Those of you who read my blog should know by now that I have got into ‘tabbing’ in a big way. Just to remind you, ‘tabbing’ is a military term (‘tactical advance to battle’) which essentially means moving quickly while carrying weight. Of course, I do not travel as quickly or with as much weight as the military, but the events I am currently drawn to are worked on this basis. Back in November 2014 I had taken part in Point To Point, one of the SAS Selection Test Marches organised by Avalanche Endurance Events (you can read about my efforts in that here), then in April 2015 I had taken part in Ironman (and you can read about my efforts in that here), and Ricochet was the next in their series of Test Marches which will culminate in Long Drag. As one of the Originals from Point To Point I was determined to do them all, and do them all first time, which is why I was going down this weekend with perhaps the worst preparation possible behind me, worse still than that I had been able to put in for Ironman. As always, I was feeling confident about the navigation requirements of the event, and that was important because the navigation was going to be vital, as it had been with Point To Point and Ironman, because being able to read a map to determine the best route selection from one grid point to another was essential, and especially so in my current condition when I wanted to get round as efficiently as possible. As with Ironman, nothing was going to keep me away from that start line, though.
As I have said, I had not been able to put in the best preparation for this event. In fact, thanks to injury and illness, I had hardly been able to put in any preparation since I had dragged myself through Ironman. I had been exercising while away in Sardinia (which you can read about here) and I was feeling much better than I had for ages, so I was ready to give this a go, while knowing I was not going to be breaking any records. Again. So I was in good spirits and looking forward to getting going as I drove down from Northampton after the project meeting for The 100 Peaks Challenge (which you can read about here), and the journey to the new base location was pretty easy, which made a change for my trips down to these events !
I parked up and was almost immediately saying hello to a lot of very familiar faces. One of the reasons I keep turning up for these events, and especially while I am not fully fit, is to meet up with people who have become very good friends over just the past year. Doing an event like this really brings you together, and the way that Avalanche Endurance Events run these things definitely feeds into that. There were a lot of new faces here this evening who had spent the day going through the training required to allow them to take on one of the Test Marches, and they were already mixing with the later arrivals who had done Point To Point or Ironman (or both), which included a good number of the Originals from Point To Point. After we had signed in and paid for the post-event meal and all manner of raffle tickets, us later arrivals now had some catching up to do. First of all, we were run up to a parking area outside the DS (Directing Staff) building where a collection of short scaffolding poles were stacked in the corner. We were each given one and told we would be carrying them throughout the event tomorrow, and that they should not leave our possession before then, with the exception that they could be left outside when we were in the dining hall. Our name was written on one end and we were told to keep the other end clean. We could fashion a sling for them if we wanted to. I went forward to collect mine and DS Stu wrote my name on the end of it – ALAN. I was wise enough to say nothing and simply walk away.
Once everyone had been dealt with we were taken into the dining hall and given instructions to draw a section of the map we had brought with us. One of the emails we had received in the run up to the event had told us to bring coloured pencils, a ruler, rubber and pencil sharpener with us, and I had a full range of coloured pencils in my kit, together with a most excellent tactical ruler, which folded in half for easy storage. I know for sure that Jim Davenport and Mick Henderson were very jealous of my ruler. Drawing our own map was not only fun, but it also pretty much confirmed my suspicions about where Ricochet would be taking place. More than with any previous Test March, Ken Jones had been very keen to not give away any secrets lest the likes of Ian Ford and Pierre-Charles Wood set off on one of their infamous Brecon recees to check out the terrain. We had a limited amount of time in which to draw our map and I was pretty pleased with what I produced. They were collected up and each table judged the efforts of another, so I was delighted that mine was chosen as the best from our table. DS Stu then asked if anyone would be willing to march using their map, and along with a handful of others I said that I would be. He took a long, hard look at my effort and decided not to let me, instead giving me one of the hand-drawn maps which was being issued to everyone to use tomorrow. I was certainly disappointed, and as it turned out, that was not the end of this particular matter.
The event briefing was at 2015 in the dining hall, and the place was packed by the time we had all filed in. I had spent the time since the map making exercise fashioning a sling for my weapon from paracord, taking down all the emergency number details, and making sure that my radio was on the correct settings, so that had been time very well spent. After the rollcall we got the expected motivational speech from Ken Jones. You definitely need to be there to really appreciate it. No words I can use can ever even come close to doing it justice. It took in Latin American earthquakes, fighting at Black Friday sales which led to the creation of the Fan Dance event, silk sketch maps, and so much more, before the advice I have now heard many times, but which never loses its impact – be on top of your admin. We would be carrying at least 4 litres of water, there would be a single water resupply point (but the promise of a lot of natural water out on the ground), the first wave would be made up of those whose Fan Dance time was slower than 4 hours, and the second wave of those whose Fan Dance time was faster than 4 hours, with breakfast for the first wave at 0400. We would then need to be on the other side of the dam bridge at 0440. We received a safety briefing from DS Matt, which included the reminder that the action on finding someone with an injury was to help them, regardless of how it affected your own event, before being told that the packed lunch for tomorrow would be available at 2145 (and it included some P2P mix, which is always a bonus). I had signed up for a camping slot but really could not be bothered pitching my tent in the dark and decided to sleep in my car. I had brought a quilt with me just in case this happened, so I knew I would be comfortable enough through the remaining hours of the night, and that meant I could pack my bergen now, ready for the morning. Having put my sleeping bag inside my bivi bag I stuffed it into the bottom of my Karrimor SF Sabre 45 bergen. I was going load-bearing, carrying 35lbs, which would be made up of my safety kit, which consisted of a spare compass, spare headtorch, spare laces, paracord, gaffer tape and a couple of utility tools in one waterproof bag, into which I also put my telephone; spare wooly hat, ruff, and spare pair of gloves in another; waterproofed map in the inner pocket, together with my racing snake fabloned map; mountain first aid kit, and a towel and talcum powder in their own bags; Rab Vapour-rise Lite Alpine jacket and Mountain Equipment Fitzroy jacket; a hexamine stove with a Zippo lighter, spork, tea bags and bags of porridge inside a metal pot and cup, all bagged and secured so it would not rattle; a cut down rollmat, and in another waterproof bag my change of clothing, being a short sleeved zipped base layer, long sleeved base layer, two fleeces, a pair of hiking trousers, long johns and socks, and a knee brace, just in case; my radio in one of the bergen side pockets, with my basha (with bungees already attached) and a couple of extra packets of P2P mix I had brought with me, and once all that had been gathered together my bergen was weighing over the necessary 35lbs. I also had 3 litres of water in a bladder (with High5 Zero electrolyte tablets added), and in the other side pocket 1 litre of hot water in a thermos flask, water purification tablets in a water bottle in case of the need for an emergency resupply from a stream, and more food. My pacing beads were attached to one of the shoulder straps on the bergen. I was happy that my bergen was ready to go and now I worked on my belt kit. Energy gels spread between my trouser pockets, with a survival blanket, my notepad and pencil, and some food (the P2P mix and some Chia Charge bars) and a lip salve. My compass was attached to one of the trouser pocket zips, and I had my headtorch (with a whistle build into the headband) ready to go on my head. I was also wearing my Garmin Fenix 2 watch. Together with the kit in my bergen, I had absolutely everything I could ever need to survive, and with it all packed I could now settle down to sleep and wait for the alarms on my telephone and watch to go off in a few hours.
I woke just before my alarms went off. The weather was dry and mild with possible rain forecast for later, so I was wearing long North Face hiking trousers, Paramo boxer shorts, Bridgedale socks with a pair of thinner socks inside them, AKU Pilgrim GTX boots, gaiters, and my The 100 Peaks Challenge technical tshirt. There were quite a few of those being worn this morning. I wore my Berghaus fleece down to breakfast but would be stowing that in my bergen before we set off. I walked down from my car with my bergen and my weapon, and I was ready to go.
Unfortunately the kitchen was not quite ready to go yet, so we lined up for a group photograph instead while DS Stu stirred everyone into action, and literally stirred the porridge. I was delighted to hear that once again Ken had brought over more steel cut oats and I got myself a big bowl of them, adding a liberal covering of sugar before taking a seat at the end of one of the tables. I ate my oats quickly, enjoying the taste, apparently now like many others in that dining hall, and got myself a glass of orange juice.
I did not hang around eating because by now I just wanted to get out there and get going, so in a short time I was done, getting my bergen on, and making my way to the dam bridge. And now we were back in uncertainty. While we could identify our current location on the map, and while we could probably identify the likely area of exploitation for the event, none of us had any idea where the start line might be. We did know we would be getting there by foot, though, although before we could be on our way we had to let a couple of cars get past so they could cross this dam bridge, which left me wondering why anyone in their right mind would be up at this time. We lined up in two ranks and moved off, gradually picking up the pace as directed by DS Stu while he tried to keep us all together. We were moving at a good pace along the road and I was glad I had not kept my fleece on. I did want to take off my headtorch, though, because it was restricting the flounciness of my hair. This initial tab was already adding another couple of kilometres on to whatever the length of the event was going to prove to be, and it had not been an easy stroll to get to the staging area.
We moved into the woods and confirmed out position on the map while making sure that we had everything how we wanted it, because that little tab up from the basecamp to this harbour area would have been sufficient to expose any flaws in packing, balance or comfort. My bergen was fine, but as word went round that RV protocol now demanded no short sleeves, I had to dig out my fleece and put it on. I was going solo again, and it was not long before I was called forward to have my bergen weighed (and I came in on the weight), then moved on to see Ken at the start line. I always find him a very reassuring presence at this point, and I am sure a big part of that comes from the knowledge that he knows me by now. DS Stu had us keep our headtorches turned off as much as possible in the harbour area so that our eyes became accustomed to the light (or, really, the dark), and as I approached the start line I turned mine on to red light so that I could look at the map without ruining that night vision. Ken saw it was me and said I could switch it to white light because he remembered the problems I had encountered focusing on the map at the start line for Ironman. I identified where we were, Ken gave me the next grid reference, and I identified that. He told me I could use the road we had come up to get to a stile which would take me into open ground, and at 0543 I was off on my way.
The route to RV1 looked pretty obvious on the map, so I quickly moved from the start line, passing the second wave as they arrived, then went down the lane before going over the stile Ken had mentioned, which was far easier said than done in this darkness, and I was off into the open ground. It really was very dark indeed, so dark that I had no idea what sort of terrain I was going to be walking into until I was walking across it, but the ground underfoot was not anywhere near as bad as I knew it could be in this area. I was heading on a straight line over undulating ground, trying to avoid any areas which looked more likely to be swampy, only occasionally having to correct myself as my leg slipped down into the ground further than I wanted it to. I was not going to be beaten by the babies heads, although I was certainly thinking this would be easier for the second wave with a bit of daylight revealing the terrain in advance. The one thing which particularly struck me as I struggled along was just how much carrying the weapon affected not only overall balance, but also the ability to recover that balance when the ground started to take control. This was hard going enough with that as an added problem to be dealt with. I could see there were people ahead of me, but could not make out who they were from this distance, and I could also hear someone coming up from behind me, but, again, had absolutely no idea who it was. Have I mentioned how very dark it was out there ? The person in front of me stumbled under an absolutely massive bergen, before getting herself up and continuing on, then stumbling again, and this time I was close enough to help her get to her feet by taking the weight of the bergen.
Now I could see it was Julie Valentine, with Christine Cranham and Marc Reardon walking ahead of her. While it was still this dark I was not in a position to overtake them, so just tucked in behind as they were heading in the direction I wanted to take. Dawn began to break as we reached a point where we would have to go down into a gully to cross over a river, and we got together to check our position on the map. I pushed on going straight down into the gully and then up to the right, continuing around a ridge which kept me up high to get round to the top of the other side, where I met up with Anna Cook and chatted with her for a while before we gradually moved off in different directions and I sought out some better ground to the north, having realised that since I had started coming across this open ground in the dark I had dropped down too far south into a more swampy part of this area. It was tough work getting through this and back to a better track, but it was more than worth it for the much easier going along this track, and once I had gone past some animal bones and round one hill, then over another hill, I could see RV1 down below. I could also see thick mist in the lower ground over to the south, leaving little islands of land poking through, which probably would have looked magical on any other day, in any other circumstances. I was being caught by many others now and at one point where there was just the one obvious track available I pushed on so as not to slow them up, and then stood aside at the first available point. I was not feeling great, and I was going slow. I had been taking sips from my Camelbak since I had started off but I had not been able to bring myself to eat anything because my stomach had bloated up, and not only was I feeling very uncomfortable as a result, but the thought of eating was not a pleasant one. This was all supposed to have been put behind me a couple of weeks ago, but clearly the digestive problems which had ruined my Summer Fan Dance were still with me. I was not going to let them bring me to a halt here, though.
RV1 was manned by DS Stu and having waited until the RV was clear, I put on my best face and posture as I approached his position. Having said that, I am not sure how I got away with it because in the photograph taken of me at RV1 I look totally wasted, and it had taken me almost 2 hours to get here. As I approached he saw my pole slung around my neck and asked if I had got myself a new necklace. I replied it was the ears of my enemies.
He told me the next grid reference and I identified it straight away and saw the possibility of a few routes to it – unlike everything else, there really are no problems with my navigational skills – and having identified a middle route, I set off. The route started off uphill and even when it levelled off it was a long hard slog with the ground and the babies heads sapping my energy while I still could not eat, and my stomach was really hurting a lot now. The day was very clear now, and as I looked around me I could see people taking each of the three routes I had identified at RV1. I was hoping mine turned out to be a good one (it did !), although from the looks of it the bottom route appeared to be the fastest right now.
I came over the crest of a hill as the driving train of Rob Paine, Scott Wealthall, and Steve Moore passed me, and Gunther Trzonnek caught up with me. I continued walking with him and we cut across to the left to skirt the trees ahead of us, and reached another river to cross. He followed the same route as those before us, straight down, across, and then up again, but the way I was feeling I did not fancy that. I had seen another possible route and as Pierre Charles-Wood rushed past me it was the route he took, going around the edge on this side to a lower crossing point with a shorter rise on the other side, so I followed it too. I joined back up with Gunther on the other side and we stopped to check our position on the map, and Simon and Kate Bent came up behind us. We exchanged a few words about how it had been so far, all agreed on where we were heading from here, and then they were off, with us following on, and while the slope up from here was not particularly steep, within a few steps I was shot.
My stomach was aching badly, it had really bloated a lot more over the stretch from RV1, and I suddenly had no pace left in me at all, so I told Gunther to go on without me. He was very reluctant to do so, and I assured him that I was all right to continue, but that it would only be at my very slow pace, dragging myself to RV2. I was by no means at the back of those taking part, but I knew my event was going to have to come to an end at Rv2 (and I would have made that same decision even if I had not guessed where Rv3 was going to be). I got to the top of this part and approached the gate which led on to the track I needed to take, with a steady stream of people coming back up from RV2 and through it. I passed so many people I knew as I went down that track, Jonathan Dando, Mark Pidgen (with a pie he would later come to regret), Rob, Scott and Steve, before I caught sight of a lovely view of the reservoir.
Then there was a big group of friends of mine, Karl Rushen, Paul Southernwood, Ian Ford, Mick Henderson, Mike McDonald and Chris Dougherty, and I stopped to explain to them what I was going to have to do. That certainly brought it home to me. I got to the bottom of the track and crossed the road to RV2, taking off my bergen and joining the queue. It had taken me almost another 2 hours to get here. When it was my turn I went into the tent and before Ken could give me the next grid reference I told him that I was having to withdraw from the rest of the march because of my medical problem. He accepted my decision and told me to go and see the medic, who immediately got an energy gel down me once I had explained my problems and the fact I had not been able to eat since breakfast. He apologised for the taste of the energy gel, and that was soon gone as I got my teeth into one of the pies, and finally a hot brew. I got my bivi bag out of my bergen so I could lie down and Lee Colebrook took me through some stretching exercises as a warm down to what I had done. Within half an hour of arriving at RV2 my bloating had disappeared, but I could not have continued the march without being able to eat and while needing to stop for half an hour at a time to recover. I was gutted, but I had made the safe and correct decision.
My march was over, but not my day. I would spend the rest of the day with the DS and MST at RV2, and it gives you a whole different perspective being able to see the command and control in operation as the field spreads out and decisions have to be made about how best to deal with those at the very front who need new RVs opened for them, and those at the back who have to be managed to the point where they might be required to end their event. Every decision was hard, and a lot of thought and discussion went into it before it was made. The same was true in respect of prize-giving, where there were a number of very strong contenders for each category. Those who won should know that they very much deserved it in a very tight contest, and those who were mentioned in dispatches should know that they were right up there.
RV2 was also going to be the location for the food and prize-giving after the event, and DS Stu had noticed vehicles having some trouble getting in and out, so he and Bryn Wilson set to work building up the kerb to allow for easier access. A lot more fun was watching the efforts to fold down a pop-up tent, and in the end it was unceremoniously stuffed into its bag and the zip drawn to hold it in. To be fair, the instructions were not a lot of help. It really will pop up the next time it is released ! The weather had stayed dry and mild, although it got colder as the day moved on, and the wind came through in gusts from time to time, at one point blowing away the marquee, which led to a frantic rescue and some emergency measures to both fix it and hold it in place.
It was fascinating to be allowed to see DS Stu’s sketchpad which contained all the designs, drawings and narrative which led to the final version of the Ricochet patch. Again, another insight into the level of detail, and the attention to that detail, which Avalanche Endurance Events put into everything they organise. I also took the opportunity to discuss my sketchmap with DS Stu, which was made more interesting with the benefit of hindsight and having completed part of the route, of course. I agreed with him that one aspect of my sketchmap may have made the identification of RV1 a little more difficult, but overall I did appear to have included all the necessary prominant features, and it was (perhaps reluctantly) agreed that it was a sketchmap which could have been marched upon. There was a cycling event going on through the area and occasionally cyclists would stop to ask what we were doing and to pass on information about other things they had seen going on in the area, which is how we came to hear about another group who were out on the ground carrying out an exercise. When some of their number did appear they were carrying replica weapons. Our funniest encounter was with a couple of tourists who were looking for the waterfalls. They showed us the leaflet they had from the local tourist information, but none of the finest navigational minds in AEE could make head nor tail of it until DS Stu suddenly exclaimed, “They’ve drawn their map upside down !” and from there it was easy enough to provide directions for them to carry on their drive.
The finishers started to arrive back at RV2, lots of tired legs and happy faces. Food and drink were being served up, the table was being prepared for the handing out of the patches and the prize-giving, and slowly but surely everything was brought to order. The handing out of the patches was done first, with little formality and nothing more than a handshake. That was followed by the prize-giving, with a lot more congratulation. The moment everyone had been waiting for then came about, and Mick Henderson won the raffle. Despite my own disappointment it had been another great experience with Avalanche Endurance Events. I was getting a lift back to my car with Mark Pidgen, so I said my goodbyes to many friends, and also to DS Stu and Ken, who left me with the remark, “You owe me a Ricochet,” and as Ricochet is the gateway to the Elan Valley test marches, I know that I do, and will be back when it is re-run.
You can see more photographs from the event here.