A chat with Dan Calverely Part 1
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