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Living the wild life

Lance Corporal Sam Hopkinson explains how the Army has fuelled his thirst for adventure

Through the open doorway, there’s nothing. Nothing, that is, except the ground thousands of feet below. Most people’s first experience under a parachute involves a tandem jump, with the experienced instructor you’re attached to taking the reins and releasing the parachute. Or there’s the static line, where after you leave the plane the parachute is automatically deployed when you reach the end of the fixed line. But instead this 24-year-old chose to jump straight into freefall. “If you’re going to do it, you might as well do it properly,” he says.

This kind of whole-hearted attitude is not entirely surprising however, given his seemingly unquenchable thirst for adventure. In fact straight after leaving college, he decided to get a pilot’s licence, simply because he thought it looked like fun.

 

So what was it that appealed to him about joining the Army? “It seemed like the kind of job where how far you go really is based on how much you put in,” he says. “I’m not one for delayed gratification. If I work hard I like to get the rewards. Also it’s a physical job and I’ve always been in pretty good shape, so I thought it would be up my street.”

“They come round with AT (Adventure Training) opportunities quite often,” he explains. “I started off with caving and rock-climbing around North Yorkshire, the Peak District and the Lakes, and got to the instructor level. Then I decided to try kayaking and sea kayaking. You’re definitely out of your comfort zone when you’re in a tight space rock-climbing or out in a tiny little boat on the ocean.”

Once in a while, some slightly more unusual opportunities may come your way. “Every year the battalion sends two teams to go skiing,” he explains. “A couple of years ago, 12 of us went to the Alps. We skied for about a month, thrashing out who would be in the team, then the second month the best six of us competed in the Army Championships. I’d never set foot on a pair of skis before. I’d stopped falling over after about the first week. It’s like riding a bike – it’s really hard at first, then once you’ve got it you can start actually having fun with it. We left in November and came back early February – so you can’t really scoff at that!”

Sam’s never been one to let the grass grow under his feet – he’s happier when he’s pounding it with his trainers. “Growing up, I used to run a lot,” he recalls. “Everything was quite far away, so if I wanted to see my friends at the weekend I’d have to run there as my parents were always busy with the car. Sometimes we’d go on camping trips on the Moors or the Yorkshire Dales,” he says. “Day-to-day life is quite hectic, but if you’re out in the middle of nowhere, in a tent with a stove and good company, you can just sit and talk.”

 

All that running was put to good use last summer, when Sam and a group of friends decided to take on the OMM, the Original Mountain Marathon, in the Scottish mountains. “Around six of us, who’d never done anything like that before, just decided if we dug in for a month or two then we’d be able to compete with these people, and to be fair we did alright,” he says, with a hint of modest pride. “We did the training near our base [in Warminster, Wiltshire], and decided if we ran up the hills there three times, it would be equivalent to running up one of those in Scotland. There were thousands of people competing – it was a big deal.

“You’re divided into pairs so you kind of help each other through it,” he explains. “You get one map each day with checkpoints along the mountain range, about 5km away from each other. You do about 20 miles each day with an enforced rest in between – it’s like orienteering on steroids. Unlike a normal marathon, which is relatively flat, you’re constantly going either up or down or through a bog or something. There was a bit of soul-searching going on at times!”

For now, though, it’s the hum of the plane engine followed by the wind whistling around his ears that’s keeping him busy on his weekends. “I’m spending most of my free time skydiving at a place called Netheravon,” he says. “I enjoy the calculated risk. It is fun – you look down out of the plane and see all that and just fall into it, an area of maybe a mile or two radius; and then when you get under your canopy you look for where you’re going to land and steer yourself there with two little toggles.

 

“But you have to keep your wits about you, because you’re coming down to earth one way or another,” he says, wryly. “Whether or not that’s under a parachute, that’s down to you! Every time I’m in that door, I’m like: ‘My God! Why am I doing this?’ That’s a big reason why this job suits me so well – I’m someone who likes to just keep doing what I’m doing until I get bored of it, and then do something else.” And with such a full Adventurous Training programme at his disposal, and an attitude that says the more you put into it the more you get out, it’s no wonder Sam now sees the Army not just as his job, but as his career into the distant future.

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Photos: Tom Miles