Mon amour, l’aventure commence

Image source: http://bit.ly/nw3xgY

It’s official.

I signed up.  I paid my money, I filled out the form, and I signed up. The Great Arctic Fundraising Adventure starts here.

I saw the doctor last week, and it was probably one of the fastest check-ups ever.  I explained I was travelling to the Arctic Circle next year, he raised an eyebrow.  I told him I wanted a clean bill of health before signing up.  He checked my notes, listened to my chest, confirmed that there wasn’t anything I was currently suffering with, and ordered a variety of blood tests — just to be thorough.

I asked, “Should I be concerned by the trip down the stairs I had a few years back?  Before the Peru adventure?”
“Do you have any symptoms now?” He responded
“No…”
“Then I’m sure it’s fine.”

And that’s it, it’s official — short of the blood tests showing up anything alarming (which, let’s face it, they won’t): I am healthy.  I won’t say “fit and healthy” as there is a lot of fitness work to go between now and next March — along with a lot of fundraising.

The fundraising goal is £6,000 which seems insurmountable — but the way I see is if I can get 60 companies to each donate £100, then I’m set.  The publicity and promotion machine must now get to work.

Speaking of publicity, a special thank you goes out today to David Gallagher, the Senior Partner / President of Ketchum Pleon PR who kindly retweeted a link to my JustGiving page.  Thank you, David!  Also worthy of heartfelt gratitude for a retweet is John Williams, author of the inspirational book Screw Work, Let’s Play — his 30 Day Screw Work, Let’s Play Programme has given me some much needed support and contacts.

As mentioned, I have already set up a JustGiving page, along with a Facebook page, and a LinkedIn group.  Take up of memberships to the social media  pages has been slow getting started — I expected donations to take a lot of work, but have been surprised by a lack of interest to join the Facebook page.

Donations, on the other hand, have started strong — I have received to date two donations of £50 each, which means I only have £5,900 left to raise.   One of the organisers of the Hacker News London Meetup group has agreed to put out a message to the group about my fundraising adventure, for which I am very grateful –I was hoping this might be a way to find 60 companies each willing to make a £100 donation, but that might have been a little optimistic.

I am now wrestling with myself over whether I should ask more groups I am associated with through my work for their help, or whether I should keep a separation between the two.

The message remains the same however: all donations, of any size, are equally welcome — and if you are unable or unwilling to donate, there are other ways you can help.  You can help by telling people about my adventure, and why I am doing it. You can help by finding out if there is anyone in your company I can ask for a donation from. You can help by suggesting big companies with PR budgets I could talk to. You can help by suggesting press contacts who would be interested in my adventure.  Or you can help by just giving me messages of encouragement — it’s all welcome.

Extra! Extra! Read all about it!

What’s the latest with the Flat-Footed Adventurer?

Having drawn a blank on corporate sponsorship, and come away empty-handed from any recent sharing of this blog, I have stepped my campaign up a gear. This trip is not going to beat me before it has even begun.

On the advice of a gentleman by the name of Nick, I have contacted the legendary Ben Fogle — who as an adventurer is perhaps best known for his participation in the inaugural South Pole Race. Will Ben Fogle be able to give me any advice on preparing, fitness, publicity or raising even the paltry sum that is the trip deposit? Will Ben Fogle even read my email, let alone respond? You, dear reader(s), will among the first to know.

I have also been advised that I should seek medical opinion on if it is even advisable that I make this trip, given the accident I had before my Peru trip. One should always consult a doctor before embarking on a new fitness regimen, but how many of us ever actually do? I certainly never do, and don’t recall when I last saw a doctor — other than the recent trip to see one in France when I broke my collarbone snowboarding. Yes, I am accident prone and clumsy. Yes, these two things plus dog sledding in the wilds of the Arctic Circle might lead to calamity. But will that put me off? Hells, no. Just the same, I feel I should at least tell my doctor of my plans and give him a chance to object.

Other than contacting adventurers-turned-Gardener’s-World-presenters, I also have made contact with the editor of a local newspaper. In exchange for their financial support — either of the trip deposit or a larger sum towards the fundraising total — I will provide them with content. How much content will be discussed with regards to how much help they can give me. Once again, I am filled with suspense. Will the editor read my email? Will he file it in the tray marked “bin”? Or will he think it’s a good idea and make contact? I have given first refusal to this particular newspaper — if I don’t get a repsonse, or get a response in the negative, then I will widen it out to other newspapers instead.

Until I can pay this deposit and sign up, I am kind of stalled — the usual recipes for charity fundraising don’t apply until I actually am fundraising for the charity. At which point, there will be requests to collect outside supermarkets, in Tube stations, and anywhere else I can think of.  But there needs to be action, so the first action is keep making contact with people who might be able to help.

Even if you’re reading this, you can help. You might not be able to donate money, or your services as a fitness trainer or native Norwegian speaker, but you can still help. I need people to help me organise events, I need people to help me get publicity. I need people to keep me motivated, to say “you’re doing great!” or “Must try harder!” (as all my school reports used to say).

In the words of John Hegley: “I need you like a lookalike needs somebody to look like”.

The Flat Footed Adventurer needs a patron!

Image source: http://tinyurl.com/44n294x

Next year, the big adventure is Dog Sledding in the Arctic Circle — courtesy of Across the Divide.

To self-fund the challenge will cost me £2,860, including the £500 deposit I have to pay on registering.  All fundraising money raised between now and the trip would be donated 100% to Cancer Research.

Alternatively, I can choose to raise a minimum of £4,720 in sponsorship for Cancer Research and pay only the £500 deposit from my own money.

I only need £500 to sign up with this option, but that’s money I don’t have lying around, going spare.  But I do have some ideas on what I can do about this.

What I need as “The Flat Footed Adventurer” is some kind of sponsorship, or support — in other words, I need a patron.  The idea is if this challenge and the resulting publicity is successful to turn “The Flat Footed Adventurer” into a Free Range Career.

But we need to focus on this challenge first, and my ideas need some explaining  I have made a list of as far as I can tell everything I need to make this challenge happen, and it looks something like this:

  • Finance: This is most important, as I don’t have £2860 — corporate support towards this target will allow me to register and begin the charity fundraising.
  • Fitness: This will be a challenge in the true sense of the word, and will require me to be dedicated to getting into the best physical shape I can be — and have ever been.  To do this I will need expert training, guidance and support.
  • Publicity: I am a talented writer, and I want to document every step of the challenge, from signing up and raising money for Cancer Research, to the days spent sledding through the Norwegian wilderness.  I will need help in getting my journals publicised — and later, hopefully, published.

I have tried making contact with several large financial institutions.  8 out of 10 did not give me the time of day to even respond.  One replied, curtly, that they do not support individuals.  One replied and was both warm and helpful, sadly they could not help but they wished me luck.  That was a bust.

The trouble is, I don’t know who to contact.  Surely, there are companies out there who could help and would want to help.  When I hiked the Inca Trail in 2009, it was largely due to the help of transport giant First Group who were very generous in their sponsorship — and they, in return, received a wealth of publicity, both in print and online.  There is a tremendous opportunity for positive PR for any companies supporting me with this — helped my own background in Public Relations.  I am hoping this will help me to at least find people who might know people who can help.

Without the finance in place, I can’t begin to find contacts for help with the other parts — because the trip can’t happen.  I can get as fit as I like, learn to speak Norwegian and have a stunning network of people eager to help publicise my writing, but it’s all for nothing if I can’t even afford to go.

Cancer has directly affected my family.  In 2008, my aunt Margie succumbed to the illness after a long battle — she had loved to travel, and loved walking, and she was my inspiration for the trip to Machu Picchu.  In 2010, my uncle John (my aunt’s — and my Dad’s — brother) was the victim of an aggressive brain cancer.  The illness took him so quickly that there wasn’t time to receive any nursing at home, but the family requested any donations to be made to Cancer Research UK.  My uncle loved dogs, and this seems like a fitting way to remember both my aunt Margie and my uncle John, who were my Dad’s two oldest siblings.  I want to be able to raise awareness as well as money for Cancer Research. In the UK alone, someone is diagnosed with cancer every two minutes.

To summarise, what do I need from you?  I need you to help spread the word.  Please share this post with friends, with family, with followers.  Please.  Take 10 seconds just to think if you work for, or know, a company that would be able to help me achieve this challenge.  But most of all, please help spread the word — or if you have a spare few grand, and want the publicity, get in touch!

Day 4: The Inca Trail, Wayllabamba to Pacamayo

After a restless night disturbed by tentmate Joe’s frequent and noisy vomiting, we started the second proper day of walking with the knowledge that this would be perhaps the hardest thing many of us had ever done — and possibly the hardest thing we would ever do.

We had camped overnight at an altitude of 2700m at a place called Wayllabamba, which in the Peruvian Quechan language means “grassy plain”. Both of these are quite safe, reassuring facts that you take comfort in on the trail. The altitude is low (although that is still double the height of Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the British Isles), and the name tells you how it’s nice and flat. This contrasted with the focal point of the day: Dead Woman’s Pass, standing at an altitude of 4200m, over three times the height of Ben Nevis and nearly four times the height of Snowdon*.

It wasn’t long before the ascending trail took us up through what is referred to as “cloud forest”, where the forests are persistently misty — this made it cooler for the uphill hike, but the altitude was still tough. Joe hadn’t recovered from the night before, and was struggling to continue going since he couldn’t even keep water down. We were lucky that it stayed dry for us, since this part of the trail had a reputation for being hard going when it got muddy as well as steep.

I remember one stop we made for a rest and water, which really symbolised the contrast of the traditional Peruvian society and the “modern world”. We stopped to regroup and rest, and a few feet away, under a tree sat two Peruvian women in traditional dress, with their donkey. And a table selling bottle water, Coke, chocolate, Powerade and various other delicacies. Every now and then the donkey would wander closer to one of the women, and she’d hit it with a stick. I got the impression the woman was telling the donkey to go away, but maybe it was the other way round — the donkey enjoyed it, and every now and then just had an urge to be hit with a stick again, whereupon the old lady would oblige.

Lunch a couple of hours later was a beautiful lush valley, with views of snow-capped peaks and the heights of Dead Woman’s Pass lying ahead of us. Joe was in a bad way. He was dehydrated and weak, from being unable to keep anything down but still being determined to keep going. I think the trail and the long months of preparation did that to you: giving up was not an option. If I thought I had things bad with dodgy knees and a bad foot, Joe had to be put on an intravenous drip in a tent.

When I arrived at the lunch stop true to form our team of trusty porters had already erected the three group dining tents for us, as well as the cooking tents and done all the cooking — and there was still a few minutes to go before meal time. Most others had been there a while longer than me, but I was perpetually slow. It’s now such a bad way to take the trail, you get the opportunity to take in all the sights around you — which never have the chance to become familiar or run of the mill.

I encouraged a fellow trekker to venture in to one of the surrounding fields where llamas (or maybe alpacas, I can’t tell the difference) were peacefully grazing. I had been tasked by Ali to hug a llama for her, and I was determines to meet my obligations, and have a photo taken to prove it. Unfortunately, the llamas had other ideas about this. They might be big. And smelly. But they are also still timid of people, and weren’t keen on the idea of being hugged by someone who hadn’t showered in a couple of days. I settled for a photo near a llama instead, though I won’t post it since it’s not a very flattering picture — and I don’t look a whole heap better.

Lunch was packed with carbs — the now-usual selection of dishes ranging between soup, chicken, white rice and traditional Peruvian dishes. It was delicious, and best of all plentiful — and we needed it, since Dead Woman’s Pass still lay several hours ahead and several thousand meters above us.


After lunch the trail got steeper and relentless, there was often barely enough room for two people to walk side by side, when there would come up the mountain a shout of “Porters!”. Everyone would move to one side to let these Peruvian supermen past — with port-a-loos and stoves on their backs and nothing more than sandals on their feet.

The altitude made the trek hard going. We’d be able to walk no more than a few minutes before having to stop to catch our breath — the thing about altitude was that the air literally did feel thinner, you could take long, deep breaths but the air just didn’t go so far. Your heart would pound, your head would thump, and you just had to stop and let everything settle — no amount of eagerness or speed would get you up the mountain any faster.

With the altitude came the cloud, and once we reached Dead Woman’s Pass (so-called because it is said to resemble a dead woman lying on her back, with the view of two mountainous peaks resembling breasts) it got cold very quickly. We all assembled together to appreciate what would be the highest — although not necessarily the hardest — point of our trip. The views were limited by the cloud around and below us, and strangely reminded me of Dartmoor — probably because of the cloud/fog, rock and desolate landscape. On many of the surrounding hills were small piles of stones, not unlike the cairns found in the British Isles — they were apparently expressions of wishes by Quechan travellers, who would return and add another stone to the top of the pile when their wish came true.

Getting to the top of Dead Woman’s Pass was only half the battle — there was still a 500m descent to camp to go. While the ascent was hard-going because of the altitude and steep climb, descending is often just as hard, and the relentless steps are torture on your knees — and like with the ascent, you can’t speed up, even if you want to, and know you are against the clock to get into camp before dark.

The second night camping was in the Pacamayo (or “sunrise”) valley, where instead the sun was quickly setting. My tentmate Joe (who had been carried at one point on the steepest part of the trail uphill) was already in the tent and his sleeping bag and fell sound asleep almost as soon as I got back. After a hard day, many of us were a lot more tired than the night before and went to sleep right after dinner.

The next day was promised by some to be the hardest, with another very early start.

*Readers outside of the UK: please feel free to chip in with how this compares with mountains you are more familiar with — I appreciate the UK isn’t known for its mountainous terrain.

Day 2 — Sacsayhuamán

“Sunday, May 31

6.30am: Sunrise over the mountains, and I’d forgotten what an amazing sight that is. Today is an acclimatisation walk, we’re being taken up to about 3500m and then walking back.

I admit here to being concerned about my foot, the doctor back thinks it could be weeks before it is better. I don’t even want to think about the possibility of not being able to walk.”
Our first real day in Peru started just before sunrise. It was already light outside, but when the sun reached over the mountains I remembered why I love this kind of country so much. We don’t have mountains in England, not a single one, so the best you can hope for is either hills or when the sun comes up over the buildings, which doesn’t have the same sort of feel to it.

Cusco was starting to wake up, like a big cat stretching and yawning. The hotel provided us with breakfast, which incorporated fruit juices, fresh fruit, yoghurt, scrambled eggs, and various bread products. A feature of the trip as a whole was large meals — loading up on the carbs and the calories, since you’d be needing all that you could get.

We were bussed up into the foothills of the mountains to start our first day’s walking — it wasn’t part of the trail itself, just an opportunity to get used to being at altitude and warm up a little for the walking we had ahead over the coming days. We started at a ruin called Tambo Machay — whose original purpose remains unknown, although it has been speculated it served as a place to guard the approaches to Cusco. Because of the Incas lack of a written language, many things about them are open to speculation — including their architecture. Just the same, the structures with its canals and aqueducts remained impressive.

From Tambo Machay we set off walking across country, and other than the altitude it was no more strenuous than many walks in England. It was particularly surreal to be walking through plains and fields and seeing football pitches off to the side, before remembering how popular the sport is in South America.

While the walking wasn’t hard, my foot was still painful. It had been several days since I’d hurt it, and although I was better able to put my weight on it and was taking a lot of pain killers it was still slow and difficult going at times, and put undue strain on my opposite knee. Just the same, although it bothered me, it still wasn’t anything that was likely to stop me altogether.

At times, we passed through towns in the mountains — basic stone houses where people lived their simple and quiet lives. Until the native children would see you, then suddenly there would be a dozen, barely-dressed children surrounding you, holding out their hands for money. We were told not to give them anything — the Peruvians are proud people, and don’t want their children growing up to be dependant on begging and handouts. We were especially told not to give them sweets, since they had no system of dental care.

I think our Macmillan guide Sarah described the children best as incredibly sweet, but so dirty. They were clever though, so often they would appear with a cute baby animal — usually a lamb — and try to entice you to take pictures, which they would then want money for. Fortunately, none of our group was taken in by this.

The next ruin we came to was Sacsayhuamán, referred to by the Peruvian guides as “sexy woman”. The site appeared to be a kind of fortress, and with the city of Cusco forms the head and body of a Puma. What is truly impressive about Sacsayhuamán was the sheer scale of it — from pictures, it looks like any other pile of stones that was once a fort. But some of the stones weigh as much as 200 tonnes, more than twice as tall as me, and are larger than I can comprehend. As with places like Stonehenge and the Pyramids of Egypt, it’s amazing and much debated how these huge blocks of stone with rounded corners and interlocking edges were carved, transported across great distances and assembled. The fortress was also assembled with all the walls leaning at a slight angle to help protect it against earthquake. Clever chaps, those Incas — although much of their cleverness lay in borrowing ideas from older cultures.

From Sacsayhuamán, it seemed like the rest of the day was one long descent into Cusco — albeit on well maintained stone steps, and while I wasn’t exhausted by the day, the altitude left me feeling worn out and I was walking very badly by the time we eventually made it to the city’s outskirts.

As mentioned, this wasn’t even part of the trek itself — just a gentle warm up and a day trip to some historic sites, we wouldn’t ever have it this easy again.

Back at the hotel the order of the day was just dinner and bed, since Monday promised a very early start, and the beginning of the hiking itself.

“6.35pm: After a gentle day’s walking to get used to the altitude, my knee hurts and, of course, my foot hurts. The doctors are openly concerned about it, I see them exchange looks, but everyone is very friendly and nice and supportive. I just keep saying I will do whatever it takes to make it through.

Sacsayhuamán was amazing. The huge stone blocks were so perfectly carved, the hills and mountains all looked more like a picture than actually real.

What lies ahead is honestly scaring me. I think everyone feels the same way.”

Day 1 — Cusco

After much delay (it’s been two weeks now since Machu Picchu), I begin a series of posts about the Inca Trail. As always, my travel writings go under the working title of “Stay out of circulation til the dogs get tired”.

Day 1 — Cusco

“Saturday, May 30
After almost 24 hours since I got to Heathrow, I am in Cusco. I feel fuzzy with the altitude, but mostly ok — and though my foot does worry me, I have to now try not to get too worried. It is bright, warm and sunny, and the air is filled with traffic noise and car horns.

Peru is a dusty brown colour, with dark green trees. The earth-toned buildings look like they are part of the landscape, almost as if they just grew here, instead of being made.

[later]The city doesn’t seem to ever slow down. It’s now 6pm, and dark, but the city still rumbles on.

We arrived in Lima in that dazed, half-awake, half-asleep state that comes with long-haul flying. I spend most of my time travelling in this kind of waking-sleep state, due to my ability to fall asleep in almost any moving vehicle. Aeroplanes used to be a kind of exception to this — mostly because you don’t really notice you are moving — but I happily slept almost the whole journey from London to New York, and then New York to Lima.

What had been billed as a long stop-over in New York instead became a rush across the airport — we’d been late taking off from Heathrow, and by the time we got to New York they were holding our plane for us.

Stepping off the plane in Lima, we were met by what appeared to be a doctor and a nurse wearing surgical masks, giving out information on swine flu. Despite the virus starting in Central America, many South American countries are still largely unaffected — Peru for example has only a handful of cases, compared to those in the United Kingdom. I imagine swine flu would be a lot more dangerous in a third world country like Peru, so their precautions weren’t overzealous — but it was a disturbing sight to be met with.

Unfortunately, out of the 50 or so of us travelling together for Macmillan, only about 10 bags made the journey from New York. Because of how delayed we had been, there hadn’t been time to load many bags — and a lot of people had only the clothes they were standing in. On the other hand, I always pack under the assumption that my bag is likely to be lost somewhere and include a change of clothes in my hand luggage.

The less said about Lima, the better. We didn’t see anything of the city, but from all the accounts I’ve heard that’s for the best. After filling out forms about our lost bags, we hopped on a short flight to Cusco, where I promptly went back to sleep and woke up only as we were landing.

Cusco — the cultural capital of Peru, and the former capital of the Inca empire — was vibrant, full of colours and people and noise and life. We were staying in the Savoy hotel, which our guides had gone to some pains to point out was not to the same standard as the Savoy in London. Part of the hotel was closed due to building work, and apparently it was something of a lottery if the showers worked. My shower worked — sort of — but the room was clean and the beds were large and comfortable. That was good enough for me.

After dropping our bags and a meal at the hotel, our hardy band of adventurers set out into the city. Along the roads were markets where local people sold their wares to tourists — ponchos, blankets, carvings. Each stall holder would call out “Hola, amigo” and try to entice you over. I deliberated for a long time before buying a poncho myself, but I figured it would come in useful at nights on the Inca trail. Half the fun in buying anything was bartering with the seller for a good price. Everything was a good price to begin with, the Peruvian Sol was about three to the Dollar, and with almost two Dollars to the Pound, nothing was too expensive. Just the same, I’d ask how much it was, mentally convert it, and then try and get them to knock about another ten off the price.

In Cusco it seemed there was always some kind of a parade going on, without explanation and without anyone paying too much attention. Maybe it was a special weekend.

In the evening, the Discover Adventure guides took us to a local restaurant for a chance to sample some Peruvian cuisine. Even though the restaurant was run by a Scotsman called Dougie. I turned away the chance to eat guinea pig when it was presented to us, since the creature still had paws. Had it been served as just sliced meat, I might have been willing to perhaps consider giving it a try — but when it still looked like someone’s pet, I wasn’t keen. In fact, I don’t think I tried anything Peruvian that night since the buffet also included a couple of chinese style dishes. I just wasn’t in that kind of place where I wanted to be eating something unknown, when we’d be spending the next few nights camping, without proper toilets or showers. What did catch my interest was when I discovered the owner of the bar also ran an adventure sports company, and he offered me the chance to go mountain biking on the last day in Cusco.

I turned down the chance to go drinking after the meal — although I wasn’t feeling too bad for the altitude, it was a fairly early start the next day to go on an “acclimatisation walk” in the foothills, and I wanted a clear head for it.