Tuesday, September 20, 2022


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 line to the one I'd chosen the day before. It would be their memory not mine, their time and their experience together. 

The route was called Hope.


  1. Hari OM
    Sadly, my days of Monro and Corbett bashing are long gone... but I can appreciate as much from those 'bottom views'!!! I take the few steps I still can, then watch and wait as my more nimble connections make their way to greater heights, eager to hear their tales on the return. I have no one to pass on that baton you call hope, but there are other ways to share - such as blogging 🙂 YAM xx

  2. Good memories recalled and new ones made.
    I lived at Idwal Cottage YH in 1954/5 . Dad was the warden.

  3. I did so love the years of my life that I spent climbing - there didn't seem to be enough of them. My nephew has taken to it like a mountain goat and had climbed all over Europe. It is like a meditation in many respects, finding the perfect centring.

  4. What a beautiful post. It needs to be shared with a wider audience.

  5. Funny, I'd just been thinking we hadn't heard from the Bike Shed lately and hoping all was OK. I don't know the Welsh mountains at all well (just fleeting visits to Snowdonia) but Cwm Idwal looks a fabulous spot. I've never had the head for heights that would draw me to rock climbing or 'proper' mountaineering - but love walking in and up the hills with my dog. Nobby is turning out to have a true (and on occasion truly alarming) instinct for climbing, as well as amazing stamina for one so young. By next year I hope that his judgement will have improved such that I will feel confident to take him up a Torridon Munro or two!
    Cheers, Gail.

  6. Your last line references Hope - reminds me of the time I climbed Ben Hope in Sutherland some 50 years ago. It was not climbing as such, more hiking over steep rough ground, but the view from from the top was spectacular, with the Orkneys on the northern horizon. On the same trip we trip we also climbed Foinaven, it was eerie sitting at the summit hearing the tinkle if rocks falling onto the scene beds below.

  7. The brain can wander far when the body is in motion, as evidenced by all the memories that flooded you during the climb. We don't climb mountains with ropes and such, but do hike some fairly steep slopes. This past summer we did one that had me wishing for ropes, for the scramble up the scree was something I don't care to repeat. I'm glad I went, and I won't be doing that one again.

  8. So beautifully written. You know what struck me about this? The woman with the twisted legs, walking on her sticks. I immediately thought that your mountain and her 'mountain' might be entirely different mountains, but what was common was the challenge of it and the triumph.

  9. I hae a somewhat troubled vision of climbing mountains, I don't believe in the 'conquer' word for instance or the 'monroing' that takes place. I suppose Nan Shepherd's The Living Mountain is the book I would turn to. But your tale of your marriage reminds me of a Tibetan story that the mountain is a male and the lake is the female, there is a good marriage between them.

  10. Beautiful! This was some excellent, well-crafted writing. I love how you circled back to the significance of the route for, now, a younger generation. I have no climbing experience myself so I can only experience it vicariously through your post!

  11. I love the mountains but have never climbed any. My sister in law and I hiked up a moutain once, can't remember the name of it. I bitched all the way up and she vomited all the way down. We didn't know it at the time but she had been bitten by a recluse spider.

    Time spent in the mountains is good for the soul. It reminds us of how insignicant we are and how insignificant our problems are.

  12. Dear Mark,

    Thank you so much for writing this beautiful story. A story about your love of rock-climbing is richly layered with your reflections on ritual bonding, pilgrimage, rite of passage and remembrance. I think that William Blake was right when he once wrote: “Great things are done when men and mountains meet;/This is not done by jostling in the street.”

    Although I have never attempted rock-climbing in my life (I do not think that I will cope with my chronic asthma), I love being surrounding by the mountains and love the feeling of splendid isolation they give when I am in a place like the Lake District.

    You might be interested in reading (if you haven’t already) W H Murray’s book on “Mountaineering in Scotland” – Robert Macfarlane recently did a radio programme (Radio 4) about this book by Murray- https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m0015kt7).

    PS. Your recent comment on “saint” made me wonder which one you think is easier: rock-climbing or writing? I daresay both activities can be daunting with very little high points, and one is always aware of the risk of crashing in the middle, before reaching to the great summit.

  13. Hi Mark, sorry I'm late to your recent mountain climbing party, the details so beautifully described, thank you. Needless to say, I'd be down on the lower paths! Eating cake sounds appropriate - nice slice of Victoria sponge perhaps - as nothing could entice me up a mountainside on foot - and of course my old back couldn't make it anyway. I do love your stories though and so great that Daniel went along.
    Here we have just escaped the fury that Hurricane Ian wrought on Florida, such devastation in many areas. It made a second landfall Sat. in S. Carolina, then swept across us in Central N. Carolina. We did have high winds and torrential rain for hours, and lost power for a few hours on Friday, but no serious damage. We're cleaning up the garden today as it's dried up somewhat.
    Hope Autumn days are treating you well. October is my favorite month. We'll be heading to the mountains - but not climbing - of New England soon.
    Hugs - Mary