Climbing a Mountain in a Rainstorm in Wales, and All That It Signifies (Hint: Life is a Bit Like Climbing a Mountain in a Rainstorm)
'THIS IS GOOD FOR THE SOUL!' the mountain leader is yelling somewhere to my right. I nod and hope I am not required to say anything in response. I am too busy putting one foot in front of the other and concentrating on not dying. We are halfway up Mount Snowdon, it is 3am, and the reason he is yelling is because the wind is hammering itself so heavily against our bodies that it is all we can do to not get knocked off our feet and blown into Ireland, which incidentally, you can see on a clear day from the top of Snowdon.
Tonight, when we eventually get to the summit, I will not be able to see more than an arm's length in front of my face. In fact, it will be so foggy at the top of this relatively tiny mountain in north Wales that I will squat down on the path and do a wee only feet away from the rest of my walking party. And it won't matter, because they won't be able to see me. The alternative is holding on for the next 3 hours as we try not to get swept away by a river that was once a path. For months leading up to this climb I had rose-tinted visions of myself, rosy cheeked and bright eyed, triumphantly arriving at the top of my Welsh Everest as the sun rose, lighting the glorious hills spread out below me so that I might gaze down on all humankind, bathed in this warm morning glow, as I reflected on all that I had achieved in the last 4 hours, and the last 5 months. And the last forever.
Of course, real life is not like that, and my moonlight mountain climb was not like that. On the ascent, the wind did it's best to hurl us off a cliff and on the descent sideways hail burned my face and my walking shoes became lakes of rancid mountain water. My knees cried out in agony as I forced them to steady me against the slippery rocks that had become our way back to safety. And when I arrived back at base camp there was not a part of me that was dry, and I looked like I had recently fallen into a ravine.
The whole time I had not seen a single gorgeous view - just a few shivering sheep and the light from my head torch falling on the craggy ground in front of me. And rain. So much rain. The week leading up to this was glorious sunshine and the week following it would see temperatures rising to the high 20's and skies as blue as your hat. But here, on this night, it was freezing, apocalyptic and there were times when I wanted to give up and not move another inch until the weather improved and the helicopter came to get me. But it's not supposed to be easy, is it? I guess if that climb had been a lovely stroll up a big hill on a balmy summers eve then it would have been fine, just fine. But not as satisfying, and less of an achievement. Is that like life? Is it going to be more satisfying in the end because it is not easy? I don't know. But at the point where I heard my mountain leader utter those words - 'this is good for the soul' I knew he was right, because despite being convinced we were all going to be killed by adverse weather, I'd still rather have been there than curled up in a warm, dry bed.
I know people who have travelled to Africa and Asia and spent 3 days trekking up peaks that make Snowdon look like a hillock. Those people are excellent and amazing and I wish I could do that but the truth is that while physically I could, I'm not sure my brain could deal with everything involved. Just travelling to our base camp at the foot of Snowdon (a large tent in a wet field) turned me into a wibbling mess. So much so that when they served us huge slabs of chocolate cake in preparation for our Quite Long Walk Up The Equivalent of 369 Flights of Stairs In a Wind Tunnel, I couldn't eat mine. But when I look at it objectively and in relation to the rest of my life (and nobody else's) - it turns out that I may as well have trekked across the Andes. Because 5 months ago I was too scared to leave my house. And now I was getting ready to climb up things! In the dark! In the rain! Wearing really unflattering headgear! And 5 hours later I managed it, even if we nearly did get turned back because the batteries in the radios went dead and our mountain leaders, despite putting on a brave front, were actually pretty terrified of the weather conditions we were ascending high things in. It's one thing to make it out of doors when you are in the middle of spiralling Anxiety, but quite another to travel 300 miles away from home to zip up a mac and go on an actual adventure. And I did that. I did that in a HURRICANE (okay, I'm starting to blow the story out of proportion now. But it really was very windy indeed). And guess what?! After doing all that AT NIGHT and then coming down the mountain in the gathering dim light of a very foggy, grey, rainy morning, I STILL got sunburnt on my forehead. Mountain weather is so weird.
But before I start getting too self-congratulatory and smug - I know it wasn't all that really. Everyone is fighting a really hard battle every day. And mine was just a really bizarre physical incarnation of a mental struggle - one that I could manipulate into words for the purposes of a blog post later on. And the added dimension that we were walking up Snowdon to raise money for a cancer charity makes it even stupider to start patting myself vigorously on the back. Nothing any of us went through that night was as bad as cancer can be. But after it was all over there was a little part of me that thought 'well, you see, so you CAN do things. So stop telling yourself you can't. Now get in a warm bath before you get pneumonia'. And that was pretty sweet.
The other reason I don't want to get too smug is because I know it could all have been different. Anxiety may be all in the mind but guess what? IT'S ALL IN THE MIND. It ebbs and flows and it never really 100% goes away. If I had been having a bad time in my life right then, when I was supposed to be climbing a mountain, I would have cancelled the trip and stayed in my safe zone, which would probably have been my bed in London, quaking gently and persistently. I'm no hero, and you can't overcome things just like that. I was there because I was having a relatively GOOD period in the life of my brain and I was able to do what I did. Also, I have a working set of legs, for which I feel incredibly grateful. But the point is, I guess, that the next time I find myself unable to go to Tesco to get milk because of that impending sense of dread that I can't explain, I can remind myself of this experience, and hopefully it will help, if only a little bit. I can add it to the bank of Good Things to help me fight the war against the Bad Things that hide in the corners of my head.
If you too would like to climb a mountain but aren't sure how, here is a Beginner's Guide, by Me:
1.) Pick a little one to begin with. Wales has some little ones and also the Lake District in England. I mean, they are still pretty big. But not as big as those ones in Nepal and that Matterhorn one (can't remember where that is).
2.) Do not go when it is dark. You won't be able to see anything. Although actually, maybe this is a good thing. Looking down and seeing a sheer drop might put you off.
3.) For the love of all that is good and beautiful, do NOT go up a mountain when it is hailing sideways. That is no fun. If it starts hailing sideways, retreat to the nearest cafe for a scone and a cup of tea instead.
Oh and if you make it up Snowdon can you please tell me what it looks like because I've still got no idea. Thanks :)