The wind on Kinder is a sensory deprivation chamber.
The rattling, booming noise cuts out my sound sense; I can’t hear the tread of my feet in the bog above the screaming of my rain jacket and the howling of the withered grass.
My vision comes woozy from the wind: walking the path is like standing on the prow of a ship, eyes contending with a force that won’t be seen.
Proprioception is meaningless, my feet can only guess and hope where they might land next. Balance goes too, as moment to moment my ear canals rush with gusts and lulls.
The wind whips away my breath, making hard going over easy ground. Smells only come from the southwest, and much too quickly to distinguish anything of use.
Rushing up from the valley, the rain hits from below. I veer off course, staggering from one path to another until I reach a cluster of boulders, offering each other shelter since the last ice age, resisting the wind — and losing.
The weekend was spent ‘shadowing’ a Duke of Edinburgh Bronze practice expedition. Not in preparation for my own attempt – they tell me I’m too old – but as something of a ‘trial shift’ for future employment as an instructor on said expeditions.
What I learned from my shadow
1. Even the bronze expeditions are hard work.
These little guys (they were 13-14) have to carry 65 litre packs across two days of 8-12km hiking. Some of them were lugging 85 litre packs stuffed to the hoods. Lucky fools.
2. Why can’t most people get camp cooking right?
For millennia, humans just like us cooked out of doors. So why did even the instructors (at least those who didn’t drive back to their warm home, or slide open their luxury camper vans) make do with rehydrating packet noodles, or reheating leftovers?
For the kids, camp cooking is part of the syllabus and, for fear of getting it badly wrong, they exclusively plumped for easy cook pasta and ready-made stir-in sauce. The most accidentally ambitious of the kids brought along bacon lardons to add to his pasta – but only because he thought they were pre-cooked.
I have perused (in a scoffing sort of way) campfire cookbooks in the past, but if I am to commit to broad enjoyment of the great outdoors, then it’s time to take campfire cooking seriously.
On a continental bike tour in 2016, we took a humungous Camping Gaz hob burner. Nothing in our packs brought greater ridicule from other tourers; nothing brought greater pleasure to us.
3. I still can’t sleep in a tent.
I could blame the mummified claustrophobia of the sleeping bag, or the pattering of rain on canvas, or the rowdy teachers up late, or the ironic anxiety that I would oversleep, but where does that get me?
4. Kit is crucial.
Between the 50 or so kids and the half dozen instructors, we showed off the full range of hiking kit.
Within 10 minutes of leaving, we knew who had the right rucksack and who didn’t. By the end of the second day, you could easily see (or hear) who had decent walking boots.
It’s easy to be smug when you recently dropped £100 on boots and another £50 on a rucksack, but these two make such a difference to your enjoyment of an expedition that they have to be worth the investment.
If it’s going to rain more than a little, you can add waterproofs to that list.
5. There will be moments when it’s all worthwhile.
Walking and talking with people more than two decades younger than me; watching the sun rise through the morning mist; strolling alone through a dappled beech forest as I waited for the expedition teams to come past their final checkpoint.
6. I’d like to do more of this.
For too long I have equated ‘typing at a computer’ with ‘making a living’. This new outdoor office is a whole new liberation.
Computers are all well and good, and I am lucky to be able to write for a living, and join people up with words. But perhaps the most valuable thing I can do right now is help kids enjoy the outdoors.
As the lead instructor said: ‘our interventions make a difference to the lives of these young people’.
I recently read The Atlantic essay Walking by Henry David Thoreau, published in June 1862. Firstly, how thrilling it is to read that by-line set in the 21st century medium of the Internet. Praise The Atlantic for doing such a beautiful job – imagine Punch or The Times delving so deep into their archives.
Walking touches upon an almost scatter-brained variety of tangentially related topics. I’m never sure whether the 19th century mind was more nimble, or simply that writers of yore lacked the affection of competent editors.
The essay is worth reading in its entirety – if only for his enthusiastic side-swipes at the small-minded European mentality (even the moon looks smaller there!) – but I wanted to pick out three themes that particularly caught my eye.
The Value of Time Spent in Nature
I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least—and it is commonly more than that—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.
The Inexhaustibility of Local Walks
My vicinity affords many good walks; and though for so many years I have walked almost every day, and sometimes for several days together, I have not yet exhausted them. … Two or three hours’ walking will carry me to as strange a country as I expect ever to see. A single farmhouse which I had not seen before is sometimes as good as the dominions of the King of Dahomey.
The Re-Wilding of Humankind
I saw one day a herd of a dozen bullocks and cows running about and frisking in unwieldy sport, like huge rats, even like kittens. They shook their heads, raised their tails, and rushed up and down a hill, and I perceived by their horns, as well as by their activity, their relation to the deer tribe.
But, alas! a sudden loud Whoa! would have damped their ardor at once, reduced them from venison to beef, and stiffened their sides and sinews like the locomotive. Who but the Evil One has cried “Whoa!” to mankind?
Scotland, it turns out, knows how to put on a show.
As Ben and I walked out on Monday afternoon, squeezing in one last tramp before the drive back to civilisation, we were audience to a scene that the Scottish Tourist Board couldn’t have choreographed better.
The winter sun was setting in a mountain range v-neck, sending soft warm light down the glen. A small loch mirrored the snow-capped peaks in icy blue water. The green of the heather was crested with gold in the dying day.
Our boots (mine more than a little damp from snow) crunched in the easy Land Rover track, in places more of a snow-melt stream, running up over the tongues of our boots. I tossed a cricket-ball sized rock from palm to palm, feeling its friendly heft.
As we poked over a gentle climb, and the Ryvoan stone-built bothy came into view, I stopped and almost dropped a catch. Around the ancient hillside, a herd of reindeer strutted, antlers thrusting ahead as they strolled across the track, looking for dinner in the field below.
As they passed, the sun beamed, and light snow eddied in the air. Ben and I dropped to the ground, sinking into the rough grass, the herd surrounding us.
Some things you can look up online: everyone has seen photos of reindeer – most likely you’re sick of them after Christmas. But what struck me of the reality was the smacking sound of their lips and tongue clapping up the grass. Bad table manners.