Monday, 21 January 2013

We Could Be Heroes, Just For One Day......

A week of contrasting events has provoked some thought, clarified my own stance on matters and left me pondering why people always seem to be looking to others for their lead and their inspiration.

A week of fairly cold, wintery weather has left a nice covering of snow on the hills, backed up with an icy under-surface just to make the conditions more testing. Myself and Sam had a couple of trips out and Friday’s in particular gave us a clear insight into the differences in weather between sea level and the higher tops and ridges.

We climbed up from Blaich on the old track, initially on a decent surface, albeit with a few slippy patches of hard ice. However, as we headed out above the deer fence, the surface and the air conditions rapidly changed. Underfoot, there was a thick carpet of ice with a shallow covering of snow over the top. Much time was spent trying to weave a way along the edge of the track and up through the heather. As we got higher, the wind started whipping up, blasting the snow across the path and, whilst the air temperature as probably only just below freezing, it felt at least 10 degrees less than that in the icy blast.

We climbed up to the cairn on the ridge, but with snow blasting across the plateau and searching out every and any route to chill my skin under several layers, we did a quick about turn and headed down. This time we left the slippy path and plunged straight down snowy, heathery slopes....always great fun!

On Saturday, we had to pop over to town and so Kirsten suggested bundling Sam in the car and heading out for a run from the North Face Car Park up to the CIC Hut, something we’d done together a couple of years ago, as we contemplated the idea of moving to Scotland (who'd thought we'd be here now!).

Once again, the path heading through the trees was initially fine, but as we gained height and headed out onto open slopes, the path took on an icy sheen and the running gait changed to accommodate this.

We met people coming back the other way, who all advised that it was very slippy further up and, before long, we decided it was time to don the kathoola spikes. And what a difference! Once they were on, we were skipping along with confidence, enjoying the incredible scenery and the privilege of being in such a special place.

There was a fierce wind though, whipping the snow up in swirls and eddies from the ground, mini twisters veering off into the nearby slopes. Two years ago, there had been a lot more snow than this, but make no mistake, this was a proper winter day on the Ben.

We eventually arrived up at the hut, where the driving wind had caused snow to pile up high against the windows and doors. It wasn’t a place to linger. We spent a few minutes taking photos and looking for climbers up on the North East buttress, or heading up Tower Ridge. Either we were too late to see them or the wild conditions had encouraged most people to head for lower slopes. Without further ado, we headed back down, skipping past people who were spike-less, until we were back at the car and on our way home from another lovely trip out.

It was once we were down, and popping into Fort William for a bit of food shopping, that Kirsten mentioned the helicopter. It’s never a good sign around here, especially when the weather is so foul and the darkness starting to close in.

And sure enough, as the hours went by, the tragedy in Glencoe unfolded. A party of six experienced winter climbers had been avalanched off Bidean nam Bian, the rescue services were out and there was already talk of casualties.

In due course, it emerged that one of them had survived with no injuries by flinging himself out of the way and he had raised the alarm. Another climber had been taken to the hospital with serious injuries but, with no news of the other four, you feared the worst. And indeed, that’s how it proved to be. Four adventurous young people swept to their deaths, in the wrong place at the wrong time, but doing what they loved.

And then, over the weekend, I also found out that a friend of mine from the Midlands had broken her leg whilst out running in the Brecon Beacons and had had to be rescued by Mountain Rescue in far from ideal conditions. They shipped her off to hospital where I understand she’s now waiting for an op on a broken tibia and fibula....ouch!

Both of these events demonstrate the fine line we tread when we pursue the activities we do. In both cases, everyone was adequately equipped and suitably experienced. In both cases, through no “fault” of their own, they’ve ended up in dangerous situations. And the fact is, as fellrunners and mountaineers, it could be any one of us at any time. Does that mean we don’t do it anymore and we find more sedate activities? No, of course it doesn’t since, as well as being an ever-present danger, it’s also one of the attractions to what we do.

And that lead me on to thinking “how far would you go?”. Just how far would you push yourself to achieve something important to you? What level of danger would you put yourself in? What level of assistance would you accept? And how single-minded would you be?

I think the truth is that we would all, for the “right” goal, push ourselves a long way. Hopefully we’d know when to stop, but I suspect most of us have tales of days when we’ve pushed ourselves beyond our limits and have been “lucky” to emerge unscathed at the other end. That may be days when the conditions were bad, days when we weren’t up to it, days when we weren’t quite ready for the route we chose. But the fact remains, we’ve all been there and lived to tell the tale.

Certainly, those are all relevant questions when it comes to a Bob Graham round. Just how far would you push yourself? The answer is to the limit and beyond. Truthfully, way beyond what the body should have to physically endure. What level of danger would you put yourself in? I’ve seen rounds where the contender has been taken off the hills with near-hypothermia. I’ve seen runners (and their support) inadequately dressed or equipped for the hills. What level of assistance would you accept? Well, there’s a question! Much debate goes on about how much assistance you should have, how many people should accompany you, whether an unsupported round isn’t much more pure, what exactly is an unsupported round. The fact of the matter is that, for many, it becomes such an obsession to complete the round that, I venture to suggest, they’d take every last piece of assistance that was offered. And single-minded? Week after week of constant training, every session with a purpose as part of the bigger goal. Every weekend spent in the hills, evenings spent trying to get some ascent in, a training plan that must be adhered to, schedules to tweak and test, support to muster and organise, the big day to prepare for. It’s very single-minded.

And why is this all relevant? 

The past week has seen a lot of pontificating, lecturing, posturing, analysing and dissection of the Lance Armstrong situation. Mostly, it’s fair to say, from people who like the sound of their own voices and can’t wait to condemn the individual rather than look at the overall picture.

The stakes are so high in top-class sport, the rewards so enormous, the pressure from team managers, sponsors, funders etc so huge that I find it unlikely that any modern-day top class sport is not blighted by some kind of artificial assistance that could be classed as “cheating”, whether that be the use of banned substances or the use of foul tactics.

The fact of the matter is that the use of drugs in cycling has been going on for many, many years and, in some cases, riders who clearly took drugs are regarded as heroes, whereas others are regarded as pariahs.

For sure, during Armstrong’s time at the top, pretty much everyone was doping. In such circumstances, the bottom line is that you wouldn't be unable to compete without following that course of action. What you can’t take away is the fact that, at a time when every rider was using artificial assistance, Armstrong was still the best of them. You still have to work phenomenally hard and be incredibly dedicated to ride at the level he did. To deny this is akin to the divorcee who tries to remove every trace of their ex from the history of their lives. Like it or not, Armstrong was a “valid” champion. He was single-minded, he did what had to be done to be a champion and he was prepared to push every inch of the way to get there.

What can’t be condoned or swept under the carpet is the terrible disservice that Armstrong has done to innocent people along the way, whose names and reputations have been sullied, whose lives have potentially been destroyed by his actions and his words. It’s a terrible character flaw and some have suggested that the recent interview shows he has no remorse for what he did. I’d suggest otherwise. He’s been living a lie for so long, it must have become normality to him. He must have regarded himself as invincible in the same way that a lot of modern, overpaid footballers do – above the law, indeed a law unto themselves.

In those circumstances, with the breakdown and unravelling of all he knew over the last few months, this must be a very confusing time and one which I imagine he is struggling to make sense of. A man who has made a living out of denial is not going to suddenly be able to “come clean” and feel (and demonstrate) all the right emotions. It will be interesting to see what happens over time and how he adapts. What it clearly does demonstrate is that, whilst he may be an incredible, elite athlete, he’s a man with problems and deep flaws in his character. And why wouldn’t he have? He is, after all, only a human being like the rest of us.

And this is where my train of thought guided me in the end – why is it that people expect their “heroes” to be perfect human beings? How did people get to their 30s, 40s and older without realising the undeniable truth that, to get to the top in a given profession, there’s a fair chance you’re not the most likeable person in all situations. But, beyond that, why should that matter when assessing their achievements?

I’m not sure at what stage I worked it out. To be honest, there was never one clear, revelatory moment. The truth emerged over the years, from being told to “fuck off” by two prominent England cricketers when I asked for their autographs in 1978, through tales of drunken irresponsible behaviour by footballers, athletes who would trample on the careers of others to reach the top, climbers who walk past dying colleagues in order to summit, to a footballer who came to my team as a hero and left having dismantled the club over the course of two years of drinking, gambling and addiction.  I admire the sporting ability that these people have shown but that doesn’t lead me to think of them as great people.

And, perhaps, there lies the truth about why people do try to put them on a pedestal, worship their every move, copy their behaviour and then be disgusted when they meet their all-too-familiar downfall: in a world where so much of society and community has broken down, people are looking hard for heroes, role models whose lives they can aspire to and whose actions they can imitate, thereby making them better people. But they’re looking in the wrong places.

I look closer to home and beneath the headlines for my “heroes. I find much to admire in them but also accept the flaws that they (we all!) have in their characters.

My heroes are the men and women who headed out into the bleak mountains on a darkening Saturday afternoon (for no motive other than the wish to help others), to recover bodies from the snow, or to rescue a stricken fellrunner who might otherwise have succumbed to the conditions.

My heroes are the men and women who take to the hills week in, week out for no glory other than the glory of being out there in wonderful places which teach us much about the human condition and how tiny we are in the grand scheme of things.

My heroes are the folk who turn up to fell races every week, give it their all and exchange banter, smiles and enthusiasm even though they’ll never feature even in the top half of the results.

My heroes are the ones who do finish at the front end of the field, and yet still have time for the likes of me, keen to impart their skill, knowledge and passion for what they do but just as happy to hear about my race.

My heroes are the people I know I can turn to when the chips are down, who support and love me through thick and thin and who provide that unconditionally.

And my hero is the person who introduced me to the hills at a young age, who taught me about enjoyment of the wild places, who exposed me to the “danger” and “risk” that we face each day in the mountains and who guided me into a lifetime of thrilling adventures.

Look in the right places for your heroes and you’ll surely find them.

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