Tatiana’s Gambol Sitrep 1

Ninja Alpine Training School
Ninja Alpine Training School

13 August. Day 11. Briançon.

So, all plans go awry. This one is no exception. We’re eleven days into a mad dash for the Mediterranean, covering distances I would not have normally contemplated. The day before yesterday we pushed out 50kms over some fairly challenging terrain.

I say ‘we’, because rather than race the Ninjas I’ve thrown my lot in with them and their mad cap plan to complete the GTA from Lac Leman to the Med in 20 days. Initially there was some thought this would be a straight race. But the advantage definitely lies with them. There are two of them – Niko, a naturalised Frenchman of Russian extraction (very tall, long legs, huge gait), who is exactly half my age and Sevrine, who is even younger. Both are super fit and minimalists by nature – their packs reflect that philosophy. I’m carrying 16kgs. They’re carrying 8kg. The only advantage I have is I’ve done this before and know the route. They don’t. But, rather than race each other we’ve become collaborators in a joint effort to beat the 20 day threshold to the Med.

We RVed as planned on Day 1, during which they topped me up with gas. We walked that day down to La Chapelle d’Abondance and camped by a river. Niko’s plan for the next day was to get to Samoëns – a distance that had taken Richard and me two whole days last year. Niko estimated 31 kilometres. Furthermore, his Day 3 would take us a similar distance to Les Houches. Except the calculations proved to be way out. The hop to Samoëns was 45kms over five cols in blistering heat. We staggered into town at 9pm that night having started out at 6am. Fortunately, Anna and Richard – friends – have a chalet in Samoëns and willingly provided their garden for us to camp in, hot showers and a lift into town to eat. Thank you so much guys!

After the previous day’s performance Niko wisely decided to split the Samoëns-Les Houches leg into two, thus pushing back their 19-day aspiration to 20. But it was a smart move. The problem lay in the fact that they were following someone else’s timings and were using GPX data pulled off the internet that was consistently wrong – each leg seriously underestimated in distance. To compound matters, and to save weight, they’d printed the route off at 1:25,000 on 20 sheets of A4. But these lack either a scale or grid lines making it nearly impossible to accurately plan distances over time.

And so I started calling these distances ‘Niko distances’. But, I already knew the route and what to expect on each leg. And I thought their plan absolutely barking mad. So I fell in with it – drawn to the idea of completing the GTA in 20 days. My contribution, therefore, is to advise and help massage the distance and days into something that could help them achieve their aim while ensuring that it remains their gig. This is their very first long distance hike and therefore their learning curve is steep. The balance is to act as advisor but have Niko and Sevrine make the decisions that will enable success. So far, it’s worked. Of course, that means keeping up with twenty-somethings who are bloody fit and carrying much less weight.

I think the overriding compulsion in agreeing to cooperate rather than compete is that they are really determined and gritty people and not shy of putting themselves well beyond their comfort zones. Dr Angela Duckworth at The University of Pennsylvania is the world’s expert on Grit, which she defines as ‘passion and perseverance in the face of adversity.’ Her Grit Scale has been used at the US Military Academy at West Point to accurately predict who will self-select off the initial course. Studies show that in the long run grit trumps natural ability. The Ninjas are very gritty people. They remind me of my niece, Tatiana, who was the embodiment of grit – raising large sums of money for charity while terminally ill. So, given that this is Tatiana’s Gambol 2019 it’s fitting to cooperate with rather than compete against gritty people. And so I bought into their totally crazy plan.

They are also minimalists by nature. Not just on the mountains but in their normal lives. They’ve rejected consumerism and possess only what is sufficient for their needs Unsurprisingly, their kit reflects that philosophy. They’re adherents to hyper-light gear and have nothing in the way of spare anything. No creature comforts. No spare clothes. No Goretex waterproofs where a simple lightweight poncho will do etc. etc. Spartan!

I learned more about this the other day during a stop to dry out our gear – it’s always wet from condensation, dew or rain when we pack each morning in the dark at 5am. So, while gear was drying, Niko and I were comparing knives – as men do. I’m rather proud of my couteau which I bought in Chamonix last year. But, by comparison with his hyper-light job from the US it feel like a butcher’s cleaver. His is 53g. Mine is a crowbar. And so from him I discover and enter the strange world of hyper-light gear and philosophy, in which the unit of measure is the gramme.

With great enthusiasm he tells me there’s a website called Pack Light where you can plug in each item by brand that you wear or carry and it’ll calculate the weight distribution on your person and on your back…and suggest lighter (and presumably more expensive) alternatives. And there’s even a class of hyper-lighters known as extreme hyper-light, who shun socks, underwear and the like. Bonkers! Utterly bonkers!

‘Yeah that’s all very well, Niko, but I like to go heavy. I’m like that. Perverse. The more weight the better. Old school. In fact, when I get back from here I’m going to have my mate Rupert Hanson in Canada build a website called Pack Heavy. Same concept. You plug in your item and it’ll suggest heavier more awkward alternatives. There’ll be four choices – diamond, gold, silver and bronze. The heavier the item the more kudos points you’ll get! So, instead of all this new material people can opt for old British Army KF woollen shirts that weigh a ton when wet – there’ll be some pervert somewhere who’ll have stashed a hoard of them away and can now make a fortune out of them. And packs made from that lovely 58 Pattern material that swells so much when wet that you can’t do up buckles etc. Why bother with carbon trekking poles when a crowbar in each hand will do just as well. That kind of thing.’

‘I don’t think it will be a very popular website. What sort of people would visit it?’ Asked Niko, quite perplexed.

‘Well, it wouldn’t be your kale-munchers and spinach-nibblers. It would appeal more to people who drink beer for breakfast. And to paratroopers!’

And so we rub along nicely – an unholy marriage of two opposing philosophies: mine in which I believe a heavy pack to be the pathway to building endurance and stamina and keeping the body and mind strong and their hyper-light world of minimalism. Old school v. New school.

I really mean it when I say that heavy is better. For me the aching shoulders and fucked back are all a metaphor for life. You simply can’t grow in any dimension as a person unless you subject yourself to uncomfortable stresses and strains. Pick up the heaviest load you can and stagger forward as best you can. You’ll grow. Shun hardship and you’ll stagnate. Anyway, as I said, I’m perverse like that. I like the challenge that suffering brings. And what better people to run me ragged than these two Ninjas!

This trip is like being back in the army. We freeze at night. We get up in the pitch dark and pack away wet gear. Sometimes it’s raining. Sometimes it’s not. We’re walking by 6am and we walk 13-14 hours. At mid-morning or lunchtime we stop to dry out our gear and re-pack. We stop for lunch. We walk through the afternoon and into early evening. When we arrive we look for somewhere to pitch tents. Sometimes we’re at a refuge where tent pitches are free, sometimes in a campsite. Usually the refuge facilities are available for use at a fee, so we can wash our clothes and selves. But the days are very very long. It’s the only way to cover the distance and make the timings. We’re constantly looking a the plan and massaging it to squeeze more distance into the available time.

The first week was very hard. We were unused to the altitude and distances. Now it’s become -easier. A week ago a 50km/3,000m day would have been unthinkable. Now it’s doable and we know we can push one of those out if we need to.

But, it’s also great fun. The young are less jaded, have less lantern-swinging to do and are keen to learn new tricks from old dogs. I like the relationship. We call it the Ninja Alpine Training School. We’ve developed a system of whistles using the whistle on the useless chest strap of our Bergens: one toot = stop; two toots = proceed at or reduce to normal human speed; three toots = put the gas on and go at Ninja speed, which is as fast as Parachute Regiment tabbing (a bit like Royal Marines’ yomping but much faster).

Today I demonstrated this to a group of Brits we befriended in Plampinet last night. They left at 8am this morning. We left an hour later, this being one of our lighter ‘rest days’ before the big push to the Med. Anyway, after a while as caught up with them and Ninja-like attached ourselves to their single file. When they finally twigged we were there they said we’d snuck up on them like Ninjas. We had. ‘Well, yes, this is a kind of rolling Alpine Ninja school. I’ve got my two pretty well trained up. Check this out!’ And with three blasts of my whistle off went my Ninjas as tabbing pace. I let them run on a bit before bringing them to a brisk halt with a single toot. ‘Pretty good, huh?’ The Brits were half-impressed half-horrified a speechless.

Today we also had to hit a Post Office opening time window in Montgnève, just short of Briançon. The Ninjas had wisely posted 8kg of food forward. A smart Ninja move. Secretly, I’m thrilled that each of them will be carrying an extra 4kg. That’ll slow them down bit.

So here we are, at the end of Day 11 down at Briançon, a shade short of two-thirds of the way downrange. We’ve deliberately had two shorter easier ‘rest’ days of about 25kms and 35kms apiece because I know that from Briançon on until the end we are going to have to maintain a series of 40+km days and over 2,200m of ascent each day. We have 9 days to get to Menton. It is by no means a given. The going is very hard and some variables like the weather are unpredictable. I hope that by carrying more weight and at twice their age I’ll be able to help the Ninjas push themselves harder than they think is possible, and help them achieve their aim of completing in 20 days.

So, off we go tomorrow morning, 14 August, up at 5am bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, barnacle-breasted, fully-booted-and-spurred, ready to go – 9 days shit or bust to the coast. Will we make it?

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