Last weekend, after a lot of internal debate, I decided to go to the Brecon Beacons on a walking weekend with Country Adventures. I’d been in the UK after my last trip abroad for a whole 2 weeks , I hadn’t been away for the weekend for nearly a month (and even that was only to Swindon!), and I’d been back home in Sheffield for a whole 24 hours after a few days in Oxford, so I was getting itchy feet and ready for some adventure. The friends I typically go walking with were all away playing softball or doing other exciting things, so I fancied a bit more excitement than my usual forays into the Peak District. Why the internal debate, you may wonder? Because something feels a bit weird about paying to go away walking for a weekend when one of the great benefits of walking is that it’s free. And it’s not that I’m incapable of going walking on my own – I do it all the time in the Peak District. Nor that I’m afraid of travelling alone – I spent 9 months on my own travelling round New Zealand, and have done plenty of solo trips both in the UK and abroad. So it seemed both extravagant and a bit lazy to pay to go on a group walking trip when I could have organised it myself for a lot less money.
There are a few good reasons for it, however.
1. I spend my whole life organising things: work trips, softball teams, walking weekends away with friends, my own independent travel, conferences. You name it, I’ve organised it! And despite my slightly perfectionist and control freak tendencies, it’s actually rather nice to hand over to someone you trust and let them organise everything for you. Of course, the key word here is trust. If I don’t trust someone’s organisational skills, I’d rather do it myself. But with an established company who specialise in these things, I know I’m in good hands. So all I have to worry about is getting myself there and back (it still involved 4 trains and a bus each way, and relying on a complete stranger to pick me up at the train station). The rest — accommodation, food, route planning, navigation, and even what time I needed to get up in the morning — was all arranged for me.
2. This leads onto my second point. Having all the organisation done for you means a huge reduction in stress. I don’t have to think about anything once there, other than how many glasses of wine I can have in the evening and still feel fine in the morning. As a person who has to plan every last detail, it’s quite nice occasionally not to have to. Admittedly, there are still plenty of things to worry about: keeping my blood sugar levels under control, whether I’m going to be kept awake by snorers, whether I’m going to get on with the other people in the group, and so on, but these are pretty standard for any trip! The reduction in stress is something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. I finally bit the bullet and got myself a gardener, not to mention simplifying my garden a lot to ease the routine maintenance. A part of me feels quite lazy about this, but I just never had time to look after the garden properly, and then felt stressed and guilty for not doing so. All much easier to just pay someone to make it look nice and be able to spend what little spare time I have doing more fun things.
3. The third big benefit of a guided trip is safety. Funnily enough, this isn’t something I was particularly worried about, other than simply not having to worry (too much) about getting lost. It turned out that, despite the forecast of sunshine, a cloud-free summit, and zero percent chance of rain, on the Sunday the Brecon Beacons were hit by severe electrical storms which killed 2 people on a nearby summit to us, and injured several more. We were incredibly lucky that it wasn’t us. In this situation, it was very reassuring to have a qualified mountain guide with us, and especially useful to have a group emergency shelter that we were able to use during the heaviest rain and hail.
While I know the basic safety guidelines for dealing with thunderstorms on the hill (get away from the highest point and any protuberances such as trees, tall rocks etc; put your walking poles and metal away, especially if making a fizzing noise; get off the hill as quickly and safely as you can, if necessary sit on your rucksack and hunch down on the ground), it’s still very reassuring to have an expert on hand. Or at least someone who you can pretend is an expert! At this point I have to congratulate Joe, our guide from Country Adventures, for his extreme calmness and excellent decision making in what was a potentially very dangerous situation. After sheltering from the heaviest rain in the emergency shelter, while he checked the map for the best escape route, he encouraged us to make a hasty retreat off the summit, with a sense of quiet urgency that had us instantly following his lead, and found us a safe but fast descent while the lightning flashed around us and the clouds cracked above our heads. Being at the trig point was not a safe place to wait out a storm that showed no signs of abating!
We only heard about the terrible accident later that afternoon, but as we reached the road we saw the ambulances whizzing past with sirens blaring, and knew something was amiss. But this brings me onto one more point, which I’ve talked about before on this blog: walking in the mountains (or in any extreme territory) is not an easy option! I’ve lost count of the number of deaths in the UK hills I’ve already heard about this year, but there have been a number: from falls off precipitous edges to heart attacks to lightning strikes. People have a terrible habit of underestimating the UK as a rather safe place, where we don’t have “proper weather”, “proper mountains” or any kinds of extreme conditions. Just because you might not be as likely to die from any of these as in some other parts of the world, it doesn’t mean it’s not risky, and it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take all proper precautions. In retrospect, I’m not at all unhappy that I took the safe option of going walking with a group. Plus I had the benefit of making new friends, learning new tips and tricks, and having much more fun than I’d have had on my own, even if I might have done a slightly more challenging walk had it just been me.
And meanwhile, this coming weekend I’ll get the best of both worlds – a guided walk with Will4Adventure with both friends and strangers, that’s also free and on my doorstep in the Peak District. I’ll be mixing in plenty of non-guided walking weekends over the summer too (and the winter), both with friends and on my own, but it’s sometimes worth paying for a professional service: guided walking weekends are not just for those who have no friends to accompany them or who are too scared / unskilled to walk alone!