Sunrise

It’s a slow, grey and murky day close to home, the sort of day where there’s no separation between sea and horizon. A steady on-shore breeze of about five knots gives a calming note, and the freezing cold weather that’s characterised the last week, bringing the town to huddle against it, seems to have finally abated, for now at least.

Though she probably has at least one more good spell of chill to throw at us, Winter is definitely in retreat, her power largely broken. With each passing day the strength of the light grows, a few minutes are added to our portion of daylight, and the long hours of darkness are diminished.

In a few short weeks, Spring, in all her gaudy raiment will be back upon us, blanketing the hedgerows in wildflowers, bringing with her the sound of birdsong and the promise of renewal. For the moment she is still obscured from view but if you listen carefully you can hear her footsteps, and if you look closely you can see the tell-tale signs of her approach. There is a softening in the early evening light, a gradual dwindling to darkness at twilight, a rapid brightening of the strength of the light in the morning, and a scattering of her heralds in the grasses; snowdrops and even the odd daffodil here and there.

So another winter is over and I can happily report that this has been the best in over ten years. I normally dread the onset of winter, finding it a constant battle to lift my spirits and remain on-track through the long nights of gloom and cold. This winter however, I can count the days I’ve truly felt gloomy on one hand. Back in September I started making a few changes, some short-term and direct, others more long term and gradual in nature.

There were a number of objectives, but the success of this winter is a huge vindication of my change of approach; it is a relief to be emerging from this winter without fighting an uphill battle, feeling at full strength and secure in the knowledge that it’s possible not simply to endure, but to thrive in the months of darkness and cold. It’s an extremely liberating experience.

In the last few months I’ve consolidated and deepened a very wide array of friendships, for which I feel extremely grateful, and I’ve met a large number of people whose friendship I’m just beginning to explore, but whom I know are going to help shape my life in wonderful ways that as yet I can only guess at.

What I feel most of all though is a great sense of wealth and wellbeing. This isn’t a monetary wealth but a far more satisfying and sustaining wealth; a wealth of relationships and experiences, of community and fellowship. We have no scientific way to measure the positive impact one person can make on the life of another; the details are incalculable, innumerable. Each and every one of the friendships and relationships in my life is enriching it, second by second, hour by hour, day by day.

When I look at how I changed my approach in September I see it now as a letting go of an old way of living, and the embracing of a new way of life. This new way of life has brought me more peace and happiness in a few short months than many years of living in my former way. I feel as though I’ve finally learned to stop fighting life’s current and just embrace where it decides to take me. The energy I’ve saved can just be poured out in love to the people around me, and in my turn I benefit from the love and kindness they return to me.

The year ahead holds much promise. Sweden and the Arctic Circle await, happy hours on new hills and the promise of new experience and new life. After all, Spring is approaching, and the road ahead beckons.

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2017 in retrospect

Well, another year is nearly over and with it, it’s time to take a look back at everything that’s happened over the last twelve months, both on a mountain and non-mountain level.

Before I get to that though, I’d like to draw your attention to my ‘State of the Challenge’ page, where you can keep track of what I’ve been up to in the hills in 2017 and see how far along I am in my quest to bag every mountain in Wales. With that said, on to the review of the year that was 2017!

I started 2017 in a fairly gloomy state of mind, and mountain wise it has to be said it got off to a slow start. It wasn’t until July of this year that I mooched out to bag some new hills as part of the challenge to do all the summits of Wales, though I made up for this by snagging both of the remaining peaks of the Cwmdaudwr Hills in spectacular weather in a grand, though tiring, day out. This start to the hill bagging year completed the Elan Valley area and left only a few peaks on the English border to do before I could tick the whole of Mid Wales off the list.

Although I’d got off to a slow start I was determined to maintain forward progress from that point forward, with a hike of Tarrenhendre in August followed by another hike of Tarrenhendre with Tarren y Gesail two weeks later. These ascents later in August coincided with my new fitness programme which I started as part of an overall drive to improve my hiking capability, a drive that forms part of an ongoing programme of measures including skills training that I will be continuing as time goes on. One of the aims of this fitness drive was to get myself in better shape generally in time to undertake a winter skills course, something I’d wanted to do for years, the aim being to make sure that I could be certain I had the skills and knowledge available to safely prowl the hills whatever the season. This aim had the secondary benefit of making it easier for me to bag more summits for the challenge, since it obviated my usual pattern of knocking off the hillwalking game once winter set in and then finding I had a slow start (with consequent lack of hill fitness) the following year.

September saw me visiting a stomping ground from 2016 when I tackled two subsidiary outliers of Aran Fawddwy, in a hike which took in Gwaun Lydan and Pen yr Allt Uchaf. Throughout September and October I was at pains to continue hiking whenever I could, and although I didn’t tackle much in the way of new summits for the challenge, I spent most weekends hiking up at Bwlch Nant yr Arian, as well as joining old friends and new in hikes with my old university hiking club.

November continued this trend, with me spending plenty of time up at the Bwlch, before heading out on the 12th to tackle Plynlimon again, just for fun. I have no idea at this point how many times I’ve bagged Plynlimon as it’s been a ‘go to’ peak for years whenever I’ve been in the need for a quick mountain fix, but I must have been up there on at least ten occasions, and probably more, over the last few years. The 29th November saw me breaking new ground as I bagged my first peak in the Rhinogs, Diffwys, with a friend from the hiking club. This was a superb hike, with Diffwys covered in snow from around the 600 metre mark, and I used the hike as an opportunity to test my winter gear prior to undertaking my long-awaited Welsh Winter Skills course at Plas Y Brenin, which occurred over the weekend of 2-3 December.

So, December began in fine style, with me spending a weekend learning the ins and outs of safe and proper use of ice axes and crampons, movement over snow and winter navigation and planning. As expected, it provided something of a learning curve, and while it left me determined to do more in the winter hills and certainly feeling far more capable and sure of myself in winter conditions, it also underlined to me just how much thought and meticulous planning has to go in to any big hill day in winter, and the consequences of underestimating the conditions, or overestimating your own skills and ability. As such the course very much marked a first step, but one which I’m determined to follow up on by doing as much as I can in the snow in the months and years ahead. The course also had the happy bonus of allowing me to break new ground as I finally stepped foot in earnest in the Carneddau, summiting both Pen yr Ole Wen and Carnedd Dafydd, both Welsh 3,000 footers, in full winter conditions, with deep snow and ice underfoot.

Throughout December we’ve had intermittent snow coverage in Wales, and I’ve taken advantage of it by hitting the hills whenever possible, spending more time up at the Bwlch and bimbling around the area generally. My mountain year has been rounded out with my ascent yesterday of Waun Oer, a subsidiary of Cadair Idris, at the end of the long ridge running from Maesglase near Dinas Mawddwy to Mynydd Ceiswyn near the Tal-y-Llyn Pass. I had originally thought that this was my 30th peak, but it turns out I was mistaken, as I realised when updating this website that the Evernote list I’ve been using to keep track of things had been corrupted earlier in the year and I’d lost three peaks I’ve done from my completion list. Waun Oer, therefore, was my 33rd Welsh summit, leaving me at a little over 20% of the peaks of Wales done, with 127 still to do by the close of the year. Perhaps 2018 will see me knocking those 27 off to leave me with a nice round figure of mountains still to bag? We’ll see!

So that’s been the year, more or less, in mountain terms, but how about in wider terms in general? Well, looking back on the year that has passed, I have to say overall it’s been a year of steady forward progress on all fronts, and I’m in a far better place now than I was when the year opened. For that, I’m extremely grateful. When the year began I was still in a place of relative uncertainty, with plenty of upheaval and, due to circumstances beyond my control, plenty that left me in a tricky position personally. As 2017 closes I’m in a far more certain position in my life. 2017 has seen the beginning and consolidation of a vast array of friendships; over this year I’ve met people from places as far flung as Sweden, Norway, Germany, Poland, Bulgaria, the U.S. and Canada, and the intensive effort I’ve made to get to know as many people as possible in my home town has meant that this place feels morel ike home now than it has done for many years. Wherever I go when I wander around town I run into someone I know, and this feeling of being rooted in a place after a decade of legging it all around the country moving house every six months is absolutely superb.

I’ve made efforts, particularly over the last three months or so, to really calm everything down in terms of my outgoing commitments, and my expectations of myself, and I have to say that doing so has worked wonders. The simple sense of joy and peace of mind I have on a daily basis now is something I wouldn’t trade for the world, and I finally feel as though everything is, in its own way, coming together. It’s a funny thing really but in the Western world I think we’re often conditioned to constantly question whether we’re ‘good enough’; it underpins so much of how we approach life, from careers, education, relationships, etc etc. It’s the underlying message of much of the marketing and advertising, the ceaseless drive to consume that bombards us in our daily lives; ‘buy x product and you’ll finally measure up in such and such a way’. I’ve started to realise this year that the unhappiness that many people feel stems from the fact that in whatever way, and for whatever reason, they really don’t believe they are ‘good enough’, either for themselves, or for others around them.

There’s no simple solution to that underlying problem other than to try to find a space within yourself where you just accept yourself for who you are and then, in whatever way you need to, tell the rest of the world to bugger off if it objects, and deal with it accordingly. The truth is, in a sense none of us are ‘good enough’ because none of us are perfect. In the end, that means that we are in fact all perfectly good enough for the world around us, and anybody who is pouring an extra special effort into trying to convince you that you are in fact a somehow uniquely useless person in some way is almost certainly a fundamentally damaged individual, whose opinion and basis for it can be safely ignored. Since the end of September, I’ve found a peace of mind and sense of inner confidence and purpose unlike anything I’ve ever known, and I note with interest that it’s been achieved on my own terms while keeping everything simple and straightforward. I’m glad to finally be living life on my own terms and in my own way again.

So, with 2017 all but over, a new year beckons. My outline plan for the new year is to largely carry on as I finished 2017. On the mountain skills side of things I’d like to tackle a mountain first aid course, which I’m looking at doing in February, and I’m seriously considering putting in for ML Award training towards June. I have tentative plans to undertaken the Fjällraven Classic in August, and if things go according to plan, I hope to make a postponed trip to Norway, too. 2017 confirmed beyond any doubt that I need more camping in my life, and I have a few ridge walks in mind, including a multi-day epic in the Carneddau, that I think its time I finally did. Wildcard entries for 2018 include the potential for a trip to Morocco to do Mount Toubkal, and making a sudden trip over to France, because high quality cheese and wine!

To all my readers and to all of my friends, especially those who’ve been there through thick and thin this year, thank you, and I hope you have a wonderful 2018!

Cold day on Cold Bog

Sitting across the Tal-y-Llyn Pass from Cadair Idris lies a series of peaks that stretch in a long ridge from there to Dinas Mawddwy, the whole range group giving excellent views over the surrounding territory, with Aran Fawddwy, Cadair, and the Rhinogs all in view on a clear day. The ridge runs from Mynydd Ceiswyn over Waun Oer to Cribyn Fawr, Craig Portas, turning then towards Maesglase before dropping on to Foel Dinas and down to Dinas Mawddwy.

Having recently completed a winter skills course at Plas y Brenin (report pending), something I’ve long wanted to do, I’ve been making a point of getting out and about whenever I can in winter, especially when there’s snow on the ground, just to keep things fresh. I had done plenty of hiking in winter over the years prior to the course, so it isn’t as though the British mountains in winter are some new concept on me, but I had learned specific skills on the course that I want to spend some time bedding in, and, more importantly, I want to make the most of the winter mountains while we still have them.

Having summited Pen yr Ole Wen and Carnedd Dafydd during the course, my ‘Welsh Peaks’ count was up to 29 and, a sucker for completeness, I needed to hit 30 before the end of the year just to scratch an itch. I’d been eying up this mini-range for months and had never quite found an opportune moment to explore it so I decided today was the day, and set out to snag Waun Oer, a peak whose name translates as ‘Cold Bog‘ in English.

I made an earlyish start from my base of operations by the sea and mooched on over to the Tal y Llyn Pass. The path up away from the pass was steep to begin with, and the morning frost had not fully cleared from the grasses and reeds that lay at the side of the road; the towering cliffs on either side ensured that this was a spot that saw little warmth in winter. After a few minutes, the gradient relented and I found myself in a high upland moor, with sunshine beaming down from a bright blue sky, and the air possessed of a clarity and the light a crispness that seemed to enhance detail and contrast, bringing a sense of vibrancy to every view. My path crossed a minor tarmacked road, built atop what was thought to be part of the Sarn Helen, the ancient Roman Road built across these parts to help Rome send her legions to troublespots two thousand years ago. I wondered what the legionaries would think about the fact that part of one of their roads was still being used today.

The path climbed up over some slightly boggy moorland towards the ridge line, which at this point held steady at roughly five hundred metres high. As I climbed to meet it, the view widened out, the bright winter sunlight lending the surrounding peaks an almost alpine quality. Cadair and its peaks had a good covering of snow; according to the Mountain Weather Information Service (MWIS, whose forecasts I’d recommend), the freezing point on the peaks in Snowdonia was roughly five hundred metres, with the snowline roughly a hundred metres above that. My target for the day, Waun Oer, was 670m or 2198 feet, so there was some snow about as I hit the ridge, but, as I’d expected, nothing much more than a dusting this low down.

The ridge was long and easy, and I lolloped along happily, with staggering views opening up all around me. The crisp, frozen ground meant that what would clearly have been one of the marshier of peaks to climb in all but high summer was straightforward underfoot; despite the peak’s name, there was precious little bog-hopping required. I reached the summit around an hour after leaving the car, the view along the rest of the ridge towards Maesglase becoming immediately obscured by the onset of cloud which arrived and blanketed the hillside. It didn’t matter too much though, I’d been spoiled for views the whole way through the hike to the summit, and I knew already that I’d be coming back again soon. I was already forming plans in my mind for a traverse of the whole ridge from Dinas Mawddwy, a hike that would be perfect for a day in Spring.

The wander back to the car was uneventful really, an hour of crisp winter sunshine and the sense of satisfaction of having bagged my thirtieth peak before the end of the year. My plan to tackle every mountain in Wales, whether it sounds like a crazy idea or not, is definitely gathering momentum now, and each time I head out I gain more experience and can add another part of this beautiful country to my memory.

 

 

No regrets!

Readers of this blog will know that I tend to fuse writing about mountains and my love of the outdoors with my own homespun take on life here, and I wanted to write because I saw this article about regrets and it got me thinking.

So I know the last year or so has been a bit rough and it’s definitely tested me, but in general, if I look at everything now overall in my life, I don’t have any regrets, and I don’t think that that is accidental. Reading the comments at the bottom of this article about regrets, it’s clear that a great many people allow their fear to constrain them, to conquer them, to push that part of their soul that wants to take a risk for happiness down and settle for ‘OK’ or ‘good enough’; and so they end up living with deep regret years down the line.

Over the years, like everyone I suppose, I’ve had plenty of knocks to my confidence and plenty of powerful influences telling me I ought to fear and never push myself out of my comfort zone and so to live conventionally, but I’m a great believer that fear only exists to be mastered, to be conquered, to be subdued. Bear in mind as you read on, that when I was born, the odds were heavily set against me living twenty four hours, let alone thirty one years, and the apparently all-knowing voice of convention had also said that odds were I wouldn’t have had much ‘quality of life’ if I survived, either. You can probably guess what I think about the voice of convention!

Years ago I joined an outdoors club at university and, through a happy accident of circumstance, got elected to the Committee. I was terrified, knew nothing about what I was doing and was thoroughly convinced I’d fail. Before this, I’d applied for a course at university that had ‘no practical application’ in the ‘real world’; the voice of convention (in this case my first boss) said I ought to do something like plumbing, where I’d earn 30 grand a year after qualifying.

Every time I took groups out onto the hill, I had to confront my deep, almost, at that time, pathological self-doubt, and master my fear of failure. And each time I did, I grew a little in confidence. I never, ever lost that drive to confront the potential for total disaster and personal failure, and try anyway. Pushing back against the self-doubt was empowering, and that empowerment was intoxicating. I started looking at my limits, questioning them; limits I realised that I had largely told myself I had. I gained two degrees and a postgraduate diploma, including a first class honours at bachelors, and a job and career in my field of ‘no practical application’.

I’m not for a moment going to pretend any of it was easy, but it’s important to relate it because I know from direct experience that a life lived without regrets is possible, but like everything in life it doesn’t come for free. It comes from a constant exercise in confronting your fears, evaluating what it really is that makes you happy, and then setting your face like flint against all opposition until you eventually achive your goal, or fail. Failure is the other side of it of course. You can’t simply set your heart on things and expect to achieve them every time, even if you do everything right; that isn’t life. It’s also sadly true that a lot of people will want you to fail, not out of any particular sense of spite, but because if you succeed in doing what the voice of convention has told you (and them) shouldn’t be tried, your success threatens their complacency, and casts doubt on the wisdom of their decision never to rock the boat and challenge their own limits. So be prepared for that, too. But what strikes me about most of the people writing about their regrets below that article is that the vast majority imprisoned themselves from acting because of a fear of failure.

Let me re-iterate this again because it’s been a vital life lesson for me down the years and it’s something people sometimes learn too late. You can sometimes do everything completely right and still fail. That’s life. In other words, failure is as much a part of life as success; it will happen to you at some point.

Therefore the key to learning to live life without regrets is to master your fear of failure. Failure itself is not something to either fear, or be ashamed of. If you allow fear of it to govern your life, you will never achieve your full potential, and you will almost certainly have things later in life that, when you look back upon them, you regret not attempting.

So, years ago, I decided to do medieval history. Years after that, I decided to try and make a career in my field, despite the odds being against success. I decided that I really wanted to be in Wales; the odds were against that too. I’ve given good friends unpopular advice because it mattered to say what I actually thought, not what I thought they wanted me to tell them. I’ve charged in without the baldiest idea what women have thought of me but always asked anyway, if I felt something. Naturally I’ve been shot down more than a few times but I’ve also had life-defining  and enriching relationships that have made me the person I am. I’ve confronted the myth of my own incapability for years, and achieved. I’ve stood up for what I believed was right, even when I knew I might be doing so alone and at a large personal cost, in every area of my life. These experiences have not been without cost, and occasionally they have been exquisitely painful.

But the one thing I can say hand on heart is that I don’t have any regrets. I’ve always taken that chance for happiness, success, or to do what’s right, and whether I’ve always succeeded or not, I do have a peace of mind that I know, from reading the above article, many people lack. The payoff for all the times I’ve failed is that I don’t need to regret anything. I don’t have to look myself in the eye in the mirror in the morning and say ‘what if?’ because I’ve made it a habit in life to confront my fear of failure and have a go anyway. And the peace of mind that gives is a reward worth far, far more than the temporary sting of failure when things didn’t work out, and by challenging myself I’ve had incredible experiences I would otherwise have shied away from.

So if you take anything from this article and this post, please take this. Following your heart isn’t some Disney cliché; you were given your instincts for a reason. Fear is there to be mastered; it has its place but never let it master you. Living life without regrets means mastering fear and being prepared to pay the price for things not working out. But I believe, in the end, it’s a small price to pay for the peace of heart, mind and soul that comes from knowing you don’t have to ask yourself ‘what if?’.

By the way. The voice of convention says that the odds are very firmly stacked against me ever becoming a successful writer. The voice of convention can take a running jump!

Keep on rolling

A bit of an impromptu change of plans this weekend has given me a spot of time to write and catch up a little bit, so I thought I’d update the blog with a few of my ongoing plans.

I’m writing this post from beautiful Beddgelert, having driven up here with a group of friends I know through the university with a plan to camp and go gorge walking. Unfortunately for me I dropped ill with a lovely dose of lurgyplague earlier in the week and have woken up as a highly contagious mobile germ factory. Wading through ice-cold water on a blowy October day didn’t seem like the best way of ditching the plague so regretfully I had to pull out, discretion being the better part of valour; this was quite disappointing really as I’ve always wanted to give gorge walking a try.

 

Nevertheless, Beddgelert has plenty of charms and is dominated by the mountains, with lofty Moel Hebog looming large over the town. Last night, the stars were out in force, with Cassiopeia, the Plaedes Cluster, Andromeda and Orion all clearly visible, and a faint trace of the dust lanes of the Milky Way Galaxy showing up in the darker sections of sky.

Although I’ve missed out on larks in the water, camping and waking up in a wild and beautiful place is always a brilliant experience, and I’ve been happily bimbling around, cheering on the runners in the Snowdonia Marathon as they charge on through the village.

In upcoming plans, I’ve started writing short stories. The first few are acting as vehicles to get back into character development and the weaving of plot strands, and just to get a feel for things again. Like anything, writing consistent material takes practice and I’ve realised that much as it would be nice to just bash out a novel straight off the bat, it would probably be better to get a flow of consistent writing going first to build up the muscles for a bigger project. I’m thoroughly enjoying what I’m writing, and I’m finding it hugely cathartic to put pen to paper and just create again.

More widely, I’m taking the final week of November off as I need some time to do some adventures. I’d planned to do a winter skills course in January but I may be able to do this earlier than planned now, so I’m scouting around for mischief I can get myself into!

On that note, and because I’m absolutely knackered and feel like I could sleep for a week right now, I’ll leave it there for the time being, but suffice it to say there’s plenty going on behind the scenes, more trip reports are on the way, and things are on a generally upward trajectory. It’s been good to focus on myself more over the last couple of months and I’m going to continue this ‘not taking too much on’ going forward, drifting along with the current, enjoying the friendships I have around me, and the opportunities I have to explore this beautiful part of the world.

If there’s one thing I’m already resolving to do in the year ahead though, it’s to spend more time under canvas on starlit evenings, with good company and a stove on the boil. Magic.

Where the Red Kite Soars

All writers have places they retreat to, spaces to disappear off into and unwind; thinking spots. As much as writing is of course about putting pen to paper and actually getting the thoughts and words out, a large part of the process is about thinking, mulling, working things over in your mind; developing a character’s habits here, tweaking an idea about a plot line there. One of the many reasons I love the hills and mountains is that they open my mind in different ways, subtly altering my sense of perspective, physically, mentally and figuratively, such that as I wander I’m usually filled with fresh inspiration.

But a good thinking spot does more than simply inspire you, it recharges you as well; you go there fatigued and weary and return to civilisation renewed and ready. Obviously as all writers must I keep some of these places to myself; part of their appeal is that they are secret retreats, after all. But there is one I want to share, Bwlch Nant yr Arian. Nant yr Arian is a visitor and outdoor activities area set in hundreds of acres of forestry and high moorland on the cusp of the Cambrian Mountains, about fifteen miles from Aberystwyth. Beloved by mountain bikers across the UK, it is home to an extremely successful red kite feeding station; every day, year round, at either two or three o’clock in the afternoon, depending on the season, carrion is thrown for red kites which gather together from miles around. These majestic birds duck and weave, soar, glide, climb and wheel about in enthralling aerobatic displays, with the hills and forestry providing a stunning natural backdrop. Each day, it’s possible to see hundreds of these graceful falcons, once severely persecuted and on the brink of extinction and now once again a common sight in the skies of West Wales demonstrate to the world their elegance and beauty.

Besides providing a refuge for falcons, the whole area is maintained for the public to wander at will. This isn’t, of course, a wilderness area with mighty soaring ridges, glaciers, formidable river crossings and technical terrain, but it doesn’t need to be. Situated about a ten minute drive from my front door, I can arrive there easily with absolutely no hassle, and find myself about a thousand feet above sea level, with hills all around me, and slip away from the demands of civilisation for a while. All at once, the scent of moor and heather tinged with the fresh tang of pine streams across the air; the breeze is noticeably wilder and tinged with a hint of a chill. Mist clings to the surrounding hillsides and wafts in from time to time, playfully hiding and then revealing the scant traces of the wider world-the odd farm here and field there-turning the landscape into a mirage of itself.

Setting out on a path towards a forested ridge, I enter the pines, and the sound of the road up to the pass dies away behind me, the enclosing trees deadening the noise to a whisper. The wind is keener here and shakes the pines, murmuring through the forest like an ancient voice. For this is an ancient land; glimpsed here and there through the mist on the moorlands below can be seen traces of iron-age habitations, legacies of peoples long since vanished. And yet, the whispering of the wind is timeless; standing at a high point and looking out across the murk, I could have been stood here five thousand years ago, and the wind would still have been scudding roiling clouds of mist across the hillsides, dropping flecks of rain-or in winter, sleet and snow-across the rocks and ferns, as it will do in five thousand or a million years from now.

Setting away from the main path, I wander across a bridleway and then off again onto a minor trail heading into one of the deepest parts of the forest. Here, dropping down slightly, the trees are still, and blessed peace reigns. The mosses and lichens lie as a rich carpet between each of the trees, the light catching them up into hundreds of subtly different shades of green; and in this vibrancy, this riot of life, is the gentle calm of the quiet, the sound of nature being nature. I had no plan in mind as I walked today, no objective, nothing in my heart at all but to simply be, to experience, and to savour all of the sights and sounds of this wild place. Gradually making my way through the forest, moving as silently as possible so as not to disturb the peace and tranquility, I came eventually to an inviting-looking log looking out across the forest to a distant hillside, and there I sat.

A poor life this/if full of care/we have no time to stand and stare”. And so there I stayed. I sat, took in the view, the gradually-shifting mist, the scent of mountain air, pine and fern, closed my eyes and just listened, listening to nothing. Listening to nothing at all, but the wind in the trees, caressing and cajoling them, the murmur of distant birdsong, a contemplative stillness; listening to a forest simply being a forest. I must’ve stayed there for twenty or thirty minutes, perhaps longer, just listening, just being, and allowing myself to simply be, without plans, routines, thoughts or cares; a young man in a forest, surrounded by, and part of, nature. That twenty minutes or half an hour spent listening to the forest was more restorative than hours of civilisation’s creature comforts; each time I wander here, subtly and by slow degrees, my spirit feels renewed.

That, in a nutshell, is why it’s such a beloved place for me. A bolthole in the hills, full of the mountain air and the peace of nature, close to home and yet, once there, a million miles from civilisation, because there I can just drift away again and be. Writers need places like this, in fact, all of us do. Nant yr Arian isn’t the only one I have, of course, but it’s one of my favourites, a place where I can wander and let my mind wander, a place that takes me back into memory and sparks inspiration for the future. It’s a small peace of mountain beauty on my doorstep, and I’m grateful it’s there; drop in there sometime, you won’t regret it.

Another Year Wiser?

Depending on when I decide to post this, it’s my birthday either today or in a few days (23 Sept). Before I go further, it’s important to note that my village hasn’t been bombed in a drone strike, I haven’t lost my entire family in a war, become a refugee, or gone hungry this year. Things could be a lot worse and I’m looking at the past year with healthy perspective.

That said, over the last 13 months I’ve had a broken engagement, was bereaved over the same weekend, had to start rebuilding my life and friendship networks, moved home, changed jobs, and have had numerous other upheavals that don’t bear mention on a blog I like to try to keep upbeat. This year comes at the end of a decade of wandering all up and down the UK staying only once in a place longer than a year; in the last decade I’ve moved house at least eleven times.

Unsurprisingly, I’m now exhausted on all levels, and taking stock of this year I’ve come to realise that I only have very finite reserves of energy available, and that I’ve had too much on my plate for far too long. Unfortunately one of my faults as a person is that I expect far too much of myself than is practical, and the two factors together can compound one another. As a result I’m scaling everything back and focusing on having as quiet and restorative a year as possible, trying to avoid anything that drains me.

For those who know me personally the most obvious sign of this will be a general retreat from social media platforms unless it’s being used for a direct purpose. I love writing about the hills, mountains and my love for this beautiful country that has become my adoptive home, so my Facebook account will be active for around 48 hours after any blog post I make, after which it’ll be deactivated again until the next update. I’m not going to abandon it altogether going forward as it’s nice to keep in touch with people, but I need to make sure it’s always doing something for me, so I won’t be anywhere near as  active on it as I was.

It needs to be more widely recognised that Facebook and platforms like it are an edited highlights reel; they aren’t real depictions of the lives of others, and there’s an element of digital ‘keeping up with the Jones’ that underpins a large element of it. Keeping in touch with this augmented, fictional reality can become draining and I’ve decided that, for a considerable period, it’s better to keep away from that element of it all. In the end, (unless they’re abroad or something) any friend worth their salt will also make the effort to spend time outside of the endlessly connected digital world we inhabit these days.

Partly to keep in touch with those friends abroad, I will be on Messenger sparingly so I’m not dropping off the face of the earth completely. Facebook has a few coding idiosyncrasies which mean that if you had a prior extant conversation with me before I disconnected my account, you may have a blue bar in your messenger saying that you can’t respond to our conversation. This isn’t true; it’s a known fault and you just need to erase the old conversation and it’ll work like new.

All I’m really looking for now is peace and quiet, with no upheavals. There’s plenty I have no control over (I could be bereaved, for example); but there’s plenty I can control and all I’m going to do this year is switch off, break off any draining experiences when I find them, and focus on a quiet life for a bit. That means no changes of job, no house moves, and no major plans; I’m not taking any more onto my shoulders until I feel ready to, and I don’t know when that will be. I hope, having read the first couple of paragraphs of this post, you understand. I also have no expectations either in general or of myself for the year ahead; after a year of so much upheaval, it would be illogical and counterproductive to expect too much.

I have a tendency to rush myself to do everything I can all at once, and I need to avoid the temptation to get back onto top form as quickly as possible (because I know it’s in my nature to try). By all means, anyone reading this who knows me in person, don’t be a stranger, but please don’t be offended if I seem distant for a long while. After the year I’ve had I need to be kind to myself, which is something I’m terrible at doing, but perhaps that’s the lesson for the year ahead.

Finally I want to say a heartfelt thank you to all of the people who’ve poured so much kindness into my life, especially over the last year or so. Some of you have only ever really known me when I’ve been at a fairly low ebb in general, and I’m looking forward to being able to be at my best again with all of you in my life. Some of you have welcomed me into your homes, or patiently listened over a cup of coffee, others have been on the end of a phone or have come on a bimble with me into the hills. I am blessed to know some truly exceptional and compassionate people; thank you for sticking with me through such a trying and exhausting year.

On that note it’s time to wrap this up and press on; hopefully a year from now I’ll be feeling a bit more rejuvenated!

The Heart of Life

This is a bit of a departure from standard Endless Trails fare, but as the online home for my musings and ramblings I thought I’d post it here anyway; my blog, my rules! There’s a singer some of my readers are probably familiar with, John Mayer, who, while he isn’t one of my favourite artists, has written a few good songs, one of which is called “The Heart of Life“; it’s worth a listen. It has this particular truism:

 

“No it won’t all go the way it should/But I know the heart of life is good”

 

Life has a funny habit of throwing spanners in the works when you least expect it, and over the last year I’ve had a fair few, but at the same time I’ve had plenty of brilliant moments as well. It strikes me that the heart of life, the actual purpose of it, is often misunderstood or not particularly appreciated. We live in a culture that tends to view success as the acquisition of status and wealth, of career success and becoming the top dog, and while achievements shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand, I think sometimes the focus is often placed so much on material success that the really rewarding things, the real treasures of life, get overlooked.

Growing up I remember hearing about how my granddad would wake up early every morning in winter to go and get the car ready for my grandma, turning the heater on so that by the time she was ready to drive to work, it was already comfortable for her rather than freezing cold. This was a quiet, every day, and in some ways perhaps mundane act of devotion, a simple act of love from a man deeply devoted to his wife; a small kindness that was part of their life together. There are no statues to celebrate people who do these kindnesses for one another, no monuments, no recognition of a particular achievement, and yet in a way, my grandad and all the people out there who make those little extra efforts for the people they love have understood the real core of life and its purpose. In the end, when you boil it all down, life is an opportunity to show kindness and love to others. There are plenty of people out there who will attempt to take advantage of that kindness, of course; that’s just a fact of human nature. But for all its sham and for all the world seems to prize arrogance, selfishness and greed at times, the world is still full of individual acts of kindness, selflessness and gentleness, and it’s important not to allow the bad news blaring from every screen to blind or weary you into thinking otherwise.

The best way I can describe the sort of thing that really matters in life, as far as I see it, is to give a theoretical example. If any of you blokes out there reading this have a wife or girlfriend who has had an absolutely awful week, why not do the following, or a variation on the theme. Secretly take a day off work without telling her, get everything in the house absolutely top notch; start cooking her favourite meal and get a nice bottle of red wine (or depending on how rough a week it’s been, gin!) ready. Get everything timed perfectly so that the moment she walks through the door, knackered, fed up, and through with this horrendous week, all of the problems stop right there. Let her put her feet up, pour the glass of wine or gin, and let her slowly start to unwind. Put her at the centre of things and show her that you really care; and after all, if you really love her, finding small ways like this to take the time to show her that she’s loved is its own reward.

If you’re already doing this sort of thing for the woman you love, congratulations, you’ve understood what life is really about. If you’re really blessed the two of you will be doing the same for each other through the years, just creating those small moments for one another that show that you care. Love doesn’t always have to be fanfare and grand gestures; sometimes the smallest acts and sacrifices, like getting up on a freezing winter morning to get the car warm for your wife, just because, speak loudest of all.

So yes, the world is full of troubles, life still has its pitfalls and ups and downs, but in the end, be kind to yourself, and be kind and considerate to the people around you, especially your significant other, if you have one. In the end, that’s what life’s for, and if you have the chance to live this way, I think you’ll one day end up feeling like the richest man alive.

Joined-up thinking

It’s been a while since I posted much in the way of an update, though plenty has been going on all the same. I’ve recently summited Tarrenhendre, returning a few weeks later to do it again along with Tarren y Gesail in a superb ridge walk, and I’ve just returned from a hike up Gwaun Lydan and Pen yr Allt Uchaf, two of the subsidiary peaks of mighty Aran Fawddwy, easily one of the finest mountains in Snowdonia. Besides all of this I’ve been exploring the brilliant Nant yr Arian mountain biking centre quite extensively of late, and there’ll be a post on the centre in a forthcoming update.

 

Behind the scenes though, a great deal has been going on. My ongoing mission to summit all the peaks of Wales is a core objective, something that really inspired me as a long-term project, and it is an end in itself, but it was also meant as a vehicle and a means and opportunity to do much more than just climb mountains (as great as that is!). In undertaking a proposal to climb nearly two hundred peaks, you’re making a huge commitment but you’re also making a statement both about who you are when you start, and who you’d like to be when you finish. When you set off in pursuit of an objective like this, it’s helpful not to simply have the one line of attack. Instead, it helps to bolster your main effort with all sorts of subsidiary efforts which complement the overall thrust of what you’re doing.

 

When I set out to start bagging all the Welsh peaks I knew in so doing that it would naturally lead to a lot of other obvious things; it’d improve my fitness, my mountain confidence, my navigation (I hope!) and my general technique in the hills. For quite some time I’ve been looking for the opportunity to do the first of these (improve my fitness) but in a way that is sustainable and compliments the mountain climbing. As such, I’ve planned and begun to execute a fitness and diet regime to improve my overall mountain stamina, and within the space of three weeks it’s already paying dividends in terms of my ability on the hill. More widely however, a programme like this takes focus, dedication, and attention to detail to achieve, and these are all traits that are necessary for completing the overall challenge in itself. I actually started to ready myself for the diet and fitness training effort by undertaking several deliberate abstentions from alcohol from new year onwards, before moving towards alcohol free beers on the nights I was drinking. Following a long term plan is as much about mental discipline as it is about physically carrying it out, and these efforts were aimed at developing the discipline to make sure that when I later decided to make a radical change of diet, it’d be an effort I could sustain.

Three weeks in, I’m fitter than I’ve been in years. A little over a year ago I tackled Aran Fawddwy from Cwm Cywarch and I distinctly remembered struggling considerably on parts of the path up the side of the valley to the col at 571 metres. Yesterday, on the same route, I flew up the same path, reaching the col in around an hour without so much as the need to pause. The eventual objective of the diet and fitness programme, besides creating an overall hill fitness, is to enable me to tackle mountain events in the coming year, of which there are many in Wales each spring and summer, and a number like the Fjällräven classic in Sweden.

Besides this, I’m keen to do a winter skills course and will aim to do this around the turn of the new year. I’m a big believer in making sure you always know what you’re doing before you set out onto the hills; accidents happen of course and there’s nothing wrong with that at all, but I do think it’s selfish to expect other people to rescue you on the mountains if you’ve deliberately gone way out of your depth into a situation you had no business moving into given your skill levels. Full winter conditions in the UK are one such area for me at present; I don’t currently possess a developed winter skill set or the reliable experience to consistently get out and about safely in the mountains in the worst of all weathers, and this tends to limit my ability to get the peaks of Wales done once the winter worst kicks in. This isn’t so much of a problem if I’m hiking in a party where others around me have those skills, but given that much of my hiking is done alone at present, it pays to make sure I’m on top of my game. The mountains in winter have a distinctly different beauty, and I cannot wait to be able to get out and about more regularly in the ice and snow!

Coupled to this, especially in light of a lot of my solo hiking, I’d like to do a wilderness first aid course to make sure that if the very worst happens, I can do everything in my power to salvage the situation myself. Solo hiking requires a considerable degree of self-reliance (which is one of its appeals) but it also carries an augmented level of risk, and I’d like to be in a good place to respond if I either have an incident myself, or if I find an injured party out on the hills on my travels.

All of this is leading up to something I’ve long cherished, attaining an ML, or Mountain Leader Award. Given the amount of time I spend out and about on the hills and mountains, it seems a natural fit to work towards a formal qualification in mountaincraft and leadership, and I know that working towards it will do a huge amount to improve my overall skill set and ability level. Putting in for the training is fairly straightforward; the main criteria is that you need to have logged about twenty mountain days, and you should ideally have spent some time camping in the mountains as well. Once you’ve done your training, you need to log 40 quality mountain days in a variety of areas of the UK, before you can then put in for your assessment. My aim is to do the training at some point next year; I already have more than enough mountain days under my belt, but I need to make sure I’ve got the leave and a clear week to undertake the training.

So, there’s plenty going on at Endless Trails HQ. Plans are afoot and there are plenty of great days in the mountains being had; hopefully, there are many more to come in the months ahead! I’ll do my best to get some trip reports up reasonably soon, but for now, that’s it, time to start poring over maps of the Rhinogs!

 

‘Wild: An Elemental Journey’ review

As readers of the blog will know, when I’m not out and about in the hills I’m usually to be found reading about them, or reading about travels to some far-flung land. I’ve lately read Paul Thereoux’s excellent “The Great Railway Bazaar” about his exploits travelling by train from London to Asia and back in the 1970s, and I’m working my way through his equally brilliant ‘Dark Star Safari’. Reviews of these will probably pop up here in a while. But this post is about a book that’s been calling to me from the shelves in Waterstones for a while; ‘Wild: An Elemental Journey‘ by Jay Griffiths. The book centres on the author’s pursuit of wilderness and the wild in our modern world, documenting both her journey to these places, her experiences of them, and the manifest threats they face.

This is a book that’s captivated my imagination and frustrated me in equal measure, a book full of contradictions, as all good books are. I was immediately grabbed by Griffiths’ explanation of the roots of her longing to travel into the wilderness. Her epitomisation of the sterility of choices presented to us as ‘safe’ options growing up in contemporary Britain resonated with me; grow up, get a good job, get a nice mortgage on a house in suburbia, settle down with 2.4 children and be a ‘success’. I absolutely concurred with her description of this tame experience to which we’re all supposed to aspire, and the intellectual moribundity that underpins it:

“Everything was made into corridors: corridors of convention, corridors from term time to term time, corridors from school to university, corridors from sensibly studying maths to marrying an appropriate accountant. Intellectually, the corridors were supermarket aisles, tinned thought. Politically, the corridors offered one brand, off-the-shelf, rightwing views”.

This passage sums up so much of life in Britain for the majority today, and our cultural phobia of any sort of experimentation, our fear of doing anything differently, of being different, of non-conformism. I well remember being told by my first boss that it would be a waste of time studying medieval history because ‘there are no jobs in it’ and I could ‘just be a plumber’; consciously choosing to do things differently threatens conventional order, and people fear what is unusual because it casts their own choices into doubt. Lo and behold, after a lot of hard work at univeristy, I found myself a job working with all the skills learned in my medieval history degrees. But the immediate reaction from some around me to try and put me off an unorthodox course has always stuck with me. Griffiths sets her account up as a rejection of convention, arguing that wildness, by its very nature is antithetical to all forms of convention.

By extension, civilisation as we know it, with its conventions, orders, rules and laws, is entirely opposed to the wild world, to nature itself. She encapsulates this brilliantly in a diatribe against golf courses: “Golf epitoises the tame world. On a golf course nature is neutered[…]golf turns outdoors into indoors, a prefab mat of stultified grass, processed, pesticided, herbicided, the pseudo-green of formica sterility.” Reading this, I thought how apposite and fitting it was that at the apex of power in our corrupted Western world, the complete embodiment of its moral bankruptcy, arrogance towards nature, its greed and mindless stupidity, sat Donald Trump, golf course purveyor in chief.

There is a huge amount to commend about Grifiths’ writing, yet I find some of her arguments less compelling than others. The key one of these for me is Griffiths’ almost insatiable desire to try to pin all the world’s problems on Christianity, chraracterising it as somehow anti-wild, and only ever a brutal force of missionary colonialism, forever doomed to exterminate indigenous cultures. The antipathy between ‘wild’ nomadic and ‘civilised’ settled peoples is not one that can be laid at Christianity’s door; it predates both Roman and Greek civilisation, and in fact can be found at play in both ancient Indian and ancient Chinese civilisations. Similarly, to dismiss Christianity as some anti-wild force is historically and culturally illiterate; Christianity is the faith of the Desert Fathers, who deliberately left what they saw as the corruptions of civilisation to find God, and peace, in the wilderness, as did the Cistercian monks and nuns of the Middle Ages. The removal of oneself from civilisation to find oneself in the wilderness is a continual motif of Christian thought; it is why, all across the globe, retreat centres thrive; it is just such a retreat into the wilds that all Christians commemorate in Lent.

Similarly Griffith’s characterization of Christians as only ever being brutal ‘murderous’ missionaries hell-bent on enslaving and destroying indigenous communities conflates one specific chapter of one specific culture of Christianity’s history with the entirety of a movement which encompasses Roman Catholicism, the five autocephalous Eastern Orthodox Churches, the Abysinnian and Egyptian Coptic churches, Lutherans, Baptists, Methodists; the list goes on; myriad cultures spread out across two millenia of human experience. It also completely fails to account for the heroic and inspirational example of men like Maximilian Kolbe, a man so entirely selfless that he volunteered to take the place of another prisoner in the gas chambers at Auschwitz, and the countless millions of selfless and devoted individuals who have walked the earth before and since who aspire to such an example of love for their fellow man. It also, rather more pertinently, overlooks the fact that Christian lawyers and human rights activists are being threatened, intimidated, brutalised and murdered for standing up for the rights of indigenous peoples, particularly when those rights come into conflict with drug trafficking organisations or the oil lobby.

Finally, Griffiths’ caricature of Christianity, a convenient punchbag to which any evil can be ascribed without analysis, bears no resemblance to real Christianity at all. On the one hand Christianity is lambasted for its ideas that things can be ‘sinful’ and yet one of its most important proscriptions,  in fact one of the deadliest sins, is overindulgence, over consumption, taking more than you need from mother earth. Christian leaders across the globe have been at the forefront of efforts to call for environmental protections for years, precisely because, to a Christian mind, regardless of which culture of Christianity you hail from, destruction of the environment which Man has been given specifically to protect for the benefit of all life, is utterly abhorrent. The idea that Christianity is somehow diametrically opposed to the preservation and respect for wilderness and wild spaces when its values are inherently anti-consumerist and anti-individualist, is foolhardy. It also flies in the face of the example of some of the greatest conservationists ever to have lived, such as John Muir (born a Scots Presbyterian) and Grey Owl (an Anglican). In one particularly hysterical rant Griffiths states, apparently triumphantly ‘but the Christian god will never win’ contrasting it to the supposed opposing virtues of the wild human spirit. In a world run by a megalomaniac like Donald Trump, I’d be really glad to see some victories for ‘love your neighbour,’ ‘love your enemy’ ‘be humble’ ‘don’t overconsume’ and ‘turn the other cheek’. But then Griffiths isn’t really dealing with Christianity, so much as she’s projecting all of her own pet peeves onto a safe target, labelling the result ‘Christianity’ and attacking that instead.

Blaming Christianity for all the world’s problems is very fashionable (especially in Britain) and to a large extent an acceptable prejudice at present. It’s also intellectually lazy and largely without justification. This is also particularly striking given how passionately Griffiths rails against an ‘intellectual apartheid’ that we’ve created in the West, in which, full of the conceit that literacy is the only true measure of education, we’ve tended as a society to place a disproportionate value on Western thinking, to the detriment of the cultures of indigenous peoples. It’s an argument I completely agree with, and one that’s dealt with succinctly in the context of medieval literacy by Matthew Clanchy in his excellent From Memory to Written Record’. Given her passionate assault on the relative intellectual sterility of the West I find it surprising that in what comes across as a blinkered attack on Christianity (almost for having the temerity to exist) she effectively perpetuates one of the key strands of this apartheid.

One of the thoughts that struck me reading this book is how unfortunate it is that, as a species, by our very condition, we cannot help but despoil the wild as we attempt to advance our future. Much as I agree with Griffith’s passionate call for a defence of the wild, and believe that society would greatly benefit from a renewal of love and understanding for the natural world, some amount of depredation against nature is inevitable. Nature has currently given us as a species the opportunity to be the apex species of our planet, but it is a time-limited offer. For hundreds of millions of years prior to our ascension to the top of the pyramid, the dinosaurs reigned supreme, yet they never evolved the capacities to enable them to build a civilisation that could avert their eventual doom.

Nature has given us precisely the length of time it takes a six mile-wide object to be gravitationally perturbed from its position in the Kuiper Belt and hurtle onto a collision course with earth to make the most of our place at the top of the tree. We have until then to develop the technologies to avoid a catastrophic impact with our planet and so secure our future as a species.

Doing this of course requires the development of complex industries, specialisations of skills dependent upon finely-honed systems of learning, and the political will to make it happen. All of this inevitably extracts a price from nature, and I don’t think humanity can realistically live entirely at one with its wild roots and still prosper as a species longer than the dinosaurs did.

This doesn’t mean, however, that we can’t learn to live in harmony with nature. We should make every effort to protect our wilderness and wild spaces, to encourage our children to love and revere them, and do all we can to pass down to our descendents as pristine a world as possible.

This book will delight you, fascinate you, challenge you, inspire you, and frustrate you in equal measure. Its flaws (and there are many) lend a quality to it, in the same way that all the most interesting characters in a good novel are the flawed ones. It’s a beautiful and evocative book, and it will make you want to head out to the wildest places you know and commune with nature. I’m glad I read it.