|Cwm Idwal - photo by Saskia Janicki|
Why would anyone climb a mountain?
'Because it's there,' was George Malory's famous riposte when asked about attempting Everest. And to some extent he's right. But for all its pith, his answer does little to explain the subtler motivations of those of us who set our sights on lesser peaks.
I was reminded of this at the weekend when I went to North Wales with my rock climbing club. We camped under Tryfan in the Ogwen Valley, one of the most beautiful yet starkest in Snowdonia. There were ten of us in all: four novices, some accomplished leaders and me, who I guess you might class as a late returner—historically experienced, but distinctly lacking in practice!
In truth, I was lacking in more than that. Strength for one thing diminishes with age, as does flexibility and perhaps most importantly confidence, which is impervious to bluff. Hence I was glad that my eldest son had come along to be my partner. We've climbed together a few times this summer, the roles gradually shifting from me as mentor to him as front runner on the rope.
On Saturday we headed to Cwm Idwal, where its eponymous slabs host some of the valley's best known routes. The 'Ordinary' may be the easiest on the crag, but it's still five pitches of balance and counterpoise, requiring trust and technique to tackle it safely. Daniel was aware I'd once climbed it with his mum. What he didn't know, is that the lake below the cliff is where we'd walked hand in hand in the January rain and knew—with a certainty borne of love—that there was no going back.
Two years later we were married in a chapel at Betws y Coed, coming to the lake the day after our wedding as a sort of pilgrimage to its power. Another time, we found a red rose lodged in a crack on the slabs, and with it a note from a girl to her boyfriend who'd died in the Himalayas. All this came back as I climbed—slowly and without much elegance—on Saturday.
But there is more to our passion than speed or style. Indeed this weekend one party had a late finish, requiring a descent in the dark that will no doubt live in their memory. And happily so, for all were safe and smiling on their return, bonded not broken by the experience. Just as all the best climbing should be.
Another member scrambled up Tryfan only to drive thirty miles south to Cadair Idris and jog to its summit. That's over 5,000 feet in a day: dismay for some; a delight for those who are able. How I wish that ever I were... Mountains are about more than ropes and harnesses.
This weekend I saw walkers and cyclists, runners and kayakers, cake eating tourists (me among them) and families exploring the lower paths. There was even a hot air balloon inflated at night at Capel Curig! On the way to Idwal we passed a woman with twisted hips, each step a labour of effort, leaning on her sticks every few yards. As we went by she beamed the broadest of smiles.
And then, there are the new friendships I made, the views at dusk, the marvelling at the milky way... the sheer bloody joy of being in such a special place. It's been said we climb mountains, not for the views from the top, but from the bottom. Those who love the hills, or know any landscape intimately, will understand what that's getting at.
On Sunday I was tired, my son's girlfriend joined us and wanted to climb too. I was glad, for I felt in some intangible way that my part was done; that it was their turn now. They headed back to Cwm Idwal to climb a different but parallel route to the one I'd chosen the day before. It would be their memory not mine, their time and their experience together.
It was called Hope.