This was the training day, and if you are thinking about doing any of the Avalanche Endurance Events beyond the Fan Dance then you will need to go through this. You can read about my evening before here.
It rained all through the night. Even if it had not rained all through the night it had felt like it had rained all through the night. I had fallen off to sleep perfectly well, but after waking in the early hours had then only dozed until getting out of my sleeping bag at 0630, all the while just waiting for the water to start coming through. However, now that I was awake I could see that the inside of the tent was dry, which was a huge plus considering the way I had put it up, but I was worried about what I might find when I got outside. I got my daysack ready with some food, water, waterproof clothing and my notepad and pen, left it ready to be collected after breakfast, put on my Scarpa hiking boots and braved the muddy outdoors. There was a light mist, but the temperature felt mild and it was not raining.
The back of my tent had collected a large puddle of water overnight, though, and after clearing that away I determined to find some time during the day to repitch it because I did not want anything to ruin my night’s sleep. Others had obviously got up earlier than me because some were already sitting down eating and there was a queue leading out of the dining area. Nobody seemed at all bothered about having to queue and there was even a lack of comment when some of the Directing Staff joined the beginning of the queue. Dave Humm knows who I am talking about.
Very soon I was sitting down to an excellent breakfast of bacon, sausage, scrambled egg, beans, tomato, hash brown and toast, all washed down with a cup of tea. I was now very well set up for the day ahead and went back to my tent to get my daysack.
Suddenly everything changed and we were on alert to get to the crossing point in 10 minutes for the course photograph, so we all merrily marched away with instructions to line up with the tallest at one end and the shortest at the other, which was obviously going to be an easy thing to do. Or so you would have thought.
By the time Stuart got to us we were still an absolute rabble and he set about sorting us out in his own special way, which involved much pointing and shouting until we were in an acceptable line, from which we moved into two lines and then three appropriate ranks, and we were ready for Mark Massey to do his magic. If only that side of things had been that easy. Everyone was blocking everyone else the way we were standing, so those along the back row were instructed to climb on to the wall behind us (and there was an implied instruction that they should not fall backwards…), the middle row would move closer to them, and the front row would eventually kneel.
There would be chairs in the front for the Directing Staff. But now the camera was not elevated enough to be able to take the photograph and bergens were gathered together to provide more height, while at the same time providing an AEE version of Iwo Jima, and as the mound got higher I think Mark began to fear for his own safety so that idea was binned.
“This is why I stopped doing weddings,” he said, to which some wit from the crowd replied, “Now he only does funerals !” I am pretty sure he was looking at me when he said “I’ll do your funeral” so there is nothing wrong with his sound perception. Mark had to work with the timer to allow himself time to run in and be part of the photograph, and once Ken Jones had taken a look and confirmed he was happy with the results we were done with the group photograph. We quickly pushed through for individual photographs and then headed back to the buildings. It is worth noting that while our time for the photograph was done, Mark later told us he had another few hours solid work ahead of him to bring together everything he had taken into one group photograph. I cannot wait to see the finished item.
We were back at the buildings and it was time for the training sessions to begin. I was starting off with the medical briefing with Matt. Until very recently I was a first aider at work, which had involved doing a 4-day first aid at work course, so I reckoned that I knew the basics, and had actually had to put them into good use on a few occasions in the past. With that in mind, this session still turned out to be absolutely fascinating ! Matt is such a very good presenter, and although he started by saying he would be dealing with common injuries found on the hills, it turned out to be a lot more military focused than that, which clearly appealed to this audience and made the learning easy. In order, we dealt with airway, breathing, circulation, disability, and environment, emotion and evacuation, coming across such phrases as ‘he who looks towards Heaven will shortly be there’; head tilt, chin lift and jaw thrust; being told that it is perfectly acceptable to press on one side or the other of the carotid artery but please do not press on both at the same time; the first clot is the best clot; how we should not use Jim Davenport’s pants to pack a wound; that a casualty will not be able to tolerate having a tourniquet applied for longer than 20 minutes (and everyone appeared very eager to see just how long Kramar Donachie could tolerate it). It says everything about Matt’s brilliant delivery style that we had been in the session for over an hour and nobody wanted it to come to an end.
We had to move on to the communications training, which I was definitely looking forward to, and having bought a radio for this event I was keen to make sure that it worked and that I knew how to operate it. I had been following the regular and comprehensive updates from Dave Humm on Facebook, so I was confident we were in a very safe pair of hands. We moved out to the marquee and began by setting up the handsets, being careful not to press on Reset : All at the end of that process, before moving on to the more practical matters of going through our callsigns in both their obvious form and the NATO phonetic alphabet, with anyone not giving an answer or the correct answer getting ‘sickeners’ in the traditional form of press ups. I knew my callsign James02, and knew to pronounce the final part as zero two. I was a lot more worried about the phonetic alphabet because as soon as I got to Juliett I kept thinking of Juliet Bravo, when I should have been moving on to Alfa. Fortunately, when it got to me I was able to go through Juliett Alfa Mike Echo Sierra zero two without too much of a stumble and avoided the sickeners. Many of those around me were not so lucky ! Everyone was taking it in very good humour. We carried out a radio check, and mine was working, and then split into pairs to practice a few phrases from cards, just to get us used to talking over the net like that. It was an excellent practice to bring a great training session to a close, and now I felt prepared for any communications requirements which might come up during the event. And I have to say the fact the event was going to have a communications network was certainly a comfort for me looking forward.
We had all been sent off to get the bergens we would be using tomorrow, and now the two groups came together in the courtyard area while eating our packed lunches so that Matt could run us through the ways we could use the equipment we would be carrying the next day to deal with anyone who was suffering from hypothermia, which was the mostly likely condition we would encounter given the time of the year and the expected weather. Ken made the point that the best way to avoid anything like this was to keep on top of our personal admin. It was all good information and advice. This was followed by Jason showing us a brilliant way to construct an almost instant emergency basha, and one had he actually had to use before in the Brecon Beacons.
The weather had been mild to sunny so far today and Jason finished up by saying that he would be disgusted if it was like this tomorrow. We were instructed to stand with our bergens and in turn were told to close our eyes and produce our first aid kit, our waterproofs and our brew kit. I was pleased to be able to produce all three and happy that I knew exactly where everything was inside my bergen, and that I had placed them in the correct places inside my bergen. A recent tabbing session with Regiment Fitness had certainly confirmed to me that the first aid kit should be at the top, and you can read about that experience here. Those who could not produce the items were given sickeners and some stern words. We were told to hold our bergens and shake them, and mine was silent. I had remembered something from my time in the OTC at Sheffield University all those years ago then. They checked that everyone had their sleeping bag at the bottom of their bergen, which helped to push the weight higher up in the pack, and then we were retrieving our waterproofed map, torch and rollmat. I had left my racing snake fabloned map back in my tent but had my full sized waterproofed map in the inside pocket of my bergen, so I was safe there. I had also left my main headtorch back in the tent with my belt kit, so I was lucky to be carrying a spare one in my bergen, and again avoided any sickeners. This had been a very instructive session and looking around it was clear the message had got through and people were switching on.
We split into our two groups again and the group I was in headed off with Ken and Matt, making sure we brought with us our bergens, compass and the local map we had received at registration. Ken ran through the Standard Operating Protocol (SOP) we would follow on reaching an RV the next day, and now we were to put that into practice, one by one. We would then be given a new grid reference and our task was to work out the best route to that grid reference, and in doing so we should also work out the distance to the new location and the length of time it would take us to get there. It was a very interesting practical task given the terrain and the elevation involved, and yet another excellent learning opportunity offered to us over this training day. They were really doing everything possible to make sure we were properly and fully prepared for the event itself. We took our bergens back to the base camp before the two groups came together again, but as Stuart took his group off on to the next part of this practical exercise, Ken was giving us our debrief, which nobody wanted to miss, and by the time he had finished the other group had disappeared.
We doubled off down the track to find them but they were nowhere to be seen. We were soon joined by Ken and Matt and given a grid reference to get to. There was some discussion around our current location until that was agreed, and then it became clear there were two possible routes to the new location. I saw Sean Linehan and Jim Davenport going off in one direction while a lot of the others were heading off in the other, and I also noticed that Kramar Donachie was among some others still discussing the matter with Ken and Matt. I decided to hang around until Kramar decided to make a move because I knew he had some concerns with his navigation, and word was that he had led Sean into a swamp during a practice session earlier on in the week. We set off in the direction that most people had taken and found a track leading off to the right which then went sharply uphill across fields before reaching a fence and another track. We took a look at the slope ahead of us and decided to head right along the track until we reached a crossing, at which point the left hand track would take us up to where we wanted to be. This was confirmed as we reached the crossing and saw Jason and another of the DS team coming down. Kramar was pulling ahead of me as we climbed the track, and I was not only cursing the fact that I was wearing my Scarpa boots (they are great for hiking, but too heavy and solid for tabbing) but also wondering why I was out of breath so quickly given the fitness training I had put in towards this weekend. I pushed on and got to the top just as Kramar was being sent on his way by Stuart. Stuart took one look at me and told me he was going to send me to an RV and that once I got there I was to tell the DS to send me straight back on the same bearing because time was pushing on and I would not get round more than one RV before it turned dark. He gave me the bearing and I had no problem setting it on my compass, but as I set off I was feeling a sense of devastation. I was convinced that I was going to be binned because of how I had come up that hill. Stuart had already mentioned my Fan Dance time at registration and before I had been allowed to take part in this event I had agreed that the DS could pull me out of it at any time. I had expected that to not come before the event itself but as I strode out over the open ground following the bearing my lawyer’s mind was contemplating my defence and mitigation. The call to meet with the DS was likely to come after dinner because they would be occupied until then, and I would be ready for it, to say and do whatever it took to get to that start line. I got to the RV in good time, explained the situation to the DS and headed back again, getting back to Stuart around the same time as a few others from the other group who must have been through all the RVs. Stuart was handing out paper maps of this part of the Brecon Beacons to all those who had been on one of the navigation courses, and without wishing to sound ungrateful I said that I already had one, but thinking about it now, the one I bought has had a pair of scissors taken to it and is now my cut down racing snake version, so this copy will come in very useful in the future as further Test Marches take us out of this area. At this point I recognised Graham Titcombe from the navigation course and we headed down the track together. Just after the crossing we came across Daniel Ellis with his bergen. It seemed he had missed the instruction to return the bergen to camp, and, more worryingly, given what was in store for us tomorrow, had spent the afternoon working his way along these bottom tracks trying to find his way up to the first grid reference we had been given. We told him to dump his bergen and go straight up the track to Stuart so that he could be accounted for. He saw the sense in this and headed off as we made our way back to base camp.
I still had a few things to do to get myself ready for the following morning and decided to get them done in the space outside the dining room. The first was to fablon the comms matrix sheet, and suddenly this appeared to be the star attraction, drawing people to the table to watch my crass efforts. Grace under pressure it was not, but in the end I had a waterproofed comms matrix. I had also put the telephone numbers for the DS into my phone and now that was charging. The final thing I had to do was tape up the loose straps on my bergen before Sean saw them. I knew he would not be pleased if my admin was in crap order after he adjusted my straps before the first Dark 15 training tab, which you can read about here. I went in for another excellent dinner, this time of bean stew with rice and vegetables and waited for the call to be binned… I knew some others were meeting with the DS at their own request, so I reckoned it would only be a matter of time for me. I was lost in my own thoughts over dinner, but as it came to a close and we were told the briefing would be at 1900, I had still not been called. My moment of panic passed. Now I had to get switched on.
We gathered in the marquee and although Stuart had tried to lighten the atmosphere by playing with the lights, silence descended as the DS made their entry. Ken spoke and we listened. He told us that Point To Point was his favourite of the Test Marches. Those 17-50 would be carrying 40lbs, Masters would carry 30lbs, and Clean Fatigue would carry their safety kit, and for all categories food and water would be on top of that. We would be split into a slow group and a fast group, determined by whether our Fan Dance time was above or below 4 hours and 30 minutes. That put me in the slow group, which meant my breakfast would be at 0400, to be finished by 0430 so that we could then meet outside of the base camp to car pool to the forward harbour, ready to set off in our teams from the start point from 0600 onwards. I would be going solo. Ken had smuggled steel cut oats out of the USA and he told us that while they tasted horrible they would provide us with enough fuel for 4 to 5 hours. That sounded good to me. We were told what was out of bounds, so we could cross the Roman Road but not move along it, and the A470 was definitely out of bounds. But in reality it could all be summed up in some very simple words from Ken, “If there is a mountain, you’re going up it…”
And so I returned to my tent knowing that I would need to be up at 0330. I had picked up a packed lunch for the next day and decided to drink the can of Coke now, save the crisps for when I returned after the event, and would pack the sausage roll and the bag of mixed nuts and fruit and M&Ms. I would be sleeping in my sleeping bag which meant I could not pack my bergen until the morning, so I made sure everything was ready and waiting to be packed as soon as the sleeping bag was stuffed inside. It had been an absolutely brilliant training day, full of very useful and interesting knowledge that would serve us very well during the event, all delivered by people who you trusted knew precisely what they were talking about. Their own experience spoke volumes, and I hoped I would be able to live up to that in the morning. This was it. One more sleep.
You can see more photographs from the day here.