A blanket of stars lit up the night sky, unspoilt by light pollution that typically obscures the beauty of the worlds beyond our own, and the low November temperature forced us all to keep moving around clumsily as the weight of our Bergens prevented us from making significant exaggerated movements. As a result we took to shuffling around with 50lbs strapped to us as we waited for the Directing Staff (DS) to bid us forward in that clipped military tone that denotes it's game-on..."On me".
We encouraged Mark, our Nav expert, forward to the DS to receive the 6 numbers that would set us off on a journey that my narrative skills will never be able to do justice to. Grid obtained our four man team huddled together, pouring over the map with the faint glow of red torchlight spilling across the fablon sheen as we desperately tried to identify a route across what would turn out to be some of the most inhospitable terrain that the Brecon Beacons has to offer. In agreement we knew where we were, where we needed to go and the route we should take, we set off in good spirits but deep in our own thoughts, as banter from the day before gave way to trepidation. Crossing the metal road we immediately hit the first of an untold number of impossibly steep inclines, and as the nursery rhyme goes our Nav man "...marched them up to the top of the hill and marched them down again..." and on and on and on we went. We crossed rivers, walked through streams, schlepped through bog water and tried to walk on what many SF narrators have described as "babies heads" (tufts of grass you can't step on or between with any degree of comfort), all within an hour of the off.
Very quickly what we thought was good progress was checked by an eye opener. Stuart had taken a step to the left of where Karl had walked and within a second he was up to his ball bag in muddy water, his left leg being sucked down into a sinkhole, the speed of the sinking element exagerated by the near 50lbs Bergen on his back meant that there was not even a sound as he fell down. Pulling him up we checked to ensure no damage sustained and realised we we're in such unfamiliar territory we weren't even aware of what to look out for, target fixation on the 6 figure grid had forced us to pay little attention to the actual dangers that lay underfoot. "F*uck me, I thought you we doing a Dr Glouster impression" I said, trying to make light of what would now be a miserable time for Stuart as he now had to contend with a soaked left leg for the remainder of the tortuouse route march, however his right leg would be wet enough as the miles unfolded before us like ants traversing a sheet of corigated iron.
I was designated comms man, an honour I bestowed upon myself as I had the radio, and the thought that at some point I might get to call in an air strike or scream down the radio "incoming", however the reality was that the use of the radio was purely for instances of assistance, not guiding in the RAF to wipe out fellow competitors. Whilst on the subject of comms, I can only say that to be in the company of Dave Humm was a privilege and an honour, this guy is supremely proffessional and an expect communicator, just as well being in charge of comms. for some 70 odd civvies, hat's off to you Dave! He also said I had a nice Paras10 jacket, which means he's allright in my book!
At this juncture it's worth covering off the DS and ancillary Staff: Proffesionalism personified! Ken we know is nails, enough said about Ken as he is a legend in his own ParaSmock. Matt, well Christ I could listen to that guy all day, I wish I knew what he'd forgotten about being a tramua casualty medic, i'm contstantly on the look out for Venus bleeds and telling everyone in earshot what I know about tourniquet treatment (don't apply on a two bone compartment!), however I get the impression that if he's your GP you'd better have a real case that needs treating as feeling a "...bit ropey..." won't get you much tea and sympathy. A first class practionar and no doubt a class leader in his field of expertise. I'd heard a lot about Stuart, and his reputation certainly proceeded him! Hard as a coffin nail and as direct as ever a man can be, but he's the guy who will save your life in the teeth of the storm I have no doubt, and is (when allied to the other DS) what makes the backbone of our SF so Special...! He probably doesn't know it (as he couldn't pronounce my name right all weekend..."Daonaldson...? Donti what?....Dantison...? Donford...? Dunford...?..." I could hear his mind, "FML why doesn't this bloke just have a proper name!" For the record Stuart, Donati-Ford... But aside from that, when I was at one of my lowest points (above RV3) he drew me into conversation about me doing the Paras10, and what my time was etc, it was an inocuouse enough of a conversation, but came at a time to distract me from the demons rampaging around my head sufficiently long enough for me to dig in and crack on a bit more, Stuart I thank you more than you will know! And from point 2 point we happened across other Staff, camped up on top of mountains, at the bottom of VW valley and appearing from the mist, all of whom were either the same person or different people (my addled brain had difficulty distinguishing them all), but to a man they were switched on, professional and keen to make you crack on. And holding up the foundations of the event next to Ken was Jason, a true gent, every fibre of the man was SF and he spoke only what you ever needed to hear in a manner you never needed to ask twice what he might mean. To say you have met the guy is a privilege, to be in his company is an honour.
So the miles dragged on, the hills turned to mountains the streams into rivers and my mind descended into darkness. Early on I'd started to struggle, at breakfast I'd eaten the steel porridge Ken had kindly humped back from the US, I'd choked down pints of water, electrolyte and chia seeds and my guts were trying to process all of this whilst being expected to TAB across ball busting terrain. My mind protested, I felt faint, sick and drained and was disgusted at myself for feeling so shite this early on. I clammed up, my usual banter gave way to just focusing on grinding out the miles, I felt I was holding the guys up, they merrily chatted, I sank further into my own negative thoughts. I tried to lead from the front, more so as I could control our pace but I could feel that I was holding us up as the guys kept coming past me then I'd be 30yards behind. I'd trained like a beast for this, I'd out Tabbed the guys on the Winter Fan so new my phys was not the problem, it was the dark clouds swirling round my head, thicker than the clag we were enveloped in for much of the day. I didn't let on that I was struggling but I sensed the guys knew that somthing was rotten in the state of Denmark, or high up in the Beacons as it transpired, but they never let on, no doubt focusing on their own issues rather than mine.
The climb to Trig 642 will be an abiding memorey, not for the fact that it was just a bastard of a climb, they all were, but for the fact that mid way up the brute I was struggling to maintain my balance, with the 50lbs serving as a pendulum as I took uneven steps up the mountainside. At one point I got a tank-slapper on and proceeded to veer hard left, I thought "ok this is where I go for a burton, buckle up" but at the tipping point I felt a vice like grip on my right bicep, the fist clutching a handful of smock and muscle with the pain of one of Matt's tourniquet, it dragged me hard right pulling me upright and balanced once more. Ken, rampaging up the mountain like King Kong up the side of the Empire State Building, had seen me getting out of shape and simply sorted my shit out for me sharpish, and then in one continuouse motion bounded on up at breakneck speed. I simply marveled at this moment, stuttering to the guys behind to "grab hold of his legs" in a vain effort to hitch a ride to our destination a further 500mtrs above. Ken, all I can say is thanks, you simply cemented the legend even further right there! The climb ended, eventually, and then 6 more numbers meant more pain ahead...
VW valley had been waiting in the wings and now it was center stage. It was in the belly of the beast that I confided to Mark that I was struggling, quaffing a shit tasting pasty I'd bought the day before (M&S it was not), he pulled up a Bergen opposite and simply said "look if you're worried about not wanting to VW because we'll take the piss out of you we won't..." I could have kissed his bald head, it was just the type of response I'd have expected, the thing that mattered to him was that he wanted me to know he felt my pain and would not let it be used to belittle me if I jacked, true mark of a man. I said I'd crack on, trying to make some rebble rousing statement like "let's crack this f*cker out!" but felt the bravado draining away in the river that was flowing either side of us. Fast forward on to RV3, we were faced with climb that made Jacobe's Ladder look like a speed bump, it was at this point stood on the side of the road that I though "F*ck it, I can get a cab to the FOB, pack my shit up and get the early flight back to Jersey and all this goes away", turning to Karl, Stuart and Mark I said I was done, game over. What took me most by suprise was their look of dejection in their eyes, that I'd dare proffer up the notion that I was jacking. They all had a look of utter exhaustion, knowing what was ahead they were preoccupied with getting their own shit in one sock, so it came as a suprise to them that I'd be even contemplating it. Karl stared at me intently, I could feel his eyes boring into my skull, "you're not VW'ing, just start up that hill, it'll be alright!" Mark and Stuart chimed in,"come let's just have a crack at it, come on.." We crossed the road and I knew with every step up the mountain was a step further from the end of the pain. And in a funny way I knew that this was the way to make me crack on, if I could break the link with the road below and thus the chance to bin it then I'd be forced to move back into the mountains deeper and on to RV4. Thier words ringing in my ears RV3 faded in to the distance below and it was game on again. Head down and crack on, it was now about grinding it out to FRV.
The Fan swept by quickly, Jason chastising us for clogging up RV4, just to let us know that our responsibilities to clear RV's were not over just because it was our penultimate one, and down Jacobe's Ladder we descended, a small sense of relief washed over me as I knew we'd not be ascending this beast and it was familer territory to be gunning along the path to Windy Gap, having been on this route some 11 months before. By now bearing fixes and grids were being bared down on with rapier like precision, it was all about reaching the strobed FRV. The miles ticked by, darkness enveloped us and the clag never truely thinned out to make us feel we weren't on the set of the Truman Show. As we began our final descent to the strobe that marked the end of a mind bending two days, I thought I'd best just let everyone know I was comms. designate "FRV this is TIM13, ETA 8mins over", it was wishful thinking on my behalf but gave me hope value that soon we'd be in tha van, headed back to the FOB. We descended down the natural staircase until we hit the metal road, bashed another 400mtrs to FRV to give our details and be told it was EndEX. Emotional hugs and backslaps ensued, the sense of relief was near all consuming. And that was it, done and dusted. We threw our Bergens in the van and headed back to get our kit squared away, strike camp and head our separate ways.
Listing the names of those I shared this monumental experience with would seem a feeble attempt to show my gratitude, and this word-salad would go on another 5 pages, so I'll be in touch in person to all those that made an impact on me that will forever shape my future, but for the 3 guys in my team I have to simply say thank you. Karl, Mark and Stuart you guys are family now, pure and simple!
Aside from that, to Ken, the DS, support staff and those at the FOB, life will look a little different from now on and I'll be a different person, not that others may notice, but I feel it and I'll treasure it forever!