only a few tens of yards away. It was a welcome sight as we had climbed another 1000m in 4 hours. Our guide later told us it was -8c on the top but I didn’t feel any of that.

The views from the top were fantastic. As the highest peak in the High Atlas, there was a 360 degree panorama of North Africa, with the Sahara just visible as a hazy patch to the south and the village we’d set off from three days before to the north. East and west, the High Atlas mountains stretched as far as I could see. The guide pointed out a squirrel, slightly smaller than the UK native brown ones, and with stripes running the length of its back and tail. It was checking out the latest batch of visitors to see what scraps we’d leave behind. Rock thrushes and Alpine Chough also waited patiently for tidbits. We had the top to ourselves and after the inevitable summit photos, there was a chance to just stop and take in the beauty of the place, and the achievement we’d managed.

All too soon it was time to descend. Our guide pointed out clouds edging in from the north, from where the wind was blowing. We set off down and for the first time I realised how steep it really was. The loose rock and gravel was extremely treacherous and we all slipped and slid on the way down. The danger with descent is that any fall forward is usually a fall down the slope and far worse that falling on the way up, where the fall is usually uphill. At some points we were negotiation narrow sections with steeper drops either side and while we were on the scree, there would be no ice axe or crampons to help.

Eventually, with aching knees, we got to the snow line and a chance for a rest and a mini picnic. The wind was cold here, at 4000m, and as I tied the straps of my crampons on I could feel my fingers aching and stiffening with the chill. It was important to get the straps as tight as possible as any slippage would translate to difficult walking and possibly a demonstration of exactly how good I was with the ice axe.

It took about two hours to walk down the snow slope. It was steep and hard going on the knees and thighs and by the time I’d zigged and zagged down, all the while stomping to make sure the spikes dug in and gripped, I was shattered. But I remained upright. Just.

There was a subdued celebration as we were all tired, and an early night with the prediction of bad weather for tomorrow. It’s the nature of the High Atlas that the weather changes completely from day to day. A few year ago, heavy rainfall combined with melting snow to cause flash floods in the foothill villages that killed 60 people and destroyed vital farmland Only now are they restoring the land to production.

Sure enough, the following morning was grim with high winds and driving snow coming up the valley, and temperatures well below zero. There was no question of us doing the short walk tot he mountain pass. Instead we delayed departing for Marrakech as long as possible in case the weather improved. It didn’t, and we set off in a blizzard that had deposited more than 18″ of snow overnight. The path down, so obvious in the sunny weather when we’d come up, was hidden, as were the valley sides. We trudged along, bent forward against the wind and with faces covered, in the footsteps of our guide. Here was the sense in paying that little extra fro a professional, experienced trek leader. Cheaper guides were available in the foothills but as we were to find out, they didn’t care about the people they were guiding, just about getting their money.

Very soon after leaving the refuge, our guide stopped us and pointed out a large shoulder of fresh snow. “Avalanche”, he said. “It’s just happened.” All hands dived inside jackets to ensure the transceivers were switched on. We made our way quickly over the snow, which was hard going as it was soft and deep. It had come down from the left but I couldn’t see where because of the poor visibility. We carried on as fast as the conditions would allow. Little rocks and stones hidden by the snow threatened to turn ankles and I was grateful for decent walking boots, which saved me a couple of times.

On a flatter section we stopped for a few minutes to regroup and take a breather. We were still at altitude and it was below freezing. I could feel snow and ice on my beard and my sunglasses (despite the cloud and mist it was too bright not to have sunglasses on at this altitude). There was a layer of ice on the glasses and in my beard. It was the only positive I’d felt so far – I’ve always wanted a photograph of me with ice in my beard.

It took us another 7 hours to get back to the little hotel where our bus was waiting to take us to Marrakech. For most of that time we were walking in blizzard conditions with the wind directly in our faces. For the last hour, the wind abated and we walked in decreasing mist but on slushy ground which was equally slippery as the snow and ice further up.

The steaming glass of mint tea, known as Berber Whiskey in these parts, that was waiting for us in the hotel was delicious.

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Everest Anywhere

Last year, I took part in Trail magazine’s ‘Everest Anywhere’ challenge. The idea was to log ascents on every walk and try and get to the height of Mount Everest, 8848 metres. With Rufus driving my efforts, we easily achieved the height in about 14 weeks. We did it again in another 14 weeks. We even got our photos in Trail Magazine after they got in touch. I started it again this year and Rufus did the first hill of the challenge with me. After Rufus passed away, I decided to continue anyway as it would get me out during the difficult weeks after he’d gone.

It’s not long now until I embark on a trek in the High Atlas mountains of Morocco. I’ve been doing a lot of training over the last few weeks and the two weekends I spent in North Wales really made a difference. I trained with a heavy backpack and even got to use crampons on Snowdon – a valuable if brief experience which taught me not to try and walk normally or the front points dig in and you trip up! I also learnt how to properly strap them on. The instruction sheet wasn’t very clear and my first efforts had the crampons slipping off on a steep part of the icy path. As usual, once you know the trick, it’s easy and so much more secure! I’ll be using crampons on Jebel Toubkal as we ascend a glacier to get to the snow covered summit.

In the last two weeks I climbed Pen y Fan twice, both in grim, snowy and misty conditions but as I explained to the National Trust volunteer on the way down, although I don’t like the walk up I love being at the top. I’ve used Pen y Fan as a training mountain, and a measure of fitness, since I started trekking way back in 2007 and I’ve now been to the top 55 times. I can usually tell by the time it takes to get to the top, and the state I’m in when I get there, the level of fitness I’ve reached. I was pleased with both efforts and there was a noticeable improvement over the previous climbs in December.

Yesterday, I went for a walk on Carreg Goch. It’s a lovely hill above Craig y Nos in the Swansea Valley. The initial climb is fairly steep and about half way up there is a side path that leads down to the Afon Haffes. This was a favourite stopping off point for Rufus, who would charge off down the short spur and wait for me in the water. It wasn’t deep enough to properly paddle but stones were required to be thrown and after a brief paw cooling splash, we’d carry on to the top of the path. I made the detour myself this time, and stood for a few minutes to remember Rufus. It was easy to picture him standing in the water waiting for a stone and it made me smile.

Once the steep bit is over, it’s a constant but gentle climb to about 550m. At the top, I had passed my Everest Anywhere goal of 8848m. The landscape is high moorland with broken limestone tops and sink holes. The mountain contains the National Showcaves at Dan yr Ogof and you can often find cavers accessing passages from seemingly impossibly narrow access holes on the top of the mountain. The shallow valley of Waun Fignen Felen was once a lake and the remains of prehistoric man’s efforts to hunt here have been found by archaeologists. This place was once home plenty of wildlife which attracted the hunter gatherers, who probably also had a hand in erecting the many standing stones and stone circles in the area.

The weather was beautiful and I enjoyed the stroll, which was less of a training walk and more of a morning out in the sun. The last time I came this way was in February, when the whole landscape was covered in a thick blanket of snow which anonymised the hills and made route finding difficult. That day I turned around because I didn’t like the look of the approaching clouds. As I got back to the car, they deposited a heavy load of snow. Yesterday couldn’t have been more different. The visibility was superb, crisp and clear. There were barely any clouds in the sky, only a few over the Bristol Channel. I had the mountain to myself on the way up and it was nice just to sit on the limestone outcrop and enjoy the view down across to the hills north of Swansea, and the sea beyond.

On the way back, I met a group of walkers who were out looking for one of the many aircraft crash sites in the area. They asked directions to the site of an RAF Vampire jet crash and I was able to point out the direction as I had been there myself a few years ago. They were in very good humour and we had a laugh before they carried on along the side of the dried up lake bed.

On the way down the steep bit is usually very slippery, either with snow and ice or, as yesterday, with thick, oozing mud. Nevertheless, I managed to get down without slipping over and with only a mild twinge in the knees. Another 7 miles added to my trek preparation.

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At last, Atlas!

This is not a sad, reflective post.

Since I lost my walking buddy last month, I’ve been at a bit of a loss. The house is empty and silent, my walks have been enjoyable but half hearted and generally I’ve been struggling a little to find something to focus on.  Friends have been really great (thank you all) but inevitably there were moments I had to deal with myself.

I had committed to spending all my spare time with Rufus while he was with me and I never regretted a second. We had some great adventures side by side. We walked all of the Brecon Beacons together. Rufus swam, paddled or splashed about in every muddy puddle in South Wales along with a few rivers and a couple of lakes. I had to stop him climbing up the Devil’s Kitchen in Snowdonia as it was only a few weeks after he had Pancreatitis and he was still recovering. We got about half way up before I managed to persuade him that Llyn Idwal was an ideal paddling pool! If peeing on lamposts is a territorial marker, his kingdom stretched from Sketty Park to Uplands and from Cockett to Oystermouth road (for non-Swansea folk, that’s quite a patch). Squirrels in that acreage were very, very scared!

Everywhere I walk now has some kind of memory of Rufus for me, almost always one that makes me smile. Last week I walked down to Tor Bay and on the beach, I remembered Rufus triumphantly running up to me with a giant piece of rotting seaweed in his mouth. I was meant to throw it for him. I declined. On Fan Gyhirych, I remembered him feigning a limp when he thought we were heading back to the car, only for it to disappear as he leapt over a stile, and instantly reappear again after he’d eaten the treat he knew he’d get for such a feat. It came and went according to the adventure he was having and at one point he got stuck up to his belly in thick mud, which I had to rescue him from. The limp went completely after that! I like these memories, they genuinely make me smile. If you see some grinning idiot on a mountain, it’s probably me.

But I always knew that one day Rufus would head off to the hills without me and I would be left to fill the time with something new different. And I always wondered how I would feel about that. I have a long term plan, with no dates because I couldn’t predict the future, to climb a so-called trekking peak in the Himalayas. A trekking peak is a mountain that can be summited with limited technical skills. There would be no mountaineering but there might be some ice axe and crampon sections, and the need to rope up to protect against falling into hidden crevasses. I knew the first stage of that plan would be learning to use crampon and ice axe. My previous blog was about getting boots that would take crampons but was written well before I had made a decision about when to start. I was merely taking advantage of sales prices.

On Monday, I found a short trek that would combine ice axe and crampon experience for beginners with two summits. Although it was very soon after losing Rufus, it was also an ideal opportunity to start to focus on ‘the next thing’. And here was my dilemma, because no matter how I thought about it, I felt guilty about moving on this quickly. Irrational, I know, but a real issue for me. So, (and bear with me here), I had a little chat with Rufus about it and he ended up calling me names for being so silly to think that way.

The upshot of all this is that I’ve signed up to trek in the Atlas Mountains in Western Morocco later this year. The trek includes a section of walking on ice and frozen snow and offers the opportunity to summit Jebel Toubkal, at 4190m the highest in North Africa, and Jebel Ouanoukrim, which is only a few metres lower. I have heard good things about these mountains from fellow trekkers and one of the great things is that start point in Marrakesh is only 4 hours from the UK – nearly a third of the travel time of the longer treks I’ve been on.

My aimless wanderings will very quickly become focused training sessions. I have Rufus to thank for making me maintain a decent level of fitness, which has meant I can take advantage of last minute offers and a shorter build up. While I won’t say exactly when I’m going (this is the internet after all, and the last thing I want is unwelcome visitors while I’m away), it is relatively soon.

Expect some more posts about the build up, and eventually some long and boring account of the trek itself (from which you are only excused if you have a valid excuse).

Finally, below is what most of weekends will end up with…

Soaking feet

Aahhhh!

 

Boots

I’ve been looking for new walking boots. The problem with being a walker is that boots wear out. Whether it’s through normal, but constant, use or whether it’s because of damage they will one day give up. And it’s always just as they become as comfy as they will ever be.

My first pair of boots that I went walking in weren’t intended to be full on, hill-bashers. They were thin, canvass trainers with a higher ankle for more support. They were great for general walking but as soon as I discovered more challenging terrain, they showed themselves to be sadly lacking in most of the key areas – grip, waterproofness, comfort and ability to survive. So I went and bought a pair of what I thought were ‘proper’ mountain boots. They weren’t, although to be fair they looked the part to my inexperienced eye. They were big, heavy and clumsy and more like work boots for navvys. They were only comfortable if I cushioned my feet in two pairs of thick socks. I hardly wore them, apart from a couple of times on the Isle of Skye in the snow and once near Glen Coe.

The last I saw of them was after a marathon walking day along the relatively easy Bridge of Orchy section of the West Highland Way. I’d been taking photos and wandering along the rough track near the railway station for most of the day and my feet were aching and hot. So off came the boots to dry in the sun, on went some old trainers and I sat in the car, drinking from a flask of coffee and feeling smug.

Later, in the B&B, I realised I’d left my boots behind in the car park. It was raining and cold, so I didn’t go back to get them that evening. I thought back to what had happened. I’d forgotten to put them in the boot and, given where I’d put them, I must have reversed over them when leaving. I decided that I would abandon them as lost, and invest in a decent, purpose made pair of hill walking boots. I was staying in Fort William and the local outdoor clothing shop was nearby. So in I went, and out I came with a pair of Brasher Hillmasters, recommended by one of the staff.

What a revelation! They were comfy like warm slippers are comfy, straight from the box. I didn’t have to walk them in. I didn’t have to layer sock upon sock to cushion my feet. Walking in them felt like rolling along with little effort. I felt I could take on Ben Nevis. Over the next couple of years, I wore these boots every time I went on the hills. They got a proper bashing when I trained for my first Everest Base Camp trek in 2007, including Ben Nevis, and they got me to the top of Kala Patthar and to Base Camp itself in supreme comfort and warmth. In the end, the soles wore smooth and they became my gardening boots. I only got rid of them last year.

I replaced them with a second pair of the same make, which were just as comfortable. These took more of a hammering as by now I had the mountain bug. I managed to do all of the Brecon Beacons in them, and plenty of other hills and mountains, including Crib Goch and Snowdon, several times. These boots got me back to Everest Base Camp in 2011 before finally giving up the ghost the following year when something snapped inside and they began to click loudly!

I bought a third pair of Brashers straight away. But I also invested in a cheaper pair of boots for training, to give the Brashers a chance to rest now and again as a lot of my preparation was on the streets, which tended to wear out the tread more quickly than mountain paths. These boots got me to the top of Kilimanjaro in 2014 and are still my main walking boots today. They have the scars of walking on sharp, volcanic rock. The leather uppers are scuffed and scratched but they remain great boots.

But this weekend, I decided that I would buy another pair of boots. Not to replace my Brashers, but to add the ability to use crampons. The Brashers are designed for all conditions bar deep, slippery snow and ice in winter. As my long term plans include the possibility of walking in deep, slippery snow and ice in winter, I needed different boots.

The website of the specialist outdoor clothing shop I went to said they had the boots in stock, in my size. The sales assistant didn’t seem to grasp what I was saying and told me they hadn’t had any crampon compatible boots in for more than a year. So in the end I went to my local discount outlet, ‘Go Outdoors’, where I bought most of my trekking kit over the years. I hadn’t tried it first simply because they usually cater for the more popular end of outdoor activity. Careful to get the right size (as they will be used in colder conditions, I need to have a boot that fits when I’m wearing two pairs of socks). Not only did they have the exact boot I was looking for but it was nearly £50 cheaper.

As I type, they are sat in the front room. They are comfy but in a different way. They are stiffer and heavier than normal walking boots, as they are designed to cope with harsher conditions and to hold crampons stable and securely. Now all I have to do is find some deep slippery snow and ice in winter.

 

Turning Turtle

Now that I am semi/partially/part time retired, I have more time to do stuff. It’s the dream. Despite problems with pay and pension and the farce of spending a month without an official working pattern, I am 6 weeks into my new life and still loving it. The ‘stuff’ I’m currently doing is a mix of things around the house that I finally have time to put the effort into, and making a concerted effort to do more photography.

The former is actually quite enjoyable. I’m not a keen DIYer. I tend to be able to do a mediocre job but I quickly lose interest and I absolutely hate preparation and clearing up afterwards. But recently, I’ve seen the light and have done a number of (admittedly small) jobs around the house. Having two extra days means I don’t try to cram everything into an evening or weekend and I can take my time.

Having more time to spend taking photographs means I can try new things and experiment with different approaches to the same old things. Last weekend, on the recommendation of a friend, I spent two afternoons at a local dance festival. It was a great photo opportunity but also a fantastic experience that I wouldn’t have thought about attending if I had been trying to fit all my ‘stuff’ into the weekend. Rufus gets better walks because he doesn’t have to wait for me to set up a tripod and seek the decisive moment.

Yesterday, I left work early and set off for Llanmadoc church to take some snaps. On the way, I stopped off at Broadpool to have a snack and a drink and I pointed my camera at what I thought were a couple of ducks on the far bank. Imagine my surprise to see that rather than ducks, I was looking at a family of five turtles enjoying the sun. I spoke to someone in the RSPCA as I thought they had been abandoned but the woman I spoke to said that turtles are now native to the UK and it’s most likely that they are living there. The test was whether they were in distress (which they definitely weren’t) and that they were mature and seemingly in a family group. I’ve seen a lot of wildlife at Broadpool, including the human kind that fish. But this was the best sighting I’ve had for a long time.

I’ve had more time to go through the photos I already have on the computer and to make the effort to study some of them in more detail to figure out how I can improve. And I’ve taken the big step (for me) of entering some photos in the Landscape Photographer of the Year competition, which saw me whittling over 100 photos from the last three years down to the 7 that I would finally enter.

So, not only time to do stuff but also time to change and improve the stuff I already do.

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Life changes

If you think back over the last thirty years, you’d have to agree things have changed. In 1986, plans were announced to build the Channel Tunnel, which wouldn’t be completed for another 8 years. There was still a big concrete wall and minefield separating East and West Germany. People were being killed trying to cross from East to West. The Simpsons were created in 1986. Commercially available digital cameras were unknown. Although the initial theoretical work that led to the MP3 audio format was done in the 1890s, a standard wasn’t agreed on until 100 years later.

30 years ago this year, I started my adventures in the world of work. I had left college wanting to be a musician but knowing that I’d need proper work to see me through and pay the bills (at least until we hit the big time). So off I went into the job market to see what was about. I was fortunate, I walked into my first job mainly because (on paper) I was more highly qualified for the role than the hiring manager. I became the technician in the photography department of the local college and held the job for 7 months until they gained their BTEC accreditation (for which they needed a dedicated technician) and no longer needed me.

I spent some time between careers, doing voluntary work and attending a number of job interviews. I learnt a lot about the interview process and, most importantly, that not all the interviewers were capable of carrying out a proper selection. I also learnt not to point that out to them! One occasion ended up with a discussion on the reliability of various cars as the hiring manager had run out of things to ask. I was in no position to refuse any job offer but ironically, the next job I had came about when I gave the band’s bass player a lift to a job interview. As I was there, they interviewed me too. The word interview makes it sound structured – it wasn’t and the reason I got the job and the bassist didn’t was simply because I could drive and he couldn’t, and they needed someone there and then. I spent two years driving security vans for a well known company (not the ones that got the Olympics wrong), rising to the position of crew commander. Unfortunately, that was where it would end as the next level of promotion was into the admin office, and those jobs were reserved for the boss’s favourites (of which I was not one).

Next came the move into what I thought might be a career and once again, I got the job because I accompanied someone. We went to get the application forms for her, and I picked up a set at the same time. I got an interview at which was able to tell the interviewers things about the organisation that they didn’t know. By now I’d learnt to do that tactfully and in a way that was informative rather than challenging. As a result, I not only got a job offer, but a choice of jobs in the same place. I think I chose wisely.

27 years and ten different roles later, there has been no sign of a career but it’s mostly been a good experience. But now I am about to take another big step in the adventure of work. Tomorrow is my first official day of partial retirement. It was a relatively easy decision to make but as the actual date has been getting closer, it’s been hard to really prepare for it as so much remains unknown at the moment. It’s a big step and some of the decisions I’ve had to make will continue to impact me for many years. But none were taken lightly and I have no regrets. My only real concern is that I make the most of the new time I have as a result of reducing my hours.

In the last couple of years I have seen friends and peers suffer life changing illnesses and in some cases, die. I read somewhere that in a study done in America, a number of people interviewed at the end of their lives only ever expressed regret at things they didn’t do. They never regretted mistakes made as a result of trying new things. That’s how I want to be looking back over my life when that time comes.