Wednesday, 31 August 2016

#023 Expeditions, Projects & Extinctions

'Anthropocene Extinction', 'Poaching Crisis', 'Marine Destruction'.

A reading of the September 2016 'Extinction Special' edition of Geographical magazine, leaves a sense of dismay at how desperate things have got for many of the living things on our planet. There's nothing new about the message, our most well known and respected naturalists have been broadcasting it for years. David Attenborough's State Of The Planet address at the turn of the millennium made for hard viewing.

As Homo sapiens relentlessly encroaches on the natural world and its inhabitants, the viewer is presented with a choice: leave behind a flourishing planet or a dying one.

"The future of life on earth depends on our ability to take action. Many individuals are doing what they can, but real success can only come if there is a change to our societies and our economics and in our politics. I've been lucky in my lifetime to see some of the greatest spectacles that the natural world has to offer. Surely we have a responsibility to leave for future generations a planet that is healthy, inhabitable by all species".
                                                                                    David Attenborough - in closing.

So what is meant by the Anthropocene (or Holocene) extinction? Without putting shoe shine on it, we are currently living in the middle of a mass extinction event, which is principally down to the proliferation of modern humans. Not since the Cretaceous, 66 million years ago, has the rate of extinction been so high, some estimates have it currently running at tens of thousands of species per year! The Anthropocene epoch covers many thousands of years, but lets look at just a few examples of the iconic mammals and marsupials we have lost forever in the past 150 years: Quagga, Thylacine*, Pyrenean Ibex, Javan Tiger and the Western Black Rhino, in 2011!

(*Based on a novel by Julia Leigh, if ever there was a film dramatising the madness of extinction, The Hunter is that film. The ending...!)

Then add to this the locally extinct mammals, birds, amphibians and collapse of marine ecosystems. It doesn't take a clairvoyant to see that things are set to get much worse:

"If you're an animal bigger than a breadbox and not more than a day, or half day's walk from a road, your days are numbered"
                                                               William Robichaud - Global Wildlife Conservation

Most of my personal wildlife experience has been focused upon sub-saharan Africa, and in particular East Africa. The current poaching crisis occasionally makes the television news, so its safe to say most of us are aware of the problems facing elephant and rhino. But to couch some numbers against this: In March 2016, The Guardian reported that African elephants 'are being killed faster than they are born'. Statistics from Save The Rhino indicate that, in South Africa alone, over 1000 rhino have been poached each year in 2013, 2014 & 2015. This has risen from just thirteen in 2007.

However, fewer people know that since 1900 the African lion population has dropped from one million to just 20,000 by current estimates. Rather than poaching, it seems the cause is down to human encroachment. The area which wild lions are now known to cover has shrunk to just eight percent of their historical range. How could the fact that the king of beasts is in serious trouble have dropped off the media radar?

The reason could be to do with our perception of time. Conservation, by definition, tries to protect what is here today. If encroachment and degradation of habitat happens over a long period of time, several decades or more than a human lifetime (in the case of African lions) then the animal population is managed to fit within its slowly depleting range. In his thought provoking and illuminating book Feral, George Monbiot describes this as 'shifting baseline syndrome' where species are being managed into extinction.

The evocative and sometimes controversial remedy to baseline shift is to reinstate the extent and diversity of habitat by 're-wilding'. Several years ago, before many people had come across the term, I made this the subject for one of my discussions during my Mountain Leader Assessment. I started off with management of chalk grassland to facilitate the re-introductions of the rare Adonis blue butterfly, which had gone locally extinct in some regions. Without exception, the group nodded in approval.

Next I moved onto the white tail sea eagle programme in the Western Isles of Scotland. The group listened to this with even more enthusiasm. Anecdotal proof that people readily engage with iconic species. If these animals are protected and are thriving, it is an indicator that the trophic pyramid of life supporting their existence is diverse and healthy. The reintroduction on beaver was next up. Here there were some questions and curiosity, especially from the paddlers in the group, as to their effect upon river systems.

Lastly, I revealed my trump card. The wolf. I don't think anyone expected it. There was a moment of silence, before the thought of this apex predator, extinct in the UK since the 18th Century, once again roaming the wild. But also bringing much needed balance to an environment suffering from over population of deer (there are more deer alive in the UK now that at any other time and their presence is suppressing growth of young trees). The conversation ignited with interest. Although, there remain many hurdles to overcome before wolf reintroduction becomes a reality.

Of course, it's much easier to sell the concept of re-wilding to outdoor leaders who are already enthusiastic about nature and wilderness. But, there are other people who's livelihood and careers come from the land. Re-wilding will attract resentment and hostility if schemes are railroaded without consideration to other land users.

In August 2016, in an interview with The Sunday Times, bushcraft expert, Ray Mears' thoughts illustrate that there is is still much work to do regarding attitudes to re-wilding.

"Plans to reintroduce lynx and wolves should be put on hold until people learn to live with the predators already in Scotland." 

Recently, (amidst the tawdry and shabby politics) a less publicised result of Brexit is the danger that we may lose much of the European legislation which aimed to protect wildlife and habitats. Also there is uncertainty regarding the continuation of scientific funding which underpins this legislation. Unless this is re-routed, rather than appropriated by government, there could be dark times ahead for conservation projects in the British Isles.

But all the legislation, multitude of NGO's, charity campaigning, 'raising awareness', CITIES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) blocks on trade in animal products, IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red Lists, is obviously not working well enough. Since I was very young there has there been fundraising efforts to 'save the Amazon rainforest'? What happened to all that money? It should have the whole ecosystem protected by now with local people employed as custodians of it.

But, this is not a blog written to 'raise awareness'. Recently, Observer correspondent Peter Ross eloquently wrote on a unrelated subject:

If there is one thing that we need to stop doing as citizens of social media, it's raising awareness. We have more awareness of what is going in the world right now than at any point in human history thanks not only to the internet, but to the instant connectivity that social media provides. Unfortunately mere awareness of any issue actually does nothing.
So instead of this just being a useless rant, I'm going to make one proposal that has the potential for wide reaching and long term good on a global scale.

I'm not going to pretend that there is one magic answer to the issues facing wildlife and habitat. The answers to conservation issues are multi-faceted. But primarily it all comes down to money, the will of governments and of people to care enough to lobby their leaders to take action. Crime, corruption, poverty, access to education and healthcare are all blockers to making change happen.

Indeed, why should a hard working family in the UK, who are having to rely upon food banks to feed their kids, care about what happens in Africa (or anywhere else for that matter) when they are living in a dystopian country seemingly intent on sending whole sections of society back to Dickensian times. If this seems like a hard sell, then next try convincing the subsistence communities in developing countries.

Conservationists often speak of ensuring wildlife is here for our children and future generations. Talking about tomorrows generations is too abstract, too easy to think of as less immediate. Well here's the wake up, those children and teenagers are already here and they're growing up fast. They are the upcoming entrepreneurs, leaders and influencers of opinion and policy.

On the expeditions I lead, I'm frequently surprised at how disengaged many young people feel about environmental issues. It's as if the last 30 years of blue chip BBC Natural History Unit films and the message they carry hasn't yet made it onto the national curriculum. One complaint I do have about wildlife programmes is that they 'raise awareness' - that phrase again - but rarely go on to suggest what difference the viewer can make (other than simply coughing up money).

If our natural world is going to survive the Anthropocence, isn't it about time to inspire and engage a whole generation in a practical way?

I have been a leader for schools expedition company World Challenge, for six years. During this time I have worked alongside Challegers on some superb community projects: Helping local laborers rebuild the house of a genocide widow in Rwanda has to be the most poignant. On every project I am extremely proud of the Challengers and what they have achieved with just hand tools and a lot of hard graft.

When on World Challenge in Namibia, the trekking phase was in the Gondwana Concession section of Fish River Canyon. The custodian of the base hostel was also a biologist. She had worked with school groups conducting ecological surveys and suggested that school's expedition companies could make a useful contribution to this kind of data gathering. Since then, this topic has arisen regularly in conversations with fellow expedition and outdoor leaders.

The ethos of schools expedition companies can include environmental awareness alongside the experiential development of the participants. There are other companies which focus on selling conservation tourism, but these tend to be the sole focus of the trip. It seems that there remains an untapped resource and opportunity available to schools expeditions to move beyond awareness and into significant action.

Offering conservation projects as a part of the developmental ethos would have a far reaching positive legacy as well as a new business growth opportunity.

The traditional type of expedition projects are already providing subsidy to communities, so why not take this principle and apply it to conservation and ecological assignments. Science and research is data driven. The immediate benefit would be the contribution made by participants to this at grass roots level. The participants would gain training and skills for example in species identification, surveying, sampling, statistics, tracking methods and technology. To ensure that the activity yields useful results, it might include a training phase in advance of the project, possibly even in the home country.

Participants benefit in gaining skills, experience and real world context to their studies, making their portfolio more attractive to higher education applications and employers.
Science and conservation benefits from a subsidised workforce to achieve faster conclusions.
Wildlife benefits from more action in reversing habitat destruction and the rush to extinction.

Careful selection of projects would ensure participants believe and know what they are doing is important and that it will make a real difference. It's an litmus test which is already being applied to community type projects by reputable schools expedition providers. If we look at the schools expedition providers in the UK alone, if just half of the projects shift towards a conservation emphasis, there would be hundreds of expeditions each year with thousands of participants, providing the potential for enormous and far reaching positive change.

It is only by winning hearts and minds of this generation that we will win the battle against the Anthropocene Extinction.


Wednesday, 24 August 2016

#022 Cookin' Up East African Style


In July 2016, I led my sixth expedition for World Challenge. With many previous visits on safari and trekking, each time I return to East Africa, in particular Tanzania, feels like coming home. But, the south was to be a new experience. In many ways, I found the pace of life easy going. The trekking and safari operations were low key, but no less professional than their counterparts on the Northern Circuit, Mt Meru and Kilimanjaro.

While on the project phase, the team camped in a quiet and picturesque wood bordering the Udzungwe Mountains National Park and adjacent to the Msosa River. During our stay, Victor, the camp manager arranged for us to participate in a day preparing and tasting East African style food. It was a great experience and very beneficial to the team throughout the expedition, in helping us see what is possible to create with just a few fresh ingredients.

We also tasted the fruit of the Baobab tree. High in antioxidants, essential minerals and vitamin C, baobab fruit is being hailed as a 'new' superfood and now being added to cereal bars and smoothies. Traditional uses include, mixing the fruit powder with water and sugar to produce a sherbet like drink.
However, eaten from the husk, it tastes a little astringent and dry.

On arriving in Dar Es Salaam, at the beginning of our expedition, we had to decide what we would be cooking on. Our basic choices were: meths-trangias, gas burners, charcoal burners and open fire. Naturally, every expedition leader has their own preference. I like the open fire option, but did also acquire two medium size charcoal burners in Morogoro town, just in case we were in locations where firewood was scarce. I didn't want to be cutting trees, if they were scarce around camp sites, for the purpose of cooking, as just a few commercial groups can ruin the very beauty of a place they have come to visit.

Occasionally, whilst waiting for water to boil in the morning for a Africafe coffee, I wished for the instant heat of a gas burner. Prior to the Mt. Rungwe trek, I had met a World Challenge team who had not enjoyed the best of weather on the trail. However, in the following dry sunny days, the pre-cut timber (the trail led through managed cash crop forest) was drier and easy to light with a 'jungle kit' (fire steel, vaseline and cotton wool product). I had brought a parabolic solar fire starter from the UK, but at the times when it was needed (early morning and late afternoon) the sun's rays were either not strong enough or the campsite was under the forest canopy.

I heard one leader had managed to locate a source of meths in Dar Es Salaam. On some expeditions, the search for this has sometimes taken us on a mythical quest, with the red herring of non-combustible cleaning meths (in similar bottles) causing much frustration. However, it appeared that combustible meths in Tanzania can be found in Pharmacies.

I'm not a big fan of trangias when journeying with large groups, they fragment the team and its difficult to have all the ingredients ready at the same time. This said, there was one time in Rwanda where the team were not following their own cooking / washing up rota. So to defuse the tension, we had a tent group 'masterchef' competition. Each tent group were given a fixed amount of money, had to negotiate and agree with each other use of communal items, then cook a substantial dinner with a sample portion for the School Leader and Expedition Leader.


Boil potatoes in salted water
Add vegetables
Add masala spice mix
Add washed rice, then top up with freshly boiled water to cover the mix.

MEAL 2 - BBQ GOAT (Nyama yambusi)
Score goat fillets with knife and put on hot griddle, turning frequently to ensure cooked evenly and thoroughly.

Boil cubed goat meat, drain and fry.
Any unused uncooked meat can be salted and hung, this will keep for a meal the next day.
Fry vegetable mix (cabbage, onions, peppers, carrots, tomatoes)
Add mashed garlic and grated ginger
Put together, add chopped tomatoes, bring to boil and simmer.

A East African staple. Sticky in consistency so can be shaped into a scoop and eaten from a communal stew pot.

MEAL 5 - BEANS (Maharage) with RICE (Wali) or (Ugali)
These beans look like haricot used in baked beans, and taste similar.
They have to be carefully sorted to remove any gritty stones or spoiled beans.
Preparation time is long, as they need to be boiled for 2 hours.

MEAL 6 - CHIPS OMLETTE (Chipsi Mayai)
A Tanzanian favourite. Simply add fried chips to an omlette mix, as one would with a Spanish omlette. Add masala spices or a little chilli sauce to zip up the flavour as desired.

Cheap as chips! Often seen cooked at roadside cafes. Best eaten fresh, usually with stew, but World Challenge groups spread jam for a quick and easy snack.

This essential item of kit should never be too far away from the Expedition Leader.
Almost as good as freshly ground, this brew is highly regarded and provides a useful meal replacement when Challengers have resorted to cooking up the dreaded Beanfeast.

Domestic roles in Tanzania are still very much divided along traditional lines in subsistence communities. What our experience of East African cooking showed, especially when putting it all into practice, was the length of time taken to prepare, cook and serve a meal. For a proper dinner, with staple, vegetables and meat, we rarely achieved a time faster than two hours from the point where we created a flame. Without the luxury of running hot water, washing up was another protracted process. Thank goodness the team had a rota, as this task was among the least popular. 

One challenger made a insightful comment regarding life in the village. How when one meal had barely finished, it was time to start preparing for the next. Yet, women had to fit in time to look after the little ones, do washing and work in the fields. The challengers' return to the UK was, almost without exception, accompanied by a fresh appreciation of home luxuries. Indeed, some had begun to question how much 'stuff' they actually needed.

Furahiya chakula chako!
(Enjoy your meal)

Monday, 15 August 2016

#021 A Quantum Of Solace

Expedition Leader, Stu Westfield, reflects upon time journeying along the Tanzania to Zambia highway.


A low bank of grey cloud obscured the horizon. I had hoped to watch the sunrise as I had before, the fiery ball casting hues of magenta, pink and orange before the mid-morning heat. It didn't matter. The tide was in, covering the firm flat sand on which I had enjoyed fast interval training last time I was here. Above the watermark was soft powdery white sand. Not ideal, but it didn't matter.

Because Kipepeo is a long stretch of beach that speaks to me every time I see it and it begs me to run. Every morning in the early light, Tanzanians stride out, with running legs chopping through the soft silica in an easy, effortless style. The air was charged with an infectious warmth, focusing the mind with clarity and building expectation in my limbs. But after a month on multi-phase expedition, my muscles and tendons felt tight. Trekking, community project work and safari had been interspersed with several long journeys on the Tanzam highway whilst confined to a small seat with little leg room on coaster buses.

I stretched, not too deeply at first, then set off. Too fast, I slowed down, finding a more comfortable cadence. Gradually, as movement became more fluid, I dialed into the sweet zone. There was peace and stillness, no rush of wind in my ears, just the swoosh of the Indian Ocean as each ebb and flow gently broke and scooted up to the high tide mark.

There is a saying in Africa: In the morning, the lion runs for its prey and every morning the gazelle must run faster to stay alive. So, no matter who you are, in Africa, when the sun comes up, you'd better be running.

Two Tanzanian lads just overtook me.

East Africa has been food for my soul since my first visit over 12 years ago. But, it has been a far from easy decade. The injustice of bad things happening to good people with alarming regularity has sharpened the mind somewhat. It was a major influence, among others which were rapidly stacking up at the time, in a decision to abandon the gravy train. To refuse to be a slave to a system of false hopes and empty promises. To get back to a life focused upon the enjoyment of experiences.

This was my last day in-country and for the past couple I had been fending off a melancholic sadness at the prospect, as if parting from an old friend. I ran faster, like the antelope. It had been a good month, indeed it was a month filled with firsts; crossing the Great Ruaha River in a dug-out canoe, trekking in the Udzungwa Mountains, visiting Mikumi National Park and leading my group to summit Mount Rungwe. We had traveled from Dar es Salaam in the east all the way to Mbeya in the west and back again, crossing almost the whole width of Tanzania.

At a roadside restaurant, we had met a Belgian couple cycle touring from Dar to Malawi. I recognised them as our coaster bus had passed them the previous day. As they refueled with fresh oranges and grilled meat from the braai, we talked bikes, gears and kit, like cyclists tend to do. They planned to go all the way to Lake Malawi before returning to Dar on the under-utlised and chronically under-funded Tazara narrow gauge line. Virtually all freight and fuel is transported by lorry along the Tanzam highway to west Tanzania. With a little foresight and investment, it wasn't a huge leap of imagination to realise how much could be carried by train.

In the company of Tanzanians, I learnt from Felix our Sisi-Kwa-Sisi trekking guide, one should refer to Lake Malawi as Lake Nyassa. With treaties established under colonial rule, tensions had been bubbling away since independence. Essentially, Felix explained, Malawi has laid claim to the whole of the lake, whilst Tanzania postulates that the border runs along the centre of the lake. The thus far unexploited potential reserves of oil and gas under the lake bed is the cause of frequently raised tensions between the two countries. Locals know when things are kicking off, as vintage military jets fly overhead, rattling the sabre.

Felix changed the subject of conversation. "So tell me about Brexit" he asked.
My head sank in mock despair. "I've come half way around the world and still cannot escape Brexit!".
He laughed, but pursued me further. "What I do know is that politicians have made an awful mess of it and that, in or out, there are a lot of people who feel let down by the whole thing"
"Its the same everywhere" he replied with sage.
"There's got to be a better way" I thought.

Later in the trek, we were joined by local guide Mr. Chaula, who's opening gambit whilst sat around the campfire one evening was:
"So tell me about Brexit?"

River Valley Camp, just outside Iringa, provided an oasis of calm in which to break our journey after a long day on the road. I poured myself a black coffee and sat down on the reception veranda. The veranda was a place vibrant with activity where expedition leaders gathered to oversee final safari and trekking arrangements with the effervescent, Amanda, who put in long hours to ensure each team was taken care of. When the business of the day was done, it became a place where leaders could swap stories, shoot the breeze and talk until the early hours of the morning, all with a never ending cup of Africafe. These were good times.

It was also here that I got talking with an overland biker who had set out from the UK to motor around the continent. Having crossed from Algeciras bay to Morocco he had already rode down the west coast, negotiating the fee for loading his bike on the Congo River, Kinshasa ferry river crossing, down from a ludicrous $200 to $10 over a period of several hours. We shook our heads at the Democratic Republic Of Congo oxymoron.

In the conversation, I forgot to note this intrepid adventurer's name, but I saw him the next morning, preparing for the off. He happily posed beside his Yamaha machine of which he was very proud. "Its not new technology, but it will cope with dodgy fuel, you can get parts almost anywhere and its never failed to start". He patted the fuel tank with paternal appreciation. I wished him the best and wandered over to the restaurant for breakfast.

           "Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it" 
                                                                                                                             - Ferris Bueller

I clicked the shutter release and inwardly laughed as the words from Ferris Bueller's Day Off sprang to mind. The rock pools between the Inner and Outer Sinda islands were full of life. More used to shooting (with a camera!) big game, I had gained my marine safari eyes the day previously whilst ambling through the mangroves and coral shelf at the north end of Kipepeo beach. Louise, one our team School Leaders, and myself were accompanied by fellow Expedition Leader, Rachael, who's zoology expertise gave us a guided tour of this fascinating environment. We found sand dollars, spotted hermit crabs and many other species. Then the moment the tide turned and new water flowed into the pools, hundreds of spider star fish emerged from their crevices, tentacles waving as if seeking a meal. It was an event that occurred every high tide, easily missed, but once seen provided a fascinating enjoyment.

My thoughts returned to the present. I finished my run with a satisfying sprint along the length of the beach. The sun was now a few more inches above the horizon. I walked back up to the beach bar, where the staff had just begun to prepare for breakfast by setting out the coffee and hot water urn. I fixed myself a cup of Africafe, it had become the drink of choice for this trip. I guess, just like many expedition leaders, I am hard-wired to the stuff.  It's a kick start in the morning, an appetite suppressant when food is hard to come by and inevitably its the wide awake club social vice in the evening. At the same bar, in a moment of random serendipity I heard my new cool song...Black Coffee by Everlast.

Every expedition isn't just about the things done and places seen. Its about the people you meet, the friends you make and share time with along the way. It's listening to the story of the person next to you which enriches the experience. Its the camaraderie. It's shooting the breeze around the camp fire, sipping black coffee with fellow expedition leaders and re-telling past adventures late into the night.

It is a quantum of solace.

Monday, 25 January 2016

#020 The 2016 Spine Safety Team

The 2016 Spine Race showed just how far the event has come in the past five years, with a combination of racing dramas, challenging winter conditions and impressive personal stories of endurance making it a vintage year, maybe even the best ever Spine yet.

The Spine Safety Team has also developed in many respects. For the first Spine, we had about the same small number of staff as racers which started at Edale and the deployments were decided in the moment. As the numbers of starters grew, so did the safety team and also the level of advance planning needed for the team to be as efficient and effective as possible. We now begin refining the deployment plan and putting together Safety Teams at least three months before the race itself.

It is testament to the work and contribution by all of the Spine Safety Team and Race Organisation that other races are looking at our methods and procedures with interest. Specifically, how we can run an event like this in winter with all the variations that can throw at us and not be constantly calling on Mountain Rescue.

Regular Spine Challenger competitors, Tim Vriendt and Stef Schuermans, have organised their own new event, The Legends, held in the Belgium Ardennes, March 2016. For this they have brought in expertise from The Spine Safety Team.


The leaders at the front were nip and tuck right up to the final day, until Eoin Keith stole a march on pursuers Pavel Paloncy and Eugene Rosello Sole. Eoin had made the bold statement that his 2015 finish was simply a reccie in preparation for winning in 2016. He appeared unstoppable in his quest, setting the bar to a new high by taking a huge chunk off Pavel’s course record.

The Challenger too brought many new stories and new faces. There has been a succession of fast performances in this 108 mile dash. Making it highly competitive and arguably now as difficult to win as the full Spine. 

Fresh from their work dealing with the terrible flooding north of Manchester just before the event, we welcomed members of local Mountain Rescue Teams racing a special version of the Challenger. Thankfully for local communities, the water levels had reduced, although the effects are bound to be felt for months.

But, to paraphrase seasoned Spiner, Richard Lendon: “The Spine is more than just touching a stone wall at The Border Inn, Kirk Yetholm (or opening those double doors at The Market House in Hawes). It’s about the experience, the camaraderie and being out there on the trail.”

It’s what I struggled to adequately articulate in the interview with Summit Fever in the 2015 Spine movie, leaving the viewer with the cheesy, if not now legendary, Spine chest thump. Thank you to all the folks that joined in the chest thump salute during Spine week, you made it real!


Race Directors Scott & Phil, had a clear vision for the race organisation with specialist teams, each working autonomously, but sharing information and resources when required to ensure the best possible response and outcome for racers and race volunteers alike. This year Robert Campbell and his team ran a semi-remote HQ which processed enquiries and directed calls to Logistics, Fixers and Checkpoint Managers.

HQ also worked closely with Safety Team Coordinators at times of high demand, with a new on-line incident recording system enabling fast dissemination of information. Each incident remained open and was monitored until the action was closed.


This year’s safety team was based on the model I developed for the 2015 Spine. I have already written in previous blogs about how the horrendous storms in 2015 played havoc with our best laid plans. However, there were still very worthwhile lessons to take forwards.

The first was Safety Team structure. New for 2016, was two teams of Coordinators (Darren Hunt & Jayme Morgan + Stuart Smith & Lindley Chambers) on an alternating 12 hour shift. The shifts ran from midnight to midday, then from midday to midnight. Coordination can be extremely intensive and unrelenting so the aim here was that each pair had a decent opportunity to rest as well as to get out of the Ops Room and see some daylight during the week. In addition to the shift teams, coordinator Paul Gale took care of course safety reccies and supervising CP5.5, Byrness.

The collective skills set and experience of this year’s coordinator team is worthy of note: Mountain & expedition leaders, MRT, event organisation, military service, civilian blue light emergency service, aerospace safety investigation and highly regulated nuclear industry.

This year we especially focussed on communications. Not so much the method of communication, i.e predominantly mobile phone and occasionally sat phones, but rather the way we use them. With extensive experience of the Pennine Way, we now have much better knowledge of mobile black spots, meaning that the SST’s on the ground could be deployed far more effectively.

With Teams using various mobile networks, dual chip phones or Manx sim, if there was a signal available, most of the time someone could connect to it. The preferred method of routine coms was by text, which is succinct and much easier transmitted than voice call. It also freed up ops room phones for incoming priority calls.

In addition to racers having trackers (from James Thurlow’s Open Tracking), we also made more use of trackers for SSTs and Medics. On several occasions they proved invaluable in our ability to direct SSTs to racers:
·         For  routine welfare checks
·         To assist in bringing a racer back on track after deviating off route towards a major hazard.
·         To locate racers in difficulty
·         To locate a member of the public (more on this later)

For the fourth consecutive year, medical matters were in the care of Exile Medics, headed by Brett Roccos. We worked closely with Brett and his excellent team, to support competitors. There are many racers who were able to progress a lot further due the assistance of the Exiles doctors.


Like many Ultra Races, The Spine could not exist without volunteers. As SST Coordinator, in addition to race safety, my aim is that our volunteers have the best possible experience during their time with us. The fact that several return year after year, hopefully proves that we are doing it right more often than not. It is often said that working on The Spine can be as hard as racing, but I have heard on many occasions that it is equally as enjoyable.

Many potential Spiners and Challengers use their time on the SST as fact finding for their own future race plans. I’m very much in support of this, Volunteering on a SST provides opportunities for selective course research, route finding, potential conditions underfoot and local resources such as shops and pubs. As well as seeing the effects of race attrition, SSTs can gauge how their endurance capabilities, navigation, hill and expeditions skills compare with the finishers.

The plan for SSTs worked very well this year and our teams were much better rested in between deployments. Throughout the SST there is a diverse range of experience, from Ultra Racers, Mountain Rescue, Emergency & Military Services, Mountain & Expedition Leaders. This is only part of the story, in addition to their professionalism, every member of the SST brought humour and camaraderie which contributes to the Spine ‘race family’ atmosphere.

To all Spine Race volunteers, I offer my sincere thanks for your commitment to the success of the 2016 race. And I look forward to seeing you again, either in the Safety Team, as a Spine Racer, or simply on the hills and trails.


This year the weather was, relatively, kinder to us than 2015. Thankfully there was no repeat of successive gale force weather fronts, preventing movement of racers and the Spine Safety Team. That said, the conditions were far from easy. As if dialled up to order, mild temperatures yielded to Baltic cold, perhaps catching some racers off their guard. 

Snow soon added to the mix, giving a positive Arctic flavour to Malham, Pen-Y-Ghent and the approaches to Hawes.

Safety teams were mostly all in position according to the deployment plan when the snow fell. From these locations of most usefulness and with Exile medics distributed along the race split, the team remained effective. Throughout the week we continued to work around traffic disruption, the whole Spine Team minimising road trips during the night on re-frozen surfaces.

With the leading elites staying a step head, the snow mostly affected the peloton and lanterns rouge. Based on a course reccie, the safety team implemented a diversion, of equal distance, around the Cauldron Snout outflow. Thus, removing the potentially hazardous river edge traverse and frozen scramble up to the dam.

Further snow and drifts on Crossfell meant racers at the rear of the field were grouped together for safety. John Bamber and Paul Shorrock enjoyed a busier than usual stay at Gregs Hut this year, with a number of forays out onto the trail for welfare checks on slower racers. Exile Medics also made the prudent decision to station one of their Doctors at the hut.


The tough conditions underfoot, sudden drop in temperature and fatigue all took their toll on racers. The pace of many began to slow, at times to as little as 1km an hour. At the same time racers completing the Cheviot reported their exhausting efforts breaking trail and post holing, through deep drifts (which was corroborated by watching their trackers).

With the significant reduction in pace of mid-field racers, there was a growing concern among the collective Race Organisation - RDs, SST, HQ, Exile Medics – that:
i)          The Lanterns Rouge could not possibly finish the event in time
ii)         There was a high potential for multiple hypothermia/exhaustion casualties whilst on the remote Cheviots.

In this knowledge, to allow this situation to occur would have shown a reckless disregard for welfare of both racers and the Safety Teams up on the hill. Hence the Byrness cut off had to be brought forward, a decision not taken lightly. This decision was borne out by the fact that the last racer to arrive at Kirk Yetholm did so just 28 minutes prior to the 7 day race time limit.

Most of the racers who finished carried with them stories of epic conditions up on high ground. As it was, our SST’s up at Refuge 1-Lamb Hill and Refuge 2-Auchope had a busy night.

Hut 1 was manned for the duration by experienced Spiner & mountaineer, Mark Caldwell. He was joined by Al Pepper who had completed the Challenger earlier in the week. They helped ensure that racers were safe to continue the Cheviot traverse.

Racers were grouped together in at least pairs (many did this automatically) so that they could share work breaking trail, navigating and also looking out for each other. Past years has shown this buddy system to be very worthwhile.

Our strategy for Hut 2 was to deploy a succession of Teams who would then remotely shadow a group of racers on their final descent into Kirk Yetholm. Coordinator, Darren Hunt, was able to drop off several teams at the College Valley road head, enabling them to reach Hut 2 much more quickly than the standard Halterburn walk in. At one point we had five safety teams on the hill.

With space at a premium in Hut 2, racers who were fit to continue were encouraged to eat, drink and then push onwards to the finish. This was a fine balance, but worked well thanks to Exile medics doctor in-situ and the can-do efforts of the SSTs.

Next year there may not be snow on the ground. With thanks to all SSTs who have provided feedback, we will have to look at improving the water carry up to the Huts. Given the conditions, we took the decision to carry up some extra rations packs to Huts 1 and 2. Whilst I’m sure this was universally appreciated by competitors, we have to be careful that there is not a future expectation of noodles, rat packs or hot drinks service at hut and bothy locations. The main reason, is that SSTs may not actually be in there, but deployed out on the course.


Many of you may have read reports in main-stream media that two Spine racers were rescued by Borders Search And Rescue from the area around Auchope Hut on the final night of the event. Not to let the facts get in the way of a good story, the headlines were incorrect on many levels. With thanks to assistance from Jon O’Connell’s (SST1) father and his media connections, the BBC quickly corrected their copy.

In summary the actual events are thus: A member of the public independently walking the Pennine Way was seen by Spine Racers on the Chevoit ridge. Concerned for his welfare they called Spine Safety Ops, who then tasked an SST to assist. The member of the public was walked to Hut 2 where he was assessed by an Exile Medic and efforts were made to rewarm. After a couple of hours and still concerned for the person’s well- being, BSAR were called, who responded on foot and also brought in SAR Helicopter. On reaching the Hut, the member of the public was deemed fit enough to walk off the hill accompanied by the BSAR team.

As this was happening, a fatigued Spiner being closely escorted off the hill by one of our SSTs needed a little extra help. Instead of us sending up another SST, BSAR who were already in the immediate area offered assistance, for which The Spine is extremely grateful.


The Spine is billed as a self-sufficient and most brutal race in Britain. There has been much commentary on social media that, with the introduction of CP1.5 Malham and CP5.5 Byrness, The Spine is now easier. I think this year proves that the event is still as tough as it ever was. What I would say is that there is a difference in the safety systems we have put in place as a duty of care to our competitors and staff.

However, the Race Organisation is mindful that the self-sufficient ethos is not ‘chipped away’ turning a great race into a beige race. Hence, the Spine will remain in its current mid-winter slot, compulsory kit items such as stoves and rations should be carried at all times and there are definitely no pacers.


·         Make sure navigation skills are well practiced in the conditions which they are to be used. i.e. on a cold wet trail and in the dark.

·         Look at the weather reports and adjust strategy / kit / clothing accordingly.   Eg would snowshoes have been a useful addition this year?

·         Be aware of own pacing. The strategy of just meeting cut offs does not work for many competitors who try it, with a lot DNFs this year due to too much time on the feet, insufficient rest and sleep deprivation - even before the revised cut off at CP5.5 is taken into account. The suggestion here is to build some contingency into a race finishing strategy. Start with aiming for a 6 ½ day completion, which leaves 12 hours for weather events or indeed a little extra rest in the final stages.

·         Come to the Official Spine Training Weekend in autumn for an enjoyable 2 days totally focussed on the top tips, shared experience and essential skills needed to finish The Spine.

·         Start your build up to the 2017 Spine now.

·         Join our ‘Complete Spine Racer’ course offered by Official Spine Training Provider, Ranger Expeditions / Stu Westfield – Spine Safety Team & Training Coordinator. Within an informal and friendly atmosphere (for small groups and 1-to-1) we guide you through kit, strategies and share insights from the 5 years of the Spine Race to help you achieve your Challenger or Spine finish. We also spend plenty of time in Pennine Way country developing your route finding navigation skills.

Stu Westfield
Spine Safety Team Coordinator
Legends Safety Team Coordinator
Ranger Ultras Safety Team Coordinator

Sunday, 8 November 2015

#019 Quest For The Source

I return to Africa for this blog and an expedition I made several years ago to Uganda. My inspiration was to follow in the footsteps of the great explorers in their quest to find the source of the Nile. The following feature was printed in Adventure Travel Magazine.


Climbed Kilimanjaro? Trekked Mount Kenya? Stared in awe across the Ngorongoro Crater? Then you could be forgiven for thinking that you have experienced the finest that East Africa has to offer. But, if you haven’t visited the Rwenzoris then you have missed one of the best wilderness adventures on the continent. Stu Westfield puts on his waterproofs and sets out in a quest to re-discover the glaciers at the source of the Nile.

The position of the Nile’s source has long been a hot topic of debate. For a while, in the 1800’s, it was accepted to be Lake Victoria. But, if you consider the Rwenzori range acts as a massive reservoir, constantly filling the Victoria basin, then I can argue that the source of the Nile is really on top of Mount Stanley. Which is a good thing for us adventurers as the Rwenzori mountains are readily accessible in a two week journey through a lost world of bizarre plants, infamous bogs and remote peaks.

Shortly before our arrival in the dusty town of Kasese our mini-bus clattered loudly over a concrete bridge. The river underneath was in full flow, having been topped up by recent storms.
Does it go all the way to the Nile? I asked our Ugandan driver.
Sure, it will find its way there eventually. He said. ‘But we prefer to think of it as ending in that swamp on your left.
I looked across a sea of green papyrus reeds into which the white water magically disappeared.

That evening, on veranda of the Margherita hotel, I gazed out to the surrounding hills as the equatorial light faded. A rumble in the sky announced the impending arrival of a thunderstorm. There was a heavy smell of ozone in the air and a couple of minutes later, a bolt of lightning found earth nearby. My irises contracted in reaction to the intense flash. Thunder clapped and the hotel generator tripped out, plunging me and a marabou stork, sitting on top of the tree opposite, into darkness. Torrential rain followed. I sat into a chair and drained my beer. Welcome back to Africa. I thought in romantic contentment.

All expeditions to the Rwenzori National Park start at the headquarters in the village of Nyakalengija, where my fellow adventurers and I were introduced to our guides and porters. Formalities taken care of, it was only a short walk until we entered the jungle, which grew with a vigorous wild beauty in the saturated soil.

Long before we reached a mass of huge granite blocks deposited on the banks of the Mubuku river, I could hear the roaring noise of water crashing over boulders.  It was a sound that would accompany us for most of the trek. It took four and a half hours to walk the seven kilometres and ascend 1000 metres to Nyabitaba hut.  Night arrives quickly at the equator and in the flickering light of a candle there was lively conversation over dinner. But, surrounded by pitch blackness, there wasnt much else to do before going to bed.

When trekking the Rwenzori circuit each day brings a different ecological zone and new obstacles to overcome. After breakfast, we passed through a dense thicket, stepping over thick roots and ducking under low slung branches. The rungs of a makeshift, wooden, ladder dropped down ten metres to the riverside where the equally rickety Kurt Schaffer Bridge crossed the Mubuku.

At an altitude of 3000 metres we entered the bamboo zone, the thick poles of this tall monoculture blocking out much of the sunlight. Beyond, the going became much more boggy and on several occasions I sank calf deep into soft ground. At home in their environment, the local lads made light work of it as they seemed to float over the mud.

Our picnic lunch was abruptly curtailed by a rapid drop in temperature and another heavy cloud burst. The rain fuelling a return to high humidity, mid-afternoon. A section of boardwalk made life easier underfoot as the trail wound through giant heather, ferns and moss in a dense ericaceous forest. I paused beside a tree stump, around which grew liverwort, lichen and a few small yellow mushrooms. Growing through the moss, vibrant magenta coloured orchids were scattered over the forest floor. 

I once read that the infamous Rwenzori Bigo Bog makes the vertical bog on Mount Kenya look like a walk in the park. I was curious to see whether the reality lived up to the reputation of this all consuming quagmire. It turned out to be the most testing terrain I had ever walked through. The mud was relentless and the best encouragement we could offer one another took the form of crazed humour.
“Embrace the mud!” We called out as we plunged onwards.
Five hours later I arrived at Bujuku Hut thoroughly knackered and the remainder of the team were strung out in various states of fatigue.

Feeling the effects of the altitude, I had an awful nights sleep and so got up early in the morning. With a refreshing cup of tea in my hand, I stood outside and was joined by Finn.  The sun bathed the snow on Mount Baker in a crisp light which had just begun to illuminate the valley down to Lake Kitandara.
Beautiful, isnt it? I said in reverence.
Yeah. Replied Finn. Its just like Scotland but with funky trees.
Out of Bujuku hut and we were straight back into the bog, tracing around the opposite shore of the lake before following the trail up a narrow gully set into a steep cliff face. The exposure was disguised by thick groundsel until we reached a fixed ladder, constructed from heavy steel tubing. This brought us out onto a high pass, where the path eventually dried out. Three hundred metres of hard gradient was followed by a scramble up several rock steps, the tops of which were glassy smooth with frozen melt water or coated in frictionless lichen. It wasn't the most elegant style with which I negotiated the hazard, I admit, but safer than a tumble none the less.

More boulders impeded progress before we arrived, tired and cold, at the bleak Elena Hut. Inside, it was cramped with twelve of us packed into the small space. I was awoken several times in the night by the ominous sound of rock fall and avalanches. One of them rolled on for so long, becoming progressively louder, that I wondered where it would stop. Just after midnight, by the light of our head torches, the team crossed the slabs surrounding Elena and started scrambling up a steep gully. The first thirty metres presented no problems and on the wide ledges I stepped upwards without relying upon the rope. However, our progress slowed as a sheen of ice crystals clung to the face. So, we each tied in with a prussic loop to safeguard against a slip becoming a serious fall.

On the straightforward gradient beyond our fixed line, I used my ice axe on the mixed ground, as fresh snow had fallen overnight. The white patches glowed with a blue luminescence where my torch cut into the darkness. 

Daybreak gave form to several moderately exposed ledges. I paused and remembered I had seen a similar formation on the north ridge of Tryfan in Wales. I worked my way across the rocks, around an outcrop and up onto flat slabs leading to the snout of the Stanley glacier. The rising suns rays bounced off it with blinding intensity. Squinting, I fished out the sunglasses from my pack and sat down to put on my crampons. With excited anticipation, I tightened the straps. 

A layer of cotton wool cloud hovered below us at four thousand metres. Above, Stanleys twin peaks of jet black stone pierced the blue above their snow covered saddle. Once on the glacier, there was a half hour of easy walking which lead to a down climb over steps covered with scree. 

Our guide looked concerned and he called for our attention. ‘Theres a large serac above our route, which is in danger of collapsing.’ He informed us. Usually Mount Stanley is swathed in mist, keeping the temperatures low and the ice solid. The glorious sunrise which had allowed us superb views of the peaks had also left the withering equatorial heat beating down on the high ground. 

There was no safe option other than to retreat, our crampons points squeaking and scraping on the bare rock as we climbed out of the couloir. But, instead of walking directly down the Stanley glacier we made a small diversion to its crest and hence claimed victory in reaching the highest watershed of the Nile. Here lay the mythical source and our efforts were rewarded with a magnificent view down onto green expanse of the Congo basin.

Once off the glacier, we rappelled back down to Elena hut and trekked for three hours via Scott Elliot Pass, the highest point reached by non-climbers on the Rwenzori circuit, to Kitandara Hut: Which was positive luxury in so much as it was windproof, more spacious and had a covered veranda. The sleeping arrangements were still very communal, but once settled, I quickly dozed off to sleep. Beside the hut ran a stream, fast flowing over a bed of clean gravel, feeding a tranquil lake. It was a perfect place to rest.

The steep hike out took us over icy boulders and above the snowline to Freshfield Pass. Here we found a winter wonderland with scarlet chested sunbirds busy drinking nectar from tall giant lobelia flower spikes. 

Then we were back into bog country with waist high tussocks choking up the valley. Progress was infuriating as not all the tussocks could hold the weight of a person and when one of them gave way I was pitched downwards into the marsh. Instead, I tried walking at ground level, only to be slowed by thin tendrils which attached themselves to my gaiters and wrapped around my trekking poles. It took twice the effort to walk half as far, it seemed like the Rwenzori was alive and unwilling to release me. I extricated myself from another tangle, muttering ‘Bloody tussocks.’

We followed the foaming roar of white water. It came back into view transformed into a vision of paradise. The river had widened, making a soothing swoosh as the crystal clear flow slid over an almost perfectly flat bed of solid rock. For the rest of the afternoon we feasted our eyes upon an inspiring sequence of natural wonders and panoramas which looked like scenes from pre-history. The only things missing from the valley floor were iguanodon browsing on the lush vegetation and pterodactyls flying overhead. 

The final day in the Rwenzoris began with a steep descent on a muddy path hugging the side of a precipice. The last major hazard was a tower of chaotic wooden ladders. At the base, I saw that our porter team had gathered. They welcomed the arrival of their colleagues and clients with equal enthusiasm, cheering and clapping.

The trail was once again bathed in sunshine, so I paused to take off my fleece. In the silence my ears tuned into the natural rhythms of the forest.  A chorus of cicadas and birdsong echoing from the canopy brought serenity and calm. Sun dappled light danced over the bushes, chasing a multitude of yellow and tortoiseshell coloured butterflies.

At the edge of the park, in an abrupt contrast to the enveloping jungle, cultivated fields and terraces reached high into the hills, showing the changes that agriculture has brought to the environment. Chickens strutted around the rough built huts in Nyakalengija. Tethered goats picked over thin grass, women carried produce and small children ran around playing.  Men stood around in small relaxed groups, smoking and watching the world pass by. At the headquarters we parted from our guides and boarded our mini bus for the dusty ride back to the Margherita hotel.

Within two hours, our group was relaxed on the terrace and watching the setting sun as we awaited our drinks order. There was a sense of anticipation which reminded me of the final scene in the film Ice Cold In Alex, where John Mills paused, caressed the dew on his cool glass of beer before downing it in one long draught. The waiter arrived with a tray of drinks and I could not resist a homage which was so apt for the moment, finishing my first mouthful of Nile Special with, “Aaah, worth waiting for!” 

‘In a world which has lost all sense of perspective, there is a sense of timeless energy in East Africa which is food for the soul.’ 



WHERE: Rwenzori National Park, Uganda.

ACTIVITY: Jungle trekking, scrambling, glacier travel, safari.

TOTAL TIME: 2 weeks or more. Trekking to the source of the Nile is one heck of a ‘top that’ when it comes to answering ‘where did you go on holiday this year?’ It took the best explorers the Victorians could muster, months, if not years just to reach the African lakes. On this expedition you’ll truly be standing on the shoulders of giants. 

DIFFICULTY: Strenuous trekking at altitude.

LOOK OUT FOR: The infamous Bigo Bog. Scenery from a lost world. Glaciers on the equator.

GETTING THERE:  Unfortunately British Airways have since canned the direct Heathrow to Entebbe route. As an alternative , look at Kenya Airways, via Nairobi Stay overnight in nearby capital city Kampala, then bus to Kasese (300 km). Driving yourself is not recommended. At Kasese, Overnight at Margherita hotel. Transfer to the road head at Nyakalenjiga if using Rwenzori Mountain Services guides. Nowadays there is another guiding company to choose from based at Backpackers in Kampala, with a hostel local to the Rwenzori. 

LOGISTICS: It’s worthwhile joining an organised expedition, whether from the UK or booked with a Ugandan operator who can arrange your pick up from the airport, in country transport, hotel accommodations and liaison with the Rwenzori Mountain Services. Doing it all yourself on this trip probably isn’t worth the money you’ll save. Let someone else deal with the hassle and you’ll then have more time to enjoy the journey.

SWEET DREAMS: Hotel accommodation is generally comfortable, if a little dated. On the trek, sleeping is in bunk huts, some with separate rooms. Elena hut is cold, draughty and very basic.

HOW MUCH: Once in Uganda, costs are affordable and unlike Kenya where traders start bartering at silly prices, souvenirs are generally good value for money.  Tips form an important part of guides and porters wages. But remember that disproportional gratuities can create a culture of expectation as has often been experienced by trekkers on Kilimanjaro.

WHEN: The dry seasons in Uganda are from June to early October and late November to early March. But, the Rwenzoris are known locally as the rain maker, constantly filling the Victoria lake system, so expect wet weather at any time of year.

WHAT TO TAKE: The peat ground is like walking on a saturated sponge so you’ll need trekking boots with yeti gaiters or Wellingtons to cope with the bogs.  Weather ranges from tropically hot and wet to chilly in the evenings. Waterproof over trousers and jacket with light base layer works well for walking. If heading above the trekking circuit, to the peaks: Ice axe, 4 season boots, crampons, rope and harness are required for an attempt on the Mount Stanley summit. Warm sleeping bag.

ON THE TREK: Get to know your guides. Theyre a great bunch of guys who are a mine of information regarding plants and animals and are keen to share their knowledge.

Assuming you have a reasonable level of fitness, there is adequate time each day to cover the relatively short distances between huts, so take your time. A relaxed pace will also help with acclimatisation.

Stop and enjoy the views. The Rwenzori mountain environment is unique and spectacular. When walking through the bogs, its easy to spend all day watching where youre treading! At the end of each day, look after your feet by thoroughly drying them and using foot powder.

WHEN SCRAMBLING: These remote mountains are not the place to be taking unnecessary risks. With a multiple day stretcher evacuation required before motorised transport can be used to the nearest hospital, the consequences of any accident are serious.  So use the protection of a rope while scrambling and be aware of the changing weather conditions.

ADD ON EXCURSION:  No trip to East Africa would be complete without a safari. For a luxury treat, wash off the Rwenzori mud at the Mweya Lodge before returning home. Situated in Queen Elizabeth National Park, with stunning views overlooking the Kazinga channel, it is one of the best places in Uganda to view wildlife. Photography enthusiasts and bird watchers will be glad they brought a long telephoto lens (300mm or more). Game drives and boat rides can be arranged by the lodge. Got some extra time (and dollars), head over to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest for Gorilla watching. Or, if you can call the right people, Chimpanzee tracking in Kyambura Gorge. Both are unforgettable and very special experiences.

UGANDA POLITICS: Uganda has come a long way since the despotic dictatorship of Idi Amin in the 1970’s. Readers over forty-something will no doubt remember how bad things got from the BBC television news coverage at the time. But as with other war torn African nations, the people of Uganda have shown a remarkable ability to heal their country’s wounds. There are still areas where tourism remains inadvisable, notably north of Murchison Falls, due to the activities of the Lords Resistance Army rebel group and in some border regions with the Congo. However, as important sources of tourist revenue, the Rwenzori and Queen Elizabeth National Parks are well protected.

Guide To The Rwenzori - Henry Osmaston (The Rwenzori Trust)
Trekking In East Africa (Lonely Planet Guides)
Ruwenzori* Map And Guide - Andrew Wielochowski (EWP)  * alternative spelling

Stu Westfield
Ranger Expeditions
07890 620274