What is this business about Feeding the Rat?

In a previous post, I named Al Alvarez’s fantastic book ‘Feeding The Rat’ as being in my top five pieces of mountain literature. It’s a smashing little book by a great writer, about the climber Mo Anthoine, and in the last chapter he expands on the concept of ‘feeding the rat’, using Anthoine’s own words. For me it sums up perfectly why I challenge myself to do some of the things I do and, as Mo says, do a bit of suffering. The final line is a perfect summary of my philsophy and, I suspect, that of so many others out there.

but every year you need to flush out your system and do a bit of suffering. it does you a power of good. i think it’s because there is always a question mark about how you would perform. you have an idea of yourself and it can be quite a shock when you don’t come up to your own expectations. if you just tootle along you can think you’re a pretty slick bloke until things go wrong and you find you’re nothing like what you imagined yourself to be. but if you deliberately put yourself in difficult situations, then you get a pretty good idea of how you are going. that’s why i like feeding the rat. it’s a sort of annual check-up on myself. the rat is you, really. it’s the other you, and it’s being fed by the you you think you are. and they are often very different people. but when they come close to each other, that’s smashing, that is. then the rat’s had a good meal and you come away feeling terrific. it’s a fairly rare thing, but you have to keep feeding the brute for your own peace of mind. and even if you did blow it, at least there wouldn’t be that great unknown. but to snuff it without knowing who you are and what you are capable of, i can’t think of anything sadder than that.”

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Dreaming of climbing in the Peak District hills

It’s a beautiful cold day here in central Manchester, with amazingly clear blue skies.

I’d much rather be out climbing today in the Peak District, and it’s on crisp days like this that my mind always wanders to a scene from the recent Everest film The Wildest Dream which sticks in my mind, where top British climber Leo Houlding solos the famous Flying Buttress Direct at Stanage, near Sheffield.

It must be the clear skies and cold, isolated landscapes that forms the link in my head, but it’s always on days like this that I’m transported there, imagining being out on those rocks and not at my desk (though not soloing and definitely not the Flying Buttress – way beyond me, for the time being), perched at the top of a route admiring the view, breathless but happy, no doubt freezing my bollocks off.

Leo Houlding solos Flying Buttress Direct

Needless to say, a visit to Stanage is recommended for anyone who has not been there and fancies a climb. This is a good guide book.


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Top 10 tips for cycling in the snow

Okay, so this might sounds like lunacy at first, but actually it can be done without special gear and it also can be a lot of fun. With the recent dump of snow on the UK and with the cold snap set to last, I thought it would be worth sharing some of my learnings.

My first experience of snow cycling came a couple of years ago, just after Christmas. My University was closed due to the heavy snowfall and, wanting to get out and enjoy the whited-out scenery, I jumped into the saddle and headed a few miles down the road, to some country back roads.

It was an ‘interesting’ experience at times, but amazingly I stayed upright and felt fairly secure, even though my tyres on my Trek 7.2FX are more ‘road’ than ‘off-road’. I also loved the crisp, crunchy sounds of the tyres in the snow, and the sedate pace I was forced into made me appreciate my surroundings much more.

Top 10 Tips for Cycling in Snow

1. Warm clothes – use the layering principle to keep your body toasty. Wear thin synthetic base layers, some fleece on your torso and thin waterproofs over the top. Overshoes will help keep the wind off your feet – and some recommend a carrier bag or sandwich bag worn between the shoe and sock to keep those feet from freezing. It’s never worked for me, but that’s not to say it won’t for you. For your head, I recently got one of these Seal Skinza beanie hats and can’t recommend them enough.

2. Braking – try to use your back brake as much as possible and your front brake hardly ever. Brake early.

3. Stay in the saddle – sit down and relax, if you tense up you’re more likely to come off. Easier said than done, I know.

4. Listen. Hear a nice crunchy sound? That means you’re on snow. If it goes quiet, you are on ice, and it might be time to dismount.

5. Don’t brake and steer – Don’t even thinking about combining braking and turning. Brake in a straight line, then release the brake and turn.

6. Tyres. Ice tyres with metal studs are not strictly necessary and can be expensive. Tyres with a decent tread, such as mountain bike nobblies, will make life easier  – don’t go out on slick road tyres! If you do want to get serious about this and start to push it a little harder, rather than just pootling around, you should check out these.

7. Type pressure – Hmmm, interesting one this. Views are mixed. Some say that letting your tyres down a bit help you stay upright by increasing the amount of tyre in contact with the ground). Some, like me, prefer to run the tyres at their max pressure. I like to remain fully in control, something which is harder to do if the bike is moving about on a soggy tyre.

8. Mudguards might help, but they can also get cloggedup with snow. If you have a bike that has small clearances in the mudguard or around the brakes, you may end up stopping to clear snow.

9. As with cars, choosing the right gear will help. On flat roads stay in a higher gear than normal to prevent your wheels spinning. Pedal smoothly up hills by selecting a lower gear than normal.

10. Look ahead for what’s coming – if you have to brake suddenly, it will be nasty. Watch out for manholes, which will be very slippy in the snow. Cycle lanes can also be treacherous, so it’s best to avoid them and stick to the road.

More from the excellent Guardian News Blog on this topic.

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Keeping out the cold on the morning cycle to work

Since developing foot and knee problems a few years ago, and deciding to give up running, riding a bike has been my main way of maintaining fitness.

My bike of choice is a Trek 7.2FX, a hybrid bike that offers a fast ride for the commuter but with the versatility to tackle the bumpy paths of the park or canal when you fancy a change.

Have a look online and you will see it gets rave reviews, representing a great bike for your buck.

But despite an average speed of nearly 16mph on my commute (8 miles there, 8 miles back), some hilly bits, and a cumbersome 15 stone body to shift, keeping out the cold on very chilly, frosty mornings like today is always a challenge.

The fixed position of your feet means they quickly become chilled to the bone, likewise your hands, which bear the brunt of the windchill. I don’t have clip-in pedals either, which transfer extra cold from the cleat into the soles of your shoes!

As for the head, last year, when temperatures were dipping to -21C round our part of Cheshire, I experienced the most excruciating tooth and jaw ache after a few miles, that didn’t subside until I was showered and at my desk, supping hot tea.

So what’s the solution?

Well, let us start with the feet – there was an interesting article in the Guardian in 2010 about this – one tip was to wrap your feet in clingfilm, as per GB cyclist Bradley Wiggins. I tried, it didn’t work, but wearing multiple layers on my feet never does.

So I’ve settled on these fantastic Gore overshoes to keep the wind off. Combined with some SealSkinz mid light waterproof socks, it’s enough to ward off the worst of the cold for the 8 mile journey, especially if I go hard at it. I find having a fellow cyclist sitting on my back wheel, always helps in this respect! Must…. stay…. ahead. Standing up on your pedals for a bit, as you power off from the lights, also helps the circulation.

And the head? Well, again, it’s SealSkinz to the rescue. This waterproof beanie keeps my ears and jaw nice and snug, fighting off the worst of the windchill, especially on the big downhill bit (reaching around 25mph) two to three miles into my ride.

Still not warm? Perhaps this might help? Or this?

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Top 5 Books on Climbing and Mountaineering

I started climbing in November 2010, first indoor and then progressing to a bit of outdoor (safely top roped by a friend). Funnily enough, I conquered my fear of heights pretty easily and it tends to be my 15 stone frame, ugly technique and infrequent practice that holds me back. But I love it, especially on the grit out in the Peak District, man versus the ancient landscape – and quite often the fierce weather.

Being a lover of books, since I started climbing I have devoured around 30 climbing titles, ranging from autobiographies of the greats to accounts of expeditions and adventures around the world. So I thought I’d have a crack at naming my Top 5.

I’ve still got a fair few on the shelf, waiting to be read, including ‘High Endeavours – The Life and Times of Robin Smith’, a brilliant young climber I’ve read so much about elsewhere, and who died so tragically young at the age of 23 along with famous mountaineer / writer Wilfrid Noyce.

A quick Google for Robin Smith bought up this.

Then there’s the Jim Perrin tome Menlove: Life of John Menlove Edwards. I started it last year on holiday but struggled to get into it, with one reviewer describing it as being ‘highly literary’, and I wouldn’t disagree with that – but I’m going to give it another go. Edwards – who had a secret affair with fellow climber Wilfrid Noyce – was another great climber who died too soon, killing himself with a cyanide capsule in 1958 at the age of 48.

I found a great quote from him on Wikipedia – “I grew up exuberant in body but with a nervy, craving mind. It was wanting something more, something tangible. It sought for reality intensely, always as if it were not there… But you see at once what I do. I climb.”

Also unread is a bargain buy from an outdoor bookstall that crops up near the University I work at. It is ‘My Climbs in the Alps and Caucasus’ by AF Mummery. Written over 100 years ago, it’s supposed to be a great read and Mummery a great storyteller with a wonderful dry tone, as well as a great early gentleman adventurer and mountaineer. My out of print hardback copy cost me £2, so I was chuffed to find it’s worth £40+.

Anyhow, enough of what I haven’t read. Here’s my choice of top 5 climbing/mountaineering books – it wasn’t easy!

1. The White Spider: The Story of the North Face – Heinrich Harrer

2. The Villain – The Life of Don Whillans – Jim Perrin

3. A Short Walk In the Hindu Kush – Eric Newby

4. Feeding the Rat – Al Alvarez

5. Psychovertical – Andy Kirkpatrick

Let me know what you think of my list. It was tough to exclude some of the books on Mallory (whom is a massive hero) and his famously ill-fated attempt on Everest.

I’m currently looking forward to getting three further books for my birthday; Freedom Climbers (winner of last year’s Boardman Tasker prize), Cold Wars by Andy Kirkpatrick and the long-awaited Johnny Dawes biography Full of Myself.

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