As a child, I used to love a mini adventure. Playing outside, building dens and making pretend knives from trees. I also spent some time in the scouts and later fancied joining the army. Not really to go and fight for my country as ultimately I didn’t fancy getting killed, but to do all the training in the outdoors.
Today most of us will have heard the name Bear Grylls and to spend a night in the middle of nowhere and learn how to survive was always something I wanted to do.
During the back end of 2016 I decided to take some inspiration from Alastair Humphreys and have what he calls a micro adventure.
“A microadventure is an adventure that is short, simple, local, cheap – yet still fun, exciting, challenging, refreshing and rewarding.” – Al Humphreys
‘Charlie’ the Royal Marines Commando and Ben Nevis
A few years ago I met a good friend of mine who is an active Royal Marines Commando. To keep his identity safe, I will refer to him as ‘Charlie’ throughout this post. I found Charlie’s stories fascinating and during one of our many conversations over a freshly brewed coffee, he asked me if I wanted to walk up Ben Nevis, the quick way and during winter!
Jesus! Ben Nevis in winter! Are you having a laugh?
We decided that we would take it one step at a time. I’m currently in my early 40’s, and although I’m not unfit, I’m not ready to walk the most difficult route up Ben Nevis just yet. Charlie doesn’t see Ben Nevis as a ‘real’ mountain and said that he had ascended the highest point in the UK about 3-4 times. Despite his reassurance, I decided to do my research, not only on Ben Nevis but also the Royal Marines.
What I learnt was that several people have died attempting to walk up Ben Nevis, one lady even tried it in her summer clothes. I think the main issue is the weather and navigation. As soon as any bad weather sets in, you become vulnerable if you are not prepared. In fear of being stranded on the mountain, most try and make their way back which can end up proving fatal for some.
As I began to find out, Royal Marines are the elite and can adapt to almost any environment in most places in the World. Although I’d only known Charlie for a short time, I began to realise what skills he possessed as we talked about the postings he had been on and some of the circumstance he had faced. These guys do know their stuff.
We decided to take it a step at a time under different conditions over three evenings. The first would be more of an outing rather than a tactical event. However, we would discuss some tactical aspects during the walk to our location. Charlie would introduce me to some navigational map reading, something I’d not done since the scouts. The second and third outings would get progressively more tactical, to the point of using our environment to keep warm and survive with limited rations. We would hopefully encounter some bad weather by the third outing as well.
Saddleworth Moor – Natures back garden
I do like where we live. I am never too far away from what seems like wilderness. Our first outing was to Saddleworth Moor which is just on my doorstep. This moor is vast and has the Pennine Way running through it. Charlie already had an idea of what we were doing and where we were going, but he had given me limited info to precisely what.
We landed at Saddleworth around midday and parked in a nearby lay-by. Earlier that morning Charlie had given me an insight into what we would be having for our lunch as we packed our ration packs for the day. He also let me feel the weight of his Bergen which stored our belongings. He promised me was only a quarter full and advised me that I would be carrying it for part of the route. Oh, joy!
As we set off, we joined the Pennine Way in glorious sunshine and blue skies. The temperature was around 25 degrees. I had brought only 1 litre of water as I presumed Charlie had brought more. Oops! He had, but just a bottle for himself and an extra 1.5 litres which were for cooking as well.
We had merely set foot when Charlie started providing me with tactical information, and my mind began to think about how they would use this when on exercise. I had bought some specific Ordnance Survey maps of the area so that Charlie could plan our route. I already had a rough idea of how to map read from my early scouting days, so when Charlie handed me the map after giving me a speed review lesson in map reading, it still looked familiar.
We would now leave the Pennine Way single track and go off-piste towards a reference point we had seen in the distance and which we had located on the map. After Charlie lined up the compass, he handed me the Bergen (What? Already?)
and we headed off over the rugged terrain towards our reference point. It soon became apparent that this terrain is a lot different from walking on a single track. With the Bergen on my back and only a quarter full, I soon realised how fit the Royal Marines are, not just physically, but mentally. To me, this felt very heavy. We had not been walking five minutes, and I started to feel how much this thing unbalances you and begins to weight bear on your neck. Imagine if this was full and I had to walk miles!
My trusted Lowa Combat work boots saved my feet from getting wet as we crossed over a boggy run off to get to the other side of where we needed to go. Charlie went over the wet and dry technique several times and couldn’t stress the importance of this is any condition. We were hoping that we would encounter water so we could execute this technique, but at this moment I was concentrating on taking on board all the information he was giving me.
All felt ok until about halfway up. As my breathing started to increase I felt my legs burning and a weird pulsating just under the straps of the Bergen where my neck was. Three-quarters of the way up and I was on all fours, at a snail pace. A voice of encouragement came from Charlie. I couldn’t remember what he said or where he was, but sweat was now dripping down my face and I was struggling to control my breathing. The last push and some more support from Charlie and I’d made it to the top.
At the top, I continued to stand and realised I wasn’t getting enough breath. My mind then took over as I thought I was going to pass out. I flung the Bergen from my back as it felt like it was restricting blood flow to my brain. I sat down and slowly the panic drifted away as my breath started to come back. I looked over at Charlie who had not even broken a sweat. “Let’s have a quick break,” he said. Yeh, I’m glad you said that as I wasn’t expecting to move for a good few minutes yet!
Respect for Royal Marines and members of the armed forces
Charlie began to tell me about his tour in Afghanistan, and I couldn’t start to think what these Royal Marines Commando’s go through. I was nearly ruined by a mere 150ft ascent, with a quarter packed Bergen and we had only been walking for 20 minutes or so. These guys train for months in all sorts of environments, then get deployed overseas into volatile situations with not only a full Bergen but other essentials. Leaving their families at home not knowing whether they would come back or not. I looked over at Charlie and shook my head in utter respect for this man and all the other Royal Marines and members of the armed forces out there. Although I have overcome some personal issues of my own, this seemed insignificant to what sort of mental and physical pain they have to go through.
I am so thankful that we have such people who are willing to put themselves forward to protect our country so that we can live to enjoy our families and our local environment. Thank you.
Navigating us to our camp
My peanut butter paste and energy drink tasted tremendous, and after our reflection, we reviewed where we were and headed towards a small waterfall pictured on the map. I handed the Bergen back to Charlie, and we rejoined the Pennine Way. After a short walk, we went off the track again towards the waterfall. As we got near, we looked for reference points, and double checked our coordinates to see if we were still going in the right direction. Charlie gave me some excellent navigational tips to make sure you are where you think you are. As we got closer, we couldn’t find the waterfall. So Charlie demonstrated how to use back bearings to show us exactly where we were on the map in case we got lost. This sort of knowledge could prove life-saving on Ben Nevis.
Due to the time of the year and the current spell of warm weather we were having, the waterfall was nowhere to be seen. Even though it was referenced on the map, you don’t know exactly how big the things are and this one had obviously gone dry due to the weather. So our wet and dry routine test was out for this mini adventure. Although my feet were dry, my body felt like I’d been under the shower from all the sweating. I took another sip of my water but felt like I needed to keep most of it for later, so I kept the sips to a minimum.
This time it was my turn. Charlie handed me the map and compass (and the Bergen!), and it was my job (under the watchful eye of my instructor) to get us to the wood block where we would be sleeping for the night. What is a woodblock? Yeh, I asked the same question. A wood block is a block of trees situated in the countryside in something that resembles a square or similar shape.
After a few more kilometres we arrived at our final descent. We sighted our woodblock down in the valley. Yes! I had successfully navigated us to where we needed to be. In our current world of digital media and satellite navigations systems, something is gratifying and empowering about using a map and a compass.
We descended the hill towards the woodblock and as we did Charlie handed me some sheep’s wool. “What’s this for?” I asked. “It’s for our campfire; it’s great for getting fires going”. Something so simple but yet so resourceful, it’s the little things like this I love learning. We entered the woodblock and began to look around for a suitable place for us to pitch up for the evening. “Find two tree’s that are about 6ft apart where the ground is as flat as it can be” Charlie instructed. I began to search for a suitable place and came across a stone build hut. Charlie joined me, and although this was great to find, it was not what we required.
The thing is, I’m in the middle of nowhere in a relatively small woodblock, and there is a stone built hut located within the woodblock. How would this small hut have been used? Who lived there? How random! So many thoughts and questions but no one there to answer them. We continued.
Setting up camp, Royal Marines style
We eventually found a suitable place. “Strip that tree of its branches?” Charlie said. Although we had a more leisurely pace for our first outing, Charlie still wanted to give me an insight into how he does things tactically, and we still weren’t going to be using a tent and pegs! I finished stripping the lower branches of the tree as Charlie got the poncho out of the Bergen. We tied both ends of the poncho to both trees and stretched out the sides and secured them to the ground. “How do we get in and out of that?” I asked. This thing was literally about 2ft high. I felt a little silly asking these sorts of questions, but in the Marines, there are techniques for techniques and everything is planned down to the last detail, including getting in and out of our shelter.
One of the main things I wanted to do was to learn how to make a fire. What bloke doesn’t? Making fires as a kid and watching Bear Grylls as an adult, creating a campfire from scratch was a skill I’d always wanted to learn. In my mind, I thought this was something a Royal Marines Commando would do all the time. “No, not really” Charlie advised me. “It leaves too much evidence of our location, so we don’t use them at all.” Awww, does this mean we don’t get to build a fire? As part of the ration pack we had some waterproof matches, so to save time Charlie used the sheep’s wool and explained the way you would arrange the dried out branches to get the fire going and to keep it going. Love it!
The search for water
We were pretty much set up in no time at all, so we ventured to the other side of the wood block to see if we could find some water for the night. We still had about 500ml of water left, and as I checked my bottle of water, I realised I had only drunk about 500ml. Oh dear! Drinking this little may have been a bad move. We managed to find some running water which was coming down from the hill towards the reservoir which was in the distance. Charlie advises that you need to collect water from the run off of a stone ledge or rock in the water. By doing this, it helps to get the cleanest water available, and he advises never to use water that is sitting still as it will be stagnant.
It was at this point I realised that I had not drunk enough water. The water felt fresh and cold as I washed my face straddled over the running stream. Charlie asked me to try the natural spring water. “Will it be ok?” I questioned. “Yeh, I wouldn’t recommend drinking a lot of it, as if it upsets your stomach and you get the shits you will just become more dehydrated, but try it, you’ll be fine.” For some reason, I was expecting this water to taste disgusting, but when this icy cold fresh water went down, it was the best tasting water I’ve ever had! I looked up at the sky and reservoir and thought, this is the life.
Charlie decided to keep the 500ml of water for the morning and filled up his cooking mug with water from the stream. We popped a steritab (another resource from the ration pack) into the water to sterilise it and headed back to our little camp.
Ration packs and cooking
When a Royal Marines Commando is out on exercise, I didn’t realise how much equipment they take. However, Charlie had reduced our ration packs and cooking equipment to the bare essentials for the day. He then gave me the task of setting up our cooker! This essential piece of metal is the smallest, most efficient cooker I have ever seen. A lightweight aluminium tray with folding sides and a metal plate. It was so simple that I couldn’t even work out how it went together! Charlie put me out of my misery and highlighted where I had been going wrong. We then placed our little alcohol gel tabs in the middle of our cooker, lit it with our waterproof matches and put the cooking mug on to boil.
I was now extremely thirsty and hungry and looking at the size of the cooker and his mug I didn’t think I was going to get any tea! Our packs of food also seemed far too big for the cup, and I struggled to see how it would heat them up at all. With a swift folding action, Charlie bent both the packs in half and squashed them into the mug, losing some of our precious water in the process. He reassured me that there would be enough left for a coffee afterwards. Few!
There is something very hypnotic about watching a small fire burn, seeing it work it’s magic to heat our tea. Being under the tree’s with no sound but the distant animals, birds and other tree’s, it felt very tranquil and timeless waiting for my sweet and sour chicken to cook. After a short while, Charlie told me to remove them from the stove. “Are you sure they’ll be warm enough Charlie? It’s chicken you know!” Charlie nodded as I began to open my long awaited food.
“Shit! I nearly burnt my bloody tongue!”
I winced as I took my first mouthful of these rather tasty ration packed meals. Charlie began to tell me more stories about some of his tours which I found fascinating. He says that you eventually become in tune with your surroundings and recognise the slightest difference when something is not right. As I watched the sunset, I began to feel and sense everything start to settle down as it got later. Charlie then told me about the myth of the Slender Man. The Slender Man is described as very tall and thin with unnaturally long, tentacle-like arms. In most stories, his face is white and featureless and is often associated with the forest. Interesting Charlie, thanks for that. Now I’m going to go to sleep, aren’t I!!
Bedding down for the night
My legs were burning as they tried to recover from the days walking and Bergen carrying. I also felt extremely dehydrated as I’d only had 500 or so millilitres of water. What an idiot. It was 25 degree’s, and we’d walked about 4 miles on unsettled terrain, then walked up a big hill carrying what felt like a heavy Bergen, all on 500ml of water! Jeeez! Charlie did the decent thing and let me have the ground mat for beneath my sleeping bag which still felt like raw concrete.
I’d already looked like an elephant trying to climb into a mouse hole while getting into my sleeping bag under the 2ft poncho, but Charlie assures me that a Royal Marines Commando can be out of these in seconds if they become under attack. Yep, that means I would be brown bread if it happened to me.
I struggled to get comfy. I have an ‘S’ shaped back, so it took me a while to try to get my body to lay flat. I can only describe my sleeping position as I had been in a car crash. My head was stuck out from under the poncho with my body in all sorts of directions. Charlie seemed to drop off no problem, while I was there trying to relax and lay as still as I could to try and go to sleep. It’s a bizarre feeling being in the middle of nowhere with no sound. Charlie was right. I began to sense everything going to sleep as the animals and insects bedded down for the night. I was left looking up at the silhouetted trees listening to the gentle wind whistling through the branches. It felt weird.
Weird noises and dehydration
I must have dropped off for about an hour. During that time I still felt like could hear certain noises, mainly coming from what sounded like aircraft. One particular sound was unusual, a deep metallic drone whose frequency seemed to rumble under my mat. I was desperate for more sleep, so kept my eyes shut not wanting to investigate.
I was tired and warm, and I’d also left my clothes on in the sleeping bag which was adding to my dehydration as I was sweating. I had a banging headache and had begun to feel sick, so I decided to remove my clothes while in the sleeping bag, god that was hard work. I reached out for my remaining water, drank the rest of it and managed to get another hours sleep.
Breakfast and an amazing sunrise
As my eyes opened, I looked at the time, and it was 4 am. Charlie was still asleep but began to awaken as I tried to go back to sleep! His words were, “Let’s get some breakfast and get back” In my mind, I said “You must be joking, I’ve hardly had any sleep at all”, but the words that came from my mouth were, “OK, let’s do it.”
We used a little more of our remaining water to cook our breakfast. Charlie was kind enough to let me have the sausage and baked beans pack along with some of the remaining water. We packed our things together and prepared to make our way back. I still felt dehydrated and tired from the lack of sleep, and the thought of walking up the hill we had ascended the evening before, didn’t sit well. Charlie took charge of the Bergen and handed me the rest of the water for the trek home. We decided it would be best to stick to the Pennine Way which we would rejoin at the top of the hill.
This path felt like a long walk back to where we had started from, but I was so glad we had got up at that time to make our way home. As we walked along the Pennine Way, the sun began to rise. There is nothing like the morning sun rising above the natural beauty of the Yorkshire Moors. Stunning. It makes the struggle worthwhile.
We returned to the car, drank a chocolate milkshake on the way home and I was back home in bed at 6.30am.
The next day I had time to reflect on our little mini adventure. We had a fantastic day and evening, and I learnt so much in such a short space of time. Doing all this in the great outdoors was a great experience, but what stuck with me was this. I had a tiny taste of what it’s like to be a Royal Marines Commando, and along with listening to Charlie’s stories, it made me realise the extent of their mental and physical capabilities. It also made me understand the importance of hydration and what effect it can have on your mental and physical state. We have so many gadgets around us we often take for granted the necessary skills of survival, most of which none of us knows. If you get the chance, I encourage anyone to have a go at this at least once in their life. You will not regret it.
I now know I am in extremely safe hands for our trip up Ben Nevis, although I will need to work on my physical and mental ability on a few other mini adventures before we go.
Cheers Charlie 😉