Falling in Love

If your soon-to-be spouse suggests a mountain trek for your honeymoon, consider it a little hint of your life to come. I may have longed for the ‘white sandy beaches’ honeymoon cliche, but with a proposal over mugs of wine on a river bank, you could say I was duly warned.

The day after our wedding we collapsed on to the overnight train from Paris to Pau. A brief hotel stopover only made the shift to hikers’ hostel all the more stark. Swapping a walk-in shower and enormous double bed for grimy tiles and a rickety bunk, I started dreaming of sandy beaches once again. Perhaps this mountain thing was overrated?

But here I was, clattering my cup down at the communal breakfast table, brushing aside the strong suspicion that every other person, from 6 to 86, was more capable than me. And after a final coffee there was no choice but to head on up that hill.

A world away from the sunny mountain meadows I’d pictured, we were instead beset by fog. No grand vistas to reward us for our steep steady slog uphill. Only the eery, ever-present ringing of cow bells from bovines in the mist.

Hours on, we reached the final pass that signalled the final point before an easy amble to our home for the night. I’d been picturing the view for hours, but when it came it was nothing but cloud. We picked our way down the track, using our dangerously-naive navigational skills to find the spot. Just at that moment there was a tiny tear in the cloud cover and we realised we were heading past it. We had almost missed our shelter entirely.

The hut’s designation as a ‘refuge’ was perfectly apt, as we bravely watched the afternoon thunderstorm, armed with tea and chocolate. That night, crammed in to our bunks, I was simply grateful for my full belly and sheltered sleep. Not a single whisper of white sandy beaches entered my thoughts.

Seemingly seconds later, someone’s alarm clock pulled us all out of bed, into a sunrise too spectacular for words. There was a hushed collective worship as every hiker stood in silence, facing Pic du Midi d’Ossau in the growing light. Right then, no one was dreaming of anywhere beyond that perfect moment.

A Mountain Without A View

mountain_selfie

A week after our stay in Snowdonia I find myself scrolling through the Cadair Idris twitter feed, crammed with photos of glorious bright clear mountaintop views, only days after we battled through the wind and murk, querying whether this was dense cloud or simple rain that we were marching through. In the photo courtesy of twitter, I pick out clearly out path climbing steeply from the deep lake to the undulating ridge leading to the summit. On the day we climbed there was no clear path or route ahead, only dark shadows rising high through the cloud, only the immediate demands of the slick rocks rising underfoot. It’s hard to recall the wind. I recall the pockets of quiet, sheltered on the lee side of a foggy crag before pitching out in to the awaiting wind that forced raindrops through the seams of map cover and mitten.

We see barely a soul on our ascent, because of course who would be mad enough to climb on a day like this. The dogs seem to fare better on the hillside than the people: the plucky terrier in full neon safety garb, a merry assistant to the hardy men working on low path maintenance; the two collies on the high ridge, seeming more at ease here than they ever seem at the fireside, taking agile leaps over the rocks whilst their owner glumly shouts to us warnings of the peak’s grim conditions. We weren’t too worried. We knew of the old stone shelter on the summit, essential precious promise of a dry lunch stop at the top.

We felt perfectly alone for almost the entire hike. At the summit bothy, our sense of solitude was happily shattered by a convivial convergence of several parties, shaking off wet gear and exchanging ascent routes. After a quick eat, we took the advice of a seasoned climber and struck off at a vague angle through the murk, picking out sheep and cairns as we headed for an as-yet-invisible marker pointing out our route back down. Five years ago the poor visibility would have freaked me out (in fact it did, up on Kinder Scout). But since then I’ve gained enough confidence and realism to adopt cautious optimism.

We bumped our way down the steep descent, tough enough to make frustratingly slow progress. I’d always far rather climb up than down. We kept each other going with the usual mix of random song choices, a rant about nothing in particular, plenty of gentle teasing and the odd word of encouragement. Finally the low hills emerged, wispy pines atop damp ochre, while we crossed the stream on smooth slate slabs.

It always feels strange to return to the car park, the civility of the steamy cafe and the officiousness of the pay & display meter. But really I’m happy to return, not yet brave enough to spend the night in that summit bothy. Maybe next year.