A Fool in Moscow

I am a Fool.  In fact, I am a complete Fool.  And I am proud of that.  More of that later.  First, I have to make a rather shame-faced confession.  The other day I took a hike across Red Square to the Levis store in GUM, one of the largest and most iconic department stores in Moscow.  It’s not that Levis 501s are any cheaper here in Russia.  In fact, they’re more expensive. It’s more that, humiliatingly, I’ve put on so much weight that I can no longer fit into my old Jeans.  Like an alpine milch cow, I’ve been grazing steadily most days for the past two months at the Fox Sports Red Square craft services table, which groans with unhealthy snacks.  These are the actual dangers facing a health (yes, I know!) and safety advisor to Fox Sports’ coverage of the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

But don’t imagine that I’m unconcerned.  I am deeply mortified and very well aware that in a few weeks I’ll be trading in my Sketchers for a pair of hiking boots to walk 500 miles along the GR5 trail over the French Alps from Lake Geneva to Menton on the Mediterranean.  It’s one of the classic long distance high alpine hiking routes.

You might think that after 73 days in Russia eating my way through mountains of Pringles and other lethal snacks, hiking across the French Alps would be a blessed relief.  It will be, but my hiking companion, Richard, is the only doctor ever to have passed UK Special Forces selection and come top of his course – largely due to being as tall as a giraffe and having a gait almost twice mine.  One of the other Fools has caused me some considerable anxiety by relating how Richard strides on leaving everyone trotting in his wake.  I should imagine that if I survive the initial shock of walking with him, all my excess weight will fall away with each step.  I guess I can look forward to trotting for 500 miles then.

So, what’s all this about? Fools etc.?  Fools On The Hills (FOTH or Fools for short) is a small group of slightly crazy (actually, very crazy) ex-Parachute Regiment commanding officers, some with Special Forces backgrounds, who get together annually to scare themselves rigid on high alpine hikes over ten to fifteen days in various mountainous areas of western Europe.  The Fools were conceived and inspired in 2014 by Godfrey (my first boss in the army over three decades ago…whaaaat!) as a mechanism for warding off old age and keeping the grim reaper at bay.

Julian’s Gambol 2017

Each year one of the Fools (there’s Phil – two Everest ascents and a punch up in the Falklands, Tim – another Falklands scrapper, Richard and one or two others) plans the hike, which is named after the area and anointed as a gambol (definition: ‘to run or jump about playfully’). Last year it was held in the Julian Alps in Slovenia and therefore, unsurprisingly, called Julian’s Gambol.  I was invited along on the basis that I could speak the local language and might be useful. It was a blast, somewhat like three men in a boat, but with four – good hiking (some of it hair-raising-sphincter-twitching), endless banter and vast quantities of beer and wine – what in the Parachute Regiment we used to call ‘a good crack’.  I was hooked.

Julian’s Gambol – 2017

This year Godfrey’s planned for the Fools to hike the last 156 miles of the GR5 from Ceillac to Menton on the Mediterranean from 29thAugust to 13thSeptember.  Hence Menton’s Gambol.  As tentative consensus-building and planning got underway in January, Richard announced that he was retiring as a knee surgeon and because he’s also an international mountain guide in his own right he’d like to fulfil a lifetime’s ambition: to hike the entire length of the southern part of the GR5 from St. Guingolph on Lake Geneva down to the Mediterranean.  In fact, Richard does a lot of pro bono work for the Geneva-based International Red Cross particularly in hotspots like Gaza. He, therefore, planned to start on 6thAugust and meet the other five Fools at Ceillac on 29th, about two-thirds of the way downrange…oh, and would anyone like to accompany him?

That would be me!

My niece, Tatiana, thirteen-and-a-half, died of leukaemia on 23rdAugust last year. Despite her appalling condition, she steadfastly campaigned from her hospital bed to raise over £17,000 for Fairy Bricks, a charity that provides Lego for ill and dying children.  For this she was posthumously recognised and honoured both by the City of Bristol and by Britain’s prime minister Teresa May.  I had been looking for a worthy moderate-to-severely painful pilgrimage through which to raise some money for a charity dealing with children’s cancer.  Now I have. And Richard generously agreed to call my element of our walking partnership Tatiana’s Gambol, though he himself will be walking for his own charitable agenda – to raise awareness of and support for the International Red Cross Emergency Fund.

All this is also made possible for me because 1st Option Safety Group, for whom I work as the principal high-risk advisor, has agreed to allow me to take all my annual leave in one lump and added a few days to make up the necessary amount to be able to accompany Richard.  Thank you very much 1st Option!

I have really enjoyed my time here in Russia supporting Fox Sports during their coverage of this year’s FIFA World Cup as the North American official World Cup broadcaster. It’s a great and solid brand to work for.  As I write, our marathon deployment to Moscow and the venue cities is drawing to a close. It’s been an exciting time with plenty of unexpected knock-outs and nail-biting penalty shoot outs.  England has just been beaten by Croatia 2-1. Only two matches remain to be played out – runners up on Saturday and the final on Sunday at Moscow’s iconic Luzhniki stadium.

So, as the door closes on this Russian adventure, the French Alps beckon.  For a moment I am almost carried away by the romanticism of striding out in the early morning light, high above emerald green alpine meadows. But then I remind myself that it’ll be Richard striding out and me huffing and puffing behind him, regretting my weakness and gluttony at the Fox Sports’ craft services table as I stumble my way across the French Alps.

However, it’s all in a good cause, and I promise to keep you updated with our progress.  If you’d like to hear more, then sign up for blog notifications by email in the right column of this page.

And finally, keeping the aim of Tatiana’s Gambol in mind, I’d be tremendously grateful if you would help me by spreading the word through your social networks and donating what you can to Children With Cancer.  Every bit helps.

Stay tuned!