Breaths: New Experiences
If I screw up bad enough I will die.
I breathe in for five seconds, counting, hold it for two and then out slowly for seven. I do it again. Again. As well as trying to calm my pulse I’m trying to clear my head, to muffle the doubts that are about to stop me doing this. In, hold, out, it’s a trick I picked up on the field back when the hockey goal was where I got my fix. Keeping calm and focused, forgetting about the negative thoughts that eat away at your confidence and then your ability to perform. It’s harder here, the unrelenting cacophony of water charging past reminds me of my lack of ability. Reminds me that it’s been here for thousands of years, it’s cut this channel out of the rock itself, and will be more than happy to drown me given half the chance. It will end my life without slowing and it will carry my remains the same as it carries a dead log. In, hold, out. Trying to stop thinking that a Stand Up Paddle Board is just a lilo with delusions of grandeur. To stop reminding myself that four days ago I was googling how to ride one down a river. I open my eyes against my own will, looking out at the two rivers I am standing in, only physically within my depth. First, the Neretva, watching as it barrels into the narrow channel, piling over itself as every drop forces its way to being the first downstream, picking up speed, height and somehow solidity. Then I look up at the Buna, the smaller, far colder river that’s pouring over the side of the channel, dozens of waterfalls pummelling the first river, demanding to be part of it. I look at the white water 4 feet away from me, and the ‘hydraulics’, ‘backwashes’ and ‘boils’. I stand in this ‘eddy’ contemplating how I also had to research these basic white water kayaking terms less than a week ago. In, hold, out. I shouldn’t be here. If I screw up bad enough I will die; weirdly I’m aware that the same goes for climbing stairs and not chewing food. Obviously, this is different, this feels like the equivalent of climbing stairs surrounded by fire wearing stilettos for the first time or chewing a live scorpion. In, hold, out, I stop thinking long enough to jump onto my board, pushing us out of safety and into the Neretva-Buna Channel. Then I remember I’m an idiot.
If you’ve followed my recent journey at all -I do not assume that many people make it a priority- you’ll have read that briefly before, a month or so ago. I’ve begun to find the day to day articles that we post during our trips to be out of kilter from the experience as such, not only forced to be written weekly, but they are a view of the mountains from a lone hiker’s perspective. Although that view holds the beauty in being there, surrounded by peaks, nature, at the mercy of the sky, they are an imperceptible dot on the landscape when you stand back and look at the entire mountain range. It’s only once we return from the mountains or, in this case the river running through the mountains, and give it time for us to realise not only where we were but -cue white dreadlocked harem pants stoner comment- who we were. The throw-away, fortune cookie style of this isn’t to be overlooked.
“When your loved ones are going through hell, it becomes more necessary to avoid unnecessary risk.”
Again, if you’ve followed at all you’ll know that the reason I was trying to paddle down an un-paddled river in Bosnia and cycle from the end of it to Germany was born from a dream to be stoic in the face of things out of my control. Out of this stoicism and in order to keep it quiet until now I haven’t been comfortable expressing the reason I didn’t spend my summer in Chile’s winter. On April 1st my stepdad went into hospital escorted by our family doctor, my mum. He came out with a diagnosis of Acute Myeloid Leukaemia, blood cancer. Chile, Patagonia, 4,000m mountains in their very extreme winter were off the cards, not least because it would take me four days to fly back from Patagonia if I had phone signal and was a day away from an airport, in reality, I could’ve been out of reach of home for 10 days. My mum, who took leave from work in order to care for Steve, and help him with his work was already showing signs of stress, knowing that her slightly foolhardy son was so far away, in what is definitely very dangerous terrain would not help. So I bargained for the EU and then pushed it slightly further, just outside because I’d already paid for international insurance. Maybe now you’re starting to see why I realised I was a total idiot for throwing myself down the Neretva-Buna channel? When your loved ones are going through hell, it becomes more necessary to avoid unnecessary risk.
I paddled onto the salty waters of the Adriatic on the 28th June and was back in the UK on the 29th for my mum and Steve’s wedding, by the 5th July I was back in Croatia and trying to start the cycle, and failing due to my lack of preparation. Things that usually fall into place with a positive outlook and a bit of initiative just weren’t. My focus was gone, my drive was gone, and for some stupid reason, I was 3,000km away from home. 5 days later I was two days into the 14-day trip when I stopped at a cafe for lunch. The afternoons weren’t fun so far, I would wake up at 3am and beat the sun to the road. By 11am I would finish for the day, spending 5 hours following the shade that trees threw on the ground, trying to keep hydrated and cool, and then I would swim and sleep. But those 5 hours with a book left plenty of time for my mind to think of home. Home is something we often think of when we’re lonely, and I, in particular, find myself longing for the small unique parts of my homes. My mum’s in the countryside with her five cats, my over-talkative grandma who makes an amazing macaroni cheese and sitting outside in the sun which is somehow more comfortingly warm here. My dad’s just outside of London with my siblings and I switching between joke and argument and playfighting, secretly loving the smell of wet dog that accompanies Ellie. Strangely it usually takes a few days and then I’m ready to move on again, I guess that comes with the territory of being a 21-year-old with chronically itchy feet. Just after lunch I found some wifi and found out over a Facebook group created to keep Steve’s friends and family in the loop that he’d been rushed to hospital in an ambulance, lights on. My mum being a doctor never calls an ambulance unnecessarily, and ambulances don’t use the lights without reason.
“I have no qualms whatsoever in saying that I would trade them all in to have been there”
I was very quickly air-lifted off the mountain and was seeing the whole picture, my mountain range that extended from Croatia to England. I wasn’t away from home, I was away from family and all my thoughts of home felt totally isolated without me being there. I booked a flight, turned around and spent the next two days cycling back to where I’d started, realising how much more rewarding things are when you actually have a purpose that’s not unjustified self-punishment. Three days later I was back in England and home. On the other three adventures, I’ve been on there’ve been multiple occasions I’ve wanted to quit, head home and be around familiarity. It’s something both my mum and Steve helped me push through over the phone when I was 19 in Australia during the loneliest phase of my life, and something I found solace in with company in the Pyrenees last year. So turning back and essentially quitting didn’t come without its arguments, but the decisiveness with which I booked my flight home, without calling to check with my mum, told me all I needed to know.
Three days later I was home. A week after that on the 23rd of July I was sat in the ICU ward of hospital with my new family, some had flown from LA, some from Dubai, others from Portugal; my brother had somehow managed to hitch a lift in a helicopter rather than drive (it was free we are not members of Uber Premium). At 3pm Steve breathed his last breath surrounded by his family. If I had continued with my plans I would have been just arriving in Munich. Of all the wonderful beautiful views I would have seen, people I would have met and sense of achievement I would hold, I have no qualms whatsoever in saying that I would trade them all in to have been there. For some reason, only understood if you knew the man, opening a bottle of champagne around his bed. A few weeks later with the hundreds of people at his funeral, who are a testament to the extraordinary type of man he was, I said my final goodbyes.
On a side-note, something that helped me through those days in hospital was Nicola’s article ‘Here and Now’ which is an astoundingly honest and blunt account of her mum’s final moments.
I’ve rewritten the end of this article a couple of times, mixing between soppy and biographical. I’d love to write his biography but it would be selfish to try and put Steve’s life into my own words, as it would be inaccurate to attempt to explain my feelings since. So I can’t quite figure out what I’m trying to say apart from that this year I learnt to step back from the constant pursuit of ‘adventure’ even if it takes me to ridiculous situations and focus on home more. I’ve discovered that I don’t need to beat myself into taking or finishing an adventure and that it is okay to stop, breath and make the decision to turn back. Because as cliche as it sounds, those breathes run out, and we should try and use each one wisely.
Speaking of using what you’ve got wisely, Steve didn’t get a chance to have a stem-cell transplant, but thousands do, it’s just they need matches. Anthony Nolan is one of the leading organisations ho help make this happen. Head to their website and sign up to spit in a jar and become a donor. We are also raising money for Anthony Nolan through a different page now which is here.