This entry is dedicated to…
MHB, who taught me trails

The Descent

The night before I'd been feeling a little fatalistic about the impending climb. In my heart, I knew it would not be simple, straight-forward, or safe. Though it's possible in a well-traveled place (like Snowdon) to ensure these things, I try to avoid it. Perhaps this is why I wrote some postcards.

Which I forgot in my backpack when I left the hostel. Luckily, I was able to mail them from the top of Snowdon, which was more appropriate anyway.

Perhaps I'd had a particularly sedentary week. Perhaps it was the train-riding tourists invading the summit I'd toiled to. Perhaps I wanted something to define Yr Wyddfa (aka Snowdon) as more than a cloud-shrouded tourist destination. Luckily for me there was another way. A trail not marked on any map…


Crib Goch is the heavily-shaded ridge in
the background
In the Visitor's Center, there was a display of possible descent routes. On the display, was Crib Goch which, roughly translated, means "mountain ridge of death". While the other routes had happy coloured lines and descriptions of how to get to them, Crib Goch did not. While the other routes had happy captions speaking about wild flowers, odd standing stones, and good views, Crib Goch's was dire and included phrases like "serious mountaineering route", "rope, and know how to use it", and "dangerous in rain, mist, and ice". Perhaps more tellingly, while you could "take" other routes, you could only "attempt" Crib Goch.

When I mention this plan to the merry trio they go silent and wish me luck.

I trek North away from Yr Wyddfa towards Bwich Glas following, briefly, a staircase where I fear for the safety of my remaining lembas wafers.

The trail rises away from the saddle towards the foreboding, cloud-hidden peak of Crib y Ddysgl. As I climb upwards, a figure emerges from the fog. She is wearing a dripping green knit cap, a red climbing jacket, and is very beautiful. She tells me of some large groups she's passed coming this way; perhaps, she says, they may have taken the wrong way. Neither of us question whether we've taken or will be taking the "wrong way" as we diminish into the clouds. The trail here is steep and my breath comes quickly.

The plastic creaks beneath me as I twist in the chair; the wind sighs across the sun-dappled forest floor. Far away, a motorboat whines across the lake - I listen to it fade back beneath the bird songs and return to reading: "They taught us to breathe…"

Moments later, it begins to rain and the summit of Crib y Ddysgl is upon me.

I have difficulty seeing where the trail goes…

Squealch, goes the moss-covered ground, as it has for miles. The mountains in the distance beckon me, but the voice on the phone isn't helping. "There's this asterisk…" Later I'll realise he meant degree-sign, but, at the moment, his inability to read maps is astonishing me. I'm missing just a few very important details… and they'll cost me more than I could imagine, standing there.

…but there's a map, in my backpack…

Squealch, goes the muck. Through the static, a ringing. A tank rumbles by in the distance on unknowable errands. The phone's receiver is cold in my hand. Her voice flicks through the line and somehow, over hundreds of miles and static, carries with it a surge of connection, safety, and love. A patrol jeep's floodlight wafts past the clapboard wall the phone's fixed to and I'm telling her, "I memorise everything." It will take her years to learn the same lesson.

…I see it, in my mind.

I come to the ridge. To either side, it gives way to the cliffs of Garnedd Ugain, but these are lost in the cloud.

On either side, my hands are being squeezed and I return the pressure. Several feet from me his eyes are closed, his face drifting in bliss. He gestures and we continue, "…and give you peace."

I make my way along, padding lightly, keeping my weight-low…

The garish sun beats down on me. A fly buzzes listlessly and I groan before crawling upwards another few feet. My knee hurts; I hurt; I crawl. Up. I am dehydrated and this effort is costing me, but the only thought in my mind is that I will never carry a pack this heavy again.

…made easier by my near-empty backpack.

The ridge narrows dramatically and Garnedd Ugain is upon me…

She and I embrace, gingerly. His black hair slicked back, he smoulders his way across the room - " and a long journey begins. Years later… Weird electronic sounds, rich with subtle, syncopations and pulsings fill the room, "…and twist…", she says, fluidly. "Your center of gravity must be aligned… now step."

…a cold wind blows and there is a foul voice in the air…

Beneath me, there is motion through the bare soles of my feet. But I'm only dimly aware of it, my whole world has become a motionless speck of gleaming metal - a carabiner. The line beneath me sways as I transfer weight. Another step. And another. My world draws near and then, I'm stepping down, ecstatic, and my joy is shared.

The trail continues and I sweat in the cold. Suspecting that I'll be seeking rides at the bottom and wishing to remain presentable, I fold my shirt up in my backpack at a widening in the trail.

I am sitting at a flimsy card table, sweating. The glaring afternoon soon illuminates us through pinpricks in the heavy green canvas and the rank odour of our bodies perfumes the air. Outside, the pines and birches bend in a breeze, but inside the only breeze is the sound of Doc Dan's voice, "Mr. Barnes, do you have a jugular pulse yet?!" Thirty-five years of military drill sergent lean over me, nod their satisfaction, and then turn smartly away. "Now, gentlemen, what are the three things you need to know in order to practice Excellent First Aid?"

There is effort and there is fear and both will make your heart beat. I'm hoping it is only the former which motivates mine…

It's morning - early morning. The dew glistens in the diffuse light filtering down through the gray sky. The track squishes underfoot. A whistle, and I am flying. 200m in 24 seconds. It seems like much less. Like much more. He comes jogging across the field, ridiculous blue baseball cap fending off the non-existant sun, "You sprint it again, as soon as your heart rate's down to…"

At times the trail is ridiculous and I inch my way along, feeling inside me the steady rhythm of my heart.

I'm sitting in a desk that's too small; all desks are too small. Sunlight peaks from behind vinyl curtains - ahead of me the scritch of someone doodling contrasts with cheesy music. The video abruptly looses track and needs adjustment. The melodramatic voice beckons our attention as a man covered with electrodes stares fixedly at a toy train set: "…can learn to control their heart rate…"

I climb down a wall and the trail abruptly widens, I'm lower now and can see, far below, alpine waters. I glance back a moment at Garnedd Ugain…
…and, as if it were written, the clouds pull back…
Garnedd Ugain
…and Snowdon appears. All I can think is, "It didn't seem that steep!"


Snowdon

But that's not how the story ends. For, though the clouds had (mercifully) cleared, ahead of me there was still Crib Goch.
It began with a wind, then a twist, then a scramble, then a climb.
And it seems from then on, that I'm climbing up and down all the time.

The afternoon light shoots through the windows in the thick white brick wall. We are alone in the large room. It's utility carpeting catching the end-pin of a large, awkward instrument. He leans in close, molding my placements, saying, "The first thing we'll need to do is strengthen those fingers…"

It's a long ways back, but there's still a good ways left to go. I secretly wish I had another banana.


Crib Goch, Looking Back

And, when I'm not climbing, I'm walking a narrow line.

Outside, a frigid wind howls - twenty miles on icy gravel roads separate me from home. In the basement, I am warm. Crawling along, our blades drift in tight, lazy circles; I glide, the point pulling me forward. A twist and… how'd that get there? As my foot drops an eighth inch, bringing the motion to an abrupt halt, the danger still inches away, we both chuckle. He pulls off his helmet, snowy hair somehow untouched, "Now, what are your greatest strengths." I pause, what, indeed, are they? Later, I'm stunned: "Your musicality, your understanding of the tempo and rhythm".

And it would be easy to speed up now - I can see what appears to be the end. It would be easy to tire of this slow progress. I can feel those undertones in the rhythm of my movements, and contain them.


Crib Goch, Looking Back (again)

A man comes running along the ridge-top towards me, looking through the view finder of a video camera. And I know, in that moment, that I am not crazy. He tells me the way he took up was "dodgey" and harder to negotiate than the ridge-top. When I get there it does, indeed, look pretty much straight down with scree the whole way.

Luckily, there's another trail not marked on any map leading off on a side-ridge. The trail is clear and very apparent. So faced with a dodgey, dangerous trail or a clear trail without a definite end, I chose the latter, and that has made all the difference.
This affords another view of Garnedd Ugain as the ridge winds downward.
Note hikers in this zoomed-in view


View from Crib Goch's End

With one parting vista, the trail abruptly and sharply begins to descend whilst simultaneously turning to scree. The nature of the terrain registers with me and I know, up ahead, there are cliffs. As per usual, mistakes are not an option.

Ozone. So that's what it smells like. A few minutes ago I was squatting, balanced on the sharp rocks, my fingers walking along his spine feeling the familiar shapes of vertebrate. I wipe off the last of the blood, indicate that he's okay to move himself and stare his friends and he in the eye. Inside, I feel tumultuous, outside, I am the image of calm: "Get off this mountain. Now." My words are punctuated by rolling thunder. They head south, lucky fools. I head north and the mountain drops away: nine hundred feet of loose, head-sized stones - sharp-corners all. Hail slaps down, stinging me - I'm moving faster now. The cloud-world I'm in lights up and splinters in a monstrous boom - I step forward and the rocks slide, but if I lean just right…

…I can brake myself, turning an uncontrollable slide into an expedient. But in this terrain, even that is hazardous for much of the trip and I must pain-stakingly control every step. As the cliff edge draws near, I veer to the side, traversing parallel its edge. I find another scree slope, leading to another cliff. And so it goes, for a long time.

Wilderness trails are inherently both democratic and viral. Majority vote determines the clearest trails and the clearest trails tend to attract more followers. Should I trust the trail here? No, the trail is clueless because the people who "voted" it into being were clueless. I take a different tack and this leads me, very quicly, to safer ground.

Where safer is a relative term. The cliffs are still abundant, but you're less likely to slide off them. And the question arises in my mind: will there be a way down at all? or will I have to climb back up?

We cross through a clearing: silently. It's very early and the long grass, yellowed and weighted over with dew, glistens. Ahead of me, he is tall and the grass, tangled as it is, poses no barrier. I follow after, and the steel in my hand is heavy, and cold. We stop in unison and he points. A bent blade here, a few specks of mud there: the trail wends into the trees.

And the trail here, though faint at times, is still clear enough to follow. Though all the signs indicate it's a sheep path, something in the design suggests an intelligent creator.
I'm passing beneath the scree-slope cliffs now…

And, in the end, the only way down is along a river. At times this requires jumping across the narrow, fast-moving waters. Or climbing down boulders and mini-cliffs with the water rushing by to my side, the mist chilling me. But at the bottom of every cascade, there's a scuff or some other sign that it won't all end in futility.

The waterfall, successfully negotiated, debouches onto a swampy, boulder-ridden field and its sheep - all that remains between me and the road.

Looking back I see it was more than democratic luck that brought me to the waterfall: it was fate.

The road rises up to meet me, the Grateful Dead are singing in my head that I might just get some sleep tonight, and I know that we're never really alone



I lit out from Reno, I was trailed by twenty hounds,
Didn't get to sleep last night till the morning came around.

Set out runnin', but I take my time.
A friend of the devil is a friend of mine.
If I get home before daylight, I just might get some sleep tonight.
-The Grateful Dead



Check if this is a private message just for Richard:


Jen - Sunday, August 02, 2009 at 16:25:09 (PDT)
I really really need to go do this... come back with me in few years?

Richard - Monday, August 03, 2009 at 02:40:03 (PDT)
I'd love to go back, but next time I definitely need to spend more time around Ben Nevis (as you shall see). Remember, we still need to hike Appalachia :-)

Mom - Tuesday, August 18, 2009 at 16:30:40 (PDT)
Don't forget about the Tooth of Time with me!!