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!

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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.

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.

A Labour of Love

As most of my readers will know, I’m on a mission to snag all of the mountains of Wales, and as I found myself with an impromptu week of leave to take this week, I decided it was time to get out and about and get my boots muddy again. There are various definitions of the ‘mountains of Wales’ mostly revolving around their relative height from the surrounding land, giving a total, depending on who you ask, of around 140, 160, or 190 separate peaks to bag. Splitting hairs about relative height is a bit like the hillwalker’s version of train spotting or rivet counting, and while part of me is tempted to be virtuous and go for the ‘190’ set, I’m also aware that (in theory at least!) this is supposed to be fun, so we’ll see how it evolves!

 

Nevertheless, whatever definition I follow, there are peaks in every corner and nook and cranny of Wales, and this mission will take me to many far-flung places that I might not otherwise have visited. As with all exercises of this nature though, some of the peaks I bag will inevitably involve a bit more determined effort with perhaps a lower pain to reward ratio than others. The sweeping majesty of the high Carneddau is a very different proposition to some of the boggier morasses in other areas of Wales, and on one of my trips this week, it was to a set of peaks like this that I wandered.

 

Enter the Cwmdauddwr Hills. In Welsh, Cwmdauddwr means ‘Valley of the Two Waters’ and the hills take the name of the small hamlet a few miles from their base. These mountains are two of the most remote anywhere in Wales, and they rise out of more or less trackless moor and bogland close to one of the major reservoirs of the Elan Valley. As peaks that are fairly local to my base of operations they’ve been on my ‘to-do’ list for a while, but due to their nature I’ve been keen to try and keep them for as favourable a day as possible.

It’s not that the Cwmdauddwr Hills are ‘bad’ in any sense of the word, far from it, but all that I’d read on them to this point suggested that they were something of an acquired taste. Rising as they do in undulating moorland and upland bog, they are known to be a tricky navigational proposition to tackle, with few real paths venturing anywhere near them, and with those that do becoming impassable or tediously difficult to negotiate after sustained rainfall. That said, their remoteness lends to them an entirely different character to some of their neighbours to the north; this is one of those regions of Wales where you can truly feel as though you’re exploring real wilderness, with nobody in sight for miles, and not a trace of noise.

As Monday dawned a beautifully bright and clear day, I decided it was time I paid a visit to these elusive hills, and see them for myself. The two peaks I was chasing today were called Drygarn Fawr, at 645 metres the larger of the two, and Gorllwyn, which at 610 metres was only just large enough to register as a mountain by the current legislative definition. My plan of attack was to follow the valley of the Nant Paradwys as far as a pass known as Bwlch y Ddau Faen (Pass of the Two Stones) and from there strike out for Drygarn Fawr, several kilometres distant, and then to return to the pass and strike out in the opposite direction for Gorllwyn.

Parking up at Rhiwnant by Caban Coch Reservoir, I saw a couple of cars in the car park, but otherwise no signs of life. I took a mooch along to the junction of a bridleway with a minor road and got my bearings, taking a look at a very old traditional Welsh farmhouse now preserved for posterity dating to the early 1560s. I struck off along a minor road, from which my path soon led away and fairly sharply up through the farmland above the banks of the reservoir and the babbling river below. Striking along at a fair old clip it felt good to be out and about, with the sun beating down out of a cloudless sky, and the path all to myself.

The views back down to the valley were clear and excellent, and as I pulled away from the main path at a group of sheepfolds, the route ahead swung into the valley of the Nant Paradwys, and left all traces of modern human habitation behind. This was truly a wild upland valley, with smatterings of sheep tracks and, every few hundred yards or so, a bog to negotiate. The landscape here was one of tough, tussocky grassland, moorland bog and peat hag, and reminded me a little of the wilder stretches of the Plynlimons, only with perhaps more of a North Yorkshire Moors-like character to them as well.

After a while, checking the map, I’d reached the bwlch; there was nothing much there but a suggestion of a path leading in one direction, and a suggestion leading in another; neither were really any more distinct than many of the sheep tracks I’d seen earlier, but from my position relative to the river I knew this was the spot; not for the first time, I was glad I wasn’t attempting this hike in the thick mist, where landmarks might have been entirely obliterated.

I struck out right, dropping initially down a grassy slope, and finding myself ploughing through the first of several sections of bog on this part of the trail to Drygarn Fawr. Over the next hour or so, under a blazing sun I began the ‘Cwmdauddwr Dance’; following the path, negotiating a bog, veering off, retracing the line of the path, pressing up and over peat hags, and repeating from scratch, all the while keeping a reasonable view of one of the cairns of Drygarn Fawr in my line of sight. Eventually, I intersected a path that led away by slow degrees down the opposite side of the Nant Paradwys towards the valley, which happened to lead up over the shoulder of Drygarn Fawr and then dropped me just shy of the summit. It was here that I started to understand the challenge of these mountains; it was not so much to do with their height, but more the energy-sapping back and forth over the undulating terrain, coupled to a vast sense of space which was at once both arrestingly beautiful and occasionally unnerving; the sense of isolation was pronounced.

I stormed over the final few metres of the ascent to Drygarn Fawr, its majestic cairns well worth the hike to get here, the view opening up over a huge landscape, with the distant Brecon Beacons on the hazy horizon. Registering a trace of thirst, I began to retrace my steps, at first along the clear path that I’d joined earlier, before striking out once again to rediscover the path down to the bwlch. I had to admit, as I neared the bwlch, that I was feeling a little more worn out than I’d expected, and the constant to-ing and fro-ing over the moorland had taken more time than I’d realised; it was not the first time that day that I’d become aware of what seemed like a strange time dilation effect in those hills, where perspective and distance were so radically altered from the norm by the sheer sense of wide-open space.

Slightly grudgingly, I pressed on up the sides of a grassy slope, the path becoming less and less distinct with every step. With clear visibility my destination was always in view, but the key for me at this point was to find the most efficient way to get there, one that, where possible, avoided the bogs and peat hags without meandering so far around them that it added needless kilometres to my hike. In this quest I was greatly aided by boundary markers laid across the land, which I would find led more or less to the summit of Gorllwyn and which were, by and large, sited on the more reliable, less marshy ground. I say ‘by and large’ because on more than one occasion there was one plonked in the middle of a swamp, but on the whole it wasn’t too bad, and it was only every now and again I had to start doing some bog hopping. Nevertheless, the route there did have a few false perspectives, and I’d occasionally find that I had to drop down into a peaty morass between two folds in the land and emerge on the other side to get back up to altitude, all of which was pretty tiring by this point in the day.

Eventually however, I prevailed, reached the summit, and bagged it. Looking back over to Drgarn Fawr I realised how far I’d travelled; the peak with its cairns now looked miniscule on the far horizon, which was something of a vindicating relief given how tired, and particularly thirsty, I felt. It was as I was leaving Gorllwyn that I finished the last of my water, but I knew that, by and large, I was now on my way ‘home’ on the final stretch, so rather than stop to replenish it I pressed on. The rest of the hike back was uneventful save for a sudden roar which shook me; I looked up and saw a mountain rescue helicopter making a beeline over towards Gorllwyn and away down the valley. It was so peaceful up there, so silent with only the wind and occasional bleat of a sheep to disturb my thoughts, that the sound of modern machinery genuinely startled me at first.

I dropped down to the bwlch and, with a sense of satisfaction tinged with relief that I had actually done both the peaks rather than just the one, I headed back down to the valley. I realised that for all their essential beauty, a charm that was of a different character entirely to that of any of the other peaks of Wales I’ve so far tackled, I was glad that I’d got these peaks off my list. For all that the Cwmdauddwr Hills have their charms, I think it’ll be quite some time before I venture to them again; after about 20k of hiking in the heat over some deceptively energy-sapping terrain, I was looking forward to some hikes without bog hopping to do.

These are, in their own way I suppose, good hills, and would certainly be a brilliant place to run a navigation workshop; but, I have to admit, they weren’t my favourites, and I was glad that I’d chosen to tackle them under the most ideal of weather conditions; I doubt I’d have wanted to tackle Gorllwyn ‘as well’ if it had been tipping it down in thick clag! With that said, I now have only a handful of peaks to do on the border before Mid Wales is complete!

Nordic dreaming

There are some places in the world that are synonymous with beautiful wilderness and adventure. The Canadian Rockies, the Appalachian Mountains, the high Andes and the vast boreal forests of Russia are all places that to my mind sum up what wilderness really means, though they each emphasise different aspects of its qualities.

To these lands can be added the wildernesses of Scandinavia, in many places thanks to cultural and governmental protection virtually pristine, and in all places breathtakingly beautiful. For many years I’ve harboured the desire to visit these lands, and finally this September, I’ll be going. One of my closest and best of friends has found himself a job working for the University of Oslo in Tromsø, and so the stage is set for some Nordic adventures.

One of the many reasons I’ve always wanted to visit Scandinavia is the great cultural difference in the way that wilderness and the outdoors in general is perceived by Scandinavian people. It’s quite telling that in many Scandinavian languages nature is referred to with the definite article, becoming ‘the Nature’; the implication and cultural and linguistic association here being that nature is not something other, something from which we separate ourselves in our quest for ‘civilization;’ in the Scandinavian mindset we exist within and as part of nature, and to separate society from nature as ideas seems an unnatural, even abhorrent, concept. As such in Scandinavia the overwhelming majority of people spend time in the wilderness on a regular basis; time spent camping, hiking, fishing and, (of course!) skiing is the norm, not the exception. Tell someone from Scandinavia that you’ve just spent a month backpacking and skiing in the mountains with only the clothes on your back and a steely glint in your eye and you’re unlikely to raise an eyebrow as you probably would in the UK; it’s the norm, not the exception.

Scandinavia, and Norway in particular of course has considerable cultural and historic connections with Britain; for a large part of the Dark Ages much of Britain was effectively ruled by monarchs of Scandinavian origin, and they have left behind them a profound social and cultural legacy within our society, including our place names, language, cultural practices and, of course, our DNA. After all, in 1066, just a few days before the Battle of Hastings, England’s last Anglo-Saxon ruler Harold Godwinson defeated the Norwegian king Harald Hardrada at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, an event after which large scale incursions of Britain on behalf of the Norwegian crown effectively ended.

The Anglo-Saxon royal house certainly had plenty of social and cultural connections to their Nordic counterparts (Harold Godwinson’s own brother Tostig had fled to Hardrada’s court upon his exile from England, and encouraged him to claim the throne) and it is arguable that had Godwinson’s flank held at Hastings days later and the Norman invasion been repelled, Britain might have evolved into a more Scandinavian-European than Franco-European polity.  In a sense, even the Norman invasion was a Scandinavian triumph of arms, since the Normans themselves were descendants of the same Viking raiders who had plagued the coasts of Britain for centuries beforehand.

With such a depth of historical and cultural association with my own homeland and such an enlightened outlook both on the environment and society in general, Scandinavia is a part of the world that is high on my hit list of places to explore and experience. Norway is a nation built for exploration and for wilderness adventures. In Britain we have our very own and greatly-cherished ‘Right to Roam’ legislation, finally won in 2005 after tireless campaigning from the late nineteenth century onwards, and countless social protests movements prior to this. The right to roam in Britain has a special place in my heart, as one of my own relatives, now sadly no longer with us, took part in the great mass trespass on Kinder Scout in 1932. In Norway, the right to roam, ‘allemannsretten’ (literally ‘every man’s right’) has existed since ancient times; it doesn’t seem as though the social upheaval caused in the UK by the hugely unpopular enclosure acts (whereby land once held in common was gradually enclosed for private use) has been part of the Norwegian historical experience.

Within reasonable limits, anyone, provided that they behave themselves while doing so (i.e. don’t litter or despoil the land) may roam anywhere that isn’t cultivated land, anywhere in Norway, whenever they like. Cultivated land can also be crossed outside of the period from April to October. Hiking, camping, fishing, skiing, exploring, are a way of life here, and for obvious reasons I can hardly wait to step foot off the plane and get on with the adventure. One absolute mission objective for the trip is to try my hand at skiing, something I’ve always wanted to do, though I’m absolutely certain that I’ll end up hooked and soon have to add it to my list of hobbies. But, after all, that’s what life’s about. As soon as I have more concrete plans, I will update the blog, but suffice it to say, adventure beckons once again!

All the secret places

_MG_8730_resultOne of the great joys for me of living in an area has always been the thrill of exploring all the hidden corners and less well-known places scattered around. It seems very often to be the case that people generate a certain set of ideas about an area and then act accordingly. So it is that Snowdonia has certain areas that are overwhelmed with tourists and visitors every year (Snowdon, the Ogwen Valley area, Cadair Idris) and others, sometimes mere miles away, that see virtually no footfall whatsoever, such as the Arans, Rhinogs and Berwyns.

As I make my hour long drive to work every morning I see roads leading off enticingly into high moorland, and narrow little one track lanes leading off the main trunk roads towards hillsides, forests and lakes, and I try to take note and promise myself I’ll get around to exploring them when I have the time.

Travelling south out of Aberystwyth on the main highway towards Llangurig and Rhyader, you sweep around the flanks of the Plylimon massif, a region of territory in which, as is the case with its larger neighbours to the north, finds itself beset by crowds tackling its namesake peak, but which features vast swathes of wilderness largely unkwon to the casual tourist. Long before you reach the convenient lay by near Eisteddfa Gurig from which the most direct ascent of Plynlimon can be made, you sweep through Ponterwyd, a hamlet a few miles from Devil’s Bridge (home of the famous waterfalls) and itself a place with secrets hidden away, like the mountain bothy tucked into the forests over the ridgeline.

Take the road north out of Aberystwyth towards Machynlleth and distant Snowdonia, and you pass through a chain of hamlets whose names have become etched in my memory as gatekeepers along the road back towards my university town and the many friends I made there down the years; Tre’er Ddol, Tre Taliesin, Glandyfi, Bow Street, Talybont.

Between Ponterwyd, to the south of Aberystwyth, in the heart of the Plynlimons, and Talybont to the north, stretches a fifteen mile long road which climbs steeply up from Talybont, hugging the side of Cwm Ceulan with precipitous drops into the valley below, before reaching a high mountain pass and turning in a series of sweeping corners towards mighty Nant y Moch reservoir. From here the road bowls along through the high, wild moorland plateau before eventually crossing the reservoir and dropping down towards sleepy Ponterwyd far below.

The terrain crossed by this gem of a road is every bit as ancient, windswept, wild and remote as the moorland that cloaks Plynlimon’s subsidiary peaks, where last year I wandered for hours without seeing a soul on my way to the source of the River Severn and the River Wye. It is a land of heather, boggy upland and forest where the wind rushes freely and where you can easily stop and listen to absolute silence.

 

Having recently discovered this wilderness playground, I drove out a few weeks ago and climbed up to the pass from the Ponterwyd side, making mental notes of likely good points for photography and stargazing as I went. Parking my car at the pass, I crossed the infant Afon Ceulan and hiked up to the summit of a small rocky prominence to take in the full sweep of the mountain road plunging into the valley below. From here, nestled among the crags, I could see for miles down into Ceredigion’s coastal plain, and far out to sea. I lingered, taking photographs and playing with perspectives, admiring the stunning view and savouring the solitude.

Turning back, I wandered back to the car and left it behind as I struck off ahead onto the minor track that led away from the mountain road, into the hills beyond. The trackway led to some long-abandoned mining works, traces of a long dead industry that now, as they crumbled slowly away year by year, were being reclaimed by nature, and rebeautified by her. Moving on in the bright sunlight of early afternoon with a sky of intensely deep blue throwing a lovely contrast with the gold of the moorland slopes and the deep greens of the evergreen forests, every view that caught my eye lifted my spirits, and the solitude of my sojourn was refreshing.

Distantly on the map was marked a point which intrigued me, a ‘Plas Y Mynach’ marked as an angler’s retreat by the side of a huge lake apparently generated through the construction of the reservoirs that throng the area. As readers will know I’m always ready to go on a mission to find a secluded cabin in the wilderness, and so I pressed on, wondering what I’d find, and whether it’d be open when I got there. The trudge there was warm in the clear heat of a mid spring day, the year reaching that lovely tipping point where you know that warm days have once again become the norm, and the promise of summer is just around the corner.

I made my way along side trails, crossing, and criss-crossing the main track just to see what lay around each corner, part of my process of exploration, of getting to know the land and of taking the time to uncover its secrets. Gradually, I reached a vantage point from where I could see the hut nestled below, and worked my way down to the trail which led over boggy ground towards its back gate.

Here, unfortunately, I found the gate padlocked, and the whole building sadly locked up, although the carefully mown lawn outside the front door by the path leading down to the small jetty and boathouse showed that someone clearly looked in on the place on a regular basis. It was definitely a secluded spot, and I knew just from a cursory view of the skyline that this would be an incredible place for astronomy on a clear night. I vowed to come back.

After a placid half hour just taking in the peace and tranquility, I made a gradual way back along the tracks and pathways towards the road over the pass. It had been an excellent afternoon of hiking and general exploration, and underpinning it all was the knowledge that this entire vast landscape was mine to explore freely, whenever I had the chance. I will never be a rich man in worldly goods, but I have the freedom of the hills, which give riches beyond measure, and fill my life with treasures of peace and fulfilment which money could never buy. Not for the first time, as I drove back down towards civilisation, I left the hills feeling incredibly lucky, already planning my return.

Wisdom from the saddle

Readers of this blog will be familiar with the fact that in an average year, I hike a hell of a lot in spring, summer and autumn and not so much, if at all in winter. This then leaves me spending spring trying to remember what hill fitness feels like as I slog up the side of a mountain somewhere, wondering vaguely at the back of my mind what on earth I’m doing.

But not this year. Because this year, I’ve bought a bike! Yes, that’s right, I’ve now joined the countless legions of speed demons on two wheels, and I have no idea how I’ve survived all these years without one! Besides being a self-evidently civilised mode of transport and a whole new way of getting out and about in the great outdoors, it has the added bonus that every time I head out on it I get a decent cardio and leg workout, and the benefits for my hillwalking are already paying dividends, as a recent hike into Bwlch Nant Yr Arian demonstrated.

As with hiking though, I find cycling allows my mind to wander and I inevitably end up pondering the meaning of life. What life is actually about has been a subject that’s occupied my mind more than usual of late (and I freely admit I’m someone that spends a lot of time pondering it anyway). But what spurred this recent soul searching was happening upon a fragment of poetry as I cycled along the Ystwyth Valley Trail earlier today:

Hold fast to dreams, for if they die,

Life is a broken-wingéd thing, that cannot fly.

Rather than dreams I think it’s probably better to re-phrase the above (though it would butcher the poetry!) as ‘things to work toward.’ Without things to work toward you do become a bit listless in life, and, after events in August last year I’ve realised that I need new challenges to press on towards achieving. These will probably present themselves in time, but what is key for me is not to go off the boil, but also not to get too hung up on the detail. Let me explain.

A Catholic saint (I don’t know which one, but I probably ought to) once explained the difficulty in finding ‘the meaning of life’ as he described corporeal existence as essentially looking at the back of a tapestry. What we see around us in the confusion of life, particularly when we endure difficult or painful experiences, are the knots and loose threads, and only a semblance of the true image. In experiencing the rougher parts of life, the bits that don’t go according to our plan or our perception of ‘how it ought to be’ we traverse the knots, bumps and rough cuttings of the tapestry, but we don’t really ever get a full appreciation of the overall picture, in this life at least.

In the end, to my mind trying to work out the meaning of life stuck at home is rather pointless, as is trying to measure my life against anyone else’s. Doing so causes you to get lost in the detail, and lose focus on reality. I’ve seen my fair share of disappointment and my fair share of joy. I’ve got my health, a fantastic group of friends and colleagues, a great family and a beautiful place in which to live. I’ve already achieved one of my things to work toward this year just in having finally bought a bike, and hence not being a lumbering, wheezy wreck on the hill at the close of winter this year. The nights are now firmly drawing out, spring is approaching and though I’ve hit my thirties very differently to how I was expecting to, I hope I’m now a little wiser than I was at twenty. Most importantly of all, wherever I’ve been in life and wherever I go, I have good people around me, really sound and inspiring people. In that sense and in so many other ways, as I belt along through the scenery, slog up the hills and hammer down the drops, I’m a rich man.

So as the year goes on I’ll update this blog with the things I’m working toward, because it’s important not to go off the boil. At the same time I’ll be out in the wild places again, hitting the trail on foot or two wheels (or four hooves if I can get round to booking some horseriding lessons again!) and continuing to count my blessings, because to be honest, I’m a pretty lucky bloke. If I manage to find any more wisdom from the saddle on my travels I’ll post it here.

Grief

This particular blog entry departs from the norm in not being particularly upbeat. I thought a lot about whether to write it at all, but in the end I decided to on the grounds that it first of all explains the drop off in my writing here, that second, I created this space in the first place in order to write, and third, there are many characteristics to what I am about to relate here that tie in with the theme of exploration and journeying that this blog was set up to engage with.

Recent events in my life have resulted in a total sea change in almost every aspect of it, in a very short space of time. These changes were not chosen by me and are to the negative. Those who know me well will be well aware of them and I needn’t go over them here, but suffice it to say that every major area of my life has been impacted by them.

I have always found a deep catharsis in writing and in the end I believe that every negative experience in life can be used in some way shape or form to help others, and it struck me that it might be worth writing about this experience in part for catharsis and in part for the benefit of anyone else enduring something similar who might stumble across this and find some solace in what I’ve written.

Being engulfed by grief is very akin in a sense, to a sudden and unexpected change for the worse in the weather when out on the trail. Suddenly and in its worst cases without warning, all of your familiar reference points are gone as a thick fog closes in. With grief, the landscape you’re traversing is an interior one, and unlike a hike you have no map or compass on which to rely once the gloom descends. The reference points you relied on are not just gone but shifted from their original positions and orientations altogether, and in order to work out where you now are, you first have to trudge through the murk and rediscover each one, and find out where they now lie, with all that that implies.

One of the peculiar qualities of grief is that it hits with a double blow in that on top of the loss itself, you are also immediately robbed of those qualities (confidence, self-assurance, self-belief, and trust in your own intuition) that you will most need in order to get to the point from which you can recover. Grief is an all consuming emotion in its initial stages and in truth there are some losses that you never really recover from, but merely learn to accommodate. The wound is still there, covered over by a thin scab, like the wafer-thin sheen of ice that forms as a mountain lake first freezes over at the end of autumn. There is a distinct surface in place, but not one that can yet bear any weight.

Over long time you come to an accommodation with (though perhaps never a true acceptance of) the loss, because just as out on the trail, you can no longer stay where you were when the fog first descended; to leave it and get back to some sense of the familiar, you have no choice but to push on. But still, for months afterwards, in the darkness of the long watches of the night it creeps back in unwanted, sullying sleep, and it is always there despite exterior appearances, walking with you as you go about your day.

It’s true of course that grief is a necessary part of life and of human experience. Without it, there could be no true appreciation of joy; it is a malignant counterpoint in life’s melody but also an inevitable one. Most of the old certainties of my former life are gone. What, if anything, will take shape to replace them is completely unknown. As you grow older you come to appreciate that your life has a landscape but that none of the features in it are ever truly permanent. They are all like wind-sculpted sand dunes, wandering on their own paths towards the horizon to be replaced in time by new, equally impermanent features. As you grieve and mourn the loss of those that leave, you hope also to welcome the new with joy.

I don’t have any answers to offer about all of this and I probably never will do. All I have is an experience to share and describe as best I can, and to attempt to learn from. In truth I have barely begun to process all that’s happened over the last few months and the enormous ramifications for my life that the consequences, rippling out one by one from the central shock wave, will have.

There are some moments in life that are so profound that you know that they will permanently affect your future course, whether you want them to or not. This event was one of them. I’m absolutely baffled about the course to take now, but I do know that I want to continue writing and retreating into the hills, and so hopefully, as the fog clears, I’ll be able to start writing here again more regularly.