When they come for me, there will be accusations, wild and inaccurate.
Let it be known, the mountain shot first.
Every year thousands of have-a-go-hikers descend upon the well trodden trails of Snowdon National Park. They’re looking for a challenge, an experience, a rite of passage, plus it costs toss all compared to a trip to the Alps and you can get pie and chips down the bottom. This year, for some god awful reason, I’ve somehow found myself among their number.
Minute 0, the Quest Begins
So, after a traditional hearty breakfast of grease and gristle and armed with a pair of expensive boots, whose advanced eyelet technology the assistant at Blacks assured me will do 80% of my walking for me and a rain jacket I last wore when I was six, I embark on my date with destiny.
The weather is wonderfully warm and overcast, the sun literally seething behind a thin veil of cloud. Luckily, it swiftly turns out this hiking lark isn’t as hard as everyone makes out. As far as I can tell it’s exactly like walking except more upward and I’m soon overtaking young families and elderly dog walkers, even a group of Air Cadets in berets and everything, with the contempt they deserve.
One thing they haven’t lied to about is the local scenery, which is frankly staggering. The whole thing is just one jagged, mist shrouded, BBC period drama wet dream. Since in Wales it only stops raining to make way for the hail, the local flora is incredibly vibrant and everything pops with such a degree of sharpness you suspect Photoshop must be involved somehow. The lakes are literally black; not the black of tar-like sludge, the cool icy black of glittering jet. This is television water, Hollywood water, with not a shopping trolley, soggy condom, or dead fish in sight. Fortunately, the rain begins to pick up at this point so that glancing at anything but your toe caps is like trying to stare down the nozzle of a garden hose.
Oh well, we’re here to walk, not gawp, back to work
10 Minutes Later
Not normally one to complain, but there seems to be an awful lot of walking going on here. The thing is there doesn’t seem to be any end in sight. I can’t even see the peak I’m supposed to be gaining, just an endless succession of meandering paths disappearing around bends, which, when navigated, lead on to even more bends. As a result, a combination of rain and perspiration has left me as slick on the inside as I am on the outside (Fifty Shades eat your heart out). Worse, altitude sickness has also clearly begun to sink in and I am forced to make a brief stop at the roadside until the wheezing and nausea subsides. Starting to wish I hadn’t had that box of chicken wings and dripping for breakfast.
An unfortunate side effect of my recouping is that the group of air cadets I encountered earlier in a rush of rosy cheeked youth. One of their number even spares me a sympathetic glance as they roar by. The bastard.
Back on track and have found myself attached to the tail end of a company of American tourists as they wander along talking about accents, scenery and the ‘English’ weather. Disappointed that a member of Plaid Cymru doesn’t jump out of the bushes to bludgeon them.
A distant chuff and rumble announces the arrival of the Snowdonian train service. It’s Bollinger swilling occupants alternatively disdainfully wave or derisively shower us with scorn and peacock tongues as they glide past on their opulent Flying Welshman. Bloody Tories.
I’ve only just removed the last piece of tongue from my ear hole when we reach some sort of crude way station thrumming with itinerant ramblers. Rat-eyed spivs eye these punters beadily from behind makeshift market stalls, pencil moustaches dancing gaily across their lips and watch faces glittering along their forearms as they belt out the Christie’s esque prices for cans of cola.
There seems to be some sort of bottleneck on the path here without much forward movement. The reason is soon made apparent, a hand painted wooden sign yawns from a gibbet like structure bearing the legend
Abandon All Hope
None Shall Pass
Next rest stop 6ft (under)
Since I’m well versed in the European service industry I don’t bat an eyelid. I do, however, bat an eyelid at the gravel speckled nightmare that lies beyond it.
The angle of the path has suddenly changed for the worse; it’s no longer a gentle arching slope, but a rabid, nigh-perpendicular, experiment in ankle twisting. Slabs of raw rocky gristle jut from the trail like broken tombstones specifically designed to tear out knees, backed by a layer of scree primed to shoot out from underfoot and send you careening straight to a hospital stay.
The Americans decide they’ve had enough and wave me off with a haphazard selection of state flag handkerchiefs. The only thing I know is that I’ve gone too far to turn back now.
Day 1, Hour 3
Air seems thinner, may have to resort to the oxygen tanks soon and the general mood picked up from other occasional hikers is certainly grimmer. My fellow travellers are fewer and far between and most are beginning to look distinctively gaunt. Cannot comment on own appearance, but fear it must be similar. The wheat is definitely beginning to separate from the chaff.
Thoroughly enjoying the walk now though; feels as if my shin bones are trying to impale themselves through my knees. It’s no wonder Mountain people have a reputation for toughness, if you had to make this trip every time you wanted a pint of milk and a scratch card you’d soon develop calf muscles capable of booting a Volvo over a bus shelter.
Day 1, Hour 4
Feelings of loneliness and isolation are beginning to set in; the only regular company I enjoy is the gentle susurrus of slate against slate as my legs slowly drag themselves forward.
Think I’m beginning to hallucinate.
Day 1, Hour 7
Progress is good, despite the rough terrain and my dwindling food cache. However, I nearly mess myself in fright when what appeared to be a pile of rubbish by the track suddenly rears up at me, clawing at my shins. It is, or was, a man. His garb, now torn and soiled, is that of prosperous merchant, but now the fever of madness lights his eyes and crumbs of Kit-Kat mat his beard. Piteously, in a cracked whistling moan, he beseeches me to hear his tale.
Once a man of some means, he and his headstrong young daughter set out on an expedition to reach the fabled summit and harness its fabulous secrets for the gain of all mankind. Alas they were undone by the dastardly machinations of his jealous business rivals, their provisions and equipment lost and his daughter critically wounded in the struggle. Leaving her with the bulk of their remaining supplies in the shelter of a natural cave he hastened alone down the mountain in search of help, only to slip and do in both his legs. In agony he dragged himself onward, ever mindful of his progeny’s plight, until pain and malnutrition finally took its toll, leaving him stranded with no help in sight.
With an unsteady hand he presses 38 Welsh silver dollars into my palm and promises me more, much more; acres of land, trains of servants, wealth beyond measure, to find his daughter and bring her back alive. Unfortunately I can’t speak Welsh and so, unable to understand him, nudge him gently aside with my boot and continue on my way. His choked tears serenade me as I continue my eternal march.
Day 1, Hour 10
Have reached Snowdon’s wall. Everything up to this point has clearly been a gentle joke designed to entertain the whimsical and young at heart. What rears before me can only be described as vertical slide into infinity. This is a place where even goats come to die. This must be the ultimate test, the last challenge before the manifold delights of the summit, that eyrie of the gods with its attendant fields of blazing saffron and crowds of giggling, gauze swathed nymphs.
Such delights cannot be denied. With a will I scrape, I batter, I flounder and I heave. Finally, after leaving the better part of my skin across the rock face, I manage to drag my body over the lip of the last ledge and onto a plateau. With an arthritic rattle I regain my poise and rise to embrace the glories of my hard won reward.
Another length of slope continuing onward towards a bend.
I take this philosophically, remembering my Confucius
Oh fuck off
taking the piss.
Day 2, Hour 11
The mountain is become my nemesis, a poisonous mirror to my own self, it is everything I am not and I hate it. Every time my boot thumps down I imagine I’m plunging it into its rocky face in a mechanical symphony of hate. Slipping on a loose flag of quartz, I land straight on my arse. The pain is excruciating, but I embrace it: hate is tattooed on my bum cheeks also. Breaking the summit will become a personal shame from which the range will never recover and I will be lauded as a King of Men. Moans of anguish occasionally echo up to me from the lower reaches as lesser climbers slowly succumb to the inevitable.
Day 2, Hour 15
Encounter a band of surviving pilgrims sheltering under a black stone railway bridge and warming themselves around a fire of carrier bags and bootlaces. They’re a rag-tag bunch of thrill seekers, fund-raisers and fortune hunters all bearing the scars of the trail and an air of dirtied glory. I am immediately welcomed into their number and invited to share a hearty stew of Belvita and Roundtrees Randoms. The paint thinner is soon flowing freely and grandiose toasts to team work and eternal loyalty are sworn.
I decide it is probably a good idea to murder them in their sleep. Gently I thumb the razor of sock wrapped flint concealed in my raincoat sleeve.
Day Two, Hour 21
Sometimes we do things we have cause to regret, but are necessary nonetheless. Eat the last of my emergency Revels. Except the orange ones – nothing will leave me that desperate.
Have gained finally gained the mountain proper. The rain has disappeared, if only because the surrounding atmosphere seems to have adopted saturated as its default state and as for the view… Clearly everything before was some muddy, paint-by-numbers rubbish reserved for the casual hill scrumper. What lies before me now is clearly the reward for those with courage of their convictions, the secret world of the mountain revealed only to the most inner and trusted devotees of the Way of the Sole.
Actual wisps of cotton white cloud drift across your vision like cheeky ghosts. Jagged, lichen choked spires leer out of the mist, while the vagaries of the wind grant fleeting glimpses of perilous drops and brief swathes of eye seeringly blue sky. Teetering on the edge, wind ruffling my hair beneath my hood, I feel just like Katniss on Mount Doom just before Boromir turns her into a vampire.
The path ahead is smothered in the same mists, visibility extremely limited, but can see that the incline does not relent.
Day 3, Hour 7
It’s like being at the bottom of the ocean, nothing to hear anymore except the rough scratch of cloth on rock and my own straining lungs echoing in my ears. Occasionally other hikers loom from the mists. We pass like ships in the fog, our glances meeting for the briefest span, a shared understanding of pain, pain today and more pain to follow. Then we return to the task at hand, a retreat into our own private suffering in this vast communal hell.
Day 3, Hour 12
Come across a mound of splintered bones and clothing locked in a grisly tableau of altitude sickness induced madness. My footfalls disturb one of the piles and a small rust spattered Air Cadet badge goes tumbling back down the trail, ringing though the mists. Justice.
Haven’t seen anyone for a long while. Using hands almost as much as feet now. Would feel lonely, but fortunately the wind has picked up so now have a miniature gale rattling through my waterproof rags, this is helping to keep the fires of my hate well stoked and my mind wonderfully focused.
Eat the last of my orange Revels in orgy of choking and self loathing. Just about manage to keep them down. Will have to rely on wits and hunting instincts from now on.
I am fairly certain that the passage of time has become irredeemably corrupted. If I ever make the summit it will be to encounter my own six year old self. If so, I will regale him with sage wisdoms so as not to repeat the mistakes of his older self, these wisdoms will involve this mountain and references to dynamite. Despite seriousness of situation, have not lost hope; know that I can glean meagre nourishment from surrounding mosses and lichens. Vow to continue walking even if reduced to pair of skeletal feet bound by a pair of threadbare boots. Righteous loathing and foul necromancies will animate them right into Snowdon’s face, whereupon the kicking will begin.
I haven’t eaten in minutes and, since moss no longer appears to grow at this height, have begun to chew my own knuckles for sustenance. Taking nearly all my efforts not to be borne over the edge by the arctic blasts that now regularly scourge the cliff face. Can no longer be sure if I’m heading along the path or into the embrace of the void. Am I even walking at all? It doesn’t seem to matter. I know now that Man never left Eden, God just filled it with gradients. This peak is unclimbable, the task Sisyphean. It is apparent now that both Summit and Base are one; to achieve victory is lay yourself on the path to suffering once more.
A sudden burst in the fog, a glimpse of twisted spire.
Could it be?
In a rush of excitement I urge my body onward, but it’s too late, I have nothing left to give. After a few faltering steps my strength deserts me. I sink to my knees. In this hour of need the call is made, I beg my old friend Hate to help me rise, but I feel nothing. The mountain is too close to me now, its sheer sides my own, its granite the stuff of my ribs and I cannot come to hate myself. Instead I lay there, the gravel softly tickling my nostrils, waiting for the cold to soak in. After a while my breath will seep into the mountain, returning me home. But from the depths of this Stygian fugue something remains, a solitary spark, roaring through my veins and into my soul, it carries with it the words of Britain’s first female president:
Light of my life,
Fire of my loins,
Give me them gold coins.
My trembling legs straighten beneath me and I rise again, warmer now than even hate could make me. Slowly I discard the tattered shroud that flaps about my emaciated frame and peel the slivers of leather I once called boots away into the wind. As I slip my knickers over my thighs I remind myself about everything that has lead me to this moment, the pains, fears, losses and triumphs, of fallen friends and vanquished foes.
The mists part. Steps are easy now, revitalising even. I stride forward to my destiny.