A beer (& a curry in a cave) with... Alastair Humphreys
Last summer I went on a microadventure with Alastair Humphreys
Gordon | 07 Nov 2018
Back in May last year, I got a text message out of the blue from my mate Tomo. Did I want to go on a #microadventure with him and the adventurer Alastair Humphreys in the Peak District National Park the following Monday? It would involve arriving by train, walking to a bivouac location on Stanage Edge and carrying with us some food and beer for the evening. The latter would have to be in moderation as we’d be spending the night in a cave half way up the cliff face. We’d be up early for an al fresco breakfast before giving the place a good tidying up and walking back into town to get trains back to our respective homes. The text ended with RSVP. It was also fortuitous as I’d been nagging Al for an interview and a beer for an edition of the journal. How could I say no?
So who is Alastair Humphreys? In his own words:
“When someone asks me that question in an interview I say that my name is Alastair Humphreys and I am an adventurer and an author. When someone in the real world asks me what I do I say that I am Alastair Humphreys and I am a writer. The reality is that I am Alastair Humphreys and I used to do some big adventures but now I dick around in caves and my job is doing talks about my glory days."
We’d met earlier that afternoon at the Sheffield Tap (which is a great pub situated in the old dining rooms for the train station and has a rather fab range of beers on cask and keg). From there we caught the Hope Valley train to Hathersage where, over a second beer, we formulated a rather fine plan. Rather than rely on the selection of foodstuff at the local Spar for our evening meal, we’d get a takeaway curry and enjoy this at our intended bivvy location at Robin Hood’s cave. A quick poll revealed that none of us had eaten a curry in a cave before. Perfect.
I am not sure what the staff at the local curry house made of our request to have the meals wrapped up so that they would still be warm after an hour’s walk, mostly uphill, to Stanage but they duly obliged and we got used to some of the strange looks we got from the various hikers, climbers and runners that we passed on our way up to the gritstone crag. We suspect that they were actually quite jealous as it smelled amazing.
Some simple rope work and a comprehensive safety talk from Tomo later (don’t fall over the edge) and we were enjoying our feast and a beer with quite simply the best view ever. It’s times like these where the conversation turns to many things (inc. an appraisal of Elon Musk). At some point I asked Alastair about beer and whether he has to forgo beer in training for his bigger adventures.
“There have been times in my life where I have taken training seriously enough to cut down on my beer.”
Cut down but never given up?
“I guess when I trained seriously for a marathon a couple of years ago and I didn't drink for a month or two for that. I am not an athlete. There are times when I have had to be fit and times when I have had to be strong. But most trips I do I set off and become fit and strong whilst on them. But I am certainly no athlete and I really like beer!”
We have a bit of a chat about some of Alastair’s bigger adventures such as the one where he and a friend pulled a glorified shopping trolley across the largest desert on earth and when he rowed across the Atlantic in a leaky boat. And also his latest adventure where he walked 500 miles in Spain using his limited busking skills to pay for all his food. It seemed odd that some of these huge efforts might not involve him giving up beer but a pesky 26.2 mile run might involve some abstinence.
“It’s a strange thing to train to row across the Atlantic by doing a two hour rowing session and then going out for pre-lunch fish and chips! When I did that Starbucks had just released something like a Caramel Frappuccino®, a frothy caramel thing which was getting slated in the press for causing obesity. So I started drinking large ones [420 calories]. And beer is good for getting fat [a concerned look breaks out on his face] although I probably shouldn’t say that?“
More recently Alastair has turned his attention towards getting more of us to live more adventurously.
“I did big adventures on my own and then I started doing microadventures on my own which was a fairly evangelical effort to try and get more people to go and have adventures. That idea took off far more than I’d imagined it would. What I saw was that I’d got all these people who were now excited enough to go and spend nights in caves and go cycle somewhere for a weekend or a week. Maybe I could build on this energy and go and get them to do something bigger. Grander."
Indeed. Alastair’s book on Microadventures was very successful and spawned the hashtag which has recently been coopted by a rather large and unadventurous hotel chain. Something that he seemed remarkably unbothered about.
“Anyone who wants to do anything with microadvetures is good and should not be moaned about. It’s not proprietorial and it should be open source. If Elon Musk [who cropped up on in more than one of our conversations that night] can make all of the patents for the Tesla be open source then I can let anyone do anything with the #microadventure hashtag.”
Alastair explained the idea of moving from these smaller outings to larger, grander endeavours.
“The notion of microadventure was to start by doing something so small that there's no excuse not to do it. And when you do it you’ll enjoy it and get the confidence to do something bigger. So in the same notion I got this idea where if you’d save up £20 a week, which for many people isn’t a big amount of money. [He then hastens to add] But if it is then choose a smaller amount, an amount that is not a big deal. Save that up for a year and with £20 a week you have a thousand pounds [a grand] and that is a big deal. I really liked that idea, that smaller, little bits and things can lead to something big.”
The book Grand Adventures is actually less about saving up the money and a lot more about the other excuses and obstacles that we present to ourselves to prevent us pursuing these larger adventures. There’s a deeper issue that is more about deliberately choosing to make yourself uncomfortable and frightened. To push yourself mentally as well as physically.
“The initial idea I had was all about the thousand pounds but as I started interviewing lots of people who had done all sorts of adventures and the final question I would say to them all was “If I gave you £1000 for an adventure what would you go and do?”. I quickly realised that it was a rubbish question. A thousand pounds is way more money than you need to go on an adventure - if I’d said £100 it would’ve been a lot more interesting question. What came out of those interviews was far more interesting. It was the things that stopped people having adventures. Sure it was money but once you’ve saved that it wasn’t a problem. It was a lack of time or family or work commitments. And to a degree these are valid reasons but they are also excuses that we build up in our mind. Exactly like the microadventures where people have the excuses, I try to break these down and get around those. They are very similar projects really.”
Last summer Alastair walked for a month across Spain. During this time he relied solely on busking with a violin for food. Alastair is not a violinist or a musician (although he did manage to scrape a pass in his grade one violin exam last year at the tender age of 39). He was inspired by a book, As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning by Laurie Lee.
“The reason that I did that Spain trip was partly because I loved the book but mostly it was because I realised that I had got very comfortable with doing big adventures and I was living in my comfort zone. I wasn’t really pushing myself. I wasn't living adventurously. If I wanted to stay true to my goals in life by scaring the crap out of myself and worrying that I might fail and not being sure that I would be able to succeed and blah blah blah [sic]. Then what I needed to do wasn't to go on yet another big camping trip or walk. I needed to do something that really scared me. In my case this was standing up in a town square, playing a musical instrument and having absolutely no money in my pocket and being totally dependent on my music to put money in my pocket for food.”
We’d finished our beers by this point and had passed around a hip flask. So I grilled Alastair about how strict he was with himself about only having the money he earned from busking (badly) with his violin for food money.
“I walked from the coast to Madrid, about 500 miles in a month with no money at all and relying 100% on my violin. And it worked!”
And his greatest extravagance?
“Most days it was a subsistence diet. So bread, bananas and whatever I could get with the money that I had earned. But one extraordinary Sunday on a tourist day in a town I earned 20 euros! Which was just unbelievable wealth and excitement and decadence and I bought ice-cream and chorizo. You’ll be pleased to know that I even bought a beer! In my normal life I could go into a shop and I could buy (quite) a lot of chorizo and tomatoes and a handful of beers with my money and I would be fine. But when you have earned that by playing the violin and you can buy one chorizo and one ice cream and one beer. You really, really appreciate that. It felt like the most adventurous thing that I had done in years because it scared the crap out of me.”
It was really dark now and we wanted to look at the sky before we turned in for the night. So I asked if he could go on any adventure big or small and enjoy a beer. What and where would it be?
“Before you finished the question I was going to say across Antartica because that is a big itch for me but probably not a great place to go with a beer. I think I would prefer a cup of tea there. It would probably be a long walk because those can be very painful and very slow and then getting to the end of that on a coastline… So where haven’t I been? Walking across Australia and then getting to the West coast and being given a beer at sunset there. That would combine everything I think. The sea, the sun, the sand and the heat and the appreciation of something after suffering.”
Alastair even made a great short little film about our adventure. You can check it out over on his website and follow him on Twitter and Instagram. His most recent book, Great Adventurers is a must read for any adventurous kid, little or big.
Thank you to Tomo for organising this trip and lending me some shoes when it transpired that I’d packed my wife’s trail running shoes and not mine. A retired British Army officer, Tomo Thompson is Chief Executive of Friends of the Peak, Trustee of Challenge Cancer Through Adventure and Outdoor Activities Instructor. You can follow him on Instagram and contact him via his website.
This piece originally featured in our summer 2017 Journal. Photos by Tomo, Alastair and Gordon.