It starts in a car park under glacial blue skies. A knuckle of granite has punched through the summit of the hill across the road. Every step forward is the next highest point around. Looking back I could see straight down the mouth of the River Teign and out into the English Channel. White curtains of cloud were being drawn across the sky. These were those much sought after views for days, if only for a few minutes. Snow had started to fall as the leading edge of the cloud broke over the tor, thick and fast. The wind drove the snow down hill and straight into the gaping neck of my coat. My breath was condensing on my glasses. They were useless. I couldn’t see anything. Not that there was much left to see. The sky was white, the ground quickly following suit. The view behind me totally obscured. I reached the rocks and was able to take shelter from the wind. All I could do now was wait out the storm.
Why do I do this to myself? First the torrential rain, now this blizzard. Still in shorts, obviously. I wondered where I’d left my sanity. George Mallory, who was to die on Mount Everest, was asked why did he want to climb it. He said, “Because it is there.” Britain has it’s fair share of mountains and I am keen to climb a few. When I say climb, what I actually mean is walk. I’m not a climber, a bit of scrambling now and then but nothing that requires something resembling upper body strength. If it’s about height, shouldn’t I be thinking about Everest? As the snow whipped around me, let me assure you I was.
I was thinking about death on Everest and Jon Krakauer’s personal account of the ’96 disaster; Into Thin Air. Rob Hall, before his fateful ascent said “With enough determination, any bloody idiot can get up this hill, the trick is to get back down alive.” It’s these kinds of conditions at such great heights that lead to trouble. In that year, eight people lost their lives in their attempt to return from the summit. The peak of said mountain stands at over 8000 meters, the height at which the lack of oxygen can become fatal. The 800 meters of rock and ice that continue beyond this point are endearingly known as the death zone.
My sanity hasn’t gone anywhere. I’ve read enough to know that Everest is about the ability to endure incredible suffering. Don’t get me wrong, I would love to see the world’s highest point but from beneath, where the ratio of pleasure to misery is still distinctly in my favour. As the storm moved beyond the tor and the blue sky emerged once more, I turned my melodramatic thoughts elsewhere. Since waking up with the sunrise in Australia, I’ve been enjoying a love affair with the sky. Stealing glances at the sunset whilst cooking dinner in my kitchen. Deliberately seeking out opportunities to catch the sun come up over the ocean. This is why I’m drawn to the mountains and the sea. The horizon reaches towards the infinite. The light is better simply because there’s more of it. Really nothing compares to that great expanse.
The question I should be asking isn’t why do I do it, but where am I going? The answer is simple; anywhere. There are other questions, like how far am I willing to drive in a day for a walk. I have told myself, and others, that I intend to finally ascend Pen Y Fan this year, hopefully before the summer. Will I drive to Wales and back in a day? Maybe. Just as likely is that I drive out, walk up and find somewhere in the evening to pitch my tent and drive back the following day. Because yes, I have forgotten what is fun and what isn’t. I’m even toying with a two day hike across a section of the South Downs Way. The ambition hasn’t gone anywhere. While it may sound like it’s stretching out to encompass a great deal more, I feel more focused. Month on month I’m increasing the distance I cover and it is all in preparation for one thing; the next leg.