Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me

Image source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/peachicken/397714931/

“He’s down,” said Motherball, mixing again, chopping some buds.

“How long, baby?”

“Long enough,” from Gnossos.

“Tell me.”

Gnossos said, “It looks like up is all.”

Richard Fariña “Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me”

I found this book entirely by accident one day. I can’t remember when, exactly, but how I remember it is that I was a student and browsing in my university book shop one day as a first year undergraduate student.

Maybe I was looking for something in particular, or maybe I was just killing time in a bookshop, as I’ve enjoyed doing for so long.

In my memory, I saw this book on a shelf, and I was intrigued. I’d never heard of the book or of Richard Fariña, but I think something about the title appealed to me — as I had my bouts of depression at university, I liked the idea of being so far down that down begins to look like up.

The book is a semi-autobiographical account of a summer in the late 1950s when Fariña was at Cornell University in New York. I won’t retell the whole story or try and analyse what it’s really about, because what it’s about is adventure. I bet that surprised you — a story about adventure, in my blog about adventure?! Also, this post may contain some plot spoilers — so be warned.

The book opens with the protagonist Gnossos Pappadopoulis returning to New York, where rumours have been circulating wildly about his untimely death. He’s spent some time adventuring out in the real world, and I guess for many people in their safe university campus the idea is terrifying — anything could happen out there.

And it turns out nearly all of the stories shared about Gnossos’ death have been true, but obviously the victim wasn’t him — as in the case of the Pachuco gang — or a near miss. It seems almost as if nearly being eaten by a shark, and nearly being burned to death by a Pachuco gang, and nearly freezing to death in the Adirondack mountains or being eaten by a wolf is all part of the great adventure for Gnossos.

There is a lot of talk in the book from Gnossos about being immune or exempt, without the terms or their context ever really being explained. Does he think he is immune to the rules of nature, having cheated death several times? Greater minds than my own have suggested that exemption is “from the rules of society” but also “exemption from being required to care about the person on the other side of sex”.

The biggest of all Gnossos’ adventures is his quest for love. At one point, a friend criticises Gnossos for always expecting or hoping he might meet the great love of his life at the next party. Gnossos isn’t just hoping to fall in love, he seems altogether a little too eager to believe it when he finds it in a girl called Kristin McCleod. It’s a whole new adventure for Gnossos, giving up a part of himself he has always kept carefully guarded before — but it seems too quick, and too convenient. Whether or not the reader is meant to think this, it’s not clear, but Kristin does turn out to be manipulating Gnossos for political ends.

The political/sexual revolution subplot is interesting in that it’s an adventure that Gnossos entirely tries to avoid being involved in — he wants to stay out of the entire thing, just as at first he isn’t interested in joining his friend on a trip to join in the revolution in Cuba. Kristin manipulates Gnossos into getting involved in the student politics, and then effectively dumps him — whereupon he tries to deliberately get her pregnant, then joins the trip to Cuba after all.

The adventure in Cuba is a personal one for Gnossos, he’s less interested in the revolution and more interested in running away — and seeking a mysterious “Buddha”, a drug lord character, who forms yet another sub-plot of adventure — a kind of drug-fuelled quest for enlightenment, through opium, mescaline and pot. Gnossos seeks perhaps the ultimate immunity — a disconnection from the physical world, but he is warned by a friend “You can’t stay wherever it takes you, you have to come back”.

In many ways, the book is about an end of innocence — Gnossos’ friend gets killed, while Gnossos has his heart broken and gets drafted.  I like to think that Gnossos would have continued to have his adventures after the book ends. As I’ve reread the book over the years I’ve read different things into it and felt differently about Gnossos, much like with Kerouac’s On The Road.  At 20 I though the books and the characters were just about the coolest things ever. At 31, I see the characters flaws more clearly and like to imagine that in the years that followed Gnossos would have learned some lessons and done things differently.

It’s unfortunate we’ll never know what might have been, since it was Richard Fariña’s only novel: he died in a motorcycle accident a couple of days after it was published, although he released several records of folk music recorded with his wife Mimi Baez, and a post-humously published collection of his other writing — Long Time Coming And A Long Time Gone.  Check out that book, too — if only for his short poems on the idea of nothing.

10k Bootstrap Challenge

Last Friday night I was fortunate enough to see Rob Fitzpatrick present to Hacker News London on his 10k Bootstrap Challenge.

Rob’s talk was one of the funniest and most interesting stories I have heard in a long time — and it occurs to me that he is an adventurer of sorts himself. He might not long for grand treks across continents or ancient South American civilisations, but he is a man on an adventure just the same.

His challenge is quite simple: Rob is betting £10k that he can build a portfolio of products which is profitable enough to live off before he runs out of money.

Watch the video and see for yourself how the adventure is going: http://player.vimeo.com/video/43036150

Darlin’ won’t you come run away with me?

Darlin' Wont You Come?I’m late to the party with this song, and with Bob Evans in general.  I couldn’t even name you another song by the man — except that my MP3 player tells me that the Spider-Man theme from the 19070s cartoon is also by a man by the name of Bob Evans.

The thing is, this song says to me adventure. Although in general I think it’s more about wanting to be happy, and wanting the person you care most about to leave a place where you’re unhappy — lines like “I don’t feel this place holds a lot for me/
So darlin’ won’t you come run away with me” and “I’m done with this crowd and I’m done with this scene/And you’re the only one who believes in me” both to me reinforce this idea, and suggest an unhappiness.

But as I say, to me it plays into wanting an adventure — the line “I want to belong, but I’d rather be free” says they want to see what is out there in the world. They want to be free, but then again — don’t we all?

Free in this context does not mean alone.  I think it’s incredibly important that the song’s title isn’t “I’m running away” but instead “Darlin’ Won’t You Come” is an invitation to the person he loves, with every verse starting with the same line: “Darlin’ won’t you come run away with me”.

I once met a man, at a conference, who told me he was homeless.  He wasn’t begging for change or living on the street, what he meant was he didn’t own a home and he didn’t have a home he was paying rent on. He literally had no home address, he said because he travelled so much with his work that he lived his life in hotels.

I’m someone that likes to travel, and actively wants adventure — and yet I’m almost horrified by the idea of literally having no home, nowhere to go back to, nowhere that you can close the door and be in your own place.  I want to see the world, I want all the adventures I can have — but I also want that place that is home, and that person to run away with.

The fine balance between belonging and being free.

DAY 6: Jotka – Gargia

From the notebook:

“A fantastic day in the Arctic!  Surprisingly warm, clear skies and no wind — I couldn’t have asked for a better day to end the adventure on.

The landscape today was so varied: across frozen lakes, with our shadows keeping pace alongside, up steep hills, and down winding trails through Nordic forests.  The trails were narrow and sometimes scary, with tight bends and downhill stretches where my rocket dogs just wanted to run flat out.

Though I came off the sled a few times, I always managed to stay on my feet — or, once, on my knees — and recover the sled without it turning into a “fall”, which in some ways was better than not stumbling or falling at all.

We waited for the first competitors from the Finnmarksløpet race to pass by, they had already been going a few hours and were heading up, up, up the hill.

Arriving back in Gargia felt like a homecoming — back to the comfortable, warm cabins with showers and electricity — and chaining the dogs to their kennels.  I hugged all my dogs, though only Anneka liked it, and I thanked them all for their hard work.  I’ll miss those dogs, especially the beautiful, affectionate Anneka.  I’d keep that dog if I could.

Would I come back to the Arctic, would I dog sled again?  Maybe.  Maybe, if I was stronger in every way — maybe if I trained harder, but I didn’t ever feel like I was lacking, though there is always room to be better.

I’ve had 5 days here, maybe with more time I could get better at this?  On the other hand, there are more adventures to be had.  What adventure is next?”

After the unease and worry of what was to come on the last day, it was easily the most enjoyable day in every way.  The weather was perfect, the terrain was varied — so I even enjoyed the occasional steep slopes.  Despite being quite sedentary when I’m not training for an adventure, when I have something to get my teeth into, or like this when all my training has a reason,  I quite enjoy the physical exertion.

In moderation.

And, on this day, everything was in moderation, there would be the hills so steep you had to give your dogs a run up at them and even then I would still have to get off the sled halfway up the hill and push.  People laugh now at the thought — it seems so absurd to the inexperienced that a team of dogs wouldn’t be able to do it alone without help — but we were told early on that we were one team, with the dogs.  And the dogs would perform better for you helping them out: not that they would remember your help, as such, but towards the end of the day when the dogs are getting tired a bit of help on the difficult parts earlier in the day can count for a lot with their energy.

There was also the very pointed looks your team of dogs would give you.  Another thing we’d been told, but you think is a joke until you experience it.  Picture the scene: A steep slope, a team of dogs, a sled, and a musher on the back.  The dogs race up the hill, until about halfway up when gravity on the sled and the musher starts to equal the strength of these amazing dogs.  The dogs slow or stop, and almost as one they look over their shoulders at you with a look that almost says “Come on, fat boy — get off and push”.  Having been reprimanded by your dogs, you sheepishly get off and put your weight behind it.

Except by the last day, it’s not like that — there’s no question, no need for meaningful looks from your dogs. You get off and run behind the sled, pushing for all you’re worth, because now you really are one team.  And you know there is no way you’re getting up this slope without them.

Of course, the steep slopes went the other way too: down.  Steep downward slopes could be dangerous — your sled would pick up speed very rapidly, it would be harder to control, or worse yet it could hit your dogs.  Sometimes a slope would require one foot on the brake. Sometimes we were warned in advance: both feet on the brake.  Not that both feet would do a whole lot to slow down a sled over ice and snow on a steep downward trajectory, but it was enough to avoid casualties.

I’d been worried about the winding trails through the Nordic forest, but for the most part while, yes, they were winding and they were narrow and there were lots of trees to crash into, I found a bit of brake was enough to keep the sled under control enough to be able to just let the dogs take the corners and for me to just slide with the motion of the sled; just like I’d learned to do earlier in the week.  Don’t try to control it, just go with it.

We stopped for a long break when we came to a point where the Finnmarksløpet race would pass.  We’d been asked if we wanted to stop and watch the race pass, or carry on.  I voted to carry on — I was enjoying the sledding so much, and didn’t want to stop for long.  I wasn’t in a hurry to get back to Gargia, but part of me felt that if my dogs were running, then we’d keep running forever.  Unfortunately, everyone else voted to watch the race, and I was called a misery for not wanting to — which I felt was unfair.  I didn’t have anything against the race, but I though watching it pass was going to be a lot like it eventually was: we watched no more than 3 or 4 competitors pass, and it was mostly uneventful.  We’d cheer and shout encouragement and they’d keep going.  It wasn’t like there were large numbers of competitors all going past at speed.  Just the same, it was good to see how the pros did it.

It was almost a little sad getting back to the lodges at Gargia: it felt like a month rather than a few days since we’d last been there.  We each unclipped our dogs from the sleds, and chained them to their kennels.  As my notebook says, I’d grown very fond of my dogs and hugged them all — with all except one being largely unwilling to be hugged.  My beautiful dog Anneka just loved attention from me — I’m told she wasn’t used to a lot of it, and she loved being scratched or rubbed behind the ears.

I’d talk to my dogs each day in the morning before we’d set off, tell them what was ahead and how I’d be grateful  for their help, and in the evenings each night thank them for being such clever, strong dogs, I thanked them all one last time.  To them, I was just another stranger weighing down their sled.  Except for Anneka, whom I firmly believe wanted to come home with me — or wanted us to run away and live on a farm somewhere in the Norwegian countryside.

This is where the “adventure” ended, though we were in Norway for almost a whole day more after this.   And much like how the notebook ends; I’m left wondering what adventure is next.

DAY 5: Mollisjokk – Jotka

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Photo copyright of Rob Thein

From the notebook:

“Thankfully a short day today — the wind was howling and blowing up snow.  Though, at first, it was on our backs this didn’t seem to last and soon the wind was side-on. The dogs love the cold, but they struggle to run against the wind.

Most of the terrain today was flat, across vast frozen lakes — and visibility was limited to a couple of sleds in front.

It wasn’t too challenging, which was good — but with nothing to see, the day also wasn’t much fun.

One of my rear dogs broke their neck line and wasn’t pulling properly, plus the sled always seemed to be swinging out to one side.

As we left the lake, buildings came into sight and the wind dropped. Suddenly, it was a nice day — and part of me wanted to continue in this good weather like yesterday for another few hours.

Tomorrow, we start early to avoid getting caught in the big race — and I’m a little nervous about how technically difficult it will be.  If nothing else, at least it will be the last day.  Go carefully, go slow — and enjoy it.”

As the notebook says, we woke up to a howling wind on the fifth day. It wasn’t snowing, and it probably wouldn’t even be that cold — if it wasn’t blowing a gale. We had a very slow start to the day, in the hope that the wind might die down or drop altogether, and there wasn’t a long distance to cover. In the end, it became clear the wind wasn’t going to go anywhere — so it would have to be us that made the first move.

And after all, wasn’t it this kind of thing we’d come to the Arctic Circle for? We’d had blizzards and we’d had blue skies and sunshine — now we were going to have icy Arctic winds. I’d said many times before I went away that the cold was the least thing I was worried about, since we’d be kitted out with cold weather gear. Now it was the time for this gear to earn its keep.

The Arctic suit was zipped all the way to the top, the full face balaclava was pulled all the way down and tucked inside the suit, the snow goggles covered the only part of my face that the balaclava didn’t, and my hood was pulled up over to the top. Once my rocket dogs were patted and told what clever, strong dogs they were and fastened onto their lines (by this time I had grown very fond of my team of dogs), I had two pairs of gloves to protect my hands.

Most of this day is just a white blur to me now, much as it was at the time. Because the wind was whipping up the snow so much, the conditions were almost a total white-out so there was no scenery to admire, and no real way of knowing how much lay ahead.

When I mention in my notebook about it being easy terrain, the connection seems obvious to me now. The weather conditions were bad because we were low down, the terrain was easy because we were following the Jiesjokka River and across frozen lakes.

The cold and the wind wasn’t too disheartening — after all, it wasn’t hard work so I had to work harder to keep warm. Sometimes I’d get off and run behind the sled, pushing it in front of me, just to help the dogs out in the wind and to do something to get my blood pumping. Other times, I’d hold on tight to the back of the sled and do squat reps to make sure blood was flowing to my feet and toes. As I say, there wasn’t much to look at so we had to make our own entertainment sometimes.

Lake Jiesjokka is apparently the biggest lake in the Finnmark area, although it was often hard to tell when one lake ended or another began. Sometimes it wasn’t immediately obvious you were sledding across a lake until you noticed the ice under your foot brake, or the lack of vegetation.

When we crossed the lake, the buildings of the Jotka mountain lodge came into view and the wind disappeared completely.  With the sun shining down on us and the chance to breathe a little, I didn’t want to stop — it didn’t feel like we had been going that long, I wasn’t tired or hungry, and I was enjoying it too much.

This was the last evening before our final day of sledding, a day that had been described as “the  most technical section as we sled through narrow trails downhill through dense woodland, and you will put into practice all that you have learned over the last few days”.  This had be worried.  I’d just about mastered the art of not falling off the sled, was I supposed to have learned some skills like how to turn the sled when going downhill along narrow, winding trails?  I had visions of being dragged behind my sled all the way down a mountain.  I told the group leader later that evening I was worried about it, but he reassured me that it wasn’t actually that bad.

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Photo copyright of Jim Weston

But to add to my slight unease was the knowledge that we had to set off especially early the next morning, because the route we were taking was also the route that the famous Finnmarksløpet covered — except that they were coming from the opposite direction. If we weren’t out of the way by the time the race came up the mountain, there would be big trouble. So — no pressure.

That afternoon/evening was the last night we were going to have with our dogs on the trail, so I took the opportunity to get some photographs with my dogs — and especially my favourite dog, Anneka, who was especially affectionate and loved attention.

DAY 4: Lappujavri – Mollisjokk

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Photo copyright of Rob Thein

From the notebook:

“Today was a great day — such a change from yesterday. The terrain was easier, the weather was kinder, and it felt good. I decided first thing that I’d stay at the back of the group, so I could go slowly at a pace I felt comfortable with — and at first I was hesitant and nervous of falling off. Then someone behind me told me not to hold my dogs back, to let them run.

Something changed.

The best I can describe it is it felt like snowboarding — you relax, bend your knees and just slide with it. If anything it was a little easier than snowboarding, with the sled to hold on to. From there I was on top — I didn’t brake unless it was a downhill and I might run over a dog.

I passed half of the group on the straight, and the sun shone on the frozen lake. The patterns made in the snow looked like the curtains of the Northern Lights.”

I’d started the day with a knot of tension in my stomach, worried that the day would be like the day before — that I’d be constantly falling off and in pain. Someone must have been looking out for me, because it was about as different from the day before as it is possible to be.

I reassured myself that if I was at the back then nobody would be held up by me, and I could just enjoy the adventure without worrying about falling off.  I can hardly describe the change it made when I just relaxed and let my rocket dogs run as fast as they can.  As we cleared a hill my sled left the ground for a moment, and as always came back down with a thump, but instead of braking and slowing, I just flowed with it.

Almost the whole day was following snowmobile tracks over frozen lakes and rivers — you would only notice it was a lake by the fact that a large area was completely flat and free of vegetation.  Occasionally, there would be a bare patch with no snow and underneath I could see the opaque blue of the ice.

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Photo copyright of Rob Thein

Sledding across lakes was a great feeling — the dogs could run their hearts out, and I’d shout words of encouragement to them.  I no longer felt that I had to stay at the back of the group, and let my dogs overtake over sleds if they could.  Sometimes, we’d get into a race — and I think the dogs liked this even more, I’d think they were running as fast as they could, but when the sled beside us wanted to race I would start yelling “Go on boys! Faster, faster!” and they seemed to smile and find an extra burst of speed.

I felt like there was nothing I couldn’t do, and as the sun shone on me I could see a shadow of me and my sled racing along and keeping pace alongside me.

DAY 2: Gargia – Souluvombi

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From the notebook:

“Today has been incredible! It was a late start, and a hearty breakfast — after feeding 70-something hungry huskies.

The dogs went off like a rocket; through the woods and down the trail — there’s no need to shout instructions or directions or “faster”, the dogs know the way and you just have to try and slow them down.

Down slopes, over humps — the sled takes off briefly, before landing with a thump — the dogs just want to go, just want to run, on and on and on.

We started the day in blue skies and sunshine — the day even felt quite warm when we had to help the dogs up hills — then before we knew it, it was cold and windy and we were having to make sure everything was covered and protected”

Reading back over the adventure’s itinerary, I’m wryly amused that this first real day of dog sledding from Gargia is described as follows “we are briefed on how a dog sleds works and how to use the ice brake and snow anchor.  We then put the theory into practice and some time is spent getting used to the basics of sledding. This is followed by a session where we are introduced to the dogs”.  This makes it sound a lot more…instructional than it was. First of all, how does a dog sled work?  Four dogs pull the sled, you stand on the back and don’t fall off.

We’re not talking about driving a car, here — theoretically, if you shift your weight to one side you should be able to steer it.  I don’t think I ever got the hang of this.  The brake that was mentioned: to return to the car analogy, imagine if you had brakes that stood little to no chance of actually stopping the car.

You stand on the brake, which was a metal bar between the two runners and that dug hooks into the snow and ice to slow and stop the sled.  I would typically use one or both feet, and with varying amounts of firmness, depending on how much I wanted to slow the dogs.  But when the dogs wanted to run even standing on it with all my weight and both feet wouldn’t hold them back.  Four eager and hyperactive huskies against a marketing nerd…

This leaves the snow anchor.  It was described as looking like a medieval torture device — and, yeah, it did exactly what it said on the tin.  It was a brutal-looking heavy hunk of metal on the end of a piece of rope — exactly a “snow anchor”. You would throw it down into the snow alongside the sled, stamp it forwards to dig it in, then let the dogs pull the sled tight.  This anchor, and only this, would keep the sled stopped. This briefing on how the sled works and how to use the break and the snow anchor probably took less time than it took me to write that.

This was undoubtedly a good thing, as we reflected a few times: in the UK there would probably be hours of practice and health and safety briefings before being equipped with protective pads and helmets and gentle lopes around a circuit.  In the Arctic they told you what you needed to know, and you’d pick up the finer details as you went along.

The dogs were a new experience for me.  I mean, dogs in general are.  I’d never had a dog, growing up.  I’ve had friends and girlfriends with dogs, and always been a little nervous around them — the dogs, that is, not my friends.  I’m generally OK with a dog once I’ve known it for a while and found them to be all bark and no bite, but faced with 70 huskies I felt a little uneasy.  Especially at this time of day, first thing in the morning when the dogs have been fed and are eager to go — the sleds are all ready, and the dogs know that their day is about to start.  These dogs love nothing more than to run, and they aren’t known for their patience.

70 dogs all barking and howling was a lot to take. We were shown how to harness our dogs, and how the two lead dogs always have to be put on to the sled first — with a chain between their collars, to stop them from running opposite sides of trees and posts — followed by our two back dogs.  Before long we were ready to go, and I was feeling nervous — this was a completely new experience for me, and the familiar “What on earth were you thinking?” question was going round in my head.

I was glad to not be the first person to set off, just so I could see how other people were handling the speed and the first bend, off into the woods.  With only 13 of us in total, it was quickly my turn — I took a big gulp, pulled the anchor out of the snow and before I had fully straightened up, the dogs were off.  I don’t exaggerate when I say in my notebook they were like a rocket, I would affectionately call them my “rocket dogs” — it makes me smile now to remember how terrifying this first part was, and how I spent the first few minutes desperately trying to slow the dogs down, so I wouldn’t break my neck.

The accommodation for the night in Souluvombi was almost as good as the first: we all had beds, plus there was heating and electricity.  The first day sledding was the perfect way to start the adventure — just enough difficulty and adversity, but not too long a day. It obviously was not an accident: they would want to break us in gently, but we were fortunate to have favourable weather conditions.

They weren’t to last.

DAY 1: London – Olso – Alta

Gargia Lodge, Alta, NorwaySO. The Arctic Adventure.

After months of planning, months of training, and countless feakouts when I thought about what I was doing, it was no longer “next year”, or “next week” but instead…now.

To avoid an early-morning cross-London Tube journey with heavy bags, I chose to spend Sunday night in a Travelodge in west London near Heathrow airport. Despite walking the wrong way out of Hounslow West station to catch my bus to the hotel, the Sunday night was not time for adventure. I got up early Monday morning, showered, checked out and waited outside for my taxi.

Which it turned out the hotel staff had forgotten to book.

We were instructed to assemble at the Scandinavia Airwarys check in desk at Heathrow Airport, three hours before out flight was due to take off. It had been a similar set up when I went to Peru, but I remember that feeling slightly easier: I just had to look for people in hiking boots, Macmillan t-shirts and large rucksacks. But what did people look like when they were going to the Arctic?

Lucky for me, one guy was already there and waiting — while he might not have been dressed in a snowsuit, he did have that outdoorsy look.  People started to join us quite rapidly, with each new arrival asking “Across the Divide?” or “Dog sledding?”.  Before long, there was quite a group of us assembled — but no trip leader.  We began to wonder if we had been deliberately told to get there early so that the group could begin to bond with each other, or if it was a plan to get everyone to the airport on time.

Eventually, everyone was together — including the trip leader, the trip doctor and a rep from Across the Divide who wasn’t actually coming on the trip itself.  We checked in, dropped our bags, and killed time in the airport.

The flight to Oslo was short and largely uneventful.  I say “largely” because I was sure this was the first flight I’d ever taken that didn’t have a safety briefing — it wasn’t until our return flights that I realised there was one, but it was done entirely in Norwegian, so when I hadn’t been watching I hadn’t known what was being said.  Oslo airport’s internal transfers terminal seemed very Scandinavian: it was smart, clean, quite small, very expensive, and not worth noting for much more than that.

From my notebook: “7pm.  Alta from the air and in the rapidly-approaching darkness seems icy, snowy and rocky.  Dark lakes and fjords, reflecting a bright moon and stars.  The cold fresh air, and a feeling of excitement”.  We took a minibus from Alta airport to our first night’s lodge at Gargia — the main part of the town of Alta (for it seemed to cover quite a large area with not much to see) was quickly left behind to darkness, snow, and the occasional red-painted farm building.

The picture at the top is the Gargia Fjellstue lodge, our base and accomodation for the first night of the adventure.  There were half a dozen lodges, the main building which included the dining room, and the kennels for our 70-something dogs.  The first night was luxury; the lodges had under-floor heating, showers, electricity and there was a bar in the main buidling.  Dinner was cooked for us by our hosts, Cathrine and Pål — a delicious reindeer stew called something like “Beadle”.

After dinner we mainly rested and talked — until it was decided to check for the Northern Lights.  At first, it seemed like there was nothing to see, but then when you stood for a minute, faint misty patches in the sky that looked like cloud would begin to brighten.

Again from the notebook: “10pm. Aurora Borealis!!  Green sheets of light, appearing, brightening, then fading. My camera can’t capture them — but what a sight!”.  Yes, unfortunately, it seemed my compact Canon camera wasn’t going to be up to the job — I just couldn’t find a setting for long exposure, but seeing the Northern Lights was as good as capturing them on camera.  You could stand out all night watching them, but it was time for an early night — because the next day the adventure was to really begin: a 30km journey by dog sled from Gargia to Souluvombi.

Day 6: Winay Wayna-Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu, PeruYou think you know Machu Picchu. You have seen it in guidebooks, in things to do before you die lists, in Facebook photo albums of various friends. You’ve seen it in high-definition technicolour. How can seeing it in person not be an anti-climax?

I thought all of these things, until I saw it. The lost city, that technically has no name, but is referred to by the name of the mountain: Machu Picchu.

And maybe it’s the altitude, and maybe it’s exhaustion, maybe it’s that you’ve been working towards this moment for so long: planning and training and fundraising and hiking — but either way, it’s a big emotional moment. I tell everyone the same thing: if you want to see Machu Picchu, you should hike the Inca trail to get there.

Sure, you can take a bus up the mountain from Agua Calientes, and arrive all fresh and rested, but where would be the sense of achievement?

The last day’s hiking started with an unexpected lie-in. When this became the plan, I don’t know, I was fairly sure it was meant to be an early start to be there for sunrise: but none of that mattered once we were awake and on our way. To tell the truth, the hike to get to Machu Picchu on the last day fades in my memory: because there was an enormous event waiting at the end, and everything else becomes over-exposed because of it.

 Inti Punku, the sun gateWhat I remember most is the stone steps up to the sun gate, from where you look down on to the lost city below. One more set of steps, except that lining the steps on both sides are the trip guides, the doctors, the porters you have become close to over the last few days. And they are all cheering and applauding. I raised an arm in triumph for a photo: I did it. On bruised and blistered and broken feet, I did it.

After the photo opportunities with mountain Machu Picchu in the background, we were encouraged to spend a few minutes in quiet reflection about why we were there and what we had accomplished. That’s about the time that the exhaustion and altitude combined to have almost everyone break down in tears. We were all there raising money for Macmillan Cancer Support, and all had stories about how cancer had affected the lives of people around us — or us personally. My aunt would have loved Machu Picchu and Peru, and it seemed like a fitting tribute to her memory.

What I don’t often talk about is the pain I was in on this last day. I’d been on a prescription pain killers all week to deal with the pain in my injured foot and in my knees, and had foolishly decided for the last day to start reducing the dose. Looking back, I could have waited another couple of days, but I under-estimated how much of a hike the final day would be. But you know what? Look at that smile. I was genuinely happy. In that moment, it was all worth it.

Among the ruins of Machu Picchu there are wild llamas just wandering around, and once you have descended the long, winding path down to the city you yourself just wander among the ruins and the grass: marvelling at the pyramids and the buildings, and the ingenuity of this long lost civilisation. Everyone there probably wishes they were alone to experience it without the slightly grubby hikers, like me, or the fresh faced tourists just off the air-conditioned bus. Just the same, you remember the feeling of the city and try to memorise all the details to report back later.