I am shattered. It’s been a long and busy week. It’s a different type of tiredness to the usual routine that involves using my grey (and white) matter. I have been renovating a boat, getting my hands dirty. Long, hard hours of good honest graft! Such work can be exhausting, back-breaking, frustrating at times. More and more little (and large) jobs emerge as you scrape the paint off and probe below the deck. But slowly, surely, with application of good old elbow grease, results start to become evident. A transformation takes place, and pride is restored along with the paintwork. And all is vindicated when neighbours and passers by remark on the improvement!
When one is focused on a goal such as this, and consumed with the list of tasks that need to be accomplished, once head down and ‘stuck in’, there is little room for self-recrimination, rumination, ‘default mode’ thinking that threatens to capsize your own mental boat! This is a both goal-directed and task-focused state. The rewards come with the effort expended, the outcomes achieved, and the inevitable break from ‘self’ that might otherwise take precedence. Manual skills are employed, attention is vested in the external environment, in fact refreshed, purposefully directed to the details that sequentially accumulate until the whole is realised!
This is not only a metaphor for how we can enhance our own sense of direction, and mitigate self-doubt, anxiety, lack of purpose, it is also a pragmatic and practical template for gaining control over our own mental states, and the mechanisms that take hold and enslave us. That is, actions and tasks that we can engage in to ease the cognitive load that comes with being weighed down by the draining self.
As I have explained, the default mode holds sway when given nothing to occupy the task-centric drivers in the brain. But by looking at what needs to be done and tackling jobs one at a time, with this underlying goal towards holistic end improvements, the impetus is set in motion to get cracking. The perceptual system hones in on the details, the cognitive system (with it’s ‘executive control’ centres) delegates roles and responsibilities, plans and strategies. The task-positive network, buoyed by the salience network of attention, seeks out the cues that motivate next steps and keeps the work on track. And importantly, ‘switches off’ that default wandering state of mind that can take one off track and back to square one.
Occasionally, when thoroughly absorbed in the task, the default mode may come back online, but offers suggestions, creative input, identifying new opportunities. This is ‘active mind-wandering’ and occurs when the mind is engaged in effortless, automatic tasks that don’t require remaining overly vigilant (as long as you’re not wielding a power tool or cutting something with a sharp implement when all attention needs focusing on that task!).
Thus, the focused, goal-directed and purposeful mind can work harmoniously with its constituent parts, efficiently galvanising the bits that ‘crack on’ whilst tuning down the bits that do not need to be online and which potentially distract off-task. Or drawing on those later parts that can offer creative insight, bringing attention inwards momentarily to solve a problem in the outside world, and re-engage on-task with fresh ideas...
This approach can be hugely beneficial for mental health, and for general instilling of goals and purpose, along with a strong work ethic. Whilst at the same time, with a little awareness of the mechanisms ‘beneath the deck’ (I.e. your brain), a better sense of how you can switch on and off the right ‘bits’ to perform more optimally and in a motivated state of mind...This is the approach that an enterprise I am involved with, Shadow Wind, is adopting to help people who need a little extra impetus in life, be it to set new goals for themselves, or to pull back from the brink of adversity, including sufferers from depression, mental health issues, and a lapsed sense of direction and identity.
The beauty of restoring a boat is in the wealth of opportunities for adventure the finished outcome can offer. It is a vehicle that can transport one to new destinations, new perspectives, new environments. It is a vehicle for change and of transformation. It is a metaphor in literal form!
And once finally adrift on the sea in the gleaming vessel, sitting watching the sun go down, finally you can rest, switch off from task, and let the mind once more drift, but renewed in it’s capacity to dream of the next adventure, the next goal that you can get stuck into. The mind, directed, harnessed, is the vessel that will take you where you will in life. It all starts with painting a boat...
What does COVID-19 post-lockdown mean for travel, for holidays, for ‘resuming normality’?
First of all don’t expect ‘normality’ to resume. Unless you accept that the current situation is now ‘normalised’. In which case expect the future to look somewhat like the present. The temptation during a crisis is to get the head down, push on through and aim for that end point, the light at the end of the tunnel. The island oasis across the turbulent, endless sea. The all-inclusive deal at the end of the rainbow where one can breathe at last, smell the coffee and put it all behind one.
It is a facet of human nature that we’ll ‘get through it’. We are habitual creatures who like an easy life at the end of the day, and are happy to ‘go along with things’, as long as someone points us in the right direction.
Offsetting the doom and gloom that insists ‘things will change for good’ is the notion that actually things already have, and we are coping (sort of) just fine. Social distancing, at first responded to with bemused acceptance, has rapidly become something you just do. The brain’s sense of personal space has expanded to a bubble 2m wide. In Britain we readily conform to ‘spatial allocation’ of our peripersonal zone. We have always traditionally been aware of where ‘I’ end and ‘you’ begin. We aren’t continental types after all...Likewise with queueing. Our national sport, at which we perhaps lead the world.
There’s one norm readily accepted already. The supermarket provides the template for our future behaviours, and how the environment itself can effectively facilitate these new norms. After all, the supermarket represents our most primal arena – the modern hunting ground wherein we forage and stock up our supplies for the Long Winter ahead. And in such an environment we are most receptive to behavioural prompts that help us conform. Any wild animal, required to submit in lean times to the providing benefactor that offers scraps, will likely adapt it’s feral nature, and become partially ‘tamed’.
We are also already conditioned and receptive to the prompts and directives of another environment we willingly subject ourselves to, and indeed subjugate to the indignities that inevitably come hand in hand. The Airport. Here we give over our ‘freedoms’ to an intimidating space in which Authority watches our every move, requires us to strip down our veneer, perhaps confiscates our personal possessions. We agree to be told what to do as we are funnelled through channels, checkpoints, sombre portals that can reject us and send us back whence we came. Then we are at the behest of technology and procedures over which we have no control (conveying us across swathes of ocean in giant metal tubes).
The point I am driving at here is that actually the calibration of norms of behaviour come hand in hand with the environment that is designed to evoke specific behaviours. To behave, to act out our ambulatory freedoms takes effort, and we rely on ‘affordance’ in the environment to tell us implicitly what to do, where to go, how to walk...(pedestrian crossings, pavements, staircases, barricades, elevators, escalators, and so on and so forth).
So we already have a system in place, an unconscious pact with the environment that we’ll do as it ‘says’, it will take some of the cognitive load from us – a small price of relinquished freedom to open up access to the benefits beyond (food, new destinations, a chance to recalibrate one’s perspective).
With all this in mind, people are likely deliberating about travel, holidays, release, in the aftermath of this particularly stressful couple of months. In fact many have already booked their trips away (or are rescheduling from ones postponed more recently). It is a natural consequence of the need to ‘let off some steam’, open a release valve after being cooped up for so long, and in such a state of uncertainty. And especially coming after a particularly dire winter of relentless rain, storms, flooding.
It comes back to habit. We adapt to circumstance, grudgingly sometimes, we put our heads down and plough on through life on a day-to-day basis, getting the job done, the necessary tasks, the obligations, the requisite behaviours to ensure survival. But we focus on that 2 week annual period when we know we can release the valve, burst free from the ‘prison cell’ of daily grind. We can escape! There is an awful lot to be said about aiming for a target at the end of the tunnel. When there is no end in sight it is a lot harder to maintain resolve, dig down and deep, keep pushing on. This is a tactic in endurance activities, such as the military use to break candidates and test resolve. We are a goal-centric species, without goals, a target we exhaust ourselves with aimless wandering.
Now more than ever we seek solace in the routine, the ‘normal’ - and the holiday at the end of ‘all this’ is a motivating factor that should not be underestimated – hence why people are clamouring to book their time abroad. We tend to seek assurance that ‘things will get better’, and so we recourse to the comfortable familiar routines, and pursuits that have given us solace in the past. But with this comes a tension, a source of conflict. For on the one hand we can’t wait to get away and re-establish a sense that things are ‘ok’, but at the same time now there is added uncertainty, anxiety in the mix. What if we get caught up in The Virus, as a result of this? What about a second wave? Mingling with others, changing our environment, going through airports, are we upping the risk to the point that it conflicts with the point of going?
People are no doubt holding these conflicting notions in their minds right now, but many will still be proceeding with their bookings, their plans. We are talking about a state of cognitive dissonance whereby opposing/conflicting notions are held in mind at the same time. There is a need to escape, the fantasy that things will be alright, balanced with the heightened anxiety that the reality is at odds with this. But we are very good at telling ourselves stories. It’s how we brush under the carpet the doubts, the fears, the uncertainties.
One way we resolve our conflicting ideas harkens back to what we talked about earlier regarding habits, behaviours driven by the environment. We accept that in fact we live in a system of governance. The government, its institutions, an innate sense of social rules and practices, all ‘tell us’ how to behave. It makes our lives much easier to accept that, and to also have faith (trust if you will) in the system that has our interests collectively at heart. Whilst we may be rebels deep down, it's hard work constantly bucking the trend, and so much of our behaviour is rooted in unconscious drivers, automatic routines. The new norm makes it easier to stand 2m apart in a queue than to rebelliously stand 1m apart, or to circumvent the queue and brave the tutting and eye rolling that will put you back in your place.
At the end of the day, you may decide to carry on with your travel plans, but ultimately you will expect that the airport, the travel agent, the hotel, the public transport network, THE GOVERNMENT will take care of your concerns about how to act, where and how to walk, how to relax and rejuvenate on your hols. Someone is in control, surely??!!
Underlying all this is a motivation to escape from yourSELF. You’ve been stuck indoors with it for an eternity. You can cope with your in-laws to an extent, but the SELF...that’s another kettle of fish. So no wonder people are resorting in droves to booking their vacations and hang the Virus and all it’s consequences. You’ve already adapted to the new normal without realising it.
Post script - a local town for local people:
Something to consider. Much is said about staying local. Maybe its time to normalise ‘local’ as the new ‘global’. This period has given more impetus to reconsider our immediate surroundings. There is nature in your vicinity, closer than you might think (obviously depending where exactly you live). There is a community in your neighbourhood that has perhaps flourished , provoking new conversations, helping each other out, coming out to clap the NHS on a Thursday evening... If you cycle or walk and have the benefits of green spaces, countryside on your doorstep, maybe it’s time to embrace that – lightening the load on transport networks beyond, whilst also provoking a sense of ownership in your surroundings – an increased respect and affection for your locale which can help investment in sustainable thinking. We also could benefit with injection into our local and national economy by again staying local – be that in your neighbourhood and region, or also meaning by engaging in domestic tourism rather than international travel for it’s own sake. Our land is green and pleasant, and now more than ever needs to be nurtured and tended to, and respected. And likewise our own neighbourhoods, communities and fellow species! So let us try and find new norms all around in community, neighbourly behaviour and care for our local environment.
This morning I was feeling lethargic, unmotivated, struggling to kickstart the day.
Should I move forward my daily exercise routine and go for a run first thing? Self-isolation has instigated a routine that I am reluctant to disrupt, and my once-a-day exercise takes place at the end of the day, a welcome break that sets up for the evening. A sensible, healthy structure important to embrace in these troubling times.
So I decided to ‘cheat’ and entertain a supplementary spot of ‘exercise’. A collective intake of indignatory breath erupts! Don’t do it!!
Nevertheless, I wandered out into the fresh air. The deep blue sky and a piercing sun washing across the landscape before me. I felt invigorated. Could ‘smell’ the clarity of the air. Was inspired, moved, motivated. Overjoyed even. I roved far and wide and felt much better for it. Liberated.
I stepped back ‘inside’. Ready to tackle the day with renewed vigour and perspective on things.
How dare I, you might say, go for a ‘second’ period of exercise (actually that would/will come later on when I go for my evening run in the environs surrounding my home).
Did anyone notice my double-foray? Were curtains twitching with the echoes of mass-tutting across the neighbourhood? No. Not a peep. They wouldn’t have noticed anyway.
I was strolling across the desert. Monument Valley if you must know. It straddles the borderlands between Arizona and Utah. A barren, yet somewhat ‘lush’ stretch of desert-wilderness as old as time, and home to the Navajo nation, themselves casualties to the Great American Dream that swept across the country obliterating any native claim to the land...
It is a hugely spiritual and ancient land, replete with vibrant colours, red-orange hues counterpointing the deep and endless blue and yellow of the sky above. With hardy shrubs pinpointing miniature oases of green, and hinting at an abundance of desert life beneath the surface. Much has been written of this ‘scape, of it’s legacy, of it’s role and that of the far-reaching extent of the American South West canyonlands and deserts in myth, in burgeoning national identity out at the frontier. It’s role in popular film documenting the pioneers, the lawlessness, the grandiosity of the human spirit and it’s capacity to flourish at the extremes.
Of course I wasn’t ‘really’ there. I live in north-west England! But in effect I was. In a virtual rendition of it. A suspension of disbelief helping to transport me from the living room. Via Google Earth VR.
The scene was provided for me in glorious immersive 360. The rest I provided with my imagination, memories of having been there before. And most of all belief that I can go then again. One day when this all dwindles into a poignant memory.
For now, I can happily enjoy my multiple sojourns ‘outside’ knowing full well I will not be spreading a virus, will not be coming into contact with anyone, will not be cause for indignation or admonishment.
The point here isn’t to smugly extol how wonderful it is having access to all the toys. Rather, it is to simply reinforce that the power of the imagination is a key facet in ‘winning the war’ against anxiety, isolation, concerns over ‘going stir crazy’. You don’t need a VR headset (though it might help if you are that way inclined). A photograph might suffice. Or in fact just the imagination. Meditation, mindfulness, are techniques that much is written about these days – all you need is to sit still, focus on being calm, observe thoughts – occasionally letting the imagination wander (but in a disciplined way). Focusing on something positive that will stimulate you and keep you in that headspace that is excited, enthused, motivated – dreaming of bigger and better things. It might seem blindingly, irritatingly, obvious. But the most obvious things are frequently overlooked in life. And discipline is a key component in keeping even the obvious at centre-focus – even just momentarily. I have alluded to this previously, talking of how a simple moment of contemplation on an object, an artwork, a memory, your breath can instill a focus, calmness, impetus that outweighs the apparent ‘triviality’ of doing such a thing. But by doing this rigorously, every day - first thing in the morning - you can switch the gears inside, prime the motor, prepare for lift off!
Any other ‘tools’ that might facilitate this, are just that, ‘tools’. VR is my current ‘tool’. Imagination is the key. But discipline is the enabler....
So use this time as an excuse to have more than one period of ‘exercise’ in your day. You might not be venturing outside to do so, but don’t use that as an excuse to not to anything at all. Use it instead 'other' forms of 'exercise': inwardly-focused, attentive, imaginative - and designed to rejuvenate the 'self'!
Right, I am off up Everest. See you later!
Meet John. John has had a hard life. Ups and downs. A lot of downs. Maybe some of the deepest downs one might face in life. He lost it all. His livelihood, his wife, his kids, his esteem. Even his sense of who he was. His world became the confines of his prison cell. Meaning was sourced through substance abuse. Getting the next fix. A lost cause adrift in the system possibly never to break free back to a purposeful existence.
Fast forward a few months and John is painting a boat. A picture of a boat. He has picked up his palette as well as his toolbox and is finding purpose anew. He has a real talent for fine art. He says he used to sell pictures in prison, and his talent was the envy of his cellmates. Nurturing this innate talent, plus a pride in a work ethic that fell by the wayside but is gradually resurfacing, he is a skilled craftsman. In need of a focus for this aptitude.
His long term dream, at times pushed to the recesses of his mind during those darkest of moments, was to have a boat. To live on a boat, to feel the sea spray on his face and breathe the fresh air of freedom that the ocean can offer in abundance.
To achieve one’s dreams can be a long hard slog, but it’s important to have that as a focus, an impetus to persevere against adversity.
Now out of prison, clean of substance addictions, and with a newfound energy stimulated by his current environment, John is on the path towards that dream, building momentum with his painting, and his adaptable skillset and pride in his work.
John now works with a new enterprise that is based out of Liverpool Marina. This is Shadow Wind. The brainchild of James Lovett, a ‘psychological coach’/therapist and lifelong sailor, Shadow Wind is a Community Interest Company that is bringing new opportunity to the region and offering an outlet and a focus to people such as John, groups of ‘marginalised’ or ‘disadvantaged’ folks who have fallen by the wayside, through life’s circumstance, lost their way, but can have a revitalised sense of purpose and goals to aspire to: through the medium of sailing, and access to the therapeutic benefits that living and working on water can bring!
Shadow Wind offers sailing experience and a grounding in the basics of practical boatsmanship. But much more than that it offers cameraderie, a shared purpose amongst disparate individuals united under the spell of ‘Mistress Sea’!! This encompasses all aspects of sailing, not just the glamorous lifestyle of helming a yacht across the Irish Sea under the full summer sun (!), but importantly the foundation of maintaining one’s craft. And with that the basics of woodwork, joinery, painting, cleaning. Good honest work!
Since John came to Shadow Wind he has by his own admission found a new vitality in life that has kept him on the straight and narrow. He says, if it wasn’t for this outlet for his skills, talents, work ethic and a fresh environment in which to see new perspective, he would have been ‘back inside’ some time ago. The fruits of his labour are evident on the flagship vessell (Shadow Wind herself). From an earlier functional shell, now below decks has a homely feel, but conveys her status as a seaworthy craft that can empower all who set off under her mast towards new adventures!
The most important note in this story is that John has not only come back from the brink himself, but he has reunited with his family. His wife is rehabilitated from her own demons, and their kids returned from foster care. Reunited as a happy family. Not conventional, sure, but together most importantly, re-bonded and ready to progress in life as a unit.
So John is the true flagship component in this story of Shadow Wind rather than the vessell herself!
Moving forward, Shadow Wind’s ‘corporate’ mission is to spread the message throughout Merseyside and beyond, that the sea, sailing, adventure can help those who are struggling in life. It can bring people from all walks together under common goals. We can use this platform to educate the community about the mental wellbeing benefits of working hard, whilst embracing adventure to set new course in life! And with that we hope to also inspire those who journey alongside us about the fragility of our local (and global) marine environment, offering education on Ocean Literacy. We are exploring STEM opportunities for school groups and other youth networks, tying in with the local academic and scientific communities as well to forge new connections and partnerships that will promote shared values and benefit us all through this medium.
So please, get in touch with us if you want to be involved, find out more, or talk further about new partnerships that can help us build this venture and push the sails to new ‘heights’.
Importantly, heartfelt thanks to John from all at Shadow Wind for taking that first step, and casting off into the unknown...!
“Out of the ruins, out from the wreckage...
.. We don't need another hero,
We don't need to know the way home
All we want is life beyond the Thunderdome”
Terry Britten & Graham Lyle (or is it Clive Gollings and Graeme Willey?) as sung by Tina Turner – We don’t need another hero
The desert air shimmers. A form dissolves, undulates, begins to re-solve into a semblance of recognisable shape and meaning. A human figure cresting a symbolic horizon, striding triumphantly (?) into centre frame. In time to save the day, to bring vital knowledge, ability, leadership to the desperate. Fuel from across the wasteland. An artefact with crucial powers to ignite hope and resilience. The grail. An ark. Droids! The returning hero with the map to a more sustainable land...
Indy hurtles down the corridor, darts whistling past his ears, cobwebs stringing across his face at every turn. Pursued by...something. An albatross hanging heavy on his neck...?!
Finally, Dave Bowman relents, steps into the void, plunges through the Stargate and into an impossible yet entirely realisable present. A transfiguration that requires the giving up of his last umbilical connection to what he/we cling onto as ‘reality’. The ultimate sacrifice. Plunged through a vortex of torment, of utter destruction of ego, identifiy, self. Through a miasma of light, aural chaos and the banishment of all sense and concept of what ‘is’ or should be in conventional wisdom, he is thrust out naked, vulnerable, reborn. Transformed.
What on earth is all this about?! The narrative medium that encapsulates our rich source of myth, storytelling and symbolic mythology draws a common thread through the theme of the Hero’s Journey. Popularised (but not originating with) Joseph Campbell in his seminal works on mythology and symbology, this is the ‘story’ that recurs throughout our literary heritage. It is the returning hero who started out ‘innocent’ but curious on the road to discovery. (S)he set out to see what lay beyond the garden gate, to see where the road led. To wander to the edge of the map and see in what form there ‘lay dragons’. Curiosity gave way to commitment as the road steepened and the distance from home and invested effort warranted continuing rather than abandoning the journey. Fatigue set in, and spawned concern, anxiety, despair. Commitment waned but now s/he felt lost, uncertain, doubtful. Something within kept the drive in forward motion. At the point beyond no return, complete breakdown threatened. And somewhere deep inside this ignited hidden reserves, and a second wind. Trauma catalysed growth, the building of strength, and invigorated new heights of composure, of confidence, of resolution and resolve. Identity reconsitituted, strengthenened. Wiser and more resilient. And now the desire to return and relay these lessons back home, inspiring through fortitude, and a sense of purpose for the good of the many.
The seeds of this Hero’s Journey, a quest for transcendence through the necessary trials and tribulations found on the road to Mount Doom, Camelot, Dagobah, Beyond the Infinite can be argued as being at the heart of what motivates us to embark on adventurous experiences. Such as we might aspire to travel somewhere 'a bit different'. Or try a new activity. To stretch ourselves and push beyond the sedentary, conformist nature of daily life seeking to live renewed. It is that resolve tomorrow morning to do things differently. To kick that habit. To approach life with a fresh perspective. To make things happen. In short too change. This rests in the archetypal unconscious, that desire to transform. And as the archetype implies, this will be a traumatic process by necessity.
As a concept for providing ‘transformational experiences’ Adventure Tourism is an arena that is tailormade to facilitate this ‘hero’s journey’. Why does anyone seek to have such an experience, whatever that may constitute? (For instance, from a guided tour of a place a little ‘off the beaten track’ through to a self supported expedition to climb a new peak – all arguably different points along a contimuum of ‘adventurous’ experience.) At some level this speaks to a desire to travel that same road to self discovery, breakdown and reconstitution. In the course of further pieces I will explore further how the way the brain functions connectively mirrors this mythical process, enabling growth, and in parallel, ‘self-development’ as is ‘experienced’ by the individual. In doing so some usable principles should emerge as a sort of (neural) map towards self-mastery (in a sense not intended to sound pompous or aggrandising). Dovetailed with this are other strands, for instance the prospective role of technology in the future of experience, adventure and personal development. In particular concerning Virtual and Artificially Intelligent modes of technology that become ever more integrated in our cultural milieu and sense of self, identity and capacity to ‘experience’ the world, reality, and our very place own future role in proceedings!
Max surveys the wreckage of the civilization to which he has returned. Battered, battle weary, limping and haunted, he nevertheless knows he has done what he was required to do. The community is provided for. Their stability and security assured...for now. He is neither jubilant nor dismayed, he has been into the hellish wastes, lived as a soul in torment, been destroyed, but somehow...survived. For that he holds deep down a sense that he can prevail against the worst that the desert can throw at him. And with that, his work done, his function complete, he turns about, surveys the endless horizon, the inferno of the wasteland, and slowly limps back in the direction he came. Smiling the crazed smile of a man who has not a care in the world.
Adventure photography is a broad church and it’s essence extends beyond simply capturing nice scenic images of landscapes and action pursuits. At the heart of this is to convey drama, danger, risk, and to document this in all it’s vagaries. Being too emotionally invested in one’s subject matter and indeed subjects (eg. my BASE jumping associates) can impair one’s capacity to remain detached and dispassionate when watching the action unfold, hoping everything goes to plan. When things have gone wrong, as did on a recent shoot, although I thought I had continued clicking away, in fact on review of my footage I had actually stopped taking pictures when it became obvious things were definitely going south. I was admonished (more cajoled in the spirit of cameraderie) later for not having continued rolling as it were!
My recent travels were short on life threatening drama to photograph (despite ever present warnings about crocodiles and other marine hazards out in tropical Queensland I was there on holiday!) ! However, my return trip took me through Hong Kong and at a particularly fraught time of civil unrest given the recent protests that have been disrupting life on the streets and making international headlines.
I touched down on Monday and into a day of turmoil as violence escalated to it’s worst level yet, with shocking footage played endlessly on news channels and enough to put me off my dinner whilst ensconced in a ‘locals’ food establishment. A point blank shooting by a police officer of a protester dressed in the menacing black garb of the ‘official’ uniform of the protest movement. An argument with a pro-Beijing supporter suddenly erupting into literal flames as an unseen provocateur suddenly douses the individual in petrol from a squirty bottle and flicks a match into the proceedings...(and having reviewed other available footage online from the likes of BBC, CNN etc. with warnings of ‘graphic violence’ I hasten to add that these outlets have heavily redacted said footage compared to what is actually seen on the news in situ).
Based as I was in the central district where the situation was at something of a flashpoint (protestors’ strategy being to create disruption to the infrastructure at the territory’s heart by strewing rubble at key road and rail junctions), it was difficult not to find myself proximal to the ‘action’. Given my photographic (and photojournalistic) proclivities, coupled with a desire to be better informed of: a) where the danger was and therefore where to be in order to not become unwittingly involved in it, b) what is the situation all about, I exercised a cautious approach, camera at the ready to navigate my way through the city, and ultimately back to my hotel (I was flying out later that day so needed to be aware of how the situation would encroach on my travel plans).
As it happens, I was surprised to find that the Central Business District was party to a so-called ‘flash-mob’ protest that had ‘sprung up’ around lunchtime on Tuesday (protestors had vowed after the sickening violence – particularly with respect to the perceived heavy handed police action and subsequent shooting of an individual – to make a vocal stand through Tuesday and beyond). They were railing against Chinese authorities given a contention that they are gradually eroding the previous democratic freedoms that the Hong Kong territories have embraced due to special status arising from previous British colonial governance - the so-called ‘One country two systems’ dictum. Tuesday morning violence had again ignited on University campuses and also around the metro system (actually by the station next to my hotel though I didn’t witness the incident where a bystander was injured by objects hurled from the overpass above).
Now a huge crowd had gathered and the standard protocol was in place as chants swept through the masses and rose to crescendo, whilst rubble was hurled across busy intersections and organised chaos instigated.
What struck me initially as nervous anticipation built was how the throngs of people clamoured to see what was going on, and formed several layers deep audience on the gantries of the overhead walkways above the street. Crowd psychology is an impressive and unnerving thing to witness, particularly when one takes into account how a situation such as this can rapidly turn ugly as has been clearly shown to be a pattern in previous days and weeks.
I am not a fan of being in crowds, where one’s autonomy is at the whims of a collective energy that can sweep one aside or worse in a moment of unpredictable momentum...My own philosophy is to become very much switched on, skittish even like a wild animal scanning for danger, keeping moving, looking at all times for exits and places to seek cover. But at the same time to embrace the risk and try to steady nervous energy and see adrenaline as an enabler of performance!
Initially I did not know what was going on, and was reluctant to mingle in with the audience and become a sitting duck. One gantry was more open to the elements and I noted that there was a stash of bricks atop this and by a small group of black garbed and masked individuals. What was their intention? Perhaps to disregard any sense of public safety and create maximum destruction by pelting those below? In fact at one point as those at the vanguard on the street below hurled mortar onto the junction, one did in fact launch his skywards and up onto this balcony. I had moved on from it earlier but it was jam packed with rubber neckers. There didn’t seem to be a subsequent commotion so I can only assume that no harm was caused and the brick either landed miraculously in between people, or someone caught it and averted serious injury...
I can’t be sure who threw the missile up into the crowd but I did witness (and photograph) a somewhat manic individual who was striding out from the rest of the pack with a brick in hand and looking intent on casting it to some malicious purpose. He was pursued (and manhandled) by another more sincere looking individual who was striving to calm him and prevent him creating the flashpoint that would indeed bring the heavily tooled-up police into the fray. The guy did a good job to diffuse this incendiary situation. Interestingly I noted that the would-be agent-provocateur was of ethnic bearing distinct ethnic from the majority of the protesting crowd, and also by his manner seemed to be high as a kite and not on subjective appearance acting in the spirit of a meaningful, peaceful protest. The take home from this is that a precarious situation like this will attract elements who wish to revel in disruption, anarchy and the anonymity afforded by such a crowd to create mayhem and destruction for it’s own sake...possibly derailing the efforts of the sincere core membership.
A little later I found myself down amongst the gathering and began to appreciate more about the situation and the nature of the protest. Office workers, old, young, different mixes of demographic groups united in solidarity and the chants against the repressive edicts of the Chinese governing authorities. A lone and impassioned young man danced and cavorted before the world’s press (who were also togged up heavily in protective equipment, including gas masks anticipating reprisals from the riot police). He whipped the crowd into a fervour.
Groups formed under multicoloured umbrellas and gathered on the pavements, chiselling away at the brickwork to create more of an aresenal with which to blockade the traffic junctions. Items were strewn across the roads and petrol doused on boundary lines for later utility. I spied a molotov cocktail in a wine bottle again for later purpose...
Part of being an adventure photographer encompasses acknowledging risks or stepping out the comfort zone to get the best coverage that conveys the fundamental essence of the narrative. An adventure by its nature involves undertaking challenge, embracing novelty, uncertainty, and employing one’s skills to their best potential in order to be successful and to grow as a result. It was a difficult undertaking to get into decent positions and to sift through the complex scene components to attempt to capture meaningful stand out moments. A balance to strive for in photography is to become part of the scene: immersing sufficiently within it to understand the narrative and to give back a faithful rendition of what is occurring. Yet at the same time being somewhat dissociated and dispassionate in order to remain aware of the surroundings, adapt to the circumstance and also create that narrative to an extent, painting the scene with the brush that is the camera...
Only then can one hope to do justice to the unfolding story.
Sometimes adventures lead one in unexpected directions. But then that is kind of the point!
"Pardon me boy, but is that the Chattanooga Choo-Choo?
No it's just the Snowdon Mountain Man BASE Boogie!!"
Glen Miller (slightly paraphrased)
A question that is often (almost never) asked is: what is the collective noun to describe a gathering of BASE jumpers?
A murder…(far too portentous)?
A flock…(they are too individualistic to be collectivised thus)?
A maverick…(getting closer to the spirit)?
A BOOGIE…(let’s settle on that term for now).
Morning light spreads lazily across the summit of Snowdon on Saturday, and reflects the mood of those snoozing atop the cliffs of Clogwyn (Cloggy) Du’r Arddu. The outcrop on which they are sleeping is enshrouded in thick mist and the only sounds to be heard are the murmurings of a handful of creatures emerging out of the gloom.
Normally the province of stalwart sheep and the occasional crow, a new species has migrated momentarily to these parts. Unique fauna, their characteristics include an excited demeanour, a penchant for flouting convention and a tendency to suddenly vanish whence they came, generally over the mountain’s edge.
Here they convene for a special migratory occasion, to establish their domain, to leave their scent upon this territory, though hopefully not to mate (!).
Often nocturnal, the BASE species may be sometimes found amidst the bright lights of urban communities, high up, silhouetted against the sky, and flightily moving between the shadows. But today they have emerged into daylight for this rare opportunity to bond, to compare plumages and to test each others’ capacities for flight.
The chattering increases in volume as the curtain of mist shows promise of drawing aside to herald the encroaching dawn. And the window for displaying their wares is cracking open.
Those compatriots who nested here during the night stir and stretch their limbs, and begin to interact with the others who have hoved into camp.
They engage in customary greeting calls and begin to collectively and instinctively organise into hierarchical dominance behaviour patterns.
An orderliness occurs as plumage feathers are arranged about the ground to preen and prepare for eventual flight.
Then, it is time to launch.
The group forms a line, a train, with tail feathers held aloft by the member behind, part of the facilitation process. The first of the bunch steps up to the edge. An acknowledgement is made bringing the group into time-locked alignment, and he springs forth into the haze below. One by one as wings burst forth in a colourful bloom of fluttering materials, each jumper plunges into the void.
The train that looked so ungainly on land (!!) takes on a majesty as it soars in coordinated arrangement through the mountain air, swooping alongside huge pinnacles and buttresses above a glassy blue lake.
And one by one in perfect formation each alights far below at the shore of the lake, wings drifting gracefully to the ground. The sound of a gentle breeze whispers across this desolate scene high up above in the nesting ground, and the far off chatter recommences as this new species of fauna revels in the bonds created in this special occasion. They then disperse and scatter back to their own territories, individual at heart.
Snowdon has just witnessed the annual migration of a Boogie of BASE jumpers.
“The mind of man is capable of anything.”
― Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
As an ‘adventure psychologist’, I seek to put myself in positions out in the ‘wild’ to observe adventurous individuals in their natural habitat. With my somewhat unique access to ‘lunatics’ on a regular basis who revel in dancing with mortality on the edge of cliffs, I gain special insight into the nature of courage and ‘drive’. I am talking about BASE jumping, at the boundaries of the ‘extreme’. Whilst this pursuit will hopefully never become ‘old hat’ through repeated exposure, I suppose I am becoming somewhat slightly inured to the process as I regularly stand at the edge, camera at the ready, and witness jumpers like Josh cycling through the procedures and protocols and leaping into space. Only insomuch as it’s become ‘normal’ to be part of this routine as a photographer and companion and documenter of these pioneering exploits. Though I still experience the same rush of adrenaline and relief as he departs terra firma and then safely glides down back to earth. But the feats that push the envelope further never fail to surprise me and reinstate in mind that this takes a very special mindset, composure, and indeed act of courage to execute.
On Sunday I was blown away. Josh and Andy performed an act of skill and bravery that I have never seen before. Up on Falcon Crag in Borrowdale, Lake District, repeating a jump made previously but in a very distinct fashion. This shall henceforth be known as the Borrowdale Roll-Over…
This technique requires deft judgement, nil wind, and total commitment.
I tenuously secured myself to a stake and sling to try and stand as close to the edge and directly alongside as each took centre stage upon a pointed rock with little more width than their feet could stand upon. This jutted out over a drop of perhaps 150ft+ sheer.
Very slowly, they each in turn lowered their canopy and rigging lines over the edge, taking utmost care not to tangle the lines, or snag the canopy upon the cliff wall. The slightest of winds could blow the rig back against the wall. Bent forward executing this precise task, surefooted balance was required to not pitch forward prematurely and to certain doom!
When time was nigh, and with customary countdown, I watched first as Josh brought feet together, leg involuntarily twitching and loading up for take-off. The he made a committed dive forward, past the canopy in arc. As he attained equal distance beyond, he flipped back into vertical position as the canopy unfolded successfully and he whooped for joy swooping off into the distance. (I did likewise, as much out of relief). Then Andy’s turn.
Andy lowered his rig, remarked casually there was a slight twist but composedly adjusted, awaited abatement of a wisping breeze that passed by, and cast himself aloft. Another beautifully executed act.
I must say this was a remarkable exhibition of courage and technique in a dire position (albeit voluntarily entered into – but then that is also what makes it so impressive, to choose to do this). And a first achieved here in the Lake District!
All I can expound upon second hand bearing witness to this is that drive and motivation are paramount to undertake such a feat: total assured confidence in ability, marked by years of experience jumping and handling canopies. But that is not to take away from the sheer courage that was required (particularly where this was the first time the technique had been attempted here – and not from a free standing structure such as a bridge!). There was palpable tension, concentration, and decision taken to ‘go-ahead’. From my acquaintance with these individuals these are not the actions of sociopathic individuals who have no emotional capacity or regard for consequence. Now the question is, how can such observations and insights be applied more transferably – what can we learn from this, and what principles can be derived to help foster such courage, motivation, drive, and accomplishment in others?! I suppose you might have to jump over the edge to find out, there’s no excuse for it…
So, let’s hear it everybody: hip hip for the Borrowdale Roll-Over!
Devon holds an air of mystery rooted in her wild indented coastline nestled in this corner of England that is redolent with tales of pirates, smugglers and the allure of the ever present sea washing against dramatic cliffs. Here there is a prominent edifice that watches over the vast landscape. The Great Hangman himself. He looms high on the coast, watching over nearby Ilfracombe and casting a stern eye over the Bristol channel, a sentry gazing suspiciously across at that other land of myth and legend, southern Wales. Today the executioner hosts an ominous spectacle. For a modern day highwayman is to be adjudged in respect of his right to freedom…
The highwayman is the maverick of history, an outlaw amongst his kind, choosing to flout the mores of normal society, living in the shadows, roaming the roads choosing his own destiny, perhaps like Robin Hood electing to extol the virtues of freedom from constraints of civilisation. In pursuit of a ‘nobler’ way of life that may ruffle some feathers but inspire others to break free and live life to the fullest in harmony with nature.
But now let us settle back and wait with bated breath as the noose is lowered, the defendant slips his neck in and the executioner prepares to pass his solemn judgement.
A wisp of breeze blows through, rustling the heather and fronds of grass that cling to this cliff edge. The sky is a pale blue, blending into the sea far below, a haze blanketing the horizon. The sun peers down, as if in trepidation of the pronouncement made, the trapdoor swinging open, the body plummeting through…and halting with a violent judder.
But today fortune smiles upon the Highwayman. Before judgement is passed, he has elected to bolt forth, arms extended, launching into space. His head is free of the noose, he has no intention of waiting for his fate to be determined by the rule of the land. The Gallow’s Pole is a platform from which to attain great height and a leap to freedom, not an instrument of sentence.
He seems to freeze mid-air, then swan dive elegantly, before another cord strains and snaps with tension, and the motion is abruptly arrested. But this is not to be his end, unceremoniously yanked from existence. For the cord has pulled forth wings that give him glorious flight out over the azure sea, gliding gracefully over this resplendent land. He becomes a speck far below, arcing, twisting, soaring. The Highwayman has escaped the noose! The Great Hangman sighs as his quarry has escaped. But secretly he smiles, weary with the weight of past judgement. He revels momentarily in the beauty of liberty disappearing into the horizon.
Devon has witnessed an achievement that adds to the modern day narrative of her mystery. She has through her grand and dramatic demeanour facilitated groundbreaking experience, an opportunity seized by a maverick with a penchant for the spectacular. These are the highest sea cliffs in England, along the magnificent south west coast path. And a first has just occurred. For this has been a pioneering example of BASE jumping by a proponent at the cutting edge of the sport…
Next time you wander along this epic coast, and ponder the heritage of pirates, smuggling, adventure, you might just be lucky to witness new myths in the making! But careful you don’t lose your concentration and slip over the side or you may be not so lucky to escape the Hangman’s noose..!
Creaking knees, bleary eyes. Back groaning under the weight of an overloaded pack grinding up along an airy ridge. Déjà vu…Here I am again on another wild-eyed venture into the mountains looking for somewhere to facilitate my associate’s desire to swan dive over the edge. Scotland last month, Lake District a couple of weeks ago. This time it’s Wales. Hard to keep up. But with a companion this driven to find ever more un-jumped exit points you keep pace or fall behind! I am getting used to the routine now. Short notice summons, last minute change of plans, opportunist weather. Arrive, brew up, catch up on the latest antics, chew the fat later than intended, pack chutes in the dark, prepare cameras, safety kit for tomorrow’s inevitably early start. Go to bed knowing that fulsome sleep is out the window, and functional slumber is the best one can hope for. Alarm goes off after fitful ‘night’, with barely 2.5 hours snatched…how can that be the time? Ah well far too excited, wary, expectant to sleep anyway, and one has to seize the day.
More food next time, and water! Splitting it three ways, plans awry, sun, calm, gusty wind, too hot, clag, too cold. We have it all today up in the Snowdon massif. The weather is trying to settle into a Spring high but it’s not being overly amicable about it. We set off finally around 6.30am after a ‘leisurely’ breakfast (Josh’s porridge is a godsend as I find I always neglect to eat on these full-on days and this at least lines the stomach for the day’s demands). Today we are looking to complete a trilogy, ‘officially’ started in the throes of winter in Scotand (the infamous ‘Ben’ jump), transitioning into a preview of Spring up Scafell Pike in The Lake District, and culminating hopefully at the highest point in Wales. Josh has learnt of a likely exit point set to be the highest yet to be achieved on the Snowdon horseshoe. It’s all systems go. The ‘plan’ is to quickly ascend in the morning before winds pick up, to find a spot on the ridge of Y-Lliwedd, a spectacular peak in the massif that trends an impressive north to north-east facing wall of crags that plunges almost sheer to stunning blue Llyn Llydaw at the heart of the Snowdon range. But plans generally can not be relied on.
It’s along here somewhere. On this adventure today there’s Josh, resident jumper-extraordinaire, seeking to add to his impressive resume of UK cliffs (70+ new exits and counting), myself with my increasing abundance of cameras, tripods and rope-stuffs, and James who is going to bring his film-making acumen and drone piloting skills to the party. We are full of high spirits despite the lack of sleep, scouring the face all the way along for the prize jump site rumoured to be somewhere round here. We meet a middle-aged couple hailing from Stockholm who are raving about this fine landscape on their first trip to Wales (“we’ve been to the Highlands a lot but we did not realise Wales was like this!”). They aren’t aware yet why we are here. No need to alarm them as yet. As the ridge wears on we find we are struggling to find anything sheer enough. As is often the case with UK mountain cliffs, though the exposure is impressive, the mountainside is super steep but somewhat slanting and broken up into smaller crags that are incrementally stepped.
We have almost given up on a decent drop, the wind has picked up, and a mountain rescue helicopter is ominously buzzing us for some reason, when a possibly viable site hoves into view. Towards the end of this ridge there is a sudden drop off, but we can’t quite see beyond a small pinnacle a few metres below. The problem with these sorts of locations is that one has to sometimes explore further over the side to get a clear view of the terrain below, as ledges may regress outwards not visible from higher up. So with that I volunteer to pick my way down a short scramble and shuffle gingerly onto the outcrop, straddling the drop either side. It’s an airy position just allowing me to lean carefully forward to peer over the side. A rock cast aloft takes maybe 3 seconds to make landfall on another outcrop below. To our right the mountainside angles leftwards, creating a v-shaped cleft. If the wind hits across on exit, irrespective of the marginality of the height and obstacles in sight, a ‘cliff-strike’ is largely inevitable…I push these thoughts to one side and retreat back up the scramble to firmer ground and confer with the team. Josh goes and has a look, with his laser sight. There is a considerable period of deliberation as the wind periodically whorls around us. It’s getting fairly cold and fingers are going numb. I get my gear out, offering to pitch over the side, but the rope has got hopelessly tangled and takes forever to sort out. By which time Plan B has been decided on…
There’s really no point in pushing it with margins for error this slim, so despite the prospect of a significantly longer day we decide that there’s more of a ‘dead cert’ on the other side of Snowdon. Which means slogging up and over the top. Groan. Today’s ambition to finish around midday (still a good 5-6 hour mountain day) is evidently going to be considerably longer (no surprise – to head into ‘uncharted territory’ is to court the unexpected and adapt to circumstance!). We scrutinise one more last ditch pinnacle precariously situated (and another straddling position) before resolving to get on with it and head upwards.
Snowdon is a popular mountain, even on a midweek day at midday, early in the season, and true to it’s unpredictable form is clagged out and gusting at the summit. We quickly head away from the crowds and on to our destination – the truly spectacular mountain terrain of Clogwyn du’r Arddu. Josh has jumped several locations before but there is one that looks particularly epic, easy to access and in a great photographic position. And this will be the officially highest Snowdon jump exit yet. Furthermore, the weather this side of the summit is significantly more accommodating, the sun is coming out and the wind dropped considerably. I have spoken elsewhere about the process of documenting these jumps, and now as I have become more conversant with this I set about placing cameras in various locations to gain different perspectives that can be spliced together. But this takes a fair amount of time, not helped by the fact these epic surroundings offer multiple grand vistas. This means setting up 4 cameras at increasingly spread out locations, one of which is much higher up the hillside, and my final stance is on an outcrop with a vertiginous drop that I have to carefully scramble around to, and secure myself to a boulder right on the edge so I can concentrate on the shot not the empty space below!
These missions are just that, requiring planning and communication to get the best out of the footage capture as well as of course the safety of the jump – let’s not forget that!! The jump site is on a grassy ramp that gently inclines from the smooth hillside here and abruptly falls off with an undercut rocky underside. This gives it spectacular aspect with a glassy blue lake below and grand Welsh mountains retreating away in the background. I set a camera up facing this view then dash back to place a couple of different angles right at the end of the ramp, to witness the jump first hand. Then I dash back over to the other side onto the aforementioned outcrop to set up the main shots that will capture Josh against the huge steep cliffs that lead up towards the main summit. James the filmographer also has his video camera set up and prepares his drone for key shots at the point of action. Coordinating our three ‘roles’ to time the various set ups we get ready for action! At the appointed moment I have to run up to the far off camera, set it on remote, run back to my stance, await the signal from Josh that the exit is imminent, and James’ cue to launch the drone.
Ok that’s the photography angle out of the way, now onto the main event!!
The wind is starting to gust a little bit disconcertingly now. As ever, poised in our photographic positions, we vicariously experience the jump. Breath is bated, in limbo waiting to press the shutter but also ‘empathising’ with Josh on the edge of the precipice. He signals thumbs up, shouts the familiar ‘three-two-one-see ya!’ and pitches over the edge.
A flurry of activity. Plunging figure. Static line rope tenses and releases, pilot chute pulls up and chute deploys. One eye squinting through a viewfinder, other eye seeking to pick out the subject, hastily trying to track the form as it hurtles then slows and sails off on a trajectory determined on the wing. These moments are hard to reconstruct, and its safe to say I have never really witnessed a jump as it’s always mediated through a lens and my own focus on getting the shot, not enjoying the spectacle. This one is a bit different. I have written elsewhere about the psychological, cognitive aspects of operating in extreme environments (from an hypothesised perspective of observing the jumper). But there are interesting perceptual aspects to being the ‘involved observer’ – i.e. in terms of capturing the moment photographically, as well as being involved in the ‘safety’ or rigging aspect. This is with respect to helping get the jumper into a position (not required this time) or being poised in a vertiginous position requiring careful set up and awareness whilst taking the picture.
Now though I had to try and track Josh with my left eye as my viewfinder had developed a fault and was blurred, so I couldn’t actually see what was happening to keep track through that, yet needed to still orient it intuitively and to adjust any settings on the fly. So my attention was split. This did mean however I saw the events unfold more ‘directly’ via my left eye, which seemed to make the experience more vivid and memorable. The second aspect of this jump not before witnessed was due to the wind conditions. Normally my perception of these events is a rapid exit, a swift opening, followed by a decisive trajectory off into the distance, quickly requiring me to adjust focus and aperture to try and capture images of this object as it gets smaller and further away. But a curious thing happened, for as soon as the chute opened, Josh seemed to stop.
What actually happened (as related later), was that the wind coming into the cliff inflated the canopy and with brakes on caused uplift. As Josh pulled on his toggles and exerted control, the rig buffeted, rose up and then achieved something of a status quo against the prevailing conditions. At this point he ‘hovered’ just below my position, juddering but stable. His flight path took on a staccato like aspect as he headed off along the cliff face. I strove to snap some more pictures but with heart in mouth was disconcerted given what I was seeing, not being used to this ‘soaring’ type of trajectory. Nevertheless it was going to his plan. He headed off further into the distance, and momentarily I paused my camera work trying to process what was actually happening. It was difficult to tell if he was heading into the cliffs from the perspective I had, but I was mightily relieved when he about-faced, soared back some then headed quickly down towards the lake and an eventual landing…
I sprung into action to disengage my camera position, then ran up to the other cameras to retrieve all the equipment from the various locations, including rope set-ups from the jump. I also ‘fended off’ (!) enquiries from a bunch of fellows who had wandered over to see what all the commotion was about. I am becoming accustomed to this aspect of pursuing BASE jumpers round the country! As ever people were confused (at the prospect of jumping off things in this country) then excited and fascinated to find out more…
Thankfully josh decided that a planned second jump might be best avoided, given the time, our collective hunger and fatigue from not drinking or eating enough (it’s easy to forget haha in these circumstances) and mindful of wanting to get back down. It was also too windy now and the jump had taken it’s toll, being evidently quite an effort to fly according to the flight plan. With that we marched back up and over Snowdon again and got heads down for the couple of hours or so back to the van. In all a highly successful and exciting day, with great footage and shots achieved and in retrospect a wild experience to witness and be part of! That’s another one ‘ticked off! Where next…Ireland?!! (Over to you, Josh.)