A walk in the mountains usually involves following some kind of path: more or less clearly defined, marked on a map, inscribed into the surface of the earth, trodden by countless thousands before us. In this most human of inventions, objectively connecting two points in space, the drive to overcome separation becomes a shaping of the world. Compacting movement into structure, like many products of our demiurgic impulse to structure our world it has the contradictory quality of simultaneously enabling and delimiting motion.
The utility of the path as an instrument of leisure comes in part from the fact that it provides a place of safe passage, allowing us to ‘tune out’; to let our surroundings wash over us: a moving vantage point from which to take in the landscape around us, as the body falls into a rhythm, compliant with the beat of pretrodden contours. When the contours cluster and the path dissolves, things become rather different.
I was taught the basics of rock-climbing in my early teens. For a few years I took to carting a pair of old rock shoes around the limestone escarpments of North Yorkshire on the off-chance of some ad hoc bouldering to enliven an evening wander, but an aversion to expensive hardware and the clannishness of the climbing world meant that, in the long term, any appetite I’d developed for hanging off the side of mountains was going to require an outlet less demanding on both scores.
When, one November afternoon in the late 90s, I found myself in the rooftops of the Cumbrian fells on a vertiginous ascent known as Jack’s Rake, clinging in a state of abject terror to the face of a spectacular precipice, two thousand feet above the valley floor, with the dark, wet mists of winter swirling around, I was sold.
Not quite rock-climbing, not quite fell-walking, scrambling inhabits a peculiar territory somewhere between the two, where the airy solitude of a mountain walk meets the adrenaline of free climbing. The discipline, if you can call it that, is broadly defined simply as anything that requires the use of the hands to traverse otherwise impassable rock terrain: three points of contact, mostly in wild, untamed landscapes, miles from civilisation. There is no ‘aim’, as such, other than to get from point A to point B, and it remains I think one of the few alpine pursuits that have managed to avoid being co-opted into a competitive sport.
Although of all mountain activities it’s the one that requires possibly the least technical expertise, it is, almost by definition, one of the most dangerous, undertaken without safety gear, open to anyone, regardless of experience, and often involving drops as high if not higher than many roped climbing ascents. Many of the UK’s ‘classic’ scrambles — Striding Edge and Swirral Edge on Helvellyn, Sharp Edge, the rocky blade slung from the roof of Blencathra in the north, the terrifying traverse of Crib Goch in Snowdonia — entail negotiation of razor-sharp arêtes with a lethal abyss of hundreds of feet either side, where an exhilarating clamber across precipitous terrain becomes a problem-solving activity conducted at altitude, in which mistakes can be costly and a wrong move can have life-changing consequences.
I doubt there is a climber alive who hasn’t at one time or another found themselves cragfast, hundreds of feet up, no way out of a seemingly hopeless predicament, with all apparent means of progress or escape exhausted. It’s a sickening sensation: to glance down and see the world dropping away beneath your feet; the horrifying clatter of loose scree tumbling into the void, the rush of panic welling inside – and with all this, paralysis, all the physical strength in the world as nothing against the psychological effects of exposure.
The salient issue in these circumstances is not the technical complexity of the situation, but rather how this sensory onslaught that arrives with the realisation that everything — literally, everything — pivots on a still point, is marshalled.
No matter how hopeless the situation, it may always be reasonably assumed that onward progress is possible. Calling to mind the millions who have tackled the same route and lived to climb another day, while batting off nagging thoughts of the few who didn’t, a curious mixture of analytical and intuitive skills comes into play.
The situation must be broken down into its component parts — physical and psychological — various ways of approaching and resolving them considered, and the most appropriate course of action decided on from the information available. It’s a matter of precision, strategy even, back-of-the-envelope risk assessment and projection of where the physics of a risky move might lead; carefully studying the environs for signs of polished stone that signify the success of others, testing for loose rock and dodgy holds, face pressed up close, searching for the hollow sound that belies the faux ami that could bring everything to a horrible conclusion.
Analytical aptitude, creative thinking, perseverance and the ability to keep a level head all play their part. But the machinations of the internal gyroscopy that kicks in when inner forces take control pay no regard to reason. Moving upwards, against every inbuilt survival instinct — rock to rock, hold to hold, with racing heartbeat thumping through the silence — is more, and in every sense, a question of reliance. Trusting — oneself; one’s surroundings — but also connection, or rather, re-connection: re + liance.
With the feeling of cold stone on the palms, and the rush of panic, the drama of the mountain landscape ceases to be a (mere) backdrop. We enter back ‘into’ it, re-establishing a natural, primal, long-forgotten assemblage. Trust, then, and a kind of ‘reconstitution’ — a reliance on and with forces buried deep or banished altogether in our day-to-day lives.
There is no tangible product to all this; nothing physical, at the end, to call a ‘result’ — just the memory of the experience, and of the achievement. It’s for this reason that Wordsworth and his associates believed it regressive to live out our lives in the sanctuary of what we nowadays call our ‘comfort zone’. Only by venturing outside, to experience the ‘beauty and fear’ of the natural landscape, can we be jolted out of our normal rhythms and feel things denied to us in the banality of our daily routines: these ‘spots of time’, where moments of intimacy are experienced, internalised, and worked into our sense of being.
Trust in oneself is not, after all, something that just happens. It’s something that requires a continuous therapeutic process. An inner restorative is needed, a place where memory connects us to those ‘existential peaks’, where we felt the narrative of our ‘self’ fall into place. Such peaks are almost always, in some way or another, experiences of reliance. Joyce’s ‘epiphanies’; Emerson’s ‘moments’; Maffesoli’s ‘eternal instant’; Buber’s ‘real, filled present’ — those moments lived, as T.S. Eliot put it, at “the still point of the turning world”.