Friday, 5 January 2018

Run Fast..Run Free!

I SHALL be pilloried for this piece, I know it, but I have set it down; come out into the open about what it is in the hills that really fascinates me. This piece is all about travelling fast over whatever terrain you choose; up rocks, scrambles, ridges, over moorland and mountain, or even through caves. I have noticed that whenever a person mentions speeding or racing through the hills or caves they are set upon by the self appointed 'real' purists of the hills. One loses, they say, the whole raison d' etre for being there; to be able to stop, tarry a while, and soak up the aesthetics of the situation. I remember one poor soul misguided enough to claim that he had travelled very quickly from one end of a particular cave system, to the other was this a record? Well he never found out about the record, but was torn limb from limb in print for destroying the essence of caving — how can one 'be' in a strange and wonderful environment if one races through it?

I for one, and I suspect I am by no means alone, disagree with the protestor's argument. The aesthetic in wild country is not just about being there and looking at it, but it's also about the interaction of the person with that environment as he or she travels through it. That interaction is based mostly on the intrinsic satisfaction of experiencing an ever open skill in an ever changing challenge. Surely the satisfaction of some peak or other is not to be found in 'one is there' but in 'one got there'? How one got there, the nature of the challenge, is a choice that the individual makes — one that is supposed to be a key element of all wild country challenges — that the individual carefully assesses what level and type of challenge to undertake and satisfaction is gained by the meeting of that challenge.

There need be no reference to others, or rather one's rank in relation to others. The challenge for one person is as meaningful, as difficult and as close to the limit as any other person's challenge. The nature of that challenge in wild country is normally a combination of the mental and the physical. It is the latter that offers most scope for manipulation. One can choose a sustained strenuous route, one with a desperate bouldering move or a route of technical finesse. A day in the hills can be long, remote but with little technical difficulty or it can be short, sharp and requiring great technique. Why not, then, have fast days or trips — the speed at which one moves through this wilderness challenge is of great consequence in the level of difficulty of that challenge: it usually makes the challenge more difficult but not always so.

I have found, and I'm sure many others have also, that the challenge that suits me is not one of the maximum technical difficulty (a relative concept) but of travelling at speed through a hostile environment of lesser technical difficulty. There is great pleasure to be obtained from 'flowing quickly' through difficult terrain; there is great beauty in travelling fast along Crib Goch, the Skye Ridge or the West Ridge of the Salbit. One must plan the route ahead while travelling at speed over concentration demanding terrain, develop the ability to scramble blind over rock while searching out the footholds three or four moves ahead. In caves the art is all about working out rapidly and in advance the best way of tackling any obstacle or passage shape ahead; lots of different approaches will work of course but there is only one perfect solution and that is the one that guarantees speed, for there has to be great efficiency of movement if speed is to be maintaned. 

Cornwall's Commando Ridge.
There must also be a much more applied and searching attitude to the route as a whole; where to go fast, where to take it easy before a strenuous section, for it is the overall speed that counts as well as any short burst. Now the detractors will say, OK, but look at what you are missing —the stopping and absorbing the great views, the ability to look around while ambling along. That may be true up to a point, but there are other ways of appreciating the environmental display- the great concentration required when moving fast means that all around is absorbed with great depth — the shape ahead takes on other meanings for it is the obstacle to be traversed efficiently and the route itself is a thing of great beauty if it is  a 'good' one. 

On rough moorland, where to walk slowly is such a drag that the situation is demoted from one's immediate thoughts, the art of travelling fast includes the intense scanning of the area ahead for shorter heather, burnt off patches,sheep tracklets or patches of easier going.A close assessment of the area ahead. It is also apparent toanyone who has tried it that moving fast over nasty rough ground is actually a lot easier and more efficient, than plodding slowly through it,and its over more quickly as well!

One doesn’t have to be a fell runner or speed climbing competitor to get enjoyment from moving fast. You don’t even have to be fit,though undoubtably you will be in time. One needs to be able to jog over hilly country,develop some agility,have a keen eye for route choice and navigation and think carefully about equipment. There is little more pleasurable experience on rock than to solo long easy routes without stopping. To flow from hold to hold up Troutdale Pinnacle or Commando Ridge. To arrive at the top of the Gervasutti Pillar one and a half hours after leaving the glacier, unencumbered by a heavy sac, is pleasurable, satisfying and an eminently suitable way to tackle such a climb.

In the Peak District the route of Tanky's Trog, probably the best moorland race of all, is an absolute delight in its challenging simplicity; get from Marsden to Edale as fast as possible passing by Torside and the Snake Inn — a great, almost straight, point to point route with a multiplicity of major and minor navigational and route choice variations. Every second a fresh micro problem is presented.Whether the heather or the peat is fastest, whether the wet winding grough or the up and down of the straightline peat hag route is better. At the same time major decisions are calculated; does one take the route over Black Hill or contour it to the west, and all the time every stride must be smooth, efficient and flowing. 

Great complicated bumpy areas make ideal go faster challenges- try the ridge between Ennerdale and Wasdale, either going over the lumps such as Pillar and Kirk Fell, or traversing them. The best (i.e. fastest) route is tremendously complex and rarely obvious. Routes through the Howgills from east to west, (or vice versa), or on a smaller scale the lumpy rocky areas of the Lakes like that around Watendlath provide superb moving fast challenges through enticing bumpy country with constant decision making.

In caves many of the great sporting trips lend themselves to moving fast and fluently. Simpson's Pot, an arduous eight hour journey of the past can now be done by an agile pair with fluent pitch rigging in half an hour, and to do it like that is a superb experience of technical movement. Similarly the world's finest cave, the Gouffre Berger, scene of dreadful ten day epics of the last generation is now 'flashed' (as the hot shots would call it) in under ten hours; an unimaginable experience to concentrate into a day,but surely the best way to experience such a cave.

Pete Livesey: First published as 'Moving Fast' in Climber and Hillwalker. January 1989.