The Girl Who Climbs Mountains

I wouldn’t say that I’m particularly stubborn. My sister got that gene off my dad. I was given the more passive, verging on pushover trait from my mum. But that does not mean to say that we are weak. My mother taught me that too. You can be passive and permissive but also strong. You can be kind and giving but also powerful – mentally and physically. You can be a woman who buys flowers and bakes cakes and wants a family some day, but one who also wants to climb mountains and camp in the snow. And one who will do it alone if need be. I am not particularly stubborn, but I am determined.

“Where exactly are you going?” he said to me.

“Well…” I stuttered a little, I knew he was judging me and I didn’t like it. “Up the Old Man”, I said, “but the snow is quite bad, I’m not that prepared”.

I immediately regretted sounding so weak and pathetic.

“Do you hike much”, he continued, slanting his eyes and judging some more.

“Oh yes”, I said, “I hike all the time, and alone, but never in the snow”.

Again, why did I have to sound so unsure, I scolded myself.

“You don’t have crampons, do you? You should at least have poles, the snow will be deep up there, and it will be misty, do you have a compass?”

“I have a map… I’ll start descending if the visibility gets too bad or the snow too deep.”

He pursed his lips as if to stop himself from saying anything else. I was glad of it. By that point I just wanted him to leave me alone, and I would do anything so he would.

He looked me up and down once more before continuing his ascent. He was a 60-year-old male in a green raincoat prepared with gaters, crampons, poles and a back-pack which I can only assume was loaded with a first-aid kit, three days worth of food, survival bag, extra down jacket and spare socks, of course. I had my camera and a couple of spare films, an extra thermal and a food-flask filled with beans which I planned to eat at the summit.

It was my first mountain ascent, though that doesn’t really matter because I didn’t even know the Old Man was classified as a mountain until later that day… Admittedly, I wasn’t exactly prepared and I hadn’t expected so much snow, but it was that man who planted a seed of doubt in my mind making me believe me that I shouldn’t or couldn’t continue.

I waited a while until his green coat disappeared into the distance, took a few photos and admired the view. Then I looked ahead at the snowy track ascending into the clouds. The mountain felt like a giant towering over me, its peaks obscured by the dense mist bearing down on the path I would be taking, creeping closer and closer to my being until it washed over my body in a wave of fear and uncertainty.

And so I admitted defeat and began my descent.

The view before me as I made my way down the mountain was one of the most breathtaking and peaceful I had ever seen. White, jagged peaks framing a still tarn nestled in the hills, mountains shadowed by a densely clouded sky. And then the sun shone through and the highest summits came alive with light. I wonder what is up there, I thought, as I turned on my heels again to face the Old Man. We gazed at each other a while through the clearing mist and the silent snow. But he wasn’t challenging me, I realised, he was inviting me.

And so I accepted his invitation and continued my ascent.

I stumbled and tripped, gripping to rocks with my freezing hands and falling through snow in my sodden leggings. I had to use both hands to steady my balance, and when the snow got deeper and the edge got steeper, I dug my boots hard into the snow to ensure I got a solid grip. I almost turned around a couple more times but the summit felt so near, it had to be near. In truth, it wasn’t and it took me another half an hour until I caught sight of the cairn stones in the distance. At the same time I noticed something green on the horizon. It was that man – the other old man, with his judging tone – taunting me upwards.

In honesty, though, I didn’t reach the summit to prove to that man that I could — well, maybe I did in a way. But it was mostly to prove it to myself, because there are moments in life when it is easy to be weak, to take the easy option – to go home or to stay at home, to make excuses for yourself. Then there are moments when it’s not a question of being weak, but of being sensible. If the snow had been any worse or if the clouds had kept rolling in then it wouldn’t have been safe to have climbed the Old Man alone, and in that case it takes a greater strength to admit defeat than to put yourself at risk.

But I made a decision and I reached the summit that day. I smiled at the Old Man, took a few photos and then headed back through the clouds, back to reality.

I wouldn’t say that I am particularly stubborn, but I am determined.