We recently wished good luck to Richard Fairbrother, winner of a 2015 Next Challenge Grant, who set off to hike a remote stretch of the Great Wall of China in winter.
He had some difficulties out there in the snow but he’s made it back to civilisation in one piece and shares his story below. He’ll be returning to complete his journey in December.
(Richard was one of a dozen people to get a grant for his expedition through this website and the donations of a 100 members of the public. Applications, and donations, will open for the 2016 Next Challenge Grant later this month. Details here).
For Want of a Nail
by Richard Fairbrother
Ploughing up the forest path in an inch or two of snow, I was feeling pretty strong. I’d made the 6:12 train, I’d laid my water stash, I had my new stove, and above all it was a bright, beautiful, blue-sky, Beijing day. The kind we live for, the kind that never makes the CNN webpage. Despite my load – something like 15 kilos – I reached the pass in an hour and a quarter, covering nearly 4km uphill, mostly over snow. The Great Wall basked in the golden light of the low winter sun burning out of the southeast sky.
I looked up from the pass to the tower beyond and went over my complex navigation plan: “Get on the wall and follow it”. So far, so easy. Onwards to glory, right?
Not so much. “For want of a nail”, the old story goes. In my case, it was for want of half a litre of petrol.
The day had gone pretty well, though I was pretty tired after just 11 kilometers. It doesn’t sound like much, but consider the route: undulating loose rock covered in a few inches of snow hiding patches of ice. Not a place for speedsters, especially on the steeper sections. My pack, the trusty Mont Mountain Guide monster I’d had for nearly 15 years, was hurting me a bit. The back set-up wasn’t right and I couldn’t fix it, so too much weight was bearing on my shoulders. I was three kilometers short of where I’d planned to spend the first night. No big deal, because my final two days only called for ten kilometers each, so I could spread the shortfall over those days easily enough. I’d actually managed a “moving average” of 3.1 km/h, not bad considering the load, terrain and all that climbing. My overall average, which accounts for stopping time (rests, photos, pack maintenance), was 1.7 km/h, also not too bad if I could maintain it for four days. Again, it may not sound like much if you’re used to hiking different terrain. But though I was a little behind schedule, those numbers were okay.
The entire strategy for this walk depended on stashing water along the route, because four days of water is too heavy (and bulky) to carry. You need a lot less water in winter, which is good, but in winter the water freezes, which isn’t. To drink it and cook with it you need fire. Fuel stoves are far superior to an open fire in ease of use, safety, speed of set up and speed-to-boil. So why, you might ask, didn’t I crack out the brand new MSR International Whisperlite stove (thanks mum!) sitting in my pack.
“For want of a nail, the shoe was lost
For want of a shoe, the horse was lost…”
The Whisperlite will burn shellite, kerosene, and petrol*. I couldn’t find the first two anywhere, not for love or money. I tried, scouring the capital’s camping stores. So when I arrived in the small town Yanqing and Mr Zhao met me at the train, I asked to stop at a petrol station and fill up my little red bottle with unleaded.
No problem, says Zhao, and we pull in at a typically dusty Hebei Province petrol station. Sneakily, Zhao tries to squirt some petrol into my red bottle while refueling his dinky little “breadvan”. But we’re busted, quickly, by the blue-suited attendant lady. Busted before even a drop of the precious liquid made it anywhere near the bottle. Having seen our plan, she hovered around inconveniently until we had to admit defeat. Turns out it’s illegal to buy fuel like that. Who knew? (Actually, Mr Zhao did, but he tried anyway, because he’s a legend).
We idled on the driveway and Zhao asked if we could go on. Somewhat dumbstruck, I pondered this for a while. I’d planned this trip carefully but never in a million years did it occur to me I wouldn’t be able to buy petrol. At a petrol station. Which I had done in China before (admittedly a few years ago). Still, I was already out near the mountains, with all my stuff, and with a few days off work. I decided to go on, and see if I could think up a work around.
Staring at my nice firewood on that windy, -15C night, I decided against flicking the lighter. This area west of Beijing is dry as a bone in winter, as all the foliage dies and all moisture dissolves into the notoriously dry Beijing air (not for nothing do we go through liters of moisturizer each winter). Villages all around have huge signs warning of the danger of fires. Even to reach the wall, you often need to negotiate with teams of fire protection volunteers – usually old ladies and men who miss the irony of chain smoking while arguing with you about fire risk.
I didn’t want to be the foreigner who set a hillside alight, wiping out some poor farming village’s corn fields down below. After all, I’m lucky enough to hike these hills for fun, and I can come back and try again. Most of the people who live around here have to scrape a living from them, and from what I’ve seen, it’s damn hard. Harder still, if some ex-pat city slicker burns it all down.
After a surprisingly warm and not-hungry night (yay tent, yay good sleeping bag, yay for lots of nut bars) I continued the next day. It was still well below zero, maybe minus eight, but the wind had died considerably, and I thought again about a fire so I could eat one of my freeze-dry meals. But I knew that the time the fire really counted was after I collected my water stash, not now. And as the day wore on – as the glorious Great Wall rolled away under my feet, winding inexorably over the mountains – the wind picked up again. Mid-afternoon, I realized I wasn’t going to make it through the full four days without a reliable and safe source of heat, and out here, fire was not a reliable and safe source of heat. Maybe if my life depended on it. But it didn’t.
He met me – fittingly – at the place I’d stashed three bottles of water. They were rock hard, quietly proving the point. For want of half a liter of petrol, I lost my stove. And for want of my stove, I lost my food and water. With those, I lost the goal of walking from Shuitou to Badaling along the wall, solo and unsupported.
But I learned from the mistake and I think I know how to resolve it. I also learned a few other things that will make it more achievable next time. I will give it another shot as soon as I can.
And above all, I was in the mountains, those beautiful mountains west of Beijing that I love so much. Wind in my face, snow under my feet, and the majestic ruins of the Great Wall in my heart. Where they will always be.
Richard will be tackling the wall again at the end of the year.
You can read more about The Next Challenge Grant and the other 2015 winners here. The grant re-opens for 2016 applications later this month.
(*If you’re a nerd like me then you might like my article explaining all the different types of liquid fuels and the camping stoves that burn them.)
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