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.

Encountering the crest #3

I stopped at the edge of the water and looked across at the pathway snaking up the hill.

“I’m not up for it,” I said.

Jon was staring at something indiscriminate in the foreground while Simon lay across his pack, sunning his bare chest.

“I know everyone’s tired,” replied Rich, “but it was always going to be a long day.”

Only because you made it that way, I thought. What if we simply couldn’t carry on? We’d have to change the plan.

“When it gets like this,” Rich continued, “you just have to be in the moment. One foot infront of the other.”

A refute began to churn in my gutt, fuelled by my aching back and legs. Then, Simon got to his feet.

“If we’re going to do it then let’s get on with it,” he said, in a typically impatient manner. Rich nodded, looking satisfied and we set off round the lake.

The path soon reared up, great blocks rudely thrust in our way. I pushed up them, exhaling with every step and could barely contain my irritation when I heard Rich carrying a tune from the back.

“How can you whistle?” I said between breaths.

“Just trying to keep the mood up,” he replied.

Well it’s not working, I thought. Perhaps you should have considered that before you made us climb two mountains. Okay, so that wasn’t quite true, but it might as well have been. An ascent of Snowdon in the morning, followed by a 2-hour scramble across Crib Goch and then after we’d finally made it down to solid ground, another uphill climb over said ridge. All for an idyllic camping spot.

Midway up the path, my legs gave in and I collapsed against a mound of rocks. The others crumpled nearby.

“You’re not my friend anymore.”

I grinned at Rich, playing with a momentary half truth. He grinned too, but at the sky as he swallowed water. Suddenly, I was thrown back to our Australia trip, ten years earlier. Even then, our convictions butted heads. His steady and resolute. Mine, brooding and impulsive. Most of the time, his would win out, but only through a steadfast reasoning that was too exasperating to contend with.

We got back to our feet, keen not to let what little momentum we had fade away. After a quarter of an hour we finally surmounted the climb and soon found ourselves passing through green fields littered with the remains of abandoned slate mines. Our feet rolled down layers of spongy grass and bog, thighs barely taking the strain until we reached a level setting.

I threw my pack off and slumped to the ground while Rich was straight away busy with setting up the tents. The sound of water led me and Simon to a stream and we stripped off, dunking ourselves in a bath-like crater and instantly feeling rejuvenated.

By the time we got back to camp, sunset was casting its colours across the hillside. The first meal-in-a-bag was warming on the stove and Rich was cursing at a cloud of midges hovering around him. I smiled, my animosity washed away downriver. We were just old friends together again in the wilderness.