I find the best plans are often the ones you make quickly, with barely enough time to sling your pack into the van and only the vaguest idea of a destination.
A couple of weekends ago, we packed up the van and headed out into the countryside on a sub-zero Friday evening in February. We arrived late, pulling into the empty car park in the rain. At the heart of our winter retreats into the Peak District is the hope to shake the weight of a week spent hunched at our desks and after picking an angled spot by the parking meter and dancing the customary jig we dance to test the hand break, I felt that weight begin to lift a little.
By the dim light of the cab, we piled the duvets onto the back bench and set to arranging our space with a firm determination, pulling out our Tuppawear boxed sandwiches and assembling makeshift blinds for the rear windows. The things you can construct with sticky Velcro patches, a thin roll of insulated foam and strips of gaffer tape truly are a miracle to contemplate. With our blinds fixed in place, and our bedding straightened, we settled in for the night.
Sometimes, it sounds crazy even to me: to spend the night shivering under damp bedding aside a stretch of moorland in the middle of winter, but when we’re curled up in the van, gusts wobbling our suspension and our mattress tending ever downwards with the tilt of the ground below, there isn’t any place I’d rather be. Between Nathan shuffling in his sleeping bag and the steady rainfall, I listened to cars passing on the main road beyond. Following the distant footfall of a fell runner heading back from the peaks, I fell to sleep.
I woke to the shrill warble of wind passing over the van roof at 7am, bleary eyed, with the insulation drooping from the windows and resting against the bridge of my nose. I peered out of the back windshield, past the streaks of condensation at the curved ridge of Burbage North.
Extending from the boxed hood of the tailgate, the edge, almost Jurassic, rises from the horizon and sits as a reverent witness to the valley below: a prehistoric monolith casting back to a time long before. The rain of the previous evening had given way to a brisk, bright skied February morning, and if I’d remembered to pack my glasses, I’d have seen the first of the day’s climbers setting up their gear in the grey half-light.
Tearing myself from the relative comfort of the bed, I pulled open the van door to greet a huddle of shivering ramblers. A half moment later, Nathan sat up at a right angle, mummified in down jackets and thick winter fleece, mumbling a vague commentary on the temperature and something about needing a wee. This is easily one of my favourite views: the uncertain, inquisitive faces of the people we meet tumbling from the van on a morning, grinning wildly from our sleeping bags.
There being little else to do on camp mornings, our minds turned quickly to breakfast. We set to heating a pan of oats, both of us crouched over the camping stove in the shadow of our bouldering mats, which we’d set up as a makeshift windbreak. After a few minutes braced against a cold wind, we shared a look which said ‘’can you use a camp stove inside?’’ and hauled the burner onto the van floor. With our breath clouding up the windows in the damp and the cold, and Nathan vowing never to camp in the winter time again, we ate our oats, enjoying the sound of the early spring birds and coordinating plans to meet friends to boulder for the day. Pack down was hurried, as it always is, and we laced our hiking boots to begin the day.
Upon scaling the stile dividing the edge of the carpark from the sloped amphitheatre of Hethersage Moor, the boulderer has three options: a faint cattle path runs the length of the plateau, dropping down into the bowl of the valley towards a dense cluster of woodland. Ahead, runs a clearer path: today already dotted with dog walkers and joggers. The leftmost path follows the curve of the road, to join a wider track running the length of the north edge.
With a few hours before we’d arranged to meet our friends, we took the cattle path first, diverting from the crag on a recon of the surrounding area. We left the matts stacked in the cab so as not to have to lug them down the grassy hill and followed the brook towards the tree line where we separated. Nathan headed deeper into the woods and I sat by the water, talking a little to my camera about the day’s first big excitement, passing Shauna and Ned on the path.
It’s here, our story takes a sorry turn. Nathan, having inadvertently scouted the local bog land, returned wet from foot to thigh.
‘’What happened? What? How?’’ you hear me ask on the rolling camera.
‘’It looks like a path but it’s really boggy’’, comes the reply and next, the sounds of wrung water and a heavy sigh.
We headed back to the van by the steeper, ill defined line of the brook and retired Nathan’s damp clothes to the boot of the van. Now within range of phone signal, we were able to join Faye and Archie not far from the car park, full now and bustling with people as the Peaks always are on dry, clear winter days.
We meandered slowly from block to block, scrabbling up faces in the sunshine and shifting our shoes and chalk buckets slowly towards the end boulders. The bulk of the midday hours were spent pulling ourselves up slabs of gritstone, sharing banana bread and laughing each time Archie or Nathan would swing wildly from a line. We eventually settled mid way down the trail and assembled our bouldering matts under a Burbage classic, ‘Boyager’, the younger and lesser graded brother of the boulder problem ‘Voyager’.
The boys set eagerly to feeling the holds; Faye and I hanging back, necks craning to find the decent holds. There aren’t any. I tired after a few feeble attempts, and retreated to the pads, content to operate the camera if supplied with flask coffee and banana bread.
The boys made headway, clamping the fridge like structure with their thighs and firing ever more extravagant beta at each other. It’s exactly this that I love about bouldering: battling with a puzzle that demands the limits of our physical and mental capabilities and the funny solutions it encourages. It’s a therapy, of sorts. A therapy that develops the virtues of persistence, and emphasises the value in patience and determination.
Within the hour, Nathan stood victorious, having executed the perfect whale flop over a less than perfect edge. We celebrated, toasting to banana bread and whilst debating the merits of the ‘legs-wide-open angle’ for the perfect climbing shot, we retreated from the forest and joined the path once again.
We followed on the path until it fell away, passing a last scattering of boulders on the hill before a stretch of heather broke the landscape in two. The light was fading now, the air shifting to lower pressure and growing colder by the half hour. Gazing up at the moon, nearly full and stark white against the fading blue of the sky, I took pause to reflect on the days adventures. I was happy as I always feel to wander, heavy footed, through the heather towards the car and the promise of coffee.
There’s a distinct healing quality to the first tentative sip of a hot drink out of a plastic camping mug after coming in from a long day in the peaks; the tonic of wilderness and accomplishment. Freeze-frame: the two of us squidged onto the back bench, nursing steaming mugs of Azera and waiting for our hands to warm up again before setting off to find a place to camp for the night- the sun dipping below the dim outline of Stanage to the North as we pull out of the car park and join the empty expanse of tarmac headed deeper into the park.