Wednesday, 31 July 2019

Mither Tap - Not Running



If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Or in other words if you can’t race, then volunteer at a race. It’s a great idea! Not convinced? 

 “Cant run” is probably stretching the truth but I’ve a gammy knee that I didn’t want to risk as it complains vociferously on descents at the moment and training time has been limited a bit recently due to work which its making me tired and bad tempered so I think I am now probably the Cosmic Hillbashers anti social secretary rather than social secretary. I’ve been absent for so long they’ve probably forgotten who I am anyway. 

 I was late in arriving from work again, as is so often the case these days, and so ran or tottered across the gravel car park best I could in heels to report for duty to Captain Brettle who sent me up the hill. Rupert, the other hilltop marshall, and I marched up the hill (me having changed into more appropriate hill going footwear) making it to our respective marshalling points in good time before the race started and I stretched out on the ground and relaxed, enjoying in the warm muggy evening and settled down to await the runners.



As I stared back at the summit of Mither Tap the clouds grew gradually darker and the first drops of rain fell, the new camera with which I was hoping to get some good shots of the runners was tucked away in its bag and I pulled on some water proofs. No sooner had I done this and there was an almighty flash of lightning and a deep rumble of thunder. Oh crap. 

The walkers who were on the summit quickly dispersed downwards and somewhat randomly the lyrics to Bohemian Rhapsody bounced into my head “thunder bolts of lightning, very very frightening”. Well, if not frightening then mildly disconcerting. I frantically rattled my brain trying a remember a) what you are supposed to do to avoid being hit by lightning and b) what first aid should be administered if someone else should be hit by lightning. In any case I was reasonably sure that the summit of a mountain was not the recommended location to be standing around in a thunder and lightning storm but scarpering off downhill and leaving the runners to their own devices really was not an option. “If I’m not back again this time tomorrow….” Oh great. A Bohemian Rhapsody earworm. It was all quite exhilarating though and I was secretly hoping for a chance of taking THAT National Geographic streak of lightning photo.

Have I convinced you that race marshalling is a great idea yet?

A moment later Rupert came scurrying round the corner with new instructions from race HQ. The runners were to be diverted away from the summit on to a lower path. I reached my new marshalling position as the runners were just appearing over the brow of the hill. Understandably some were a little confused as I pointed them away from the flagged route, but most did as I requested with only one runner giving me lip. My response of “It’s to stop you getting killed” brought the conversation to a swift conclusion. One runner even stopped to get a selfie with the by now quite bedraggled and ever so slightly chilled summit marshal – And that folks is why SHR make you carry safety kit in hill races. Having got hot marching up the hill, 30 minutes of waiting around in the downpour had left me quite chilly even on this warm muggy summer night. “Sends shivers down my spine, bodys aching all the time.”  OK, I’ll stop the Queen references now (but don’t make on that you weren’t giving it just a little bit of a bit of “Galileo Galileo Figaro…”)

Summit selfie!
Mike was the sweeper and he appeared at the tail end of the race so I offered to collect in the flags on the hill marking the original race route. Mike’s advice was “just duck and you’ll be fine”. Hmmm, I’m sure that will work. By now the storm had passed and so Rupert and I collected in the remaining flags, looked for archaeological remains and made our way down the hill in time to catch the end of the prize giving. It appeared as though a good and slightly exciting, if not very wet, race was had by all.

I was on the verges of pressing “publish” when this pinged into my email inbox from Steve Helmore

“A 44 year old Norwegian runner was killed this weekend by a lightning strike. She was running the Sudtirol Ultra in the Dolomites. Got me checking on current advice for risk mitigation. 

You might know all this, but here’s a link to an article on how to reduce the risk if caught in a storm - basically go indoors or into a car, or if outdoors, avoid metal, high places, trees, standing water. Crouching low apparently has negligible effect”. 


The implication from this link being that when you are in a very exposed location on the side of a mountain there is not a lot you can do except head for lower ground (if possible) and hope for the best after all where are you going to find a large building or a car on the top of a mountain?

This link may be of use too. 

Suddenly THAT National Geographic streak of lightning photo doesn’t seem such a great idea. 

Sunshine after the rain

Sunday, 10 March 2019

And then there were two…


Sounds like the Agatha Christie mystery doesn’t it? I loved that latest TV adaption of it. Or did I just love the fact Aidan Turner was in it? Never mind. I digress…

But you have to admit there is something a bit odd about running up a hill in a hailstorm in the dark. Normal people just don’t do that sort of thing do they? Mores the pity. I believe doctors are now starting to prescribe parkrun to treat depression so maybe more normal people need to run up hills in the dark. You have got to admit that having your eyeballs sandblasted by icy particles certainly takes your mind off workplace objectional fuckwittery woes for a while.

It did have the makings of a good (or bad) horror film plot as after about half a mile two of the group decided that this run was a seriously bad idea and disappeared into the darkness back to the car park. I wonder if they are still speaking to me as this little excursion was my idea and like many of my similar ideas it seemed like a good idea at one point. Just maybe less so on the night. 

This left six of us to tackle the mountain in the dark. Happily, we had mountain expert Jonathan to a) show us the way (I like to think I know my way round Bennachie but it looks so different in the dark) and b) make sensible suggestions about which direction we should run it to avoid running headlong into a gale force wind. We were in safe hands. Jonathan is a sensible chap if, indeed, the word sensible can be applied to someone who runs The Spine Race.


So then there were six. Jonathan guided us up a small track through the forest and then out on to the open hillside into the wind. Somebody, I am not sure who, but somebody uttered those fateful words “at least the rain has gone off” which clearly the weather gods took as a challenge and the hailstones promptly started bouncing off our heads. 

I trudged up the hill in Jonathan and Sam’s wake to eventually catch up with them just shy of the summit, cowering behind a wall of rocks. We re-grouped and went over the hill picking our way carefully down the other side as it was now a bit icy. By now the hailstones were really making themselves felt but this made for some quite arty photos and a weird strobe like effect on the eyes. I really had to concentrate running down the hill. There was a bit of discussion about the best positioning for a torch in conditions like that with both Sarah and Gillian opting to either carry theirs or to have it fixed to their bodies rather than their heads. Overall though it must have been a clear night as I could see the streetlights from the various surrounding villages when I peered out from under my hood into the distance.




At the next path junction it was decision time. Jonathan was all for a wee detour to take in Oxen Craig but Sam was keen to get back to the car where Lesley and Josie would be waiting. After a moments indecision the rest of us followed Jonathan. Well, we were up there anyway and it would have been rude to ignore Oxen Craig. And then there were five. Told you, it was just like the Agatha Christie story. I made sure that at no point I was the runner at the back of the group…just in case…you know, better safe than sorry…
Summit Photo (credit: Jonathan)
Oxen Craig was duly visited and Jonathan took the all important summit photo as by now my phone battery was dying in the cold then we quickly descended on to the Gordon Way following it back to the car park although I did half expect Jonathan to say something along the lines of “anyone fancy another lap?” when we got back. The remaining five runners made it safely back to the car park for the compulsory post run tea and cakes by which time I can only assume the other three were home, dry and having supper. One of them has been spotted on Facebook since then so I won’t worry too much. Although they might not be speaking to me.
Post run cakes. The options were Chocolate cake, banana cake and lemon cake

Saturday, 26 January 2019

Pico Grande


The summit of Pico Grande is to the left of the photo
Slightly to the south of the main ridge that runs west to east like a spine across Madeira lies another hill by the name of Pico Grande. At 1655m its smaller than the more famous peaks making up this spine but its ascent is a good day out nonetheless, starting out in the village of Jardim de Serra and finishing deep in the valley of Curral das Freiras, the Valley of the Nuns. Last year we had walked this route missing out the ascent of Pico Grande as we had set out too late in the day but this time a pre-daylight start saw us on the first bus out – after a panicked visit to the petrol station to buy a pretty random array of food as the hotel had forgotten to supply some sandwiches as we requested and buying food on route was not going to be an option. I knew of one little shop in Jardim de Serra but relying completely on that seemed like a high risk strategy
Morning sunlight
The ridge to Pico Grande
For anyone with a car the walk starts at the forestry lodge at Boca da Corrida but for us the bus stopped in the village some 2 miles before the forestry lodge meaning an uphill climb of 2 miles on the road to reach the trailhead. It wasn’t a bad thing as an uphill stretch warmed us up nicely as it wasn’t the warmest of mornings. All things relative I suppose. On reaching Bocca da Corrida the mountain panorama stretches out before you including the strange knoll like lump that forms the summit of Pico Grande.

“Height-wise Pico Grande is not in the top 10 of Madeira summits, but in relation to the difficulty of the ascent and the quality of the views it certainly belongs to the best of them. This free standing mountain, sitting on top of a of a huge plinth, has fascinating tufa formations in the summit area shaped by wind and water” (Guide book description)

The trail winds its way along the hillside heading northwards on a good and pretty easy track, any exposed bits are fenced off and any tricky steps have handrails, and it was turning into a gloriously warm day. At one point I was convinced we were about to be attacked by a swarm of killer bees such was the incredible noise of the honey bees in amongst the gorse flowers. I suppose it was all the more obvious against the silence of the mountains where we were just about the only ones around and there is no traffic noise from anywhere.
The yellow gorse
The summit is the rocky lump to the left
The path to the peak cuts through the gorse on to the other side of the ridge where a second path cuts down down to the Valley of the Nuns. From here the climbing gets a little bit trickier and the path becomes rougher, gradually getting steeper through the gorse until you pop out of the gorse onto a plateau with a view across to the ridge and to the wind farm on the hillside above Rabacal. Then the fun starts. Reaching the summit of Pico Grande involves a scramble up a large bulbous lump of rock about 10 m high. There is a cable attached presumably to assist climbers but Simon and I both looked at it and decided that hanging on to the rock would probably be the safer option. I noticed that the two walkers who we had caught up and who were just ahead of us had decided to give the final scramble a miss but we decided to go for it. The panoramic view from the summit was fantastic. These hills are notorious for being shrouded in mist and as I watched I could see the fingers of mist making their way over the shoulder of the hillsides from both the north and the south. We scrambled down, me making very heavy weather over what was an easy scramble and having to hand Simon my bag – I’m not as flexible as I used to be, its an age thing.
The final scramble to the summit
Made it!
Looking across to Pico Arieiro (1816m), Pico Ruivo (1860m) and Pico Coelho (1733m)
The plateau was as good a lunch spot as any and as we really hadn’t got much in the way of lunch with us we settled for the custard tarts purchased from the Ritz the day before which were by now rather squashed. I couldn’t face the chocolate croissants which were our other purchase from the petrol station (footnote: these croissants came with us back to UK due to my hatred of food wastage but they really were not worth that level of effort) A quick scan of the map showed another wee peak slightly further north so we decided as we were there it would be rude not to visit. We took a slightly less than direct route to it but soon enough we were on the top of Pico Cerco at 1620m. After exploring the interesting rock formations, the “tufa”, we retraced our steps down the hill side back to where the paths had diverged in amongst the gorse bushes. 
Champion custard tart muncher!

We met a few people who seemed to be finding the climb up hard work but what are you supposed to say to them really when the ask how far is it to the top? It depends how quickly you are moving! That’s probably not the sort of answer they are wanting. We made comforting noises about how nice the weather was and carried on down the hill. 
rock formations
The top of Pico Cerco
Mist on the ridge
The village of Faja dos Cardos sits at the head of the Vally of the Nuns
At the point at which the path diverges you start the long descent towards the Valley of the Nuns dropping steeply down some 1000m into the valley. I was really quite glad I wasn’t having to run this quad crushing steep descent. It was along descent from the mountain side covered in gorse, through the laurel trees then the chestnut trees with their harvest spread about the forest before finally reaching the little houses and farmsteads in the village with their coops of chickens and banana plantations.
The descent
Some handrails are there over the steepest drops
Its a long way down....
Chestnuts!
We followed the signs to the village of Curral Das Freiras and this took us over the road which snakes along the bottom of the valley. A large amount of earth stabilisation works have taken place to redirect the flow of water through a culvert under the road and to sure up the steep banking at the side of the road. I noted a few small boulders and bits of debris on the road which I guess hints at the reason for the stabilisation works. Madeira is very much at the mercy of the forces of nature as the devasting floods of 2011 demonstrated. We climbed up the impressive concrete wall via the steps and headed along a path to a small bridge over the river. Fallen trees and the flattened fence were  evidence of another recent landslip. We crossed the bridge and soon were at the centre of the village.
New earth stabilisation works to prevent landslips and flash floods
Signs of a recent landslip
Recovery was a cold beer and a chestnut scone, a local delicacy. It would have been rude not to.

Pico Grande is up in the cloud
The restaurant had a view of our descent route
A beer and a chestnut scone.