Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Climbing Mountains 2

This week I climbed the highest mountain in England; it is the first mountain I have climbed alone, having always had a guide with me before.  I don't wish to emulate one of the Romantic poets, standing beside a Lakeland waterfall allegorising about life and eulogising about the beauty of nature, but... well it is true that you can learn a lot about yourself and about life when you're climbing up a great big hill.

I set off with map in hand, but soon lost the path (on the way back I couldn't understand how this could have happened, it's ridiculous!  The path is obvious and right there, about four feet wide and scattered with stones by the National Trust so that we travellers don't get lost), so I found myself scrambling up a lush, green, wet and flower-strewn hillside very much on my own.  I had already decided to climb the mountain from Wasdale Head, by no means a hidden track, but certainly not so populated as if you climb from Langdale.  This is what I call finding your own path, the one less travelled, and what I think my mother would call, 'making life difficult.'  I was following a stream, expecting it to originate from two separate streams at some point (it never did); it was very steep and on a warm day, quite hard going.  The dog at least was happy on this route, plunging in and out of the rushing water to keep himself cool. 

I looked up; I couldn't see the way.  I was expecting a path and other people to be there with me, I had been told by friends that you are never alone on Scafell, but I was completely alone and hadn't seen anyone else since the very lowest part of my climb.  I was worried, benign as the day was, I was brought up by my father with enough knowledge to know that you should never take your safety on a mountain for granted and nobody knew where I was.  I couldn't know if I was going the right way except to say that I was definitely going up. 

It was the crags that had first got me spooked; from Wasdale Head Pulpit Rock and Pikes Crag loom terrifyingly black and sinister at the top of the first ascent, intimidating even on a lush summer's day, perhaps more so then, when they stand in such stark contrast to the wealth of green at the foot of the mountain.  I knew from my map that I would have to go round those crags to reach the summit.  It did seem such a long and unnerving way to go.

I kept thinking I saw a path, but in truth those were just the pathways of the sheep.  I became disheartened: I was tired, I had been walking steeply uphill for an hour or so and I didn't know the way.  Why hadn't I just walked up from a nice pub in Langdale on the well-walked and obvious path?  I could turn back and call it a nice little walk on the hill (when you are climbing up a hill, you always have the option of going down again the way you came), I would have to admit that I hadn't made it, but who would know if I said I did?  I would know; I knew that I wouldn't lie about it.  Make it, or don't, but don't fib about what happened.  I stopped.  I had a drink and admired the view.  Looking back I could see how far I had come and how beautiful it was.  The rain that had been forecast showed no sign of coming, the skies were white with cloud, but bright with the sun behind them; occasionally it broke through and we were bathed in a yellow warmth that cheered everything.  Wast Water gleamed in the foot of the valley, strange but from that height the lake seemed reassuringly solid and dependable.  It would be there and I could always navigate my way back to it if I wanted to.

Of course I went on.  I thought about life and how you don't always have the map, or if you do you read it wrong and end up going a different way.  Sometimes the roads marked there (the ones with the obvious landmarks: health, home, work, family) disappear into nothing and you are left without a guide, often at the most difficult parts of your climb.  I thought about being alone and having the courage to carry on, even when you can't see the way and you are not sure how or why you ended up here; of the trust that is required of you during those moments, the faith you need to carry on putting one foot in front of the other when all sense of a definite outcome has slipped from your reach.  I thought about standing at the foot of a mountain and feeling daunted by the huge task ahead of you, but how each accomplishment in life is achieved the same way, by taking one small step at a time, and that if you keep your mind focussed on each small step, on the here and the now, then each step is a step taken in confidence and with a sense of joy.  I thought about learning to rely on yourself and to trust yourself; how hard it can be to believe that you have it in you to achieve and that your own thoughts and beliefs are valid and true.  I thought about the impossibility of turning back, how you can never again walk a path that you have already travelled, because the path is never the same and the view this time is different.

It is faith, of course, that keeps us going, a sense that somehow we will be able to do it.  We can look back and see the way that we have walked and how it is filled with beauty and love and sometimes difficult things; how even hard times make sense in retrospect and we can be sure that even the times of illness or heartbreak taught us something essential and contributed to our lives in positive ways that we could never have foreseen.

Sometimes we are climbing mountains just for the fun of it, other times it takes all of our vim just to get up out of bed in the morning, have a shower and face the day (I am sorry if that is where you are just now). 

Oh, we are human and don't respond well to traversing those same old roads, time and time again, wondering why nothing ever changes.  Even rats go mad in those conditions.  We are born to roam and to discover and to adapt to new circumstances and this we do, better than any other creature on earth.  It is our birthright to seek and to expand, to set ourselves challenges and to meet them, or at least to glory in the attempt and not to hurt ourselves wilfully in our failures (because if you fail it means that you have tried and so even this is a success).

I shared some flapjack with the dog; I sat on a rock and looked down into the valley and up to the crest of the next hill, wondering what was beyond it; I put on my backpack and went onwards and upwards.  Eventually there was a path, for which I was grateful because I was tired by now and the path meant that I could relax a little, and there were a few other people from time to time and I considered how we all sometimes choose the well-frequented path, for company and because it is easy.  But not good to choose it out of trepidation or because we think that is all we are capable of.  I rounded those bleak crags and made my way up to the rocky summit of the mountain.  It was cold and blowy, I was higher than the birds and touching the sky, looking down upon the vast and beautiful fells spread out in all directions at my feet.  I took a photograph of myself and my dog up there and my smile is true, my eyes are clear.  I was proud and satisfied to be there.

The day after next I climbed a second mountain.  Skiddaw is a wonderful mountain and a pleasure to climb; there are silent parts of the walk, where you are sheltered from the wind and all you can hear are the birds and the sheep and other parts that are wildly exposed to the elements, a biting wind rushes at you, the cloud is so low it curls around your body and it is very cold.  You can see everything from Skiddaw and Little Man, it's slightly smaller brother: Keswick, where people live, the roads and shops, noise and busyness of the lives that humans have made for themselves; you can see the sea, stretching out into seeming nothingness and miles and miles of undulating fells laid out like a promise.  It was my fourth day of camping and walking alone and I decided to make my way up the path from Latrigg; it's the way everyone goes (this path was made by the Victorians and is impossible to lose!).  I set off early and spent most of the walk on my own.  It was very steep in parts and challenging.  But... well... travelling the well-worn path just isn't quite the same... there is no fear to face, no challenge other than the resolve required to walk that high and that far.  It's not that I am a daredevil (I shared the summit with three little boys of 7, 5 and 3 - I am hardly Bear Grylls), it's just that I like to see a bit inside myself while I am travelling.  And if you are a yogi, then so do you.