HELL ON HIGH HILLS
Point to Point
SAS Selection Test March
Inside the mind, body, soul and training of a personal trainer and athlete training for the world renowned UKSF SAS selection test marches and world record attempts.
Remembrance day November 2011 at 11am I step off a treadmill having spent the last seven days attempting to break a world record off 468 miles. I’ve only managed 369, 100 miles short. I raised £4000 for The Royal British Legion and The Royal Marines . I’m happy I’ve stayed the course, seven days on a treadmill plays on your mind and body, I’m half a stone lighter than when I started. Having not stepped on a treadmill before my attempt I’m satisfied with the mileage but disappointed not to achieve what I set out to do. This disappointment burns deep down inside of me, always there, always letting me know, always niggling at me. I know, that I can beat the record now at 521 miles.
It’s now nearly December 2014, last weekend I spent in the Brecon Beacons Wales on an SAS selection test march Point to Point. A beautiful part of the country, one of which I will one day take the time to take in the everything it has to offer, for now though it is the training and selection area for the SAS and SBS. Over the last five years I’ve pushed my mind and body here to its known limits always coming away with the same questions. Could I have gone further? Could I have gone faster? The ultimate endurance tests will answer some questions. The answer so far has been yes but not without its highs, lows and lots and lots of hard work.
Avalanche Endurance Events organisation dedicated to providing authentic SAS/SBS selection test marches. The original and only full length Fan Dance, Ex SAS/SBS special forces soldiers run this organisation. http://www.avalancheenduranceevents.com, http://www.specialforcesevents.com.
Friday morning is spent checking and rechecking my Bergen which has to weigh a minimum of 40lbs, food and water is then added to this but how much? Point to Point has no known finish!! All I know is that I’ll be dropped off somewhere Sunday Morning in the Brecon Beacons in the early hours and told my next RV ( rendezvous) a six figure grid reference. I say my goodbyes and promise to keep in contact to let everyone know that I’m ok. A drive of three hours and I see the Brecons looming. No matter how many times I’ve been here they look ominous, higher and steeper than what I remember, from about half way up they’re lost in cloud and mist (clag). The same old questions start going through my mind, have I done enough training? could I have done more? How am I feeling? Did I rest enough this week? could I have eaten better? Am I hydrated properly? The list is nonstop and keeps whirling round my brain. My first objective is to find our base camp. I drive through a small village and pass a pub, I decide to pull up in the car park to ask if anyone knows. I walk in and find all the DS (Directing Staff) tucking into a lovely pub lunch. Bugger!! All the DS have at sometime worked in the SAS training wing. Do I ask for directions? I’ve got to navigate my way around the Breacons in visibility down to at times about 10meters with map and compass with possibly a 50lb Bergen. I say some quick hello’s and want to leave but get caught by Ken Jones (EX Para, SAS, author of Darkness Descending and Director of Avalanche Endurance Events) . A hand shake, then what to call him!? We have been told to call them “Staff!!” Too late “Ken” mumbles out of my mouth, Bugger!! Bugger!! “How’s your form?” I’m asked. Again a mumbled response “It’s ok” They’re all looking at me now, The DS all say hello and shake my hand, Jason and Matt both ask how I’m doing? I again mutter “ok”. I feel them assessing me as I got to know Jason and Matt well in January. The lowest point of any challenge I’ve undertaken. Lying upside down on slope after a dehydration collapse near the top of Pen Y Fan, which I needed one litre of saline intravenously and numerous gels poured into my mouth. The expertise of all the DS mobilising to get me safely off the mountain. I will never be able to repay my gratitude to them all. I leave them to their lunch that looks lovely knowing that I was cooking my own on my little gas stove. I finally find base camp tucked away over a reservoir an iconic SAS landmark in the heart of SAS selection heartland. It’s in this area that author Andy McNabb failed his first selection for the SAS. I had only been given this location a few days before as to keep it secret. I drive to the field to be confronted to a Volvo up to its axles in mud. I edge around the dry stone wall twenty metres and stop. I get out of my car onto the field straight into an inch of water lying over the grass, I have to pitch my tent in this. First Job pushing a Volvo up next to mine.
Tent Pitched, food eaten and tea shared with like minded people who I know will become lifelong friends after what we’re about to experience. The field we share is looking like a quagmire. How can it be like this? My tent is lying on a slope!! We’re on the side of a mountain!! Registration takes place and I sign my waiver release form. Then our first briefing is to take place at 2130 hours. Here we are told timings for the following days training and protocol we’re to follow. I splosh back to my tent, take off my boots which are already covered in mud and place them outside, I’m glad I’ve brought two pairs. I lay down in my sleeping bag waiting for sleep to take me as I know every hour I can get will make all the difference but how much will that be? I can hear the rain now and everything feels damp, it’s in the air. 0430 I’m awake, I lay there with my hat on, thermal top and trousers. It’s too early far too early but I know there’s no more sleep for me.
My mind wonders which I’m told regularly happens a lot. We have a day’s training with the DS, what does this hold for us? I know sickeners (push ups or worse) are involved if we muck up anytime over the weekend. I get up cook my breakfast of sausage baked beans and a granary roll.
I’m on for military radio procedures first up as some of us are carrying radios mostly as a safety net out on the mountains. Setting my radio up I somehow change the language to Japanese, then I decide to help and change someone else’s too. The Japanese voice tells us of every button we push. My hands up as I admit defeat and ask the DS for help, trying to stay the grey man isn’t going to plan. After expert tuition we’re all ready and speaking military lingo, enough so that we can give a location report and an emergency call. Next lesson first aid and some military trauma care. Matt gives this lesson very knowledgeably and proficiently, he has everyone totally captivated. I hope I won’t be needing his services again but there’s all the stories of the high attrition rate and injuries of all who have attempted selection. Next up outside with lunch on the go, kit inspection!! There was no warning of this, Bergens ready we’re told to close our eyes and find our first aid kits. Some are taking too long while others can’t find theirs. Orders are being given, the first sickeners are dished out and cheers go up. Next brew kit and emergency rations then waterproofs reeled out one after the other, all with our eyes closed, more sickeners!! Torches!! Bugger!! Push ups for me, I go for it trying to look strong, I look like Bambi standing for the first time. We need to know where our kit is for the worst case scenario. This is the first time I hear it mentioned we need to be ready for staying out all night and being able to look after ourselves or an injured participant. A demonstration on emergency basha (shelter) making follows with how to stay warm and care for a casualty. We’re split into two groups for RV procedure, this is on reaching an RV to go down on one knee give your surname, number, six figure grid reference where you are and prominent feature showing the DS with the corner of your compass. There’s about thirty in my group, no sooner have we been divided we hear “FIRST ONE ON ME!!” No one’s ready!! What seems like an age but only a few seconds and no one has gone forward. “ONE OF YOU MUST HAVE THE BALLS” I decide I have two now that I’ve warmed up. I walked forward with Bergen on my back, map and compass in hand, “DO IT PROPERLY” This stops me, I walk forward again, ” STOP!! GO BACK TO THE GROUP” I turn and start my walk back, ” RUN!!”. Ahhh!! We have to double in to the RV. A few more go and I get my chance again. Nailed it this time and given the next RV location with a six figure grid reference but again I feel I’ve poked my head above the parapet. Everyone gets through after giving their route selection between the two RVs. A group photo on the dam, the reservoir as a back drop is followed by the last lesson of the day a mini navigation test NavEx. Stuart one of the DS splits us again left and right as we approach, gives us a bearing and says “GO!”. I look to where my compass is telling me to go, up!! My destination is the other side up and over. I double off until the slope is to steep, I turn take a quick back bearing, happy I keep going up. I wait for Scot who is not far behind, we complete a triangle walking of bearings. Some decide to run but we enjoy the exercise not knowing what’s in store for us tomorrow, we save our energy.
It’s dark now, I cook dinner and stuff myself. It’s Saturday evening 1930 hrs our last briefing before tomorrow and everything I trained hard for the last five months. Two groups for tomorrow an early start group and a second group for the faster participants thirty minutes later, I fall into the second group. First Parade at 0400 breakfast by 0430, 0430 for me breakfast by 0500.
Sunday 16th November 2014
Point to Point Day
I wake but don’t want to open my eyes, I’ve managed to wake every hour through the night and stayed awake each time for what seemed like an hour. I brave an eye and look for my head torch. Switching on I see the condensation on the inside of my tent and the steam from my breath, I listen to the light rain on the outside, I’m going to get wet today. The time is 0330, I’ve got breakfast in an hour, time now to get ready and recheck my rechecked kit. I sit up and feel the cold damp air, my head touches the side of the tent and water runs down my head and face. Getting dressed in this confined space trying to stay dry on the inside is not easy. My second pair of warm dry clean boots feel a godsend. Stepping outside my once clean boots are instantly covered in the rank smelling mud. This morning we are all treated to breakfast from the DS, they’re making sure we start the day correctly. I’ve opted for Ken’s porridge transported all the way from America.
The early group disappears across the dam in the darkness to meet the transport. I get my bergen which now fully loaded weighs 50lbs and getting heavier as the rain beats down. I tighten my smock and trudge up to the dam and await my lift. My bergen is off as I place it on the open back of a 4X4, other bergens are thrown on. Four of us climb on and sit in the darkness and rain which has decided to lighten to a drizzle. We’ve been told our start is only five minutes away, I close my eyes and try to picture the map to try and work out where it could be. Rob sits next to me and we exchange banter with the other two. The trepidation is building as we wait looking out over the cold waters of the reservoir. I look back down the row of vehicles then up to the front. I see apprehension etched on the faces for what is to come, we all want to crack on. A vehicle comes down the road on the other side of the reservoir and turns, its headlights lighting us all up as they sweep round. This has to be our lead, DS Stuart leans out of the open window and something is said, I have no idea what. Then we’re off at brake neck speed, we’re exposed in the back of our 4×4 as we cling on for dear life, ducking our heads down as the cold wind cuts through us. Five minutes pass then ten then I lose count how long we’ve been going for. We slow, pull off road, clamber out, bergens on and ordered in to two ranks. Head torches are allowed until we’re happy we can find our location on our map. It’s still dark as we then get doubled away from here to our actual start point. Again standing in two ranks we work out again where think we are and it’s six figure grid reference.
This rank grows smaller as a DS voice calls out from an open window in a Land Rover “ON ME”. I edge my way to the front with Rob and Scot as we want to get going. Rob and Scot have both posted faster Fan Dance times than me but all of us in selection pass times, I’m team captain as navigation is my strength and double in to Ken as he calls us forward. I’m asked if I know where we are ” yes Staff” I get it right this time. I give the grid reference and show our position on the map with the corner of my compass. “good, your next RV grid reference is ******” I scan my map and quickly give show the location and feature. ” good, what’s your route?” Again a quick scan and our route is selected and shown, weeks spent learning the map has paid off. Ken looks at the three of us as we’re about to leave ” I’m expecting a good time from you three today!!” Bugger!!
We march off into the darkness, we all do a quick check and we’re running down the road, not a noise from any of our 50lb bergens, kit all packed tightly. It’s not long and we’re off road and making our way up a small worn path that just keeps going up and up. Scot leads up here and his pace is cracking, we pass a waterfall that I can only take a quick glimpse at. We pass numerous participants as we climb, sweat is ripping off me now and I tell Rob I’m going to have to take my smock off. We plough on for now though passing some of the early group and find ourselves alone. We do a quick navigation check and my smock is off and packed, happy where we are we crack on as the ground levels a little with rocky outcrops and boggy ground. We cross a stream and there appears like an apparition out of the clag (thick mist/fog) is a DS. He checks we know where we are and lets us crack on, this isn’t our RV point. The ground slopes gently down now and it’s very wet and marshy underfoot, we run now making the most of terrain. As the ground starts to rise we know we’re approaching the first RV but we know we’re off to the left, the clag is thick up here so we take a turn right and head blindly straight to the summit. Figures emerge in front of us, we’ve got it right. We wait to approach the DS, it’s Jason, checking our grid reference going over RV protocol and take the opportunity to eat. The first bag of salted nuts appears, I cup them in my hand and stuff them in my mouth.
We nail the RV and get our next RV grid reference, another iconic SAS landmark but again it’s at the top of another mountain. We run as much as we can to a stream crossing where we will take a bearing to a forest about a kilometre away. Ken is waiting at the crossing, he checks our bearing and we get the ok. Confidence is good even though we’ve all fallen or slipped over by now. Rob is over landing on his backside, the weight of his bergen and legs in the bog he can’t stand up. I come over grab his hands lean back to pull him up, he’s up but the momentum and the weight of my bergen pulls me back, I’m down now, I try to stand and fall back down, second time lucky and we’re off again covered in sopping mud. We’re heading downhill now thinking we can run but we can’t, downhill is a mass of mounds of tufty grass the size of a footballs known as babysheads, these things are ankle breakers. Stepping between them is marshy boggy ground, my leg disappears up to my thigh, I’m lifted out and I’m soaked, the going is slow even though it’s downhill. We cross the valley and start working uphill again the water running down the path we have decided to take, taking a breather every now and again as our heart rates are rocketing, as we get higher the path gets steeper and we’re climbing up shale and rocks. Nearing the top we pass our Radio communications officer Dave who has setup at the top his mast barely visible in the clag. We can’t be far from the RV so we again check grid reference and get ready for a quick RV pass through. This time it’s DS Stuart, he gives us some advice on the next route selection. We’re going through VW valley notorious as a ball breaker, called Voluntary Withdrawal valley for good reason. We skirt another valley, all we can see is the drop off into nothingness of mist and fog, how far we travel round we try and judge but visibility is poor. All of a sudden the clouds and mist clear we’ve come around a little too far but it’s not all bad as we get a clear view of VW valley. It’s straight down and up but at the bottom lies a stream that’s running fast due to all the rain fall. I’ve lost count now the amount of times I’ve slipped and fallen. We’re all soaked through and when the wind catches us it’s cold, it doesn’t take long on stopping to feel the effects of fatigue, wind and rain . Keeping moving keeps our body temperature up, we’re well aware of the dangers of hypothermia. The stream crossing is quick but the water is up to my knees and no one falls. We conquer VW and run back down the other side knowing the next RV is not far away, we reach it in good time and shape. We take the chance to take on food and I refill my water bladder with two litres, I’ve drank three already. DS Matt it’s here and watches as I fill up with water, he asks if I’m keeping hydrated and gives the next RV grid reference and tell us your going up there, we look at what looks a brute of a climb, it’s steep, very steep the top disappearing into the clag.
We take five minutes before we take on this brute, three bags of nuts now are being shoved down our throats. The going is slow and the brief stops to keep my heart from exploding out of my chest more often, going straight up seems an impossibility, I zigzag up taking small steps, I’m breathing hard and my heart is pounding. This is the hardest thing I’ve physically done, not helped by refilling with water so my bergen feels heavy as hell again. Rob draws away with Scot not far behind, this is making me suffer, the first negative thoughts enter my head as this is taking a eternity. At stages its gripping the grass in front of my face with hands because of the steepness. I grab thistles but don’t care, I slip a couple of times and my heart leaps in to my mouth as I hug tightly against the grass. I weigh 70kg with a 50lb wet bergen on, it feels as though it wants to pull me over backwards. I can’t stop no matter how much its’ hurting, progress is painfully slow as it gets steeper. I near the top with encouragement from Rob and Scot. I take off my bergen sink down on one knee and stuff my face with a slab of granola. We’re exposed to the wind here and Rob is getting cold while I eat but I have to eat. I know we have to get moving, Bergen on I get up and we’re off up a gentle slope now. Cramp hits me like a shockwave through all my leg muscles it’s torture, I run on as Rob and Scot crack on in front of me. A gap opens between us but they keep checking on me and encouraging me. Negative thoughts again creep into my mind, I battle these as well as the cramps in my legs. I have to take a painkiller and await, hopefully it will kick in and help. For twenty minutes I battle mind and body to keep going not losing Rob and Scot determined not to let the thirty metre gap between get any bigger.
All of a sudden we’re on a path I know and I’ve caught up with Rob and Scot, my cramps have gone and I’m feeling stronger. I hadn’t noticed when the pain disappeared I was just feeling brilliant as the food and painkillers had done their job. We cracked on up to the highest peak in the Brecon Beacons, our next RV. As every minute passed I felt stronger and stronger. DS Jason was here up in the mist and wind, how did he get here!? My bag of nuts is the only one left now and I share them around Rob and Scot, both taking a good handful, RV protocol done we left and clambered down wet slippery rocks onto a rocky pathway.
This path we all knew well and it felt good to be on familiar territory, we tried to run but the conditions were too dangerous with tired, aching and hurting bodies. The clag is still heavy around us as we head downhill and all of a sudden the ground has levelled and rising, we’ve missed our turning, even though we’ve all been down this path numerous times between us we still manage to go wrong in the poor visibility. We cut right still confident we know where we are, we’re right and now run when we can over the wet rocky ground. Again out of the mist another DS appears and check we’re ok, we’re good and make off looking for a sheep path somewhere out there. We cross a couple and take bearings but they’re not correct direction, the next one we feel is right. It goes up we slow down, Its gradual but we have to walk as fast as our bodies will allow us. Because of the thickness mist and fog we can’t see any more than ten meters, complete trust in map and compass is essential but doesn’t stop the nagging thoughts in the back of your mind if you’re going the right direction. We climb and climb looking out for a cliff on our left knowing this were we have to take another bearing. Fatigue and tiredness are taking their toll and the cliffs seems to take an age to reach. At last the comfort of the cliff and a long drop into the clag just a couple of feet to our left.
Taking a bearing now we turn right into nothingness our next RV is out there two kilometres away, get it wrong and we could well be spending the night out here. We’re still in daylight but know that it will be getting dark in the next couple of hours. It seems as we run and walk as the ground allows us that we’re going around in circles, I feel that I’m always going to the right. Complete trust in my compass is all I have, there’s no landmarks to take reference off. The mist has lifted a little now and visibility is a hundred to a hundred and fifty meters. We keep working on and on through bogs and the long still grass the terrain is unforgiving, I still feel as though I’m being pulled to the right. I’m up to my thighs again in water, waking in streams as the path is easier. My compass seems always to be in my hand now always checking we’re on the correct bearing, tabbing as straight as we can go. Over a couple of rises and the clag has lifted we seem to be up on a plateau, I see a reservoir to our left off in the distance, I check my map and feel confident we’re on the correct path, a mountain looms out of the mist and fog now in front of us, check my map again a hundred percent sure now we’re correct and not far from our next RV. The knowledge of this spurs us on over the next ridge and down below we see the RV and the DS land Rover. Just the downhill to do and tabbing down again isn’t easy a couple of slips and falls and we’re down to the road and cross. DS Ken Jones meets us and I give location, grid reference he checks us. “Are you good for another RV” he asks, I turn to look at Rob and Scot who stand a couple of feet behind. We’re soaked through with sweat, mist, rain covered in bog and mud, feeling fatigued with the effects of carrying a 50lb bergen which has been rubbing shoulders and back raw through our wet clothes. The Brecons Beacons takes every inch out of you chewing you up and spitting you out. Another big mountain behind Ken is taunting us, we all know we could be going up there but I get the nod from Rob and Scot we’re good to go. I feel over moon we’re not going to be beaten, I turn to Ken “EndEx” he says. FRV this is our Final Rendezvous, we finished and in a selection time. Kens hand reaches out, I hesitate to take it, does he really want to shake my hand?
I’ve been calling the DS “Staff” all weekend and don’t expect a handshake as we’ve been told there’s to be no niceties. I take he’s hand unsure but he takes mine and gives it a firm shake. Ken shakes Rob and Scots hands too and all too soon we’re walking back to the 4×4 feeling as though we could do it all again but all agreeing it’s been so so brutal. To navigate with 50lb bergen around the Brecon Beacons as fast as you can go is going to hurt and take everything you have and some.
Ken had said in one of his briefings that ” if there’s a mountain your going up it” and that “Point to Point was his favourite selection test march” These two sentences had let a little light into what we were in all knowing what sort of man he was and what he had been through and survived.
Immensely proud of what we had accomplished I knew for sure I had made friends for life and we were already talking of the next selection test march IronMan. Not your triathlon Iron Man that is just a warm up.