Mountain man returns

It’s business as usual, now the wanderer has returned from his travels. The smelly bits of ski kit have been subjected to a good thrashing in soapy water, the ski boot inners duly aired and the clanky bits stowed away till next time. True to form, mere minutes in from stepping back through the door, he was busy pounding out ‘mountain rescue’ emails. Not twenty-four hours later, he’s back up the hill in the dark with his pals from mountain rescue, leaving me to catch up on narrowing down the suspect list in Broadchurch. As I say, business as usual.

It’s a truth universally acknowledged, to borrow Austen’s phrase, that whilst you might be able to take the man (albeit temporarily) out of mountain rescue, you’ll have the devil of a job taking mountain rescue out of the man. A truth which the Gremlin proved in spades in the first three days of being ‘unavailable for call-outs’ due to being two plane rides and a two hour drive away from Cumbria. In Norway.

If I hadn’t waved him off at 4.30am on the Friday morning, or peered over his shoulder at a pixellated version of Kirk, his companion for the trip, as they discussed camper vans and flights and meeting up at Oslo airport (the Gremlin travelling from Manchester, Kirk from Calgary) – and spent every bedtime for the last few weeks next to a husband working his way through an ever-expanding stack of Norwegian guidebooks – I’d have known he was unavailable for call-outs the minute he managed to text his unavailability for a mountain rescue call-out, all the way from Tromso, on the Saturday afternoon. Ah, I thought… so his phone IS working then?

For the uninitiated, when the team gets a call-out, team members have to effectively register their intention to attend – or not, as the case may be – so those organising the mountain rescue response know how many hands to expect. Fairly crucial if there’s a stretcher carry involved. I’m copied into the texts, so I can keep tabs on his wherabouts – usually only relevant as a pre-arranged dinner date looms, a can of emulsion is about to be opened, or the in-laws visit, any of which is guaranteed to prompt a call-out.

Before you get the wrong idea, I probably should say that his quick response to the call-out message actually made me chuckle and, to give the Gremlin his due, he had let me know he’d arrived and was regularly in touch throughout his trip. And, in a roundabout way, sending a text to his team colleagues DID indeed let me know he was alive and well. But still.

But there’s more.

‘A great day’s ski touring today,’ ran the first midnight missive. ‘Great weather, great snow and a doctor from Tromso that Kirk knows through ICAR took us ski touring’.  [ICAR is the International Commission for Alpine Rescue]

Then the important bit. ‘We’ve just spent the evening with the Norwegian Alpine Rescue Service who happen to have a training weekend in Tromso.’

How’s that for coincidence, eh?

Kirk, you see, is an international mountain guide and technical rope rescue expert, who runs courses for mountain rescue teams all over the world, including here in the UK. He knows these Norwegian chaps through ICAR and has taught on this very same training weekend in the past. Cue lots of hanging out with his international mountain rescue ‘cousins’. I could feel the glow of that cheeky grin from here: happy as a pig in poo.

On the Sunday, the pair spent the day with their new Norwegian pals, flying in a Sea King (no longer in commission in the UK), and not just observing but getting hands-on in a rescue training exercise. In the evening they joined them ski touring for a few hours, followed by sushi (a new favourite, I’m told. Watch out Fyne Fish). Altogether a full-on day.

‘Missing you,’ he added. Yeah, yeah…

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Norwegian Sea King © Chris Cookson & Co.

Taking the piste

‘You must be partying every night!’ quipped Pete, as I parked up on the rescue team car park. ‘Not half as much as he is,’ I thought. But, joking apart, I find this whole ‘husband going on trips thing’ bloody hard. It’s not the going away that bothers me, it’s that niggling worry he might not come back, what with all that seriously technical clanky stuff he packs.

‘You’ll have to clip his wings,’ jokes another friend. But in truth I wouldn’t dream of it. It’s what he does. It’s what he IS.

Only weeks after we met, he was off to the wilds of Alaska for two weeks with another rescue pal, dropped off by a tiny single engine aircraft literally in the middle of a snowy nowhere, then pulling their belongings and all their food for the fortnight (entirely tinned tomato-based), behind them on two pulks. No texts or emails then. Just radio silence from a boyfriend I wasn’t sure I had yet. On that occasion, his pal fell down a crevasse, in the middle of this snowy nowhere, breaking his leg. Which meant the Gremlin had to somehow get them both – and all their kit – back to civilisation and the flight home. Nothing much to worry about there then.

Twelve months later, it was Everest and a two month absence. ‘It doesn’t get any easier,’ admitted Ali, the wife of expedition leader, Tim Mosedale (himself a serial summiteer from both sides), as I dropped an excited Gremlin off in Keswick for this, his biggest trip to date, an attempt on the biggest mountain of them all. Sadly, he was prevented going all the way to the top by what he prefers to frame as an ill-timed migraine at camp 2. Me, I frame it another way: whatever guardian angel he had with him on that trip might just have saved his life. We frequently beg to differ on this point.

A couple of days rest later, his headache gone and his speech returned to normal, he was eager to continue but the medics and Tim thought differently. The Gremlin was already back home when the rest of his group summited, an experience which still breaks his heart.

As an aside, in April 2015, when the fatal earthquakes hit Nepal, both Tim and another mountain rescue colleague were on the mountain, leading expeditions from opposite sides. Both survived but witnessed the devastation and death first hand. A stroll in the park this most definitely is not.

‘Do you really worry when he goes away?’ asked Laura, another team pal.

‘Yes, I do,’ I said. ‘Because it’s not normal, what you all do. You think it is, but it’s not.’

Most people don’t stick pointy things on their boots, strap a couple of ice axes to their wrists, and kick and hack their way up frozen waterfalls. Most people don’t pit their wits against the mountain gods, teetering across deep, deep crevasses on ladders you’d think twice about using at home – wearing crampons! – or sleep in tiny tents up in the clouds, where there’s so little oxygen available, any breath you take could be your last. Nor do they plod up virgin snow-covered peaks with skins clipped and glued to the bottom of their skis for traction – or with skis strapped to their rucksack – for the thrill of fresh tracks, miles from anywhere.

Okay, I know many do in the circles we move in. But this is unquestionably extreme sport. Extreme adrenalin rush. I know that with long experience comes the skill, the familiarity with the equipment and the depth of knowledge of weather patterns, environmental factors and terrain, which enable the dynamic risk assessment the Gremlin and others need to survive through to beer o’clock. But, on a spectrum of human behaviour, it’s still not normal. Extraordinary, yes, Normal, no.

I’m not averse to a spot of high risk activity off piste myself, of course. I completely understand the thrill of gliding through pristine snow, but I prefer to be delivered to my start point for the day by a lift system, thank you.

While he’s away, I fill my time with work and friends and shopping and yoga and meditation, gardening, bingeing on box sets, getting stuck into the odd glass of wine, or taking myself off for mini-adventures of my own. But it doesn’t mean it’s not still there, gnawing away at the edges.

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The Gremlin and friends, playing out in the Lingen Alps © Chris Cookson & Co.

Crocs away!

One of the benefits of having the house to myself for ten days was the temporary ceasefire in the ongoing War of the Crocs. Ten whole days of not having to constantly return them to the cupboard under the stairs. In the dark. The hell out of my sight.

What was it William Morris said about having nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful?  The Gremlin, of course, would argue that his beloved, bright blue Crocs are indeed useful. He wears them chiefly to put the bins out, an activity (you will recall) I have previously attributed to the Bin Fairy, having never actually witnessed its happening, being still tucked up in bed with my morning cuppa (lovingly delivered by the Tea Fairy).

The Bin Fairy and the Tea Fairy, incidentally, were also – by spooky coincidence – absent for ten days, resulting in my having to both make my own morning tea AND put the bins out. Do you think there’s a connection?

Whatever. The reason I bring it up here is that – quel horreur! – Crocs are now cool. So says designer luvvie Christopher Kane who has transformed them into, I quote, ‘a marble-print must-have dotted with sparkling pieces of moon rock and crystal’, with a price tag to match. £275 if you’re tempted.

Looking not unlike the stuff me and my fellow first year fashion design students might have produced, back in the day, whilst exorcising our more ridiculous creative demons, the Kane Crocs are so gross, I’ve almost warmed to the simpering simplicity of the Gremlin’s. Just don’t let the Gremlin know.

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