‘The Day A Mountain Changed My Life’
Whuissh? Schhwuff? Shkiishh? It’s impossible to onomatopoeically recreate the sounds engulfing my head as I sweep inexorably towards the gaping maws of the quarry waiting greedily to swallow me whole. It was over. If you know your Norse mythology, this was Ragnarok and I was leading the collapse into Ginnungagap...
Three of us had chosen a frigid morning one February to climb Coniston Old Man. We talkatively strolled to Crowberry Haws before separating – my companions following the path westward to the summit while I headed for Low Water Beck, my first solo scramble at Grade 3S. The snowline was considerably lower than expected and the route frostily greeted me with rime-coated rock. Never one to back down easily, I pressed ahead and, after a tense and trepidatious ascent, reached the tarn with a heaving sigh. Equally rattled and elated, I quickly rejoined the others at the top. Celebratory Jelly Babies on a surprisingly crowded summit preceded our hasty descent. Moving in single file, with cool scramble ticked and crisp views all around, I was bathing in contentment.
Then the person in front of me stopped dead, with no warning. I was too close. I impulsively left the cut-steps rather than collide and risk sending the line of walkers dominoing downhill. I’d be fine, I don’t slip. I slipped...
The speed at which I accelerated was surpassed only by how rapidly I realised how unprepared for it I was. Not only had I never had to self-arrest for real,
I was also clutching an axe that wasn’t there. Turning onto my front, I dug every imaginable point of contact into the ground. The snowpack was frozen hard, so I slid for an age. I could feel the void’s mounting hunger as it waited to devour me. Mercifully, I came to a halt – bones numbed by vibration, wrists and palms oozing blood.
I limped to the car licking my wounds. I’d become complacent and the mountain punished me. I felt ashamed, chastised, humbled and grateful. I was able to walk away, this time, but not without a lot to contemplate. The mountain is boss and if you forget, it will remind you. I’ll never stop going and taking measured risks. But never again will I forget to always respect the mountain. Or to bring the axe.