As I get older, and have more and more to look back on, I realise that I’ve had my fair share of “epic” experiences. Nowadays, to the “yoof”, the word “epic” can describe something as banal as a pop song. I’m using it here in it’s older sense. You know: those “how the hell did we get into this?” and, more to the point, “how the hell are we going to get out of this?” situations.
The Seven Sisters, looking towards Birling Gap. Wind 50mph, westerly! Read on…
As I’ve said in this blog several times in the past, I spent a great deal of time over a twenty five year period in the Italian Dolomites, leading groups on the mountains. The groups ranged from virtual hill-walking rookies principally interested in wild flowers, through to select bands of hairy-arsed mountain lovers, often with considerably more hours on the clock in the hills than me. We had some memorable Dolomites epics.
Uppermost in my mind when I think “epic” is the thunderstorm, sleet and snow I sat out with one of my groups high on a route on a flank of the 3,200 metre Tofana di Rozes. My group included (I kid you not) one of the first ascentionists of the third highest mountain in the world, and the first person ever to do an east-west crossing of the whole of the European Alps on skis. We’d made a group decision to “go for it”, based on my assurance of exit routes if anything came of the forecast, but (at that point) completely invisible, thunderstorm and snow. This was mid July, by the way! These were pre-internet, and pretty much pre-mobile ‘phone times too. The best local weather outlook was written on a piece of paper pinned up in the window of the local mountain guides bureau in Cortina d’Ampezzo.
The storm that caught us sneakily snuck up from completely the opposite side of the Tofana mountain group, almost unseen until sudden, huge down-draughts of wind hammered us, almost out of the blue. Within a few minutes, there was a considerable electrical storm going, and big hail was turning to particularly clinging snow. Our good fortune was to have reached a spot where I could sit the group together, in an area the textbooks would have regarded as being as safe from lightning strikes as possible. We sat there realising that such things were, however, hit and miss issues, pretty literally in the lap of the gods. George and Hamish regaled the group (about nine all told) with stories of their own thunderstorm dramas. Whether this was quite as helpful for the more nervous members of the group as they thought must remain a moot point! We lived to tell the tale, and retreated that day with only a slight sense of “tail between the legs”!
The full story is one for another time. I even found a few photos from my colour slide archives recently. What I really wanted to do was contrast that epic with a very much more recent one (ok, not so potentially life-threatening) that befell me quite recently, and which was equally surprising.
I had the opportunity, at half an hour’s notice to go, to be dropped off at one end of the Seven Sisters, on the south Sussex coast, and to be picked up a few hours later in Eastbourne. So, as it was bright and sunny and the walk would begin barely fifty miles from home, I didn’t think to look at the weather forecast before setting off. Well, after all, this was “just” going to be over the Seven Sisters. I’d run along them several times, including as the finale of a memorable Seven Sisters Marathon. The terrain, while undulating, was hardly that challenging, was it?
The first big gust of wind hit me on an innocent-looking approach hill above the Cuckmere River, overlooking Cuckmere Haven. It was from here I first noticed the immense band of swirling surf fringing the Cuckmere shingle bank. And when I say “hit me”, I mean exactly that. I was knocked flat by what I’ve heard called a “slapdown” wind. I quickly flicked open the weather app on my ‘phone. It warned of 35mph winds, gusting to 50mph in exposed areas. And I still needed to walk to my lift home from Eastbourne at 3pm.
The wind was pretty much a direct westerly. Fine, I rationalised: on my back. Better that than a side-wind to push me towards the cliff edges of the Seven Sisters and Beachy Head! But, as it turned out, only just. My peaked hat was attached, at the back of my head, to a retaining cord for my glasses – a quickly rigged way, I thought, not to lose my hat. When another huge gust nevertheless ripped my hat from my head, it very nearly dragged my glasses from my face as well. I realised I was being complacent. There would be no rules today!
I’d brought a walking pole with me. I have one that doubles as a good camera support. It also made for something the wind frequently poked between my legs as I walked, like a stick being shoved into the wheel of a bicycle. Crash! Hello grass, again! I walked like a drunk. The wind gave no discernible assistance on the steady upslopes, either. Atop the first rise from Cuckmere, I thought the downhill sections between the Sisters would be periods of calm. Not a bit of it. This wind hugged the ground and never gave a moment’s respite.
There have been occasions when I’ve felt that the wind had become a personal enemy, doing battle with me individually. Cycling for two days around Ireland’s Ring of Kerry in the early 1980s, I stopped for the night halfway, after a day fighting a south westerly gale for several hours. Next morning, the weather had swung a full 180 degrees and the second section section was directly into a fierce north easter.
Crossing a big frozen lake in northern Norway on skis, pulling a sledge containing my personal gear, was like dragging several tons, bent double into a screaming headwind in temperatures around minus 20 degrees C, forever wondering how fast frost-nip would set in on any exposed flesh. Yes, the wind has always hated me, and today was just a reminder.
Back in Sussex, however, needed a lunch stop well before the cafe at Birling Gap, and huddled behind some gorse bushes. The tea was literally being blown out of the cup from my flask faster than I could drink it!
The day had been one of bright sunshine and blue sky from the off. Despite the wind, it was warm. Real sunburn conditions, so it was as necessary to cover up as it had been on that Norwegian sled tour! Not for frost-nip this time, however! The other menace was salt spray. There was foam from the surf being lifted and deposited on the clifftop grass, and the air hung thick with salt. I was having to clean my specs every ten minutes, and had almost given up taking the camera from my bag. Most of the photos I took were on my excellent iPhone 7, which is continuing to go everywhere with me.
A few more falls, but happily no knockout (remember televised wrestling?) and it was over. As the highest point of the day, Beachy Head gave a few scary moments of swirly wind, but the main force of the gale appeared to be spent by now. By the time I reached Eastbourne, you’d have wondered what the fuss was about.
Around four epic hours. Sometimes those events make you feel really alive. Sometimes they just make you want to be somewhere else. The jury’s still out on this particular day.
Any readers who are Van Morrison fans will recognise my blog title this time.