Comfortable being Uncomfortable
Updated: Mar 1
“I have stopped issuing sugar now, and our meals consist of seal meat and blubber only, with 7 ozs. of dried milk per day for the party," I wrote. "Each man receives a pinch of salt, and the milk is boiled up to make hot drinks for all hands. The diet suits us, since we cannot get much exercise on the floe and the blubber supplies heat. Fried slices of blubber seem to our taste to resemble crisp bacon. It certainly is no hardship to eat it, though persons living under civilized conditions probably would shudder at it." - Ernest Shackleton, Endurance
It's 6am on Monday morning. The alarm sounds and you roll over to hit snooze. The duvet gives warmth and the perfectly timed central heating is taking the chill from the still, overnight air.
At 6:30am the alarm sounds for the third time and you resolve reluctantly that you must get up or you'll be late for work. You finally switch the alarm off and lay there, waiting for the 'get out of bed' motivation to slap you in the face. The room is warm, but not as warm as your bed. But you have to do it. You must peel yourself out of bed and walk the five metres to the shower.
At 6:40am - having mustered the energy you never thought you’d have when that alarm first rudely chimed you from your sleep - you finally get up and step into the hot shower that will cleanse you of any remaining slumber and prepare your body for the day ahead.
You get dressed, eat breakfast and sip at your coffee as you sit on the sofa listening to the morning news bulletins, waiting for the caffeine to do its job and to ready you for the next step.
At 7:30am you put on your warmest jacket, scarf and hat before leaving the house for the short walk through the cold morning frost to the train station, where you join the ant-like procession to work. The podcast playing through the headphones in your ears provides an escape from the cramped carriages.
The office you arrive at is a warm oasis away from the cold winter outside. Everything you need - food, water, tea, coffee and toilet facilities - is just a few steps away from your desk. The elements are just outside these four walls but right now they seem a million miles away. You sit amongst familiar faces and discuss what you did at the weekend whilst clicking through emails.
Everything is comfortable.
Just 500 miles to the north...
High on the Cairngorm plateau a winter storm is in full flow. The sides of the tent are being pressed on to our faces by the unrelenting wind; ice, formed as we slept by our breath freezing on the tent fabric, showers us with every gust. The sleeping bag, it too crusted with ice, is warm inside. It is still pitch black outside, the morning sun is yet to reach its more northerly latitudes.
I roll over and unzip the inner door of the tent, pour water in the waiting pot and eagerly light the stove. After a few desperate strikes of lighter flint, the stove ignites with that familiar whumpff, bringing with it an excited anticipation of what's to come: coffee is on it's way!
Once it’s boiled, the water is added to the instant coffee granules and I pass a hot cup to each of my grateful tent-mates. We enjoy a brew as we bask in the warmth of our sleeping bags, protected from the weather outside by just the thin canvas of the tent. It may not be a London flat white, but it’s the best coffee we’ve ever tasted.
Time to get up. Time to face the elements that have been presented to us. We switch on our head-torches and unzip our sleeping bags - the warmth held in by our overnight cocoons is released in an instant.
Shuddering, we dress whilst lying down, as fast as we can, trying to avoid the freezing tent that seems intent on trying to wrap itself around our half-naked bodies. Long-johns, thick socks and long-sleeved base layer first, then Gore Tex over-trousers to give some protection to our legs against the wind and snow that awaits us.
We then continue our layering with a fleece, down jacket and hardshell jacket, recreating the heat cocoon that we lost so abruptly when leaving our sleeping bags. An immediate warmth returns to our shivering bodies almost as quickly as it was lost.
The next job is to pack away our sleeping bags. Cramped in the tent, sat on our knees and hunched over, we proceed to press our sleeping bags into the stuff sacks we’ve wedged efficiently between our knees. Rucksacks finally packed, we venture out into the dark wilderness.
Finally we can stand up, stretching out to squeeze any lingering stiffness from our tired limbs as we lean into the bracing wind. Leaving the bags with the tent, we can now walk a short distance to relieve our bladders of a full night of inactivity.
We pack away the tent carefully so as not to allow the wind to carry it into the darkness, before continuing on our journey across the boundless Cairngorm plateau. Step-by-step we make determined tracks, wrapped in our warm, wind-proof clothing, protected from the elements that are trying their best to stop us.
Everything is comfortable.
Wild camping on the Cairngorm plateau in the middle of winter is a rather extreme pastime and is certainly not for everyone. The message we can take from it, however, can be applied to whatever mountain adventure we choose to undertake.
Whether it's a saunter up Snowdon on the tourist track, a summer wild camp in The Lake District, or an expedition to Kilimanjaro or Nepal, it is important to understand that the home comforts we take for granted - water boiled at the press of a button; central heating; comfy sofas; a shower and toilet facilities - are non-existent in the mountains (OK, the cafe on Snowdon might be the only exception to that rule!).
This does not mean, however, that any and every mountain trip will be an enduring suffer-fest. Instead, it means that if you appreciate the simple things without those home comforts, you are able to enjoy the environment for what it is: wild, raw, unforgiving. In fact, against that backdrop, the simple things - that morning coffee or the warm hug of your down jacket - become experiences in their own right.
Take comfort in the fact that your kit is designed to keep you safe in the worst of conditions. You can be comfortable even in the apparent discomfort of the wild mountain environment.
Everything can be comfortable. Just give it a go, have an open mind and enjoy every moment (it will be over before you know it!)