Hell on High Hills
SAS Selection Test March
IronMan, the second of the SAS selection test marches has proven to be the toughest physical and mental most demanding challenge I’ve taken part in. The saying of just putting one foot in front of another had never really meant much to me but this day it was the only thought going over and over in my head. Over the last twenty years I’ve pushed myself physically competing in numerous marathons, ultra-marathons, Tough Guys and world record attempts but IronMan would prove to be the toughest mental test so far that pushed me to my limits. Where are those limits now? I’ve a good feeling the DS will show me over Ricochet, Elan south/North and Long Drag.
Avalanche Endurance Events run by ex SAS soldiers who all are ex SAS training wing also, organised IronMan as part of all six SAS selection test marches they are putting on this year. The first time civilians are to have been able to test themselves on one of the toughest special forces selections in the world. In the words of one ” this isn’t hill reps for the TV cameras”.
The three hour drive to the Brecon Beacons always gives you plenty of time to ponder what’s ahead, how tough is IronMan going to be. I’m getting to know these hills a little but only by sight, the conditions can be horrendous both in the summer and winter so personal admin, discipline, navigation, fitness and attitude has to be at its highest to achieve a selection time that I strive to achieve. Tomorrow Ironman will ask me each of these questions.
0330 hrs I stirred from sleep hearing Phil getting ready to go for breakfast at 0400, it’s too frigging early!! Pitch dark outside I see Phil’s light moving about as he tries he’s best not to disturb Rob, Scot and myself. I hadn’t slept brilliantly with four men cramped up in the tiniest of rooms. I kept my eyes closed listening to every noise, I had another half an hour in bed before I had to get up. I abandoned trying to sleep and got up, Rob and Scott were now doing the same. Breakfast for us was 0430 hrs to be ready in the vehicles to roll at 0500. My bergen was good to go I just had to fill up on water taking the weight up to 50lbs the same weight as Point to Point. After a quick wash, I stuffed as much porridge and coffee as I could down at this time of the morning knowing I would need it for what lay ahead. There’s not much talking as everyone is wondering if they would survive the test march.
Still pitch dark outside we made our way to our vehicles head torches bouncing and flickering around as last minute checks are made on kit and bergens are packed. We didn’t have to wait long and we were off travelling to our start point, time to start thinking of all the training I had put in and wondered as I always do if I had done enough and if I had done the right kind of training, I’d changed a couple of things since Point 2 Point and now they would be put to the test an extreme test.
Travelling in convoy through dark Welsh mountain roads trying to work out the general direction we were going, after roughly half an hour we pull over. Parking up, it was bergens on and a double time tab to the first RV (Rendezvous Point) and starting point for IronMan just as dawn was breaking and the first signs of light were coming over the mountains that we were soon to go over. Map out I found my position and grid reference ready to pass on to the DS (SAS Directing Staff) I had a windproof jacket on while I waited as it was still early but the weather looked favourable, I would choose to go in a Hely Hanson and T-shirt. We waited as the morning became lighter and the number people in front got smaller, Rob, Scott and myself chose to go together again. The order of march was on Fan Dance and Point to Point times which put us off near last to go. Sipping water I wait patiently, I want to get going but knowing what’s coming is going to hurt.
Called forward by the DS Stu we doubled over and had our maps checked as there were out of bound areas which had to be marked on it. Seconds later we quickly doubled over to DS Ken Jones to give our position and receive our next six figure RV, a quick look at the map and after showing Ken our destination we tab away. Twenty meters away we stop and double check the RV point and take bearings. 5km away and just a bearing to tab on across what was to turn out to be leg sapping ground and the start of hell on high hills for me.
The start was a slight rise which compared to other test marches was a walk in the park. Coming over the rise we had an amazing view of unbroken ground, we thought that we could get a good speed going, this thought didn’t last long as the ground was covered in thousands of small mounds of tough grass and in between marshy ground with hidden streams and bogs, it seemed to stretch for miles and miles. Every step was a nightmare, keeping on a straight line on our bearing became impossible. We had to push hard as best as we could knowing to get a selection time we had to get to the RV in under an hour and fifteen but over this terrain with 50lbs bergens it was going to be tough. Out of nowhere a barb wire fence!! What the hell!! What is this doing in this barren landscape!? Tackling a barbwire fence with a 50lb bergen, I found myself balancing on the wire with the weight pulling me back but wanting to jump forward. A little shove from behind solved this and I find myself scrambling to keep my feet on the other side. I pick up the pace for a while and come face to face with a bog but my momentum with my bergen keeps me moving forward, I take a leap but there’s no way I’m going to get across. My right foot lands right in the middle and I bound across landing on the other side, I’m amazed as I look back, a boot mark is left in the middle as the whole bog wobbles and waves, my right leg is soaked from all the water splashing up, Rob and Scot look at me amazed that I haven’t just disappeared and they are now pulling me out.
The time had ticked away as we pushed on over this barren landscape, we must be nearing the RV but with no sign we check our compasses and crack on over another small hill, In front of us a stretched a line of other competitors. This spurred Rob on wanting to beat all these to the RV which now we could see on a crag in the distance. We were off at a cracking pace which with my legs already feeling the unforgiving ground my lungs were now getting a work out. We get to the RV on time but the thoughts of how tough the first 5Km was and how much it had taken out of my legs started to plague me. Giving our location the DS gave us our new RV grid reference, we went away and got down behind some rocks on the crag to take bearings and work out the distance and time. Another 5km tab across the Brecons unforgiving ground but this time a slow assent up to the highest point that we would go to today.
The same distance but a long slow drag uphill added more torment to my mind and body. Stopping every so often to check our bearings we slogged our way up hill again after setting a target time . Rob and Scott started to leave me behind by about 20 meters, I worked hard and this gap didn’t grow giving me confidence that I would be ok for the rest of the Test March. Not knowing how far you’re going to have to go and how long you’re going to be out on each test march plays hell on the mind, you want to push hard but these hills and their steepness at times is unrelenting. Reaching the trig point at the summit of this mountain again within our time was a great feeling. Another RV passed through and another RV to head to. This time our route selection gave us a choice of routes, one trying to stay on higher ground skirting a mountain that loomed in front of us, the second straight down and up and over that bloody mountain the most direct. A feeling of dread came over me and didn’t leave me as it was down the valley and up and over that bloody mountain to the next RV.
Trying to run down the side of a mountain with a 50lb bergen and no paths to follow hammers the legs, all I could see in front is the mountain that I was going straight up. It didn’t take long to reach the valley floor and then start the accent, as soon as I started up my legs felt so tired with the first signs that they wanted to cramp. I pushed on up at a slow pace with weight of the bergen wanting to pull me back down. With Rob and Scott just in front of me I was determined to keep with them. The weather was good and the view would have been amazing but all I could see was my feet and grass as I edged my way closer to the ridge, with every glance up it seemed to be teasing me and it didn’t let me down, a false summit and another look up more climbing. Sweat was pouring off me and trying to take in water and calories to keep me going was impossible. I looked up again and the ground was flattening off, we must be near the top but as the climbing became easier the pace picks up, it was relentless. Stopping at the top I check my bearings and off we go hoping we can see the RV from our vantage point. There’s no hope as there’s more hills, gully’s and streams to cross. We cross the mountain at an angle pushing a good pace as its downhill again but across numerous gully’s with streams to try to jump over or just wade through. Each gully crossing takes more energy out as it’s down fifteen meters stream crossing then twenty meters straight up the other side. We eventually spy a LandRover, this is our RV. Checking in I’m feeling the need for food, I’ve been eating and drinking all the way but feel very hungry and drained.
Giving out my name number and grid reference and showing the DS our location we get our next RV point to get to, another 5Km distance again . We move away and stop to take bearings on our compasses and I fill my pockets with more food and we’re off again back the way we came across all those gully’s, streams and slowly up hill. My legs are in pain, they want to cramp, I try to move faster but I feel drained. The going is tough as we go round the mountain we’ve just been over gaining height slowly. Rob is pushing the pace now and opens up a gap of a good 100 meters with Scott 20 meters behind him. I’m suffering now in my own private hell, I don’t want to be here, my legs are killing me I have nothing left to give, I’m going to tell Rob and Scott to go on without me and I’ll finish at my own pace. I don’t know how far we’ve come or how far there is left, I’m never doing this again, seriously never ever doing anything like it.
On the last test march Point to Point I had a bad patch but nothing like this, I had gone through it and ended up the stronger of the three of us. Rob keeps looking back and checking on me ” alright Steve? ” I reply with my I can’t frigging speak at the moment “yep yep” and wave my hand to push him on not wanting to show I’m all but done in. We go over another hill and there stood in front of us is someone with camera, I’ve slowly caught back up after working my backside off and now Rob and Scott are just in front of me now. I’ve been in a world of my own, hating everyone and everything. We are asked for a picture, “Whaaaat!!” “Seriously!?” “Really!?” Rob and Scott are happy, I’m seriously not in the mood suffering from a lack of humour but take the chance for a breather no matter how short. Picture taken we check our route and bearing and attack the next rise. A week later I received the picture and I looked totally pissed off, pale, covered in sweat and totally shattered with Rob and Scott looking as if they hadn’t done a thing. My lack of humour at that moment was the biggest surprise of the day.
More uphill to the next RV and somehow we’re still together, I’m waiting praying to go through this tortuous bad patch hoping for that second wind. At the top of another hill we see the RV tent all zipped up, I approach and told to take my bergen off by a voice from inside. It’s ken Jones, I pull myself together, I don’t want to look a bag of shit when he tells me to come in the tent. I’m told to enter and unzip the bivvi “Other side!!” booms Kens voice, bugger I zip the bivvi back up and move to the other side to find it already unzipped. I enter and pass on my location and receive the next RV six figure grid reference, I show Ken its location, just a short distance away and downhill a very steep downhill. Ken tells me it’s now the hard part coming up and to make sure we’re on top of our admin and to drink plenty and keep eating. The hard part coming up!? What!? I’m hanging!! What do you mean!? I leave the tent zip up the door and pass on the next RV and Kens instructions to Rob and Scott. I try to ram food down and check how much water I have left, only a little, I’ve drank nearly 3 litres already.
Leaving the RV we’re soon going downhill and it’s not long before we can see our next RV with a very steep hill to go down. My legs don’t care anymore whether I’m going up or down it’s just slow painful torture. The steepness slows us down to a slow walk trying all the time not to fall down, this at least is giving me a breather. The RV disappears as we go down and over rises in the ground, the wind has picked up now and looking back up the mist has covered the top of the mountain then the first misty spots of rain fall on us.
I’m just glad now to reach another RV and just starting to feel slightly better, DS Matt is here and tells use there’s water if we need it to refill and takes a good look at each of us checking us, asking questions making sure he’s content we’re good enough to continue. I refill knowing it’s adding weight back to my bergen but knowing without it I could be in trouble. I give our location and get the next RV grid, this is what Ken meant, back up the steep mountain we’ve just come down and carry on up to the mountain summit, the same one as much earlier in the day but up the steep side.
I’m speechless, I just succumb to the inevitably that it’s going to be slow hard and painful with the added weight of the water. The rain is now being driven sideways into us, I put gloves and a Merino beanie hat on, I have to keep moving to keep warm. The steepness makes it painfully slow and in places I’m holding on to tuffs of grass and rock to stay on the mountainside. I find myself climbing up a stream with the water running over my boots and hands. The water is cold but climbing up the rocks is easier than the wet grass on the mountainside. The steepness gradually eases but we keep on going up and up and up with the wind blowing us from the right driving the rain in. We’re covered in mist now with visibility down to 20 to 30 meters, the only advantage this brings is that we can’t see the top on the mountain and how far we have to go. How far up we’ve come I have no idea but the ground has become steep again and it’s slow going for all three of us, just taking it step at a time having to stop every 30 meters or so to take a breather. We’re all knackered and soaked through as the steepness of the mountain eases. I’m hoping we’re nearing the summit as the mist clears and the wind and rain alleviate. It’s only the slightest of inclines now and we push on try to keep a good pace going, we spot the bivvi marking the RV, I’m shattered but in better shape than when I had my photograph taken. DS Stu checks us over and RV protocol complete we move off to one side to check maps and take bearings. The next RV is all the way down from the top of the mountain down to our original start point our FRV.
Downhill all the way downhill, I’m running, I seem to have gone through the worst nightmare but feel stronger again. My turn to push the pace now and we run all the way down off the mountain to finish on target and in selection time. I’m already thinking about what happened to me out there, it was the worst experience I’ve gone through. I’m never happy with my training before an event, I don’t know how long I was suffering it seems like a blur. Rob and Scott are stronger uphill or up mountain than me but I have complete faith in my endurance to keep going.
On reflection my change to my training since Point 2 Point hadn’t worked, the weeks leading up to IronMan I was finding myself trying to search for that perfect run to give myself confidence. I had pushed too hard and as a consequence over trained. I always keep a training diary so found myself pouring over training leading up to other events. I always come away feeling that I should have done better after any event. Training is going well at the moment but with the Fan Dance only weeks away closely followed by Ricochet time will tell. Avalanche Endurance Events will let me know!!