What a year 2023 has turned out to be. In the best of ways. I started the year feeling like I was on a treadmill of travel, doing so many amazing things in so many exciting places, but honestly doing so much that I couldn’t really enjoy any of it. It sounded glamorous, but it was work after all – and precarious work at that. Then I had a mid-year switch that probably explains why I feel like the first three months happened over a year ago. Still, I’m getting ahead of myself.
Before we dive in, here are all of my previous yearly reviews in pictures: 2022, 2021, 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017. I highly, highly recommend you do one of these for yourself – especially if you have a blog or website. It is the most wonderful thing to be able to look back nostalgically on not just what I was doing, but how I was feeling about it and what my writing style was like. And it can honestly change how you feel about a year when you look back and realise what you actually did!
Without further ado…
January – Winter Mountain Leader (Round 2)
The year started off with a bang: going back up to Glenmore Lodge to complete my Winter Mountain Leader Training. I had to start again from scratch but, thankfully, didn’t have to pay again (since it wasn’t my fault I had to go home last time). They also threw in free accommodation at the lodge which really made a huge difference. If you can afford it, I’d highly recommend as you feel much more part of the group. Equally you can sleep in your van in the car park if that’s an option for you.
I started the course feeling pretty despondent about the whole Winter ML journey. After all, I’d now been waiting four years just to do this course thanks to Covid. Never mind the time needed to consolidate between training and assessment. But by pure chance Phoebe and I joined the most wonderful group of people. Out of eight of us, four were or had been in Mountain Rescue. We all just got on like a house on fire – to the extent that we were given extra homework on the last night because the instructors thought we might all go down the pub together (as if)!
If anything, doing the course twice has really taught me how much a luck of the draw your group is – and how much weather can make or break the experience. Brief highlights: we did Fiacall Ridge as a leading exercise, dug snow holes (yay) but didn’t sleep in them (boo) and did night nav in very low viz across Cairngorm Plateau (yay). Most importantly, it got my psyched again for Winter ML.
February – Lakes
This photo very succinctly summarises our trip to the Lake District this year. It was wet, very wet and the first year where we’ve had absolutely no snow to speak of. The picture was taken on top of Scafell Pike by a friend and, yes, that is me on top of the trig point.
March – Morocco!
Then, in March I got to complete another one that got away: Toubkal. Me and five mad lads from the rescue team went to Morocco for just over a week, spending it mostly in the High Atlas. (Huge thanks to Andy Hodges for organising.) It was epic. We were so touch and go with the weather but we did make it to the top of Toubkal – although sadly the wind turned up back before the final ridge of Ouanoukrim. I have so much story to tell from this trip. Seriously, this review is reminding me that I really need to get writing up some of these adventures. It was also truly eye opening to see the effects of companies pushing Toubkal as a “long weekend” trip. We were also involved in a small rescue incident on the way up Toubkal, where the lady involved happened to collapse right at the feet of a Mountain Rescue team. I also got to consolidate some WML skills and teach a winter skills course on the slopes around the hut, which was a bit surreal.
Morocco was fantastic until I got home. Turned out I got giardiasis (almost 100% sure from the hotel in Marrakesh) and spent the week after utterly wretched. Which has made me less keen to go back to Morocco! Although I definitely will be, since I’m writing a guidebook for Cicerone to climbing Toubkal. This episode was really the final straw for crazy travel journalism freelancing. While being ill at both ends, I was also trying to write up a commission and organise between a PR and editors for a cycling trip to Portugal later in the year. In the end I had to give up on Portugal due to lack of response and then the 2000 word piece I wrote while broken was binned by the editor (not because of the text) with no comeback or kill fee. And I really had to ask myself why the hell I was doing this and wouldn’t it have been better to simply lie in bed?
April – Dartmoor Way
In April, it was all Dartmoor. Especially because of the impending Ten Tors event, a week earlier than normal due to the King’s Coronation. I also, finally, completed the Dartmoor Way after getting most of the way round on a pre-lockdown jaunt, The Dartmoor Way: An Emergency Camping Trip. My friend Alex Roddie wanted to include the route in his new Wanderlust book and since he was coming all the way down to Devon, it would have been rude not to do it too. Although we were both walking, this picture really sums up the vibe: Alex was working, I most definitely was not!
We did fairly well with the weather, only having one day (that I can recall) of real wet. I enjoyed being the local tour guide, although since the Dartmoor Way goes mostly around the moor rather than over it, I had to make up a lot of folklore to keep us entertained. By halfway round we’d reached the stage of giggling at signs. It was also really eye opening in many ways to see through someone else’s eyes what is special about a place. Alex would get excited about a Devon hedge (wall) or a bit of scrappy woodland and I’d be amused or bemused: they’re everywhere. But, crucially, not everywhere outside of my damp little corner of Devon. When we got past Castle Drogo, I realised that there was very little of the Way left that I hadn’t done before. But still, I’m very glad to have finally done it. To date, I still haven’t blogged it, but Alex has written a rather nice one here.
After the walk, we went to what I’ll call a local’s pub but is more like a glamorous shack to have celebratory pizza. We ended up having a good chat about writing fiction, which Alex has recorded in his post The Stories that Must be Written (although “creative drought” is definitely an Alex phrase, I probably said “are the stories not there any more?”). The line “so-called ‘normal’ people do not have a brain permanently inhabited by a cast of imaginary characters living there rent free” was a complete revelation to me: turns out other people don’t, but I always have!
The general themes of this whole walk for me were consolidating things I’ve kind of always known but was finally starting to take dramatic action on. Firstly that nowhere in the world gives me as much joy as Dartmoor (so why am I always away?). Secondly that the most important thing for me to be doing right now was finishing my children’s fantasy novel (so why was I not acting like that?).
May – Ten Tors
Ten Tors this year was the first time I was not up at Okehampton Camp with the Plodders for the start. Because of the clash with the Bank Holiday, it was all hands on deck for rescue cover. Although the weather forecast wasn’t that great, so the weekend didn’t turn out to be as busy as it could have. This picture, taken by a fellow team member, is of us getting a tasking to an incident after spending hours sitting in the fog on Chat Tor. I obviously won’t go into any details, but the absolute highlight of the weekend for me was seeing a team who had been beaten down again and again by circumstances on the event. They were ready to give in. But after a chat and a bit of a pep talk, they carried on despite not feeling like they had it in them or even knowing whether they would finish. That is what Ten Tors is about.
June – John Muir Trail
Before I knew it, we were rapidly approaching my BIG adventure of the year – genuinely an adventure of a lifetime for me. Towards the end of June, I flew back to America for the first time since I was 2 years old and started walking the John Muir Trail. Again, I have so much story to tell you about this trip. It was incredibly important for me personally, rediscovering what it meant to be American. Never mind the challenge of the 200 mile walk. [You can read the run up post here: Thoughts on Hiking the JMT this Year] My plan was to hook up with this year’s PCT-ers going northbound and meet a whole load of Americans, while getting a flavour for the Thru-hiking life that I’d like to have done but couldn’t because of time restrictions.
The world, of course, had other plans. This was the highest snow year on record in the Sierras. Many, if not most PCT-ers were getting out of the desert, taking one look at the snow and skipping ahead to Tahoe. So it was very quiet on trail and most of the people I met weren’t even American. BUT, before I launch into the blog posts let me explain the photos. Above is the group photo on top of the infamous Forrester Pass. I ended up jumping between groups but my time with this crazy crew was the best of it. Below is the ascent of that same pass. The pass that everyone was being told was uncrossable. The pass that people were turning around and hiking 3 days back to avoid. We set off at 2am. It was like Scottish winter on the best of days – incredible.
I did also get up Mount Whitney, which is now the highest mountain I’ve ever climbed. (Toubkal in March was 1m higher than my tallest Alpine peak.)
July – Yosemite and 30
I’m going to have to skip over the rest of the John Muir Trail or else descend into essay. However, I can summarise it as: suncups, solitude and the sketchiest river crossings of my life. e.g. literally wearing micro-spikes to get traction across a submerged log, several times a day. Basically as the snow melted, everything got more challenging. I spent a good 2 weeks alone, which is not the holiday I wanted but such is life. Still, eventually, I made it to my final destination, the place that I was really walking for: Yosemite.
After chatting with people on the trail I was a bit worried it might not be as impressive as I imagined. “Disneyland for hikers” didn’t sound very encouraging. But it was fantastic, beautiful, everything I’d hoped it would be. I had several days dossing around there, including my 30th birthday on which I did the Mist Trail – this year renamed at the Get Soaked Trail because of the sheer volume of water. I walked inside a rainbow. It was incredible.
I also spent a great deal of time trying to find and recreate photos from 30 years ago. Not just for the photo project but to get a better understanding of those formative 2.5 years of my life. Something I carried on during the 5 days I had after in San Francisco and the Bay Area. It was honestly just wonderful to see behind those photos, to see that they were still very similar today, to walk down the actual street I lived on – past my house. To wander round Stanford, sit in Mum’s coffee shop where the lady who made me that pink baby blanket use to work, to visit Dad’s favourite book shop. And so much of what I saw made so much sense: at least I have a better understanding now of why I have such high standards when it comes to libraries, mountains and quantities of icecream.
August – Restart
While I was on trail, I realised something extraordinary. For the first time I could remember in years I was enjoying the present, looking forward to tomorrow and the next few weeks, looking forward to going home and looking forward to what I’d be doing next. As I talk about in this post, I’ve Been Lying (To Myself), I’d already decided before the US trip that I was going to start actually acting like I wanted to be an author. Not merely saying it, but doing everything else instead. I came home and acted on it. I got a minimum wage job enough to pay my mortgage, cleared the decks of all other trips and I got writing. Funnily enough, the manuscript I’d been writing on and off since 2020 was suddenly coming along leaps and bounds.
September – Grounded
There is nowhere in the world that makes me as happy as here. And for the first time in ages I finally felt grounded again. I wasn’t rushing across the planet on excellent but arbitrary adventures. I had a job that got me out the house and talking to people, rather than spending all day connecting with people through the internet. It’s hard work doing minimum wage shifts, but it’s my kind of hard work. You put the graft in, you all work together and when it’s done you celebrate and go home. I’ve been in remote roles now since 2018 and although they do have some wonderful benefits, not least the money and freedom, it’s just not what I need right now. And, although I don’t like to say it, in many ways this month felt like starting a healing process. Slowly but surely I was undoing the fallout from my time at university. Not undoing the experience, but after years of chaos and, at least emotionally, running away from all that – I had finally found some genuine stability. A job I was good at and time to write.
Also, I learnt to make baskets on a day course as a birthday present. The teenage me who sat for hours stripping the spikes off brambles to weave with is finally vindicated.
October – Back on the Moor
Autumn came around as autumns always do and I was back onto the moor for a new Ten Tors season. Writing this it sounds like I never go on any other walks on the moor. I definitely do, I just don’t think of them as worth writing about. I take myself for walks the way people take their dogs for a walk. But I was feeling particularly optimistic about this Ten Tors season: we had lots of interest and lots of very promising young walkers.
Meanwhile, I finished my handwritten book manuscript and got most of the way through typing out the first digital draft.
November – Team Sidetracked
Despite having cancelled all other trips away until 2024, I did make an exception for one work trip. I am continuing my freelance work for Sidetracked as sub-editor and we had our AGM and team meet up in the Lake District off the back of Kendal Mountain Festival. I didn’t festival properly: I only came on Saturday and didn’t book anything, but had a very pleasant time wandering around meeting people. We were going to see how long we could keep it going that I was actually just Alex’s imaginary friend, but then pretty immediately bumped into John at Basecamp. It was lovely to meet the team for real, learn how to make fire (!) and get a record THREE questions right in the music round of a quiz.
The other lovely thing about Kendal was the contrast. One minute I was somebody – a person people wanted to meet or network with. The next I was just the girl behind the till, working with a lovely group of Devon folk who barely know the Lake District exists, never mind where it is – and frankly couldn’t care either. It was a very good and humbling reminder that status is a human illusion and what sounds very flashy (e.g. award winning adventure travel writer) might be very different in reality. Plus abstract conversations about the location of anything north of Exeter always feel like a warm hug of homecoming.
In writing, I finished my first draft – gave it to my first reader, thanks Mum! – and started on the second draft.
December – It is Written
Long damp days – in a year of endlessly damp days (it rained on the moor all the time I was in the US and all of August and has barely stopped since). Ten Tors walks in the fog. Earth and frost and nights of a million stars. Meteor showers and Christmas night hikes wrapped in tinsel and fairy lights. One hundred and eighteen mince pies. I worked right through Christmas, with only three days off, but still got to see my family a little. At the turning of the year I still had no bathroom or hot water, no fancy career or snazzy trips to talk about. But I did have a book. A book that has been in my soul since I was 11 and finally made it into a readable manuscript. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t still a sprint finish, but 30 is already 10 years too late, so every moment counts.
And that was 2024, a year of realisation and taking action, on making dramatic changes in true pursuit of actual dreams. Of learning once and for all to say no to the shiny interesting things, no to people you like and care about, no to anything that would stop you doing the one important thing. Because there are only a certain number of hours in the day and if you don’t fill them someone else will. I feel very contented with where I am at the moment. For the first time in my adult life, I know that I’m on the right path.
Thanks very much for reading. I do promise I will write up some of the stories I’ve been talking about. But part of putting my book first means putting other writing second – and when I don’t even have central heating, it’s hard to prioritise blogging (never mind type it with frozen fingers!). But if you’re prepared to wait, the stories will come.