The Right Place At The Right Time

I spent last week in the French Alps with JTA, Ruth, Annabel, and some hangers-on. It was great to get out onto the snow again for some skiing as well as some ski-based geocaching, but perhaps the most remarkable events of the trip happened not on the pistes but on an “afternoon off” that I decided to take after a rather jarring 42km/h (26mph) faceplant earlier in the day.

Dan at the summit of Tougnète, near Méribel. Pardon the wonky horizon: Robin took the photo. Also: Alps happened.
A great thing about taking a GPSr for snowsports is that you know exactly how fast you were going (my record is 101km/h!) when you crash.

Not to be deprived of the opportunity for some outdoors, though, I decided to spend the afternoon hiking out to villaflou, a geocache only about a kilometre and a half away from our chalet. Well: a kilometre and a half as the crow flies: it was also some distance down the steep-sided Doron de Bozel valley, through a wooded area. But there was, in theory at least, a hiking trail winding its way down the valley. The trail was clearly designed for summer use, but it was a trail nonetheless, so I ate a hearty lunch with Ruth and then set out from La Tania to explore.

A hiking trail sign outside of La Tania, covered in snow.
Signposts marking the trail were supposed to stand six feet tall, but barely stuck out atop the drifts… where I could find them at all!

It quickly became apparent that I was underequipped for the journey ahead. With the freshly-fallen soft snow routinely knee-deep and sometimes deeper still, I would have done well to have taken at the very least snow shoes (and, I’d later conclude, perhaps also poles and rope). I was, however, properly dressed with thermal layers, salopettes, multiple pairs of gloves, hat, etc., and – unlike Rory when he got caught out by snow the other year – was at least equipped with two fully-charged GPS devices (and spare batteries), tightly-fitted boots, a first aid kit and emergency supplies. And as the only hiker foolish enough to cut my way through this freshly-fallen snow, my tracks would be easy to follow back, should I need to.

The snow-covered "path" from La Tania to La Nouvaz.
Walking through knee-deep snow is tiring, even downhill! Beautiful, though!

Nonetheless, it’s quite an isolating feeling to be stranded from civilization… even if only by half a kilometre… surrounded by snowy mountains and silent woodland. If you’re approaching the hike in a safe and sane way – and you should be – then it makes you especially careful about even the simplest of obstacles. Crossing a small stream whose bridge is completely concealed beneath the snow becomes a careful operation involving probing the snow and testing the support it provides before even beginning to ford it: a turned ankle could lead to at the very least an incredibly painful hike back!

Needless to say, my caution around snow and mountains has been expanded by not only Rory’s scary experience, linked above, but also of course by my dad’s death almost three years ago, who slipped on snow and fell off a cliff. And he was hiking in Britain!

This photo should be titled "La Nouvaz Reservoir". Can you see the reservoir? No? It's under that pile of snow on the right!
After my hike down from La Tania, I was pleased to pass through La Nouvaz, a small alpine village that indicated that I was over half-way to my destination.

The village of La Nouvaz, half-way as the crow flies between my accommodation and the geocache (and over half-way by my planned route), was beautiful to behold: a sign of civilization after about an hour of hard wading through snow. Even when you’ve used satellites to know your location accurate to a metre, it’s nice to be reassured that your expedition really is panning out as you’d planned.

A family of Luxembourgers were trying to drive up this road as I came back across it, on my way back. Their wheels span as they failed to get traction. I noted that all of the local cars, parked in the village, had snow chains.
The “road” into La Nouvaz had been ploughed that morning, but was already becoming treacherous.

I also now had a metric to translate the journey time estimates that I’d seen on the signs: it was taking me about three times as long as they said, presumably because they’d been written for summer hikers. The segment that had been advertised as 20 minute walk was taking me an hour: that was useful information – I sat with a friendly dog while I recalculated my travel time with this new data. There was a blizzard blowing across the mountaintops (which had been partially-responsible for my faceplant in the morning!) and I’d heard that it was expected to descend into the valley in the early evening, so I wanted to make sure I wasn’t out in the open when that happened! But everything was okay, and I had time to complete my expedition with two hours to spare (which I reasoned could be used hunting for the geocache, as well as a emergency reserve), so I pressed on.

I'm pretty sure that I wasn't on the path any more, at this point. But then, when the path was buried under over a metre of snow, is it really still a path?
The trail become more well-concealed as I pressed on. Here was my first sight of the hamlet of Villaflou, ahead.

After La Nouvaz, the path became even harder to navigate, and in the thinner tree cover huge drifts formed where underneath there were presumably walls and fences. At one point, I slipped through snow that came up to my waist, and had to dig my way out. At another, I’d deviated from the path and was only able to get back on course by sliding down a snowbank on my bum. And honestly, I can’t think of a more fun way than that to spend a Narnian hiking trip.

Only one chimney smoked in villaflou. I never saw another soul there, though.
The hamlet at Villaflou – nothing more than a couple of buildings clustered around a chapel – is as picturesque as it is remote.

My GPS coordinates took me directly to the pump and trough in the square at Villaflou, and I spent some time (in my thinner pair of gloves) feeling around its metal edges in an effort to find the small magnétique geocache that was allegedly there. But that’s not where it was at all, and honestly, if I hadn’t just spent two hours hiking through deep snow I might now have had the drive to search for as long as I did! As I hunted, I thought back to my GCSE in French and tried to work out how I’d explain what I was doing to anybody who came by, but I never saw another soul. Eventually, my efforts paid off, as I discovered a small metal plate in a cunning hiding place, disguised to make it look like it belonged to the thing it was attached to… and behind it, a log with just four names. And now: mine was fifth!

Still bloody deep, mind.
The snow was a lot less-deep in Villaflou itself, and had clearly been stamped down by locals moving around.

I texted my revised travel times to Ruth, and then set off back. Following my footsteps made the journey less-arduous, but this was compensated for in equal measure by the fact that I was now heading uphill instead of down.

As I passed through La Nouvaz, I noticed two strange things –

  • Firstly: looking back up at the route I’d come down, from La Tania, I saw that there was a signpost that indicated that the recommended route back wasn’t the route that I’d come to begin with. The recommended route was the other way, to the left, and would only take me about 30 minutes (or, based on my recalculation, about an hour and a half).
  • And secondly: looking along this proposed new route, I observed that somebody had taken it since I passed this way last. There had been no tracks on that route before, but now there were, and looking up the mountainside I could make out the heads of two hikers bobbing away over a rise.
Not pictured: my beard, full of frost, and my hat, frozen into a solid lump.
Meanwhile, the blizzard was starting to descend into the valley, so I was certainly keen to try the “preferred” route.

I followed in the footsteps of the other hikers: it’s a great deal easier to follow than to lead, in deep snow, and I was glad to be able to save the energy. I treated myself to a swig from my hip flask as congratulations on finding the geocache and my good fortune in being able to tail some other hikers heading my way. But my celebration was perhaps premature! About twenty minutes later, I caught up with the two women ahead, and they clearly weren’t doing very well.

They’d come up to La Tania from Paris, accompanied by some friends, for a long weekend. Their friends had gone off skiing, but they hadn’t been able to join them because they were both pregnant (four months and six months), and no doctor on Earth would recommend skiing after the first trimester, so instead they’d decided to go out for a walk. There was a circular walk on a map that they’d seen, which looked like it’d take about an hour, so they’d set out (wearing little more snow protection than wellington boots, and one of them without even a hat), following what looked to be a well-trodden footpath: in fact, it was probably the first part of my outbound journey, from La Tania to La Nouvaz, that they’d followed, “overtaking” me when I left the route to head on to Villaflou and the geocache.

And seriously: who's at the end of their second trimester and thinks that hiking though waist-deep snow down an unmarked trail up the side of an Alp, in winter, is a good idea?
The two women had been taking turns to lead, having also discovered how much easier it is to follow in somebody else’s footsteps, but I wonder how well-equipped to ‘lead’ either of them really were.

On the ascent back up they’d gotten lost – there are no good waypoints, the path is unclear, and the encroaching blizzard hampering the ability to pick out distance landmarks. They’d wandered – it turned out – several hundred metres off where the path should have gone, and I’d made the mistake of assuming that they knew what they were doing and followed them the same way. Worse yet, this ‘alternative’ path back to La Tania didn’t feature on any of my digital maps, and these two severely-underequipped mothers-to-be were struggling with inadequate grip on the slippy ground beneath the snow. When I first encountered them, one of them had slid into and was trapped in a snowdrift, and the other called me over to help her pull her friend free.

Between them, they had a paper map designed for casual summer use, and they’d realised their predicament. Were I not there, they confessed (once we’d established a dialogue somewhere between their shaky English and my very shaky French), they were about to start trying to find sufficient landmarks that they could summon rescue. Instead, now, they’d put themselves into my care. “We do not want to die,” said the one I later learned was called Vicki, after a few seconds consideration of the translation.

Spoiler: yes, this was a path. This photo was taken before I met the lost women and was still under my own solo navigational strategy.
Is this a path? Was it?

I plotted us a new course, cross-country up an aggressive slope towards the nearest road and thus, I hoped, towards civilization. I lead the way, tamping down the snow ahead as best I could into steps, and bemoaned my lack of a rope. I texted updates to Ruth, advising her of the situation and in each one establishing when I’d next be in contact, and as the women began to tire, prepared for the possibility that I might need to eventually relay coordinates to a rescue team: I practised my French numbers, under my breath, as we weaved our way up the steep mountainside.

I wonder how many signposts we would have seen had we been on the correct course to begin with? The route looked completely buried, from where we stood.
After hours out on a mountainside, not sure exactly where you are in relation to a safe route home, this is a sight for sore eyes.

A hundred metres from the road the gradient became worse and we were unable to climb any higher, so we turned towards La Tania and tacked alongside it. There, about an hour and a half after I first met them, we found a signpost that indicated that we were back on the footpath: the footpath that they’d originally hoped to follow but found themselves unable to spot, and which – by following in their footsteps – I too had failed to spot.

The main roads, like this one, were being ploughed about once every hour or two to keep the rapidly-falling snow at bay.
Finally reaching the main road, Vicki and Marine were pleased to be able to get back to their hotel and not die out on a mountainside.

Following that, we got back to the road to La Tania and to safety.

I find myself wondering many things. For one: who, at six months pregnant, thinks it’s a wise idea to trek through deep snow, underequipped, from a bad map, over an Alp? But I also wonder what might have happened if I’d have taken the same route back as I’d taken out to my geocache (and thus never bumped into them)? Or even if I’d not have faceplanted earlier in the day and thus decided to take the afternoon off from skiing at all? They weren’t ever far from safety, of course, and while the weather was rapidly becoming hostile to helicopters, they’d have probably been rescued so long as they’d been able to describe their position adequately (and so long as they didn’t keep wandering in the direction they’d been wandering when I met them, which would ultimately have taken them to a sheer cliff), but still…

So yeah: on my holidays, I rescued two lost pregnant hikers from an Alpine blizzard, while returning from a geocaching expedition. I think I win today’s “badass point”.

The Old Asylum

I’ve always been enamoured with the concept of urban exploration: that is, the infiltration and examination of abandoned human structures. I was reminded of this recently, when Ruth, JTA and I got the chance to go on an (organised) tour of long-abandoned Aldwych Tube Station in London.

The Eastern platform at Aldwych. Closed in 1914, we missed the last train by almost a hundred years.

I think for me the appeal comes from the same place as it does when I’m looking around, for example, the ruin of a castle or the wreck of a ship. As opposed to the exploration of the natural world, looking around a man-made thing really gives you the feeling that you’re uncovering the long-lost purpose of the place. This place you are was designed and built to fill a particular need and, for whatever reason, it’s now left to rot and decay. And you – the amateur urban archaeologist, are the link that connects this abandoned world with the present.

I’ve been thinking about some of the places I’ve explored – sewer tunnels underneath what is now Deepdale Retail Park, waterlogged WWII bunkers occupied by squatters, disused railway lines and railyards, roofs of semi-accessible castles, and the (then-disused) wreck that was Aberystwyth’s Alexandra Hall, back when tragically-empty buildings was part of the quirky charm of the place, before they transformed into being a symptom of its downfall. I wanted to share with you a story or two. But instead of any of these, I’ve picked a place that none of you are likely to have heard about:

Wittingham Hospital

Wittingham Hospital, near Goosnargh, Lancashire - perhaps my earliest illicit expedition.

In the mid-19th century, the lunatic asylums of Lancashire and Merseyside were overflowing, and Wittingham Mental Hospital was built to replace them. Originally built to hold 1000 patients, it held over 3,500 by the outbreak of the second world war, making it the largest mental hospital in the country. The mental health reforms of the 1960s (and an inquiry into patient abuse), and new drugs and treatments in the 1970s and 1980s, led to it being gradually emptied and, in 1995, closing for good.

I was still at school when word got around about the closure and a couple of friends and I decided to cycle up to the old hospital and explore it, because there’s nothing like schoolboys egging one another on to give you the courage to “break into the old asylum”. Apparently when I was a kid, I didn’t watch enough horror films about haunted old buildings or about murderous psychopaths, because it seemed like a perfectly reasonable suggestion to me. The council have since put up secure fences and begun demolition, but back then it didn’t take more than a little bit of climbing to gain access to the abandoned complex.

A contemporary (2010) photo from inside the hospital by urban explorer "Infiltrator". Click on the photo for his full report and more photos. It's degraded a lot since I visited.

There was a deathly quiet inside the buildings. The distance from the nearest road and the surrounding woodlands muffled the distant sounds of the outside world to less than a whisper, and as the three of us split up and spread out, it was very easy to feel completely alone. The silence was more comforting, though, than eerie: on the hard tile floors and in the big, empty rooms, it’d be impossible to catch anybody unawares, no matter how fleet of foot you might be.

I was surprised to see quite how much furniture and equipment had been simply left: it was almost as if the buildings had been evacuated in a panic, rather than undergoing a controlled, phased closure. Filing cabinets remained, stuffed with papers, in a room with net curtains and a carpet. An upright piano, only slightly out-of-tune, remained in an otherwise empty ward. Beds, operating tables, and cupboards stood exactly as they had when the hospital was still alive.

An old leaflet, discovered on a 2009 expedition by urban explorer "BA". Click on the image for his full story. Apart from looking a little more weathered for the 13 years between my visit and his, this looks exactly like the kinds of things I saw.

I couldn’t understand how a place could be abandoned in this way. It’s as if the place itself had died and, instead of being buried, had just been left to decompose in the open air. It seemed – at the least – irresponsible: a friend of mine even came across surgical supplies and syringes, simply left in a cupboard… but more than that, it seemed disrespectful to the building to leave it responsible for looking after these memories of its old self: things which no longer have any purpose, of which it was the custodian, unwilling and unthanked.

We didn’t take any photos – I’m not sure that any of us owned a camera, back then – and we didn’t liberate any of the paperwork (tempting though it was). I’m pretty sure that not one of the three felt that our parents would have approved of us illicitly gaining access to a disused medical facility, so any evidence of our presence was to be avoided! But there was more than that at stake: spending an hour or two wandering around these forgotten corridors, I felt more like a ghost than like a person. We crept about in silence, not saying a word to one another until we’d all reached perimeter once more. It wasn’t our place to interact with this building: all we were there to do was to observe, impotently: to see the beginning of its long decay, that’s since been documented by so many others. That was enough.

I’ll tell you what, though: that early experience? I totally hold it responsible for my subsequent interest in abandoned places.

Cool Thing Of The Day

Cool And Interesting Thing Of The Day To Do At The University Of Wales, Aberystwyth, #39:

Climb a nearby hill with the intention of finding a forest that you’ve heard is on the other side. Fail. Check maps to verify that the forest is there, and climb the hill again, looking for the forest. Fail. Check the maps, get somebody who’s been there already, and set off looking for them once more. Fail. Where in smeg’s name are the Cwm Woods??? How have they managed to evade me on three occassions, when I’ve had maps and experience on my side! Who knows? Who cares?

The ‘cool and interesting things’ were originally published to a location at which my “friends back home” could read them, during the first few months of my time at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, which I started in September 1999. It proved to be particularly popular, and so now it is immortalised through the medium of my weblog.