Doing it the hard way with Ridgway: Malcolm Pithers tests his resolve during an arduous week at an adventure school in the Highlands

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The Independent Travel
THE VIEW from Ardmore Point, windswept and under a billowing sky, is spellbinding. Rock formations are stripped of nature's grassy garb, of its trees and bushes. Wide stretches of dark water and pockmarked crags harbour hideaways for oyster catchers, Arctic skuas, herons and cormorants. To this unforgiving, far north-west lair of Scotland, unlikely adventurers come to test themselves against nature, to learn a little of endurance, to be remote from their everyday lives, their work and families.

The John Ridgway Adventure School is run by Ridgwayhimself with his wife, Marie Christine, and daughter, Rebecca. Ridgway is no stranger to adventure: in 1966 he rowed the Atlantic in 92 days with Chay Blyth. He then tackled various other expeditions, including a non-stop navigation of the world.

The aim of the school is not to exhaust people, he says, but to allow them to experience an environment free from artificial restraints, demands and worries: 'Operate together, create a team spirit. We should move with cat-like grace, not let the corners of our mouths drop, or the tears come to our eyes. Be 'sparky', show we are good men and seize the day.'

And so here we were, a group of solicitors, consultant surgeons, businessmen, engineers and the like, a team for a week, about to pick up the Ridgway gauntlet.

Saturday: We load up our personal gear and trudge to the side of Loch a'Chadh- Fi. The chief instructor at the school, Will Birchnall, 28, a former stockbroker now committed to the outdoor life, greets us. It is cold, we are already feeling tired, damp and hungry but are asked to change on the loch side, place our gear in a water- sealed container and paddle into the wind towards Ardmore. We spot Ridgway, his prize-fighter face, lines like map contours, set in a grin, sitting in his own canoe. He welcomes us with a poem, The Eagle, by Tennyson.

We each capsize our canoes in turn and signal that we are safe by banging the underside three time while underwater. The water is unimaginably cold. A good man, says Ridgway, can cope.

In the days ahead we will cope with three mountains, Arkle, (2,580ft), Ben Stack (2,356ft) and Foinaven (2,839ft); mount a search and rescue operation; paddle and carry canoes across lochs and boggy hills to the sea; walk by compass bearings, learn survival techniques and, among other testing events, run and walk for mile after mile. We will put to sea in John Ridgway's 57ft Bowman ketch, climb the mast, row, rock climb, abseil and sleep at the foot of spectacular mountains.

Sunday: We rise, not particularly willingly, shortly before 5.30am to a dullish morning. Loic Finlan, 22, one of the attentive instructors, who causes constant laughter by his cross-country driving, arrives with the morning tea. He and the small band of instructors are paid full board and lodgings, plus pounds 5 per week to look after us. They all say they are there for the experience rather than the money.

We run a few gentle miles as dawn breaks over the boggy hillsides, a routine that will be repeated throughout the week. Washed, refreshed with a wholesome breakfast, we set out on our first mountain exercise.

We are split into two teams to tackle Arkle, reading maps and taking bearings to see who reaches the peak first. I decide not to mention I suffer from vertigo. I will, however, be caught out before the course ends.

Once on top, helping each other along the way, we marvel at the raw beauty with views over the Scottish Highlands and the lochs far below. John Ridgway warns us that the next day promises to be 'more savage'.

Monday: The foulest of days, driving rain, dark skies, a vicious wind. The 5.30am run carries on. Some fall by the wayside and choose to walk. In the worst possible conditions, the team sets out to rock climb and abseil. The group impresses the instructors, despite the finger- numbing cold. Back to Ardmore for the first orienteering session, again in appalling conditions. All home safely, cold and wet but not yet toppled into the abyss of self-pity. Perhaps peering into it.

Tuesday: A cloudy start for the morning run and then a long trek with full packs across the hills to the south-west of Ardmore, past waterfalls, red deer and glorious lochs. Drowning rain forces the group to plod cautiously downwards to the loch where Ridgway's yacht awaits. We row out to find Ridgway at his most relaxed for the 25-mile sail back to Ardmore. The camaraderie is at its highest as we climb the 70ft mast one by one. We take the helm in turn and sail past Handa island, with its dramatic 400ft cliffs and rare birds. After the wet yomp, the yacht is a haven.

Wednesday: I have, for me, the hardest of dawn runs with Ridgway and the instructors urging me to beat the man in front. When we've recovered, we are told we will be going on a day-long portage, humping canoes over hills, paddling through lochs and taking compass bearings to reach the sea. One of the team capsizes and we all grimace at how cold he must be. The ever- present Will Birchnall rescues him and he carries on, frozen but unbowed.

The bogs are deep, the rocks slippery and the journey hard but most enjoy themselves hugely. Finally, we weave our way to the sea for a dramatic return to our base and glorious hot food.

Thursday: Everyone's spirits are at their lowest and we complain to Ridgway that clothes and gear have been wet or damp throughout the week. A drying 'room' does not work and Ridgway's comment that he had no drying room on the yacht does not help.

We eventually set out with overnight packs to scramble to the top of Arkle, the sharpest hill. Here I come unstuck. I admit to one of the others, as I creep towards to top, that I have vertigo, and he coaxes me onwards. But I know I will not walk the final ridge across Foinaven without the corners of the mouth going down, whatever the skill of the instructors. We arrive at a bothy near Loch Stack to sleep for the night. The rain is non-stop, but the group is in high spirits, ready for the last full day.

Friday: The 20km trek across Foinaven, with its fine ridge, black tower and fantastic views begins at 6.45am in brilliant sunshine. It is the longest, hardest but most enjoyable day, blessed at the end at the bar of the Rhiconich hotel to drink the first pints of beer of the week. The bonhomie and sense of relief and achievement is all consuming.

We return to John Ridgway's for our final evening meal and a disastrous concert. The atmosphere changes. People seem to be on edge. The instructors line up to do their theatrical bit and I foolishly attempt to play the guitar and sing an 'anti' Ardmore song I have written as a joke. It is a mistake. We are all perplexed that the spirit of the team should be stamped out so suddenly. We leave and sing elsewhere.

Saturday: Early awake, a quick breakfast and then away, with Ridgway laughing and saluting us, jokingly saying 'it's only a game, chaps'.

John Ridgway offers a variety of courses - for businessmen, women's only or mixed - as well as hillwalking and cruising courses. The average cost for a week is pounds 352 plus VAT. More information is available from the John Ridgway Adventure School, Ardmore, Rhiconich by Lairg, Sutherland IV27 4RB; phone 0971 521229.

(Photograph omitted)

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