Author: Mountain Magic


Trail running in Langdale

Today is Summer Solstice, one of four fundamental marker points in our solar cycle and a favourite time to review the important things in life. Solstice and Equinox are beats in the rhythm of our solar system, a rhythm that has been pulsing for about 4.6 billion years. This year’s Summer Solstice is particularly special as it coincides with Full Moon. The last time this happened was the ‘Summer of Love’ in 1967 and the next time will be in 2062. That’s a once in a lifetime occurrence for many in my generation.

Yesterday evening, I enjoyed my first run after bruising my gluteus maximus and tail bone two weeks ago. When riding a small child’s bicycle down a steep slope, standing on the pedals with one’s rear positioned far behind the saddle and releasing the brakes to roll quickly onto the flat ground below, it’s important to move said rear above the saddle as the slope angle changes. Otherwise, the high speed slam into the ground as the tiny bicycle escapes from underneath one’s feet, results in a bruise the size of a water melon, considerable pain when sitting down and much mirth amongst one’s friends.

Back to the run. It felt great to be running again. Wearing Vivobarefoot Primus Trail shoes with a 7mm sole between the ground and my feet, I could feel every stone I touched. Breathing the words ‘Light, easy, soft and smooth’ in time with the rhythm of my stride, it felt like I was flowing gently over the rocky path. Thanks to Caballo Blanco in Christopher McDougall’s ‘Born To Run’ for the brilliant tip. You can choose any words you like to neuro-linguistically programme yourself for the kind of run that you want and you can adapt the words as your run unfolds.

It was raining hard and the many varied angles of the slippery stones called for careful management of momentum. In order to avoid a slip, the force applied to a rock needed to be almost perpendicular to its surface. With any surface you walk, run, or climb on, can you imagine a large ice cream cone spreading outwards from every point of contact you have with that surface? The point of the cone will always touch the surface exactly where you do and the centre of the cone will always be perpendicular to the surface. So long as the force you apply to the surface is working inside the cone, you will have enough friction. The more polished, wet and slippery the surface, the more narrow your cone will be in order to maintain the friction you need. At the other end of the spectrum, rough, dry and grippy rock will give you wonderfully fat ice cream cones that look more like upside down Chinese douli hats. Yesterday evening, the instinctive process of reading the trail and dancing over the rocks was pure pleasure in flow.

Further down the trail, a herd of cows with calves stopped me in my tracks. Inexperienced with cows and wary of their protective nature over their young, I looked at an alternative route through thick bracken. Wearing shorts and increasingly wary of ticks in such places, I opted for a knee deep wade through the now fast flowing Great Langdale Beck. Making a wide, triangular base on the loose stones with my legs and moving sideways-on to the current, it was just possible to cross without fear of slipping or being swept off my feet.

Earlier in the day, just a little up-stream, the river bed was completely dry. It’s amazing how quickly it fills up with a forceful flow of water. Great Langdale has a water catchment area larger 12,000 acres. In heavy rain, that’s a lot of water to flow into one river that’s just a few metres wide. A little further downstream from my crossing, a 1.5 metre high man-made bank is needed to save the flat valley floor from flooding. Running along the gravel track that’s been made easy for bicycles, you can see a short stretch where a recent storm has washed part of this protective bank away.

Scientists at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology in Bangor have found that woodland absorbs rainfall 60 times faster than grazing land. According to environmental scientists I’ve spoken to, trees once covered the whole of the Lake District up to a height between 300 and 600 metres above sea level. Over the last 10,000 years, humans have removed most of these trees. Today, just 12% of the Lake District is covered by woodland. If we could rewild much of the land with trees, how much could we reduce the risk of flooding for towns like Kendal and Keswick, hit so hard by Storm Desmond in December last year?

Running through some remaining woodland near Chapel Stile, my whole body was beginning to feel a little weak after a larger than usual dose of sugar from three flapjacks in one day. This was more confirmation that sugar really is ‘The Devil’s Dandruff’ and more motivation to cut it out of my diet completely. I’m a sugar junkie once I get started on it and I find it really hard to regulate my consumption.

Slipping a little on a rock in my slightly wobbly state, I thought it best to turn around and run back to the van on the easy bicycle trail to the National Trust campsite. They kindly let me use their showers in exchange for a donation to the Langdale/Ambleside Mountain Rescue team and I was looking forward to drenching myself in hot water, especially now that I was soaked to the skin and the lively wind was getting rather chilly.

About half way along the trail, some grit in my shoe caused a small and painful blister in the arch of my left foot. Socks would have been a good idea but the blister was a blessing. It made me remove my shoes and get back to a barefoot connection with the ground that I love so much. For a while, running on the sharp gravel felt really good and it made me soften my legs even more. It’s wonderful, how light we can be on our feet when we’re in direct contact with the earth. Eventually, my soft feet began to tire and I slowed to a walk. They’re still recovering from a winter in mountaineering boots but they’re improving slowly.

A lone walker I had passed earlier caught up with me and remarked upon my bare feet, saying how ‘strong’ they must be. I answered with a handful of my usual stock of responses, including how flexibly the soles of our feet adjust to the changing shapes on the ground and how quickly our bodies respond to messages sent from our sensitive soles. He went on to tell me about Abebe Bikila winning the Olympic marathon barefoot because Adidas couldn’t provide him with a pair of shoes to fit. It’s a wonderful story and a fine end to a memorable run.


A Night Time Ice Climb

Dave belays supportively from two ice screws at the bottom of the ice pitch. Water drips from them and it’s getting dark. I climb a few metres to place my first screw but we’ve forgotten to transfer the last ice screws to my harness. I carefully climb down, take the screws and attach my torch to my helmet. Up again, on good ice axe placements and small ledges for front points. With two solid axes above my head, I twist the screw into the best ice I can find, feeling its sharp points touch rock. With several centimetres of ice screw sticking out towards me, I tie it off with a short sling and clip it. Lacking confidence in this thought provoking protrusion, I focus on axe placements instead.

Cracks appear in the brittle ice, spreading outwards from the embedded pick and sending warning signals to my brain. Pulling lumps of ice onto Dave below, I clear them away to find more solid, more elastic ice underneath. Testing good axe placements, I move up on front points and swing again, aiming for small, snow-filled depressions in the ice – a good tip handed to me by my winter mountaineering instructor mentor, Alan Kimber. A few more metres and the ice steepens at a tricky step. My hands feel tired from gripping too tight. I take a moment to breathe and relax. It’s time for my second ice screw. It’s going to be my last too. We only put four in the rack.

In the most solid looking ice I can see, the screw feels good at first. Then it breaks through to a hollow space behind. The ice is only half as thick as our shortest ice screw is long. It looks like the best I’m going to get so I clip it. To my right, there’s an icicle as thick as my wrist that’s merged into the ice below it to create a thread. I pass a sling behind it and clip that too. Taking my mind off these thin layers of protection, the climbing becomes my safety. Make every placement a good one. Take my time. Keep my heels low. Rotate my legs at the hip to kick both front points evenly into the ice. A high and wide step to my left, a lock off with my right arm, a high swing with my left ice axe and I pull over the step.

Above the steepest ice now, I see more ice climbing above me. Pushing on, I’m conscious of a big fall potential below me. Every axe placement has to be good. Aiming for some rocks on the left wall of the gully, I hope to find a good belay. When I reach them, I find nothing but cracks too flared, too thin or too choked with ice for me to use. There’s a short and steep step between me and the next belay possibility way above. Hammering a bulldog all the way into the ice is the best I can do for now. Over the step and on easy ground, I find a large flake of rock wedged tightly into a wide crack. After several hits, it still looks, feels and sounds solid. Tied to the flake, I shout “Safe!” down to Dave.

Sitting in the safety of the belay, I whoop and shout into the wild and windy night. That was exactly what I came for! I just didn’t know until it found me. Watching the light from Dave’s head torch dance on the ice, this feels like a very atmospheric way to climb. In three fast and easy pitches, we are at the top of the route and re-packing our rucksacks for the long walk back to the car. Out on the mountain, in the dark and the snow, through the wind and the wildness, there’s beauty and peace right there, just for us. While the world around us is in the warmth of a fire or a bed, I am all alight inside and wide awake with life.


Let’s solve the climate change problem.

This weekend, we felt the devastating effect of the most intense rainfall ever recorded in Cumbria. Roads have been washed away like sandcastles and cracked open like eggshells. Carlisle, Cockermouth, Keswick, Kendal, Appleby and Ambleside have all been flooded like never before. Even Lancaster’s town centre was under water, along with its electricity sub station, throwing 55,000 homes into a long, dark night.

So where is the shining light of Storm Desmond’s silver lining? Some parts of the planet are under much more water than Cumbria and it’s going to get worse. Here’s an article about the link between climate change and increased risk of flooding in case you’re sceptical. So what’s the good news?

Human induced global warming can be brought to a stop. We can do it.

To the best of our knowledge and belief, we either evolved from single cell organisms, or we have God on our side. Either way, that’s a pretty impressive set of credentials. So let’s get on with it.

Some of us are real experts in this. There are people who devote their lives to understanding climate change. They are intelligent, they work hard and they care about what they do. They are in a brilliant position to advise us about climate change. They are the people we should be reading, watching and listening to. They are the scientists. They know their stuff.

If you already know what to do, please do it, please spread the word and please lead by example. We need you. If you’re wondering what to do, please read about it, please Google it and please ask questions. We all need to think about this. For what it’s worth, here’s what I’ve learned so far…

We need to reduce our average carbon footprint to two tonnes per year. The UK average is ten tonnes per year. That’s a big change but it’s microscopic compared to our evolution, or our faith. We will have to take big steps in our lifetimes but it’s a small step for mankind. We have survived ice-ages and great floods without so much as a penknife, let alone a rocket or a space suit.

I have been working on this for two years and my carbon footprint is close to four tonnes per year, without carbon offsetting. There are online carbon footprint calculators that will tell you roughly how much carbon you account for. They will also tell you which areas of your life it comes from. For example, owning my Ford Transit contributes about one tonne per year and the 5000 miles I drive per year contribute one more.

That’s the half of it. What about the rest? I eat local animals that lived outside and grazed on grass. I burn wood for fuel. It’s carbon neutral. I have no fridge or freezer. I use a cool box. I buy fresh and often. I have a twenty-five litre kitchen water tank I have to refill. It makes me careful. My lighting is powered by a battery. The battery is charged by my 5000 miles per year. So is my phone. My laptop is second hand. It still needs mains electricity. I need to work on that.

I’m working on creating my life into one where I live, work and play close to home. Ideally, I would never drive again. Realistically, I may still have a small electric car that’s recharged by a small hydro power scheme in the Great Langdale valley. This is all very possible in the near future. Where there’s a will, there normally is a way in Britain. We are very lucky like that and that luck means that we have a great opportunity. Now there’s a thought…