Sunday, 11 March 2018

#036 Legends Assemble

The Belgian Ardennes, a region of rolling hills, rough terrain, ridges and steep sided valleys cut by swift flowing rivers. Much of the area is covered by seemingly impenetrable forest.

For those with an eye on their history books or the landmark television series Band Of Brothers, the Ardennes are steeped in legends. The Belgae tribes were a thorn in the side of Caesar's Roman ambitions, Napoleon III was defeated during the Franco-Prussian war in the nearby Battle Of Sedan and of course the Ardennes winter nearly did for the 101st Airborne in the Battle Of The Bulge.

In modern day Belgium access to the countryside is largely via GR (Grand Randonne), Regional or local Promenade Routes, usually marked with coloured symbols.

With this in mind, Tim de Vriendt and Stef Schuermans, Race Directors of Legends Trails have done a superb job in negotiating local and regional by-laws which would have put off lesser event organisers. They have threaded a 250km course which gives a full flavour of the Ardennes and offers a challenge worthy of the legions which have trod, strived and crawled through its tough terrain.

The Legends Trails, now in its third successful year. Each edition has been different, the weather, the strategies and superb racing stories, from the winners to the endeavors of the Lantern Rouge to beat the cut-off time. Tim and Stef have built a quality race with generous home cooked food, enthusiastic volunteers, a specialist medical team and a dedicated HQ team, organising logistics and taking care of safety matters. Each participant is also equipped with a tracker from Legend's Tracking.

Website: Legends Event Tracking Services

In 2017 we saw the first two British finishers, Ryan Wood and Allan Rumbles. Perhaps it is no coincidence that both are also finishers of The Spine Race. Is the Legends Trails a tougher race than The Spine Challenger? Almost certainly yes. But is it as tough a proposition as the Full Spine. What we can say is that while the distance is shorter, the Ardennes terrain offers little opportunity to settle into a rhythm. It is relentless. If we let the numbers speak, then in 2018 there were 29 finishers from 70 starters.

For 2019 Allan has set up the British Legends Trail Team facebook group. Supported by Tim and Stef, the aim is to share this modern ultra classic with UK Ultra runners.

Facebook Group: British Legends Trails Team

Flights to Brussels from Manchester can be booked in advance from around £40 each way (plus checked in luggage). With a number of options from the airport to the area of the start. Plus there's the additional benefit of you being surrounded by these lovely national treasures...

In the past year I've helped several friends from Belgium and the Netherlands in their race skills training build up to their Spine Challenger and Spine Races. All have found their 'Complete Racer' training very useful in helping them race more efficiently. As the race models are similar, Spine finishers should also carry a useful skills set into The Legends.

2020 will be the 5th anniversary of the Legends Trail. To celebrate this there will be a 500km edition, an event to truly test the mettle of any ultra runner. So be it 2019 or 2020, Legends Assemble!

Legends Trails Website

Stu Westfield
Legends Trails Safety Team Leader

Friday, 26 January 2018

#035 Cheetah Story

"I never knew of a morning in Africa when I woke up and was not happy"
                                                                                             - Earnest Hemmingway

My earliest recollection of a wildlife documentary was a cheetah, filmed in slow motion, as it chased a Thompson's gazelle. Kinetic energy rippled down the flanks of the cat, pads momentarily touching the savanna, flicking up clouds of red dust, tail steering like a rudder as the gazelle jinked left and right, throwing off the momentum of its pursuant.

Over the years, in the course of my work as an expedition leader I have led several expeditions to eastern and southern Africa. During this time there has been a disturbing trend in the worldwide cheetah population and big cats in general.

Cheetah are now extinct in 20 countries where they formerly roamed. By January 2017 there were only 7100 left in the wild, a dramatic reduction of 90% from what there numbers were 100 years ago. Cheetah are classified as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. With the rapidity of de-population this iconic species could be on the brink of irretrievable extinction before science has time to classify it as such.

The last time I saw a cheetah in the wild was in 2008, in Lewa Downs conservancy in Kenya. It was one of my most treasured and special wildlife moments. 

I watched as a coalition of three adult male cheetah harassed a female with sub-adult cub to see of she was in condition to breed. These were the biggest, toughest looking cheetah I had ever seen. They were the famous Lewa brothers, powerful, impressive and confident. An attitude they took to their selection of prey, bringing down unlikely and unheard of species such as ostrich and fully grown zebra. They even had the ability to overpower grown lions.

A year later, wildlife camera man Simon King captured incredible footage of these behaviours for the BBC series 'Life'

(warning: scenes of natural predator and prey behaviour)
Cheetah hunt: BBC 'Life'

The bothers' strength was defined by their coalition. The death of the eldest, after a fight with a pride of lion, sealed their fate. The last of the brothers, seen to be listless as if mourning the loss of his sibling, was confirmed on Monday 30th April 2012 when a surveillance officer found the carcass. Their reign had lasted 14 years, a remarkable tenure. It is of course the natural cycle, but it was none the less a sad day for anyone who had enjoyed their magnificent and larger than life escapades.

Another series made by Simon, was Cheetahs Fast Track To Freedom (2004) told the story of Toki and Sambu, two three month old orphaned cheetah cubs and attempts to raise and habituate them to a wild environment. The documentary shows with heart breaking  clarity just how difficult this is. 
Cheetah Fast Track To Freedom

The follow up programme Tokis Tale (2007) leaves us only partially satisfied that the release to the wild had to be within a fenced (albeit very large) enclosure due to Toki apparently seeking out human company and not faring well in confrontations with other wild cheetah.

The main threats to cheetah come from habitat loss and fragmentation. IUCN state:

Because cheetah occur in low densities, conservation of viable populations requires large scale land management planning; most existing projected areas are not large enough to ensure the long term survival of cheetahs.

Conflict with farmers, especially in southern Africa, leads to cheetah being trapped and shot as vermin for largely perceived threat rather than the relatively little damage they cause. Loss of wild ungulate population will exacerbate this situation as well as depriving cheetah of food in areas where agriculture expansion is encroaching into cheetah home ranges.

But perhaps the most distressing cause of cheetah decline is the illegal trade live cubs smuggled to the middle-east market as exotic pets to be paraded as status symbols and fashion accessories. Of the crates and crates of cheetah cubs smuggled out of Africa, only one in six survives the journey. Most of the rest will die prematurely of malnutrition or be discarded if they reach maturity and their behaviour becomes unmanageable.

As the Simon King documentary shows, it is virtually impossible for these animals to be reintroduced to the wild. 

Despite unprecedented levels of funding for scientific research and analysis, more global awareness than ever thanks to the internet, big words from celebrities, personalities and some politicians: Cheetah are sliding inexorably and quickly into extinction. 

At what point will decisive, meaningful and effective action be taken, in addition to the efforts of a few dedicated individuals which are amounting to a sticking plaster over a heamorrhaging wound?    

Humans have a unique talent in destroying what they love. I now wonder if the cheetah brothers I saw in 2008 will be the last I shall ever see outside of captivity?

Stu Westfield
Ranger Expeditions
Expedition Leader - Africa Specialist

#034 Rousay - The Egypt Of The North

Within sight of mainland Orkney and just a twenty minute ferry away, lies the small island of Rousay. With area of just under nineteen square miles, it has such an incredible density of important archaeological sites it has become known at 'the Egypt of the north'. There are no fewer than 15 chambered cairns on the island.

All along the south edge of the island is a string of Neolithic passage and chambered tombs. Many are sited on an ancient geological terrace over looking the waters of Eynhallow Sound. They bask in the glowing etherial light of the winter sun as it tracks low across mainland Orkney and behind the rugged hills of Hoy. None of this would have would have been accidental. Archaeological evidence shows the minds of our Neolithic ancestors where highly attuned to natural cycles and the passing of the seasons.

In our "Journeys Into The Stone Ageseries of short films we discuss the sophisticated cosmology of the Neolithic and how this displaced the Mesolithic hunter gatherers. 

Neolithic Orkney - Part 1
Neolithic Orkney - Part 2
The Neolithic Revolution in Ancient Guernsey
Stone Age Revolutions on the Isle Of Mull

Taversoe Tuick Chambered Cairn
This two storied tomb, dating from 3000BC, is one of only two known Neolithic tombs with two stories. The tomb is built on a hill so each storey can be accessed from ground level.
The lower tomb was originally entered by a long passage from the downhill side, leading to a chamber divided into four shelved compartments. 
The upper tomb was separate from the lower and different in design. Entered from uphill along a shorter passage into a chamber composed of two rounded compartments. 
The hatch between the two levels did not exist in pre-history. Archaeological excavations revealed several skeletons in lower level. In the upper chamber there were three cists which have since been removed, containing the cremated bone from a child and at least two adults. There were also many grave goods.

Blackhammer Chambered Cairn
Also dating from around 3000BC, the Blackhammer cairn is just a kilometer away. It is divided into seven compartments, or stalls and is over seven metres in length. 
Archaeological investigations revealed two skeletons and animal bone, including birds, with evidence of burning and that the tomb was deliberately blocked when it went out of use.
The original three metre passage entrance to the chamber has been replaced by a sliding door with steps down into the once corbel roofed chamber.

Knowe Of Yarso Stalled Cairn
The Knowe Of Yarso tomb is divided into four compartments and is entered through its original passage. It incorporates decorative slanting stonework, also seen in Blackhammer, which is reminiscent of markings on local Unstan Ware pottery. (We visit the Unstan Tomb on Mainland Orkney, in Neolithic Orkney Part 2 )

The 1930 excavation revealed 29 human skeletons with skulls set along base of walls. At least 36 deer skeletons were also discovered. To be interred in this way suggests the deer, or what they represented to the Neolithic community, were totemistic, like the dog skeletons at Cuween Hill tomb and the many bones of white tail sea eagles found inside the Isbister Carin on South Ronaldsay, also known as the Tomb Of The Eagles.
It is very possible that the eagles were part of a excarnation ritual, like a Tibetan sky funeral, before the deceased bones were stored within the tomb. At Wideford Hill the dogs may have served the same purpose. Or their remains kept among human bones may have served a more esoteric purpose. In the case of the dogs, the guardians of the houses of the living now keeping watch over the house of the dead.
Of course, deer are a herbivore species, so the excarnation explanation fails in this case.  The purpose of interring their bones in The Knowe of Yarso could have represented a spiritual function or offering. Rousay is not a large island and would only have supported a limited herd of deer. 
Our Neolithic ancestors living there would have to manage their harvesting of this resource. Indeed, a hard winter with high natural mortality and subsequent low numbers of calves may have had severe consequences for the Rousay tribes, giving rise to treating the bones of dead deer with the same reverence as those of humans. 

It is possible that the agricultural activities of the small Neolithic farming communities also interfered with the deers' natural behaviour of descending from high ground to lower pastures in late autumn for the annual rut.

Midhowe Stalled Cairn
At 23 metres, this is the longest stalled cairn in Orkney. It is divided into 12 compartments, many with stone benches and is sited unusually low, right down on the coast. But, given its magnificent size, this decision would have made the tomb's construction much easier as it is next to the sea front, where shelves of flagstone are exposed. The flagstone would have been readily cleaved away, giving building materials within just a few metres of the tomb site. 
1930's excavations revealed 25 skeletons including two children, some still on the stone benches where they had apparently been laid to rest. Gave goods – pottery and animal bones. The tomb had been back filled with rubble when it went out of use.
A modern structure has been built over the tomb to preserve it from the Atlantic elements.

I wonder if subsequent Neolithic tribes built and populated each cairn with the dead in chronological sequence. So when a tomb was back-filled and put out of use, the next one was build further along the coast line, but keeping the significance of facing the sea channel and movement of the sun, especially in winter as it remained low in the southern sky during the short days either side of the solstice. 

Significant events, such as local exhaustion or near extinction of the red deer population, for instance, could have precipitated a shift in cultural emphasis and the building of a new tomb in the Knowe Of Yarso case.

Or were there several co-existing communities? Each conforming to a general code of funerary practice but with particular cultural identities and idiosyncrasies, which we see in the masonry style and grave goods found in each tomb. These artisan flourishes and expressions of behaviour define the individual and their sense of belonging, it is a fundamentally enduring aspect of the human condition.

Stu Westfield
Ranger Expeditions

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

#033 Experimental Bushcraft: The Paleolithic Horse

Exhibited at Creswell Crags visitor centre is a small fragment of rib bone (species unknown) on to which the image of a horse has been engraved. The artist had certainly studied his subject with anatomical awareness. This object is a remarkable and rare surviving example of upper paleolithic art. The highly polished nature of the bone suggests it had been handled many times, perhaps as a personal possession.

The significance of the image would have been highly relevant to its hunter gatherer owner, quite possibly a totemic or lucky talisman. At some point it was left at the back of the western chamber of the Robin Hood Cave at Creswell Crags. There it lay for 12,500 years until its discovery in 1876.
A series of grooves and vertical lines have scored across the flank of the horse. It has been speculated that these may represent spears. However, in later Neolithic times archaeological evidence shows a practice of putting objects, such as pottery, and spiritual places such as tombs beyond use by smashing or infilling.

Hence, the scored lines could equally be a precursor of this type of behaviour, essentially marking the end of the totem’s usefulness. Once can imagine this being done during a lean period of hunting, consigned to a spiritual repository within the cave, or simply discarded.

I set out to recreate the paleolithic horse at the same scale as the original. It just over 7 centimetres in length. Not having a convenient animal rib bone, I used a fragment of naturally cast antler which had been bleached from several months of being kept outdoors.

For this first attempt, I was keen to capture the likeness of the image so I used a metal tool. Our paleolithic ancestors would have used finely flaked flint.

Whilst carving two factors readily came to mind. In slightly subdued tungsten light I found etching the detail extremely hard on the eyes. Half way through, I resorted to using a magnifying glass. The inferences I drew from this was that the paleolithic artist had good eyesight, making him (or her) more likely to be young. Eyesight generally deteriorates with age and certainly, someone in their forties, as I am, would be considered to be long lived in the stone ages. But also as a diurnal species, human eyes have evolved to be most efficient in daylight hours. To carve in this scale and detail just by firelight in a cave would have been a strain on the eyes.

All this suggests an impression of our paleolithic ancestor sitting at the cave entrance in the afternoon, scratching with the fine edge of a microlith flint, absorbed in thoughts of the hunt and with moving images of his quarry guiding his hand.

Cresswell Crags remained in use, possibly seasonally, for several thousand years. As well as habitation, it is also a natural kill zone where animals could be funnelled and dispatched with greater ease than in an open area.

On a quiet midweek, Creswell Crags and the caves hewn into the limestone rock is a superb place to re-imagine these scenes of daily life over ten thousand years ago, when Britain was just emerging from the last great ice age. A few weeks later, I was guiding a group of clients on a walk in the White Peak. Our route took us through several limestone dales and the similarity of the natural features sprang out.

With such a relatively close distance to Creswell Crags with a similar climate and environment I could not dismiss the image of wolf, bear, giant deer and hyaena also roaming in the heart of the Peak District, followed by bands of nomadic hunter gatherers.

Stu Westfield
Ranger Expeditions

Sunday, 9 July 2017

#032 Spine Flare - A Different Perspective

In the six years I have worked on the Spine Race, there has been a generous helping of inspirational stories and racers going one step beyond on their personal trail of adventure.

There was a certain inevitability that I would one day line up on the other side of the start line in Edale. The announcement of the summer Flare seemed like the ideal opportunity. My friend, Don Tennant (who, with Sarah, runs the Peak Centre where I work as a freelance instructor) was persuasive "Why not do the summer race, you get to see where you're going, enjoy the scenery and if you do the Flare you'll not be wrecked for work the week after".

In essence he was right, the vagaries of the Great British weather regularly give outdoor leaders a beasting. We don't always have to seek out the most extreme option to find worthwhile adventure and personal achievement. The weather would ultimately play a few wild cards, to spice things up.

Picture credit (purchased)


Most folks on the Spine know me in my role as the Safety Team Coordinator, Official Spine Training provider and expedition leader. But, I'm no stranger to wearing a number. Back in the day I was a regular cycling time trial racer. I never set the world on fire but did achieve none-too-shabby results (10 miles - 22m30sec / 25 miles - 59min 01sec / 50 miles - 2h10min / 100miles 4h58min).

I also ran several marathons. The one I'm most proud of is the Safaricom, held on red dust trails inside Lewa Downs wildlife conservancy in Kenya, to raise money for the Tusk Trust African wildlife charity. At the time it was the only marathon inside a big game reserve. In my year, 2008, the start was delayed while the safety helicopter and rangers ushered away a pride of lions from the course. Running with the Kenyans, in the shadow of Mt.Kenya was magical, I was the 7th non-African finisher.

Safaricom, in the shadow of Mt.Kenya


If there was one word which describes the key to finishing the Spine it is conditioning. Whether you're in the summer or winter race the ability to cover distance and spend time on feet is essential. Toughening is something I've experienced in long winter training miles on the bike as well as guiding trekking groups. Professions which do these things as part of a active daily work routine, such as builders, farmers, doctors, veterinarians, outdoor leaders would seem to do well compared to more sedentary jobs for Spine Race conditioning.

One way and another, during the build up to the Flare, dedicated training time was at a premium for both Don and myself. We would be reliant upon the hill fitness which we had plenty from our work. This itself helped us formulate our strategy. More than being fixated by finishing position, we were more interested in finishing in as good condition as possible, having executed a plan to the best of our ability.

We worked on a sustainable and consistent pace of 5km/h with a +/- 1km/h. This delivered reasonable rest times (important for brain rest as well as physical) as well as a healthy contingency in case things went wrong. We certainly did not want to be surfing cut-offs which adds an additional dimension of mental energy wastage. Although we did calculate location vs time targets, we rarely referred to these. Instead, regular checks of average pace was practically more useful. This also gave a 'heads up' focus keeping track of terrain and route finding. Our forecast finishing time was between 50 and 55 hours, against a 60 hour race time limit.

The result was that Don and I finished together at Hardraw, a couple of miles north of Hawes in 52 hours 22 minutes. Certainly we were tired and in places sore. There was immense satisfaction that we had 'left it all out there on the trail', non the less enjoying the moment of completion.

Stu & Don at the finish


Compared to the winter Spine, there was a reduced list of compulsory kit for racers on the Fusion and Flare, with other items at the discretion of the racer. This made it important for an individual racer to take ownership of their strategy, make themselves aware of weather changes and adjust what they wore / carried accordingly.

For me and Don, the coldest extreme of weather occurred in the early hours of Sunday. The moors were clad in a thick wind driven mist, which penetrated layers. We sought refuge in Top Withens Bothy, where Don admitted to being very cold. We took time to get out of the elements, change our base layers, have a hot brew and warm up a ration pack meal.

The other extreme was on the Cam Road. The heat on Monday morning was relentless and intense. I was frequently taking sips of water and soaking my cap in the thin streams of run off crossing the trail. At its worst my eyes seemed to shimmer, giving me concern about heat illness, although this could also have been due to tiredness and lack of sleep. We found a slither of shade beside a stone wall which offered some relief where we rested for 10 minutes but moved onward as we were worried about falling asleep for several hours.

I had some romantic Victorian images of Roman legions marching along the Cam road and treading in their footsteps. By the time I had descended, I realised the reason why the Romans built a road along such an exposed godforsaken set of hills was because if the Briton tribes could be bothered to attack them, they'd be bloody knackered before they could fight.

By far the best weather related quote of the Spine Fusion must go to racer Nick Reed:

"Because this is in the 'summer' it didn't make it easy. I went for Wainwright's Country Walks and got The Revenant"


The only kit items I bought for the Flare was a new pair of shorts and and Hoka Tor Speed 2 trail shoes. I also invested in several RTE and dry ration packs which I had previously tested and enjoyed the taste (ref  blog  #018 Hill Food On Test ). Racing on a budget, I used existing hill kit for everything else.

The shorts I didn't get to use. The weather forecast was not good enough for me to wear or carry them for the majority of the race. The only time I wish I had them was in the rising heat on the Cam Road, along with my thin Egyptian cotton scarf for a neck covering against the beating sun. On leaving Horton-in-Ribblesdale, there were thick clouds of midges, bursting like chaff from each hummock of grass as we walked by. They seemed worse where the sheep were grazing, which was most fields. Don was very glad he had brought a face net.

The choice of Hoka Tor Speed 2 was based on several factors. I wanted a trainer-boot hybrid with ankle cuff which would help keep the grit and wet out. Although I was initially sceptical about Hokas, the trail versions have been used successfully by several Spiners with reports that the supportive design and cushioning helped fend off impact soreness. The Speed 2 also has a Vibram Mega Grip tread which had good reviews. I ordered a full size bigger than normal to account for that they tend to come in a bit narrow.

Pre-race testing on routes up to 30 miles over similar terrain to the Pennine Way revealed I was right to go a size larger. The Speed 2 felt comfortable out of the box. Arguably the cushioning is at the expense of responsiveness, however this seemed like a reasonable trade off for the mostly non-technical grit, peat trails and pace we were intending for the Flare.

For most of Day 1, I moved well in the Hokas. But, during the last few hours my small toes felt increasingly sore. At a road head checkpoint I applied Kinesio tape and changed my socks. At CP1, I cleaned, dried and aired my feet. After a couple of hours sleep, I spoke with one of the Exile Medics. She suggested different taping ideas and did a great job in preparing my feet for the next long stage. I learnt a lot about taping technique from watching her work as well as appreciating that good taping cannot be hurried. I used the time to neck several cups of tea and some food.

Stu with feet expertly taped by Exile Medics

For Day 2, I ditched the Hokas in favour of the wider toe box of my Salomon Wings, especially as I now had a extra layer of tape on some toes. I have used these for a couple of seasons (ref blog  #017 Spine Race Footwear On Test Part 2 ). Initially I was impressed with these hybrids, but the grip lugs deteriorated too quickly and I was disappointed with the grip in wet conditions).

I took advantage of the opportunity to retape (again done expertly by Exile Medics) at Malham Tarn CP1.5 as well as a change of socks. In retrospect, I wish I had carried more changes of socks...for every 4 hours instead of just half day changes. I was travelling well and smoothly on the second stage until the clinker and boulder strewn descent from Pen-Y-Ghent down to Horton-in-Ribblesdale. That section alone left me very footsore, craving for the cushioning of the Hokas Speed 2 but with the toe box width of the Salomon Wings.

And so there lies the conundrum. Why would Hoka manufacture shoes with such a narrow width? They must have been made on a last to suit an Asian demographic. Also if no allowance is made for a Gore Tex liner to the shoe width, then this will make the fit even tighter for a given size. I have encountered similar issues with clothing in the past, where an Asian size large will be the equivalent of a European medium. If the brand quality assurance does not specify or perform first article inspection then Continental size discrepancies will be more likely, such are the problems of globalised manufacturing.


Overall, I was pleased with my choices of RTE meals for real food eating on the move. I did have chemical heater pouches but was disappointed when all bar one failed to generate any heat. Cold savoury RTE meals were still preferable to sweet or insubstantial snacks. The occasions when Don and I paused for a proper brew up and re-hydrated high calorie meal were well worth the time not moving as we both felt much more energised and satisfied afterwards.

The only time we stopped at anywhere commercial on the course was at The Dalesman, Gargrave for several mugs of much appreciated of Earl Grey tea. We just made it in time before closing, the owners were very happy to serve us and chat late in the working day.

Old cycle racing habits resurfaced during the traverse of the Cam Road. I craved a slug of flat coke. I wish I had carried some for such an eventuality. This was duly sorted on the way through Hawes. The sugar and caffeine felt like an injection of nitrous oxide into my engine. A welcome sharpener for the finishing 'run' into Hardraw.


Doing the Flare as a racer and an outdoor leader there is a certain amount of 'cocks on blocks' regarding professional reputation. Over 110 miles we only made one navigation error, for which I take responsibility. Unfortunately the error occurred at the point where racers deviate away from the Pennine Way on the approach to Checkpoint 1, Hebden Bridge. I cover this area in my Spine training courses and briefing as a navigation black spot for where racers traditionally going wrong. I have even reccied the route with a client.

However, with a tired mind focused on food and sleep, I forgot about crossing the first B-Road (to turn right at the second B-Road, the Slack road). Instead, I turned right at the first B-Road. I realised my mistake when the road started down some zig-zags. At that point I thought, oh bugger there's a whole bunch of folks laughing at this on the tracker!

We corrected our mistake, cutting across some minor paths, up an additional incline to bring us out at the point on the Slack Road near where we turn for the checkpoint. The error had cost us about 30 minutes and we had gained no advantage over our fellow competitors.

There was quite a bit of mostly good humoured banter about our off-piste excursion. The best of which was a hand written sign for CP1, outside CP2, specially put up for us by safety team friends Pete Gabriel and Al Pepper.

It was very special that both Al and Pete were there to present our finishers medals and t-shirts, as I had the pleasure of giving Al his finishers medal in the Winter Challenger just 6 months previously and Pete has been a stalwart of the Spine Team for many years.

Al presenting Flare medal


After finishing the Flare, Sarah drove us back south to Edale. Tom Jones, looking lean and fit from his recent adventures in Corsica, was there to greet us. It was a hot, sunny day, although sitting on the sofa Don and I both kept our jackets on, perhaps we were a little more depleted than we cared to admit.

I returned to safety team duties the following day. Then mid-week another blast of rough weather hit the race. During the night we were notified by HQ of a racer at Windy Gyle up on the Cheviots who had changed direction, as if returning to the Lamb Hill hut. Shortly afterwards, he triggered the SOS button on his tracker. Race Director, Phil drove us (Pat and myself from safety, Rhiannon from Exiles) to a road head access point and we made for a direct line up to Mozie Law where we anticipated meeting the racer.

The weather offered up heavy rain, gusting wind and low visibility fog. Indeed one racer reported the conditions as being among the worst he had experienced on The Cheviots. It was mid-summer, yet I too thought it more like winter, just without the snow. In the meantime, the racer had reversed direction  again, now heading away from us and pressed the SOS again. HQ kept us updated with location information as well at Mountain Rescue had been called for assistance. The racer made the sound decision to descend Cock Law Foot where MR met him and brought him to a place of warmth and safety where Exile Medics could continue to monitor him. There being no need to follow, we retraced and returned to the 4x4. The racer was an experienced alpinist who felt he had set out prepared yet, having experienced it, readily recognised the drenching and chilling potential of weather in the UK hills compared to the higher and drier Alps.

A quieter moment on the Spine Safety Team

It was a great pleasure to see the Spine from a racer's perspective. At every road head checkpoint we were greeted by encouragement and enthusiasm from the on-course safety teams. There was a warm welcome from the volunteers at each main checkpoint, with sweet tea, hot food and the superb Exile Medics. What most racers see is just a part of the energy, dedication and commitment from the whole Spine team and Race Directors during the race and in the months building up to it. Lets not forget the drop-bag transport team, ensuring that racers' bags (some of which are well in excess of 20kg) are carried to the correct location and unloaded in time for their arrival. Off-site is the HQ team, looking after coordination and communications. Then, at as many places as they can be, the video and photography folks capture many fine images to cherish once the racing is done.

Al doing the presenting honours.

Stu Westfield

Spine Safety Team
(web link to...)
Official Spine Training Provider

Ranger Expeditions & Ultras
(web link to...)
Build up ultra races to the Spine Race

Thursday, 15 June 2017

#031 Kinder Surprises - The Shooters Refectory

There have been many times on Kinder Scout when I have experienced a wonderful sense of walking in the footsteps of our ancestors and all the history that has come to pass in the Peak District hills.

I had found the remnants of a bothy like structure on the slopes of Kinder a while ago. One of my neighbours, Dave, who's family has lived in Hayfield for many years, recalled the story of The Shooters Refrectory over a cup of tea. Indeed we spend quite a lot of time chatting about Hayfield history over a cuppa or tinny of cider.


Photo dated, 1977
Left to right: 
   Alan Sherwood, Evan Ambrey, Robin Capstick, Matthew J Capsick
   All from Hayfield and New Mills

The Shooters Refectory (also known as Sidebothams Cabin) was demolished in 1938 as it had fallen out of use by the estate. This was a time when public access was far more restricted than it is today and so its destruction deterred folks from using it as a impromptu bothy. The cabin was built so strongly it had to be blown up with dynamite.

Before the explosives were placed, the carved stone was slid down from its place in the gable end on the roof beams. It was supposed to go to Abney Hall in Cheadle, but it never did and remains where it lies to this day.

Abney Hall, the Agatha Christie connection

The last private owner of Abney Hall was Sir James Watts. The Watts family were major landowners in the High Peak. He held property in the village of Hayfield as well as large areas of moorland around Kinder Scout for the purposes of hunting, shooting and fishing.

Sir James' grandson (also called James Watts) was Agatha Christie's brother in law; James having married Agatha's sister Margaret in 1902. Agatha spent time at Abney Hall as well as the original 18th Century gamekeepers cottage - Farlands House and Upper House Farm in Hayfield. She is known to have written several of her books in these places and used the locations as inspiration for her writing.

The future of the Shooters Refectory Stone

The stone was placed face down a few metres away from the demolished cabin, the inscriptions protected from the elements. It's a extremely heavy slab of sandstone, its weight has kept it undisturbed for decades.Sometime in the past couple of months the stone has been broken into two pieces. This could possibly have been due to frost cracking, but more likely as a result of some rough handling by person(s) attempting to see the inscriptions.

So what for the future of this significant item of historic importance to Hayfield and The Peak District. The priority must now be for the stone to be stabilised and preserved without further deterioration. This is a job for a conservation work party under the supervision of the National Trust landowner.

However, the plan of works need not cost significant sums. The stone could be relocated to a position leaning against the partially remaining section of wall. A qualified and experienced stone mason might be able to brace and repair the stone. Scattered in the rubble of the cabin are stone door jambs. These could be re-purposed, without destroying them, to improvise a lintel over the stone this protecting the inscriptions from the elements. Allowing them to be seen and appreciated by generations to come.

16/06/2017 Update from Kinder Scout & Dark Peak National Trust

Thanks for sharing this (on Facebook). The National Trust are aware of this unfortunate news that the stone is now split. we are intending to recover the stone. We've read your link, of you have any concerns please do get in touch. Thank you for sharing the impressive photograph of the complete stone.

Stu Westfield
Ranger Expeditions Ltd

Thursday, 18 May 2017

#030 The Stuff They Don't Tell You About Cancer


This blog marks a temporary, but significant departure from our usual topics. It regards a subject which I have become unhappily familiar. Cancer. The carer's perspectives I share are mine and while I fully appreciate that other peoples experience of this disease are varied, I also believe there is a truth in what I write which will be recognised by many.

This is not a self-indulgent 'woe is me' cry for sympathy. I want none of that. For me, writing is cathartic but I've put off writing this because I don't feel that the current vogue for endless introspection and public baring of emotion is either healthy or useful.  Nor is it a critique of the NHS, who's doctors and nurses do their very best in less than ideal circumstances, so ambulance chasing lawyers can bugger off now. Shit happens to good people all the time, that's life.

The point of this blog is to share some of the things I wish I had known at the beginning of the story. In short, its the stuff they don't tell you about cancer.


Twelve years ago my wife, Dolores, was diagnosed with bowel cancer. For anyone to hear the words "you have a tumour" is a shock, but by all reasoning she was a low risk category for the disease; non smoker, vegetarian, active and healthy lifestyle. We had recently been mountain trekking.

When I told a mate the news, he said "This will be the worst thing you will ever experience". No surprises there, cancer is hardly a bunch of laughs. But from a level headed, steady guy, his uncharacteristic anger, even resentment, was resounding. A close friend of his was killed by leukemia a couple of years previously. To say I can now understand his emotions, would be inadequate. It's not that detached, I now feel them.

The tumour proved to be particularly resistant to treatment. Daily doses of nauseating oral chemotherapy and a full course of radiotherapy only retarded its growth. Once the maximum doses had been reached, the cancer continued to invade and destroy tissue. It was only radical life changing surgery, as a last resort, which saved her life. At this point, you could jump straight to 'great', 'job done'. Which in many ways it was, but this is really only the start of the struggle. However, before we get ahead of facts, lets pause to look at pre-operative treatment.


The rigours of chemotherapy are well documented in film and documentary, albeit in a fairly one dimensional, 'its crap', 'it makes you sick' and 'your hair falls out' kind of way. Not all chemo is the same. Some forms are injected, other forms are taken as a tablet. Not all chemo results in complete hair loss. Injected chemo is often administered in cycles with a rest period in between, giving brief relief from symptoms.

However, oral chemotherapy is taken daily, every eight 8 hours, with no break from the nausea and debilitating weakness. During the 3 month treatment, Dolores' weight plummeted by a third, setting her up with contributory factors leading towards long term health degeneration. During rapid wasting, the body burns muscle in preference to fats. Combined with long term chronic fatigue causing inability to exercise, her heart muscle would have lost condition too.

Simultaneously, she also received the maximum permitted does of radiotherapy treatment. The thing about radiation is that it burns. And although the gamma source has a short half-life, it continues to burn. Her skin in the target area literally fell off, painfully oozing exudate for weeks afterwards. The skin did re-form but has never fully healed. Radiation dermatitis is a side effect of ionising radiation. Twelve years on it is thinned, reddened, constantly inflamed and irritated, resulting in terrible soreness.

The focus of treatment is understandably on cure and immediate survival. But it appears to me there is very little public awareness of the long term affects of radiotherapy. Knowledge and informed consent, will help patients prepare for the consequences of it.


Not all tumours exhibit symptoms. However, despite the best efforts of pain management nurses Dolores' tumour caused excruciating pain as it got larger eating into tissue. She was on high doses of liquid paracetamol and morphine. Drugs like these will have an effect upon the patient's perceptions and behaviour which they may well not be aware of. Cancer is far reaching, it eats away at person physically, stealing who they are.  And then, it continues to take from everyone who cares, indiscriminately consuming happiness and all that is good, ripples of misery radiating outwards.


YOUR JOB: Caring for someone with cancer takes a lot of time and patience. If you're lucky you will have a sympathetic employer who will allow you time off work. I was fortunate that the company I was contracting for at the time allowed me to come and go at irregular times without question or continually asking permission to do so. Even so, I occasionally heard ignorant co-workers make comments such as 'part timer'.

Needless to say, it's unlikely your partner will be able to work during treatment. It takes all their energy to fight the disease. Forget all these celebrities 'bravely continuing their busy schedule' all through chemo. Bullshit! Firstly, these celebs are likely to have and afford a comprehensive support structure. Secondly, a few media engagements is hardly working down the pit or coping with the demands of a proper job. Thirdly, such pseudo self sacrifice and the paparazzi attention it attracts, does nothing to help an ordinary person struggling with an employer who does not understand what cancer treatment truly entails.

YOUR INCOME: I have been self-employed for the past 17 years. I enjoy the independence, personal accountability and responsibility it brings. Cancer effectively halved my income, very quickly going from doing OK to completely struggling, with no financial help. It ultimately resulted in a decision to move house rather than be financially ruined by mortgage and health care costs.

It's a issue that hasn't completely gone away. Imagine how humiliating it is not to be able to join in a team celebration after a successful event, or having to turn down an invite to the party of a good friend because you cannot afford the diesel. Cancer keeps you poor and isolated.

YOUR WELL BEING: Being a carer is a utterly exhausting combination of mental and physical stress.
  • During Dolores' daily radiotherapy sessions my typical day went: Wake up, make breakfasts, try to get her to eat. Help her dress and walk downstairs. Walk the dogs. Drive 1 hour to hospital. Wait 2 hours (sometimes longer) for treatment. Drive back home, drop Dolores off. Drive 45 mins to work. Do 4 hours. Drive back. Sort dinner, encourage Dolores to eat something. Tidy the house. Walk the dogs. Bed.
  • During the 5 weeks she was in hospital the daily routine was: Wake up, no time for breakfast, walk dogs. Drive to work, do 6 hours, drive back home. Feed the dogs and let them for a pee. Drive to hospital, 2 hours visiting, drive home. Buy fish and chips if they were still open. Try to eat while answering a stream of telephone calls from Dolores friends. All of whom were naturally concerned, some of whom were angry at me for not promptly replying their answer phone message. Collapse into bed. Sleep for two hours. Spend the rest of the night at the wide-awake-club staring at the ceiling.
Some advice, if you're calling or visiting someone with cancer or their carer: Don't expect them to want to be constantly talking about the state of their health or treatment. Quite simply, constantly relaying updates every evening does not allow that person a mental break from the cancer. Re-living the emotion time and time again is very destructive to that person's well being.

REST BITE CARE: Good luck with accessing professional help on this one, unless you're wealthy and can afford it. On the few occasions I have managed to organise a care package while I have worked away from home it has cost me more than what I earned.

There's advice for carers on the internet for how to manage this unfamiliar and often sudden change in circumstances, for which you will probably have had no formal training. Stuff like, 'If you're feeling stressed visit a friend', or 'organise some rest bite care'. All well intended but, in practice, useless, effectively just reinforcing how shit things have become and alone you really are. If you had that much time on your hands you wouldn't need the help and you'd be able to go to work.

Also considering the patient, who may feel emotionally dependent upon the carer,  rest bite needs to be handled compassionately so that it is not stressful or disruptive for them.


Fighting cancer is a lonely place for both sufferers and carers, even with the support of friends and family. I was wholly unprepared for the sense of isolation I experienced  during the period of Dolores treatment and the months after her surgery.

Not knowing what help was out there, I called Macmillan cancer support charity for advice and someone to talk with. "We don't deal with that sort of cancer" was the curt response from an irritated voice on the other end of the line. Not the response I had anticipated, nor the message that they put out on the television asking for public donations.

Take a look at charity websites and you'll see it's all about what you can do for them and their CEO's six figure salary. Now try to find the bit where they actually help you. If you're lucky you'll find it buried deep in the menu structure or accompanied by some off-putting statement such as 'applications may take some considerable time to be processed and assessed'. They're quick enough to take your money, just not so quick to do what they're supposed to with it.

The council in Hampshire, where we used to live, was equally inept. Following discharge, Dolores was left with permanent open surgical wounds. Their response to an enquiry regarding bathing aids was that if she can stand up in front of a sink and wash then she would not be eligible for help. Thank goodness Derbyshire had a more caring approach to disability.

People live busy lives. In the days and weeks following diagnosis, the patient and their carer may receive more offers of help from friends than they know what to do with. It goes something like "Just let me know if there's anything I can do". But, the cancer regime isolates its participants from their normal social activities and so those offers of help get fewer as time moves on.

I am lucky to have a couple of people who have stuck the course and are always there. I'm certain there are many, many folks out there, silently struggling, who's isolation is total.  So, if you know someone in that situation who you haven't heard from in a while, you might just be in a position to make a difference at a time when the most need it. It may only take a few hours out of your busy life.


Cancer, or indeed any serious illness, is challenging for everyone.  I know several friends who were the primary carer for a loved one. They did their very best for that person, neglecting their own needs at a cost to their physical and emotional health. For full time carers it can be difficult to separate the caring regime from their relationship with the person who was once so full of energy and vitality. So imagine what it feels like to have someone turn up once every few weeks, or months, picking holes and criticising. Ask yourself, are you being a parachutist, arriving with the big gesture while others are left dealing with the routine and difficult stuff?


You're half way through treatment, feeling sick, exhausted and you're skin if falling off. Then a well-meaning friend says, "they've found this miracle that shrinks tumours. It's Apricots!" Humans are a resourceful species and have been around for quite a while. If curing cancer really was as simple as scoffing a few apricots, or any other crack pot potion, we'd all be doing it by now. Don't be a crank, it makes you sound like a loon.


After shock, came anger. Anger at the random destructiveness of cancer, at what it had taken away on so many levels. The months blurred together and became a year. More than a year, nearly two. By the time Dolores was finally discharged from medical care, I felt nothing other than a pervading numb exhaustion. In fact the most entertaining counterpoint to this were frequent head splitting migraines. "You should be happy" I was told by one person who had made occasional appearances,

Things hardy improved for Dolores either. She had a surgery and radiation wounds which would never fully heal and half her insides cut out. She managed this with inspiring fortitude. Slowly she regained some strength but it was obvious from the beginning that life would be very different.


In the UK, the remission period for cancer is 5 years. After which cancer is considered to be cured. Just as Dolores crossed this landmark of time, a different type of tumour struck, this time on the side of her face, at the temple. Following the initial consultation, the doctors gave what seemed to be a ridiculously long waiting time. Neither of us wanted to go through that protracted process again, so I took out a loan and borrowed £1000 I could ill afford, to start the process off with immediate tests and biopsy at The Spire BUPA in Havant, Hampshire.

The results were sent back to Dolores' GP, which confirmed the tumour was cancerous and required surgery. The same consultant was then supposed to continue the process under the NHS. However time went by and we hadn't heard anything, neither had the GP. He measured the tumour, it had doubled in size, now getting worryingly close to Dolores' left eye.

We wrote to the head of local hospital trust, explaining the situation and how we had paid our own money for initial investigation. They responded very quickly, well I suppose they would do if it got into the papers that ordinary folk are taking out loans to get urgently needed treatment. It turned out the consultant had broken his arm whilst skiing and that Dolores' case had been forgotten about. Fucking great, they had effectively taken our £1000 and wasted it. The cancer was eventually operated on and cut out. The delay in treatment meant a much larger skin graft was needed to replace the tissue.


A few years ago I participated in a TV advertisement for Cancer Research. At the time I thought it would be a good opportunity to help raise funds towards the wider battle against cancer. This particular advert, one of a series, featured people who had cared for relatives with cancer. I decided to play it straight, to be real and true to myself and my own experience. Not to indulge the popularly held, myopic belief that once the cancer is beat everything is fine and dandy.

Afterwards, some of the production crew approached me and thanked me for my honesty. One of them was going through a similar process and they realised they were not alone. However, the interview stirred up a lot of feelings which I thought I had put to bed. More than anything, it stirred up the anger I felt towards the disease and all it had inflicted upon us.


I returned to full time engineering work, surrounded by bullshit bingo, a significant few conflict driven egotistical managers, turning every meeting into a cock fight  (is amazing how one or two of these drag down the morale of a company) and employees who's enthusiasm and creativity had long since been snuffed out. Many were counting the days, weeks, months and years to retirement. The frequency and severity of my migraines intensified, I was burnt out and popping sumatriptan medicine like smarties.

Before Dolores became ill, I had been questioning the sanity of a life on the conventional treadmill of work, taxes, mortgage, pensions, ending with a few years of freedom, if you're lucky, then die. My grandfather's generation had subscribed to this model. He was dead within 24 months of retiring, most of which was spent in agony, enduring treatment for prostate cancer.

I met one expedition leader who clarified my thoughts. He said "Stu, you can work like a dog all year in order to enjoy a couple of weeks of adventure as a client. Or, you can get qualified and be paid to lead in the outdoors. You'll never get rich, but you'll have a fulfilling life".

He was right. I focused on achieving the Mountain Leader award, gaining experience, volunteering and supervising youth groups. It was a gradual process, I couldn't afford just to give up the day job. The day I passed my ML assessment, I was more chuffed than when I had got my degree.


Having large sections of your digestive tract removed has a number of serious implications in the long term. Firstly, uptake of essential nutrients and re-absorption of fluid is compromised. Meaning that types, frequency and quantity of food have to be carefully considered, as is the case for liquids. Over the years, chronic dehydration damages kidney function.

While digesting food, Dolores has pain on a daily basis, probably due to scar tissue sticking together. Last year this resulted in a blockage for which she required emergency surgery to prevent death by peritonitis. It's empirical evidence, but three out of the four people we know who have had similar surgeries to Dolores have also suffered from intussusception or other obstructions. It's not something that was discussed as a risk, either at the time or during recovery from the original surgery.

Then came the heart attack. Wasting during chemo and then inability to exercise, weakened the muscle resulting in a silent heart attack and progressive heart failure. Also, research is highlighting a correlation between the chemotherapy drugs and heart muscle damage.

Dolores now suffers from chronic fatigue and struggles with routine tasks inside the house. It is enormously frustrating and upsetting for her not to be able to cook a meal or enjoy a little gardening.

Needing a wheelchair to go out was a further blow to her independent spirit. Being in a wheelchair or pushing one around town is a real eye opener regarding attitudes to disability and accessibility, everyone should be made to try it! Like many people, beforehand I hadn't given much specific thought to wheelchair users. Its a awful, dis-empowering and frightening experience, several times folks reading their smart phones rather than looking where they're going have almost fell onto Dolores. I've lost count of the shops we cannot access. Then there are the people who look at you then deliberately stand in the way!

Of course, the recovery prospects for different cancers differ enormously. Anyone who has lived through this horrific ordeal deserves all the love and support of friends and relatives. But, for some, survival comes with a heavy cost. Their story does not end with remission. Cancer continues to take, and take, and take. It is a thief.


Moving house helped give me the time needed to provide nearly full-time care, whereas remaining in Hampshire, trying to pay a mortgage, work full time, be a carer and paying for extra care would have exacted a ever increasing heavy toll.

However, if I were to think of one thing that would be of the most help in the future, as well as in the past, it would be rest bite care. In 2017 I was unable to renew my Mountain Leader work with two great companies because help is both difficult and costly to organise.

When the phrase 'rest bite care' is mentioned, I imagine many people think of it as a holiday for the carer. I don't event want that. For me, time off is time wasted. I'd just like to be able to do the job that gives me fulfilment for a few days each month, in order earn a modest amount of the stuff that puts food on the table and pays the bills...with the peace of mind that Dolores is safe and being looked after.

So that's it. No final upbeat message. No prospect of significant recovery. And I'll not insult you with glimmers of false hope.

Instead, I'll leave you with the following. It's good advice....

Value your health, cherish and nurture it.
Buy memories, not things.
Use your time wisely.
Look after each other.
Do stuff that makes you happy.

Because one day you may not be able to.