It wasn’t that long ago that I thought walking up a mountain was a silly thing to do. Times change. Now I get it: the purist of air, mountain silence, a chance to dance with the elements and views that go on forever… and ever. So I’m in Snowdonia at the stub end of January to immerse myself again.
On the kitchen table at the bunk house lie 2 watches – no ordinary watches. They are as big as muffins only slimmer and less edible. The owners wear smug expressions. They’ve invested in the latest, most important technology tha’s going to make a huge difference to their active adventurous lives.
I’d already spend an afternoon with one of the watch owners. While I lightly skipped up 900m to the summit of Y Garn in the fading light and a wind that was testing out its strength for the next day, she puffed and blew behind me. Occasionally she caught up with me and then had to tell me how much ascent we’d done and what her heart rate was. I’d hoped she tell me the time as the important thing, as far I was concerned, was to make sure we didn’t have to do the gnarly rocky wet descent in the dark. At her frequent stops she’d peered at the watch face and I mistakenly presumed she was checking the time for our pace. No. She was checking her speed, altitude and ascent profile.
Happily we weren’t blown off the top and we got past the slippery bits in the light, but it took a bit of cajoling. We finished the last bit in the moonlight while she told me all the data her watch imparted, including the fact that she now needed 88 hours recovery time. ‘What did we do before such technology?’ I wondered.
Next day and a different watch owner. Four people and one watch. Can we manage? A big day is planned. There have been great wranglings about the plan. 17km from the west coast up and over the Carnedd summits to the Ogwen valley… or vice versa? The reverse being 900m of calf-punishing pull up scrambly rocks and scree – straight up, straight after breakfast, and then a slow descent. Less pretty to look at and, most importantly, with the wind behind us. Which do we chose? 16km uphill against a brewing storm-force wind ending with a sharp steep slippery descent, right at the point when thighs want to go to the pub. We’ll be Ok. The mountains will be a slight buffer against the wind’s worse excesses. And anyway, we have the watch don’t we?
So we start nice and early, admiring the pink winter dawn clouds. The wind blows around us, playing with us … until we reach the first peak and then it turns into a ferocious dog and bites us. We turn tail and seek the slight shelter of a wall where we confer. ‘Not sure if I want to go on if it’s going to be as cold and windy as this ’. ‘It’s unlikely to be like this all the way’. I sternly put on another layer of clothing and a second pair of gloves and we continue, up and up against the bastard wind.
The watch owner doesn’t seem as attached to his watch as the previous day’s owner but he does keep stopping to take photos of our route through the shifting lifting cloud. ‘Not a great day for photos’, I think.
Patches of deep wet snow appear. Fields of slippery rocks appear. Bogs appear. The wind doesn’t disappear, nor does the uphill slog. It becomes like a nightmare in which you’re moving but not going anywhere. Snow hides deep holes that eats us up to our thighs and it clings to our boots to make the slippery rocks ice-like. ‘I prefer the bog’, I think. Every time a punching gust comes, poles are wielded as an aide to me upright – I assume the ‘rigid frog’ position: head down, crouching, poles impaled in the earth/bog/snow while pretending I have eaten a lot of pies. My poles also work against me, the ends becoming pincered between rocks, making my shoulders wince as I struggle to pull them out while keeping balance. My sense of humour starts to become as eroded as the slippery piles of stones.
At the top of Carnedd LLewelyn I have to walk diagonally into the wind in order to keep a straight course, adopting the elegant Gollum way of walking – semi crawling. I can see a swirling mass of black malignant cloud smothering the top of the Glyders. ‘That’ll be the rain that’s forecast later. The wind will be even worse then’, says the watch owner dryly, taking another photo of our increasingly furrowed faces. It starts to annoy me.
I’d had the right idea originally: walking up mountains is a stupid idea. Better get a move on and get back to asafe haven. But the wind is having none of it – why hurry when you can play with the silly people who walk the hills? Other walkers have appeared by this time – from the opposite direction. (I mean who would want to walk against this wind?) I have a strong urge to grab them and tell them we’ve been walking for hours in these conditions.
I resist the urge as one passes me. Instead I concentrate on keeping my balance as I pick up my foot to step over large greasy rocks. The wind pushes me forward toward the adjoining snow field at the same time and so I do a giant leap for mankind… and face-plant in the snow, having placed my boot on one of those concealed holes. I flounder like a beached whale, trying to extricate my leg with thigh muscles that don’t want to respond. As I fall I hear the passing walker murmur politely, ‘Morning’. The response she gets is my cry of ‘shit, shit, shit’, as I try to extricate myself from the wet snow. Dancing with the elements? Dancing with wolves more like.
By now we can see the last summit, Pen yr Ole Wen, from where we will make the steep descent. We meet a group at the top who cheerfully tell us that the wind is just as vicious down there. I groan inwardly but I soon have the road where I’ve parked my car in my sights. A very small road – very far away, but my body is very pleased that the end is in sight. Surely it’s just a matter of walking down a steep path?
No path. Another set of thigh muscles are given a work out down a series of scrambly ledges – for hours and hours. Gradually the wind eases until I can hear myself think again and realise I haven’t eaten for hours and hours, and that food would significantly improve my sense of humour. I cram down hamster food and glug a litre of water, and things start to look so much better. I continue picking my way down like an ungainly goat and heavy rain starts to fall just as I step onto the road.
Later in the safe haven, stomach full with tea and food, and cider, the watch owner tells us how all the photos he took on the walk are part of a watch plan- the camera and watch talk to each other so that he will know precisely where and when each photo was taken. How nice. He also regales us with data: ‘It says we did 7km, 700m of ascent and it will take us 3 days to recover. It’s wrong’. Yes it’s wrong. We did 50km, an Everest profile of 5000m of ascent, took us 14 hours and it will take 3 weeks to recover. I know that, because I feel that.