At the beginning I would just like to say a few words about my Point to Point march. It is one of the main events on the SAS selection test week. A long march over the Brecon Beacons from one RV point to another. Walking on roads and wider paths are not allowed and the Staff prefers candidates to move across the terrain in a straight line like a crow flies. This is proper cross country. This is done in bad weather, with a heavy load, military uniform and under time pressure.
Saturday – training day
I arrived to Danywenallt Study Centre just after 0600. Everybody was still in their beds except just few staff members. After completing a few formalities I was shown where I could pitch my little tent. It was at the very bottom of the field. It didn’t take long, so I changed myself into something more convenient like military fatigues and I was walking around enjoying myself for an hour or two.
After a quick breakfast I checked the whiteboard like in the good old days. It was the place where everyone was finding out what they will be going on. Nobody screaming, nobody shouting just discipline delegated from instructors to the trainees. Nice, because I do accept high decibels only when I’m driving.
Spot on 0830 I was sitting in the white tent waiting for signals training to begin. After a while we were working in a small group with one radio per group. There was a short presentation and a little bit of theory. Some real life examples had been shown. Instructor explained that unfortunate individuals invested hundreds £ in all signing all dancing Gucci equipment, boots, jackets and God knows what else but they had no £40 radio to call for help. That’s the truth and this is why I have GPS with emergency call option.
Everyone had a chance to put their hand on the radios and we exchanged some information using call signs and procedures which everyone received on e-mails days before the weekend.
When done we swapped with the other group and went for first aid training. It was pretty basic but quite effective. I must say I enjoyed the most section when Staff was talking about hypothermia and improvised shelters. This is something they do not cover on the courses at work so I found it to be a good reminder. When you live in Poland in some remote areas (like I was) there is a chance you will be stuck in the car for a night in a middle of nowhere in -20C. Details like warm gloves and hat were basics to literally everyone. I always had a bag with warm clothes and some food in the boot of my car. 10 years later I forgot how important it might be.
When this was finished we have been asked to ‘bring rucksacks we will be tabing with’. I took this literally. I took mine from the car with whatever was inside. Soon after I realised that what the Staff meant was ‘prepare your self for a kit check’. Price for every missing item was 25 push ups. I did 75 and I was probably the worst prepared man in the crowd. On the third missing item I was not even waiting for the Staff to finish his request to show him a sleeping bag I just went straight to the ground. Standing nearby they were watching me strangely. I told them that ‘It’s not like I’m not prepared I just love doing push ups’. What else could I say? In my life I was at a few different schools, two universities and few military and paramilitary courses and I must admit that pumping or squatting is the best method of learning. Knowledge soak much faster than when I read e-mails or books.
Just after the lunch Staff organised a short training test for our RV protocol. Being in line we were called one after another individually. Everyone had a chance to screw up. I was somewhere at the end of the line so I had a very interesting chat with German bloke, Gunter. Good man he is.
Not so much later we have been asked to go for our quick orienteering march. This was just a few kilometres around the nearest hill so there were no problems with that. But what I noticed when I was walking down was that my toe nails were finally falling off. I had problems with them since I came back from Africa. It wasn’t a nice feeling and not the best moment to do that. After this short march I checked them. This wasn’t looking good but it was also too early to remove them. I decided that I will leave them where they are for now and see tomorrow what’s going to happen.
After the march I swallowed a quick dinner and checked the whiteboard. Pre march brief was planned later that evening. When we all gathered in a big white tent Ken gave us all instruction for the next day and last blessing. Except of a few useful tips one thing stuck in my mind. Ken said: ‘If you’re checking the map and you have two options: nice, comfortable road or nasty steep hill, you must take always take second option’.
My breakfast was scheduled for 0430 and estimated time of start was 0630. I went back to my car and packed my rucksack. This time everything was as it should be. When I checked the weight it was 45 pounds. With water and food it should be 50-55 pounds at all the time next day.
And then I had a good, long sleep.
Sunday – P2P
When I awake I found that I needed maybe 10 minutes to get ready to start. I had my breakfast in the canteen followed by Ken’s porridge. According to him portion of this ambrosia makes you immortal and bulletproof for the next four hours. We’ll see.
English breakfast (that’s what war was won on), Captain America’s porridge (mention above), Polish flags on my shoulders (morale booster) and my discreet tactical sideburns place my self-esteem well into invincible mode.
I sat outside and started to do what all soldiers do for 99% of their service – wait. I was deeply engaged and concentrating on doing absolutely nothing until I spotted familiar face in the darkness. It was Mark with whom I exchanged e-mail or three in the past. I said hello and we had a short chat.
-How is your navigation? – asked Mark
-Dogs bollocks, mate. State of the art. I’m a Paganini of compass and map. – I lied without blinking
-Let’s go together then.
-Seriously now, do you know you are risking your live and your bones might not be found ever again? – I was trying to warn him but he seemed to be deaf for my words. Pure man. So we took our bergens and went begging the guys in the vans to take us to the start line.
When arrived at the parking, Staff formed us in lines, gave us a bollocking, sent us somewhere else and gave us another bollocking. After a few minutes we were waiting as a group for our turn to start. Ken was sitting in the car not very far away from where we were so we could hear him shouting ‘Next’ and giving yet more bollockings every now and then. When first few disappeared into the darkness I realised that there was not much more we could do where we were and it would be better if we moved. After waiting for a while we had our six digit grid reference from Ken and we went hundred or something yards below to plan our route.
I looked at the map. There were two options: fat, comfortable and very convenient path on the right or nasty, steep, boggy hill slope with grass up to the waist starting just behind few metres wide ditch by the road. The choice was obvious. We jumped over the ditch.
We started our plod towards the flat plateau few hundred metres high above us. Our trousers were wet from the grass and our jackets wet from the sweat. It was dark and we couldn’t see too much around us so we were just listening to where the nearest stream was and continued our climb. What made me wonder was fact that we couldn’t see any head torches around us. It’s either because we are so brilliant or completely lost.
At the top we joined very wet path and continued in water which was up to our ankles for most of the time. It took us about two hours to get to the RV1. We spend five minutes or so there then carried on to the next location. Ken’s porridge was working fine at this point.
RV 2 was famous 642 point, the way there was much easier because we had daylight now. Navigation wasn’t that big problem and I could relax a little bit. Quite quickly we crossed Roman road, then a reservoir and started our climb to the point 642. When we started we couldn’t see anything in the clouds above us. Somewhere in the middle the ground was a little bit flatter.
-It wasn’t that bad. – Mark said
‘Should I tell him the truth?’ I was thinking
-Don’t worry Mark, you still have a chance to hug the hill – I replied.
Not much later we dived into the cloud and he understood what I meant. Steep slope turned into a scramble and it was easier to move on four limbs than on two when still keeping vertical position. That was hard work for both of us, I can tell you that. When we got to the edge at the top we looked very dishevelled.
Soon we received new grid references to the RV3 and instruction how to get there. Basically we had to follow the compass in the clouds (visibility maybe 100 yards) for quite a while, then descent, cross the stream at the bottom of the valley, climb a hill and then get to one of the parkings on the A470.
Trip in the clouds took us a while but we get to the valley in a good spirits. I modified Staff’s idea a little bit and decided that we will make our life easier. Rather than climb a hill we will be walking/traversing along the slope and at the end, just by the forest we will be pretty much there. This way we will do some more miles but we will save fatigue in our legs with much less climbing. I compared terrain to the map. Everything was ok so we moved on.
-This is VW valley. I recognise this place from photos. – Mark said
VW valley? What the hell Volks Wagen has to do with SAS selection? I thought.
-What valley? – I asked
-VW valley. VW stands for Volunteer Withdrawal. –Mark replied
Now, that’s makes sense.
Something like an hour later we got to the edge where we should see the parking and I noticed there was… identical valley on the other side! I checked map once again. Side by side there are two identical valleys there. Each has a forrest on the western entry and even streams have very similar names: Nant Ddu and Nant Crew. I didn’t know how to explain to Mark that we are in trouble so I decided to start gently.
-Mate, we’re fucked. – I said
-We’re in a wrong place. We just lost something like an hour. – I said
I rechecked the map, these bloody valleys are identical. If you’ve never been there on the ground there was no chance you would spot the difference between them. I couldn’t blame myself too much, there will be plenty of time to do this later but now it’s was time to make our move.
We started our ascent down to the stream. On my way down I felt my left toe nail is moving around my sock. Not a very nice feeling and very painful I must admit. Right foot was still in one piece but it wasn’t giving me much more comfort either. I tried to convince Mark to leave me and move ahead. At this stage there was no chance for me to move any faster than just fast tab and that’s not fast enough to meet standards. He stayed.
I must say few words about Mark. Usually I’m quite sceptical about walking/running with someone I don’t know. There is something called errors accumulation. For some reason new established groups very often follow only bad ideas when under pressure. This usually comes with some emotions. I don’t have to mention that I had no clue who Mark is and what this guy was capable of. I was worried when he asked me to walk together and terrified when I agreed. Miracles sometimes happens and Mark was really good companion. Good sense of humour, focused, not very chatty and we had similar pace when plodding around. What else can you ask for when it’s down to your partner? I won the lottery that Sunday.
Down at the bottom just by the stream we met some other happy wonderers and were looking for place to cross the stream. The choice was bad and worse so we choose bad. Until this point gore tex in my boots was doing great job keeping water outside and my feet were dry and warm. Now I knew that all this water would be staying inside for most of the day. That means soft skin and that means probably some blood. Tough.
Finally we could see parking down below on the side of A470. We got there quite quickly and I did everything what we should. Our next RV point was Pen Y Fan. Obviously path with stairs not so far away was not an option and we have been introduced to the stylish Welsh slope just in front of us.
Happy days. Our plod wasn’t particularly fast and we had a few breaks on our way to the top. I can’t say we were looking very fresh at the top but we were moving and that’s what counts. Bad news for me was that on the plateau we were hit by very strong wind. At this stage I was very hungry and I was losing temperature fast. I knew it would take something like an hour to get to Pen Y Fan where our next RV was. I had to survive the way there. After that it might be only lower which means less wind.
All I was thinking about at this stage was Mars bar. Just before the top my eyes were heavier and I felt sleepy. I told this to Mark as I thought he should know. Thanks God it happened on the summit. ‘Minute or two on RV and we will be on the way down somewhere’ I was thinking.
On the summit I noticed Staff and approached him. I explained how he got there, received grid to the next point, explain how I want to get there and I even received compliment for good map reading. Staff, you’re a bad liar.
When I was just about to run down the last thing I wanted to see was Mark diving into his Bergen for some food. ‘Shit, mate, not now please’ I was thinking ‘I need to get out of here’. I know he was digging really fast but in my mind it all seemed in slow motion.
It took ages for him to get to his buffet (approx 2 mins) but when he got there, sweet Jesus, he had the dogs bollocks calories! In my menu were only Mars bars and Snickers. Simple as that. Mark was serving meal replacement as a starter. Vanilla flavour. Then he gave me a protein bar. Whatever flavour, they are all the same. Before we get to the Jacobs ladder I had in my hand Christmas pudding but that was too much for me. Calories, I love you!
After less than hour I was back on track. Well fuelled and far from wind. We got to the Roman road, being ticket by the staff and went on the last ascent this day. It wasn’t bad or demanding but it was last so I was happy when I saw Staff at the top. Quick thick and we received further instruction how to get where we were going. I wouldn’t be myself if I didn’t modify Staff’s vision. Once we disappeared from Staff’s careful eye we deliberately took course where we wanted to be. From that moment on it was nice and easy and we were just walking along the slope taking us to the parking where we started.
Nails in the knees, needles under feet, toe nails flying around in my socks and arms which I couldn’t lift higher than shoulder didn’t matter anymore. When we saw white vans we also receiver loud cheering from some ladies down there which led us to misinterpret this point as a final RV. We got there just to find out we were in a wrong place yet again. That was not that bad news because the final RV was just few hundred yards away. We happily crossed comfortable road and got to the grass getting us where we supposed to be.
By the Land Rover we’ve found Ken with cup of tea (?) and Charlie, the winner. It was time for ‘well done’ and all that stuff. Something I personally was waiting for was finish line photo with Mark.
I must say that our time was not even close to the SAS standard. P2P is something completely different than Fan Dance and can’t be compared. I did this first time and with somebody who was doing this first time too so effect couldn’t be spectacular. But we did this to the end and in the best way we could and that’s what counts. Somebody I respect very much told me the other day that you might have the worst job in the world but what makes the difference is who are you doing this job with. Berets, badges, nicknames are worth as much as people who are wearing them. Few weeks later, if I’d had a choice to win whole run on my own or being last getting to the final RV with Mark I wouldn’t think twice. No offence Staff but your trophy is nothing compare to the new friend I have.
When I got back and changed myself I took boots off, socks were soaked with water and blood. My feet received SAS style pedicure. I buried my toe nails in the Welsh soil. Old soldier’s saying says that we should be wearing our scares with pride. My scares are pathetic but I have no better ones so I decided to show those I have. 9 months of long runs, ultramarathons, climbs and god knows what else take its price. This is the price and… Jesus, it is so worth it!
Just after our return to the study centre we had to dig our cars from the field. Every car had to be pushed thorough serious mud.
Remember? Mine was at the bottom. A dozen or so people were taking these cars one after another to the hard ground. That’s why I go for events like this: one for all and all for one.