I'm sitting in the living room in the morning, as I have for most of the past week, looking for potential places to live and attending to other business.
Outside, in the distance I can see the mountains (a bit of a change after many days of rain) and something wakes up inside me, and I wish to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves.
So I go and find my socks, which have frozen with sediment from our New Year's Eve hike into the vague shape of a foot, as if some ghost is wearing them. I have some toast and a bowl of cereal for breakfast, and then set out.
The town, as ever, is bustling, and I'm immediately glad to be in it, surrounded by life.
My plan is simple, I will walk to the base of the mountain, and then I will walk up it. Since I can see the mountain, this should not be too too hard.
At the edge of the town, a sign saying “Public Footpath” points me along the river. I follow it.
Ahead of me, the mountains are so close I can see trails running up them. I'll be there in no time!
As I leave town I glance back and, as ever, am astounded by its proximity to the mountains, the way it washes up their lower slopes and flows through their valleys. There are high peaks back there, but they will wait for another day.
The trail skirts the (American?) football fields on the edge of town. The path is one long muddy puddle. Along the way I ask a couple if this path will lead me to “yonder mountain”. “Yes, just continue on and cross the bridge, you'll be there in an hour.” I thank them, toss a fist sized stone I find next to the path into the middle of a desparately large puddle in front of me and use it to skip across whilst keeping dry.
I reach the bridge in short time and can see the trails in the distance clearer than ever. I'm making great time!
A little sign tells me that I've just entered the village of Portinscale. I chuckle to myself: I've barely left Keswick. In terms of towns per area, this beats any metropolis. There's a sign pointing out of the town towards a footpath, and I follow this. My route takes me briefly along the shore of the lake past a marina before turning into a woods. Inside, I feel the first signs of hunger: I really should have had a bigger breakfast.
Now, with the trees all around me the obvious flaw in my plan becomes apparent: it's difficult to see the base of the mountain and any of these forested hills could be the start of my journey. Little unmarked paths fork off of the road and lose themselves in the underbrush. I look at each wondering if I should have turned down it.
I come upon an ancient hill-man walking towards me on the road and show him one of the above pictures. “How can I get to this mountain?” He squints at the picture, “Aryesh, take zha farst rod on t'right.”
When I come to the road there's little indication that it's any better of a choice than the road I'm on. I set off down it thinking that one can very easily be mistaken for two. One of my rules is to never trust locals, or at least, to always ask three of them separately. And here I am, trusting just one man!
Up in the woods, I hear a sound and turn quickly to see at least three pheasants bobbing their way through the brush. This is more pheasants than I've previously seen in my entire life.
The time at which I begin to wonder if it's really the right road is, naturally, the time at which it emerges from the forest and affords me an epic view of the mountains. A V.I.L.E. Henchman!
The mountains behind me betray their size by having changed in no discernable way over the distance I've covered.
Ahead of me, the road twists and I have my first full-on view of the mountain. Continuing along the road brings me out into a field where I'm able to see that the trail I'd observed in the distance is, in fact, quite steep!
Seeing this, I decide to approach along the long ridge instead. Another ten or so minutes of walking brings me across the valley floor to the inevitable river. A sign by the bridge does not inspire feelings of comfort.
I look along the valley floor, wondering if I should cross the bridge or skirt along the river. I decide on the former, even though the road seems to terminate at a farmhouse. As I'm walking up wondering what to do, a heavy-set woman in an eye-burning yellow reflective jacket pounds out from around a blind corner (revealing that the road does, in fact, continue) and rumbles down towards me. I wave her down and point at the peak and then the road, “Can I get there by going there?” “Yes! Just go up there and take a left.”
When I reach the crest of the road I'm confronted by a view of a town spread out below me. I think about the terrain and decide that going down there is probably not what I want to do. Fortunately, the road doubles-back, as roads tend to do when they're climbing. Up is what I want, so I follow this, hoping the road doesn't go all the way up.
But I needn't have worried, after rounding the corner of the ridge, the road begins to drop. An older couple on a tiny motor scooter stop and the two argue back and forth a few moments before telling me that there is a trail on the right, just a little ways ahead.
Continuing along, I am passing some kind of tree plentation or habitat restoration area with “Keep Out” signs—an odd sight here. There's a gate letting onto some kind of low-maintenance road which strikes directly toward the ridge. I jog up to this only to find it's locked. A locked gate? Very odd.
I continue on and, just a few minutes later, across a cattle grating, am finally rewarded by a grass path leading up along wall which skirts the backside of the plantation.
A few hundred feet up, I have to stop to take off my jacket, my hat, and my neck warmer. I'm throwing off heat. Across the valley, I can see the forested hill I came around.
I gain ground quickly, moving just below the anaeorbic threshold and take the first left leading straight towards the crest of the ridge. Just below the crest, I find the following sign. Occasionally driving, I find highways dedicated to certain people. I would hate to think that when I died someone named a highway after me. Mr. Ansell and his ilk have it better, and become markers and benches in the mountains.
Cresting the ridge, my memory is jogged. The trails here are really wide, which makes them visible from a distance, which makes mountains seem closer than they are. I've been tricked!
As I ascend the grassy strip becomes rutted, muddy, and finally reduces to loose rocks. Clouds blow in and the rain lashes horizontally across the ridge. Just a couple hundred feet away the air is filled with twisting manifolds of precipitation, sheets in the wind. I can feel subconscious parts of my brain trying to work out the mathematics.
I should be cold, but I'm not. The rain and wind is just about right to keep me a neutral temperature and I ascend upwards without stopping, my jacket and mittens held under my arm.
Earlier in the climb, I'd felt fatigued and wonder what it would be like to do this kind of thing while not being hungry. Now I don't feel hungry and my mind patters along, not really thinking. I always entertain the notion that I'll get some productive thinking done while I'm out, but since seem always to choose routes like this the productive thoughts usually stay in hiding. The challenge is to use the flow state to cover ground quickly while maintaining enough awareness to not make stupid mistakes.
Three times during the hike, the trail gets quite muddy or the grass wet and I slip, but the slips turn into slides and I stay upright, my nerves burning. It's a quiet feeling of victory each time this happens, but a reminder to be cautious. The rocks I clambered up an down look dangerous, but they inherently invoke caution; the true dangers lurk in the complacency of apparent safety.
The peak of the mountain is quite windy, I lean into it and march across to the peak, taking in a panoramic view of… well, clouds, and dim sloping forms which rush, phantom-like, through them. The slope I saw from the valley is right next to me now; heavily vegetated, but steep, you'd be sorely tempted to push Roberts down it, but daunted to throw yourself after him.
The trail continues before me and, in a break in the clouds, I see it descending on the far side of a valley from me along a gentle ramp. I glance at my camera, where the clock has not been adjusted for timezones or daylight savings time. Sunset, I know, is at 15:50. Which means it must be somewhat earlier than that, which means I have about forty minutes to get down. Never fond of retracing my steps, and not relishing going down the steep, grassy slopes I've come up, I continue onwards.
The trail descends to a saddle and then branches off along the ramp I'd seen early. It's fabulous: a narrow rut whose bottom is only rocks. No mud. Small chance of slipping.
As the saddle fades into the night and clouds, the trail converts to another grassy highway. I meet two people coming up. We exchange pleasantries and gush about the beauty of the area. As they walk away I admonish them to beware the on-coming dark.
As might be expected, the trail I take into Braithwaite is much less convoluted than the one I used to get there.
Looking back, I see that had I continued along the road into town just a little farther, I'd have found a way up the ridge and avoided the plantation. Leaving town, I discover a path along the road which leads directly to Keswick. A lot of unnecessary wandering has taken place!
But that's okay.
I have a call to make at 17:00 about a potential new job, so I follow the road back at my normal walking pace. It isn't until I get close to town that I see how fast this is: it's as if everyone is standing still. I reach the big puddle and find that my skipping rock is gone, my brain chooses that moment to inform me that it's actually meant to hold a near-by gate open, and I feel terrible inside.
Back at the house, I discover that the person I'm to speak with can't talk today anyway, so I could have tarried longer on the peaks, or even climbed another one. On second thought, though, probably it was better to have to get back!
Randy shows me an array of hiking maps he has and I discover just how convoluted a route I took. But, then again, with such a map in hand there would be no reason to talk to anyone.