SAS selection test march
Hell on High Hills
Two days after Ricochet drinking a coffee before I go back to work, it’s Tuesday morning and caffeine is going to be my best friend today. Sitting still for any amount of time is my enemy, my muscles, tendons, ligaments and any other part of my body that feels like complaining does so with relish. I feel as though I’ve been beaten up with total numbness between my shoulders and neck. I get up for a second cup of coffee, everything feels as though it’s creaking, I’m sure I can hear the strain, taught muscles creak and groan like steel cables about to snap.
Saturday 19th September I wake at 5am totally wide awake. I wish I could have slept longer knowing that tonight I probably wouldn’t sleep well and Sunday morning would be an early start. I get up and go to my bergen checking again making sure I know where everything is. I weigh it again, bang on 55lbs, water and food are to be added which will take the weight up considerably.
I didn’t eat enough on the last test march, Iron Man so I’m determined to eat constantly this time. My food and water is ready, to add to my bergen when I get to the Brecon Beacons in the heart of SAS selection area.
Over the last month I’ve looked at my map trying to picture the hills and valleys, done my homework trying to look at every area where we could be doing the test march.
I pack up my car with my well dubbined boots in last, they look oily and shiny, how long will they keep my feet dry I’ve no idea. The forecast looks good but the terrain will be wet and boggy.
On the drive to Wales I wonder what’s to come, we’ve been promised things are going to be tougher and there’s a few surprises in store for us. No one knows what these are and I’m sure no one wants to know before we get to base camp. Point to Point and Iron Man were both tough, very tough, I should have learnt lessons from them both.
Through the Brecon mountains and hills I drive looking for base camp. The country side still amazes me, I look up at the hills and their steepness. I think back to the last two test marches and wonder how the hell I’ve made it up some of them soaking wet, fatigued in the wind and rain never knowing how far I’ve yet to go to the top, never knowing where the next RV will be, always hoping it will be the FRV. Wanting, hoping it will come just to get this bergen off, to rest, to finally finish with those hills.
Slowly down a narrow track I go along side a reservoir the sunlight reflecting of it blinding me at times. Over a bridge my car rumbles loudly as two fishermen look over at me. I spot DS Ken and Matt, I slow to a stop, they’re running an exercise on the training day. Matt walks over and I shake his hand, we have a quick talk and off I go, I don’t want to disturb the training.
Pulling up in carpark area I arrive the same time as brill cream Rob and headband Scott my two oppos. Quickly our talk turns to the weight of our bergens, both Rob and Scotts are 65lbs with food and water. I sort my food and water now loading my bergen, great mine is weighing in at 65lbs too, only 10lbs off half my body weight.
We walk down to base camp to find out what’s in store for us. We’re greeted by some familiar faces who are all busy writing notes from pin boards. Instructions and parts of an AK47, unloading a glocke pistol, a good shooting position, some grid references, radio channels frequencies. I start taking notes too trying to learn some of the information. Questions are being asked why we need this information but no one knows. Are they going ask us questions tomorrow on the test march? Will there be an AK47 to strip and put back together?
The training day finishes and people start arriving with their bergens and they’re all carrying a scaffold pole. We quickly learn we will be carrying these on the test march, we’ll be getting ours soon. Staff Bigg appears and calls everyone out front for a kit inspection. Everyone on the training day lines up with their begens in front of them as staff Bigg calls out equipment to find packed inside them. Time to keep out of the way so back to my car to check over my bergen for the morning.
Dinner is at six and I’m starving so back down to base camp with a pencil case with colouring pencils, ruler and A4 paper. These items were emailed to us to bring a couple of days before along with the location of base camp. I opt for pasta and meatballs and garlic bread, I stuff myself knowing I will need as many calories as possible before tomorrow. After dinner we find out what our coloured pencils are for, we have to copy a section of our map to use on the test march. Forty five minutes are given to us to achieve this, still not knowing where we’re going it’s hard to choose an area to concentrate on.
My effort is not up to scratch, very few are and they’re just keepsakes now as a proper sketch map is handed out that we are to fablon to use tomorrow. Doing a test march off of a sketch map will be interesting. Straight after it’s time to collect my scaffold pole which will go everywhere with me from now on.
Time now to try and get some sleep, I’m in a small room with two bunk beds. The two old fellas Rob and Scott on the lower bunks and Karl Rushen and myself on the upper as we are able to climb up. We talk for an hour about The 100 Peaks Challenge http://www.100peaks.co.uk . I’m falling asleep while Karl sorts kit out. The light goes out and I try to sleep, it’s 2300hrs We’re getting up at 0400hrs so I’m looking forward to five hours sleep. I’m sure atleast an hour passes before I finally drift off. I’m awake again after what only seems like ten minutes this happens all night. I hear lots of movement our in the corridor now with doors opening and closing. I dare a look at my telephone to see the time, 0300hrs!! I have to go to the toilet. Rob, Scott and Karl are all awake when I come back, no more sleep then. Getting dressed slowly it’s all quiet as we’re all thinking of what’s to come. I go and get my bergen before breakfast, it feels heavy. Time for breakfast and I cue up for porridge out of a big military tea caddy, I end up having two bowls both covered in sugar.
0515 Sunday 20th September
The earlier group have already left and that leaves around thirty of us left all putting on our bergens and picking up our scaffold poles, they feel like they’re going to be a pain in the arse. Bergens are being adjusted all around me, trying to find that comfortable spot on the shoulders and back. I’m loaded up carrying a total of 75lbs, I only weigh 150lbs. How will my body cope carrying this sort of weight over the Brecons for an unknown time and a route I have no idea of.
One of the DS puts us into two ranks and tells us we’re tabbing to the start. All too soon we’re off at speed, I’m half way down the line as gaps keep opening and closing this keeps us running to keep up and close those gaps. It’s still pitch black as we follow a vehicle with its hazard lights. The DS keeps breaking into running and walking as we go up hill and along flat. Sweat is already running down my face and down my back. I look foward upto the front as gaps appear, I go for it and over take getting up to the front behind the DS. Any change of pace now is easy to cope with and I settle in wondering where the hell we’re going, how far we’re going, how long can everyone keep this up, Has anyone fallen of the back. We haven’t even started the march yet!! I try and picture the map in my mind to where we’re going, where we could be tabbing to for the start!
We slow to a walk and over into the woods up a track and into a clearing. Orders are given to put a smock on to keep warm, to eat and drink while names are called to start. I take the chance to look over my sketch map, I think we were roughly going about half an hour and think I know where we are. We’ve tabbed about three kilometres a nice warm up but not a gentle one.
Our group grows smaller then my names is called, Rob and Scott come with me. Our Bergens are weighed, then another short wait until called forward by the DS to start. I’m called I tab forward to the DS it’s Ken Jones, he looks then says ” right back you go and tell Mike Smith to come forward” Back we go to the small line of 11. The line gets shorter and shorter, I’m called forward again with only 2 or 3 left to go. The gap between each of us going seems an age, they’re keeping us well apart. I tab to Ken who asks if I’m happy where we are? I confident and show him on my sketch map. Ken then gives me my next grid reference and waits while I mess about trying to show him. I get it wrong!! “sort it out Steve” Ken says, f@#k it I curse myself in my head. I recheck and get it right, how did I get it wrong in the first place!! We’re given the off and we disappear down a track onto a road over a fence, a slight rise and we stop. I take a bearing look up and everything is a blanket of fog. I’ve nothing to aim for so I work with my compass in hand checking every now and again.
It soon gets boggy and we find a sheep path which leads us straight towards a huge bog, going through the middle is a corrugated metal bridge. This bridge looks to be floating on the bog and in places disappears underneath. I take a hesitant step on the metal it seems sound enough. The metal moves as I steadily make my way across then through the boggy water where the metal disappears. I can still feel the metal under my boots even though I can’t see it. I keep edging forward until I come out of the murky blackish water over the final part of he crossing. I hear a yell behind to see that Scott has gone off the edge of the corrugated metal. His thigh has disappeared into the stinky bog, Scott is swearing he’s ok, I can’t but help laugh and laugh uncontrollably.
We crack on as the ground rises gently over tough terrain, trying to get a good pace going over this ground is tough. The huge round toughs of grass are up to my thighs, between is bog. Placing your feet is tiring, I keep shifting my bergen I can already feel the weight digging in my shoulders. I’m eating from the off and I plan to eat constantly. It’s not long before I’m soaked up to my thighs from all the bog water and long wet grass, for the moment my feet are dry. We go over small hills and down again with the fog coming and going giving us glimpses of a forest in the distance. Still going on my compass the forest line seems to be our target. We trudge on and finally see the RV just off to our right so head directory across to the DS. It’s Staff Bigg “where were you going? We’re asked.
With our RV protocol nailed we’re off to our next RV. For now there’s been no big hills, where is DS Matt? He’s always at a RV before a big hill a brutal mountain of a climb. Again the ground is very tough going up and down through bogs and wading through stream crossings. The fog is lifting and navigation is becoming easier with a few hills to work off. A tree line in the distance is our target and a gate somewhere along it. We’re just off again but not by much. Down a step tree lined path to find the RV and a que waiting to pass through. We take the chance to get these bergens off. It feels a huge relief, Ken Jones appears from a tent and calls us over. Bugger!! Picking up my bergen I double over, my bergen is barely of the ground and banging against my legs. “Drop those” orders come from somewhere. We balance our three bergens standing up against each other and double over to Ken. He inspects us, asked us how we’re doing. RV protocol is passed again and we go outside of the tent pick up our bergens and take five minutes to sort out any admin before we head off. I’m eat again as we move off up the same path we came down. As we clear the tree line at the top bearings are taken, up up up as I look at my sketch map, a long way up.
This is going to be tough, we have a long drag in front of us, it’s slow going as we trudge on. For the first time the ground underfoot is good except that it’s uphill so getting a fast tab on is impossible. The ground levels off slightly but we can still see the ground rising into the mist in front of us. Level ground seems a god send but all to soon it’s boggy as hell. I’ve given up trying to find ways around and plough through. My feet are already wet now from the unrelenting wet ground. I try to look behind but my neck spasms, the weight of the bergen seems to be getting heavier. I’ve lost the feeling between my shoulder blades. I don’t whether to be happy or worried. I concentrate on this hill for now as we start to climb again, this hill is taking ages. Again I hear a scream behind me, I didn’t think there were any children up here!! I turn around to find Scott almost doing the splits with cramp gripping his legs, he can’t move. I don’t know why but I laugh and Rob laughs as poor Scott seems stuck unable to move. I can’t stop laughing and apologise to Scott. I don’t know what else to do, we’re totally knackered half way up a mountain soaked through from sweat not knowing how far we have left or how long we’re going to out here.
We’re heading for a trig point we’ve been to before but from a different side of the mountain. We’re up in the mist now and the wind picks up. Every now and again we spot a radio mast and a tent, It’s our radio officer. Eventually we see the top and tab over, it’s DS Matt. RV protocol doesn’t take long and we tab away to sort out our route. More food is stuffed down and I’m feeling the benefits from eating constantly. I maybe shattered but I feel there’s plenty left in me. Weeks of studying the maps and feet on ground now pays off as we opt for a slightly different route to everyone else. The going is good for the first time as we find a decent sheep’s path and make good going. For about forty five minutes we tab rarely walking knowing we’ve made good time. It’s not long before we spot the RV and head straight for it. We don’t spend long here as the next grid reference we’re given is back to where we started, hopefully the FRV.
Heads down we get going on our bearing noting a hill in the distance to work towards. For a while it never seems to get any closer as we again return to the grass mounds and boggy ground with its rise and falls. Cresting the hill and looking at our bearing the tree line we started from is just about visible. Cracking on we find a few sheep paths and around a few hills we tab. More stream crossings in small valleys and after what seems an eternity we find the original sheep path we found at the beginning. The going is good now and our pace is good also. The forest we started from is so close with one stream crossings left. Rob crosses then I step down about eighteen inches to cross, my foot slides and I find myself sat in the water, it’s freezing!! I try to stand but fatigue and the weight of my bergen make it impossible. This time Rob and Scott laugh uncontrollably at me as I’m stranded with the water running over me. I’m left until they get control of themselves and haul me out. From here its only fifty metres to where we first climbed over the fence at the start. His time climbing over is tougher as our fatigued body’s try and balance with the weight of the bergen pulling you one way while your brain wants to go the other. Twenty metres on the road and we’ve reached the next RV. Ken is here!! He seems to be everywhere! We’re told we’ve reached the FRV and told to change our wet tops and get a brew and some food down us. We walk away up a track to a clearing we waited in this morning. The bergens are off and the relief is unbelievable. I open mine up and change to a dry top and have a brew. A few others come in and do the same. I’m half way through my brew when there’s loads of shouting!! DS Bigg has appeared from nowhere and is bellowing at us with other DS to drop everything and double over to them. We all run over to be confronted by the two biggest logs I’ve seen with ropes on each end. We’re ordered to pick these up go around a gate where we’re to start a log race uphill!!
We’ve just completed SAS selection test march Ricochet and now we’ve got to race these brutally heavy logs uphill!! We have no time to worry about it because we’re off at what seems breakneck speed. To start I feel ok and think this is great but very quickly we feel the weight of the log and we slow but still what seems to be a run but can’t be any faster than a gentle jog. All I hear is the DS shouting and swearing at us, motivating and driving us on and on up this track uphill. We pass family’s out walking I barely notice as I try to get air to my lungs. We are told to shout encouragement to each other, getting any noise out of my throat seems impossible as my lungs search and plead for oxygen. Everything is screaming, my hand keeps slipping on the rope, I try to grip harder. I chance a look up the track to pick out some sort of destination we could to going to!! Some hope of a point I think I could hang on until, there’s no sign just track with forest either side. The DS shouts of motivation are ringing in my ears. Is everyone else feeling the same as me? I can’t look at anyone so consumed with my own agony in my head. My body is coping somehow but my brain seems to have gone in to auto mode of not giving in. I start feel sick, I’ve never been sick doing exercise before but consider the thought of throwing up whilst carrying this log because I’m not stopping or putting it down. Eventually we’re told to stop.
” one minute” DS Bigg shouts out. We have one minutes rest. Every single one of us is gasping for air bent over double trying to get oxygen into our lungs and muscles. One minute!! It hardly seems long enough to rest before we’re told to pick the logs up for the return journey. Oh my god!! The log feels even heavier but it’s downhill and for a few brief moments I feel ok, it is only a few brief moments as the torture starts all over again. Downhill proves no easier to our shattered fatigued bodies as we work as hard as we can. I look up this time looking for the gate we started at, there’s no sign of it. How bloody far did we travel up this track. One bend then another still no sign, I give up looking it’s wasting energy, I need everything I have just to hold on. Sometimes I can’t work out whether I’m pulling the log or being pulled by it. I dig deep to try to keep in front of my rope. How in the hell am I still going I don’t know. I see the gate but no surge of energy to get there any quicker. We’re at the gate and told to go round, place the log down and not drop it. The log is down, at long last it’s down. Straight away we’re ordered to double away to the clearing where are bergens are and told to stand in a line.
The DS come round and shake our hands congratulate us, I hear End Ex. Thank F@#k!! But I feel great, we go round each other shaking hands knowing what we’ve shared will only be ours forever and only ours. The struggle and pain we went through together. It was amazing and as Mick Caren said “the log run was the best part as you can always give more even when you think your done” I look around at the company I shared on that log run, I’m in awe, total awe of the everyone I’ve just been with.
Rage- in -sanity
Next up a marathon 10th October with three days of recovery testing under the watchful eyes of Middlesex University.
Oh I almost forgot, we still had the three kilometres to tab back to base camp before we could finally take off those bergens and put down that bloody scaffold pole for good, well until next time anyway.