Extreme Sleeps: Adventures of a Wild Camperby Phoebe Smith
In a sometimes scary, frequently funny, and intriguing journey around the UK, Phoebe attempts to discover and conquer its wildest places
I had become official infatuated with what I call "extreme sleeping"—a kind of addictive high-adrenaline sport—but rather than being defined by pushing the boundaries of physical activity, my particular/b>
In a sometimes scary, frequently funny, and intriguing journey around the UK, Phoebe attempts to discover and conquer its wildest places
I had become official infatuated with what I call "extreme sleeping"—a kind of addictive high-adrenaline sport—but rather than being defined by pushing the boundaries of physical activity, my particular pursuit was marked by a distinct lack of it.
Veteran globetrotter Phoebe Smith sets out to prove that outdoor adventures are available in the UK which rival anything found elsewhere in the world. From spending the night in the decaying wreckage of a World War II bomber at Bleaklow, to pitching next to the adrenaline-inducing sheer drops of Lizard Point, Phoebe’s extreme sleeps defy her perceptions of the great outdoors and teach her about herself along the way.
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Adventures of a Wild Camper
By Phoebe Smith
Summersdale Publishers LtdCopyright © 2013 Phoebe Smith
All rights reserved.
'What if you get mugged, or attacked, or eaten by a bear?' cried my friend Jane as I packed my car for the journey ahead.
Her suggestion was ridiculous for two reasons. The first is obvious – there are no bears in Wales of any variety – big cats may have been spotted for sure, but certainly no bears. The second, is that if you take a minute to really think about all the crimes that have been reported in the last twenty years involving muggings or kidnappings, not a single one of them happened in the middle of the mountains of Snowdonia where I was heading.
'Put yourself in the shoes of a would-be criminal, lurking in the shadows, hoping to catch an ill-prepared and vulnerable woman unawares,' I said to Jane, as I slammed the boot shut and walked round to the driver's side of the car. 'Would you choose to lurk in the hinterland of mountain country, having to take all the trappings of a wild walk with you – warm clothes, tent, water and cooking utensils – hoping against hope that a lone woman might just, on that same night, be there too?'
'Well ... I ... er ...' she stuttered.
'Or would you perhaps go and linger in an alleyway in a major city on a Saturday night where at least hundreds of said vulnerable and, let's face it, probably drunk women will pass by?'
She looked at me concerned, 'Well I suppose I see what you mean.'
'Exactly. I will be fine,' I replied smugly and shut the door. 'Besides, there are definitely no wild animals roaming the hills of Wales ...' I shouted as I drove off.
Despite my assurances, there were still some niggling doubts in my mind. This wasn't the first time I'd encountered hysteria at my suggestion of wild camping alone. I had friends encouraging me to take them along if they promised not to tell anyone that they'd come, just so that they'd 'know I was safe'. Another local man, who understands me well enough to know that should anything happen (such as a twisted ankle or something serious enough to need assistance, but certainly not life-threatening), I would be far too proud to call Mountain Rescue, gave me his number. He insisted I call him if I was in trouble and he would discreetly muster his teammates to help me out (not that there would be any phone reception should the worst happen).
Off I drove, up the ribbon of tarmac that's the motorway to the north, determined to cast aside the naysayers. Then came the thunder: giant claps of it shaking the sky while sheet rain hammered on the bonnet as I joined the M6. This was an ominous start to something that I – and everyone I knew – had misgivings about. Soon the rain was so epic that I couldn't actually tell where the droplets came down and the upward spray from the tyres began. It was a merging of two watery horizons.
'It doesn't mean anything. It. Doesn't. Mean. Anything,' I told myself as a flash of lightning illuminated the logo-plastered trucks swerving into the middle lane to my left. I turned on the radio for a welcome distraction, almost expecting to hear Celine Dion's 'All By Myself' just to punctuate the ludicrous scenario I found myself in. Instead, I was met with an annoyingly chirpy rendition of Rihanna's 'Shut Up and Drive'. And so I drove on singing as loud as you do when you're the only person in the car, beating the drum on my steering wheel, screeching to meet the high notes (of course failing miserably) and singing the guitar solos as though they were words. As I performed both the lead and backing harmonies, head banging, undoubtedly looking like a lunatic to any passing drivers, I didn't care. I was in my own world and didn't have to explain what I was doing to anyone, and that was the freedom I was hoping to experience on my mini- expedition.
As I crossed the border into Wales, the rain began to ease to a light drizzle, dribbling on my windscreen for a while, before stopping entirely. Edging the car towards the official boundary to Snowdonia National Park, I saw grey clouds beginning to make way for blue sky and when I finally parked the car in a lay-by, grabbed my rucksack and started walking, the sun was blazing overhead.
At this early point in a walk, conversation is usually rife as the apprehension of a couple of days out in the hills is disguised with cheery banter. Being friend-free, I thought I'd miss this chit-chat, but I was so distracted by the apparent change in weather that I temporarily forgot about it and just soaked up the perfect conditions and the clarity with which I could see all the Welsh scenery stretching out ahead. It wasn't until I passed a farm, looked to see Snowdon glinting like a rocky diamond over my shoulder and began to comment on it, that it sunk in. My abruptly-halted sentence seemed to echo in the air and disappear. I was definitely alone and for a second, began to lose my nerve. Up until this point, staying out in the hills overnight by myself was not something I'd done, I'd always chosen companionship over solitude. Now, with the acknowledgement that I really had taken the plunge and would be sleeping out in solitary splendour, my earlier conversation with Jane about bears and muggers was suddenly much less humorous and somehow more sinister.
I took a minute to remind myself of my reason for doing this unaccompanied escapade. Finding wilderness in the UK is supposed to be no easy feat. I know this because these days every man and his dog seem to be desperately seeking it elsewhere rather than here. You can't turn on the TV without stumbling across a tale of some hardened adventurer's journey to an unspoilt and unpopulated corner of the globe. Everyone likes to remind you just how crowded our tiny country is and how built-up it's becoming; we bemoan the lack of empty space and long wistfully for something wild. The thing is, it is here – all around us – but we don't even realise it. It's all a case of perspective; a place can seem more remote when you're by yourself, away from the distraction of a companion. Alone, the silence and time for quiet contemplation can make you see things you wouldn't normally notice when entrenched in conversation. But very few people will ever purposefully go out of their way to find that extra dimension to an outdoors adventure. That's what I was hoping to achieve in Wales that weekend.
'Right, this way then I guess,' I said out loud, trying desperately to sound assertive.
I began to climb the slope and was immediately hit by waves of heat. I had decided to walk along a ridgeline that cuts into the sky opposite Snowdon, Wales' highest mountain. It was tall enough to get some amazing views but also was nowhere near as visited as its closer celebrity neighbour. This was key, I figured, when selecting a pitch for wild camping – especially a proper solitary experience. Aside from the obvious necessary water source, the next element you want is remoteness, and the spot I'd selected for my overnight stay was virtually guaranteed to be free of other people.
My rucksack felt heavy on my back as I climbed the first peak to get up high. I still had my 'car legs' on – not quite warmed up enough to have found my walking rhythm and I still didn't feel anywhere near the freedom I experienced belting out bad pop music in the car. Instead, I just felt a bit lonely. At about halfway, sweating profusely to the point where I was kind of glad that I had no companion to see how unfit I was, it hit me. Why was I racing? Who was I trying to impress?
There are definitely two schools of walkers in my experience. One group – I call the Trig Touchers (partly named because of the Ordnance Survey Triangulation Points that they set their sights on, and also because the abbreviation 'TT' reminds me of the TT you see in the names of fast cars, meaning something like Turbo Tank or similarly implying speed) – get something known as 'summit blinkers'. All they can do is see getting to the top as a goal. The walk up and down is just the means to an end. For them, being outdoors is nothing without the glory of reaching the highest point. They want to get from A to B as fast as possible, there's no time to stop for snacks or slow down for a chat with a stranger, and who the hell wants to linger on the top anyway? Just touch it and leave; job's a good 'un.
The second school I call the Mountain Meanderers. For us, getting to the top is all well and good, but really it's the journey that counts so why the rush for the early start? Of course there's time for another coffee before we head out, and let's just linger here for a while to take in the view (secretly catching our breath and trying to look like we know what we're doing while the TTs shoot by).
Everyone knows that if you go out walking with someone from the other school, then something of a battle will commence. Usually it's a couple. Often they are arguing about one going too fast or the other faffing for too long. But always, the TTs will win. If you're a Meanderer like me, you spend most of the day chasing your sportier model uphill, trying to slow their pace by asking inane questions about the vegetation or view just to try to make them stop and (sometimes literally) smell the roses. A word of warning: this tactic rarely works on a TT. You will usually get some kind of brush-off reply like, 'We'll look at the map back at the car' or 'It's just heather, come on'. Granted, there are the rare occasions when they stop and you manage to race to catch them up and surge with the ecstatic feeling of standing next to them, side by side for once – rather than catching the odd glimpse of their Gore-Tex-encased backside. You quickly wipe the sweat from your forehead, mumbling something about the warm weather (even if it's cold) and try to slow your breathing so you don't sound like an asthmatic walrus, when all of a sudden they decide that the break is over and shoot off again like a hyperactive squirrel.
But here, on my own, I was racing my way up to a summit even though there was no TT to catch up with. I could sit if I wanted to, have a ten-minute snooze if the mood took me, and even turn back to the car and give up on the whole thing if I liked. So I took a breather, removed my rucksack and sat on its cushioned contents as though it were my own personal pouffe. I then rooted around for a chocolate bar and ate the whole thing piece by piece, not feeling the least bit of guilt. This was why I had come in the first place: to enjoy this kind of indulgence. The chance to do things as I wanted, without having to answer to any other person.
Fuelled by this minor epiphany (and possibly a sugar high courtesy of a Cadbury Boost bar), I began up the hill once more, taking it as slowly as I liked. Everything felt easier and I began to relax into it, stopping now and again to watch the distant figures on the top of Snowdon looking over to where I was walking – alone.
A crumbling wall near the top of a minor promontory appeared ahead. It seemed I had nearly made it to the summit of this first bump on the ridge and found myself checking the map in disbelief, certain that this must be a subsidiary false summit.
'Hi,' came the voice of another walker, standing by the pile of stones that demarked the highest point.
Walking in the hills is like stepping back in time. It's a phenomenon I believe scientists have been trying to theorise on for at least twenty years, if not more. Go to any high street in any town or city in the UK and start saying 'hello' or 'where've you been today?' to every person you pass and at best you will get a dirty look, and at the very worst, get arrested for harassment. In the twenty-first century we're just not equipped to deal with that level of friendliness and familiarity and instead prefer the impersonal approach whereby if you don't know me, then don't make eye contact. However, this all changes when you are approximately 97.2 metres from the nearest car park or road (OK, I may have made the measurement up but I will wait for it to be disproved by science before retracting it). Suddenly everyone talks to each other and you'll actually get a dirty look if you DON'T deign to respond. Ignoring someone's 'hello' is, out in the mountains, akin in rudeness to walking up to a stranger, standing next to them and farting very loudly. It's just not the done thing. Here people talk. Anything from hello to weather reports to route choice, what make their jacket is, is that cereal bar they're eating very good and, how do you rate the new Scarpa GTX SLs (they're just boots by the way)?
I'm by no means suggesting that in everyday life we start approaching strangers to discuss our days with them (certainly not if you live down south anyway; if you're up north give it a try – it will probably go down pretty well). But there is something incredibly lovely about it when you're in the outdoors. Maybe it's that social barriers have dropped away; maybe it's because some of us are on our own and looking for conversation; or maybe it's just the thrill of being able to get away with doing something slightly taboo, i.e. speaking to strangers. Whatever the reason, it should be celebrated and cherished and long may it continue.
Having said all that, I was in a state of shock at seeing another live, speaking human being up here. You would have thought I'd been by myself for days, not just an hour.
'Hi, how's it going?' I replied shakily, partly glad of a small snippet of conversation, though partly annoyed that my alone time was being usurped by an unexpected encounter. I didn't want it to lessen my 'real solo experience', though in Wales' most-visited National Park, on a day as stunning as this, I suppose a completely people-free walk was almost impossible. It did give me comfort knowing that help was never too far away and perhaps, though I would never have admitted it had someone asked me during my planning stage, that's why I'd come here.
After a brief exchange about how sunny it had become, I perhaps rather rudely turned and began walking along the ridge, heading west. From there, I had a choice: either to follow the nose of the rock, scrambling on the jagged crests and peering dangerously over the sheer crag-faces that dropped away for hundreds of metres on the right, or to take the path on the left that stuck to the innocuous grassy slope and miss out any hands-on fun whatsoever.
While debating just how brave I was feeling, I heard some voices above. Not just one or two, I could hear six, eight, or more, screaming, shouting and swearing. I backed a few steps away from the incline and sure enough, saw a youth group tackling the scramble ahead. Now if there's one thing that will drive anyone to seek solitude, it's the rambunctious screams of a youth group. Though dressed head to toe in the heaviest and most retro, matching outdoor gear that the centre has available, they are however, doing this by coercion, thereby retaining their coolness. You, on the other hand, are here by choice, making you one step beyond tragic. You are the sad, middle manager that thinks you're one of the gang by taking part in Christmas party karaoke with a tie knotted around your head, wailing away to Bon Jovi's 'Living on a Prayer'. Needless to say, the vibe is not good and if you see such a group, the best thing to do is to get away from them as quickly and quietly as possible. You don't want to draw any attention to yourself, tempting them to call 'rambler' to you as you slink away with a face as red as your socks.
I decided to hang back a few minutes while they gained some ground, planning to sneak around them when they inevitably stopped at the top. Sweat began to drip off my forehead even though I was no longer moving; it was a crazy contrast to the thunder and rain earlier that day. When the coast was relatively clear, I started up the rock – if they could scramble, I was certainly going to – and immediately became aware of the weight of my rucksack pulling me back as I tried to heave myself upwards.
A well-meaning friend had told me before I left that while walking alone isn't innately dangerous, taking a fall by yourself has much more dire consequences. At the time, I laughed this off as a harmless bit of scaremongering, but now, peering over the edge of the crags to a whole lot of air and pointy stone below, I began to appreciate what he had said. Still, I had made a commitment to do this and I was not about to give up now. My determined nature kicked up a gear and I carried on up, taking my time while humming, 'Oh, mmm, halfway there, oh, oh living on a prayer ...' By the time I reached the end of the scramble I emerged over the rocks to find, as predicted, the cluster of kids lying on the grass in front of me. There I was, alone, sweating, my hair dangling in front of my sunglasses like frayed string, pale legs glowing white in the sunshine and an inane 'hey guys I'm cool' type of smile glued to my face. I'm not sure they knew what to make of me.
'Hippy,' one of them ventured, looking to the others for support.
'Swampy,' tried another and a few giggled under their breath. I braced myself for the next name, trying to muster up an 'I'm glam and a walker' kind of air to my stride – though resembling a more 'I'm knackered and embarrassed' amble.
'David – that's enough!' said their group leader, a lad who looked barely five years older than the kids he was with. He shot me a sympathetic glance, 'Hi, you all right?' he said.
'Great, thanks,' I answered, quickening my pace to escape. 'Lovely weather for it,' I responded, wondering to myself when exactly I had begun to talk like my mother.
Soon their hyperactive squeals were left in the distance and I slowed my pace again, wondering if there would be more people to meet on this, my big solo camp. The bleat of a sheep startled me as I was lost in my thoughts. Two sheep actually, staring at me as I made my way to the stack of rocks on the next rise. They boldly began to approach and as they were obviously feeling playful I decided to indulge myself too and began to run downhill towards them yelling 'mint sauce!' at the top of my voice. They ran too and I laughed at how quickly I'd gone from respectable walker to animal-terrorising imbecile.
Excerpted from Extreme Sleeps by Phoebe Smith. Copyright © 2013 Phoebe Smith. Excerpted by permission of Summersdale Publishers Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Phoebe Smith is the author of The Camper’s Friend. She regularly writes for Country Walking, the Guardian, Trail, and Wanderlust.
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