|This entry is dedicated to…|
|PG, who summits in spirit|
Since this got a little long, I've broken it into chapters for those who like to read "shorter" segments.
Also, please note that this entry and the previous one have begun to use special fonts. These will appear in Firefox 3.5+, and the latest versions of Safari and Opera. They will not appear in IE, possibly because Microsoft is evil or championing the cause of font-designers at the expense of web-designers. My apologies to my IE audience, things will appear as normal for you and you shall miss no content.
|I wake up in the morning later than I meant to, which means it's around seven. My approach to mountains is forever coloured by the Sangre de Christo's: wake at four, summit by ten, down by noon - otherwise, the storms come and then you die. But things aren't so dramatic here. There are no storms, no ozone-scented electrical deaths - just clouds and rain.|
|In the bathroom, I'm startled to see that the Welsh which normally prefaces everything has taken second place to English on the fire exit. I'm momentarily angered - it's as if the Welsh is some sort of game to be used, but not taken seriously when it comes to things like fire - then I notice that most of the other signs in the bathroom and hostel are like this. It's disappointing.|
|Downstairs, I have the equivalent of several breakfasts as everyone else slowly wakes up. The staring man from the previous night sits across from me, says a few words, and then silently chews and chews his granola cereal.|
|Outside, I discover that another group has managed to sneak out of the hostel ahead of me. They're gamely chatting about their impending hike, cinching straps, checking their water, et cetera. Their packs are small (in some cases!), somewhere they have a car. Their hearts are light, there is safety in numbers.|
This is not my lot. Everything I have I'm carrying; what dangers there are, I will face alone; what joys I experience and sights I see, I will see alone.
The solitude isn't bothersome; but, sometimes, in the middle of hard slogs or standing on remote peaks, I'd like to be able to beam people in to show them what I see in its full grandeur (would they feel it as I feel?). For now, this is the best we can do.
|I turn now, and leave the Snowdon Ranger Hostel behind me.|
|A hundred yards later, I'm consulting my map. The trail turns out to be where I thought it was, but cunningly disguised as a farm road. I'm again thankful for this free-ranging approach to "private property".|
|The road wends right through the farm past an old water wheel. Behind me see I see a couple with their two young children. If they're planning on climbing all the way they're either awesome… or criminally negligent.|
|A less adept wilderness-farer would no doubt have lost the trail at this point, but subtle variations in this rock's lichens helped me find the way.|
|No matter how alone you may think you are in England and Wales, the ubiquitous sheep are never far away. I speculate that preferential grazing may be changing the mountain ecosystems before realising that sheep have been here doing this for a very long time and any such changes probably took place long ago.|
I shiver and pull out my cheap rain jacket - though these sheep provide us sweaters, warm clothes, and tasty mutton, they're not quite big enough to slice open and climb inside if you're stuck in a blizzard on Hoth.
|Climbing out of the valley, the trail switch-backs across the hillside several times, climbing steeply the whole while…|
|…and then levels out onto a broad plain…|
|…running up to a pass.|
And, for some reason, I'm reminded of the game Oregon Trail II. My parents presumably bought it for its educational value, though some of the best-learned lessons were of dubious value: if you shoot 900 pounds of buffalo, you simply can't carry it all back to camp.
Another lesson was that when you come to a mountain pass (and you always do), anything that falls out of the wagon and rolls down the hill is lost forever.
I've always wondered about that. I imagine in my mind the conversation…
But they never listened.
As I approach, the pass grows more ominous. The pioneers chain their wagons, the oxen heave, and the music gets dramatic. I glide past them with my wee pack on… how times have changed. In reading up on the history of these mountains, I'm surprised by how late many of the "first" summits were. Perhaps back then life was sufficiently hard at the bottom that one didn't feel compelled to go to the top. Perhaps. But I think there were those, like Hillary, who climbed because they were there. Because they needed to.
|Of course, the point isn't just to reach the top of the pass. Oh no! The point is to go higher and I follow the faint, but unmistakable, line of the path upwards with my eye till it disappears into the cloud.|
The meadow's been nice and would normally have afforded mesmerising (and possibly disheartening) views of the climb to come; as it is, I have to guessumatate the mountain's size from these limited views of its base.
Conclusion: it's big.
(The astute Reader may be looking for the path, it's most easily visible near the lower left of the picture.)
It's amazing how a small fold in the land can hide an entire lake! The things I shall pass and never see…
Perhaps mountains are designed to look more ominous from a distance in order to discourage the uncommitted. The path going up isn't too bad and one can't complain about the view. The lakes I encounter are tinged slightly green owing to the prevalence of copper in the region.
|As I continue, the path does suddenly get narrower and damp rocks slide about beneath my feet. As is my habit, I intentionally step on one I know will slide and neural fire courses through me as my body snaps back to balance: now I'm warmed up.|
|A sheep watches me curiously. Sure-footed creatures, they run about on the slopes without problems, leaving no sign of their passing. Though boots and shoes ensure you leave a trace, I feel at times as though things would be safer without the trail, made treacherous through others' passings.|
In the thick of the cloud all is gray and strongly windific; rain lashes out for a moment before fading to mist. I notice I forgot my umbrella with Ben in Aberystwyth. Occasionally, a sinister bleating startles me and I realise that I'm probably big enough to slice open and shelter a sheep in, were we caught in a blizzard on Hoth.
|I leave them and begin climbing upwards, shortly wishing I hadn't as an odd screaming sound (which doesn't have a Star Wars analog) penetrates the mist. Then there's an unearthly rumbling which gets louder and louder; I keep thinking it must be upon me now, but the crescendo builds. Mercifully, the steam engine and its load fly past a few seconds later and the tension is loosed.|
|The summit, with all its associated glorious mental vistas appears suddenly before me and I find myself standing on the rocky outcropping beneath which King Arthur and his men buried the giant Rhita. One of the other three people up there asks what time it is and we dig around for timepieces before he cries, “I know what time it is. It's PIMM'S o'clock!”, while pulling out a big glass bottle that's somehow survived the climb.|
Though I've never had Pimm's before, I've heard rumours. Pimm's is a secret concoction involving spices, cucumbers, random fruits, and a gin-based alcohol. First produced in 01823 in an oyster bar in London, Pimm's was originally a digestive aid. Later, production was cranked up and it was sold by bicycling hawkers. Today, only two of Pimm's six "cups" are regularly produced and here we are with a bottle of the good ole' Cup #1. If Eggs Benedict is like a crazed iguana, then Pimm's must be like a swarm of angry hummingbirds! It's like nothing I've ever tasted!
|We finish our Pimm's (and desperate coughing and gasping) as the sound of tramping feet grows closer. The train's disgorged a herd and they file, assembly-line, over the summit. Later, will they go home and speak of how they "climbed" one of the highest mountains in Great Britain?|
In another, more puritanical life, I spat disdainfully and stalked away into the mist, but, in this one, I head inside knowing I'll be fine either way. As trains and their passengers come and go, I eat my two bananas (refusing to pay for the food and water up here) and contemplate the way down.
The Snowdon Visitor's Center
This is interrupted by a trio of merry climbers: two Englishmen and a Scot from Liverpool. After I reveal that I am not, in fact, Scottish (my accent left us all in doubt), we chat about climbing, Alaska, my work in Greenland, and the origins of my family names (variously decided to be Irish and Scottish). I mention I'm thinking of going up to Liverpool and Perry gives me his address while the other two warn me that, being a Scot, he'll steal everything I own. Somehow, though, I think they're joking…
|The train has both necessitated and enabled the selling of merchandise commemorating my trip to the summit.|
|The visitor's center tells me that the snow is melting earlier on the mount, flowers are blooming earlier, and temperatures are generally warmer - just another representation of the myriad ways Great Britain concerns itself with global warming.|
I'm even invited to consider the potential ramifications of my actions while contemplating life in the bathroom.
The energy saving advice is very basic and no doubt has beneficial potential, but I'm wary. Change and success are brought about by ethics, not acts, and those that satisfy themselves with with the latter countermine the effort.
I'm glad to see that recycling doesn't even make the list.
|Bananas consumed, life contemplated, all my stuff stolen by the Scottish, I'm ready to go again after a quick trip to the summit.|
(The Reader is encouraged to imagine tremendous vistas.)
I walk along the road thinking of Hankshaw and her amazing thumbs as mine fail to work. I'm pressed up against a brick wall with cars rushing by just a foot or so away. When I get too nervous, I climb up onto the wall, but I can't really walk there. My jaunty cap feather is on the road side of my cap. Without a feather you're lost. You're a nobody. And, if you don't get a lift, that's just what you deserve out of life. But with a feather? Why, the whole world should stop!
|At long last, a car with a rat in its engine pulls over. Bill, so recently killed by The Bride (who, if we're honest with ourselves, reminds us of Sissy Hankshaw), is driving. I'm concerned about this and ask how he is. He replies with a voice shaken out of a can of gravel, "I can't rightly say." We're both silent a while, as Snowdonia rushes by. And then Bill, unprovoked, proceeds to tell me about each and every peak in the area, along with their heights and how best to climb them.|
|Bill drops me off by a little ivy-covered inn with a mountain rescue sign on its door. I decide to stop in and see this, and maybe find some food. But the food's gone, and there are only passing traces of the hikers.|
|Then I'm walking down the road again. A small, very sporty red convertible zips past - the driver and his wife visibly disappointed that it's only a two-seater. I'm devasted, myself. Several dozen cars later, a station wagon zips by. I've taken to waving as the cars disappear into the distance and, in the back of this one, two little blond-haired girls wave tentatively back after making sure their parents aren't watching.|
In the end, a black SUV pulls over and I climb in its roomy back. I thought I was heading to Beddgelert, but they're going to Betws-y-Coed, so why not? The wife climbs into the back and we speed along. She's a counselor in a youth hospice where young people go who won't live till adulthood (generaly because of genetic disorders). She says a lot of living goes on there because you see how precious life is; I can empathise with this and well all discuss how death's nearness gives you perspective. He's a school counselor, which is a new occupation in Wales - a beneficial idea that had simply been overlooked. Now the government has plans and money and is expanding such programs.
We reach Betws-y-Coed and they tell me it's a little touristy, but not overtly so. To my eyes, it looks very nice. I conjecture that having towns inside national parks in the UK cuts off the initial economic foothold necessary for the cancerous tourist edge towns so often seen in the US. They tell me you can't have flat roofs in the area and that the regulations are sometimes infuriating - even gutters have to be to spec - but that they're worth it in the end.
They drop me off near the edge of town. Near a pub. Where there's food! And I would have eaten it to if some meddling kid hadn't picked me up in the fifteen seconds it took to walk there.
He's in a red car, wearing a red shirt, and driving home from work at an outdoorsy store (probably also red). He tells me after the climb I've done, there's nothing left in Wales. Three miles later, we part ways.
Three minutes later, Michael pulls over in his enormous, stick-shift van. He's very excited to see me - he used to hitchhike everywhere. There aren't too many hitchhikers around anymore, he used to wait in queues ten people long at service stations. He tells me he lived in Ambleside (near my uncle) for five years to rock climb, but it was too rainy so he became a kayaker and a biker. White water paddling, he says, is nice because once you start, you're committed - you have to follow through.
Michael's a teacher in Wales and trying to learn Welsh (no easy task!). He thinks the British system is terrible - pressure, pressure, pressure. The Welsh, he says, are more "holistic" - they teach gardening and go walking in the woods. Both systems start the kids off at three, which would seem weird if I wasn't aware that this frees up parents to work, which directly affects birthrates. Norway, which has such a system, has a birthrate of 1.7, whereas Italy, which doesn't, has a birthrate of 1.1. One system is distinctly more sustainable than the other.
|But Michael won't always be a teacher! He's fixing up his van as a home and heading North to Scotland which is far superior to any other place on Earth. He gives me all sorts of ideas about places to go, how to hitchhike, what to see, et cetera, as he gushes.|
We pass his girlfriend's car and he jumps out to give her "five minutes of TLC", coming back he apologies telling me that I "know how girls are".
Continuing, Michael seems to know the whole history of Wales. He tells me the English basically decided they ruled the Welsh and, because the Welsh were just a random collection of villages, not a nation, that worked out rather well for the English. At least, until Gruffydd ap Llywelyn conquered all of Wales and some of England (we drive past a statue of him charging into war, sword raised and mouth agape in a battle-cry). After he died, things broke up again. And that's Welsh history, according to Michael.
|I'm dropped off in the small town of Llangollen and finally get to eat, in an old pub where food is served with a thick slathering of consonants. The food goes down quickly, and I head back to the road.|
|A philosophy and mathematics student with a purple environmental shirt and greasy, curly, black hair, Lawrence picks me up. We'd get on better, but he's a determinist, which, as far as I can tell, is the most useless sort of philosophical idea you can possibly subscribe to. But he does have a redeeming quality.|
R: We could use that to fund all our wild endeavours.
L: What, the gold at the end of the rainbow?
R: Yes… unless that's only in Ireland.
L (with absolute conviction): No. Every rainbow.
He drives me the remaining miles to the Birmingham International Railway Station where I play pennywhistle for the two of us till the trains come and we part ways.
Downtown, at the Bull Ring, I head through what Glenys once described as "Sodom and Gomorrah" to the McDonald's, not knowing if I have a place to spend the night (it's after ten). I give her a call and, a few minutes later, we're eating toast in her kitchen. Thanks, Glenys!
The astute Reader may have noticed a gaping hole in this story. The astute Reader may expect that I'll fill this in with my narrative shovel sometime soon.
The pioneer, Topher, and I went through a lot together - those with hearty constitutions may click his picture to see an example of the trials we encountered.