RE THE STORY about the guy who went up the same mountain ten times (TAC62, p19), you might like to hear about a little charity event I organised in 1999. As to a name to encapsulate this idea of doing the same peak (or the same set of stairs) time and time again, stupid would be a good summary, I think...
St Helena I was looking forward to. Although most famous for its French guest in the early 19th century, it has a lot else to offer. When I first joined HMS Endurance, people had talked about St Helena and the set of steps called Jacob's Ladder. The steps were supposed to be so steep, so long and so bad that when one of the ship's company had run up and down them, it had knackered his knees so much that he had to be medically discharged from the navy. That sounded like the makings of a great challenge to me.
I found out more about Jacob's Ladder. It was one of the most notable features of Jamestown, St Helena's main township, and there were 699 steps. Built in 1829 for the garrison, the Ladder climbs to a height of 602 feet and in places is as steep as 45 degrees. It is reputed to break your heart going up and break your neck coming down.
As it happened, 50 times up the steps was the height of Everest. I reckoned that five people in the team each going up ten times should make for sufficient discomfort. Now all that was left to do was to find four more people willing to give it a go. If I was doing it, my cabin oppo Stevie the physical training instructor had to do it - he would never take the shit if he didn't. Same with the corporal marine I asked. Next came my training partner Dickie Bird and a fit young stoker going through for clearance diver. They didn't exactly know what they were letting themselves in for as I didn't tell them about the steps, just that I needed a team for a sponsored run. They were sufficiently aggrieved with me once they found out what they had to do.
Recovering from a long lay-off from training in Cape Town with too much good food and beer wasn't the ideal preparation for what could turn out to be an epic event. People said that we would not have a hope of doing it ten times each. I was quietly confident, and would treat it like climbing any mountain. Three to four hours I reckoned with the strong team we had.
With final training preparations done (well, the only actual preparation was having a tuna pasta meal the night before), the day soon dawned for the chosen five. Some were voicing doubts, but from my experience things are never as bad as they seem to appear. After the first time up - when my lungs felt like they were outside of my body - my view was somewhat different. We had a car to take us down each time. Without this, our knees would have taken too much pounding and I don't think we would have lasted the distance. Once we were into a rhythm, albeit a slow one, things were not too bad and the steps didn't seem to go on forever like they did the first time.
We completed four times up in the first hour, three times in the second. This was well within our limits and we now looked for a time under three hours. Two hours 50 minutes 10 seconds in the heat of the day saw us finish the challenge. All was not over, though. I wanted to go up one more time for a number of reasons. One for all the doubters on board to show them it was really not too bad, and two because our support crew, Johno the Buffer, wanted to go up. We had to stick together as a team I said, so back we all went.
All the team found it easier than expected, although they were happy that there were no other ports of call on the way back where I could think up any more ideas. Around £700 was raised from the ship's company towards a local charity to fly emergency medical cases off the island if needed - they were well pleased with the donation. A bloody good day is all I can say, finished off by me and Stevie running up the highest peak in St Helena (Diana's Peak, 818m) for good measure. I've a feeling that I'll be back on St Helena and Jacob's Ladder - I have another idea, and it's even madder than before.
Grant Hutchison writes: The longest stairs in the world are the service stairs for the Niesenbahn funicular in Switzerland: 11,674 steps rising a total of 1669m. You need special permission to take them on, though, because they're on private property.
Ed. - Any idea as to the longest set of steps in the UK, (a) outdoors, (b) indoors? And at risk of plunging into the usual nitpicking pedantry, how should a set of steps be defined? What if there are occasional "landings" - wide flat bits between flights where ascendees/descendees can pause to catch their breath? This is commonly the case - to take just one relatively small Scottish example, I recall from my student days that the steps connecting College Street with Crown Terrace in Aberdeen include at least one "pause". Does this still count as a single flight, or are we back into the realm of main summits and subsidiary tops?
And thanks to the ever-vigilant Richard Webb for spotting more on the multiple-ascent theme from the Press and Journal for 5 October. A story about the rescue of an ill-shod bloke from Ben Nevis included this: "They [the rescue team] were giving back-up support to Fort William athlete Charlie Anderson, 32, who was successfully tackling four ascents and descents of the Ben in one day."
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