On a heather mattress sits the peaks; distant and drastic, momentous and unyielding, unworldly. I laugh, remembering those who say a walker’s path destroys the mountain, like the mountain even notices or cares. It is but a hair landing on ten thousand years. I cross this boulder field and it feels like Mars. Or perhaps it’s Tattooine and we are in search of the Jawas who sold us R2 and 3PO.
Ever mindful of the dryness on the dogs paws but he’s far more careful and balanced than I am. Its humans who come to injury here, not animals. The tors, if that is what they are, rise up like misplaced giants, though this is exactly where giants should be. The places where giants live.
But why are they here? Is this Arizona? It sure looks like a John Ford movie. I can’t recall a mountain top as enjoyable as this before.
I climb, the stone on my hands and under my feet. How many people have stood up here? Four or five today, maybe the same tomorrow. Into the tens at the weekend. Then maybe none for a few weeks depending on the weather. How many people have stood here in total? 10,000. Less. More. No one could possibly know. I am at least seven miles from a road and more like 10 or 12 from one that isn’t a single track. This is the way I walked, who knows how far the other way.
This is why I do these things.
Currently listening to: Volkolun: Only Trees Remember Centuries, black dark/pagan metal from Russia.
Forced back to the UK from Mexico due to the global pandemic, Dan Calverley had to call a halt to his adventurous plan of cycling through six continents. Since January 2015 he had been constantly cycling and camping around the world. With a brief break teaching in South Korea, Dan had successfully cycled from his home in the north of England through southern Europe, heading east through Turkey, Georgia, and a few countries that end in ‘stan’. He has cycled through many others, 32 at last count before his progress was halted. A total journey of over 60,000km pedalled.
The following article is based around a conversation I had with Dan one snowy Saturday night via zoom. We had planned to do this interview while walking a mountain ridge somewhere or at least in a Highland pub. The real reason for me wanting to speak to Dan, was not to find out about his travels; his excellent blog www.selfpropellingparticle.com does that exceptionally well. I wanted to find out his drive, how he kept going and what got him inspired into the outdoors enough to make a man want to spend most of his forties in a small tent.
“I was always quite outdoorsy I suppose” explains Dan when we finally get the laptops working well enough to hear each other.
“When I was a kid I was really active. I did my first bike tour when I was 11, dragging one of my older brothers to a youth hostel about a 15 mile cycle away. My best friend and I would cycle all through the Yorkshire Dales and into the Lake District.”
“I’d do outdoors stuff with my dad and older sisters, camping, but never anything like climbing mountains. I’d have to give the credit to my third oldest sister Sarah. She worked in an outdoor education centre on Arran and from the age of 15 through to 17 I’d spend several weeks every year there visiting her. Of all my six brothers and sisters, she was the one who properly inspired me to the outdoors.”
While Sarah was taking groups of schoolkids hiking or kayaking, Dan would wander off on his own, telling his sister his route but losing it very quickly and getting “as lost as fuck”. This was the first time he had been out properly on the hills, unaccompanied, and “learning to read the landscape the hard way”. Following animal tracks and ending up on ridges far from his intended routes and wandering into areas that would be solely for climbers, Dan admits to blundering around Arran. They call the island Scotland in miniature for good reason but this was to be a good training ground for the future. He just didn’t know it yet.
And this is where I come in. I first met Dan in late 1995, during our first year at university. To me, at the pretentious age of 17, all Dead Kennedys, Coltrane and Kerouac, Dan was exactly the type of person I’d hoped to meet at university. A year or so older than me, he had already lived what I thought an incredibly exciting life and we bonded over records, books and booze. “We went up Bennachie once did we not?” asks Dan. We did, and that remained our sole outdoors pursuit for four years save the odd Buddhist retreat (Dan), skateboarding (me) and drinking on the beach (both).
Unbeknownst to me though, by the time Dan had graduated and was ready to move on, he had started running, along the beach mostly in an effort to get fit after nearly four years of drinking. When he moved to Glossop with his new wife for a job in nearby Manchester, he found himself with the hills of the beautiful Peak District on his doorstep. “They were just inviting me to run”, which he did. He also got into hillwalking, with the odd scramble thrown in but as in Arran, Dan soon found himself in areas far more technical than walking would allow. It was at this point with a thirst for both knowledge and experience, that he joined a climbing club.
Serving his climbing apprenticeship with the “old salts” of his local JMCS scratched the itch for real climbing but progression in an individual’s ability was not high on the clubs list, at least at the time. If an effort to learn more Dan was accepted onto an alpine climbing course run by the British Mountaineering Council. A week long course in Chamonix was where the confidence to do long and proper winter climbs came from. Here he learned advanced mountaineering skills; rope work in teams, how to fix ice screws and real time ice arrests in the glacier. This latter skill Dan would teach me several years later on the more forgiving slopes of a snowy Tarmachan.
Though neither of us was to realise it at the time, Dan was to become my outdoors mentor. We shared many camping and walking trips, and still would if lockdown restrictions didn’t apply. Dan was responsible for my traverse of the Cuillin in Skye, including the bagging of the famous Inaccessible Pinnacle, Sgùrr Dearg (quote of the day: “Inaccessible! My arse.”). The In Pin is somewhere I’m glad I don’t really have to hold onto again; actual mountain climbing never grabbed me. I hate heights, but as Dan explains to me, climbing is a head game.
“I’d never say never, I just find it hard to imagine I’ll do proper climbing like that again. My head isn’t in it. I wouldn’t say it’s a lost interest, but being on a rock face dangling on a rope doesn’t appeal to me anymore. I am miles fitter now than when I was climbing regularly but you need to keep it up and keep your head in the game. I lost a lot of that the year I did my PhD and thought I could return to the form I had previously. I’d need to go back to the beginning now and start again, which may not be a bad thing… I always enjoyed the low grade climbs or roped scrambles most anyway.”
I was surprised at this. Dan’s climbing experiences hadn’t answered what I was after and so we changed course. Whatever we were going to find out here, it didn’t have to do with mountaineering. I asked Dan if he could only follow one interest for the rest of his life what it would be, and the answer was emphatically ‘running’ and with that I felt we were getting closer to the heart of what drives him.
“I’m a runner, not a racer. People feel the need that when they run, they need to run fast, that it’s all about the clock. The kinaesthetic movement of running brings me most joy and most clarity. The feel of the run, that’s the important bit.” Although he was an active local cycle club member it was the running club that he really found most enjoyment, and possibly himself.
“I’d enter races, fell runs. The Peak and Lake Districts are the home of English fell running and I lived right next to it. I liked the longer weekend ones. 22 miles or more. You’d run in the snow because they’re all year round. You have to pace yourself, know about nutrition and have navigational skills. I did these for most of the decade doing 30 plus milers. They’re called ultras nowadays, that’s kind of taken over the kind of fell running tradition.”
37 miles and 10,000 feet of ascent, Dan ran the Old County Tops in the Lake District four times in total and was part of the winning team the first year he did it. But something else comes up in this chat about events that isn’t necessarily about competing, or even running.
“I started running races when I first moved here as a way to meet people. I entered as a non-affiliate, initially I had no club, but the Glossop one was excellent. It still is. It’s for all abilities and the camaraderie was brilliant. We made a weekend out of the races, staying in a hut or camp or hiring a cottage. I loved that.”
I’m not a runner. Very occasionally I might and I have done part of the Edinburgh marathon as a team event. My attention waned around the 8 mile mark. However I do recognise what Dan is saying here. Sharing the hardship of outdoor pursuits such as this is a surprisingly social pastime. In my case, hillwalking with another person is an intense period of time to spend with another human. And sometimes it is the company that is the best thing about it. Forget the spectacular or unusual views, the sunrise or sunset, when else do you spend as concentrated a time with another person exerting yourselves equally with a deliberate aim? This is the ultimate and tragic lesson Alexander Supertramp realises far too late. Human contact is powerful, we crave it, and when you have a shared goal, whether its winning a race or ascending a mountain, the experience is all the more memorable. Dan clearly relishes in this in his time running, and I hope, in his time hillwalking with me.
Maybe next week in Part Two we’ll talk about his travels.
Currently listening to Mulatu Astatke, EthioJazz, a Dan Calverley recommend
It was after being in the deepest part of the wood for the best part of the afternoon that I had my revelation. We had been walking for well over an hour and had actually circled back and were on our return journey. I searched and found a spot- a clearing in the pines- I had been to many times before so we could have something to eat. Nobody ever goes down there, to that part we were at, except the deer and some pretty large rabbits, badgers, foxes or whatever it was that made those huge holes we found but we were done with that and needed food. So we had headed back up to the centre and found the place for lunch. I sat on the ground with my back leaning against an old tree stump. Most other parts of the woods were heavy with water due to the recent rainfall but the pine floor here had dried out nicely if it had ever gotten significantly wet at all. This would be the driest area in the whole woodland.
I poured my lunch from my flask; my wife’s amazing lentil and vegetable soup. While enjoying my first small cup, I realised I had not been here, to this clearing, or even this woodland in quite some time. I couldn’t actually recall the last time I was here. There was a time I would come here two or three times a week. Now it wasn’t even once a month. I was needing something; a spiritual moment perhaps, a sign maybe to reconnect, to let me know all was well and I was heading in the right direction. Something, but what it was, I wasn’t sure.
The sun parted the trees in front of me a shone on me like God’s torch. It cracked the gap in the trees that were not yet fully leafless in the distant foliage. In this late October afternoon the sun shone on me directly. Like a beacon. This was the sign I needed, the comfort, the reassurance even. Like a semi-permanent lighthouse, I enjoyed the best lunch I had in ages, basking in the light and warmth of the after…voices!
A dog barks! No yelps, that was no bark, a Jack Russel or similar. They were still a while off yet but I heard it and so did my dog. He’s alert, ears up, tail wagging, eyes and nose towards the intruders. My meditative moment had been broken so I went back to enjoying my soup and took the opportunity to snap a few pictures of the view. Not that it was much of a view and the pictures, like all pictures when compared to the human senses, don’t do it justice. The sun streamed into my face, in lines, cutting through the trees like a thick hot laser. The voices, still too far away to hear what they were saying, passed but they never noticed me, or the dog and I was too wrapped up in my own thoughts to want to talk or even care about strangers right now. They disappeared as quickly as they came and the beacons remained on me.
Where is this taking Last Wolf? Where is it taking me, or where is it telling me to go? The answer I came to realise then was quite simple. Here. Right here. This is where I found my sign and this is where I need to find my inspiration. At home with books, music, the internet; research whether its academia or Wikipedia, all that is fine but this is where I need to be. Right here, in this present moment and it has to be. Out here in the open spaces, or spaces forgotten, unused and unnoticed. My homemade soup tastes like ambrosia from Calypso. An old tree stump on a forest floor is as comfy as sitting on countless cushions, and I wouldn’t trade anyway. A light shines, beckoning to me. To show me what? The path, the light, the way. Last Wolf is the way. This is my inspiration. Where do you get yours?
“I’m a heathen, searching for his soul.” Primordial: Gallows Hymn
Currently listening to: Wolcensmen, Songs From the Mere E.P. Lady of the Depe is one of the most beautiful songs I have heard in some time.
Being an outdoors enthusiast is a blanket term we use that has an unlimited amount of meaning. For me it generally means walking, hiking in particular, long walks and many hours through woods or up hills and mountains. But it also means spending time in our local country parks with the family, dog in the river, daughter collecting sticks. It also means my dad throwing stones for the dog at the beach while he runs into the sea, daughter collecting shells. It means her putting on her wellies and waterproofs and walking around our local area, touching trees, inspecting leaves, saying hello to sheep, horses and cows, collecting daisies.
For everyone else it’ll mean different things. My friend thinks nothing of dropping a 70 mile cycle on a Saturday. This absolutely blows my mind, and is not for me, though I never completely dismiss an idea! Last year for some reason or other canoeing/kayaking entered my thoughts as a potential new hobby. I have always enjoyed the times I have done this in the past and am keen to get into it, though in the future, as new hobbies are not something I really have the time for.
The classic idea of an outdoors person has to do with carrying an axe over your plaid work shirt, beard looking resplendent as you build a cabin for your young family, deer skin hanging on the walls and the food on the table is what you caught that day. Or your eyelids freezing and snow collecting in your moustache as you climb the face of that mountain, alpine axes in your hands, rope and carabineers around your waist, cursing the day trippers who took the easy route. Bullshit. We have been sold this ideal for too long, your life and your pursuits are just as relevant.
Who can claim to be more outdoors in this completely fictional scenario?
The old guy who walks his dog three times every single day of the year. Each morning he is up at six, sees the sunrise for most of the year and set again in the evening. He sits for a good part of his afternoon on a bench, talking or reading if no one’s around. He feeds the ducks.
Or the self-proclaimed rugged outdoorsman, with the heavily manicured beard. He spends an inordinate amount of money on gear and expensive clothing, so he can sit in his office job day in day out with the occasional Saturday trip to the mountains or river. From here he posts pictures on his social media account of how outdoorsy he is. #livinglifetothefull
Why do I care? Well in actual fact, I don’t, each to his own. Life’s too short and too busy to be worrying about that and it makes no difference to me what your plans are or how you spend your time. But my point is that there is an unlimited amount of things you can do that enables you to qualify being an outdoors enthusiast. So go and grab your book and sit outside on a bench or under a tree and read. Take your lunch outside if you’re at work, wrap up if it’s cold. Take a walk along the canal, the shore, whatever is close to your area. Plant a tree, or better yet plant many. Buy that bike you were always going to get, or those running shoes, kayak, walking boots or jacket, whatever you need.
Take that first step into getting outside, you’ll be glad you did. And say hi to that old guy.
Photos by R.K. Hughes of his wife. She would walk all day.