For a start, there was all the preparation: I spent every evening for several weeks running up the 55 steps of York’s Clifford Tower carrying a rucksack full of tinned dog food. It was just the thing to start forming some powerful memories, essential if a trip is going to be laid down as “the ultimate”. The load was meant to toughen me up for high-altitude exertion: I was planning an ascent of Ecuador’s Mount Chimborazo, a 6,263-metre summit that sits on the equator and is the furthest a human being can get from the centre of the Earth without flying.
When I got to Ecuador, however, and went out for my first walk, at about 3,000 metres above sea level, I suddenly passed out. Had I forgotten to take the Chappie cans out of my bag? No. Maybe I wasn’t fit enough? Doubts crept in. The next step was to climb Cayambe, a 5,790-metre volcanic peak east of Quito: this task now took on an extra frisson of excitement.
I’d made the mistake of reading Joe Simpson’s book Touching the Void the night before, which didn’t help when we had to leap across a two-metre crevasse. You could feel the dead chill air reaching up out of the blackness below. My guide, the imperturbable Estalin Suarez, assured me he could rescue anyone from down there within half an hour. I decided that might be too long to hang around and cleared the obstacle. The reward was an astounding panorama of the Andes. Chimborazo, when we tackled it, was a brutal slog up a steep slope of sheer ice to a view of … nothing. I’d been so slow that the clear skies of dawn had bunked off.
Such experiences are the perfect lockdown memories to mull over before formulating new plans: I’m really hoping that some winter climbing in Scotland might be possible.
But what are other people’s ultimate moments? What do experts suggest I should read and listen to for inspiration and entertainment? What essential item should I not leave behind? I put these question to a range of people, from professional athletes to passionate amateurs, all seasoned experts in their field.
Endurance running: Nicky Spinks
Nicky Spinks is an endurance runner who simultaneously held records for all three of the UK’s greatest running challenges, each of which must be completed in under 24 hours: the Bob Graham (42 Lakeland fells, 65 miles and 8,200 metres of climbing), the Paddy Buckley (47 Snowdonia peaks, 60 miles and 8,500 metres) and the Charlie Ramsay (58 miles of Scottish summits and 8,700 metres). In 2016, to celebrate having survived cancer for a decade, Nicky started a project to run doubles of all three runs, , a superhuman task she completed in May 2019, becoming the first, and to date the only, person to do so. By any standards it ranks as one of the greatest sporting achievements in history.
What was your greatest challenge?
The hardest was the Paddy Buckley, as it was a massive step up from the Bob Graham. I was a relative beginner to ultra-running and spent many weekends doing recces of the route. I remember some of the descents reducing me to a nervous wreck: in fact, the sight of Tryfan brought me out in a sweat! I knew I had to get more confident at descending, which I have done. I made one attempt in really bad weather, when I finished in 25.45 hours. Then a year later I made a successful attempt in 23.55 hours.
I had always planned a bit of a break this year after doing the Double Bob, Paddy and Ramsay, but I have been looking at other gnarly runs during lockdown. One is the Meirionnydd Round in central Wales. It’s a 125km route designed and completed by [veteran long-distance runner] Yiannis Tridimas that I’ve been looking at for years. It’s very hard to navigate, and in true Yiannis “mountain goat” style, quite a lot of the terrain is rough, heathery and rocky. I am learning how to move faster across the rough stuff and not let it demoralise me. I now love the fact that the route changes constantly: something that you knew last year can have you floundering in forestry workings this year.
The start and finish are in Barmouth, which has the friendliest, best fish and chip shop ever, along with a great bridge that forms part of the route (the bridge, not the fish and chip shop).
The other is the Ring of Fire, a 45-mile round run in Galloway. I don’t know when I’ll attempt it, but planning it has been a good distraction during lockdown!
Is there an item of kit you never leave behind?
For rounds on very rough ground I will need my Inov-8 Mudclaws. There are no shoes like them for grip and I have done all my rounds wearing them.
A book to take?
For training and to help me improve my posture, I have been reading The Lost Art of Running by Shane Benzie. The book describes the science behind running – using the elasticity we all possess – interspersed with real-life encounters Shane has had with athletes. He explains in layman’s terms how to run efficiently by utilising this elasticity: you can’t but help go out the door for your next run and try to put it all into practice.
I never listen to music while running. I want to be concentrating on how I’m feeling, navigating where I’m going, talking myself into eating something … and I don’t want to be distracted.
Rock climbing: Anna Taylor
One of the UK’s most exciting young rock climbing talents, Anna Taylor has conquered many of the toughest routes near her home in the Lake District. She recently became the first woman to climb Mount Roraima in Guyana, along with climbing legend Leo Houlding. She and Leo will be speaking at the online Kendal Mountain Festival on 21 November at 7.30pm.
What was your greatest challenge?
My most memorable climbing experience (and definitely the hardest to achieve) was last year’s expedition to to climb Mount Roraima, which sits on the border of Guyana, Brazil and Venezuela. We spent a whole month deep in the Amazon rainforest, and were constantly faced with an endless list of hazards: the wildlife, the weather, and an enormous, overhanging big-wall climb. You have to be constantly on your guard living in the jungle, as basically everything is capable of hurting or killing you. On one particularly memorable section we had to climb through the Slime Forest – the name tells you everything you need to know. As the youngest by far, the only total amateur, and the lone female on the team, I knew it was going to be character-building, but it opened my eyes to what true adventure is.
I have an idea for a challenge for next year that involves a lot of climbing and a lot of cycling in a circuit around Britain, so maybe that. I really want to do the Scottish classics in Glen Coe, Cairngorm and Skye. It would be fun to have a big adventure trip on my home turf.
What do you never go climbing without?
I always carry a good waterproof jacket, the Berghaus Changtse to be precise. It survived deluges of unimaginable ferocity in Guyana, so it should cope with the UK’s climate just fine.
Something to read?
I usually go with audiobooks, as real books take up weight and space. My go-to is the Lord of the Rings trilogy, as I never get bored with it and it’s over 50 hours of listening!
I like to have songs for every different mood, but David Bowie and Fleetwood Mac cover most situations.
Fishing: Nick Fisher
Nick Fisher created, wrote and presented the Channel 4 series Screaming Reels and also co-wrote the River Cottage Book of Fish. He’s a qualified commercial fisherman, the author of several books and now a scriptwriter on the BBC’s Holby City. His new podcast, Nick Fisher’s Hooked, starts in mid-December.
What was your greatest fishing challenge?
The vein of abject failure has always run deep and so rich in my fishing life. So many trips, so many target species that I stunningly failed to catch. Failures are much more poignant. More character-building. More tantalising. Success is overrated.
For planning I always go old school: books, maps, Admiralty charts, tackle shop gossip. These days, anglers spend most of their time researching on Facebook. What on God’s green Earth is that about?!
I succeeded (eventually) in catching some edible-sized zander on the Fen drains near Ely. I filleted and cooked them with cider batter and homemade mushy peas. Zander sound like a rare species, but actually they’re invasive. They are the scourge of the Fen waterways, where their vampire-like night vision and rapacious predation means they’ve decimated the native freshwater stock. In Europe, zander is the most prized freshwater eating fish. In Peterborough and District Angling Club, it’s a swear word.
The next thing?
My permanent challenge is just to catch dinner. And tomorrow’s lunch, maybe. To put a nice sea bass, a few black bream or half a bucket of mackerel on the kitchen table – to feel like the Great Provider. Fishing, to me, is about food. I adore being out at sea on my boat, but that joy is made keener when I come home and do a little show-and-tell with my coolbox and bucket. Even if most of the time no one’s even listening!
I hate kit. I hate fishing tackle. It’s a necessary evil. A means to an end. I have had the nicest, flashiest rods over the years and treated them all like plague-ridden vermin. I have destroyed fabulous reels by rough handling, abuse and neglect. I have lost more fishing tackle than most anglers have had lukewarm pasties. There is nothing I treasure, because I know I will only lose it or break it.
A book between bites?
The Wreck of the Whaleship Essex is Owen Chase’s diary account of being first mate on the disastrous whaling trip that was the inspiration for Melville’s Moby-Dick. It always reminds me that nature is huge and fish often win. It reminds me never to buy a wooden boat. And not to trust a one-legged skipper who chooses to make his prosthetic out of whalebone.
Music on the earpods?
Why in the name of all things holy would I take earpods on a fishing trip? It’d be like taking a Wordsearch puzzle book to an orgy! If anyone ever gave me earpods, I’d grind them to paste with a hammer and use it to mend holes in my boat.
Bird-watching: Lizzie Bruce
Lizzie Bruce is the RSPB warden at Titchwell Marsh and Snettisham reserves in Norfolk, and she has also done stints volunteering with BirdLife Malta, the Scottish Wildlife Trust and Spurn Bird Observatory.
Your most memorable birding experience?
Watching thousands of knots shape-shifting in the sky at RSPB Snettisham always wows me. It doesn’t occur every day: you need to visit on the highest tides during spring and autumn. The sea rushes in, covering all the mud, and forcing the knots into the sky. At low tide there is just a vast expanse of mud and the birds distantly feeding. You need to arrive about 90 minutes before high tide, otherwise you can miss the aerial display. The next opportunity won’t be until spring 2021.
Despite growing up in Scotland, less than an hour from the Cairngorm area, I have yet to see a capercaillie. Hopefully next year I’ll have the opportunity to spend a week in the Cairngorms to view this rare and elusive bird.
I always have my Swarovski Optik EL binoculars around my neck when birding. They’re perfect for all weather conditions and allow me to keep on birding into dusk, while on the search for owls or nightjars.
When I need to check a bird identification, I use the Collins Bird Guide App on my phone. It includes calls and songs.
Music – apart from birdsong?
Definitely Foo Fighters.
Horse riding: Jonny Bealby
Jonny Bealby is the founder and guiding light of travel company Wild Frontiers, which takes groups to countries and regions rarely touched by others, either on foot or horseback. He learned to ride before he could walk and has been riding ever since, once covering the entire 1,800-mile route of the Silk Road on horseback.
Your greatest ever challenge on four legs?
I thought setting up a horse riding adventure through the wilds of Central Asia would be easy. It was not. In Kyrgyzstan we set off from Issyk-Kul lake, heading up to the Ton Pirival pass at 4,100 metres. In places the trail was covered by hidden ice, there were bogs that almost swallowed our horses, a river crossing nearly swept us away and a drunk local tried to steal our saddles. It took 10 days to cover 110 miles, but we did make it, and it goes down as one of the most astounding travel experiences of my life.
I am no wine connoisseur, but when I first tasted a Priorat red – in a tapas restaurant on the Old Brompton Road – I knew I wanted to see where such an epic wine came from. When lockdown happened I started to plan. The Tarragona region in north-east Spain is renowned for spectacular mountain landscapes of steep cliffs and wild ravines, with remote hilltop villages and stunning Carthusian monasteries such as Escaladei. It’s superb hiking country and seemingly devoid of tourists. I have the trip ready to start next April.
One essential item?
My self-filtering water bottle. In order to cut down on single-use plastic, Wild Frontiers joined forces with Water-to-Go and now provides the bottles to all clients at a subsidised rate. As a company we have saved over 100,000 bottles. It’s great for the environment and you never run out of water.
A book to take?
For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway. I’d like to know more about the Spanish civil war.
As a former musician, you might think I’d take headphones and listen to music while travelling, but I don’t. It disconnects you from the world you are in, rather defeating the purpose of travel.
Surfing: Lena Stoffel
Lena Stoffel is a professional surfer, freestyle skier and film-maker based in Innsbruck, Austria. After serious knee injuries kept her out of the Olympics, she decided to devote herself full-time to making films that capture the magic of her two chosen sports.
Most memorable surfing experience?
Definitely the Arctic. We shot the movie Circle of the Sun in the Lofoten Islands in Norway at a surf spot called Unstad. And a few others, but – sorry – they are secret. We saw killer whales, but I wasn’t really afraid … it was more that I had a lot of respect, especially when the waves got bigger and conditions were really rough. Then the ice-cold water gets into your wetsuit, you go under the waves more often, you paddle harder and it’s exhausting. So, physically and mentally, it’s a challenge. The landscapes at those places are often unreal and beautiful. You’re surrounded by snowy mountains and surfing almost alone. The cold water makes you feel very alive and present. All senses are in the present moment.
In lockdown I am daydreaming of surfing adventures in warm water. I think my ultimate surf challenge is to manage a “hang 10” on my longboard – that’s when you walk forward and curl all 10 toes over the tip of the board. It’s pretty difficult. Living in Innsbruck, however, with winter coming, I dream and plan backyard skiing adventures. The Nordkette is a place I love – it gets busy, but it’s fun. Afterwards, there is a bar called Hitt und Söhne, which is right at the bottom of the gondola and has an amazing view over Innsbruck.
From What Is to What If by Rob Hopkins. It’s really inspiring about changing minds and cultures in a world where the future looks scary.
Sounds for the beach party?
I take noise-cancelling headphones everywhere, but will listen to the album Blood Rush Déjà Vu by Sunset Sons and anything by Lee-Ann Curren.
Kayaking: Jon Hynes
Jon Hynes is a 47-year-old lifelong kayaker and adventurer based in County Cork on the south coast of Ireland, where he runs the Kinsale Outdoor Education Centre. His passion for watersports encompasses white water kayaking, kitesurfing, windsurfing, sailing and powerboating. He is best known for his epic sea kayak paddle around Ireland.
What is your most memorable moment in a kayak?
There is no doubt that kayaking around Ireland was one of the hardest adventures I’ve done, yet in that hardship there was a beauty and a real sense of achievement – and I did it in the face of the full bore of Wild Atlantic weather. I absolutely threw myself into rigorous training and preparation for eight months. I kayaked in the worst possible weather an Irish winter could throw at me in order to toughen up for the real thing. Still, even all that training and preparation could not fully prepare me for the intensity of 34 days at sea in a kayak. Lots of blisters! The joy and memories for me, and my kayaking partner Sean Cahill, will last a lifetime. Plus, we made an award-winning film, which is a great memento.
Lockdown has really sharpened my focus as to what local adventures I’d like to prioritise. I have teamed up with a fellow Irishman and we are planning to kayak the longest Irish river, the Shannon, source to sea, and make a documentary that celebrates the therapeutic power of being outdoors. We want to inspire others to follow their own adventures.
For me, a big positive of the Covid-19 experience is that people are more aware of their surroundings and the opportunities for improved mental and physical wellbeing. I’ve been saying it for years: go outdoors and you’ll feel better. Now people know it and believe it.
Something you wouldn’t paddle away without?
It’s a no-brainer. I have never had a bad night’s sleep on my Thermarest mat.
Reading matter for the sea locker?
The Fear Bubble by Ant Middleton. In short: get off your ass, make it happen.
Music for the campfire?
The Waterboys’ album Dream Harder. I love Mike Scott’s connection with the sea and spirituality. It’s a collection of songs I sing out loud as I paddle.
Mountain biking: Dan Visser
Dan Visser has been pounding the trails of the Lake District on his mountain bike for almost three decades, since the days when a bike in the fells was an unusual sight. On the way he has built a deep knowledge of the routes that can be cycled, and a few that cannot. Working out of the Langdale and Brimstone hotels in Great Langdale, he has developed a range of cycling holidays in conjunction with Biketreks of Grizedale.
Best thing on two wheels?
That’s Helvellyn. With so many options for going up and down, and with such a big hill delivering different conditions each time, it’s always a memorable ride. Whether I do the hike-a-bike up from Thirlmere, the ride-push-up from Glenridding, or the carry-up Striding Edge – each is an adventure in its own right, with stunning views. Pretty much any of the descents deliver incredible memories every time. You need a decent level of fitness, along with enough biking skill and equipment for steep rocky terrain and the knowledge to stay safe in the hills when something goes wrong with you, your bike or the conditions.
Next big thing?
I’ve spent lockdown planning to ride the West Highland Way in two days, south to north.
Essential for the saddle bag?
Anything to keep warm. In winter a Montane Prism down jacket.
You can’t beat a paper OS map.
Something for the earpods?
I usually listen to podcasts on economics – not very rock’n’roll! When it’s music, anything by Bob Marley.
Wild swimming: Graham Little
Graham Little is a veteran wild swimmer, having swum from Europe to Asia, from Alcatraz to San Francisco, from Robben Island to Cape Town, and in the Arctic. When not in his trunks, he is a television presenter on the Premier Sports channel. He lives and works in Northern Ireland.
Most memorable experience when wet?
When I realised that the 200th anniversary of Lord Byron swimming the Dardanelles Straits was coming up in 2010, I knew I would have to do it. I loved the glamour of it and the history of the crossing, plus the idea of being able to boast that I had swum between continents! The only problem was I had to travel to Turkey from Belfast straight from a big family wedding – the kind of preparation that Byron would heartily endorse. When I got there, fighting through the swell and across one of the busiest shipping routes in the world was an experience I’ll never forget.
Next wet thing? I’d like to try the Messina Strait, crossing from Sicily to mainland Italy. It’s a warm-water crossing, which is appealing. I’ll train in the sea in Northern Ireland, as the pools are likely to be out of action for a while.
A couple of packets of boil-in-the-bag oats means I never have to worry about the right fuel.
Something for the night before?
I always like to read something relevant to the situation or place I’m in. I swam from Robben Island back to Cape Town a few years ago, on the 100th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s birth, so I brought his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom.
Before any big challenge, I listen to the soundtrack of the film The Last of the Mohicans. It sets the right tone!