Monday, 18 November 2013

Hypothermia and Hydrotherapy - Wales 1992

A Night in the Black Mountains

September 1992

Hypothermia is quite scary when you go down with it.

I had heard of it in the past, of course, like everyone has. But who’d have thought it possible for your blood to get so cold that, upon taking a hot drink, you actually feel warm blood going inch-by-inch down your arms and into your hands and making your fingertips tingle? For my legs, when it happened, it was in the great big arteries that I felt it most (what are they called, the big ones going down from your groin, where you bleed to death in seconds if you are stabbed there?)

I was on a ridge of hills. Not really mountains, nothing spectacular, rather like walking Northwards along the spine of a great whale. Except there's no dorsal fin. I was on Offa’s Dyke Path, which follows the English-Welsh border from coast to coast (from Chepstow to Prestatyn). Offa was King of Mercia (middle England) from 757 to 796AD, and he set up this frontier more for the purposes of taxing trade with Wales rather than for military defence a la Hadrian.

This was my first camping trip since… blimey… since I were a lad, bah gum. I had been hiking on my own for a couple of days, my mate Gary Clarke having dropped out on the third morning, buggered off back home on the train. Walking along all on my lonesome,  I had become pretty damned chilly in my inadequate clothes, a constant right-to-left wind blowing my body heat away as the afternoon wore on.

At barely five o’clock - very conservative - I decided to bed down. Let’s get out of this damned wind. Over to the left the land sloped down and gorse bushes were growing. Let's shelter from the bloody wind. As I picked my way through the gorse, I thought This is not the time to break an ankle. It’d be hard to crawl back to the spine of the whale for help. Now, where to pitch the tent? Spaces big enough for a tent were hard to find; when at last I found one, a horse had dumped his load smack in the middle of it.

Having shovelled it away, I felt suddenly drained. Too drained to put the tent up. Too tired to make a cuppa; too tired to lift the rucksack off my back. Warning, Will Robinson, warning! Only after lying down in the lee of the bushes could I summon up the strength to take the rucksack off; to get my stove out and light it. The white slab of hexamine - similar to a firelighter - wouldn’t light. Emergency, emergency!

My mate Mick Bassett had coached me a little back in Telford and, God bless ‘im. He had given me outdated packs of Arctic Rations containing, amongst many things, magic matches. These packs are British Army issue (Mick was big in the local cadets); they are light to carry, but stuffed full of calories. In each cubic box is… how to put this…. a veritable cornucopia of squaddie grub… the accumulated wisdom of decades of army nutritional expertise… and a packet of wonder-matches that can even be struck underwater.

Despite the strong wind, the match lit. The stove lit. And I boiled up a cup of Bovril. As I drank it - nectar! - it warmed the cockles of my heart, and warmed other bits as well.

My eider-down sleeping bag had been very expensive when Mum had bought it for me… er… a quarter of a century before. As I later found out, these little feathers degrade over the years; they crumble to dust, especially when compressed like this one for a quarter of a century. (I believe that the cost of properly storing the army's eiderdown sleeping bags at Telford's BOD depot is astronomical.) Between me and the cold grass were two lousy layers of cloth and a ground sheet. Man, I froze my *’##$£ off that night. The wind blew in gusts which made a slamming sound on the side of the tent. Sometimes they would have a sequence that resembled somebody trying to attract my attention. Bang…… bang-bang…… bang-bang-bang-bang-are-you-deaf-or-what?

To add to my discomfort was a water shortage. It’s a basic error, I know, but this survival stuff doesn't come automatically, and I had accumulated only a smattering of experience back in my teens with the cadets. On an "Arduous Training" course in Snowdonia the teachers had pretty much told us what to do. Critically, there was no discussion on decisionmaking, arguably the single biggest feature of survival craft. Hoping to find water up here on the Black Mountains, I didn’t carry much up with me. But there were no streams at altitude and my food was nearly all dehydrated stuff. "Add water"... yeah, that's easy for you to say. Around midnight I began to worry that, with such a direct link between my tiny water supply and the hot calories I could ingest, a serious crisis was looming. Things are getting a bit hairy when you have to make a choice between a) Brushing your teeth with it b) making a hot drink with it and c) holding it in reserve. (In the end I chose “c”.)

Sitting there shivering, I devised an emergency plan. The nearest water if I kept going straight forward was at Hay on Wye, which sat at the bottom of a great long downward slope when finally, several miles ahead, the whale’s back ended. If in the morning the hypothermia returned I would have to leg it westwards, bail out down the slope, falling off the whale’s back on the left. There were no signs of friendly Welsh farmhouses on the map or by their lights. I would have to pick my bail-out point with great accuracy to intersect a stream shown on the map. I carefully worked out the compass bearing of mountains to left and right to identify the bail-out point. Of course, it might turn into nothing more than a sunny stroll in the morning, but the hypothermia might strike again. That would be embarrassing.

As it turned out, it was indeed a stroll. But this dodgy experience was a useful stepping-stone to the high level of ‘capability’ I have since developed.


I was so sad to have lost Gary. He was good company, a home-made philosopher. He was also poor and overweight. He had borrowed a cheap rucksack from somebody. Ominously its harness broke on Day 1, on Chepstow train station’s platform. We had walked all of ten yards…

I hadn’t thought of querying Gary’s fitness. Younger than me, I might have challenged him to walk up and down the Wrekin with me but it never occurred to me. Poor old Gary struggled from the outset. As the day-and-a-half of our adventures together progressed, I took more and more weight from him until I was burdened like a mule, carrying maybe 30kg to his ten, taking ten for the team so to speak.

Our first night out was in a stretch of ‘ancient woodland’: woodland that has never been felled or farmed. The most amazing gnarled trees grew there. It was so untidy. Tidiness is a man-imposed thing. My misconception that a tree should, in its ideal form, have a cylindrical trunk and spherical top was shown to be bunkum. Real trees are a mess. In real forests they are all fighting each other. We saw a pair of trees locked in a centuries-old death struggle, each leaving bare scars on his opponent. With time lapse photography what uppercuts, what jabs might we witness?

Against the rules, we camped out in the ancient wood. We made a fire, but left no trace the next morning. As we sat and chatted, owls were gently hooting every minute or two. We debated just what was the purpose of this: mating calls? Keeping in touch? Ah, maybe it's territorial marking: the hoot means, “this is my patch, and I’m at home”. So as an experiment, I gave out my own hoot. The place went barmy, with four or five neighbours screaming “Ta-whit, ta-woo; ta-whit, ta-woo; who the hell are youuuu?!” Gary was bursting his sides.

Ancient woodlands are places of indescribable beauty, places of chaos and irregular geometry which speak of the deep mathematics of multi-species evolution untouched by human hand. In contrast, the obscene ranks of fir trees being planted by subsidy-scrounging agro-business is a million miles away from being natural. It's as stupid as squandering public funds for music on ringtones rather than symphony orchestras. The few square miles of ancient woodland which remain in Britain must be defended. They are riches which our descendants deserve to inherit.

After our second night, in a musty Norman castle run as a youth hostel, in a place called St. Briavels, Gary announced he couldn’t go on, and legged it back home. Later on, after the Black Mountains, the steep upward slope of Hergest Ridge (of Mike Oldfield fame) was to be conquered. A very hard slog. To drive myself on, I used the self-help technique of resorting to anger, unfairly blaming Gary for all my woes. An improvised song came to mind:

           If you go up in the hills today, you’re in for a big surprise,

If you go up in the hills today, you’ll hardly believe your eyes.

‘Cos Gary Clarke’s nowhere to be seen,

He just ****ed off like he’d never been.

Today’s the day that Gary Clarke props the bar up

Before and after the Black Mountains, I had met a woman doing the same walk. She was hideous; from the way her eyes lit up later on upon meeting another woman I think she was a thingummybob. I devised a song in her honour:

            A thingmybob is following me, parlez vous,

            A thingmybob is following me, parlez vous,

            A thingmybob is following me,

            God knows what she’ll do if she catches me,

            Inky pinky parlez vous.

Before the Black Mountains I had crossed the Wye at Monmouth, and after walking much too far (28km) in one day I reached a suitable stopping point for the night: White Castle, a National Trust property. Arriving after dark, I snuck into the place and set up camp on a magnificent lawn just beyond its drawbridge. There was (heaven!) a standpipe, and I exulted in the stream of riches which issued forth, washing myself from head to toe. I suddenly needed to go to the toilet, but couldn’t find anywhere suitable to relieve myself: I could hardly leave a mess on the magnificent lawn – there would be children playing here tomorrow. Now where, I asked myself, would they have gone when the place was inhabited? In the moat, naturally! The sides of the moat were steeply angled, and it would be dangerous to slide down the cobblestoned sides, maybe getting soaked and stranded. The only answer was to drop my trousers, hitch myself up onto the wooden-slatted railing, and protrude my bare bum over the edge. I hooked my ankles behind the vertical slats in the approved manner. And then cramp struck. I was paralysed, perched on the railing. I wondered if the caretaker would arrive next morning to find a wildcat camper interlaced to the drawbridge with a bare blue arse.

Late at night I hear voices and see torchlight on the walls. I've been rumbled. Best to surrender now. I approached the two women saying in a loud voice, "OK! You got me! I know I shouldn't be here so I'll just gather my stuff and move on." Once the two women had recovered from the shock of a deranged wildcat camper emerging from the darkness they explained that they were just having a look around and I could do what the hell I liked as far as they were concerned.

The half-way stage of Offa’s Dyke Path is Knighton, right on the Shropshire border. I decided that I had had enough hardship for this trip. I put one foot over the Shropshire border, then retreated to the train station. With some time to kill, I popped into a shop. A strange feeling of euphoria overcame me, and I wondered why I was suddenly feeling so good. And then it struck me… there was heating in the shop. That strange feeling was...warmth! I had not felt external heat for several days, and the visceral pleasure of again being warm was the reason for this unexpected happiness.

Upon getting back home I found that this wilderness experience had changed me in two unexpected ways: in writing and in bathing.

In order to write something in the business desk-diary I had to take into my hand a strange stick-like implement which left a trace of dark fluid on paper - ink I think they call it. Of course I am exaggerating, but I swear that the everyday task of jotting something down with a pen is everyday only because we do it every day. It's a thin veneer of habit, I submit. Unlike oral communication which goes back millions of years, I submit that handwriting is not deeply embedded by our evolution; is a cultural activity which can be unlearned.

Sitting in the bath at our Telford bungalow I was entranced by the streams of clear liquid treasure coming out of the taps, one cold and the other - woo-hoo! - pre-heated, would you believe?! And this stuff - hundreds of litres of it! - was pure, drinking-quality water. We use this treasure without giving it a thought!

Again, lest a reader (a thick one) go away under the misapprehension that I had genuinely forgotten that Severn Trent Water plc existed, my point here is that this habit of taking unlimited water from a tap is a very recent one in man's history. One of the philosophical benefits of temporarily depriving oneself of luxury is a greater appreciation of it upon one's return. One of them - I think Epicureanism - has wrongly been associated with advocating gluttony when in fact it advocates annual periods of abstention. Abstinence makes the heart grow fonder is just one part of that healthy process of counting our blessings, especially those.... (oh, you know what I was about to write.... you clever people deserve an apology from the thick ones who insist that we explain why a bathfull of hot water is such a wonder!) 

They say that a little suffering is good for the soul. But I have since come to realise that any fool can be uncomfortable; the trick on a backpacking adventure is to achieve Unique Experience (tm) whilst taking good care of oneself.








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