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Wednesday, 25 November 2015

A trip on the Tywi

Well so much for summer being my busiest time of year! Lately it seems that if I'm not running a first aid course I'm planning one or managing the admin that goes with one. With an NNAS skills course coming up this weekend I can probably add navigation skills courses to the ever-growing list of things conspiring to keep me occupied! I have found the time to get out and about though, whether it be caving, a recent trip to Cardiff International Whitewater Centre or yesterday's jaunt on the Tywi with colleagues from one of the outdoor centres I work for.

It's been a few months since I was on the river and I have to admit to being a bit rusty but Ian and Dom put me to shame even though they haven't paddled in years. It was nice to see that the skills remain, even with the passage of time.

We had the river to ourselves for the day and only saw one passerby - a helpful guy shouting down from a bridge to warn us about a tree across the river. He even turned up at the end of the trip to help bring boats up and have a chat about his past paddling experience!

So after a first trip of the winter I'm up for some more rivers, new or old, who knows what's next? Thanks to Ian of the Dean Field Studies Centre for the video

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Out of Africa

Caving, climbing and kayaking have all got in the way of my updating the blog before now, but the most recent delay is all down to a month spent in Tanzania! I was leading a school expedition for True Adventure and, unsurprisingly, internet access has been a bit hard to come by lately!

The expedition took us from trekking in the Eastern Arc Mountains to safari in Mikumi national park, a voluntary project in Msata village and finally to some much needed R+R on the beaches at Bagamoyo and Kigamboni.

Uluguru Mountains

We completed two multi-day treks in the Eastern Arc Mountains, starting with 5 days in the Uluguru range, close to the bustling city of Morogoro. Baking heat and dusty tracks were the order of the day to begin with, but by the end of a tough climbing first day we had reached Morningside camp. Set above the point of a beautifully sculpted valley high above Morogoro, Morningside was a delightful spot to camp for the first night and, as the sun descended behind a nearby ridge, we watched the lights come on in the city below, glittering in the cold night.

The second day found us tramping up narrow and thickly vegetated trails to the former German army radar station on Bondwa Peak - the highest point on the trek at 2170m above sea level. A near 360 degree panorama stretched out beneath us: the plains speckled with long dead volcanic hills and the great lake that supplies the town with water.

Persistent rain followed us for the next two days as we slithered and slipped along narrow muddy tracks to the aptly named 'Forest Camp', deep in the woods before emerging at the friendly village of Tegetero. The welcome we received here was only matched by the drunken dancing of one local man who (almost literally) stumbled across our tents in the early evening!

From Tegetero we made our way down to Kinole, a large village on the road back to Morogoro, but not before taking a side trip to the spectacular Kisimbi waterfall. Some of the girls took the opportunity to wash their hair here, thrilled at the thought of fresh running water for the first time in 4 days!

Going on a Lion Hunt!

Our overnight safari in Mikumi national park was a stunning introduction to the range and volume of wildlife that Tanzania has to offer. Within minutes of passing through the park gates we were greeted by the sight of a family group of elephants just a few metres from the gates. Giraffes, zebras, baboons, wildebeest, buffalo, crocodiles... the list goes on. No lions though, they were all a bit too camera-shy.

Nguru and Beyond

The second trek was in the Nguru Mountains, another of the Eastern Arc ranges. This was far less challenging than the first, and took in a more populated area than the Uluguru trek. The track took us along what were once slave routes from the interior. Captured slaves would be forced to carry gold and ivory along these trails to the coastal ports where the survivors would then be sold on to new masters; a sombre place to be. With a slightly less fatigued group, the Nguru trek provided a good opportunity to wind down before a hectic and busy project.

The school in Msata village suffers from severe shortages of water during the dry season, so the team helped to build a rainwater collection system. The teenagers managed everything from buying project materials to engaging a local builder for the technical parts of the job, as well as finding time to scrub and paint 5 classrooms, help out in English lessons and cook for themselves! The effort meant that the team achieved far more than I thought possible in the time they had.

Beach Holiday

From Msata, we made a beeline for Bagamoyo where gorgeous beaches combined with real showers and toilets made our resort seem like luxury! A short side trip to the Mwende craft market in Dar es Salaam, followed by another fine but quiet beach in Kigamboni was all that time allowed before the flight back home again.

Next Adventures

It's still been non-stop here in the Borderlands though: A week spent working on a NCS programme followed by some downtime squirming around a Mendip cave... Next stop Cornwall for some real downtime before it's back to work preparing for the next Borderlands first aid course!

Monday, 22 June 2015

Martin Sweeney's day off

So a day off in the middle of summer can only mean one thing right? A Ferrari-propelled adventure into the bright lights of downtown Chepstow!

Unfortunately not.

My first free day in 2 weeks turns out to be an admin day, catching up on reports from Duke of Edinburgh expeditions, course material for Borderlands First Aid courses and watching the tidying-up fairy clearing away the mountain of kit that seems to have invaded the living room over the past week or so! It's certainly been a busy couple of weeks around here.

Caving In

My nocturnal activities continued with a couple of trips down Eglwys Faen, a compact but interesting cave on Llangattock Mountain in South Wales. I'd never been into this popular group cave before, but managed to squeeze in (no pun intended) a couple of trips over the course of a few short days. Exploring 'The Warren' in the upper series turned out to involve an inordinate amount of squeezing and scurrying, but we found time to reach the far reaches of the cave, finding 2 active digging sites. The vintage pit-props at one end didn't inspire much confidence, so we made a careful retreat.

The second visit took in the lower sections of the cave. We reached the sump in the eastern series but, not having the time to pump the water out of the flooded channel, we didn't push on further. The entrance to the western chamber, with it's ancient and very nicely written graffiti dating back to the 16th century was an unusual element to the cave, and points to its history as a secret chapel (the name means 'Stone Church').

DofE Journeying

My role as a Duke of Edinburgh expedition assessor took me to the Chilterns and Exmoor recently. It was nice to see some of the teams growing in confidence over the course of their bronze overnight expeditions, and despite the natural beauty of the Wye Valley, it's good to have a change of scenery every now and again!

Full marks for effort have to go to one of the boys in the Chilterns who finished the first day with a very sore hip, woke the next day in great pain but still managed to plough on through the second day. He demonstrated the very best of what DofE is supposed to be about; character, commitment and teamwork. Unfortunately a couple of the participants on the Exmoor weekend had a somewhat different approach. Having been forced to do what is supposed to be a voluntary award, one lad in particular made no secret of his disdain for the effort required, and seemed to think that he and he alone knew what was best. It's very sad when you have to constantly correct poor behaviour, even more so in a young adult.

Outdoor First Aid

Mid June found me delivering an ITC Outdoor First Aid course at Viney Hill. An eclectic group of candidates, from a forest school teacher to outdoor instructors and a couple preparing for an overseas adventure all worked hard over the course of the two days with a successful outcome for everyone. 

I love the fact that the group were so enthusiastic, throwing themselves into every aspect of the course, including wound simulations. Top marks to one candidate for some of the bloodiest make up on the course!

Following on from the course I've been busy making a few tweaks to presentations and investing in more training resources. 

Looking forward to the next course on 21-22 September now!

Only 2 more days off now until I head out to Tanzania for a month, taking a school group away for True Adventure (although that doesn't sound quite as soon if I say it's in 3 weeks' time!)

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Busy in the Borderlands

Even though the outdoor season has now well and truly kicked off, I've somehow managed to find time for some personal caving and canoeing in the Forest of Dean. I suppose the odd couple of jobs working in the Peak District and the Mendips count as a bit of a break too, right?

Night Shift

A busy week for Viney Hill Adventure found me leading 9 straight sessions of raft building on a windy Mallards Pike lake. Despite the repitition of the sessions, it was fun to work with a number of different groups from Cirencester and London. Evening sessions with the London school were a rare treat, literally seeing the lake in a different light as night fell.

Evening Activities

My nights off this week turned out to be equally busy, with an evening jaunt into the warren of passages that make up Miss Graces Lane cave, near Chepstow, followed by a night on Symonds Yat rapids fine tuning some canoe skills. 

Miss Graces Lane is an extensive system with a 30+ metre entrance shaft, complete with ladders bolted to the wall. The work that went into opening up the cave in the mid 1990s doesn't bear thinking about, but the end result is a pretty impressive cave - the 2nd longest in the Forest of Dean - that still has plenty to explore.

We made our way to the narrow rift with a high level route known as the Satanic Traverses. The intimidating drop beneath us makes it easy to see where the name came from. Ever narrower squeezes and chimney climbs followed before it was time to make our way back to the entrance via the Phraetic Causeway (Google it. It makes sense, honest!)

After an evening training new SARA recruits in basic ropework, my final busy evening took me back to Symonds Yat. The boulders that generate the waves on the rapid have shifted around since my last visit, so despite the high water, some features felt unfamiliar. I have to admit to being a little rusty in an open canoe, but some helpful observations from Bob and Callum aided me in getting back on track. The best part of Symonds Yat? Always the Saracen's Head Inn.

Nose to the Grindstone

After such a busy week it should have been a relief to have this week free, but still keeping busy as ever!

Admin time spent promoting first aid courses for Borderlands Outdoor gives way to climbing time tomorrow and another trip down Miss Graces Lane on Thursday. This summer seems to be shaping up pretty well so far!

Monday, 11 May 2015 launches

After months of tearing my hair out and shouting at the computer I'm excited (and somewhat relieved) to finally be able to launch our new website! showcases the activities and services we can offer to schools, families and individuals and even offers online booking for our outdoor first aid courses in the Forest of Dean.

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

A busy summer kicks off

Another busy couple of weeks have got in the way of blogging, but never mind; busy is good!

I've been training teams for their Duke of Edinburgh expeditions, caving on the Mendips and have just come back from an expedition first aid course in preparation for travelling to Tanzania this summer.

Hills and Mountains

The various Duke of Edinburgh groups I worked with this month couldn't have been more different from each other. From a mixed day teaching map skills to bronze students on the Mendips to day one of a gold award practice expedition in the Black Mountains I felt as though I'd seen pretty much the entire spectrum of ability, enthusiasm and attitude.

The gold group were particularly enthusiastic, and although they were a little overawed by a first trip for most of them into a UK mountainous area, they took to the challenge with an energetic, positive attitude. It was a pleasure to deal with a group who understood the value of the skills they were being taught and who listened to the information given to them.

A Cave to Remember

A day caving on the Mendips found me squeezing head first and on my back through several inches of water in GB Cavern, where the reward was some of the most fantastic cave formations I have come across yet. A vast chamber with a pyramid of boulders was filled with stalactites and curtains: I really do need to get a decent camera that I can take underground with me to do justice to trips like this one!

Middle of Nowhere

After several days of high ropes, climbing and stream walking at two local centres, I headed off to Shropshire for the World Challenge Middle of Nowhere Medicine course. The two day course covered a lot of details about treatment and monitoring of illness and injuries over extended periods of time: a perfect refresher for the school expedition I'll be leading in July and August this year.

More to Come

A busy summer now beckons with more climbing and caving in store, as well as a couple of Duke of Edinburgh assessed expeditions. It should be fun to see the groups develop their friendships and coping skills as they progress through the expeditions, but that's it for now!

Sunday, 5 April 2015

Scottish Winter: Part 2

It's been another busy week here in the Wye Valley. Six days in the Brecon Beacons training a Duke of Edinburgh Award group means I've only just found the time to finish this off, so here goes: part 2 of the Scottish Winter Skills course.

Ropey Business

The penultimate day of the course began with more fairly clear skies and a good forecast for our walk up to Stob Coire Nan Lochan. Two of the 'Three Sisters' of Glencoe, the dramatic northern ridges of Bidean Nam Bian, converge to form the top of the mountain. After putting on crampons we made our way onto the middle of the three, Gearr Aonoch and ascended the narrowing ridge through atmospheric drifts of low cloud and mist. Nearing the top, the cloud parted enough to enable a view into the Hidden Valley to the east, where the Clan MacDonald used to hide their stolen cattle. I've heard it referred to as one of the most beautiful valleys in the area, but unfortunately didn't get the chance to explore it this time.

At the top of the mountain Adele taught us a couple of basic techniques for descents. Abseiling was a new technique for a couple of group members although not for me. Building a stomper belay was definitely something new for me though. The technique consisted of driving an axe shaft into the snow and running a rope through a carabiner attached close to the axe head in order to lower somebody else. It was quicker and easier to set up than I had expected, and although it relied on nothing but a bit of snow as an anchor, seemed to work remarkably well, definitely a skill worth knowing!

From Walking to Mountaineering

Our final day was spent back on Ben Nevis where we enjoyed the clearest day of the course. The walk in to the snowline gave us the opportunity to pick out several of the classic routes onto the mountain. Tower Ridge and Castle Ridge both appealed to me, and are definitely routes I'd like to tackle in the summer.

We headed around to the western side of the coire though and made for number 4 gully. Usually a descent route, this snow filled chute provided us with a first taste of winter climbing, at an easy grade 1. The first half of the route was fairly straightforward and we made good progress kicking steps into the snow. As the gully steepened though, we stopped and roped up. Working as a pair and a three, we 'trainlined' up the gully, keeping a tight rope between each group as we climbed, using a pair of axes in the hardening snow. 

I found climbing with 2 axes more tiring than I had expected, but before long we were all on the top, enjoying the mid afternoon sunshine. With the summit around 45 minutes away we opted not to top out this time and made our way back down towards the Red Burn and on to the car park again.

Part 3?

Five days in the Scottish Winter left me with a few basic skills, a couple of blisters, a touch of sunburn and a glimpse of what motivates so many people to head for the hills in winter. I hope I'll be back next winter, better prepared and more confident to tackle the mountains of Glencoe and Lochaber.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Winter in Scotland

Winter walking is something that has almost entirely passed me by until recently. A trip to New Zealand last year found me trekking to the snowline of some of the country's highest peaks, but feeling as though I was missing out by not going further with an axe and crampons. So when I got the opportunity to take part in a BMC Scottish winter skills course in Glencoe and Lochaber, where I'd hoped to go in October I quickly signed up.

All the Gear

Working and playing in the outdoors can be an expensive business. I've spent years building up a stock of kit for climbing, paddling, caving, hillwalking, camping... so I was a little hesitant about getting into another new activity. I managed to borrow an axe and crampons from a friend though, so was left to buy a pair of winter boots second hand on Ebay! Normally I wouldn't advocate buying used boots, but they were cheap enough that I could afford to get rid if they didn't fit well. Fortunately they were a pretty good fit, although I did pick up a couple of small blisters.

No Idea

I reached the Alex McIntyre Hut on the Friday evening and, chatting to some of the other attendees I have to admit I felt a little out of place. I'm pretty sure I was the only person there who'd never used crampons before, and several other participants had a fair bit of experience already. Most of the others seemed to be there to sharpen up existing skills, but I was starting from scratch. 

Fourteen participants were split into five groups: Three pairs were there for a winter mountaineering weekend, tackling technical climbing routes in the area while the remainder of us had signed up for winter walking. Four of us had arranged to stay on for the three-day extension course after the weekend.

A Sunny-Snowy Start

Clearing skies greeted us on the first morning of the course, and by the time we had warmed up on the stony track up Buchaille Etive Beag, the sun had appeared, making for a pleasantly surprising warm winter's day. The original plan was for some ice axe arrest practice on the lower slopes of the hill, but our instructor Nick suggested we make the most of the fine weather and hit the summit first. Glorious sunshine remained as we donned our crampons and made our way up a snow-covered ridge to the top. A little out of breath but happy nonetheless, we were rewarded with views into Glen Etive and across the rolling hills beyond. 

I enjoy the UK Hills whenever I'm out walking, and I'm a big fan of the Ogwen Valley in Snowdonia, but this was something else entirely. In Ogwen you can climb to some beautiful high tops, but are always aware of the roads cutting through the valleys below. Looking south from Buchaille Etive Beag, the mountains just seemed to go on endlessly, tailing away into the distance. It felt like somewhere truly special.

Making our way back down the hillside, the weather stayed fine and we caught up on the missed skills session, tumbling down a snow-covered slope and learning to stop using the ice axe from all sorts of different angles.

Making Progress

The second day, on the Ballachulish Horseshoe, was equally sunny but there was less snow in evidence. The long walk in and out through a forest took a little away from this day, but the views from the high ridge across to a cloud-free Ben Nevis on the way up helped to make up for the duller parts of the day. At the end of the day it was time to have a chat with the excellent Adele Pennington, a highly experienced mountaineer and our instructor for the next three days.

Several options were discussed for the next few days, but a favoured option was to tackle the CMD Arete, the narrow ridge leading up onto Ben Nevis from the north. This was a route I'd hoped to tackle in the summer at some point, so I was excited about the thought of having a go now in late winter.

The weather forecast was pretty good the next day, but as we slogged up Carn Dearg, low cloud obscured the arete and threatened poor visibility all the way. As we began to traverse the ridge, taking care to stay close to its crest, a little snow began to fall, blowing onto the left side of my face and freezing in my beard! The clouds parted briefly beneath us, allowing a view down to the coire far beneath us and offering a reminder of the seriousness of the route. The walking was easy, but the consequences of a slip would have been severe.

At the end of the arete we plodded slowly uphill towards the summit of Ben Nevis, eventually reaching the trig point, almost buried beneath several metres of snow. A few minutes rest in the cold was all we had time for before heading back down, following bearings to take us away from the dangerous gullies on either side and safely off the summit.

From winter walking on the CMD, we moved on to something a little more adventurous. More on that another time.

Sunday, 22 March 2015

Charity Abseil

It's been a busy week or so here in the Wye Valley, although strictly speaking most of that time was in Scotland... More on that another time. Yesterday was the day of the sponsored abseil at Symonds Yat in aid of the Severn Area Rescue Association (SARA), and having spent a fair chunk of the past 6 months organising the event, I was anxious for it to go well.

A Ropey Business

The SARA Beachley station is lucky enough to have the services of three Single Pitch Award holders in addition to me so, despite the initial plan of me operating an abseil line, I was able to take a step back as Laura, Ed and Glyn rigged the lines. Other crew members busied themselves with setting up a registration area, getting harnesses and helmets ready and tying a handrail for participants to get back up the steep slope at the end of their abseil. The crew worked efficiently and competently, leaving me to wander a little aimlessly until the first participants began to arrive at 9.45.

Friends and Family

Laura began the day operating the abseil, which gave her the opportunity to look after her anxious dad Andy. A builder by trade, he happily scales ladders when working but was put off by the thought of a 90 foot abseil. With all credit to him though, he went over the edge with no fuss and raced down to the bottom. That set the tone for the rest of the day as one after the other the participants disappeared from view on their trip to the bottom. Some participants were cheered on by friends, family and - in one case- a small dog! Our crew at the bottom of the crag ensured that spectators stayed safe and sound with helmets on to protect them from any rockfall.

The final group of abseilers included Graeme and Maggie from Monmouth Canoe Club. Graeme claimed to be terrified, but made no fuss at all despite producing some characteristically awful poetry prior to taking part:

Today's the day of my abseil
Just hear me scream and hear me wail 
I should not fear 
They've got the gear 
But I'm still scared that it might fail

On a slightly more serious note, it was fantastic to see so many people facing their fears and coming through the experience all the stonger.

A Great Success

Final figures are yet to be confirmed, but the event seems likely to raise somewhere in the region of £1700 for SARA, a great morning's work for a terrific organisation that is entirely reliant on donations to continue its important work.

(photo nicked from Graeme!)

Friday, 6 March 2015

Paddle paddle paddle paddle...

A week or so of canoeing and kayaking at both ends of Wales has been shattering, but loads of fun! It started with my 4 star leader open canoe training and ended with a club trip to North Wales and the River Dee, separated by a short break to attend a tutor induction event for the new(ish) Hill and Mountain Skills scheme at Plas y Brenin.

4 Star Training
The first day of a 3 day course with Ray Goodwin began with all six of us scraping the hail and ice out of the bottom of our boats at Pontiscill Reservoir. Despite the finger-numbing sub zero temperatures and the occasional snow flurry, the morning mist over the still water was somehow both calming and uplifting at the same time. We worked on refining our forwards paddling technique as we journeyed around the reservoir, stopping for lunch only long enough to scrape the icicles from our noses! In seriousness, the cold was significant enough that we had to keep moving as much as possible. 

A lack of wind in the morning threatened to dash any hopes of sailing, but by the time we had learned a few improvised sailing rigs, a gentle breeze had become a powerful wind cutting across the lake. Powering downwind, it was difficult to keep our pair of rafted canoes on course, but some timely bow jam strokes from Haydn steered us in towards the shore in a sheltered bay. The next challenge was getting back out again with the wind against us!

This challenge proved a great opportunity for me to experiment with micro-trim: positioning myself a little further forwards in the boat in order to dig the bow into the water against the wind. Progress was slow, but steadier than I have sometimes managed before in similarly strong winds.

Back on the River
The following two days were spent on the River Usk, running the Aberbran to Brecon and Sennybridge to Aberbran sections, both of which were familiar to me in a kayak, but not in a canoe. Nonetheless, I was pretty comfortable with the territory and relaxed a little as the sun came out on the final day. This proved to be a great opportunity to learn a bit more about lining and poling, skills which I had only rarely used before but which are essential on longer river journeys. I left the course with a pretty clear idea of what I need to work on before assessment and an eagerness to progress.

Heading for the Hills
The Hill and Mountain Skills scheme was introduced about a year ago by Mountain Training UK to offer an introduction to the UK's hills and mountains for the general walker. The ever-industrious Will Kilner is one of the approved providers for the scheme and offered me the opportunity to get involved as a tutor for his courses.

The two day induction took place at the National Mountain Centre at Plas y Brenin and covered everything from the ethos of the scheme to top tips for delivering training to participants. It was nice to get back into the mountains of North Wales, and it also meant I was just down the road prior to the first of what I hope becomes a regular Monmouth Canoe Club trip to the area.

Back on the River Dee
I met the rest of the club members taking part at Mile End Mill outside Llangollen and we wasted little time in getting straight on the River Dee (well, after a short break for tea and coffee anyway). I've run this section a few times now, so I was happy to lead. After a short warm up downstream of Horseshoe Falls we eddy-hopped down to the top of Serpent's Tail rapid. The river was as high as I have seen it, and the usual island by the rapid was almost washed out. With no-one leaping forward to have a go, we decided to portage the drop and headed on downstream.

A few easy drops and ledges took us to the top of the Mile End Mill site, where we got out to head up to the luxury cottage Tracy had booked for us (which worked out even cheaper than a bunkhouse would have been!).

Another run on the Dee the next day found Tracy's son Jack taking on some of the leadership too, picking sound lines for the group and even having a go at the Serpent's Tail. Unfortunately for him the legendary 'sting in the tail' was particularly sharp that day and tipped him out at the bottom. Sharpshooting Hugh hit him first time with a well aimed throwline though, and he was soon back on the bank.

As heavy rain began to fall we headed on down through the Mile End site, taking on a couple of extra drops before getting out in Llangollen this time. The rain put most people off the afternoon's planned trip across the Pontysyllte Aqueduct, but we made it across the following day instead. 

Sadly both me and Laura had to return home for work, so we missed out on the further exploits of the club, taking on a new river in Snowdonia and convincing one terrified member to sign up for the forthcoming SARA charity abseil, but that's another story!

My next trip out should see me safely on dry, if somewhat snowy, ground. A five day winter skills course in Scotland to look forward to!

(Photos borrowed variously from Haydn and Tracy)