2019 was a year of death, cancellations and accidents, so I hoped for a more relaxing and rewarding 2020. It certainly started with a bang as during the 2019 Kendal Mountain Festival, I was asked to don my best Edwardian Mountaineering Tweeds and marry two friends in the Lake District. Surely enough on January 18th, I stood before Tom and Emily in Sticklebarn and pronounced them Husband and Wife. I felt extremely honoured to be asked and we all enjoyed a wonderful weekend under sunny skies in Langdale. 2020 was off with a bang..!
Terry Abraham has filmed two beautiful documentaries about Skiddaw and Blencathra, with his final film of the trilogy showcasing Helvellyn. We’d filmed together during 2019, but poor weather drove us off Striding Edge, so we returned in the snows of February to try again. Simon Yates and I hoped to film on Swirral Edge, but once again, the weather beat us back. Driving winds and blizzard conditions are not conducive to film work or the safety of the crew. I was blown over twice by gusting winds and we ended up filming a piece in a bothy bag, engulfed by steam, tea and a packet of fig rolls..! Would it make the film, I wonder..?
I enjoyed a rather gusty weeks’ mountaineering with the Bassetlaw Hill and Mountain Club around the Arrochar Alps and Oban, in typical Scottish conditions, before an awful spectre spread from the east.
In early March, the deaths and cancellations returned. Coronavirus hit every headline on every media outlet. A planned ski trip to Italy was cancelled, Speaking Events evaporated, a meet with fellow OS Champions postponed and so on. Looking back at it all now, the world seemed in a rush to close down, panic buy and just panic. I’ve worked and climbed in some very high-pressure environments over my years and the most dangerous thing we can do is panic. Time and again, I’ve watched folk run around like their backsides are on fire, causing mayhem and destruction to their lives and the lives of those around them. The press and media didn’t help and to this day, I have found much of their reporting overenthusiastic. Please don’t think I’m saying that Coronavirus isn’t dangerous or real – quite the opposite. I have plenty of friends in the Health Services who have worked like Trojans for months, seen more suffering than a lifetime deserves and worked miracles, but this was not a time to rush. It was a time to slow down and breathe.
Incidents like this always bring out the worst and best in people. Panic buying, greed and lack of patience were parried with community spirit, self-discipline, love and incredible patience. We started with no toilet paper and ended up with gardens full of veg. Even though I have snow in my Garden, my Roses are in full bloom. As Elvis Costello once sang – It’s been a Good Year for the Roses. Sadly, there were huge breaches of ‘social distancing’ in the cause of protest, ignorance, markets, beaches and alcohol, but generally the world is still doing its best through difficult times. I have worked continuously through the lockdowns and restrictions, quietly keeping the nation’s power on, their water pumping, gas burning and WIFI running. As an industry we received little recognition, but we are Tectonic, not Volcanic. We wore no shirts stating that we were ‘Keeping the Nation Fed’ or are Key Workers. The roads were quiet and the shifts long, but work kept me in touch with others as we cannot work remotely and paid my bills – something which many have struggled with.
The world has struggled to comprehend Coronavirus and my story is no different from millions of others. There are hundreds of news articles reporting the break-up of relationships, the increase in mental health issues, the plight of carers etc. Coronavirus cost me a relationship. Mental Health broke my heart, (yet by default I became an advocate for Mental Health), and caring has been physically and emotionally exhausting.
I’ve always lived by the phrases ‘God helps those who help themselves’ and ‘Treat people the way you want to be Treated’. I’ve done my very best right through the year to live by these. Some say I set the bar too high, but I think they’re confusing me with someone who give a s**t about their opinion…
The internet has been a saviour or a killer, depending upon your point of view. Social networking and video calling has allowed millions to keeping touch, but for many it has also been a place of sadness. This is not a new issue. Whilst many find great excitement in the web, many also find it a source which destroys their happiness as they assume everyone else is having a better time than they are. As I’ve always said, only write what you would say to someone’s face and if you can’t do that, don’t bother.
If you want a web reality check, this man says it all…
Many festivals and events were forced online and I wish I’d brought shares in Zoom before all this began..! I’ve spoken with and met many new faces, but with old friends too. I’m very much looking forward to the day when we can meet again without the need of facemasks, sanitiser and the need to keep our distance as I’m not a great lover of the virtual world. Though I have used it a great deal, there isn’t the atmosphere of a live event. I remember listening to a radio interview with the film critic Mark Kermode. He was asked about the size of his TV and hard drive to watch all the films he reviewed. ‘It must be huge’ the interviewer remarked. He simply replied that he couldn’t watch a film on TV – it had to be in a cinema to get the full experience. I wholeheartedly agree. I need crowds, I need people, I need life.
Outdoor education has played a vital part in the shaping of my life. School trips and Outdoor Pursuits Lessons brought many opportunities to learn the skills that no classroom can teach and thats why I’ve been supporting the Save Outdoor Education Campaign. Children dont grow through school based education alone. Being outdoors and spending time in centres brings much more to them than any classroom lesson ever could. We must get youngsters back into centres and learning the life lessons needed to make them rounded members in society.
May 2020 was the 21st anniversary of my fated climb on Mt. McKinley. I’d been pondering what to do, if anything, to commemorate the epic that it became, and Coronavirus forced my hand. I opened an old cardboard box and brought out the original diaries from the mountain. I adore writing and have sent many letters across the world this year. My McKinley Diaries were recorded in my own home, using those original entries and some original kit too. They were all a little last minute, but well worth the effort (I hope).
Like many others I went Swimming, Walking, Climbing and Cycling locally. Though I’ve lived in the same area all my life, there are still places I haven’t visited since my childhood. It was lovely to wander these again and sit in the fields, listening to birdsong. I’ve had to moderate my exercise a little as the lack of NHS Podiatry for my skin grafts has seen them suffer badly, regardless of the amount of care I can give. Blood in your sock is never nice, but it’s been a part of my year.
During September, I was fortunate to enjoy a week in the Italian Dolomites with my great friends Christian and Nico. Sunshine, open skies, lofty peaks, Via Ferrata, Mountain Biking and Walking did me the world of good and I’m so thankful to my friends for taking the time to help and host me. More than ever, friendships have been vital to our survival as human beings.
I’ve experienced two bouts of self-isolation, one cancelling a long-planned trip to the Lake District and Scotland; I’ve only managed a single night in my Camper van. I’ve put my international travel on hold, but I’m fit and well and that’s what matters.
After the earlier filming, Terry Abraham launched ‘Helvellyn – Life of a Mountain’ in November. I did a number of zoom interviews with Stuart Maconie, Mary-Ann Ochota, Simon Yates, Peter Gibbs and David Powell-Thompson, with the idea of then opening the film in person with Terry. Unfortunately lockdown 2.0 put paid to that, but the show did go on, if virtually and it was a great success (even if I didn’t make the final cut..!) My thanks to Terry and Greg Hackett at the London Mountain Film Festival for their support.
I’ve been fortunate to meet some wonderful people over my life and Paul Gurney certainly stands out. We met on Mt. Elbrus in 2012 and during 2017 I was filmed alongside Sir Rannulph Fiennes for BecomingX. Paul has created this wonderful project to interview the world’s most inspirational people, which I’m honoured to be part of. BecomingX launched in the autumn and the interviews will span the next few months. The interviewees speak for themselves – Roger Federer, Channing Tatum, Julia Roberts and Courtney Cox for starters, oh and some frostbitten bloke from Derbyshire. 2021 looks to be an exciting year..!
During the second lockdown, I sat before the camera again and recorded my ‘Love Letters to the Mountains’. I’d written them a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, but didn’t know what to do with them. Now seemed the time to show how much I love the mountains, but also the costs they can bring.
Coronavirus will pay us forward in immense debt. Education and health care for starters, but as I’ve noticed in the outdoors – Plastic Waste. We have worn more masks and gloves than can be counted, used enough polystyrene cups and boxes to go around the world who knows how many times and created a pile of waste so high we should be ashamed. We have protected ourselves but have left our future generations a huge problem. I was in the Peak District the other day and walked past a cafe selling take-out food. This, I think excellent to keep businesses going, but the piles of plastic and polystyrene outside were awful and will go straight into the ground; we need to improve.
As the year ends, I’m still staggered at the appalling levels of Customer Service provided by many larger businesses. Coronavirus struck in March and they are still stating that service levels are down as they try to cope with the pandemic. In my view this is wholly unacceptable. I’ve spoken to a few who have openly stated that 40mins on hold listening to mind bending music is ‘quick’. And as for the words ‘your call is important to us..!!!’ They’re always happy to take your money however. Flexibility has to be the key. In my industry customers have hardly seen a change, because of a flexible approach. It’s easy to blame outside issues, but if you put the effort in you can excel. Hardly a single shop has closed in my hometown and many are now packed because they have been determined and helpful. Flexibility is everything, excuses mean nothing. I’ve left a number of organisations due to their continued excuses and found people I want to work with instead.
Much of my year was spent in care. Not for me but caring for my Mum. Since losing my Dad, life for us has been a challenge. She suffers severe Macular Degeneration and relies on others for sight. Though she soldiers on, the restrictions of Coronavirus brought huge challenges. All her friends were stuck at home. All her social events were cancelled. Much was spoken about Mental Health over the last year and I’ve fought hard to support her as anxiety, loneliness, apathy and loss have taken their toll. At times it felt like a thankless task but support her I will through whatever life throws at us. At 82 she doesn’t do IT, Social Networking or text chat. She needs people around her and no-one has been allowed. I’ve worked flat out, but caring for someone who can barely see, can’t go out and suffers severe stubbornness has been at best back breaking. It’s all too easy to abandon the old, but one day, if we’re lucky, we will be those people. One day we may feel alone, abandoned or forgotten. As my Dad used to say, ‘Growing old is a privilege lad, but it’s damn hard work’.
We lost three giants of the UK mountaineering scene this year – Hamish MacInnes, Joe Brown and Doug Scott. All Legends who excelled in the mountains and lived long lives. I had met Doug many times at the Mountain Heritage Trust and interviewed him at the 2019 Kendal Mountain Festival. He was quite the character..!
I’ve always lived in a world of reality – the reality that Coronavirus won’t be even close to sorted before mid 2021, but that doesn’t’ stop me investing in my life. Reality hurts, but I find it the only way to live. Many major events for 2021 have already been cancelled and I can’t see anything like normality returning before the middle of next year, but it will come, and we will meet again. Some say this was a wasted year, but I would parry that statement with this – it’s only been a waste, if you have chosen to waste it.
My thanks to Terra Nova Equipment, Extremities, Grangers, Ordnance Survey and the Mountain Heritage Trust for their continued support, The Bassetlaw Hill and Mountain Club for their friendship and fellowship, The Kendal Mountain Festival Crew for their comedy and Virtual Pub and all my family and friends for their support.
May I wish you all a wonderful and much brighter 2021…