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Mountain climbing: Why am I doing this to Myself?

There's something euphoric and insane about the act of mountain climbing. A bizarre spectacle, that is almost worshipped in some areas of our small, odd island, where brightly-clad people of all ages, backgrounds, and fitness levels go to areas of hills and decide, without questioning, that scaling one would be an excellent way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

For me, this strange desire was bred in from childhood - most, if not all, of my childhood memories are in the Lake District or the Derbyshire Dales or the Yorkshire Moors; anywhere but the rolling agricultural landscapes of Hertfordshire, where I grew up. When I first decided to move away from home, to go to university, again it was this landscape that drew me in, that made me feel something that the gentle grasslands of my home county could not.

Maybe it's my Northern blood - for hundreds of years, Lancashire-born family on my Dad's side have been throwing themselves at hills and hoping that they come back in one piece, but my Mum's family are southern through and through and yet they too spent holiday after holiday driving themselves up the sides of Welsh ridges, through Yorkshire dales and up Lakeland slopes. Perhaps there's just something in our brains - and those of no small proportion of the British population - that makes us just a little bit crazy, driven to self-punishing lunacy? Or perhaps not. Perhaps we simply feel less constrained in these landscapes; more ourselves.

Landscapes like these have a reputation throughout history for inspiring something profound. Lakeland is arguably most famous in this respect for producing Wordsworth, but the poet I always think about in this landscape is his friend: Samuel Taylor Coleridge. On the 1st of August 1802, Coleridge left his home in the Lake District, with no particular destination in mind, and found himself, four days later, on the summit of Scafell: the second-highest peak in England. Elated, he transferred the experience onto a background of the Alps, leading later to the writing of the poem "Hymn before Sun-rise, in the vale of Chaumony". From the summit, he chose to descend into Eskdale - making the irrational and foolhardy decision to negotiate the dangerous face of Broad Stand. Coleridge recorded this descent in letters to Sara Hutchinson:

"My limbs were all in a tremble - I lay upon my Back to rest myself, and was beginning according to my Custom to laugh at myself for a Madman, when the sight of the Crags above me on each side, and the impetuous Clouds just over them, posting so luridly and so rapidly northwards, overawed me. I lay in a state of almost prophetic Trance and Delight - and blessed God aloud, for the powers of Reason and the Will, which remaining no Danger can overpower us!"

Symonds Knott, Broad Stand and Sca Fell
Scafell and Broad Stand as seem from Scafell Pike.Photo by Steve Partridge (see references). 

The thing that I love about the story of this experience, during which Coleridge remarked that the "tremendous" feats he had to make  could result in him having "of necessity falling backwards and of course killed myself", is that it emphasises the fine line between physical exertion and elation. Fear can play a large part in this as well - and while I'm not, repeat: NOT, recommending that any of you go diving down Broad Stand, there's no denying that navigating ridges like Striding Edge, Sharp Edge or Jack's Rake, or even just standing on a summit, certainly draw awareness to height and stimulate our adrenaline responses. This is a natural, human, survival response - and for me, certainly, it ties very strongly to the feeling of immense satisfaction on reaching a mountain summit. It's why, as someone who is excited by, rather than scared of, heights, the ascents that I enjoy the most are perhaps also the most challenging or the most physically exhausting. It's the moment of realising "actually, I can do this", that sticks with you.

In a world that is increasingly becoming so cerebral, so technologically focused, escaping into the mountains brings me a deep sense of peace that I can't find at home. Weather doesn't bother me - I've been in this game for a long time, and I've got good gear. Strong, trusted, worn-in walking boots are a must, plus, at the least, a good-quality waterproof coat. I love putting my hike gear on. Just sitting on my bed pulling on my thick walking socks makes me excited; the feel of my old fleece against my skin is a known, comfortable precursor to a good day. I plait my hair out of my way, I roll up my sleeves, and I can't wait to be out.

Me in my natural habitat on Hallin Fell, Lake District.

It seems so dramatic that you might think I must be lying, but genuinely - especially now that I spend most of my time in a city - one of the first things I do once I'm in the mountains is stop still in my tracks, close my eyes, take a big lung-full of sweet fresh air, feel the wind rush past me, and just breathe. Just this simple act floods me with a sense of serenity. When I was little, my family even had a special destination for this: on the long drive up to the Lakes, we would stop after about three hours in a lay-by, get out of the car, and breathe in Northern air, rolling in across the Pennines. Whatever the weather, we would do this.

For me and my family, perhaps this sense is something archaic - it may be that, even when I'm on my own, I find so much peace in landscapes like this because I associate them with the people I love most, and the experiences that unite us. Equally, perhaps it's the tie between physical exertion - which can be hard to find in a natural way, one outside of the gym and concrete jungles of our world - and elation. Perhaps it's the incredible success I feel at the summit of a mountain; the satisfaction of achieving a goal and looking down from the height of your achievement back over where you've come. Perhaps it's artistry, inspiration found from the landscape for words and paintings and photography. Perhaps it's detachment from the 'real world', into somewhere where I need my brain to stay safe and concentrate on the task of the climb, and I feel that the stress of the rest of my life is far away. Perhaps, it's simply because I want to see the view.

Surprise View, Derbyshire.

The culture surrounding British mountain climbing, particularly in the areas that I know, and especially in the Lake District, is possibly one of my favourite things. Everyone is so friendly - really, genuinely friendly - and when you look at other people, how you feel is reflected on their faces. There's a sort of collective sense of achievement and wonder that is almost tangible, and though I don't know the people, don't speak to them past maybe are "how're you", I feel united with them. Also, there are dogs everywhere, like, absolutely everywhere - and I love dogs.

I could write forever about the mountains of England, but I suspect that's enough for one post. I will say, though, how much joy it brings me that I'm not alone in my adoration, and how glad I am that the community of fell walkers within whom I feel so included, are as defensive as I am about the protection of these landscapes.

The world is changing, and we need to stand up for the places we love the most.

"The fleeting hour of life of those who love the hills is quickly spent, but the hills are eternal. Always there will be the lonely ridge, the dancing beck, the silent forest; always there will be the exhilaration of the summits. These are for the seeking, and those who seek and find while there is still time will be blessed both in mind and body"
- Alfred Wainwright

View from Glaramara, Lake District.

Coleridge: A Long Walk – and a Broad Stand. Ronald Turnbull.
Broad Stand photo: Geograph


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