Thursday, 27 September 2012

Mountain Goats on Speed

 A panorama like none other I'd seen before. A long sweeping, lush green valley with a small scattering of buildings like discarded Lego bricks. An immense, brooding sky crowned the view, with billowy, grey clouds that looked like the heavy brush strokes of an em-passionate painter. The sheer space. The air. The land. It was awe inspiring.

"Good innit?"  It was Phil, stopping alongside me to share the vista.

"Wow!" was all I could say, but it seemed to some it all up.

Isn't it great that we have so many small words we can draw upon, like 'Wow! ' , 'Oh my God', 'Yes!' and 'Geronimo' to sum up our most mighty feelings of awe, thrill and sheer ecstasy! Who the hell was Geronimo anyway and why does my wife hate it so much when I yell it when we are in the throws of passion?

Phil interjected again, "But this is nothing to views on top of Whernside.  Now that's something you want to see!"

There's better to come? Bring it on, I thought.

Over and between huge, dark, clammy boulders we trudged up to the top of Pen y Ghent. It was a tough couple of hours of plod, plod, plod, before the terrain, mercifully, flattened out toward the summit. Phil and I were able to march side by side and as soon as we were able to catch our breath we got chatting.

It turned out that my latest, ramble-buddy was a chef by trade, with his own catering business. For Phil, walking was his escape from the stresses of the kitchen. His excursions from his home, just outside Hull, often took in the wilds of Yorkshire, darkest Derbyshire and the romance of the splendour of the Lake District.
It was a family business that he ran with his wife, with whom he had a young daughter.

"Pick up a stone!" Phil surprisingly instructed. The hint of urgency in his voice intrigued me  enough to stoop for fist-sized, grey pebble. Phil had a similar rock in his hand. Surely we weren't going to take a pot-shot at the nearest rabbit or grazing sheep? Was Phil looking to impressive me with a demonstration of his cookings skills out in the wild. I pictured him whipping a gas stove out of his pack,then felling, skinning and braising a rabbit with fast, skilled hands, before tearing handfuls of natural, green herbs from the greenery at our feet and shredding it on top.
So it was, with equal amounts of relief and disappointment, that I saw him he toss his stone onto a man-sized pile that stood at the side of the path.

'Go on then!' He indicated for me to follow suit. So I did, hoping to God that I would not be made to endure 9 hours of pick up stone, put down stone, with 'fun-guy' Phil. Did he really think that is was a good way to pass the time?

I had to ask,"So, what did we do that for?"

He told me that the pile of stones was a Cairn. It was a marker, like a waypoint for hikers. "If everyone who passes a cairn adds one stone it maintains  it. When it snows they poke out and guide walkers," Phill added. I was impressed. Later I was to discover that Cairns have been around for 1,000s of year and are found, not just here, but in North America and Northern Europe. At regular intervals, a series of cairns can be used to indicate a path across stony or barren terrain, even across glaciers.

Phil enjoyed passing on his knowledge to one as green as I, just as much as I enjoyed learning from him.

"If the trail is unclear, it shows people the way and sometimes there're used to warn people  of a danger spot. "
"How can you tell the difference between a come here! one and a don't come here! one?" I asked.
"You can't. You just have to be careful" Phil shrugged.
The thought of  some poor bastard, staggering his way, blindly, through a blizzard, following the cairn's direction, only to find himself plummeting down an unseen drop, made me shudder.

An hour later we had signed in a the first check point and were greeted warmly by some Macmillan volunteers, who were acting as marshals for the day. Many fellow walkers took the opportunity to take a break, but Phil insisted we push on. "We'll take a break at the second check point, before we reach Whernside."
He'd clearly been planning this for months. My feet and legs felt strong, so I was happy to keep going.

"Try some of these". From one of his many zipped pouches in his back-pack he produce a small, plastic pot of, what looked like, multicoloured pills. Phil must have read the concerned look of my face. " It's alright, they're jellybean's, but they've got extra glucose and shit in them, so they'll keep you going." I tried some. They were sugary sweet.

Phil washed his down with a slurp from a clear pipe that clipped into his shoulder strap and the back into his pack. "Time saver". I must say, i was increasingly impressed with his gear.

Coming down from Pen y Gent was tough on the body. It's amazing how the muscles we use to walk down a steep descent feel entirely different to those we use to climb up.

"Argh!" Phil yawped, " This is the first real test for my knees".

Trying to pick out firm footings on the embedded stone islands that poked through the slippery wet mud and loose scree, took focussed concentration. The strain of slowing ones downward  momentum to a steady and manageable pace, plus the inevitable frequent foot slips, made my knees burn. I sympathised with Phil.

In two flashes, one of neon pink and the other green, two fell runners skipped between Phil and I. With the sure footing of mountain goats on speed, the young couple bounded down the steep incline. I stood in utter awe and admiration and watched a long, brunet ponytail, pulled through the back of a cap, dance snake-like over the next lip and out of sight.
I was overcome by the display of balance, agility, fitness and plain-old, balls-out, thrill-seeking bravery, that I had just witnessed.

Unkindly and unfairly, however, it suddenly left me feeling aged, feeble and rather faint hearted . But I wasn't having any of it! I gritted my teeth and picked up the pace, passing between  a group of walkers we'd had been tracking for sometime. Unsurprisingly, Phil was doing exactly the same.

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