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February 19th, 2014

Recent British weather won’t have made anyone dream of a life at sea, climbing towering rigging and stepping along a yard-arm to reduce sail.

It’s fascinating, thrilling and genuinely amazing to read works like Eric Newby’s The Last Grain Race, about this method of transport, heavily relied upon by world trade for centuries up until World War 2.

Tall ships may have carried grain and wool rather than mobile phones and other high-tech, but the highly effective use of acres of canvas to capture wind for power, meant an incredibly active, skilled, arduous and dangerous life for crews…

…and much of that vital activity took place high above the deck, on spars swaying violently in the endless swollen waves of the Southern Ocean. It’s ironic that tall-ship sailing today is regarded as quite a privilege, when it used to be one of the toughest livelihoods anywhere.

One thing that’s certain is the necessity for a head for heights. With various highly technical tasks for every person aloft, it’s no time to be fumbling for a foot-hold. Harnesses are of course essential today, where once only a desire for self-preservation kept crew secure.

So it’s highly appropriate that Head4heights has been chosen as technical advisor on the Go Aloft climbing experience aboard Brunel’s famous ship at Bristol docks, the SS Great Britain. We’ll be providing full training and support for the event, starting in April this year.

The 170 year-old ship has a fascinating history, having spent forty years crossing the Atlantic, then half a century as a coal-hulk in the Falkland Islands, followed by more than thirty as a wreck, before she was refloated and brought home for another four decades of renovation. She’ll be an exciting, adventurous, inspiring day out…

January 20th, 2014

Have you got an adventure plan for 2014? If you need a reason which will keep you on course during tough training, there are several sponsored climbs and other activities around the world, near and far from home.

Head 4 Heights

The Midnight Ben Nevis Climb is a sponsored August event in support of the Altzheimer’s Society. The ascent in darkness is a real challenge – in a location which is never less than a tough climb. Watching dawn and sunrise at altitude in this stunning scenery is really one to remember.

Again in support of the Altzheimer’s Society is a big African adventure: at 5,895m, Mount Kilimanjaro is one of the largest volcanoes anywhere. The trek there goes from the rainforest to the ice-capped summit, with arduous climbing and unforgettable scenery.

In even wilder territory, an eight-day sponsored Grand Canyon Trek follows the stunning, famous course of the Colorado River, to benefit Marie Curie Cancer Care Nurses. The route runs through gorges, waterfalls and valleys, including the jaw-dropping Tonto platform and Carbonate Canyon.

Closer to home, it’s possible to go almost as high for a good cause. Above Hinton Airfield in Northamptonshire you can tandem-skydive, closely accompanied by (in fact harnessed to) a professional parachute instructor, for £450. Most of the payment goes to the Acorns Children’s Hospice, and the views are as awesome as the weather permits.

For a different kind of physical test, the Liferaft Challenge from Sail 4 Cancer is pretty extreme, and very unlike anything on shore. Enduring all the discomfort, damp, cold and seasickness that afflicts real wrecked sailors, participants spend 24 hours in a tiny liferaft…

…although possibly the bravest souls choose a mid-winter charity swim in the cold sea, like that at Wembury, Devon.

November 29th, 2013

Among the main principles behind team-building activities, it’s basic that everyone involved should find themselves in a situation they’re unaccustomed to, and which ideally they can’t master individually, or at any rate by brute strength alone.

So it’s great to try genuinely unusual and interesting activities, preferably picturesque; and who can predict whether an instinct for something like falconry will best suit hawkish executives?

Orienteering is a nice simple blend of physical and mental exercise, but it does tend to enhance the existing characteristics of leaders and followers within teams, rather than enabling development…

…while clay-shooting and paint-balling may be fun, but they don’t encourage collective effort towards a single specific target…unless the boss is particularly unpopular that week.

Inside or outdoors, effective team-building challenges shouldn’t cause competitive conflict in the team, and aren’t meant to prompt a coup-d’état for departmental leadership…

…because by levelling and broadening the talents needed to accomplish an apparently simple task, it’s often possible to draw out dormant reserves of initiative and give each team-member a clear sense of the others’ perspectives.

But making a ‘crew’ think in a co-ordinated way isn’t always best managed by getting physical. A bit like Brussels sprouts, few people in the UK actually enjoy the tradition of “group-hugs”. So announcing that there won’t be any, is a great way to bond colleagues who were happier in the office!

Slightly different rules apply at Head4heights; a degree of contact is essential to completing our challenges. In total safety, our climbing, balancing and descent activities really necessitate combined effort for a shared sense of reward.

The team-building benefit is kick-starting thinking processes, which may be deep in unproductive habits.

Even a simple puzzle encourages collective analysis.

 

October 29th, 2013

When you watch or participate in active pursuits, what do you hear? Perfect quality music has been portable for decades now…so whatever your preference for exercise outdoors, your favourite soundtracks can be there.

Fast-moving sports which may go spectacularly wrong, won’t really suit Bach’s Air on the G string, however serene the scenery may be. A score added to footage afterwards can always be selected to fit…but what do you pick in advance?

Movie-makers know how to add aural backdrops to exciting footage, and Oakenfold’s Ready Steady Go in the Bourne trilogy films might be appropriate for use on a number of high speed activities, though we couldn’t recommend Mr Bourne’s rapid route around Paris in the Mini.

Sometimes it’s all in the name…what could be better than Fleetwood Mac’s Albatross for a scenic sequence in a glider? Or for a leisurely sail on the ocean.

For activities involving slow progress to a high place then a thrilling descent on wheels or skis (or a leap into empty air), you want music with pace that varies to match the experience at the time…how about Dire Straits’ upbeat ending to Telegraph Road, for downhill on the Transfagarasan Highway?

The best thing about music is how energised it makes the listener feel while exercising. So it’s hard to think of Rossini’s Call to the Cows on an exhausting ride over rain-swept hillsides, or indeed Gimme Shelter, set to indoor bowls.

As for climbing, what could provide non-distracting musical accompaniment for the business of reaching each new foothold and advancing upward with dazzling scenery all around? Please, just don’t say The Only Way Is Up.

But perhaps the ultimate challenge is making music while you exercise…it can be done, as here.

August 23rd, 2013

…apparently even hungry goats do it! Why does everyone want to get off the ground? The goats have a reason of their own – there’s fruit up in the trees.

But most of us enjoy a bit of climbing, even if it’s only for the view from the top. Defying gravity is intrinsically appealing – and having cycled, walked or climbed a rope to get up high, the reward of stepping, freewheeling or just dropping back down is an empowering thrill.

Still, just climbing and descending doesn’t cut it for some people. The urge to get off the ground and stay in the air fuels occasions like the Worthing Birdman. True, the competitors’ trajectory is overwhelmingly downward once they leave the end of the pier, though some dip more steeply than others.

But this desire to lift off isn’t only shown by humorous amateurs. A Chinese team put thousands of hours of research and development into a featherweight 90’ wide human-powered plane, driven by one very fit slender pilot.

Gravity cuts all such accomplishments short, but a more lasting solution was found – “Zeppy” is a French pedal-powered airship, benefitting from a lot of helium to stay airborne, with the intension of crossing the Mediterranean.

Anyone who climbs, or works with heights by necessity, seems to get pretty blasé about them. But it’s odd that so many of us seem determined to keep going up, when most could just as easily stay on the ground.

In theory, we’re alarmed by height, but if our safety isn’t guaranteed we seem to like it – we certainly keep going back for more. Perhaps we’re just addicted to the potential for terror, as well as the fabulous views up there?

 

July 25th, 2013

A day at Head4Heights may mean you’ll be relieved to return to flat ground. But is your home in a level place? Some residential districts are so steep, a walk in the garden is a hill-climb, and the lawn is under the upstairs back window-ledge.

The MIRA automotive testing facility expects new cars to keep themselves in place on a one-in-three gradient under handbrake alone, but which of us would trust our wheels on slopes like these?

Said to be the steepest road in Europe, Vale Street in Bristol is a serious challenge for brakes, gears and pedestrians’ bodies. It’s surprising the postman hasn’t applied for a stair-lift.

The Victorians knew how to save themselves the trouble of a steep walk, and their solutions are often as much a part of the view as the scenery which required them, as here at Saltburn-by-the-Sea.

But when does a walk become a climb? Maybe when hands and feet are needed, or is it in the mind of the person ascending? Famous fell-walker Alfred Wainwright was careful and contemplative but his beloved Lake District hills attract crazier types too.

The strange and fascinating Dune de Pyla stands 110meters high between the Atlantic and the forests of France’s Aquitaine region, and the million visitors per year need to be fit to climb it. Being sixty-million tonnes of sand, it isn’t fixed but is gradually creeping inland, covering forests, houses and roads.

But what’s the real thrill in high places – going up, or coming back down? Leo Houlding’s much-watched two-hour Provencal cliff-climb, followed by a 20-second base-jump suggest it’s fun both ways, but Leo is keen to promote entry-level climbing for everyone.

July 25th, 2013

Funny how some of the most beautifully scenic rural landscapes aren’t actually natural at all. The Cotswold Water Park is like the Norfolk Broads: fabulously pretty, peaceful and habitable – yet it only exists because of gravel-extraction for road-building.

Gravel was dug from 147 sites in the region, and when these pits flooded, (it’s close to the source of the Thames) the lakes formed a vast watery district, forty wonderful square miles in all.

The region is criss-crossed with over ninety miles of footpaths, cycle-ways and bridleways but very few roads, so it’s ideal for fresh-air activities and safe ‘green’ modes of transport between nearby accommodation and the features of the park.

The local wildlife enjoys this unusual watery habitat just as much as the visitors. Various nature-reserves provide protection for rare species of bats, dragonflies, damselflies, butterflies, birds, mammals and fish.

Naturally, this much water sees plenty of activity afloat. There’s sailing and windsurfing, raft-building, waterskiing and kayaking, wake-boarding, even snorkelling. The water is clear, clean and generally shallow with sandy beaches ideal for family swimming, paddling and boat hire.

Ashore, adventure playgrounds, archery, angling, bird watching and picnic sites make the area a varied and welcoming one with space for ball-games and a wide choice of campsites, comfortable inns, luxurious lakeside chalets, plus top restaurants and hotels in historic nearby towns.

Plus the clincher: if you needed another reason on top of guaranteed happy kids exhausted by constant fun, rising high above the beauty of the Water Park is the thrilling Head4Heights.

If you’re wondering where to spend a weekend or a week of this summer holiday, click here for an easy answer.

July 8th, 2013

The Gadget Show brings us a fairly practical flying car, apartments at the top of The Shard are valued at £50 million, and only the weather kept Nick Hancock from two comfortless months atop the wave-swept, guano-grimed islet of Rockall. Heights are as great as ever!

A young man in Southampton, (technically a trespasser) has climbed past the gates and defences of a 300’ tower crane to film himself dangling below the jib, with docks and building sites below.

But this wilful appetite for extreme danger is no rare thing, nor the result of youthful daftness. Dorothy Custer lately celebrated her 102nd birthday with a base jump off the extraordinarily scenic 500ft high Perrine Bridge in Idaho, USA.

The dazzling 630ft high stainless steel Gateway Arch in St Louis, Missouri (here being polished during construction) has attracted stunts. A parachutist landed on the arch, planning to base-jump with his reserve chute; but he slid down one side, to his death.

It seems odd that so many want to risk their necks climbing without permission, when there’s plenty of high-paid, high-level work in the world, and so few people who dare do it.

But it’s not just crazies who are fixated by structures’ height; it’s in architects’ blood, of course. The half-mile-high Burj Khalifa already dwarfs New York’s skyscrapers, but the planned Kingdom Tower in Saudi Arabia would leave every existing building far, far below.

The financial downturn has put many lofty projects on hold…but buildings over 3000ft high are now regarded possible. Interesting, that both our highest architectural achievements and our popular fantasies ultimately reflect marvels of the natural world, seen here in southern China.

June 12th, 2013

Sports Day! After practices, white-line painting and prayers for good weather, it’s an afternoon of glorious wins and doleful defeats, with an air of parental pride and vicarious dream-fulfilment…

…plus, an entertaining overflow of egos in the Fathers’ Race. In some ways, Sports Day is very different now, from days of old. The children often get badges just for taking part; very inclusive and conciliatory, but does that please all the parents?

An ineradicable competitive spirit exists amongst dads at events of all kinds, especially when they’re on display before wives and kids. Prehistoric instincts call up silliness which they’d normally control.

The American urge to encourage children by example can be even stronger, and the over-age locker-room boisterousness is greater. The years drop away with the sound of bat against ball, and a fighting spirit returns, though it’s meant to be for the kids to fulfil.

Probably every father would like to see his son – or daughter – kick a football into a goal; and some of dad’s talent or driving ambition is sure to show, even decades after his own finest hour.

The best family sporting moments appear where cross-generational teams are possible. Just as long as energetic enthusiasm doesn’t put safety at risk. It may be even safer with junior at the helm…

…dinghy racing is great for parent-and-child teams, benefiting from dad’s experience, strength and moveable ballast, and the quick wits and agility of the next generation.

Getting the whole family on board is possible, if not quite perfect; but nothing beats Sports Day for raising the collective pulse.

There’s always somebody who falls over in a parents’ race…is it the damp grass, unsuitable footwear or lack of practice? Fortunately, when it’s the Mums’ Race, everyone’s too polite to snigger…..

June 1st, 2013

Exercise is something we’re aware we need, in larger amounts than we typically get. Strange, because the benefits are so various and obvious, and activity is available all around us.

And it’s surprising, considering exercise is widely regarded as fun to take part in. The difficulty seems to be including enjoyable activity in our lifestyle and transport network, which so carefully caters for more idle instincts…

…but it’s odd that all kinds of adventurous outdoor fun, promoted as treats for active types, typically feature deeply unhealthy opportunities to refuel…even London’s Olympics were partly funded by fast-food outlets within the park.

No question, we all want to be super-fit…billions of pounds are spent each year on diets and kit and health-club membership, but having spent the money, many who want to get fit, lose the inclination to actually expend calories on exercise too.

A shame, because getting the ideal physique only really takes enduring strength of mind. Carrot sticks as office snacks and a pedestrian commute instead of a car or bus journey; doesn’t sound hard, but millions can’t even maintain that for long.

Western pursuit of fitness is plagued by labour-saving and the availability of more, cheaper food than we need. It seems crazy for so many to be unhappily caught by unhealthy habits they can’t resist – habits well worth kicking instead of living with.

Exercise not only makes the ideal physique a possibility, it’s the best chance for a long life, of much higher quality. All in all, it’s a choice that ought to sell itself. It’s cheaper, too!

On the other hand, if you really can’t live without a diet of junk, there may still be some hope:

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