White Hot Concentration


Looking down on Low Water, Raven Tor behind

I went for a Job Interview at work today, a two hour, two part interview/test in the middle of my normal hours. It’s the first interview I’ve ever conducted that way: every other has been the standard arrive/interview/depart. It was a bit funny going back to work after.

Unfortunately, one thing I did anticipate came true: once the interview was over, I ‘hit the Wall’ mentally. I was drained and almost sleepy for the remaining four hours of servitude (so hallelujah for two days off coming straight up).

But there’s a world of difference between hitting the Wall in a desk-based office job and smacking that wall one out in the fells, especially when you’re completely unfamiliar with the concept and the process.

I was still very much a novice when it came to solo walking, and being able to set my own course. I’d done the northern end of the Coniston massif, Wetherlam – Swirl How – Great Carrs, in the April and now, in September, I was bent on the southern end, Dow Crag – The Old Man – Brim fell.

Two-thirds of the walk was planned out thoughtfully: the Walna Scar Road to the head of the Pass, the ridge over Blind Pike and Buck Pike to Dow Crag then the long circuit around the head of Goatswater. It was a tranquil, rich afternoon and the Old Man towered like a wall above, the angle of the path looking draining, but I paced things slowly and easily and had no difficulties reaching the ridge, a hundred yards or so north of the cairn.

I’d been here before, in thick cloud, with my family, who had battened down the hatches at the top of the Quarry Path before sending me ahead to check how far away was the summit (the answer was less than sixty seconds walk but when I got back they were packing up to go down, boo hiss!) Nice to see the view, though Blackpool Tower was not visible along the Fylde Coast.

From the Old Man I walked north, along one of the easiest ‘ridges’ in the Lakes onto the great whaleback of Brim Fell. It was hardly a ‘conquest’ and the openness of the top, with its three-stone cairn and lack of any features other than the path to better fells either way did not inspire me to linger: there was nothing even to sit down on.

I’d planned a descent down the trackless east ridge, descending to the south side of Raven Tor to drop down to the shores of Low Water, from where I could pick up the Quarry Path. And, despite my very limited experience with pathless ground, I got down to the outflow of the beck in cheerful state with no mishaps or concerns.

But that was where I made my mistake. On the spur of the moment, I decided that I didn’t want to cross over onto the Old Man’s territory, that it would be a purer walk to descend off Brim Fell’s ground. Low Water Beck descends through Boulder Valley and I remembered Wainwright depicting a pathless ascent from this direction. So I decided to descend this way. Without actually checking what he’d said.

Had I consulted the oracle, it would have told me two invaluable pieces of information. The first was that this route was not suited for descent, the second that the preferred line of approach was along the base of Raven Tor, over to the left of where I stood.

No, novice walker me decided that if Brim Fell could be ascended this way, it could also be descended and that, in the absence of any path I would simple proceed downhill, within easy reach of the Beck, and work it out for myself. Should any commercial time travel machine come on the market at reasonable rates, one of my many trips will be to the outflow of Low Water, where I shall proceed to belabour my 27 year old self about the head and shoulders with a suitable belabouring implement.

At first, the descent was straightforward, primarily on grass, but after a couple of hundred feet or so, the ground began to steepen noticeably. I paused to study the terrain below. I studied the steep re-ascent behind and decided that at that end of the day I wasn’t going back that way. I still did not check out Wainright’s Southern Fells. Instead, I decided that the easier ground looked to be on the other side of the Beck, or in the completely opposite direction to the preferred line of approach.

No, stubbornly and delicately I went on. If the ground was easier this side of the Beck, then I shudder to think what I’d have had to tangle with on my original line. I was some three to four hundred feet above Boulder Valley, at which I was looking at from very much above, and the chances of making a sudden and uncontrolled descent were very palpable.

So I looked at the ground immediately ahead, calculated the two safest steps I could take, and cautiously took them. Then I studied the ground immediately ahead, calculated the two safest steps I could take, and cautiously took them. And again. Over and over. Two steps at a time. What was safe. My concentration was fixed on the next two safe steps. Occasionally, I would risk a glance at the distant floor of Boulder Valley which, in the grand tradition of all such things, did not appear to be getting any nearer. Then back to the next two steps. And the next two.

It got me down, safe, to level ground. The path lay about forty foot away, broad, level and safe, but there was buried rock sticking out of the grass everywhere, and I had the presence of mind to tell myself that I could not drop my concentration now, not until I got to the path, because it would have been the easiest thing in the world to relax, stumble across a rock and probably break my shin landing on another one.

I made the path. I let my concentration go with relief and release, and as I allowed myself to relax, it was like a bath draining through me. Everything (with the exception, thankfully, of my bowels) relaxed and every bit of remaining energy in my body drained out of me. Though I wouldn’t hear the term until I got trapped into entering the Manchester Marathon three years later, I had Hit The Wall, and I had nothing left.

Except three-quarters of a mile of a generally level but pretty damned undulating path to the end of the Walna Scar Road, and another three-quarters of a mile down the road into Coniston Village, where I had parked my car at the back of the old Railway Station. There was nothing for it but to trudge, trudge, trudge back down the path.

I got to the roadhead just as a car with two middle-aged women was pulling out to drive down. Despite my current state of depletion, I was gentleman enough to hold the gate open whilst they drove through. This virtue was promptly rewarded by the offer of a lift down to the Village! Though it was the way I hung off the gate like sheep’s wool that has just been sheared off the sheep that clued them in to how badly I needed it.

Of course, they being an unguarded pair of defenceless women and I a virile young man, they did joke about the risk they were taking with me, and it’s always been a matter of regret with me that I had to admit they were at absolutely no risk whatever: the state I was in, I wouldn’t have backed me to go two out of three with a wet dishcloth.

The serious point, which needs no underscoring, is that I had put myself in danger through my own bloody stupidity and arrogance, and was bloody lucky to have gotten out of it with no damage to myself beyond this temporary physical exhaustion. It would be many years before I took the other point, which was that, even as a still novice fellwalker, I had gotten myself out of that situation with care, concentration and, it has to be said, fellwalking skills. It would have been nice if I’d had that insight much sooner, as I would them have been emboldened to tackle more strenuous walks sooner than I did, when I still had many years of walking possible, but by the same token, had I taken that attitude at the time, I might not have taken so much to heart the lesson that you watch what you’re doing. And especially where you put your feet.

My much milder mental weariness of the post-interview period put me back on Brim Fell for a time, back to when hitting the Wall was a bloody sight more serious thing. But it was a lovely, warm, bright day, with great views, and the memories are always fresh when I find myself directed towards them.

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