Thursday, 22 August 2013

Diary of a Trail Scout

There is something about mountains that moves my soul. Just the sight of them towering high above the valleys below, arouses in me a million emotions, endless questions, and a strong sense of spiritual awareness.
Mont Blanc from Chamonix

They make me think, a lot… Of why I am here?  Of why things happen in life over which we have no control? Of what happens to us when we die, and where Gareth is now? Of whether he knows what I’m doing, how much I miss him, and how often he’s in my thoughts?

The mighty Matterhorn
Most of the very best, most perfect days of my life so far have been spent in the mountains, and so they conjure up memories too, of happy days sharing adventures of one kind or another. From the joy of reaching the summit of a high peak, far above the rest of the world below, quiet nights watching the stars under clear black velvet skies, to sharing a magnificent view of the sun setting below a horizon of distant peaks, and long alpine days where you collapse back at base, exhausted from the fresh air and exertion, but with a feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment, knowing that first beer will never have tasted so good. Those same memories can on some days though, bring on the heavy veil of sadness, that since I lost Gareth, is never far away. Sadness that there should have been so many more of those special days and experiences shared in the mountains as we grew older together, and sorrow, that the other person who is part of those memories, is no longer here to remember them with…

Gareth perched atop the Northwest face of Half Dome, Yosemite
I know I’m not the first and won’t be the last to try and explain why mountains hold such an allure and fascination for me. There are countless famous mountaineers, mountain lovers, writers and poets who have tried to do just that, and explain the irresistible draw that we feel towards them. But I think it’s different for all of us.
Climbing in the Aiguilles Rouges with Alison, enjoying the spectacular view of the Mont Blanc range behind.
They make me feel insignificant and vulnerable, just like looking at stars in a clear mountain sky at night can make your whole existence feel incredibly tiny and inconsequential. They have stood there for millions of years, through the passage of time, being shaped by the elements, quietly observing the coming and going of life. I can’t actually even really get my head around it…their immensity, age, and presence on the planet is too big a notion to comprehend for me. But I do know that it draws me even more to them, makes them seem even more silently majestic and beautiful, and to feel very privileged to spend time amongst them. I think I love going to the mountains not because I want to conquer them, but to immerse myself in their grandeur, to revitalise my soul, and to escape…

Being in the mountains allows me to feel…without the need to question what I’m feeling, and that leads to a sense of freedom that it’s hard to find in many places. To feel the refreshing breeze gently cooling your face after a long uphill effort. To feel the exhilaration of flying down a difficult, technical descent, and the mind-absorbing task of staying on your bike through rock gardens and steep loose terrain. To feel the sun warm on your body as you lie in an alpine meadow of beautiful multi-coloured flowers, with butterflies dancing around you. To feel satisfaction at having climbed to a place where only a lucky few have been before. To feel the cool, fresh sensation of rain drenching you to the bone in a summer downpour. To hear the awesome power of nature summed up in a gigantic roll of thunder that seems to rip the sky in half, and then echo for an age down the valley below, causing a quickening in pace to escape to the safety of that same valley. 

One of many fantastic trails I've ridden this summer, perched high on the mountain side
To feel unbelievably alive as you reach the bottom of a dangerously exposed trail, where you have ridden a fine line between safety and danger. To hear nothing but the sound of the wind rustling leaves, a quietly flowing stream, insects chirping rhythmically, and the sound of your own breathing. How many places are there in the world where you can actually escape to, to appreciate that kind of silence and tranquillity? Despite the sometimes dangerous games I choose to play in them, there is nowhere more calming for me, than sitting on a mountain side, high above the rest of the world, simply being.
Lying on a grassy mountain top, watching the clouds go by.
Any stresses, worries, or anxieties start to melt away, time slows down, you can appreciate the things that so many people never take time to. I can think clearly and rationally, I can find a sense of peace and acceptance of life, of all that has happened, and all that might happen, and know that somehow, as long as I can keep spending time in the mountains, I will be able to cope.

So, you might wonder why I’ve come over all philosophical, but it’s because for the last 3 weeks, I’ve been fortunate enough to have the opportunity to be here in the beautiful mountains of the Maritime alps, working, but on my own, and with the opportunity for lots of time to think and reflect.

After a couple of fun and relaxing weeks in the hot and sunny Ardeche with Jo, Simon, Jonny, Ellie and Jessie; including a bit of climbing (before it got too hot each day!), lots of swimming in the river and lounging on sun rock, plenty of beach bbqs, and consuming vast quantities of cheese and wine, it was time to head back here for some work.

Lazy afternoons by the river....never a dull moment with "Team Chaos" aka Ellie and Jessie!

Pizza night in the Ardeche :)

“Here” will remain a secret location for the moment as the trip has yet to be announced and I’m sworn to secrecy about where the trails are that I’m riding. But I’m basically spending 3 weeks scouting and recceing trails for a new week-long trip that will start next July. My job each day involves looking at one of the 6 maps of the area the trip is covering, spotting a trail that looks like it might be worth scouting, or having heard through local knowledge that it is good, and going and riding it to make a decision on whether it makes the cut or not! It’s hard to believe I’m being paid to do this J
High in the Maritime Alps, Destination X ;)
However, as fun as it sounds, it hasn’t all been easy…
Although I have ridden some incredible trails that have left me feeling pretty lucky to have discovered them, there have also been plenty where I have pushed, pedalled and carried for hours, only to find an overgrown, boulder strewn, totally unrideable trail…which I have then had to spend the rest of the day pushing down, swearing as I bushwhack through jungles of the spikiest thorn bushes known to man, and emerging with every ounce of visible skin ripped to shreds, or teetering precariously on a too-narrow ledge where the path has collapsed, bike in one hand, the other gripping onto the rope/chain/wire/whatever has been placed to pull oneself across an infinite abyss below. In fact, for every great trail found, there are probably 4 or 5 rubbish ones. I have never spent as much time taking my bike for a walk as I have in these few weeks! It is a very rewarding job, but at times intensely frustrating. There are trails that look like they must be amazing on paper, a good gradient, following features such as ridgelines or traversing the side of canyons, but on the ground they just don’t make for a fun trail. But that’s all just part of the job…not every path you explore will be a piece of trail riding gold….and when you do find one….all the rubbish ones are instantly forgotten! There are a few that I will be smiling about until I get to guide guests on them next year! I have certainly had a few adventures! J.

This one was a good find!
Logistically, doing this on your own can be challenging too. The trails I am looking for have a strong emphasis on minimal climbing, for maximum descending, as in the trip, we’ll have the use of shuttles. However, on my own, that either means pedalling up a loooong way at the start or end of the day, or doing some nifty logistics of leaving the bike at the top, driving to the bottom and leaving the van, then hitching back up.

Mountain traffic jam
I’ve done a mixture of both. The pedalling is hard, not least because climbing up a switchback alpine road for over 1000m of altitude gain, on a full suspension bike with 2.5 inch tyres, in the sweltering heat of the south of France in high summer, is a massive slog! The hitching in comparison is fun! I guess being a blonde female on my own helps (hee hee!)  but I’ve not had to wait more than 5 minutes for a ride yet, and I’ve met a lot of really nice people who have had the pleasure and amusement of me having a conversation in French with them. I even got invited for an amazing lunch in a beautiful mountain chalet of one family who gave me a lift! It’s actually been a great way to really practise my French. I haven’t seen or spoken to an English person in the whole 3 weeks, there aren’t any here! So I’m forced to speak French or I wouldn’t speak at all! It’s nice to now feel I’m at the point, where although it’s not perfect grammatically, I can hold a conversation for a good length of time on a whole load of random things, and I’m constantly learning new words and phrases.

It’s nice having had some time on my own too. Although I wish Gareth was here, as I’d have preferred his company on these adventures to being alone, there aren’t a lot of other people I can think of who I would want to have spent 3 weeks here with.

I spy an amazing trail...
That can have it’s downsides too though…you definitely ride a little more cautiously when alone in the mountains, especially on little used routes, far from the help of others should anything happen. I’ve had a system of telling Ash my planned route for the following day the night before, and then a text to Emily each evening to say I’m back safely. I haven’t really felt afraid at any points....I actually love the feeling of being alone in the mountains, it’s an incredible feeling of remoteness, wilderness and adventure. If there are sections that are too committing or difficult to ride, I get off and push, after all, no-one can see me anyway so I don’t feel bad about it!

Remote, wild, beautiful
But last week, feeling tired from over a week of riding long hot days, I had a crash. It was one of those totally unexpected ones, on a relatively easy flowing section of trail, which made it worse as I was going pretty fast, and I was absolutely in the middle of nowhere. Maybe my concentration was a bit off as I was tired, but my front wheel came too close to the edge of a narrow section of singletrack, dropped off the side, jack-knifing the wheel and throwing me over the bars, to land on my side, skidding along the gravel trail. I can’t believe I got away as lightly as I did…some painful gravel rash and skin loss all along my right arm, a (still) painful hip and shoulder, and a sprained thumb. I sat on the side of the trail after the crash, feeling pretty shaken, and suddenly very aware that I was a long way from help, on my own. It was one of those occasions where I just wanted to call Gareth, tell him what had happened, simply to hear his voice calming me down. There isn’t anyone now that I wanted to call, so I sat and cried a bit because everything hurt, I was feeling pretty sorry for myself, and because no-one was around to see me.

Just as I was sticking dressings to the bits of my arm that were leaking blood on the trail, and very randomly given I hadn’t seen anyone else on any of the trails I’d been on all week, I heard the sound of bike tyres on gravel, and turned to see another mountain biker approaching! He kindly stopped to check I was ok, and seemed as surprised to see me as I was him. We ended up chatting for 20 minutes or so, about bikes (he was on a Specialized Stumpy Evo too....good taste J) and trails, and he then proceeded to show me on the map loads of good trails to try. Perhaps the crash was a blessing in disguise? Anyway, we rode together for a couple of kms, until he turned onto a different trail, and it was enough to give me back a bit of the confidence I’d lost in the crash.

The following day I crashed again, ripping open a big split in my shin, immediately rushed upon by hundreds of flies…lovely. I decided it was probably time for a day off.
Injuries: an unfortunate part of the game!
For some reason, maybe the crashing and the fatigue, or being away from anyone I know for a while, I felt really down for the next couple of days. Despite being on my bike, in a beautiful place, doing something I love, it just hit me again, for the first time in a while, how much I miss Gareth and his huge presence in my everyday life. There’s not a lot I can do when I feel as down as that, and I guess it’s the first time in a while I’ve been on my own, and not had to be busy thinking of other people to take my mind off it. The best solution is normally a lengthy amount of crying, until I run out of tears, and thinking of any number of incredible memories of perfect days and moments spent together…I guess that’s what got me thinking about mountains..

Anyway, I’m doing ok again now, I know Gareth would be really proud of what I’ve done this summer and happy to see me enjoying life again here in the mountains. I definitely feel like he’s looking out for me somewhere near whenever I need him too….there’s no way I should have got away without breaking any bones in my last crash ;)

It’s back to guiding for a few weeks at the weekend. As much as it’s been brilliant trail-scouting, I’m looking forward to knowing that I’m going to be riding Amaaaaazing trails every day again…whoop!

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