Last weekend, the short-listed International Scott Centenary Expedition 2012 (ISCE) competition candidates were set a hill-walking challenge, so I hopped on the first Friday train to Plymouth. We’d been given few details except to ‘expect the unexpected’, to pack a survival bag and ‘no cotton underwear’, so duly prepared, I turned up at the ISCE office.
Our own gear was supplemented with kit generously lent to us by the Royal Navy, which we each packed in 80 litre rucksacks. Ominously, no tents. We were told that we’d be on our feet for the next 36 hours, and with that to chew on were driven to Dartmoor. Of the ten of us, only six could make it to this training/selection event due to personal commitments. The ISCE expedition leader Antony Jinman was our trainer and assessor. Our aim for the weekend was to walk 65 km.
Dartmoor has a kaleidoscope of terrains. Antony was determined that we see them all, so at some point our boots were stuck in peaty bogs, stamping down grassy fields, splashing across cool streams and leets, or scrabbling up rocky tors (granite outcrops). The aim was to approximate polar sledging conditions, so the bumpier the terrain the closer the match, and with 18 kg strapped to our backs, we were working the same muscles as would a person man-hauling a sledge (i.e. the chest and legs).
Picture credit: Chris Gosling
We did 1 or 1½ hour legs at a plodding pace. In our 10 minute rest breaks, we’d hectically collect stream water to purify, graze on nuts, rehydrate, tape up blister ‘hot spots’, look out for signs of the ‘umbles (grumbles, fumbles, stumbles...) and plot our course for the next leg. We were encouraged to navigate by linear features rather than with compass bearings, and it was interesting to trust our navigational intuitions in this way, rather than be slaves to the North-point.
We travelled in a loose peloton, each person shooting forward or dropping back, as one pleased. This gave conversation a nice and casual scrappiness. In the end, we did stop to sleep both nights, stringing up ponchos for cover, and burrowing in feather-down bivvy bags. It struck me how malleable and ductile time felt over the weekend: some legs drew out like a last wobbly milk tooth, but others just whizzed by. A lot has been written about the self-reflective, ‘inner travel’ of the polar explorer, and the weekend gave a keen glimpse into that, because in quiet moments my mind would fly off and alight on various and unexpected things: had I double-locked my front door; should I tell my friend what I really think of his wife; how should I spend my life?
Our first night's camp site - like something out of a Midsummer Night's Dream (picture credit: Chris Gosling)
It reminded me of the twinned ancient Greek concepts of chronos and kairos. Both are words for time, but with vividly different flavours. Chronos is everyday, chronological time – the stuff of train timetables and setting the alarm clock. Meanwhile, kairos is ‘deep time’, where time itself seems to yawn open and moments of clarity fizz up. When we were boiling our rations, we were definitely thinking along chronos lines, but maybe the stretches of hiking quietude were better marked with a creative kairos. It’s either that, or my electrolyte levels were dipping!
Picture credit: Chris Gosling
I learnt how a metronomic rigidity with practiced drills (e.g. starting walking after ten minutes’ rest no matter what) helps progress and that even minor encouragement can perk a person up. I also felt the satisfaction of the Brave Little Tailor (http://bit.ly/r7oyzc)every time I put on sunblock, since I’d see midge jam in my palms. All in all, it was a fascinating and fun weekend, and I can’t wait to see what happens next.