The Gore Tex® Experience Tour – Fan Dance Challenge
This is a big one but I hope it reads well and you enjoy it! Thank you for visiting!
1 week ago myself and 9 other like minded people attempted the Gore Tex® Experience Tour Fan Dance Challenge across the Brecon Beacons. 7 days of recovery later and although I’m now back to full fitness, I have yet to recover from just how amazing the whole experience was and I’m eager for more!
What a couple of day we had! The experience tour is all about giving people a “money can’t buy” experience and this delivered on all accounts!
Arriving on Saturday Afternoon at the Storey Arms, the weather could not have been better – even the drive through the Brecon Beacons longed for stops to admire some quite stunning views across the valleys and a peek across vast lakes dotted with people fly-fishing, enjoying their Saturdays, in the sun free from the buzz of their normal working week! I was already in paradise! Out of the city and into the open country!
Rain from previous days had left some ground next to one particular lake I stopped by boggy and consequently sucked what was a poor choice of walking attire of flip flops off, snapping one in the process. I wondered how one of the mountain leaders I was due to meet would have reacted had he seen me skipping along in just one flip flop, all covered in mud, back to my car… not a great start I thought but I was still smiling and happy to be outdoors!
Meeting the team it was immediately clear that everyone shared a passion for the outdoors, everyone had that urge, that longing, that passion for challenges, that love for the mountains and the escape and pure joy it brings with it.
We were all eager and perhaps still a little nervous about what the weekend and subsequent challenge day would finally entail but as the evening progressed and the initial hellos got out the way, we all sat down to what would be the first of many stunning 3 course meals, prepared for us by our very own chefs! Being a blog about the challenge and the outdoors and not about food, all I will say is simply – wow, you would never go hungry!! I was again one happy man.
With 3 days ahead of us, we were now safe in the hands of our British Military Fitness Mountain Leaders Pete Curley, Jason Revel and Sarah King who would be looking after us for the next few days. Meeting them for the first time it was clear we were in good hands and by god they delivered in style!
Our first morning on Sunday was taken by Jason for Navigation Theory then a day time navigation exercise which would lead us out up and over Fan Fawr and end by a river where Sarah and Pete would meet us and start our river crossing exercise that afternoon!
With theory complete, we then plotted our route using a series of grid references given to us by Jason. It was extremely useful being in such a great location that allowed us to put what we had learned in the classroom to test on the hills. With our routes plotted, distances and times allocated and elevations worked out we had one final task to pace our 100m. Fortunately the car park across the road from the Storey Arms turned out to be just over 100m in length and so amongst the curious eyes of other weekend hill walkers we all set off, in silence, walking along the car park concentrating on not losing count – we must have looked like a right bunch!
If anyone is interested 100m for me it was about 68 paces for 100m. Something I’ve always been quite keen to find out but never have until now! We would be putting this to the test in the coming exercises!
Navigation Exercise – Jason Revel, Fan Fawr leading to River Crossing Exercise
Setting off it felt great to finally be out on the hill, putting what we learnt into practice and working up a sweat! I think we were all conscious of being watched for our individual fitness levels as we ascended Fan Fawr, so I was keen to keep with the front of the group as best I could without over doing it! Our route was to the top, which as we set off was still hidden by a layer of cloud that teased us with sneaky views of the summit before closing up again. It was a steep climb, but using features in the distance against our compass bearings to navigate, Jason let us make the decisions.
It felt great being out on the hills with the others, swapping stories, finding out more about what people have done and just how much more there is to do out there if you look for it!! With the summit reached by all the group we took our bearing and hand-railing along a ridge making our way steadily through our 6km route to the final way point that just so happened to be by a river…
River Crossing Exercise
Arriving by the river, the setting was pretty amazing. Trees and steep banks flanked the land that ran alongside the river we would surely be attempting to cross soon, where down below we could see Pete and Sarah waiting for us.
On the floor were harnesses laid out for us to soon don. It’s worth noting that at this point, none of us had any idea what was in store! After adjusting our harnesses we were taken through the kit that a military recruit or marine would be carrying, including static lines, strops and carabiners.
A system for crossing rivers was then shown while we all concentrated hard on remembering the knots and processes to rig the system! I’m still not sure whether it was just me, but my knowledge of knots was pretty limited to tying my shoe laces and the odd tie, so I was keen to be shown the knots a couple more times!
An ingenious system was then demonstrated between two trees that we would have to put to the test ourselves across the nearby flowing river! As with the ultimate challenge still to come on Tuesday a competition scenario was created between two teams for quickest across the river but with a twist! Little be known to us, while we were being split into two teams, Sarah had climbed a steep hill behind us and was now sitting on a log at the top looking down. On our Royal Marine Petes command, it was a race up the hill, touch said log then back down to our stations to start with the system of rigging our crossing line! It was a great rush running up that hill and wasn’t by anyone’s standards an easy feat!
One person was required to first get across the river with one end of the rope and set up on the other side. That person was me. I didn’t argue as I was keen to run across a river (not many opportunities to do that now!).
It was at this point I found a problem and only issue with Gore Tex Lined trainers and that is when running across a flowing river they don’t just keep the water out. They also keep the water in!!! My legs, feet and trousers were soaked but I didn’t care! I was loving it!
Our task was to beat the other team and that’s all I cared about at the time! In the rush of everything, while trying to remember how to tie our knots we were shown pre-running up a bloody big hill, I found myself pulling the wrong end of the rope through the carabiner that meant I had to start again! It was one of those moments when you have to just laugh! Staying calm though, I took a second, thought about what it was I had to do and went back at it, this time successfully!
We worked really well as a team and I think both our rope management (no knots that shouldn’t be there and good clean lines) and communication as a team pulled us literally across to the winning side, not just beating the other team once but then twice on the return challenge back! Once again we were faced with running up the hill again as to win the return leg, it would be first team across, lines organised and tidy then a sprint to the top of the hill! Totally amazing!
It was now back to the Storey Arms for a hot shower, food and a briefing for grid reference points to plot ready for the night-time navigational exercise after dinner! I was really looking forward to this one! Setting off out up onto the Fan Frynych just as the sun was setting was a pretty amazing sight. Once on top and following the ridge line to our next point the view was incredible.
Low level cloud sat in the valleys to the north west, bathed by the glow of an almost full moon! What made the whole experience that bit better was the company in which you are there with. Swapping our own stories of challenges and the outdoors to hearing stories of survival and training in the army from Jason just made what was an incredible night that much better. The surrounding in which we told and listened to them in made it almost surreal.
There was no use of head torches, not unless we were reading the map and so we navigated by moon light high up on the Breacon Beacons! Our navigational exercise went well, covering good ground in a decent time. The 7km route took us around 1:45min to complete.
Towards the end of our route though, we entered quite a thick layer of hill fog, rolling down the lee side of the mountain. Locating our position and taking a bearing it was the perfect opportunity to test out the pacing techniques we had learned earlier in the day. With our next turn 300m away, we all set off walking in silence, counting our paces and stopping where we believed 300m to be. It was good to see the accuracy to be within +/- 5m! I was impressed as we learned that walking at night, in mist/fog/snow can severely skew your judgement of distance travelled!
As we made our was down the ridge, past wild ponies and sheep silhouetted against the moon light, the lights of the Storey Arms began to appear behind the cloud bank as we descending the hill through bogs, puddles and slippery rocks. It was a satisfying and incredibly enjoyable experience to have navigated the route under the cover of darkness and be back in time for a cold bottle of beer before a well-earned sleep! We all raised our glasses and enjoyed our beers as the other team arrived off their exercise behind us. Here’s to tomorrow.
Day 3 – Command Tasks & Survival Training
As with the previous morning, hot porridge was on the go in its masses courtesy of Sarah King, the Events Manager for BMF. Always a great start to the day, I filled up on 2-3 bowels of porridge, sprinkled with nuts, seeds and honey and there was also plenty of fruit to go around us all including juices, eggs, bread, tea and coffee… to name a few! I love breakfast and every morning in the Storey Arms it never disappointed!
This was the day I was most looking forward to the most in the run up to the challenge. Survival Training – by Royal Marine Mountain Leaders, even the title sounds amazing and it did not disappoint.
While the marines set off to prepare the site for our training we all met outside in the early morning sun to try our hands at some command task with Jason and Sarah – as used in selection for military recruits.
Split into our two teams, our first task was to negotiate a “mine field” of cones. We had 2 minutes to discuss how we would get 4 of the 5 members across the “mine field”, blind folded and with no verbal communication. The traditional method, we were told afterwards was for claps. 1 clap – right, 2claps – left, 3 claps – stop. We adopted banging a stick against either a wooden block or metal drain pipe with a clap as stop. For this task I would be the one leading the team through the mines with my new found musical instrument! Unfortunately Barry, at the front of the team got the brunt of my poor musical talents and was blown up almost immediately. Sorry Barry. For the rest of the team though, I managed to guide them through without harm and made it to the end in a good time, once clear of the “mines” I did however forget to tell them to stop as they all walked on towards a hill! Oops!
There were 3 command tasks to do with another being to build a means of propelling an egg as far as possible using bamboo sticks, string and duct-tape. Thankfully for us, we had the mind of an engineer on our team (Clive!) who quickly came up with a trebuchet style device to fire our eggs! With a few little tweaks after our test shots we were pitched against the other team to see whose device would fire the farthest! Our team won both of these challenges and the third!! Getting the team across the “mine” field in the quickest time and firing our eggs the farthest! It was a nice start to the day!
While busy completing our command tasks, Pete and Andy (another serving royal marine trainer here to help Pete out for the day) were off setting up our area for the survival training. Once again the setting for today’s training was stunning. I was keen as mustard for this and hugely excited to learn some new skills! On arriving, the marines had hauled down a large tractor down for us to sit on, set around a tree with a magnetic board nailed to it.
To start, Pete went through survival basics and stories of survival in all conditions and his experience shone through in masses! We went through survival packs, what should be in them and why they’re in there including the many uses of tampons and condoms! We talked about using our surroundings and wildlife to our advantage, locating drinking water, food, shelter etc etc the list goes on!! I was mesmerised.
Once the basics were covered it was over to Andy who talked us through and demonstrated the many uses of a knife and how to make a sustainable and safe fire. With his demo roaring away it was over to us, broken down into teams of two we all set off collecting our stores of twigs, sticks, rocks and wood. Unfortunately mine and team mate Barry’s fire lighting skills left a lot to be desired and while bathed in the heat off other teams burning furnaces, Barry and I sweated to make a flame in contention but failed quite miserably. All was not lost though and after the 20mins we had a fire (granted a small one) started. If you squinted through the flames of our nearest teams furnace you could just about make out our first puff of smoke! Man had made fire!
From fire we covered celestial navigation, the use of snares, carving stick to make traps for catching food in a survival situation. The best was yet to come though when we were shown a Kalua, or underground oven, for cooking food in. Carrots, Potatoes, Fish and Steak were all placed inside and covered, using the hot rocks from fires (not from mine and Barry’s fire though!) left for an hour and then dug out. Wow – I was so impressed with how tender and moist the fish and meat was after being cooked by this method! It just made me want to go out camping, catch all my own food, make my own fire and dig my own oven. One great tip I remember was that in a cold environment the hot stones from around the fire can be placed in a hole dug in and re-covered then you can sleep on said area to stay warm. Genius!
Back at the Storey Arms, it was time for a hot shower, welcome cups of tea/coffee and cake! Our thoughts now turned to challenge day and there was definitely a change across the general mood of the group with questions passed from one person to another about how we all felt for the actual event. I was really excited and feeling good for the challenge ahead!
I relished the challenge and looked forward to being cold and miserable on the hill working hard towards a goal! I wanted to sweat and feel the burn and I wanted to succeed at it! In the run up, I had thought a lot about the actual challenge day and before winning a place, I received an email questioning my fitness levels for the challenge that made me think it was, perhaps, out of my reach. For me, this was a slap across the face. If I even think that I can’t do something I will do everything I can to make sure I can do it! After all, the difference between who you are and who you want to be is a direct result of your actions. Winning the place meant I now had a chance to not only prove to myself I could do this but also to the team and organisers who would be relying on me to.
It was these thoughts that were running through my mind as we walked outside on the Monday evening after survival training, to an impressive model built by Jason depicting the route that was currently shadowing us, rising up above us to the north east, as we sat there for our briefing. This bit is not word for word but it went a little something like this….
“Team Gore! You will be completing a fast recce of the area which is known to be infiltrated by Welsh separatists. Your start point will be the Storey Arms Grid reference…. You will carry out a reece of the area and then rendezvous with our informant at Grid 0495 1680 before returning to the Storey Arms at your best individual efforts. Your cut off time at the Storey Arms is 4 hours. We will form up at the start line 07:45 for a 0800 start. Breakfast will be at 0630 hours.”
Our challenge had been set. 4 hours to cover the 24km, 14.6miles route, climbing the Pen y Fan at 2907ft, 886m, not once but twice as well as up towards Corn Du at 873m, 2864ft. A total ascent waited for us of around 6000ft up and 6000ft down. It was definitely going to be tough. I felt a little anxious but I also felt ready.
Day 4 – The Fan Dance Challenge
Waking up on the morning of the challenge was a sad experience. I had loved every day so far and didn’t want it to end. We had all been in our own little bubble, enjoying our experience as a team. Each night I looked forward to sitting down for our meals together, comfortable and content with our day and what was to come. There is something so satisfying about spending the day outdoors, working hard, pulling together as a team, seeing new sights, learning new skills and achieving what you went out to do that morning. Reflecting over your day and whats to come over a beer and great food with the people you were there with was just the icing on the cake. We had spent the last 4 days doing what we all enjoyed and loved to do together, while the whole world continued on with its normal day to day shuffle around our little bubble. I longed for the experience to continue, even just for one more day… but right now there was more important matters to deal with like the Pen y Fan I was just about to try and ascend, twice, as quickly as possible. I soon got over the sad thoughts and got ready for the challenge ahead.
With porridge consumed (Thank you again Sarah!), a pint of water downed and bags packed with all the jelly babies you can imagine, the time seemed to drag in the run up to our 0800 start time. We were all anxious to start and meeting up at the start point for a pre challenge team photo helped to pass the time nicely. This was it. It was after all what we were all here for when finally the organisers gave the whistle and off we went.
The route that we would take would start at the Storey Arms Centre heading north up to Y Garn (619m) before swinging round to the south-east and ascending up the Craig Cwim Llwch, then skirting around the summit of Corn Du (873m). We would then traverse across the head of the valley up onto the summit of Pen y Fan (886m) itself. From the summit it would be down across Craig Cwm Sere to then following the ridge (east to west) around the south side of Cribyn before heading south along a dirt road to the rendezvous point at Taf FechanForest car park. Once there we could resupply before turning round and heading right back up the long climb to the Pen y Fan. Reversing what we had just covered.
As we set off straight into our climb we all set our own paces for the challenge. At the front was myself, Rachel and Barry but as the climb continued I was finding it difficult to keep pace with Rachel about 50m ahead, 20mins in. Barry was close behind me with the rest of the team following closely in pursuit At around 2000ft we entered the cloud still looming over the summits adding a welcome chill to cool me down with a breeze that accompanied it. It was tough going up the hill to start as we were not quite warmed up yet.
As the gradient levelled out to skirt the summit of Corn Du it was time pick up the pace further though. Running around the summit, the ground was wet and loose but awesome in every way. Running trails like this was what it was all about for me. It beats running on the road any day!
While taking puddles in our stride, picking our lines across the loose, muddy terrain we skirted the summit of Corn Du above us to the left, running around her in the cloud. Rachel was leading at this point with Barry and Sarah close beside me, all within 100m of each other we kept a quick pace before reaching a turning point with paths and trails crossing in all directions. Looking at our maps to choose the correct route in the mist cost us some time until Clive came running past us, clearly familiar with the route and now leading the way. We followed suit!! It was the same story at our next point with Clive making a confident turn onwards. I probably should have gross checked the turns against our map and compass in hindsight but hoped at the time it was the right direction. Part of me wanted to drop a jelly baby or two to mark our turns as well but I feared I may need my whole supply later. As we pushed on for the summit of Pen y Fan it became clear we were on the right track!
At the summit was Rachel, Sarah, Barry and I closely followed by Clive and Jason, our mountain leader. I had no idea how close the rest of the team were due to the cloud we had ascended into. The wind was stronger on the summit and we were keen to keep moving to avoid cooling down too much. As we began our descent running down the Pen y Fan we dropped out of the cloud to a view across the valley looking right down to our rendezvous point at Taf Fechan Forest. I remember shouting to Barry and the other “This is amazing!!” and couldn’t stop smiling. My legs were starting to feel stiff, I was covered in sweat, chilled by the wind and working hard but I could not have been happier! This is what it was all about!
Running the leg along the south side of Crybyn towards our half way point we set a good pace negotiating what was pretty challenging terrain until finally reaching our Rendezvous point in 1hr 20mins! We were really pleased at this point and when Andy the British Military Fitness instructor said he was also impressed we knew we were onto something. Quick refill of our camelbacks and a quick energy bar each it was back up what we had just ran down – all the way back up the Pen y Fan and more. Retracing our route we all agreed to try and beat 3 hours for the route, a time that would be difficult but achievable as long as we maintained our good pace. At this point there was the four of us running together, myself, Rachel, Barry and Sarah, but it wasn’t long until we were joined my Clive who had worked well to cover the ground between us and catch us back up before we started our steep climb up the Pen y Fan again.
We passed the other team members on our route back, who were all on track and coping well! All bar one person, that is. We still hadn’t passed Brendon and had all assumed he must have injured himself on the start leg and returned to base until we finally met him quite away into the return leg, we were thankful he was OK though! It later turned out that he had taken a “slight” detour adding another 5km onto his distance!!! Nutter.
As we reached the climb up Pen y Fan, I felt good and that I still had a lot more to give and so pressed on to make the summit. As we ascended back into the cloud I was so keen to complete the challenge in less than 3 hours and so went for it. Rachel was close behind with Barry, Sarah and Clive a minute or so behind her. The ascent now was becoming pretty hard and as my legs screamed to stop, my lungs were forcing every last breath of Welsh mountain air into them, and I pushed on. Once again, on up into the cloud, Rachel and the others dropped out of view I wasn’t, couldn’t, stop.
At the summit I remember thinking it was tougher than I had originally thought it would be and stopped to catch my breath back. My legs at this point were like jelly. I wanted to stop but knew the other wouldn’t be far behind and so jogged on to touch the summit that I could just make out through the cloud about 10m ahead of me.
Stopping for a second, I thought it might be a nice idea to leave a jelly baby sitting on the summit for the others and so while wearing shorts and nothing more than a base layer I delicately placed a jelly baby on the summit while getting some strange looks from people out for a walk past me…
As I placed the jelly baby for the others, Rachel appeared from out of the cloud after her ascent. A high five later we were off running back down the Pen y Fan safe in knowledge we had done the worst bit of the challenge. Just one more climb remained but it was to be nothing like what we had just done so we were confident.
As we ran our route down from the Pen y Fan, my calves decided they were going to cramp on me. Not just one, but both. It was horrible. I tried to run though it but when my right foot locked out I couldn’t push on without trying to stretch them out first. I remember being so angry it was happening now, the home stretch when we needed to really push for our time! Rachel was brilliant though and proceeded to slap my calves about and rub them down in an attempt to try and clear it, which worked incredibly!!! 30 seconds later we were back up and running, negotiating our paths, taking puddles and rocks in our stride, nothing was stopping us now.
At the top of Y Garn, what we had almost 3 hours ago ascended at the start of our challenge we could see the end. We were on course to smash our target time and while running down the final stretch we could see Nicole and Anna ahead cheering! It was a great feeling!
On finishing our time was confirmed as 2hr 53mins and 27s! I was over the moon!
Barry was up next as we screamed for him to run faster down the hill and then comfortably finishing within 3 hours. Clive and Sarah following 15 seconds behind Barry and all finished in under the 3 hours mark! Next was Jaroslav at 3hrs 14mins, still fully clothes in all his gear (Those Gore-Tex Active Shells definitely had their work cut out and obviously worked!). Carolyn, James and Lindsay were the next to arrive all finishing within 4hours but there was still no sign of Brendon!
Brendon is a cracking bloke and I hoped he would cross the line under 4 hours! His sheer determination impressed us all to continue on after adding such a big detour onto what was already a challenging route but unfortunately the damage had been done! Had he not taken his detour though he would have come in well within the 4 hour make and that’s based on his average pace over an even longer route!! I like to think he just fancied a bit more a challenge?
The whole experience from start to finish was amazing. From very first arriving it was clear this was going to be something special. Our kit was fantastic, having tested mine to almost destruction during the river crossing exercise; it stood its ground well! The berghaus gore tex active shell jacket certainly coped with everything I threw at it and really impressed me. I hate wearing anything heavy and bulky and so having such a lightweight but fully waterproof jacket made all the difference! I’ve even come to love the colour too! I can’t recommend it enough!
The whole experience could not have been made possible without Nicole Wheatley and Anna McNamara who put the whole event together and I cannot thank them enough for the opportunity. Our Mountain Leaders, Pete Curley and Jason Revel were truly incredible blokes and from start to finish I was constantly impressed and mesmerised by some of their stories! Sarah King, BMF Events Manager was an absolute godsend to us all! Without her, the whole 4 days would have been next to impossible to have accomplished. Plus she makes some cracking porridge! Thank you all so much.
So almost 5000 words later, I’m finished. There was/is still so much more to talk about, I could have gone on for days! If you have made it this far though, I salute you and apologise for any sentences that don’t make sense for my lack of writing skills!
This Sunday I will be running the BUPA Great North Run and then in the first week of October the kayak challenge will commence, closely followed with the Kielder marathon, not to mention a mountain bike challenge across the peak district in between! Its a busy few months getting the challenges in but hopefully it will all be worth it in the end.
Thank you for reading!
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