Thursday, February 1, 2024

Winter meditations...

Every month I edit an alpine newsletter - here is my introduction to February's issue

Twenty years ago, the philosopher Alain de Botton published a collection of essays titled The Art of Travel. They’re a witty and playful reflection on the pitfalls and disappointments of our urge to explore, to sightsee, to find ourselves or a putative nirvana…

If there’s a theme to his musings, it’s that the process of planning and anticipation is the chief pleasure of any adventure – thereafter, the reality invariably falls short of our idealising. Most of us, I expect, will have experienced something of the sort.

Perhaps this is why, whenever I make a trip to the mountains, I refuse to look at the weather until I arrive. To be clear, I still meticulously research what’s likely to be the case (a holiday of Scottish midges taught me that lesson) — but once the tickets are booked and we’re committed to going, I regard the forecast as nothing more than a source of potential disappointment.

My friends laugh at this eccentricity, regarding it a sort of superstition. Perhaps there’s some truth in that, but I’ve come to look forward to the element of surprise — and to making the most of whatever we encounter. This week I arrived in the Alps for some skiing, only to be greeted by biblical rain… but then again, for a kayaker, the river is running at its brim-full best.

And you know, for all I like Alain de Botton’s writing, I reckon he’s wrong that we’re doomed to disappointment. My travel memories are as much of people as they are of places; of what could never have been planned as much as what was. Last night the temperature fell by ten degrees, and we awoke to snowscape that I venture would surpass any expectation, or serve as nirvana for all but the most jaundiced or joyless of heart.

I’m glad that hills don’t dance to anyone’s tune.

Wednesday, November 29, 2023



Pausing mid-scramble 

 noun (plural hiatuses)
a pause or break in continuity in a sequence or activity: 
there was a brief hiatus in the war with France.

It's a dark irony that no sooner had my book on blogging been published, than my own practice was interrupted by a combination of events which left me caught between accepting the need for a break and the desire to make sense of it all through words. Had I followed the later course, I've no doubt I'd have tried to unpick the overwhelm with logic; the first refuge of the angry man...  or at least this one.

It's not that reasoning isn't right which stopped me - by definition it sort of is. Rather, it's more that its not enough; for the truth requires the tears and tantrums as much as the whys and wherefores. And only when they are disclosed and settled (at least in our minds, if not on paper) can we properly begin afresh. Suppressing them altogether, would imply something less than human.

A week ago, I was in France, where I wrote a short piece for an alpine journal:

From the mezzanine window of my house I can see the ridge of Mont Billiat, its lower slopes clothed in the dazzling hues of an alpine autumn. Last night’s storm has flecked the summit with snow, accentuating the gullies and arĂȘtes that make it an intimidating and serious winter climb. Today there was a walking group, maybe thirty strong, setting off from its base to make a tour of the surrounding forest.

The walkers were from a local club, and in broken English their leader told me this was the first autumn they’d scheduled regular meets since the pandemic. His mention of that period —which sometimes seems like history now — reminded of how wary we became of each other, as much we were of the virus. With obvious satisfaction, he added that their membership was now greater than before the lockdowns.

And how wonderful is that I thought. 

The purpose of posting this extract here is, I suppose, to form a sort of hiatus too; a tangential break in the stream of thought; an interlude and yet a connection...

For in some ways, my respite from blogging reminds me of the current UK public enquiry into the Covid pandemic. An odd parallel perhaps, but an example (if you've followed proceedings) of how we seem necessarily programmed to vent our emotions before learning any lessons. Arguably, we need time too, to see things in perspective.  

On the subject of which, it strikes me that those who (largely for political reasons) called for an immediate review were most definitely wrong in one respect...  It will be many years before we can truly assess the collateral and counter-factual impacts of, say, lockdown and whether it was or wasn't a beneficial policy...  But there I go again, reasoning away...

When what I need to do is pause and, metaphorically at least, go for that walk in the woods.  Meanwhile, little Oscar is scratching at the door where his lead is kept— he would seem to know that the tide has turned.

It feels good to be back.

Monday, July 3, 2023

Finding radiance - memories of a friend.

Riding tandem in Wales - many years ago now.

Last week, while walking in the mountains of the Haute Savoie, I received a call from Jane. An old friend needed to speak to me urgently, she said; there'd been an accident in which 'Pat' had been killed while riding her bike. 

It took a moment to register the volley of information... a collision with a car... on holiday in  Scotland... riding her 'solo'...  Pat...?

And then it hit me.

For in the milliseconds it takes to compute, all becomes clear and irreversible — the future forever altered by something so swiftly related: a person gone, a chainlink lost; memories tinged with sorrow now...  

In truth, I hadn't seen Pat or her husband Reg for perhaps two decades. And yet I'd rank them high among the seminal people in my life, inhabiting that curious space of persons whose impact extends far beyond their physical presence. 

It's a time and place thing — the fatalistic collision of personality and circumstance that makes some encounters pivotal while consigning others (for all they may be closer, deeper and longer lasting) to a more marginal role in the trajectory of our lives.

The phrase that struck me most, when I spoke to my friend who relayed the detail, was 'riding her solo'.  It's a term that tandem riders use to distinguish between standard bikes and their two-up cousins. Pat and Reg were made for the latter; a strong couple in every sense, and leading lights in a gang of enthusiasts who've stayed loosely connected for almost forty years. 

I always think that the bonds of shared experience are the hardest to break. In this case, forged by the tens of thousands of pedal revolutions we shared in Northumberland, the Dales and later Wales...  And by those nights of laughter in hostels, the attempts at time trials, the coming to our wedding in Betws y Coed...  the sheer delight of cocking a leg over a crossbar. 

We used to call them 'Peg and Rat', they even adopted the moniker on their email address. For all I know it may still be the same.  

Except it can't be, can it?  Not ever again.  

And all because of time and circumstance and the fatalistic collision of iron on skin and the breaking of bones that we could so easily allow to go round and round... and round again, by thinking if only this or what if that ... and how there, but for the grace of an effing God, go any of us...

I have no faith — or at least none of the religious sort — but I know this much: that unless we embrace life and live it to the fullest that we can, then it is nothing; that joy and meaning are as interconnected as the steersman and stoker of a tandem; that risk and reward are two sides of a coin that's weighted in favour of the latter, but just occasionally flips the way we didn't foresee.

Pat lived like that when I knew her well. It's how I'll recall her and perhaps how we might conjure a radiance in her memory.

Today —with some dark irony — I'm writing this tribute of a sorts from a hotel patio in Mallorca, an island that's a magnet for cyclists. All around me is sunshine and life; mountains and sea; youth and the future... She would have loved it here.

Of that I have no doubt... so too, that the wheels and gears of our lives will continue to turn, and, in time,  just as smoothly as ever.  

Just as it should be.

Monday, June 5, 2023

Writing inspirations

Me walking in the Haute Savoie last year - photo by J Bunn

Every month I write the editorial for an alpine club journal.  Here's a slightly adapted version of June's musings...  It seems relevant to bloggers too.

Why writing inspires us.

This month we look to celebrate and encourage writing about our outdoor adventures. But before we do that, I wonder if you’ve ever considered why mountaineering has such a rich literary tradition; and why if you visit any decent book shop the number of its titles far exceeds those of most other – and more popular – sports?

The often-quoted explanation is that the ascent of mountains has an almost perfect narrative structure. We start with a quest, make preparations, gather friends and overcome difficulties…. Until, in the face of an ever-present jeopardy, we conclude with triumph or tragedy. This is the stuff of exploits and excitement we know from Odysseus to Indiana Jones.

But I’d suggest there is another, less obvious, reason.

And it’s that almost any adventurous journey involves not only an outer narrative but an inner one too. These are the tales of how mountains change us; how we overcome our fears, resolve our worries or come of age… Often, they remind us of the power of landscape; how it can heal, bring joy and help us see the world anew.

And the wonderful thing about these stories is that we can all experience them —and not just on the page.

Those of us who visit the hills regularly will know something of what I’m describing. How many of us will have started out with grand ambitions and returned humbled and yet better for the experience? Or perhaps we exceeded expectations and learned something of our inner strength. The point is that pursuing our passion is as much about the paths we take as the peaks we conquer.

Returning to writing, the revealing of our thoughts and feelings is not for everyone, but it's by doing so that we make the leap from descriptions that are merely competent to those that more deeply connect. And it is this that's the root of our great mountain literary tradition.

What, I wonder, are the stories – outer and inner – that you might choose to share?

Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Home turf, here and now.

Cairn Briw, Preseli Hills

If you were to travel in a straight line from the Preseli Hills, the furthest point north before reaching Scotland would take you through my home county of Northumberland. And ironically, given their distance apart, you'd find the two landscapes have a certain similarity: mountains meeting the sea; purpling moorland that fades to fertile plains. Their histories are mirrored too: places where for millennia people have come to worship and trade as well as to toil.

Perhaps this resemblance - and my yearning for that wonderful border landscape - is why it has taken me so long to appreciate the Preselis for what they are?  Despite knowing them for decades, it's only recently that have I taken the same joy in exploring these 'mountains in miniature ' as I did in wandering the hills of my youth.

Yesterday Jane and I walked to Carn Ingli, the 'hill of angels' above the Nevern estuary. Returning along its broad ridge, we passed Cairn Briw (which lives up to its translation as a shattered heap of stones) and looked across the sweep of Newport Bay. Standing there, I realised that I could name almost every cove and hamlet; I could trace the paths through the woodlands and know the chapels and cafes they would lead to...  

It is thirty-five years since I came to Wales. And in that time I've come to realise that although the tendency to weigh one landscape against another is understandable (especially for those of us who have shifted our locus) it risks diminishing what's on our doorstep today, in favour of a nostalgia for times and places past. As we turned south to face the Golden Road of the Preseli’s higher peaks I recalled times and journeys that are as deeply a part of me as any from my younger days...

The sense of connection and separation of my 'two homes' will, I suspect, never quite go away: if I could create an Eden, it would be a combination of the two. But then that would be false and futile—a  manufactured mash-up that would have no history or sense of itself.  

Better, I think to live with what we have and love it for what it is.

Friday, May 26, 2023

Letting go... and its opposite

Garn Fawr - the big cairn - near to Strumble Head

Some subjects are too big for blogging.  

For weeks - months, in truth - I've been in a sort of Sargasso Sea with my writing; thoughts swirling and circling as I ponder not so much what to say as how (and where) to start. Until the other day my son asked me if I had a subject in mind and I replied without hesitation, 'letting go': a response that hints at a desire to simplify and pare back to what's essential, important... immediate.

My father-in-law is dying.  

Five weeks ago he suffered a stroke of sorts, or at least that's the simplest way to describe it.  He's with us thanks only to tubes and the consummate care of his nurses. Occasional moments of lucidity are contextualised by his living in a delerium-induced world of hallucinations and fears. The prolongation of his life is undignified and not what he would want; the pain palpable to all who love(d) him...

We are selling our former family home.

And about time too in my view, but not in Jane's, who's taken eighteen months to come around to the emotional and physical connections its sale will sever.  In terms of sentiment, I guess I'd cashed out early, but it's never that simple. We invest more than money in bricks and mortar despite our obsession with prices, equity and putative property ladders...  

My son will soon be leaving.

In September, exam results allowing, my youngest boy will go to university — the same one I attended forty years ago; studying the same subject too.  How life turns in circles I thought... Except I'm bereft at the prospect of his leaving; willing the wheel of his life to spin, yet yearning for a friction that would slow it just a little... 

I'm getting older and feel it keenly.

Not so much in my body as my view of the future. When I left home at eighteen, my mid-twenties seemed an age away, retirement beyond any imaginable horizon. Now life's skyline feels closer and more focused; its infinite possibilities for the first time closing in. This is not a bad thing, nor one that I fear, but it involves making choices, not the least of which is the release of pretence as well as possessions...

We are here but an instant.

This week I went with Jane to Strumble Head, as elemental a place as any I know: the ocean, the wind, the neolithic hill fort and the spring squill on the path...  Standing on its ancient rocks, you can see the curve of the earth and sense the juxtaposition of time's eternity and flux in every surge of the tide...

More than ever I'm determined.

Intent on navigating a course through the flotsam and jetsam of life's Sargasso Sea that I began with.  To do so, I've realised, requires not a bucket list or some egotistical attempt at immortality — but a delicate balance of love and loss, of caution and creativity, of holding on and letting go...

As I said, some subjects are too big for blogging.

Monday, May 1, 2023

Spring reflections and renewal.

Spring sunshine in the Haute Savoie

If I could choose the manner and place of my last day on earth, I think a high contender would be springtime in the Alps. It’s true that summer is the season of my fondest climbs (limited though they are) and winter can be breathtaking in its majesty. As for the autumn, the reddening of the beech trees by my house are an annual – and joyful - reminder of the turning of the years.

But spring is extra special.

Two weeks ago there was a late snowfall in the Haute Savoie, ironically providing the best skiing of the season, just as the lifts were closing. Yet I didn’t go high; instead, I walked in the foothills, accompanied by the chatter of birdsong, the white noise of the meltwater and the soundtrack in my head, putting the world to rights as usual…

Everywhere, buds were sprouting, the meadows turning from dun to lush; a rogue hyacinth momentarily convincing me an orchid had bloomed. And am I alone in thinking that spring air smells (and tastes) like nothing else – a fragrance that can’t be bottled, but is free for us all to delight in.

Back home in Wales, it’s the season of yellows and creams, of gorse and blackthorn, cowslips and dandelion. But yesterday, as I sat in my garden, an iridescent speck landed on my chair; an Adonis Blue butterfly, and a perfectly formed reminder that soon the flowers in Pembrokeshire's hedgerows will be that colour too. It’s been a tough winter in more ways than one, but there’s no greater tonic than nature’s renewal.

It’s time, I thought, to start looking ahead; to plan for the summer and brighter days. Later, I opened my diary and smiled as its pages filled with possibilities. For this is not my last day on earth, rather, it’s the first of what remains. And while I may no longer have the vigour of youth, I’ve the same lust for life that was awakened in the Alps, almost fifty years ago.

Every year since, it’s spring which reminds me how precious that is.