This is the second in a blog series by Josh Valentine, our man across the Atlantic. Explorer, expedition leader, teacher, Bear Grylls survival expert and Wildfitness Coach, he explores the journey he has taken from outdoor passion to Wildfitness philosophy. He is also part of the team that will be delivering our first American retreats in the Hudson Valley in May.
"I hate to see a broken man,"
Nala winces, her voice laden with sympathy as she tries to rub some of the swelling out of my clearly damaged ankle.
"Oh, I'm not broken," I insist.
Stupid, yes, and clearly injured, to that I could concede. But it took a lot more than this to break me, I assure aloud, as much to myself as to her.
Despite my attempt to keep positive, there is no stopping the wave of fear that I have just destroyed my climbing season on multiple levels. The countless small trips and plans that had been laid out for rock climbing season aside, there is the looming reality of my personal company's first big shoot on Mt. Rainier this coming July. On top of that, there is my first opportunity to climb in the Himalayas coming up in November. And let's not forget that as we speak, I am being paid as an instructor for Wildfitness Scotland. All things that require an individual to be able to move effectively on both feet.
You want to know what happened, well here it is:
It had been an incredible week leading up to that moment.
Wildfitness, I was to find, was a company full of interesting ideas presented by even more interesting people. I am beyond impressed with their knowledge and varied personalities, and have been soaking up the immense amounts of new information that comes out of them from all sides.
Nala, our leader, is a warm, endearing, and athletic woman to whom the clients are instantly drawn. Hannah, one of two assistants, is every bit as warm, and super high-energy, a constant source of enthusiasm for the team. Grant, the other assistant, is a veritable encyclopaedia of movement knowledge, matched only by his razor wit. Having myself come from a part of the U.S. where sarcasm is the local dialect, our sense of humour meshes immediately.
As all four of them are Brits, there is no shortage of good natured harassment over being the lone American. Yet we all mesh quickly as friends and teammates, and the laughter has been non-stop since.
As we work through the various areas of each day's activities with our clients, I am never bored. Some of the concepts are things I have seen and done before, such as varied martial arts basics, stretches, rolls, and games, while others are brand new to me. Regardless of which, I learn new aspects and techniques on how the human body was designed to live, eat, and move, whether I had seen them before or not.
Other times, we are square in my element, leading the clients on long scrambling hikes through the highlands, crossing rivers, or up to high lochs to roast fresh caught salmon over a fire. Between the physical action, the evening conceptual presentations, and the amazing, locally sourced wild menu, prepared by our local chef Lesley, alarms are going off in my head left and right. I have long maintained deep personal philosophies about mankind's dire need to reconnect with the natural world. The parallels between the Wildfitness ethos, my personal philosophies, and the ins and outs of the survivalist mindset leave me feeling as though I have just tapped into a lost source of ancient knowledge.
In particular, the concepts of wild combos and parkour grabs me with a refusal to let go. While setting up for some basic jumping and vaulting work with the clients, Grant shows me how to do a jump called a Kong. A Kong is a fairly standard tactic in parkour, involving leaping with your hands extended out front and your feet high above and behind you over a log or rock, allowing enough clearance that your legs pass in between your arms and over the obstacle. It is an awkward feeling move at first, but it comes relatively quickly, to no shortage of enthusiasm. Soon after Grant is pointing to different logs and fallen trees, and calling out a move, which I in turn execute. Some come on the first shot, others take a few tries, yet with each one I grow increasingly more addicted to this new game.
"This is great," Grant cracks. "It's like I'm the brain and he's the body.
It's a partnership that I could spend the rest of the month exploring, save for the fact that we are meeting clients in a few minutes, which Nala reminds us.
"Good thing," I remark. "Because if you let me, I'd keep doing this until I managed to hurt myself."
If only I could so clearly see the future with regards to the stock market or something. I'd be a rich man.
By the end of the week, we are piled into Land Rovers and on our way to Achmelvich Beach, a stunning, white sand beach complete with shimmering aqua waters that look as though they have no earthly business on the north-west coast of Scotland. Indeed, if I didn't know better, I'd be certain we were somewhere on the Mediterranean.
The day is packed with a flurry of wild activity, including cold water swimming, wild running, combat games, and most notably to someone like myself, rock climbing. The beach is surrounded on all sides by jagged, clay colored cliffs that offer endless different bouldering and free solo routes. One of my jobs today is to introduce our clients to the basics of my personal obsession. In between our varied bouts of activity, we sit on the beach in the gorgeous sunshine, and take in the view while eating the deliciously prepared natural picnic menu that I can't seem to get enough of.
Another impromptu job becomes introducing my new British mates to the basics of American Football, which quickly becomes an entertaining competition in the white sand.
The day is an immense success, and as it winds down, the time comes for Nala to lead an exploratory run across the hills behind the shore. Dotted with sheep, rocks, paths, slopes, and all other manners of natural obstacle, they create the perfect playground for vaulting, jumping, rolling, and the countless other movements we have spent the last week honing.
It is an activity I become so quickly lost in that I hardly notice I am taking bigger jumps and risks with every step. The run ends successfully, but not before I attempt to cross a gap roughly twelve feet wide. It is only about four feet deep, and filled with sand, so a safe landing is seemingly guaranteed if I miss. I do, just barely, my feet grazing the far lip before I plunge into the sand. I can make this, I insist, despite being cautioned (rightly) to the contrary by Nala and everyone else in the group. My second attempt sees my feet slam directly into the far lip as I extend them in my attempt to land. An odd crunch reports from my left ankle, but no pain.
I try twice more, then decide I need to work at my long jump once back in the States. We jog back to the beach, and proceed to climb for another twenty minutes or so, before the group showers and piles into the Land Rovers. I climb behind the wheel and we head to Kylesku for our delicious seafood experience.
One of the many aspects of the Wildfitness retreat is exposing clients to naturally, locally sourced foods and eating, which in this case has taken on the form of an incredible, fresh caught banquet of Scottish seafood. We're sitting outside in what is a steadily ascending drizzle, across from a restaurant in the small port town of Kylesku, Scotland. Around us on all sides are the jagged, beautiful profiles of the Highlands, jutting out from the lapping, salt water lochs and inlets of the Atlantic Ocean. About halfway through the clients and instructors gorging ourselves on everything from prawns, to scallops, to oysters, and beyond, I noticed an odd stiffness in my left ankle. In standing, I discover a pain so sharp that it is difficult to walk without limping. Difficult soon becomes impossible.
It's gonna be a nightmare to sort this out.
It would have been less of an issue, I suppose, had I not been the driver of one of two vehicles responsible for transporting everyone back to the Alladale reserve via our manual transmission Land Rovers, a task that would see my left foot depressing the clutch easily 200 times over the course of the hour-plus drive. While my stubborn side suggested that I suck it up, the part of me that realizes I am responsible for the safety of several people forces me to confess the situation.
Before long, I am speeding towards Raigmore Hospital with Val, the upbeat and high energy manager of Alladale, while the rest of the crew is heading back to the reserve. As my ankle throbs sharply with each winding turn along the narrow road, I stubbornly commit to saving my climbing season by any drastic means necessary, even if that means splinting my leg, jamming it into an oversized mountaineering boot, and dealing with the consequences somewhere later in life. It is a silly thought, but it keeps me positive.The next thing I know, I'm sitting next to Val in the waiting room of Raigmore Hospital, not far from Inverness, Scotland. I have abandoned my initial stubborn campaign to refuse the wheelchair, given in to the nurse's insistence. We have long taken to joking about my condition to pass the time, since there is little else we can do, and it helps maintain the positive outlook that assures me that I will be back to a functioning Wildfitness coach ASAP, not to mention a member of my mountaineering teams throughout the remaining year.
"Valentine," the nurse calls out suddenly. With I sigh, I am wheeled through the double doors.
You came for an adventure, I mutter to myself. Don't be mad because you found one. You'll be climbing again in no time.
Let's hope my ankle is as thick as my head.