Mountain Madness - By Corinna Leenen
Mad – that’s the typical adjective most people choose when I tell them about my new expedition. They will listen for a while but are primarily eager to get in a second-hand anecdote of a climber who died or a story they heard of a recent polar bear attack. Attempts to go through the detailed risk assessments and give a reality check to the horror stories are usually met by patronising smiles. You shouldn’t have asked the question, then, I think; you know expeditions are what I do.
I am not pretending to be Ranulph Fiennes, self-proclaimed ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ adventurer. But madness is relative. For this sports-hating schoolgirl who’s never touched skis before, it certainly brinks on madness to sign up to a 150-mile crossing of a polar plateau, dragging a 20kg pulk and cursing my own ambition. That was in February. Now I’m ready for the next big thing.
Madness seems to be a common thread in adventure – it will get you more funding, more exposure, more people buying your books.
As I write, there are runners in the Lake District attempting to crack the 24-hour 42-summit 66-mile Bob Graham Round. They started at 1 a.m, and I imagine they are somewhere high on the Helvellyn range, struggling. They literally have Everest to climb.
There are people running for six days across the Atacama Desert in Chile. Not only do they run the 150 miles in one of the driest and hottest places in the world, they also have to carry all their food and equipment.
People are setting out on challenges for various charities, rowing across the ocean (good luck, Kelda Wood), surviving in the most inhospitable environments, opening up new lines in distant mountain ranges, swimming in the harshest conditions on earth to raise awareness for how fragile our oceans are.
Expedition dreams live in your head for a while – and the moment you decide to talk about them to others is when they become real.
The first time I talked about this mad challenge I signed up to was in a bothy somewhere in the north-west of Scotland. We were there to do some munros and had already become territorial about ‘our’ bothy. An engineer from Inverness and a homeless-shelter worker from Glasgow arrived in spite of our claims of ownership and spent a happy boozy night with us. We listened to the hair-raising tale of their Aonach Eagach Ridge crossing – a well-rehearsed story which included a backpack being thrown off the ridge in unfortunate miscalculation and a late twist towards a happy ending. My friends chipped in on the evening’s entertainment with sound local knowledge of most bothies and munros in Scotland.
I asked if they had heard of the Moroccan Bob Graham round, or Berber Ridge. They hadn’t. In fact, one of them hadn’t even heard of the Bob Graham round, so I explained the concept of the famed Lake District challenge – a traverse of 42 Lakeland fells within 24 hours. The Round is held in high regards in the Lakes, with a history record going back to the mid-19th century to mark the first recorded long-distance Round in the Lake District. Linking together as many high f mountains as possible seems to have been popular for well over a couple of hundred years.
I tried not to sound too boastful as I listed the numbers for the Moroccan Bob Graham: 30 peaks above 3,000m and nine 4,000m peaks to be traversed in eight days. Even to my ears this now sounded mad.
Eight days will see me high up on the ridge line, sweating in the heat and dust and looking out towards the Sahara and sharp ridges bobbing and weaving their way across the horizon. The prospect of staying high for long and not losing hard-won height is part of what convinced me to sign up. After a miserable mountain day trudging up a hill in the Lake District and walking straight back down, I confessed to myself that the view from the top simply wasn’t enough anymore. I decided that from now on, I would not climb any mountain unless it was for the purpose of getting to a rock climb, a scramble, or running or skiing off the top. Jebel Toubkal, Africa’s highest mountain, isn’t the main objective on this expedition, but rather a happy coincidental stop on a longer journey. All the climbers who have come up the main route to the summit and turn back down again will seem like a different species. I, surrounded by my own special group of people, will close the zipper of my bivvy bag with a wry smile, knowing that I have access to adventures they have not.
Bivving means freedom from the usual schedule of the mountain. The normal acclimatisation routine and summit push allow only for a short time window on the summit. To us, the summit will be ours alone. The culture shock of Marrakech will accentuate the feeling of remoteness and freedom on the ridge. Remoteness also comes from the Atlas being surrounded by the desert. I wonder what it will be like to stay high for that long, to sleep under the amazing starry skies of an unpolluted night, and if I can sense the presence of the desert through strong winds, heat on my face and dust in my drink.
I also wonder how I will cope physically. The ridge is a scramble for most parts, easing us in with a Grade 1 at the start, but ending with Grade 3 terrain.
It is serious. Probably as serious as saw-toothed Sgùrr nan Gillean towering above the entrance to Coire Bhasteir and the deep corries and serrated, pinnacle crest of the Cuillin Ridge. But I still have five months left to prepare and get ready.
For a lot of people the life of an adventurer is the dream. We see their sunrise posts on Instagram, with gas-burning coffee pots at high altitude, overlooking glacier-carved valleys. We wonder – how can they afford this, do they not have normal lives? Do they train day and night?
I realised that I don’t have to be Ranulph Fiennes or Emelie Forsberg or Hazel Findlay. I don’t have to ski everyday or live in my van. It’s OK to do an adventure and then be ‘normal’ for a while.
The Berber Ridge will be an extremely hard challenge, but I’m prepared to see where madness can take me.
The expedition is led by Exped Adventure and runs in October 2017.
For more information, visit: expedadventure.com
Any questions or enquiries,
or call 07854 197584 (01539 822967).