There was something about the way the man smiled at me as I passed. It was a beatific smile, a spaced out, not quite there, smile, on the face of a wiry young man getting into his car. You’ll have a great time up there, he called. It’s fantastic on the top added his friend, already settled in the passenger seat. They could be the poster couple for Hardcore Hikers – athletic looking, energetic and all togged up – but they struck me as ever so slightly high.
Scratch that, they looked off their heads.
I was in the Brecon Beacons, at the foot of Pen y Fan, the tallest peak in that range of South Wales mountains, at a place where cars had been more cast aside like jettisoned back packs than carefully parked. A popular spot, there were all manner of interpretation boards about the place, offering all manner of enlightenment, but I had to start before my nerve ran out.
I am not a hillwalker. Or a mountaineer. I don’t even know the difference. If you carry sharp pointy things – crampons, axes and the like – does that put you in the latter team? Or does that make you a climber? Who knows? I am a lowland walker, the flatter the better for me. In fact, give me a nice canal walk (of which more in another post) and I’m a happy bunny.
I have form with Mountains. Never fit and always badly co ordinated, I dreaded hikes up hills as a child. For some misguided reason, at 17 I signed up to do the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award. A lengthy expedition over Lake District summits was involved. I made it, but I vowed never to go near a mountain again. In the forty years since, I’ve climbed only four peaks, each one out of some social or moral obligation and each one with gritted teeth.
But maybe it’s time I looked The Mountain in the eye.
I set off at a slow pace. A very slow pace.
I stopped to catch my breath. Often.
But gradually I began to climb. The valley floor dropped away and the view opened up.
People passed, cheery greetings were exchanged. Those going up, pink cheeked and panting; those coming down, warning of high winds but with a curiously laid back air. In between while, there was a deep silence, broken only by the sound of the wind in the grass and the beating wings of a large black raptor as it wheeled above me.
My mind began to wander. Are those really walkers across the way and how did they get there? Is that cloud formation not the spitting image of the one at the start of The Simpsons?
And what is that man doing with that bin bag?
As he grew nearer, he stopped to talk. A modest, self effacing man, perhaps in his sixties, he would say only that he tries to come up once a week to do what he can to keep the mountain clean. Did he find the climb hard or had he got used to it? You’ve just got to find your own pace, doesn’t matter how slow. And you don’t need to keep up with anyone else. Just do your own thing. But when you find your own pace, well, it’s easy then, isn’t it? I wasn’t sure that easy was the word I would have used, but I could see he was right.
But the main thing I come up here for is the solitude. A pause. Same as you.
The higher I climbed, the darker grew the clouds over the summit and, as I reached the ridge, the gusts I had been warned about hit me, momentarily knocking me sideways. But as luck would have it, the wind cleared the sky enough for the most glorious views to open up before me just as I got to the top.
and thisand this.
There were a few others on the summit, but they drifted off and I was alone. Solitude. I perched low on the cairn, out of the wind, to eat my lunch while I gazed out from my eyrie on top of the world.
High as a kite on mountain air, a banana never tasted so good, a Snickers so essentially perfect.
And an hour later, back down in the car park, I was the one with the spaced out, not quite there, smile. I was the oddity smiling beatifically at no one in particular.
So I looked The Mountain in the eye.
And I get it now.