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23 May

When I was a youngster, holidays meant discovering a new part of the UK, usually living in a rented farm cottage or similar.  Back then, I was jealous of all of my school mates when they were off to Spain or Italy and other such exotic places.  When they came home though, it was a different story.  It seemed to me that all that their holiday consisted of was beach or water park and being dragged along to some cabaret night so their parents could get smashed and make fools of themselves!

We may not have had the wonderful weather all of the time and I can’t ever remember experiencing the thrill of a giant water slide but I never really missed any of that. Our days were always busy, visiting local attractions, country houses, zoos, exhibitions, theme parks, etc.  All of those things were great and I still enjoy them now, I learned a lot about the history of our kingdom, discovered an interest in animals and birds, plants and trees and had a lot of fun along the way.  Above all of that, one activity has stuck with me and developed throughout the rest of my life.You see, some days we would just go somewhere for a “wander around and a look about,” a phrase often used by my mother and mimicked by the rest of the family in jest.  Often these little jollies incorporated some kind of walking, whether that be through a flat Suffolk coastal village or around a public garden but sometimes there would be a bit of a climb involved and that was when I was happiest.  The memories of watching Curlews atop a bleak Scottish moor, the first sight of the water after the trek up to Tarn Hows in the Lake District, or taking the cliff path from Lulworth Cove up to the top of Durdle Door in Dorset will stay with me forever.

Those early trips had triggered something inside me. A desire to walk up to the top of big hills took hold of me by the hand and led me to some amazing places.

As luck would have it, at around the same time as I was discovering this urge, the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme was offered to me.  This was it, my chance to try proper hill walking, as much as walks with my parents were enjoyable, they were never really “wild” or “challenging.”  We never needed map or compass, survival gear consisted of an apple and a cagoule and I don’t even remember having a rucksack or boots.  So soon I was spending one or two evenings a week, back at school learning the basics of mountain craft, route planning and navigation, emergency procedures, survival skills etc.  The OS maps of the Cheviot Hills along the Northumberland and Scotland border were teasing me with their contour lines and symbols, only allowing me to imagine what the landscape really looked like.  Eventually, after what seemed like ages, we were in the minibus and on our way north.  Equipment was borrowed from a friend, frame rucksack, plastic boots, oilskin like waterproofs, not ideal but I didn’t care, I was on a voyage of discovery.

Misty hills loomed all around us and a cold breeze carried the chorus of a dozen, quickly pulled up, zips away towards the fast running stream that we could hear behind the campsite.  A little shiver just ran up my spine as I remembered that moment.  I couldn’t have predicted the swirling mix of emotions that seemed to carry me along for the next few days but at that precise point in time as we stepped out of the Sherpa I was awestruck.  My first proper outdoor experience was happening!

After a typical teenage night spent under canvas and the expected chaos of cooking breakfast we shouldered our far too heavy packs and started out.  The day seemed to fly by, I remember clear skies, warm sun, trying to make sense of all those lines and symbols that had hitherto been our only picture of this vast and wild landscape that now surrounded us, oh and blisters, blisters and a few more blisters!  It was those plastic boots that did all of the damage, I didn’t care really, until one of the leaders suggested that I may not be able to make the second day’s walk.  Every trick in the book was used to get my feet in some kind of fit state to continue, surgical spirit, needles and squeezing out fluid, plasters, lint dressings, etc, etc. Needless to say, with an extra pair of socks and a permanent grimace, I completed day two!

So as time has gone on, those first exploratory steps into hill walking have led on to a multitude of adventures.  The Lake District became my Mecca and the hills became my holiday destination year after year.  I had no desire to go abroad and lie on a beach for two weeks, I would much rather live in a tent and get to the summit of a few mountains whenever I had the chance.  I’ve never done any of the really hardcore stuff such as the Cuillin Ridge on the Isle of Skye but I have happily plodded up well-marked and worn paths and tracks to touch summit cairns and trig points all over the place.

All of that waffle finally leads me to the point of this post!  Over the years, many people have asked the question “Why?”  Why would I want to spend my spare time getting out of breath, windswept, soaked to the skin by either rain or fog (or both,) lost in a blizzard or sun burnt, just to stand on a hill?  A man called George Mallory, who was part of three separate teams that attempted to climb Everest between 1920 and 1924, was asked a similar question, albeit on a much grander scale.  When asked why he wanted to climb Everest, he is alleged to have replied “because it’s there!”  The accuracy of that quote is somewhat ambiguous but it has become a well used phrase within the hill walking and mountaineering fraternity.  Incidentally Mallory and his partner both died on their final attempt on the world’s highest peak in 1924.  They were last sighted not far from the summit but despite his body being found in 1999 it is still not known whether they actually made it to the top or not.  He is known to have had a camera with him but that was not with his body, so the secret may lie with is partner (Andrew Irvine) whose body is still on the mountain and a guy called Tom Holzel thinks he knows where it is.  If the camera is found on his planned expedition to find Irvine and the film preserved it could prove that Sir Edmund Hillary may have been about 29 years too late!

Mallory’s quote is fundamentally, I suppose, the simplest answer to the question posed.  However in reality for most it is much more than that.  I guess that each individual will have their reasons for wanting to do this and with tens of thousands of people taking to Britain’s high places each week, that’s a lot of reasons.  For me though, it is a mix of freedom, beauty and achievement.  As I head away from the village or car park and set off into the hills, I start to feel the stress and strain of daily life just fall away behind me.  That isn’t some kind of weak metaphor but a genuine sensation.  You see, on every walk that I do there is a goal, (usually the highest peak) the main purpose is to reach that goal and return safely at the end of the day. In order to get to that goal I need to do varying kinds of work, map reading, terrain evaluation, weather assessment, re-hydration and usually lots of very hard work as the path starts to get steeper.  When I’m not involved in those tasks I have time to take in the surrounding landscape which is, almost invariably, stunning to behold.  I don’t have time to think about the latest interest rate rise or the cost of a service for my van.  The last week’s work is totally irrelevant and next week’s is not even on my radar, who cares?  I’m challenging myself, exercising and being engulfed in some of the most amazing scenery that these Islands have to offer, what do I need to be stressed about?

Upon reaching the goal, usually exhausted, the exhilaration that I feel is worth a bar of gold.  Ideally I want the weather to be good and clear to allow me to take in the full vista but even in thick low-lying hill cloud (known as “clag”) where I can barely see my mate next to me, it is still an awesome feeling.  To have worked so hard to get there and knowing that, at that point in time, you are higher than anyone for miles around is simply wonderful.  Of course there are days when getting to the top seems like a chore, high winds and lashing rain or hail can be enough to put anyone off but usually the thought of reaching the summit is enough to keep me motivated and smiling.  Especially when I’m in like-minded company, which is another aspect of the pastime that I value greatly.

So what am I trying to get across to those who have taken the time to read this twaddle?  Essentially I would hope that I could encourage some of you to try hill walking, get out there and experience the assault on the senses that draws people back to the mountains time after time.  I have taken many “newbies” into the hills for the first time and have yet to find someone who didn’t want to do it again and again.  Apart from some basic equipment, which doesn’t have to cost the earth, despite what you may read in some of the outdoor related media, you need very little to start experiencing this.  Call into your local library, they should have maps of your surrounding area and the staff will usually be able to tell you where your nearest “high place” is.  That may only be a little hill in the local park or a grassed over slag heap near an old colliery but it will give you a taste.  You will increase your heart rate as you climb and when you get to the top of even the smallest summit, you will get a different view of what may have seemed very familiar to you just an hour or so earlier. Pick up a guide-book while you are in the library, there are hundreds covering every part of the British Isles.  Set a day aside and pick an easy route (they are usually graded in the books) set off and give it a go.  Of course always ensure that you do this safely, most books will have some basic safety information in the front, read it and absorb it and never ignore it, but don’t be put off by it.

Go on, get out in the hills, get out there and experience the scenery, the weather, the smells, the sounds, the exhaustion and the elation but when you climb your first peak, please don’t do it just “because it’s there….

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