Above and beyond

I entered a mountain writing competition last month run by the John Muir Trust.  The theme was ‘The day a mountain changed my life’ so my entry was probably a bit low key, but what can I say, that’s my style. (Actually, it’s a rewrite of a post I did a while back on hiking in Snowdonia, but from a more inward-looking perspective.)

It must have been 6am when I unzipped the tent, or thereabouts, judging by the grey light that draped across the mountainside. The two bodies that were crammed in next to me lay motionless, matted hair sprouting from the tops of sleeping bags.

I slipped on my boots and staggered out into the cool air. Whether it was the noggins of whisky from the night before or the rolling view that made my head swim, I couldn’t be sure and I headed for a nearby rock to steady myself.

As I gathered my wits, I became aware of the shrill calls of sheep bouncing about the horseshoe curve that enclosed our camp. I spied their white shapes, shuffling across the farthest reaches of the slopes, as though they were all trying to outdo each other in their quest for the next tuft of grass.

My gaze travelled further down the valley towards a golden light that had only just broken across a neighbouring peak. From there, I turned my attention to the sky and watched how the clouds mingled together; reforming and reshaping as if the day was still busy sorting itself out.

After a few minutes, it occurred to me that not a single thought had passed through my head about where I was and what I was doing. In this environment, there was no need to figure things out or analyse the situation as I was so used to doing in my day-to-day life. It was enough to just observe and be in the moment.

But more than that, everything that was happening before me seem to make perfect sense. This was life in its most fundamental state; the shifting forces of nature, adapting, renewing, destroying and replenishing in one continuous, majestic display.

Just then, a muffled groaning broke my trance as the camp began to stir. Rich poked his head out of the tent and we exchanged mumbled greetings, but I didn’t feel able to convey what I had just experienced, at least, not in words.

I looked about the ridgeline, knowing we would soon be up there as we made our way to the top of Snowdon and beyond. The thought left me with a sense of trepidation and awe as I anticipated how many other breathtaking scenes we were likely to encounter on our expedition. Then, with a growing light, our day began.

The morning crowd

A short-short about the early morning grind.

The stars gaze down at me, merciless and piercing. ‘What the hell are you doing up?” they say. “We haven’t finished our shift yet.’

Don’t I know it, I think back at them, and squint through the damp at the orange readout. 15 minutes.

A schoolboy type is standing there, collar and shoes beneath an anorak. He half-turns at my arrival, letting his peripheral do the work. Probably wondering if it’s still early enough for weirdos.

Another passenger arrives, shorter, rougher. He occupies himself with a tangle of headphones before the guitar riffs of Hotel California fill his ears. 9 minutes.

A girl in a fur-lined hood makes us four and we drill the empty road with our willpower. It conjures up nothing. Then the readout resets itself and suddenly its 2 minutes. Anticipation sets in.

When the bus finally arrives, we stumble on in single file, the driver as grim as the hour. Upstairs is all two-day stubble, black woolly hats and jackets up to the chin. I fit right in.

We lurch away and my eyes wander to finger marks, smeared across the window from the night before. Behind them, shop fronts float by, the night shift workers silhouetted against pale lighting while they mingle with lorry drivers. Up the front of the bus, the glow of brake lights is like a furnace, stoked by offerings from the daily grind.

Then a few stops along, he appears. Something about his demeanour isn’t right. His movements are too energetic and he’s blabbering away on the phone like its Friday afternoon.

Groans pass along the deck as he takes a seat. I get to work, fixing him with my best glare while others turn their heads and throw a mean glance, but he appears invulnerable. Even Hotel California has noticed from two seats back as he removes his headphones and stares incredulously at the back of the man’s neatly cropped hair. He clocks me and we shake heads in unison.

Then a lad with 5am eyes glaring out of a grey hood launches across the aisle and lamps the guy on the chin. A chorus of approval erupts from the passengers. The man recoils in his seat, before scurrying down the stairs and we all press our faces to the windows to see his freshly-pressed figure disappear into the black of the morning. 5am eyes flashes a murky grin while the driver gives it a couple of hoots. The rest of us look around at each other, snarling with satisfaction. That one needed nipping in the bud.