The Fan Dance.
AEE SF Test March
Small unit tactics, missions and endeavours have always fascinated me somehow and reading about such elite forces one is bound to come across the “Special Air Service” – SAS, “Special Boat Squadron” – SBS and more.
I can´t name them all, the list would be to long but I am sure you get the drift 😊.
To become a member of said units there are requirements over the normal. Rigorous tests, forced marches etc, there is a lot to read/google on the subject but to get to the core of this story, one of the tests is called ”The Fan Dance” which is a time required march (read run) with a heavy bergen and weapon over the highest mountain in southern Britain (Wales) called Pen Y Fan.
The Fan Dance test was instituted in the 50´s but is still around and used which in itself say´s a lot.
The iconic red phone box in the picture below has been the starting point for the march for many a young trooper trying out for “Selection” for the British special forces in the “Fan Dance” phase.
Quite recently i became aware this famed test could be done in a endurance race form under the watchful eyes of ex SAS, SBS and other elite forces personnel right at the exact place, taking the exact route and as such doing a Special Forces Test March but without full weight in ruck and no weapon.
Now do not let that fool you, this basically just mean that civilians now get the chance to try on this march in a semi civilian setting but there is no slacking in what your bergen should contain for example, which is a long mandatory list of useful items that would keep you alive a night out on the mountain.
The old school “bricks for weight” in rucksack mentality is long gone and instead the preparedness of special forces reigns and there is thought behind every single item required in your pack.
Follow the rules
For example, what is approved as usable footwear is also regulated and you need to show the boots or trail shoes to the DS (Directing Staff) at registration at which time they also control weigh and tag your rucksack to be given the green light to go to the register table.
Please enlighten me in what other civilian event you have an ex SAS / SBS, Para (etc) soldier checking and clearing your clothing and required gear before you are even allowed to go get signed in to join the event!
This process is the opposite to make you uncomfortable but rather to instil a firm professional atmosphere for your own safety. The preparations by the DS is needed as reassurance for an attendee that will at the end head on out in the wind torn country with plenty of opportunity to get lost, fall or in any other way hurt oneself.
You have beforehand been presented valuable information about how to operate a DS/MST (Mountain Safety Team) radio and what to report if in an emergency. You are also required to carry a safety card and a map.
Eyes on the mountain
AEE also have their own setup for emergencies the “MST” (Mountain Safety Team) that are fitted with radio communication and strategically placed at waypoints on the mountain and as such have created their own rapid reaction mountain rescue on site during the event and oh, did I mention they are all ex special forces?
The MST personel is clearly marked with flourecent orange patches and will size you up when passing and checking in with you that you are alright and fit to proceed – “Alright there mate”?
It is important to stress that even though the organization thinks of all this for your safety, the most probably scenario is (as Ken Jones say on the last briefing before start) that a fellow attendee reaches someone in need of help first and again this is thought of in the required first aid medic equipment you must carry.
The Fan Dance
At a set time you then find yourself on the starting line, or rather starting hill because this event has limited flat ground from get go and from step one you are going uphill like if there was no tomorrow!
After a final safety briefing a military simulation banger is lit, thrown and blaam it goes off in a puff of smoke and off you go.
This I my story as i experienced it.
Note, pictures and videos are mixed from two days / different days of event race therefore clothing and weather in the pictures do not fit the story fully.
I found myself starting to take deeper and deeper breaths even though still trodding in the starting hill the further from the famous red phone box I was getting.
Covering the first slanting ground and making the top exposed me to a fresh vista of green and brown hill and mountain country with a track sneaking away and up.
Sticking out like a sore thumb in my M90 camouflage jacket and long rucksack i felt at ease with my gear. I was at the right place the right time with the right kit and the harsh weather suited me as well.
Being from Sweden but thinking of myself as fluent in English i still had trouble picking up all fast banter and talk which only enhanced my obvious foreign look.
Before i could continue upwards I was facing a dropping long slope down to a small stream and where at the bottom and for the next several hundred meters the track was seen going straight up the length and size of a ski hill.
Extreme winds got stronger, frantically pulling and flapping my jacket and trousers as I pushed further up parallel and around Corn Du to head for the summit of Pen Y Fan.
At this time with my jacket hood up i had started to reflect on my training as a young conscript at Lapplands Jägarregemente I22/Fo66 (Lapland Ranger Regiment /Arctic Rangers) a lifetime ago, the familiarity with the weather and terrain and how i still could benefit from the drill and kit awareness for this type of event.
At the top I went through the required action and checked in with the MST shouting in the blasting wind to be heard and presenting my leg featuring my starting number fastened on the thigh. After answering any question the MST sent my way I then hurriedly went past them to the top marker of Pen y Fan to take a picture (yes regardless this is a race I just had to take the opportunity ;). Note, Sound only in the clip below.
Quickly getting back on track and changing my bearings i was heading towards the stream of other participants trailing towards the misty void where you could sense the mountain would have a sharp drop.
There was a bit of a “hmm” and “aha” moment the closer to the the edge I came because I could not really see anywhere to start stepping down to start my decent and i needed to get going.
Some other people I saw before me, sort of hesitated, leaned back and took shorter side steps the nearer the obvious top end they got. For sure they wanted to be able to assess the situation the same as me and, without being blasted of by the harsh wind.
Also I needed to stick my head over the edge, crouching a bit to see where to start my descend and weary of that the wind at any time could take hold of my bergen and sail me off.
Going down the ladder
Looking over the edge in the mist i got the sensation like when you are high up without really seeing the bottom. I thought to my self, so this is the top of Jacobs ladder, this is what they all talk about when they cryptically state “ask me again after Jacobs ladder” and similar remarks when asking people how they are doing in the race.
The realization hit me that I was going to negotiate this “wall” on the way back up but for now those thoughts had to be put away and the full concentration needed to be on the next current move to get off the mountain. One bad step, one fall and the next stop would be several hundred meters downhill.
Crouching more and advancing towards the very edge feet first i could see what lay before me was a stony staircase type nature which would require me to semi jump down between the straight boulders at places using one hand on the rock and then repeat this procedure a couple of times to reach a more man made and stone laid path ledge.
I jumped, the weight of my rucksack and the strain of just reaching the mountain top added extra stress on legs and shoulders and I was not yet even half way!
Reaching a small landing on the man made stone laid road I kept a close eye on the next few meters of stubbly stones sticking up in which I needed to get firm grip on with the soles of my combat boots because of the downwards angle. The grip was surprisingly good and with small but fast steps progress downwards in a steady pace could be made.
Following the path ahead with my eyes i could not see the end (bottom) of it because of clouds or mist shrouding it in an almost unreal grey-white oblivion as it snaked its way down in an unsettling angle i understood i would have to go through.
Tabbers before me and further down disappeared in the floof.
Trying to make speed and yet trying not to trip and tumble and become a lightning fast record holder as a M90 camouflage clad human rolling cannonball down the mountain, I eventually past yet another MST who checked my status with a “alright there mate” kind of greet and finally got to the bottom where it then was time to start going in another direction on a slight inclining angle leaving the mist behind and seeing more of the fantastic landscape.
Speed and ground
The path took me in a crescent shape following a mountain side and I came upon a heard of grazing horses adding to the saga like atmosphere in the vast vista.
I knew I had to try push for speed now when I was clear of the mountain itself and I tried to put my legs into it and “stretching the pace” which is a term and technique i use when there is a need for walking faster (Tab).
During my route to RV2 I passed and got passed a few times by other fit attendees and felt quite good and could press down a few pieces of protein bar as a boosting treat. I was tabbing along when I came up of a heard of cows which had the most fantastic furs, they all eyed me with indifference while I passed eating hay and grass. Making good time again I was warm and removed my gloves to cool a bit.
What happened next was not so good. I guess that fatigue or non focus made my right boot toe stuck on a protruding stone in the path and when i tried to compensate with a quick step forward with my left leg it´s foot also stuck on another stone and the bergen weight helped me go down forward fast arms out and flailing. I crashed with an ouch taking the brunt on my right knee and palms. At once the trouser knee and skin inside split on yet another sharp rock piece emerging from the muddy path.
A fellow tabber asked if I was OK and I was soon on my feet trying to get the feel of what more injuries I might picked up but more than sore hands, bleeding right knee, bruised pride and a bit of a numb thumb no bones seemed to be broken and the race was on yet again.
After the incident I only took of my gloves again at stretches were there was minimal chance to fall flat out.
Half way – RV2
Reaching RV2 about 12 km from the start I got cleared by the DS to start my return and I took the chance to take of my SACCI FJS rucksack and stretch my arms a bit and also to be able to reach a flask of sports drink to take a few fast swigs of.
Then it was on with all gear and back on the road again the thought of going all the way up Jacobs ladder to the top had not yet registered.
Trying to gain momentum and take large steps to pass ground and build speed was somewhat hindered by the different terrain to negotiate.
I found like egg sized rolling stones, square and rectangular stones, the combo of both model of stones hidden beneath a thick layer of sloshy mud which twisted, resisted and made my going tough and wobbly.
Because from RV2 the way slowly ascend all the way to the foot of Jacobs ladder (basically) I took the time to yet again nibble on a protein bar and Twix (I keep calling them Raider, i guess i am old school) being sure not to eat to much but just top off the energy supply a bit.
Past the cows, a MST waypoint i past going towards RV2 and then the horses that was still eating and neighing away. I went steady on and was now facing the start of “the ladder”, or more like what i consider the start of Jacobs ladder but checking the map my perception is no way near the actual “wall” which is way up and beyond on the map.
Pressing on up
Starting to press upwards on the ever increasing angled path the energy I thought I had control over was being sapped at lightning speed in the forceful wind making me take short side steps up in a horrid up-angle and to stop and catch my breath and then repeat this over and over.
At one point I experienced it as the path had risen from flat to standing straight up to be level with my face, like staring into a wall but this was not the top part, oh no, not even close!
I was not yet at the little ledge that might be considered the start of the real Jacobs ladder and the relentless mist rainy wind blasted me almost to my knee like if somebody was pressing my shoulders down until I snapped out of it and continued, hood up and back against the wind to slowly edge my way upwards.
The real ladder
Finally I reached the stone stair part with the massive rock blocks that is making you take steps up like if you were on an amusement park in the “crazy house” and helping with my hands and elbows repeatedly supporting, grabbing and pushing I was getting my body and ruck over the top.
On the top waited (if possible) an even more heavy gust of air trying to push me back over again and i was legging it straight to the DS tent site for check in with the plan to get of the exposed top as fast as i could.
After I had left the top of Pan y Fan and on my way back to the FRV (Start) which now felt more within reach than ever, the going was quite a lot downhill and the body started to strain in that regard, that is, the downwards activated muscles was telling me to find a level spot to get some relaxation in my legs but there was just none to find and no time to stop.
Down I went into the last wadi straight over the streaming water and letting it flow freely around and over my muddied boots and leg-ends when splashing my way through.
Near the end at FRV
Now there was just one ski hill sized up going battle left before it would be all way down to Storey Arms and the famous red phone box goal.
I pushed on and made it to the top and down to the FRV in 5 h and 9 min which would have made failed miserably on SAS/SBS Selection but felt like a win to me just standing there with the Fan Dance done!
Checking out of the mountain through AEE admins (another safety measure) and getting my finishing time I then found myself in line to have my turn to get a finisher cloth patch, a handshake and a well done pep from the founder of Avalanche Endurance Events; Ken Jones (ex SAS) which sealed that days epic event.
I finally had the chance and bagged “The Fan Dance” which I have read so much about in books on British special forces.
Now at last it was time to get the bergen off and take in some hot food and coffee prepared at Storey Arms and it all went down in one go in my nourishing craving body.
After a few minutes to get the pulse down, watering up etc and starting to feel down to earth again I had to administer myself with a shower, fresh clothes, and then rest and reload, repack my gear and refocus because the day after would hold the exact same challenge for me once more!
A visit to the tent
All cleaned up i was visiting the admin tent which also held products for sale like t-shirts, para silk jackets etc and i had my eye out for Ken Jones (founder AEE) paperback book “Darkness Descending” which i knew he had written, been recommended but failed to buy through Adlibris.com (out of stock before).
My luck was with me and there was a pile of them right there.
Buying one immediately Ken was in the tent at the time and gladly signed it for me which was a nice gesture he being in the middle of organizing the event etc.
Ps. I started to read the book on the flight home and could not stop until after 100 pages when it was time to get of the plane! You can order it here.
All in all it was a blast and Ken, Linda, Storey Arms and the AEE squad could not have made the event more smooth and true to the real thing!
“Who Dares Wins” as they say!
Want to know more?
Do you want more info and related stuff to check out I recommend you take a look at below links:
AEE Event Key Info
Immediate Action Fitness – AEE on Instagram
Bullet Proof Bodies – on Instagram
The Allycast – on Instagram
Para Endurance Race
REKYL ATLET – on Instagram
TAC-UP GEAR Webshop
TAC-UP GEAR – on Instagram
TAC-UP RUCK – on Instagram
Additional Pictures and Clips
Photo from The Allycast by Steve O´Connor
Promo clip from AEE about the Fan Dance