Some trips are not about setting records or discovering untrodden places but rather to embrace the spirit of adventure. In a team of two, we headed to the east coast of Sweden, near Sankt Anna, and headed into the archipelago in a kayak with a tent, a map and food.
It was a simple formula for how to explore but ticked all the boxes. With sunshine and calm water most of the time (at least that’s what my memory and photo album tells me), it was a chance to navigate our way around and find secluded spots on islands to pitch a tent and relax. A chance to get lost, embrace the moments of calm at sunset and rhythmically paddle through the water.
Adventures do not have to be overly arduous or pioneering. This was a wonderful way to switch off from the rhythm of day-day working life. It was an opportunity to go somewhere new, to feel like exploring and rejoice in the peacefulness.
Cycle from London to Paris, hop on the Eurostar and return to London within 24 hours. A compelling and totally unnecessary idea obviously arranged over a pint in a pub. I had a free weekend a fortnight later so booked a ferry to take me to France.
I thought Marble Arch to Arc de Triomphe had a nice ring to it so off I went from a fairly bleak and soggy London at 2 p.m. 70 miles later and I was ready to board the ferry with nothing but my cycling kit and a small rucksack of essentials. Arriving in Dieppe at 9 p.m was fairly bracing but on the headtorch went and Gareth, my trusty Garmin Sat Nav, showed me where to go and the pedals began to turn – 120 miles to Paris.
There was something appealing about meandering my way through Northern France in the dark. A sense of calmness was brought about in the first few hours as cars were at a minimum and I just had the gentle whirring of my wheels on the French tarmac. Sadly, that feeling did not last the course. As food and water supplies began to dwindle, my energy levels soon joined. With around 50 miles still to Paris and sunrise a fair way off, my reasons for doing this particular jaunt became less apparent. Feeling rather stranded and with a flagging iPhone battery, I was fairly short of options other than to keep going.
I finally rolled along the Champs Elysees and reached the Arc de Triomphe relieved and pleased at 8 a.m. A lovely Parisian coffee stop was obviously next on the list before I headed to the Eurostar and dozed my way back to London. A final and lethargic stint on the bike took me back to Marble Arch for 11 a.m, 21 hours after setting off.
A great trip blending foolishness and a totally arbitrary end goal. If I were to do it again, which I would like to, then a teammate would probably be pleasant – sadly Harry wasn’t around. A change of timings also overnight cycling was fairly unnecessary. Regardless, it was a fun experience so I can look back with positivity.
The idea of swimming from Europe to Asia appealed for obvious reasons. Combining that challenge with the unique history around the Hellespont swim ensured it was fairly high on my bucket list.
The first officially recorded crossing of the Dardanelles (now known as the Hellespont) was by Lord Byron in 1810, but this passage is steeped in mythology from the time of Hero and Leander. The wonderful travels and writings of Paddy Leigh Fermor, who swam it aged 69, only heightened my desire to give this iconic event a crack.
On ‘Victory Day’ every year, one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world is closed for two hours, to allow several hundred swimmers the chance to make the crossing from Europe to Asia, and follow the strokes of greats before them. There is something very pure in setting off from a beach in Europe in your trunks and goggles and ending up in Asia an hour or so later.
The start was indicative of the fairly haphazard organisation of this event. One local just decided to charge into the water at a totally arbitrary time. After a few more followed him, Ed and I looked at each other and concluded that the clock must have started.
As a result of the north-south currents, you can’t aim straight for the finishing line, to do so would result in being stranded south of the finish and hopelessly battling against the currents. Instead, you aim roughly for an electricity pylon and then veer off towards to finish depending on your boldness and swimming ability. I found it important about halfway through the swim to pause, lie on my back and take stock of the absurdity of the event. I could just see yellow swim hats bobbing up and down across this huge body of water as the sun shone down. It was a surreal moment worth savouring.
There was no typical Hellespont swimmer. It included all shapes and sizes from Turkish teenagers to Australian pensioners and everything in between. I’ve learned over the years not to cast too quick a judgement on people’s speed until after a race – he who laughs last, laughs loudest. I managed to finish in the top 15% in a time of 1 hour 4 secs – those 4 seconds rather amused me – I blame the butterfly technique halfway across.
We both made it across and proudly pottered around town with our medals before sharing anecdotes with fellow swimmers at the post-event party. It was a wonderful occasion to be part of and the extraordinary nature of it means I highly recommend anyone to give it a whirl and also become a transcontinental swimmer.
Post-Seven Summits I sought a new kind of adventure. My work with Discovery Channel was ongoing but I thought it would be an opportunity to explore Europe away from sponsors or pressure. I wanted a chance to do something fun for the sake of it.
Why Split? It’s a good question really and I can’t answer it appropriately other than saying the Adriatic Coast is a beautiful place to visit and it allowed us a month of exploring 1500 miles over seven countries with a seaside finale. That was reason enough really. Jamie and I’s fairly haphazard planning began not too long before our scheduled departure date.
Things did not quite go according to plan at the beginning of our venture. A rogue passport, a missed ferry and a rather delayed arrival time at Bruges. Thankfully it was not a sign of things to come. From Belgium we averaged around 100km/day through Holland and into Germany. That sort of distance allowed decent mileage covered while enabling time to explore en route. It became as much about the culture and people we met along the way as the cycling and route planning.
Our path through Germany took us along the Rhine before taking in the city of Ulm, inclusive of the highest cathedral in Europe, the fantastic university town of Heidelberg and finally ending up in Munich. A fairly hazy night there rather slowed progress the following day but our advance into Austria, encompassing a local beer festival in Kitzbuhel, seemed to be going well.
The searing August heat was certainly testing our hydration strategies but Jamie finally relented to my badgering and over the Grossglockner Pass we went. This is a truly stunning road that I highly recommend and one of the most challenging cycle routes in Europe. We were given a round of applause by a few American tourists when we reached the summit as our fully laden bikes were rather out of place amongst emaciated lycra clad ninjas.
A couple of fairly interesting navigational decisions combined with a total refusal to acknowledge signposts took us briefly (and rather surprisingly) into Italy before we ended up in Ljubljana. Slovenia is a country I have been back to since and think is a true gem with lovely people, landscapes and a fascinating history. A sojourn to Lake Bled was a charming spot, unlike an unexpected mountain pass with 25% inclines, but we continued south and finally made it into our seventh and final country, Croatia.
An excellent final few days ensued as we moved along the coast, island hopping along the Adriatic, topping up our tan and tweaking a ropey swimming technique. We made it to Split in good time for a celebratory night out and a return to the UK with questionable haircuts, tan lines but great memories as well.
Overall it was an enjoyable adventure for us both before we headed towards Sandhurst and subsequently commissioned into The Light Dragoons. A trip like this is something enormously achievable for everyone. If you’ve got flexibility then you can adjust the final destination, the stop-offs and the distance you want to cover per day according to the situation to make it constantly exciting and enjoyable.
Three Peaks (solo)
I had a spare weekend so thought it would a good idea to re-visit a previous challenge and see how I would fare doing it on my tod.
After a few days on the West Coast of Scotland, one of my favourite places, I headed to Fort William in my fitful Vauxhall Astra and set off from Ben Nevis at 11.13 with a view to finishing in anything under 20 hours.
It was as much a battle to remain compos mentis through the 500 miles of driving as it was to cover the 26 miles and 3000m of ascent. I thought a bit of sleep deprivation might be good training for the year ahead at Sandhurst.
I won’t bore you with all the particulars of how it panned out. A 15 min cat nap in a layby somewhere in Cumbria, an effective supply of caffeine and a good stock of flapjacks meant I managed to climb Ben Nevis and Scafell Pike with a total ascent time of 5 hrs 58 mins. A similar speed up Snowdon would easily allow me to complete my goal.
In typical Welsh fashion, the weather disagreed and despite being a well-trodden route, and one I had done several times, I couldn’t see more than a few metres in front of me. This was yet another reminder, regardless of one’s experience, of the dangers of navigating in the mountains when the weather is poor.
Overall I made it up and down Snowdon in 2 hrs 53 mins ensuring I finished in a total time of 19 hrs 4 mins. Despite having negligible summit visibility, it was a great experience and a nice test before joining the Army and embracing a whole new lifestyle.
Three Peaks (team)
Shortly after coming up with my Seven Summits goal, and with little experience in the mountains, I decided to try a well-established objective, the Three Peaks 24 hours Challenge.
The aim is to climb the highest peaks in England, Scotland and Wales (Scafell Pike 978m, Ben Nevis 1,345m and Snowdon 1,085m) in a 24-hour period. The total distance covered is approximately 26 miles on foot (500 miles by car) with a total ascent of 3,000m.
With Dad acting as a very diligent and sleep deprived driver, myself and two others had plans to complete it, not just under 24 hours, but also to top Dad’s previous Three Peaks time of 21 hrs 59 mins. With a bit of luck on the weather front and no traffic, it was an achievable target.
Ben Nevis was ticked off fairly quickly, albeit with a typically bleak summit. I went up the main route when I was much younger so was familiar with the zig zags and after a swift descent, we were in a good position for the remainder of the challenge.
The first few hours of Scafell Pike were done under the beam of a headtorch before a wonderful sunrise over the Lake District. A scramble up Mickledore led to another wet and windy summit before we headed down, took on more calories and headed for Wales. Bacon cooked on the engine, beef stew in a thermos and pasta seemed to do the job to keep us in good spirits before dozing off and leaving Dad to make up time on the roads.
A quick drop-off at the base of Snowdon allowed the three of us to charge up. We reached the top in some pleasant weather and try and make it back down, albeit with some fairly sore blisters (see pic), before the clock caught up with us.
Thankfully our “sprint finish” was enough to see us through the gates at the base of Snowdon in a time of 21 hrs 49 mins. Overall it was a successful foray into the hills showing the value of teamwork, determination and goal setting.