Thursday, 9 November 2017

The walk to Kinney Lake
















Immediately behind us, a giant among giants, and immeasurably supreme, rose Robson's Peak. This magnificent mountain is of conical form, glacier clothed and rugged. When we first caught sight of it, a shroud of mist partially enveloped the summit, but this presently rolled away, and we saw its upper portion dimmed by a necklace of light, feathery clouds, beyond which its pointed apex of ice, glittering in the morning sun, shot up far into the blue heaven above, to a height of probably ten thousand or fifteen thousand feet.*

Unless you approach from the west on the Yellowhead Highway, Mount Robson remains hidden from view by other mountains in the Rainbow Range. This obscurity might be one explanation as to why the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies was a latecomer to European exploration and mountaineering, despite its elevation. Its presence is often likewise concealed by the prevailing weather conditions which have the mountain covered in cloud for long periods of the year. One early traveller dubbed it Cloud Cap Mountain and another local guide reported that out of the 29 times he had passed it, he had only seen the top once.

How the mountain got its present-day name remains something of a mystery. One possible explanation is that a trading party camping close to the mountain in the 1820s was under the direction of a man named Robson, but this is complete conjecture. The Texqakallt, a First Nations people and the earliest inhabitants of the area, call it Yuh-hai-has-kun, or ‘Mountain of the Spiral Road’, an infinitely more befitting description given its distinctive horizontal bands of snow that taper towards the summit.

The truth is, Mount Robson remained unchartered for a long time by European travellers. The Yellowhead Pass over which fur traders, early explorers and gold prospectors spasmodically journeyed was largely ignored as a realistic option for a major east-west link when the railways arrived in Western Canada, being too far north. However, when the Canadian Pacific Railway finally connected the Atlantic with the Pacific via the Rocking Horse Pass much further south in the 1880s, it did signal the gradual opening-up of the Canadian Rockies.

In 1865, Walter Butler Cheadle and Viscount Milton travelled over the Yellowhead Pass from Edmonton on an expedition to find the Northwest Passage by land. They immediately fell under the spell of the mountain’s beauty. The citation above, a somewhat embellished description of the mountain, comes from the popular account of their adventures.
But since it was only the frontiersmen that ventured this way, trails were few and far between. Until the end of the 19th century, the Mount Robson area and the northern Rockies remained largely untrampled by tourists, let alone mountaineers. Its relative inaccessibility and some of the far-fetched accounts of lofty mountains that travellers came back with only added to the mystique of the region. Some estimates of Mount Robson’s height were wildly exaggerated with early reports of it exceeding 15,000 feet (or 4,600 metres). In 1898, geological surveyor, James McEvoy whittled that down to 13,700 feet (4,174 metres), which still made it the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies. More accurate surveying ultimately revealed its height to be 12,972 feet, or 3,954 metres.

Thus established, Mount Robson’s stature was enough to attract a growing number of mountaineers. Alpinism was becoming a popular sport and mountain-bagging was now no less de rigeur here than it had been in the Alps a few decades previously. But make no mistake, early attempts on the peak were a major logistical undertaking.

The first expedition to Mount Robson proper was in 1907, organised by A.P. Coleman and  George Kinney. Coleman was Professor of Geology at the University of Toronto, as well as an accomplished artist who had explored widely in the Rockies in the 1890s. Kinney, a Vancouver-based Methodist minister, was one of the original members of the Alpine Club of Canada who would develop an all-consuming passion for the mountain. Starting out from Laggan (present-day Lake Louise), such were the obstacles they faced on their way – blizzards, snowed-up mountain passes and fallen timber amongst then – that it took them a whole 39 days to reach the base of the mountain. (By contrast, today’s tourist on the Icefields Parkway can complete the same journey in half a day.) By the time they set up camp, it was already 10 September and, with dwindling supplies, there was precious little time to make an attempt on the mountain before the weather closed in again. They reconnoitred the mountain from several sides and Coleman recorded the spectacular beauty of the place in some of the earliest sketches and watercolours of the surroundings.

A 1908 expedition proved similarly frustrating for Coleman and Kinney. The 21 days they spent in the shadow of Mount Robson consisted of further mapping and exploration. Kinney made several forays on the mountain and this time reached a point 1000 metres short of the summit, but supply lines and limited daylight hours ensured that Robson remained unvanquished.

In June 1909, having heard that foreign parties had designs on the mountain, Kinney became so worried that he set out on his own on what was another fraught trip, at one point having to swim for his life after being tossed into a swollen torrent. En route he enlisted the services of Donald “Curly” Phillips, a 25-year-old outfitter, game for the challenge, but who had no experience in the high mountains. On 13 August 1909, after many aborted attempts and close shaves, they made one last, desperate attempt on the south-west face of the mountain. Enveloped by swirling mists and sleet, as they got closer to the top, they had to make their way upwards on all fours. They could only see a few yards ahead of them and Kinney wrote of the ordeal, “our clothes and hair were one frozen mass of snow and ice”. In dense cloud and encountering cliffs covered with overhanging masses of snow and huge cornices, they eventually found themselves on the summit ridge and were at last able to claim the summit. Without the aid of professional guides it was acclaimed by the climbing fraternity as an astonishing accomplishment.

What should have marked the closing of the first chapter in Mount Robson’s mountaineering history however, took another twist …

Following the publicity surrounding attempts on the mountain in previous years and the subsequent construction of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway beyond Jasper, the Alpine Club of Canada sent an expedition to the region in 1911, not specifically to ascend the mountain, but instead to look at ways of opening up the area to mountaineering and recreation. However, Mount Robson having now been surveyed from almost every conceivable angle, there was a growing scepticism about Kinney and Phillips’ claim of having reached the top via the route they described. A.O. Wheeler, the club’s first president and leader of the ACC expedition, wrote that the route “looked impossible”. And the doubts persisted.
Another Mount Robson Camp took place in 1913, this time with Wheeler organising an expedition to climb the mountain for certain. He called upon the services of Conrad Kain, an Austrian guide (who went on to become one of the most celebrated figures in Canadian mountaineering). This time, Kain - along with Colonel “Billy” Foster and Albert “Mack” McCarthy – attacked the peak from the north side in what was to be another legendary climb. Kain had to cut hundreds of steps through a maze of ice walls near to the summit. “Never before have I seen such ice formations,” he recorded. After setting off at 7.30 a.m. from a  camp high up on the mountain’s flanks, Kain and his team eventually reached the summit at 5.30 p.m., whereupon he is reputed to have said to his two clients, “Gentlemen, that’s so far as I can take you.” When they got back to base camp the next day, around the campfire that evening “Curly” Phillips (who also happened to be part of the 1913 expedition) made the startling revelation that he and Kinney had in fact not attained the summit in 1909 – “We reached an ice-dome fifty or sixty feet high, which we took for the peak. The danger was too great to ascend the dome.”

Though Kinney would always insist that he and Phillips had reached the true top of Mount Robson and despite the remarkable achievement of that unguided climb, the first ascent is now credited to the party led by Kain in 1913.

And thus the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies was conquered.















Dubbed the Monarch of the Canadian Rockies, Mount Robson rises a full 3,000 metres from the valley bottom, near to where the Mount Robson Provincial Park visitor centre is situated on the Yellowhead Highway and from where most tourists can marvel at the grandeur of the peak, weather permitting.  From here, walkers can hike the 21-kilometre Berg Lake Trail up the Robson River to a spectacular glacial-blue lake at the top of the trail, which is fed by ice- and waterfalls descending from the heights of Robson. Partly because of the trailhead’s proximity to the east-west highway, this well-maintained path is one of the most popular backpacking trips in the Rockies, with some of the best mountain scenery in British Columbia.

Most tourists to this part of the Rockies are strapped for time and only see the spectacle of Mount Robson from the viewing platform at the visitor centre. When my companion and I stopped by in early June this year, we were fortunate to have most of the day to get close up to the mountain. With the weather set fair for the day, when a cloudless Mount Robson loomed into view that morning, it was a safe bet that the hiking boots we’d thrown into the back of our rental car would be put through their paces. Whilst Berg Lake was sadly out of the question, the short 4.5-kilometre trek to Kinney Lake along the same trail recommended by the park rangers would at least go some way to assuaging my appetite and bring us within spitting distance of the mountain.

As the walk ascends the valley of the Robson river, the sheer scale of the mountain with its precipices closing in doesn’t fail to impress. However, its southern face is partly obscured by forest, which is unusual because the cedar, hemlock and Douglas Fir in abundance here are more akin to the temperate rainforests of British Columbia’s Pacific Rim. But such is the domineering presence of Mount Robson, the prevailing westerly winds laden with moisture get pushed up over the summit here, causing heavier rainfall and producing a unique microclimate. On a clear day like this one, it is also possible to see the ‘gargoyles’ on the summit ridge, weird snow formations sculpted by the wind that whips up over the mountain.

After an hour’s gentle uphill climb, the gradient relents and the forest opens out to reveal Kinney Lake, an expanse of emerald-green water, hemmed in by high cliffs with views of Whitehorn Mountain beyond, a handsome peak that would perhaps draw considerable more attention if located elsewhere. A.P. Coleman decided to name the lake in honour of his good friend George Kinney when it was first ‘discovered’ by his 1907 expedition. If one reason alone was enough to justify our decision to choose Canada as a destination this year, then Kinney Lake was it. And not only that, it was the perfect spot to tuck into a hard-boiled egg.

As if to remind us that we were in the great outdoors, not simply taking a leisurely country stroll, on our return to the trailhead we ran into a black bear sauntering along the path and thus impeding our way. Normally, bears are harmless if you avoid attracting their attention, which is why I was somewhat startled by my companion’s gung-ho impulse of pulling out her camera and wanting to get a closer glimpse. Needless to say, after keeping a safe distance and demonstrating some watchful vigilance, we arrived back at the trailhead in one piece having lived to tell the tale of a bear and an unforgettable walk in the shadow of Mount Robson. 

* opening text from The North-West Passage by Land by William Fitzwilliam Milton, Walter Butler Cheadle, published 1865 

Bibliography:
Jane Lytton Gooch, Mount Robson: Spiral Road of Art (2013)
Bill Corbett, The 11,000ers of the Canadian Rockies (2004)
Bart Robinson and Brian Patton, The Canadian Rockies Trail Guide, 9th edition (2011)
Chic Scott, Pushing the Limits: The Story of Canadian Mountaineering (2010)

Monday, 21 August 2017

Dunkirk













I spent part of the summer this year near Aldeburgh, a picturesque old fishing port on the East Anglian coast, now perhaps more famous for its annual arts and music festival founded in 1948 by composer Benjamin Britten. The venue on my last evening was Aldeburgh Cinema located on the town’s High Street, a period-piece picture palace founded in 1919 which, according to its website, “is one of the oldest, continuously running cinema houses in the United Kingdom. The auditorium retains several original features, including a number of beautiful art deco lights.” So what could be a more appropriate setting for attending the screening of Christopher Nolan’s critically acclaimed portrayal of the evacuation of Allied troops at Dunkirk in the early part of the Second World War? The film ‘Dunkirk‘ presents a harrowing account of the real-life drama that unfolded on the beaches of Northern France over the course of a week between 26 May and 4 June 1940. This fast-moving wartime spectacle has been acclaimed widely for its generally realistic representation of the historical evacuation. And by way of a quirky coincidence, on my travels home the next day I found myself sailing into the Dunkirk ferry terminal.
Fortunately, to my knowledge, no one in my family was lost during the Dunkirk evacuation. A cousin of my mother’s was captured by the German army near the French coast and saw out his war years in a POW camp. My father’s brother John, now 97 years old, was likewise part of the British Expeditionary Forces which had to beat a hasty retreat towards the English Channel from the rapidly advancing German troops – he was one of the lucky ones to survive and return to England. My uncle experienced an eventful war, eventually attaining the rank of Captain. He was recently awarded the Legion d’Honneur for his deeds after the D-Day landings. And towards the end of the war he was part of a Red Cross Unit as an observer at Belsen concentration camp which had just been liberated. A grim task indeed.
Thankfully my uncle wrote an account of his wartime experiences and below is his own first-hand account of ‘Dunkirk’. Prior to the evacuation, he had been stationed in Armentières, near the Belgian border, as part of France’s plans to bolster the country’s defences in anticipation of a German attack. For several weeks nothing happened and then the Hitler’s Wehrmacht, with 2,500 tanks at its disposal, backed up by a formidable air force, began its Blitzkrieg offensive. On the 10 May 1940, the Battle of France commenced. 

At this time the German armour was superior to the Allies and it was not long before we were being shelled and bombed. Our commanders decided that retreat seemed the better part of valour and as the Belgian army had already given up the fight, we had little option but to retreat. The French and Belgians were still using some horse-drawn transport and together with their refugees with carts and prams, the roads were extremely difficult to use and almost totally grid-locked.
However, running the gauntlet of shelling and bombing, occasionally jumping into ditches was little protection, but we managed to retreat in the direction of the Channel ports. The worst scenes were of dead animals in the roads and fields - cows and horses - along with dead soldiers and civilians.
Many of the units were split up, but the majority of the British army was funnelled in the direction of Dunkirk. Naturally many of the vehicles and men were lost in the shelling and bombing, which was increasing in intensity as we neared the coast. On many occasions we had to abandon the vehicles to avoid the dive-bombers, taking shelter on the banks of the canals, which in many cases were parallel to the roads. By the time my vehicle reached Dunkirk many thousands were already there and the place was heaving with troops from France, Belgium and of course Britain. They were milling about all over the town, trying to seek shelter in disused buildings and those which were still standing.
Along with two comrades I dodged from place to place and witnessed our last shelter bombed before our eyes - we were very lucky! Many vehicles were destroyed and those still usable were later driven into the sea or set on fire, weapons being smashed to prevent them falling into enemy hands. Chaos reigned but by degrees senior officers tried to muster troops into some sort of order and we eventually arrived on the main beaches. They were literally packed with troops although a great many were killed by the relentless attacks by the dive-bombers - again we were lucky to be alive.
I was still with my friend, Alan Chantler, and not having eaten for many days, we devoured a tin of sandy Skipper sardines which had been sent to me in a food parcel from home a few weeks previously - I remember that they were delicious but gritty! We were very thirsty, having consumed all our water the day before.
We had to keep moving about in an effort to avoid the bombing but it was more by great good fortune than strategy that we remained alive! By night time the beaches were lit up by burning oil tanks near the docks which blazed for days and nights.
Two days later, as daylight approached ,we saw all kinds of ships appearing on the horizon and as they drew nearer we realised that this was an armada of evacuation craft coming to the rescue.
A great many soldiers died on the beaches during those terrible days and nights and I count myself fortunate that l survived, along with others.
Senior officers gathered together batches of twenty soldiers at a time to join little boats and other craft for evacuation from the water's edge. It was an ongoing process and many were lost in the water together with civilian boats and their crew.
There was still a jetty (or mole, as it was called) jutting out from the harbour, and although there were great holes in the planks, it was still being used by larger ships. Included in these was a Naval destroyer called the HMS Malcolm and I was fortunate enough to be one of the soldiers to be marshalled towards this ship. With great difficulty we proceeded along the jetty, and when ordered, jumped down several feet onto the deck of the destroyer. The decks were so packed with troops that we were ordered not to move at all because had we done so the ship could have capsized, it was so over-loaded.
Within a few hours, and with some food inside us along with plenty of hot mugs of tea, we arrived at Dover - glad to be home again.
At the railway station, train after train left with returning troops, travelling to destinations unknown. Together with many others I arrived at Bristol and was bussed out of town to a camp at Alverston, north of Bristol. During my stay there I was asked by the local vicar to read a lesson at one of the thanksgiving services and within about ten days we were allowed to go on leave.

Friday, 17 February 2017

The Jungle Railway – a train odyssey through Malaysia















14 years ago, I found myself aboard the slow train that runs down the spine of the Malay Peninsula. If you're looking to get places quickly, then the Golden Blowpipe isn't for you … 

Saturday 9 August 2003 
The alarm on R’s watch stirred us from our sleep soon after 4 am, but there was no sign of our 4.15 wake-up call. After dressing and finishing our packing, we drifted downstairs to the reception, still in total darkness at this time. I recognised what I thought was the outline of a member of staff, presumably asleep, slumped over the desk. When I called out, I heard a thud, which this time came from underneath the counter, and moments later the receptionist appeared, upright, rubbing his head in a daze. In the meantime, his colleague behind the desk was also now awake, who, it turned out, was the driver of the taxi we’d ordered the night before. Before long we were speeding away from Safar’s Inn and out of Kota Bahru towards the station at Wakaf Bahru where our 350-kilometre train adventure would shortly begin. 
When we arrived at the railhead, there was scant sign of life and after consulting one of the notice boards, it became apparent that the times of our train been altered as of 1 August “for the convenience of travellers”. Instead of a 5.45 departure, we would have to wait until 6.52 to climb aboard!
To kill time, we paced up and down the platform waiting for dawn to break and signs of human activity. Above the horizon I noticed Orion in the night sky – not visible in temperate latitudes at this time of year. Then, slowly but surely, things started to stir in and around the station buildings. First to turn up were a couple of talkative schoolgirls in headscarves. A Chinese porter appeared on the scene to load sacks of fruit and vegetables onto trolleys. Some time later, a mother-daughter combination, who had the concession for the station buffet, opened up their kiosk where we were able to enjoy an early morning cup of coffee sweetened with condensed milk. Gradually backpackers started arriving and at 6 o’clock, the station master appeared unhurriedly opening his office for the early morning travellers. Eventually I acquired our tickets for the 10-hour journey to Jerantut for the outrageously cheap price of 12 ringgits 60 sen each, just half the price of the taxi-ride from Kota Bahru!
The train which was to take us south through the interior finally arrived at the (re)scheduled time and we climbed on to the air-conditioned carriage in the centre of the train. Whoever regulates the air-conditioning on public transport in the tropics is usually over-zealous and we soon discovered that it was a few degrees cooler than was ideally comfortable. This had us and our fellow Western travellers rifling through our backpacks for sweaters and long trousers, not something that would be normally required in these climes.
The long haul to Jerantut takes just over ten hours and calls at 68 stations (often little more than halts). That’s a stop every 10 minutes or so. Some stations along the line serve as a passing point when oncoming trains can cross. For the first part of the journey the train follows the valley of the Sungai Kelantan, after which the province is named, before entering the interior proper. The two most important ports of call en route are Gua Musang and Kuala Lipis. 
As the train journeyed southwards, the carriage started to fill with passengers, all locals, hauling local produce to sell at markets down the line. Hawkers walked up and down the carriages selling liquid and solid nourishment – boiled eggs, various fruits and rice – to passengers, one of whom was keen to engage us in English conversation. Hamzani was on his way to Gua Musang from Tumpat. Though he was good at asking questions in English his ability to understand answers was wanting, but he was friendly and prepared to let us share his food including salak fruit (cone-shaped with a scaly red husk and a firm and slightly sweet flesh), papaya and quail eggs.
Since the temperatures inside carriage had been set too low, quite absurdly, it was necessary now and again to take a stroll to the vestibule at the end of the carriage for the warmth of the outside air. As we approached the halfway mark of the journey at Gua Musang, the train was brimming with travellers and their wares and soon my efforts to offset the chill in the carriage became thwarted by assorted boxes of durian obstructing the entrances. Chaos ensued whenever a train stopped to allow yet more people on and the gangways between carriages became completely blocked, but strangely no-one became agitated. At one point I managed to graze the back of my leg on the prickly rind of a durian, but it was easy to forget the discomfort and the stench coming from this enigmatic fruit, being offset by the warmth and stunning views out of the open carriage doors.
I was joined for a while at the end of the carriage by a Dutch backpacker from Zeeland, surprised by my fluent Dutch. She told me that she and her friend had been travelling in Malaysia and had journeyed up to the beaches of Pulau Perhentian, off the coast to the east of Kota Bahru. Their plan was now to go trekking in the Taman Negara and thence to the Cameron Highlands before returning to Singapore. She was planning to travel independently to Australia from there.
The station at Gua Musang















We arrived at Gua Musang at 12.50. Here the scenery changes dramatically and the undulating jungle countryside gives way to a landscape which is studded with impressive limestone outcrops. The train stopped here for the best part of 15 minutes, so it was a joy to get off and have a walkabout.
Beyond Gua Musang, the railway crosses the state border into Pahang. On my next excursion to the end of the carriage, I got into a stifled conversation with 18-year-old Din. His English was even worse than Hamzani’s but he persevered. He managed to explain that he was on his way home from Gua Musang to Kuala Lipis. We exchanged names by way of writing and I had to show him the date on my Dutch residence permit to show him of how old I was. He was going home because he’d ran out of money. A 5-ringgit note was all he had in his wallet. The conversation eventually ran dry and I went back to my seat when he disappeared into the toilet.
7 hours in and the journey was now becoming tedious. A few stations later we were joined by a party of headscarved student teachers who were on their way to a training camp further down the line.
Kuala Lipis is the next town of any significance on the route. Not that it’s of any great size. When the British held sway in Malaya, it functioned as an administrative capital for the surrounding region and consequently has some interesting colonial buildings.
Several tour agents got on here. Jerantut is a major stopping off point for tourists wanting to trek the Taman Negara and many operators hawk their travel and accommodation services to the backpackers well in time before they arrive at their destination. They seemed to be attracting enough punters, perhaps including our Dutch backpacker.
To break the monotony, I went to the buffet car and had some coffee (again sweetened with condensed milk). I stayed there awhile gazing out of the window watching the luxuriant tropical scenery pass by. South of Kuala Lipis the track follows a route alongside the muddy Jelai river passing through some lush, green, wooded countryside.
Finally, we pulled into Jerantut at around ten past five, where we were met by my brother who had driven over from Kuala Lumpur to pick us up. We took some photographs and waited for the train from Singapore bound for Gua Musang (which was late) to cross, before we started on the two and a half hour journey to KL. It had been a long and eventful day.

Background information 
One of South-East Asia’s premier rail journeys is the 15-hour passage through the lush jungle and rainforest-clad east coast of the Malay Peninsula. The Express Timuran (formerly known as the Sumpitan Emas or Golden Blowpipe) cuts a swathe through this verdant landscape and the journey is as interesting as the destinations it connects. The rail line operates under the authority of Keretapi Tanah Melayu Berhad (KTMB) and is a simple but important means of transportation for the people who live in this largely untouched part of the country. The trip on one of KTMB’s trains may not be as lavish as some other routes, particularly the Eastern & Oriental Express (E & O), which runs between Singapore and Bangkok, but the east coast jungle route is a more true-to-life travel experience offering a window onto the heart of the Malaysian social landscape.¹
It took indentured Tamil workers eight years to build the five-hundred kilometre jungle railway from Gemas, south-east of Kuala Lumpur, to Tumpat on the north-east coast. The line has been in full operation since 1931 (the first section from Gemas to Kuala Lipis was opened in 1920) and much of its rolling stock has not been upgraded since. Initially it was used for freight – first for tin and rubber and later for oil palm - before a passenger service was opened in 1938.²
Wakaf Bahru, which marks the northernmost point on the line today, is a fifteen-minute minibus ride from Kota Bahru, the state capital of Kelantan, in the north-eastern corner of mainland Malaysia. At 94%, the Malay are the dominant ethnic group in the state and Islam the chief religion, though like all major cities in the country, there is a sizeable Chinese community and a smattering of Tamils and Siamese. The city is a showcase of classical Malay history and culture has a 300-year-old mosque and an abundance of museums, craft shops and a central market that must be one of the most colourful in Asia. 

The indoor market at Kota Bahru


 













Background information (sources):
¹ Malaysia Airlines In-flight magazine May 2003
² The Rough Guide to Malaysia

Other links:
http://wikitravel.org/en/Jungle_Railway
http://www.britishpathe.com/video/general-templar-reopens-malayan-railway/query/Golden


See also: Vietato attraversare i binari

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Geen Excuus!


















If you’re an outdoorsy type like me, you probably mourn the passing of summer each year. The fine weather and the long days have a mesmerising effect on me, luring me en plein air. By the time the autumn equinox arrives I’ve generally burned off enough calories on long evening walks and cycle rides to offset those that have accumulated in the pub during the halcyon days of summer. September then slips into October and before you know it, the clocks have changed. By the time November kicks in, sunset times have slid from 7.30 pm to just gone 5, helped admittedly by some daylight-saving adjustments, with temperatures plummeting similarly. In my experience the encroaching dark and cold have a numbing impact on the spirit. The lethargy, much like the calorie intake, starts to mount ...

In my younger days it was easier for my mind and body to counteract the darkening mood that descends in November and December, the two months of the year that see an unremitting loss of daylight. As the years go by, my alter ego demands I stay in bed a little while longer, prepare more lavish evening meals washed down with a glass of wine (or two), or curl up on the settee with some comforting tea and biscuits. Leading a sedentary existence as a translator working from home, if I’m not careful, languor can lead introspection and melancholy.

On reaching one's mid-forties, there’s a growing realisation that youth is no longer on your side. Bluntly put, you’re halfway to oblivion. Many will go to great lengths, not entirely in keeping with their character, to retain their sense of youth: plastic surgery, a fast car, an armful of tattoos and a hair transplant are among some of the more clichéd responses to this phenomenon. Myself? I discovered the Winterlauf, the perfect antidote to seasonal gloom and declining years.

The Winterlauf, or ‘winter run’, is an annual race organised by the Aachener Turn-Gemeinde (ATG), an Aachen-based athletics club. With the inaugural run being held in 1963, the Winterlauf follows an 18-kilometre course through the forested Eifel region on the city’s outskirts and takes place on the first or second Sunday of December. You could in fact question the name, since it’s only one week into the meteorological winter and two before the solstice, but one thing’s for sure, with only 8 hours of daylight, the days are dark and the weather all but predictable.

This year's Aachener Winterlauf, the 54th, was held on December 4. Registration to take part in the run opens in mid-September and such is its popularity that the 2,500 places are snapped up within 24 hours. It’s hard to determine quite why demand is so high. Having done multiple runs myself, it’s probably safe to assume that once you’ve completed one, you’ll keep coming back for more, however hard you try to convince yourself otherwise when you cross the finishing line each time.

Each year follows more or less the same pattern and after having now completed 14, I can mentally picture every twist and turn.

On the morning of the race, entrants assemble from 8.30 onwards at the ATG’s clubhouse in one of Aachen’s leafy southern suburbs. From there, a fleet of buses takes the runners on a 30-minute ride to an isolated and invariably muddy car park in the middle of the forest. This, in itself, is a major logistical exercise, with 20 or so buses shuttling back and forth to ferry the 2,500 or so participants to the starting line located on a minor road between the villages of Zweifall and Mulartshütte. The shuttle service continues until just after 10, so the trick is, especially if the weather’s bad, to sit in the warmth of the clubhouse changing room and jump on the final bus.
The mood is one of animated apprehension as the mass of runners funnels out of the car park and is corralled up the road to the starting line. There's much muscle-flexing and nervous banter as people jockey for position ahead of the 11 oclock start. As the pistol-shot sounds, the excitable chatter is replaced by the sound of 5,000 training shoes hitting the tarmac. Unless you’re at the front, the first kilometre is slow, with the pack weaving in and out, everyone trying to find their pace for the gruelling 18 kilometres ahead.
After the first kilometre, a steep 100-metre climb separates the wheat from the chaff. At the top, the runners – not quite so bunched now - are having to find second breath. From Kilometre 2 to Kilometre 6, there’s a slow but pronounced descent before the route picks up the old track bed of the long disused Vennbahn, a former railway line built by the Prussian state railways to carry coal and iron ore. After another slow climb up to the abbey town of Kornelimünster, contestants are at the halfway stage and the route opens out onto Brander Feld, a seemingly never-ending stretch of exposed plateau on the ouskirts of Aachen.
Most runners reach the Aachener Wald, the forest above the city, without having to break their run, but now they are confronted with an unexpectedly stiff and muddy 1.5-kilometre ascent through the woods. Once this has been negotaiated, the finish is within sniffing distance - it’s a question of gritting your teeth and trying to forget the pain. If you’ve got any legs left, it's a quick sprint down the final hill to the finishing line.

I’m one of five regular running buddies who’ve been taking part in the race for the past 15 years. We go by the unofficial name of Geen Excuus. We differ in age by just 5 years and are all the wrong side of 55, yet most Sundays throughout the year, and often midweek, we toil up hill and down dale, come rain or shine. Family commitments, injury, illness, even the occasional hangover, might sometimes get in the way, but on the first Sunday in Advent there's really 'no excuse' for crying off – the Winterlauf is the one event that no one wants to miss!

The build-up to the race starts in earnest around mid-September when our work-outs – normally an hour - get extended week-by-week. But we’re neither fanatical nor meticulous in our training methods: our one single aim is to increase our distance, whilst minimising the pain. Running is supposed to be fun and our only battle cry is Doorlopen!* If we’ve managed to hit the 18-kilometre mark by mid-November, the Winterlauf will be plain sailing! Well, at least that’s the theory, the point being that by the start of December, most of us are all in reasonable shape and ready for the main event.

In the week leading up to the big day, we're on tenterhooks. What’s the weather forecast? Will I need my rain-gear? Will that niggling twinge go away? Should I stay teetotal the night before? And - I jest not - how will my ‘insides’ behave on the day? Once we’re on the bus to Zweifall, there’s a schoolboy excitement which only dissipates once the race gets underway. Strangely, for a group that runs together every week, as soon as the starting-pistol fires, we’re on our own. Of course, there’s over 2,000 other runners to keep you company, but from here on in there’ll be no mates garrulously urging you on and as you tick off the kilometres, it’s a question of manning up and making the best of it. The Winterlauf can throw anything at you: rain, wind, snow, ice, mud, you name it, we’ve had it. And despite all this, in the 15 years we’ve been running the race, none of us have failed to stagger over the finishing line with competent times. And together, with our almost 300 years, we’ve managed to clock up over a 1,000 kilometres.

There’s a feeling of euphoria once we’ve crossed the line. The organisers dole out mementos each year, always with a running theme, the most prized of which is the buff scarf. The day wouldn’t be complete without the traditional post-race pizza at La Finestra in downtown Aachen, helped down by some well-earned Weizen. Once I’m back home, you can usually find me slumped on the settee like a heavy sack of potatoes for the duration.

Having put the Winterlauf to bed for another year, my aching limbs decide they've deserved a break from exercise for at least a couple of weeks. By that time, we’ve broken the back of winter and - at least as far as daylight hours are concerned - it’s all uphill from here. Not only do I get the satisfaction of having completed yet another Winterlauf, more importantly, all the hard work, and not least of the camaraderie, have helped keep the autumn blues at bay.

Three cheers for the Winterlauf

*doorlopen = keep on running