On Mountains

When I began my very first conversation with my very first class, I showed them a picture of my favourite mountain: Snowdon.  Or, to be precise, the part of the massif that forms one side of the Snowdon horseshoe. I’d taken the picture on an ascent just before I began at their school, a kind of pilgrimage to my muse.  I showed it to them, and later to their parents, as a metaphor: the children’s biggest challenge wasn’t the little bump in the foreground (aka SATs); it was the summit behind (preparation for secondary school) that would require a transformation.  Confidence, maturity, organisation, to name three requirements.  But most of all, self-belief.

This week, for the first time since then, I went to see my muse.  I set off from the Youth Hostel in Llanberis at just after half past five, taking advantage of the long daylight hours at this time of year.  At the outset of this ascent along the Llanberis Path, I felt my age.  My legs were stiff, my muscles burning with the effort of simply walking up the tarmac incline. I wondered how on Earth I could hope to reach the top.  It didn’t seem to get any easier: I frequently stopped for breath and to release the lactic acid from my complaining legs.

But once the tarmac gave way to stony path, at least I could look back at the misty town below, still sleeping beside the lake. I’d made some progress.  Not that my legs were going to admit it.  Finally I found the Halfway House: a landmark and a psychological boost. I was on familiar ground and felt I’d earned a proper rest.  The mist lay over the hills like a duvet on a restless sleeper, appearing to move up and down as I watched.  I caught sight of a halo in the mist: a rainbow around my long shadow.  It felt unearthly.  And quiet, so quiet.

Full of Jaffa cake bars, tea, apple and Emmental, I continued towards Clogwyn, my next milestone.  I was having to stop at increasingly short intervals as my legs and lungs struggled to cope.  I felt every year of fifty.  The path led under the railway: it was here that the pain began to feel worthwhile.  At this point, the view turns from the outer slopes of the massif to the inner, jagged glacial mouth of Snowdon.  Through the frame of the railway bridge, I saw the sea of sunny cloud over the valleys below.  This is what I’d come to see and be with.

I also knew that I was only a short, hard slog from the top.  Still far slower than I’d been on my first ascent, half my lifetime ago, I walked in one effort to just below the summit.  And I stopped to look and listen.  Never had I known the mountain to be so still, sunny and solitary.  We were alone, at least for that moment.  I walked to the very top and began to consider my next move.

Snowdon has many routes up and down: it was only nine and I had the rest of the day to fill.  I considered the easy route down to Pen-y-Pass: the Pyg track.  But I’d done it too often. I also considered the route along the arête of Crib Goch and Snowdon’s smaller neighbour, Crib-y-Ddysgl.  But this, the site of my first ever mountain walk, twenty-five years before, felt too dangerous for me on my own.  My left knee has been too often ruptured and repaired and my quadriceps didn’t seem trustworthy.

Instead, following the advice of my pocket guidebook, I chose the other side of the horseshoe, following the Watkin Path down to Bwlch y Saethau, and then along the ridge to the twin summits of Y Lliwedd.  My first steps were hesitant, traced and retraced as I tried to find a safe way down from the summit. Every way seemed to lead me to treacherous scree, on which my uncertain feet might slip and send me flying.  I found a way, eventually, using my backside as a fifth point of contact on many occasions.  My legs shook, my hands clutched at rocks and more than once I wondered if I should just turn back.

What kept me going was the guidebook’s assurance that this was easier than Crib Goch and offered as good a view – and the sight across the range of a path that led safely down to the Miners’ Track, if only I could reach it. I kept on.  Here, a quarter century ago, I had jumped and bounced through the uneven and mobile rocks underfoot; today I felt my mortality clinging closely to me. Eventually, the scree gave way to a path and I quickly found myself at the feet of Y Lliwedd’s first summit.

This was the point at which I remembered why I came to climb here so often.  It was a risky scramble, but I could gain height rapidly, using my swimmer’s superior upper body strength to haul me up rocks that the dry weather had made into a solid certainty against my boots.  I almost felt as if I were flying up the rocks, so quickly was I ascending.  It made me feel younger and alive.  I could have chosen the safer route to the rear of the arête, but I wanted to look over the edge, to see the sheer drop down.  Again and again, where the route offered safer choices, I kept close to the knife-edge.  Having worked so hard to get there, I wanted to experience it all.

After the second summit, dropping down to Cwm Dyli and looking down to the Miners’ Track below, I felt suddenly sad.  I didn’t want this feeling of freedom – from fear, from a preoccupation with ageing joints and aching muscles, from the day-to-day concerns – to end. But it does, it always does.  The gentle walk back to Pen-y-Pass, and then the six mile slog along the road to Capel Curig, gave me time to think about the day.  I’d come a lot further than the distance.  I had begun the day thinking that my pain and fatigue were insurmountable.  I’d faltered, believing myself no longer able to scramble across rock faces.  But finally I’d surrendered myself to the situation and the possibility that I was fitter and braver than I felt.

I didn’t do anything that might kill me; I had just regained my self-belief.

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