Friday, 24 January 2014

The Winter Fan Dance Event - The "If you're going thru Hell, keep going" Edition

Here we are, at the red phone box once more, huddled together with friends, a group of people that have become more important to me and the collective than I or we (at a guess) ever dare imagined - once again we are there to take on the infamous Fan Dance, having a giggle and only looking forward to what tortures lay ahead. Ever since last winter when due to the weather, I made the decision not to travel, not taking part in that event has eaten away at me. I'd feared I'd missed out on the true SF challenge, the pictures and the stories, had told me so, which meant I'd missed out on a nod from my brother to say "well done bro, you've done it, rest easy!" But here we were.

The Summer Edition allayed some of those demons, but once again the weather played it's part and the imposed conditions, due to the tragic events the week before, meant the additional weight requirements were even more torturous, but necessary. Thankfully I was able to lay my tribute to Lloydy and know come the finish I'd given my all in his memory, but again the pull of the winter event was strong, and those niggles from not taking part remained.


Lloydy had completed the hills phase of selection in the winter and I guess for me that would be the biggest tribute I could make, which was why, missing out last year was such a difficult pill to swallow. The months building up to this year’s Winter event were spent between wishing for conditions challenging enough whilst out on the Fan, but easy enough to get there. I didn't care about conditions on the Fan, I would take or even revel in what it would throw at me. What I didn't want to be faced with was, having to make a decision about travelling again and then the regret that goes with that, if the conditions force a decision I didn't want to make.

What I hoped for was to get Caroline and Charlie to Nant Ddu safely on the Friday, then wake up Saturday morning to see the Fan glistening white as the sunrise broke across its spine. In short I hoped as I guess most did including the DS, considering all the calls to God they made, for last year’s conditions without the chaos of fighting to get to the start line.

That had been the challenge last year, getting to the start line and I'd failed, it didn't sit easy with me. So come Saturday morning I couldn't help but be excited that finally after a very long year waiting I was about to lay those demons to rest. However we didn't wake to range of mountains covered in a white blanket, what we faced would come the end of the event, be considered perhaps, even more brutal than the Winter gone.

We arrived in Brecon Friday afternoon, after calling in at Hereford to have a chat with Lloydy, the conversations are obviously just a little one sided nowadays, I just hoped he was listening. Just as we got out of the car at Nant Ddu we were greeted by Tim, Tim has been on this journey with me since the build up to Catterick, and has become family, to see his face as we arrived was a special moment. As we were saying our hellos and introducing Tim to Charlie, we were greeted by Rob Paine and his other half Clare, they'd just arrived too.

All checked in, kit squared away and little man's kit sorted, Tim and I get ourselves up to The Storey Arms to register. As we got out the car and began to walk across the A470 to the Centre I spotted The "Bear" and before long it was a series of hellos and greetings of friends, Darren Hutchings, Adam Linehan, Matt Walby, Jim Davenport and Miss Munday, sadly there was no sign of the ghost though! The grins stretched from ear to ear and was mirrored in every one of my friends faces. Tim and I registered, got our bergens weighed in and of course it wasn't long before the banter began to flow, the excitement was palpable and if it could have been bagged up, it would have lit the way on a night tab for weeks! The excitement was evidently spreading through everyone that was crammed in the Centre either registering, trying to get to their bunks or getting Ken to sign his book. Tim and I got the chance to have a little chat with Ken and get some goodies, before the chaos of the increasing flow of Fan Dancers became too much and we headed back to Nant Ddu.

Dinner was taken early so that Caroline and I could settle Charlie and try and keep him in his routine as much as possible. We sat down to dinner with Tim, Rob and Clare as more of the gang arrived, Skipper with his wife Annette and daughter Poppy and Limby and Diane. After dinner I took the little man up to the main bar and introduced Charlie to the boys up there, before taking him back with Caz to settle him and then rejoining them for some laughs and a Guiness. Come 2230 goodnights had been offered, and the boys staying at the centre headed off, and those of us staying at Nant Ddu made our way back to our rooms. Warning order was given for 0730 by Tims car, hopefully the little man would sleep well, and afford me some decent rest.

The alarm went off @ 0615, little man had slept like a log all night and stayed that way despite my best efforts to disturb him, whilst trying not to disturb him and whilst I was getting myself sorted, fed and my kit ready. I on the other hand hadn't slept that well, the excitement and the anticipation of the day and challenge ahead had meant that I was completely wired. Skipper was already outside when I went to the car to get my Bergen, he had a big smile on his face as normal, and almost gleefully admitted to not being 'very popular', I don't think due to the excitement that he'd got much sleep either! Tim, myself and Skipper did a final kit check in the bar before loading the bergens in to Tim's rental and off we set. In the relative shelter of the little valley that Nant Ddu sits, we couldn't anticipate the wind that greeted us as we bundled out of the car at The Storey Arms. We hadn't been standing around that long sorting at the boot of Tim's car when we were greeted by Waldorf and Statler (the Brothers Massey), they'd bedded down for the night in Marks van. Just in those few moments chatting and faffing with numbers the wind was already biting and gusting strongly, giving an early indication of what was to come.

We assembled together at the centre and I got to meet Kate and Jamie properly for the first time, and got to see Gerald and Matty L for the first time that day. Also after going AWOL the night before Limby arrived with the collies, chomping at the bit and raring to go - God knows what must have been in his Gurkha curry! As the time to get going drew closer we huddled closer and closer to the red phone box, the atmosphere was buzzing with excitement and everywhere you looked were smiles and grins and leg pulling aplenty. The usual pre-race briefing from Ken was met with silence trying to listen to him, but his voice seemed to get carried away on the strengthening wind and got lost before reaching most of, what looked like a record number of Tabbers, certainly a far greater number than had assembled for the Summer event. Briefing complete we all followed back onto the path to begin the march and were greeted with the customary 'GO!'

The larger group meant that the climb up from A470 was slower than normal especially for those who like me who had got stuck in the pack, those at the front had probably managed to get away quite well, but even by the time we'd reached the first kissing gate, there was a large queue forming to get through. The climb up from the phone box has been kinder to me of late, maybe the training and the additional recces really have made a difference but by the time I was half way up the ascent towards Corn Du I was already struggling with my demons, of all the difficulties faced out on that route it’s that ascent that hits me the hardest. Whether it’s just a combination of such an ascent so early on and my parts not quite ready to work, or just the quad strength I’ve lost from not playing competitive sport any more, I don’t know, but so early on, I’m already asking serious questions of myself. I tell myself once I get to the Fan, I’m home and dry, a ridiculous logic I know but those first two and half miles are hell for me. I know what I have to do to make it easier and I will in the weeks and months to come, but for now I have to rely on these battered legs to carry me on, and for the most part they do amiably.

The ascent all the while is a battle of wills between my heart and legs and the elements. All the while the wind and the gusts continue to strengthen, and the rain threatens to get more menacing as the Storey Arms becomes nothing more than the target, as opposed to the centre of our excitement, that we’ve left behind, no more than half an hour ago. Just before the turn on the contour under Corn Du I’m greeted by Linda, who’s doing the dance for the first time, she looks like she’s enjoying herself and revelling in Ken’s playground. I have a little chat with myself, because that’s the second lady tabber that’s handed my arse to me as we’re making that ascent, Lou Davis had already passed me, I begin to rummage around in my pockets because I know I’d put those ‘man up’ pills in there somewhere.

The reality of how brutal the elements can be is instantly realised as we hit the turn into the path under Corn Du. The winds are gusting severely now and it’s in the face, it’s a slog to push forward, the well-trodden path is sticky, slippery and very wet, and takes some serious concentration and sure footing to not go arse over tit. The hail, sleet and fat rain pepper and bite into any exposed parts with a ferocity that eventually begins to sting, and as I’ve only got my beanie on as a means of protection I pull it down as far as I can without compromising my vision, and crack on. The mist is constant and all the while offers no reward to set yourself a target to reach as for the most part visibility is so bad you can just about make out the person in front of you. As we reach the end of the path where it intersects with the granny route you can hear the gusts smashing over the path that skirts Corn Du that leads you on to the Fan. The cacophony of noise is immense, it sounds like enormous waves breaking and trying to remain upright or even on the path is a struggle, with my pack on fully loaded, I’m almost going 18st, and I’m being blown off my feet and having to walk crab like to make headway. The little ascent up on to Pen Y Fan is treacherous and all you can hear is the wind and the violent flapping of Bergen covers, it’s somewhat amazing and surprising to not witness someone doing a Mary Poppins. Thankfully having to try and grab someone from the sky and from the unmerciful clutches of the wind isn’t required and before I know it through the thick mist the DS and the summit marker appears.

For the DS it appeared to be a thankless task being stuck atop the Fan all day, being anchored wouldn’t have gone amiss up there. He guides those of us who welcome his presence towards Jacobs, numbers weren’t being taken so there’s no hold up. As I approach the edge and the shelf the reality of the conditions hit again, going down Jacobs for some stupid reason always screams at me, whether just because being self-employed and coming a cropper sets the alarm bells ringing I don’t know, but caution and fear hit me in equal measure normally and being so close to the edge in a wind gusting with the severity it was doesn’t allay those fears. However, for the first time I tackle the ladder positively and for that I probably have Skipper to thank, looking back, doing the night tab with the guys all of sudden triggered something inside me to suggest without being complacent I had nothing to fear from the descent of Jacobs. For the first time in 5 descents I attacked Jacobs and for the first time didn’t notice my knees and heels resisting and shouting at me in complete and utter defiance of what I was subjecting them to. The head was down and I was cracking on and for the first time on the march was enjoying myself, but that’s where it went a little wrong! Bounding down with eyes carefully scanning for foot placement I missed the path and with that a sense of ‘fuck it’ overwhelmed me! All of sudden I noticed we were going uphill and not through the slop I’m normally trying to stay upright in, thankfully I noticed my error quickly and called back those who were ahead of me. As I turned to cross the heather onto the ‘proper’ path and back into the slop, I could see tabbers that had not missed the path through the mist and at the side of me I heard a familiar voice. Ian King had taken the same erring route and he was at my shoulder now, it was the first familiar face I had seen for a while and I was thankful for that, it felt good to have a friend to chat with, as I’d lost most of the guys during the melee at the start. I went for about a quarter of a mile with Ian chatting before I began to stride out and pick up the pace, he didn’t break with me, and once again I was keeping my own company and was striding along happily and feeling good. However, that’s when a mini disaster struck, at Windy Gap, the DS was taking shelter and stupidly I took a knee to give him my number, I instantly regretted doing so. Severe cramp hit me without warning in my right quad and my left hamstring, disguising the fact that I was clearly in a little bit of temporary bother, I took on as much fluid and biltong as I could get down my neck and stretched myself out and headed off down the Roman Road.

The Roman Road was uneventful as always, just 3 and half miles or so of slog to half way, and I was finding as long as I continued to drink more regularly and stretched out as often as possible that the onset of cramp was kept at bay. However, the moment an ascent of any kind had to be faced and the legs weren’t straight the cramp would bite back with a vengeance, to be fair I’d already made my peace with that, doing these events the maxim is about being “comfortable with being uncomfortable”, the cramp was here to stay, so I just had to deal with it, the real test would come getting back up Jacobs. Again I don’t know what I’d done or not done to get hit so hard with cramp, but will in the cold light of day have to revisit my prep. Along the Roman Road I was passed by many of my friends who’d already hit the turnaround, that gave me a little boost to push on harder. I said the same thing in the summer the camaraderie out there on the route is immense, but obviously those friendships have strengthened further since, so a warm greeting from a mucker does incredible things for morale. I get to half way and I’m determined I’m not hanging around long, with the Bergen cover on, to be honest I haven’t got the inclination to get into my Bergen to stock up, so I make do with the supplies in my pockets. I spot Gerald, Jamie and Kate and think to myself bloody hell they must have been shifting; I make me way to where they’re sorting themselves out and have a little chat. Just as I’m about to turnaround and get moving, father and son team Phil and Cellan Williams arrive with huge smiles and Cellan despite the hideous weather is still looking as fresh as a daisy with a touch of the boy bands! Oh to be 20 again!

I utter my temporary goodbyes to the guys and head off, everyone knows and I don’t need to repeat the monotony we all must experience making our way back up the Roman Road to Windy Gap, its head down and crack on, plain and simple, although this time I avoid taking a knee as I check in. I make pretty decent time back and with the Jacobs beginning to loom I begin to fuel up and get a decent amount of fluids inside me. This is the ascent I was dreading after the onset of cramp, and by the time I’d got around Cribyn the wind was gusting severely and the chill was beginning to bite again. I handle the ascent in a steady fashion and not very far into the climb Miss Munday, obviously noticing I’m struggling a little passes me and offers me some gels, just for the record, next time miss, a piggy back would have been a better offer. As feared the cramp struck with every step and progress and getting it done was just gonna come down to grinning and bearing it, so with my best grin on I got myself up there ironically still quicker than I’d managed it previously. The mist was still heavy, which I find almost a relief because there is no impending sense of how far you still have to go, however, treading the route so frequently in the last few months; the climb is all too familiar now. I only register the familiarity when I’m close to the shelf and again it becomes a battle of wills with my muscles, the heart and mind will always win that one though.

Clambering on to the summit, I remember I’d promised Caz that I would message her so she knew how long it would be before I’d be back at the phone box. I unzipped my jacket and pulled my phone out and must have looked utterly ridiculous almost hopping across the summit trying to retain some form of balance whilst being blasted by the wind and trying to write a message, I kept it short! I zipped back up and with renewed vigour broke into a canter, which was bought to a halt as I was almost side swiped by the gusts breaking over Corn Du. I’d made the summit of Pen Y Fan in just over 4 and a quarter hours so was hoping I’d scrape in about the 5 hour mark, but the path under Corn Du was worse than it had been going out, so even greater concentration was required to prevent going down. I feared that if I stacked it the cramp would be instant and I’d be lying there for a little while trying to sort myself out, not to mention throwing a few expletives into the bitterness. I did stack it but somehow managed to bounce back up and again as I hit the path down I broke once more into a decent tab. The mist had cleared looking across to the final ascent up towards the kissing gate, so you could see the entire route up to that rise and the little one beyond it, it was a fantastic sight and to know that one decent push and I’d be getting my bloody Bergen off my back.

As I’m coming down the final slope back towards the A470, as it had in the summer, the reason why I was there hit me. I had Lloydys voice in my head and just as I’m getting a little bit choked (because I’d realised that at the summit I’d forgotten to lay my tribute), I remember that at the bottom, as in the summer, Caz and my baby boy would be waiting for me, it was almost an ‘Eye of the Tiger’ moment, the smile quickly returned! I receive my patch and finally those regrets of the previous winter instantly recede, whilst there wasn’t a white out, the wind and the gusts and the constant barrage of rain, sleet and hail ensured this was a challenge worthy of the ethos of why Ken created the event in the first place. We can all honestly say as we came off that mountain, we had earnt our patches that day. My beautiful wife’s face was a welcome sight as always and although my little man decided that he’d sleep through the whole thing, I was proud to have him there and among this group of people.

The end of the event is a mixture of relief, a desire to get something warm inside and to get in to some dry gear, although as per usual I’m distracted and before I realise it I’m beginning to get cold, at the insistence of Daz and my wife and heeding Daz’s warning from his own adventures earlier I get myself in to the centre and grab some soup and a sausage roll. Job Done!
With a strong need of a hot bath and to get Caz and Charlie back into the warm, we say our good byes and head back to Nant Ddu, and although the event may have finished , luckily the weekend wasn’t. There are not enough superlatives to describe the challenges and weekends that are made what they are by those that take part in them, it’s a special group of people, and I count myself fortunate that I’m able to call them friends; you all know who you are. Caz asked me later that evening, now that I’ve completed both the Winter and Summer Dances would I leave it at that? The simple and quick answer was “no!” Doing the Fan dance has become so much more than the original reason for doing it, so although my primary focus will always be my tribute to Lloydy, what he achieved and his memory, I look forward to the events because of those friendships I feel fortunate to have. That is the greatest tribute I can pay this group. See you at the phone box soon guys, I’ll bring the Reese’s Cups I promise!

Before I finish I must reserve a special mention for a select few, Neil Anderson and Kramar who for differing reasons were unable to make the event, their not being there was felt and we all look forward to the full quota come the summer, including the addition of Little ‘D’. Also, Ken Jones (and the DS) for being a true inspiration and for giving us mere mortals the opportunity to walk in the land of giants, and since finishing his book I can only offer my embarrassment at my ridiculous mutterings about cramp and bitching about the ascent to Corn Du. And of course my darling wife without who’s support these events and life would be a lot tougher and distinctly less wonderful, I’m a fortunate man and I know it, luckily she enjoys being part of this as much as I do, and I guess it won’t be long before she’s waiting for her husband and son to come bounding down the mountain towards her! Love you Mrs R! xxxx

Finally the last mention is reserved for that special boy and the reason why I deemed it a good idea to put myself through the torture of these events. Big loves little bro.
Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. My little brother, my hero, first in you were, always a little further you went, you were an emperor among men, the best I've ever known. You may be beyond the last blue mountain barred with snow, but my heart walks with you always xxxx