Celtic Illumination, part 107, Moses and me
Now that I had successfully climbed the three peaks, Ben Nevis, Scafell Pike and Snowdon, and done so at a pace, I was encouraged to consider attempting the three peaks challenge as I had a good idea what it would involve. Normally two people would attempt it together, providing each other with support throughout, but there would be a third person who would be the backup and driver. So all you had to do was complete the peaks, someone else did the driving and cooking.
It was a very competitive environment. I think the first person you would challenge would be yourself, to see if you could actually complete the task. Some aspects were beyond your control. For example a car crash could block your route, or even a personal injury could scupper your chances. So it was something at the back of your mind as you were aware that it could take two, if not more, attempts. There were many challenges happening. The one with the widest appeal was the military peaks challenge in North Wales. This constantly changed and evolved, so you could never say it was the three peaks, or the four peaks, or whatever.
The only constant that you could be sure of is that many regiments and military units would compete year after year and suddenly you realised that there were a lot of seriously fit people out there. Valley mountain rescue would normally provide the marshals along the route each year. We could enter a team to compete, but we also sent the final team along the route to pick up any injuries or stragglers and to bring our check point guys off.
I remember my first year with the race. I was part of the clear up team and so waited at the start point watching all the other teams depart. I watched ten Paratroopers lined up, growling and groaning and showing how serious they were about the challenge. There were ten men all called Mister Smith, the Special Air Service from Hereford and ten men calling themselves Mister Jones from the Special Boat Squadron at Poole.
We once had a lecture from a Mister Smith of Hereford, who began his talk on survival with a brief history of the SAS. He explained how when they were formed, the men wanted to learn how to creep up on a guard and disable them. They used .22 calibre weapons and covered their faces with fencing masks to protect themselves. The following day we decided that we should try this, but without the masks, one because we had none and two because we were not girls. Rick Mewes and I faced off. I had an air pistol and Rick an air rifle. After a few brief encounters I couldn’t find Rick and surmised that I had won. I had won, but Rick had withdrawn to the safety of the medical centre to get the pellet taken out of his cheek.
I was impressed with all the raw muscles on show but one team lined up and initially I smirked at them for they were little fellows. Ghurkhas. They lined up two by two and I wondered how on earth they even would consider catching up, never mind beating, the muscle of the Paratroopers. As they hit the slope and began to climb they maintained their formation. There was no screaming or shouting they maintained a dignified and disciplined approach. All I had to do was consider where they came from, and everything became clear.
It was nice not to have to sleep in the corners of the tent anymore and to be allowed to travel in the passenger seat on any vehicle, and not in the rear with the bags. My first time out with the team was to my favourite base camp which was outside Capel Curig. I just loved that spot; I don’t know why, it just felt right. I came out of my tent to find that most of the orders had been given out for the day. Roger was taking the trialists and Novices up Moel Siabod for a bimble. Jack was taking the main team to a rock face for a special exercise. From the way the senior men were acting I could tell that this was very serious and very important.
For any situation that was mentioned to you, the approach you would have learned in training, ran through your mind. If two or three or more techniques were involved then you simply added them together, like pieces of Lego.
Jack explained that 22 squadron wanted to practise lifting a stretcher off a cliff face. This time the stretcher would contain two people. For hypothermia exercises the casualty was put into a sleeping bag and one of us would strip off and get in beside them to pass over body warmth. So this would mean that the winch cable would be lowered to us, there would be no winch man. We would have to attach and release the stretcher and then the rest was up to 22 squadron.
I could see that lowering a stretcher, holding two people, over a cliff and then holding it mid descent waiting for 22 squadron, would present problems, but this was the practical nature of the job, which I loved. The senior men discussed what equipment we should take and a pile began to grow. I was allowed to take the huge angle iron metal tent pegs which we would use for belay points, if there were no features that were close enough or suitable. I was also allowed to carry the hammer with which we would secure the tent pegs If they were needed.
It might have been easier to get a removals truck to get us up the mountain but we managed it, and once again the senior men began potting and planning and preparing for the exercise. Two very experienced men were detailed to lower the stretcher and handoff to the helicopter, two more were detailed to abseil alongside them and provide support if needed. I think there were about three on top who were detailed to begin sourcing and fixing belay points, so I was relieved of my tent pegs and hammer. The stretcher was assembled and a sleeping bag laid on top. Jack was well away from us trying to get a clear signal with which he could communicate with Valley and 22 squadron.
As he came back to us he was checking his watch and looking about.
“Right,” he said. “I want you,” here he was pointing at me. “I want you as one of the casualties.” And he was looking about for the other casualty or person that would be on the stretcher. “Hold on,” he said, as his radio crackled and he began to walk away again. Although he did pause, turn and point at me. “You’re the team member, so strip off and get in a sleeping bag, on top of that stretcher.”
I sat down and took my boots off. In a way this was a little bit of a bonus, for I would be flown back to Valley and could have a good rest on my pit, before the main body of the team got back. I decided that as a breather was being offered I would be a mug not to accept it. I stripped off to my underpants and slipped inside the sleeping bag and lay back on the stretcher.
It appeared that the stretcher was in the way of the guys preparing the ropes so they lifted me and moved me around. I was just getting comfortable when I wondered why I was being strapped in to the stretcher. Suddenly the team were standing around me and I felt like someone who wakes up on an operating table. I got the impression that something different, to what I was expecting, was about to happen. Two guys lay on my lower body so that I couldn’t move. My arms were pulled out and each arm was tied to a well hammered in tent peg.
The stretcher was taken away, as was the sleeping bag, and each leg was now tied to a tent peg and I promise you these guys can tie knots. Not only had I been had, but I’d been made to carry the fecking equipment they used. But they were not finished. This lot should have been given Oscars, for not one of them had been doing anything, they had all been pretending. As they all put their rucksacks on, Tom Pritchard came over and produced a knife.
“This,” he said, with what would appear to be great satisfaction. “Is for putting that fecking sheep in the tent!” He cut my shreddies off. In the forces we referred to underpants, as shreddies, for most fellows would agree that their most comfortable pair of underpants would look as if they had been through a shredder. And there they left me, spread eagled, naked and tied to a mountain. They disappeared and I was on my own.
At one point I heard footsteps and thought my ordeal was over but it was just one lone chap who wandered past and said hello, as was the custom on the hill. They had descended below my line of sight and advised anyone approaching as to what was happening. This fellow was in on their joke and so hadn’t made any other comment on my predicament. They only left me there for about twenty minutes, before they came back, released me and allowed me to get some clothes on and perhaps, in almost a biblical way, come back down off the mountain a different person.