Sunday, 22 January 2017
Prompt 22 - The Climb That Nearly Killed Me: A Story Of Stupidity and Hope
22. Smoke, Fog, and Haze: Write about not being able to see ahead of you.
I write this while sitting on a friend's sofa. In a while I'm heading to a protest vigil in the centre of Manchester, for as long as I can cope with that. Parts of the story that I've written today are true. Parts are fiction. I'll leave you to ascertain which parts are which.
The climb nearly killed me!
Wisdom wasn't the order of the day when I looked at a map and decided, "Hey, I could do that tomorrow." I found it hard enough to walk up the High Street or the hill leading to the old church. So why was it I thought I'd be able to manage climbing a mountain without getting into difficulties?
It didn't look far on the map of course and though the route was plagued with dozens of contour lines, closely packed, I was able to tell myself that it was just a few inches from the lake to the sea. Simple. Stupid. I had a waterproof coat too so that wasn't a problem. I'd even take my compass just to be safe. Stupid. Yeah, stupid. I did call myself that. It's the truth though. Even more stupid because of a discovery part way through my trek: I left the map at home. Bloody stupid. You don't deserve to have got off the mountain alive.
Climbing, I could almost see those contour lines and realised why there was hardly a gap between them on the page. Three thousand feet to climb and within one hundred it was hurting and I was puffing like an eighty year old chain smoker having an asthma attack. I sat and rested, the view already improved from when I stood on the track below. After a minute I felt better and looked at the mountain. It wasn't that far was it? It's not as if this was some Himalayan peak. No oxygen required. The mountain peaks looked inviting in the sunshine and I knew turning back wasn't an option. I would climb to the top, cross the ridges and descend to the sea. Else I would call myself a useless scumbag failure.
That climb. It was awful. The view was wonderful. The air was fresher than my Mountain Air fabric softener. Mountain goats were grazing and in the air, buzzards glided. I'd have enjoyed the whole thing a great deal had it not been for my lungs. I had to sit down regularly, each time for longer. My heart rate refused to fall and I'd have quit had it not been for stubbornness and self betrayal.
I reached the first ridge and beyond it I saw a mountain lake, the water shining in the sunlight. A beautiful place to sit and rest again and eat something from my pack filled with the highest of highest of calorific value. As I ate I watched the water, bright, beaming back at me. And then it faded. The water ceased to shine. I looked up. The sun had disappeared behind a cloud swooping across the sky from behind the mountain. Then the cloud enveloped me in shadow too and the surprising warmth of a February day became a chill. In an instant. But that was okay. I had my jacket. And it was waterproof too of course so even if it rained I'd be fine.
No sense in turning back. Because I didn't have any sense. I'm bloody stupid. Stupid enough to continue to climb the mountain. Christ it was hard work. And then a few hundred feet below the summit I entered into the cloud. Oh crap it all to hell! There wouldn't be a view from the summit. What had the weather forecast said? I couldn't quite remember but I was sure it hadn't said I'd be walking in the clouds. Of course it hadn't. It didn't know I'd be 3000 feet high at the top of a mountain chain rather than at zero feet in the centre of the city. Why didn't I think of that? Obvious isn't it? I've already told you. It's because I'm stupid.
I made it to the top of the mountain though and that felt like the most wonderful thing ever even though it was decidedly chilly, bone-creakingly damp, and there was no view to the city, the sea, or the mountains to the south and west. I'd made it. Conquered my own unfit body and mind. I stood on the summit, proud, content and shouted "I Made It!" into the clouds before sitting down in a horseshoe shaped rock shelter. Lunch never tasted so good as it did that day and I've never been more thankful for the miracle of thermos flasks.
After lunch I stood and looked around me. I could see the clouds. Nothing else ahead. On the ground I could see maybe ten feet ahead of me. Maybe less. So there I was, alone on an unknown mountain peak. Alone and blind. Alone and clueless. What should I do? That's obvious too of course. You all know what I should have done. Because you're all the clever, sensible ones and I was the mountaineering dimwit, utterly clueless. Obviously, all too obviously, I should have turned round and descended the mountain the way I came, carefully following my route in reverse until I descended out of the clouds. That's what you would have done I suppose. You would have been proud to have made it up the hill, ticked off the summit in your summit grabbing diary, headed back down and flagged down some public transport to take you back down the valley to the inn back at the first village. There you would have drunk a pint of the best and smiled at a job well done.
You would have done that. I didn't of course. Because I had a plan in my head. The route was engraved deeply on the contours of my mind and it had been ever since I'd put my fingers on two points of the map and decided on this walk. I couldn't turn back. Because that wasn't the plan. And breaking the plan was like breaking myself.
So what I did was continue my walk to the sea. I'd go to the inn there. I'd planned it and that's what I would do. Can't break plans. It hurts too much inside. Not my fault. It's an autism thing.
I pulled out the map from my pack to check the route. Oh shitty shit crap. Yeah, you know already. It was at that point I realised I didn't even have the map. You would have sworn at yourself too of course but you wouldn't have been such an idiot as me because you wouldn't have forgotten the map and even if you had you would have known to turn back. I couldn't turn back. Just couldn't. Don't question it. Please. I stopped to think and thought "Well I can kind of visualise the route. I think I remember it well enough. I think it was about this angle on the map and as long as I don't stray too far to the left it should be okay." I knew that the ridge fell away sharply to the left. Very sharply. A sheer drop of a thousand feet. I looked at the compass to check the direction and set off along the ridge towards the next two summits. From there I'd head to the sea.
The clouds didn't clear. Of course not. They got thicker as I walked. Visibility on the ground dropped to five feet. But the going was quite easy and I knew that the rises to the second and third summits weren't too severe. I thought at one point that I might be completely lost. It just seemed so far to the third peak. "Surely it couldn't have been this far. It was only a little gap on the map." I wasn't lost though and the ridge rose again.
Three summits bagged. Three successes. "Oh yes, I'm the best. The best." I am ashamed to admit that I thought exactly that. They say pride goes before a fall. Well I didn't fall that day. After drinking more tea it was time to descend from the ridge. Thank God. Because I was pretty damn knackered by that stage. An escalator off the mountain would have been an acceptable alternative. I thought I knew the direction. I thought I checked the compass correctly.
But something went wrong. And I headed off the ridge in entirely the wrong direction. With no hope of the sea. And no hope of finding a path again.
Eventually I realised. I was still in cloud. I could see nothing but I knew I'd gone wrong. I wasn't reaching the stream that would become a river and drop at the falls before gentle flowing to the sea. I was nowhere. Lost. Alone. Unseeing. And an idiot. And the route I'd taken was getting steeper. And steeper still. Until I couldn't progress further.
I sat down on the plants. I knew I had no energy left to climb back up to the ridge. I knew I couldn't head down and out of the clouds the way I'd come. So I just sat. Couldn't immediately figure a solution to my situation. And I cried too. I didn't have any way of calling for help either. What the fuck was I to do?
I couldn't see ahead because of the cloud. I couldn't see ahead because my own head went into a head-tail spin.
No way forward. No way back. No way any way.
I said at the beginning that the climb nearly killed me. Nearly. Not quite. No, not quite. Because I did work out a solution. I did reach the sea. I did enjoy two pints of the best. How is not important. Just know that when there seems to be no way out there might be something you've missed. You may be able to think around the problem.
And when you can't see the way ahead? Know that it's not forever. One day you will be able to leave the clouds behind, see the sun again, and either see the well trodden paths or know that you might walk where no one has walked before.
That's what I'm telling myself anyway. I'm not lost in clouds like on that day. But I'm lost. Lost. More lost than I've ever been lost before. Yet again my stupidity has screwed me over. I cannot see the way ahead. I want to sit down and give up. That would be easiest wouldn't it? And you wouldn't despise me if I did.
I've told you the story of the day I nearly died on the mountain not because you need to hear it but because it's me who needed reminding of it. As I remember that day I know that there is a way out of the mess I'm in. I know that I do have a future and a hope. And I know that one day soon I'm going to drink two pints of the best again and smile in the new sunshine. It's going to happen. I promise.