Mountains to climb and miles to go before I sleep: life, metaphors and facing death
It was tempting to entitle this "what I did in my holidays" but that's already been taken as a title by Ramsay; see elsewhere on the occult e-books site. I'd like to tell you the story of some mountain climbs in Wales, made in 1999, which have a great personal meaning for me, given a background of imminent death that waited at ground level. I've climbed a lot in North Wales, as I lived near Bangor for three years while a mature student (in my late thirties) at the University there. At the start of my final, and busiest year I was looking forward to finishing the degree project I'd been working towards for months, and finding some time to climb and walk a lot, and prepare for the life-changing event that being a graduate should be. Crowley climbed to world class standard, and while not being anywhere near that good, I can fully see why he did it. "Mystical Peak experiences", indeed. However my expectations for the year were misleading.
In the autumn of '98 I found some suspicious lumps. In a previous career I was a pathology technician, and what I found rang major alarm bells in my head. No, no, no, not now. As if there is ever a 'right time' for such things…. My doctor agreed and referred me to the local hospital. No-one was saying the 'cancer' word to my face yet, but I was screaming it silently to myself. The referral came through in November.... my appointment was for early March of the next year (1999). Christ, how long?
The lumps grew and multiplied, with corresponding increase in pain and accompanying profound reminders of my own mortality; all those thoughts of 'what if' and 'I wish I'd done this....and NOT done that'. Trips out into the mountains were filled with thoughts of "maybe this is the last time I'll ever see this view, or that peak". My beloved Glyders, the best mountain range on earth, were a source of great comfort and inspiration, so many routes to go on, so many surprises on the lesser-walked lower flanks, but still that dark and insistent presence lurking behind it all...
"you're going to die, you're going to die, you're going to die".
There have been times in my life when I would have welcomed death, and have even sought it; but not now. Life was precious. The Welsh spring reluctantly arrived, the University dissertation, which had been in some ways relegated to being 'merely' a useful distraction from the bloke with the cloak and sickle, was finished, and handed in. I had some other work to do, but in the health circumstances there was a waiver for some of the less important stuff; leaving me a lot of time to brood. Spring also bought with it increasing fear as the consultant's appointment drew closer. I found a ring with a profoundly dark black stone on a hippy market stall, but from certain angles the light just poured out of it. Omen?
I'd already drawn up a list of things I'd never done, so I did some of them. Not a great comfort... the day arrived to see the expert.
I told the consultant what I used to do as a job and, as in the movie cliché, then asked him to 'give it to me straight, Doc' (well, words to that effect, anyway). He did, was very matter-of-fact and agreed with my assessment of the two things it could be. One, something that would probably sweep me off the planet really quite fast... cancers are 'scored' for seriousness on their five-year survival rates- that is, how many people with each sort of the disease are still walking around five years after diagnosis. Option One had a rate of about 35%. Not good, and the statistics don't mean that two-thirds die at the five year point, it's deaths within five... like, from tomorrow, the next day or any time afterwards... Option Two was a little better that it could be something weird but not necessarily malignant, but was doing a good job of mimicry of the real killer. But a mimic shouldn't hurt this much... or be more than one lump, or be growing this fast.
Papers were shuffled, other doctors were called in to look, prod, ask questions and confer. All opinions agreed with the stony faces looking at me. I was to be put on the urgent priority surgery list- whatever the lumps were, they needed to come out, and fast. Sounds dramatic, but it actually meant they would call me in as soon as they had a timetable space for the operation; and in any case it should be 'within a few weeks, a month at most'. Such is the state of the health service in this country...
Living on a knife-edge like that is ultimately very unhealthy, and as the bad days stretched into bad no-news weeks it became obvious that they weren't going to be able to operate within their own timescale. More weeks passed; my Uni work was all done and my days were filled with a mix of long tearful walks in the hills, waiting for the postman to bring the crucial letter or the phone to ring, copious amounts of painkillers, intensely dark moods, trying to write some kind of sensible last will and testament and always with that foreboding of "you'll never see the mountains again after this". I tried to engage with the 'spirit' of whatever was growing inside of me; tried to talk to it, communicate, heck: negotiate even- and all I got back was guttural grunting and visions of black and twisted shapes. No, no, no, no. Ironically, my degree project had involved meetings with spiritual healers, but due to various circumstances I didn't let any of them loose on me. They were all too fluffy and new age to deal with this black fucking monster; it'd eat them alive and gain strength; strength to use on me.
Finally an operation date was set. And then cancelled. And then re-set for a week's time after that. It was now early June and Snowdonia was blooming and even more heartbreakingly beautiful than ever; the biggest rock garden in the world, filled with burgeoning new life and joyous birdsong. How ironic. Crunch time- so just how much do you want to live, Dave? Not nearly the first time such a question had been asked, and the last time the answer was nearly not enough. Hey, Mr Death and me, we go way back...
One of my 'things I'd never done' was that I'd skirted all around a mountain called Crib Goch several times, but never had the guts to take on the horrifying knife-edge ridge itself. A little afraid of 'up there', I suppose; I had heard a lot of grisly stories, and a lot of people have accidents up there, and some die……. So what exactly was I risking by trying it?. And ..... it's now or maybe never, I thought; this seemed to be the time to generally confront fears head-on: self-initiation and all that jazz. If I was going to croak it might as well be by accidentally taking a screamer off the edge of something wild, beautiful and high, rather than in as some wizened husk, filled with drugs and plugged into fuck knows how many machines in a hospital. By now the levels of pain from the lumps were variable, but basically increasing day by day and it was impossible to plan for a good day, both pain-wise and weather-wise; so I just went up there.
I had accidentally happened to pick a day when there was a major mountain endurance race going on; which I both cursed for the intrusion into my thoughts; 'goddammit this was supposed to be MY day!' but also welcomed, because if the climb did get too much for the level of pain I knew there would be plenty of people ready and willing to walk me down. I'd done it for various distressed others in the past, and patched up plenty of injured strangers in my time. A very steep climb up the face to Crib itself, but nowhere near as bad as I'd heard. Then onto the ridge proper, in quite a stiff breeze, which was exhilarating and giddying all at once, and it lived up to all the potential dangers… There are sections only 8 inches wide with 400ft drops on either side- shit, as for taking a screamer - there wouldn't even be TIME to scream… I wondered what it would be like on the way down- probably ok as long as you didn't hit any projecting rocks in the first few seconds, then the acceleration would take you out further from the rocks and down, down, down; what's the physics; accelerating at 32 feet per second, per second... faster than would be needed, as it's a lot of feet to the bottom. Staring over the edge is good for perspective. One jump is easy, braver still is not jumping and facing the darkness that awaits. And I made it over the ridge to more secure footing. An amazing feeling, satisfying, moving, exhausting and despite the possibility of never doing it again I had at least done it once.
Something to tell the grandchildren... 'if you ever get any', said the little voices.
The climb leads logically on to Mt Snowdon, and as often happens, nearer to the top of Snowdon the weather closed in suddenly ... on a clear day you can see to Ireland, but on days like these you can't see five feet. Hopefully also not an omen for the future. The hideous tourist café at the top was a welcome respite, a seat out of the rain for ten minutes, coffee, something stodgy and full of sugar and then back out into an increasingly wild and blowy rainstorm... 'hmm, the cue to take an easier way back', I thought- but not the train- in my arrogance I couldn't cope with a carriage full of tourists who'd come up the easy way. So, down the top end of the Pyg track, and into the welcoming lee of the mountain, out of the direct gusts of the rain. Then a short scramble down the scree which swiftly became more like a road around the lakes, and a straightforward, but long 'yomp' back to the car.
Returning to the Mountain Rescue Station in the valley there was a decent-sized crowd cheering and applauding in all the endurance racers. And me too; which was both embarrassing for the mis-identification and a huge lift... if only they knew what a test I had yet to come.
Two days later I was in the operating theatre at Llandudno Hospital. I struggled awake through the rancid, choking fuzz of the anaesthetic to see a cautiously smiling surgeon. It wasn't certain, but the lumps were out and appeared to be abnormal, but not definitely malignant. A final verdict would be in a few weeks, after lab tests. I was taken home and spent two days in bed. Then I walked downstairs to get the mail. Coming back upstairs was as hard a climb as I could remember. The operation sites included three very big and deep holes on my chest wall and one arm, and to remove the lumps they'd had to go in really aggressively, hacking through a lot of important muscle, and then stitched it all back together afterwards. Great! I could hardly walk and going up a few stairs might as well have been Mount Kilimanjaro- what price a walk in the mountains now?
Everything was very hazy for a week or so, courtesy of some sensational little white pills from the Doc. Some incredible pain, but not really so worrying at the time, it was a healing pain; rather than from something black and growing- and I was so off my head it all seemed funny. The stairs became easier each day. Then I entered "expedition mode": a trek to the local newsagents! All of 200 yards each way, on the level, and managed with only two rest stops. After the second week I was so blasé about the stairs and shopping for a paper that I went for short stroll along the bottom of a gorgeous and green little valley near Betws-y-Coed… and it may have been the painkillers but the spirit of Herne the Hunter lives here, I am convinced, what I saw was not just a Stag. So; on the (relatively) flat was OK... gradually over the next week I took it further, but still in just the two dimensions- Aber falls, Portmeirion, where the Prisoner TV series was filmed in the 1960s, and the beaches of Anglesey saw me slowly (very slowly) pottering my way back to some kind of mobility. Later I went into Bangor to see my University people for various things, and in the course of going around the city I had to walk up two hills. The third dimension, UP, wasn't that bad, so mental cogs started to turn... how soon could I be back in the hills "properly"? Only one way to find out...
Anything like the Glyders were simply out of the question... with the muscles still just stitched together I still couldn't lift anything, or reach out, or hold on tight- all vital important for the kind of ascent that the Glyders demanded, and being killed in a climbing accident now would have been some stupid dumbass irony after all of the surgery stuff. Even the contortions to put on a light backpack were a nightmare, so it would have to be something really quite easy by my previous standards; 'just a walk' then. I unfolded the local maps that had been such good friends for so long. After a lot of poring over them I was up at 6am and drove around 'the other side' of Snowdon. Armed with a borrowed set of walking poles for support, loads of water and my recent medical data written on a big sheet of bright orange hi-visibility paper in the event of anything going seriously wrong, I took the Ranger path. It looked to be long and steep in places, but nothing needing a scramble or any free-climbing, neither of which I'd be in any state to do.
Hard going from the start, the simmering early morning was promising a very hot day and after weeks of enforced inactivity so far as up-down was concerned I was soon struggling as the path gently zigzagged up the first rise. "This really is a mistake you stupid fuck!!!!!" my body was screaming, over and over again. But slowly and steadily I made progress, took lots of drink stops and gradually the bulk of Snowdon came closer. The day was stunning, visibility for miles, hot but with a cooling breeze and bright sunlight as I edged towards the top. The last 300 yards towards the summit was just about as moving a time as I've ever had, anywhere. Indescribable feelings, and tears-a-plenty behind the sunglasses, I'd seen the place again, I had climbed it within three weeks of some pretty hefty surgery and I was probably going to live to see other places like it. How much better does it get? A cup of foul tea from the café that really tasted so bloody good, some food, some photos and then a slow, careful, tired, but delighted amble back down. No speed records, it took something like 12 hours for the round trip that would, on any day previous to surgery, have taken 5; but that was not important.
There's recently been some (very justified) criticism of that environmental and aesthetic affront which is the Snowdon Café and it's trappings; and on a larger scale the way we are screwing up the environment just by our wanting to go out into the wild and explore at all, while making it less wild with visitor centres, camping lodges and the like. Somewhere is amazing, people go there to see how amazing, and in the act of large numbers going, the wonder is eroded and destroyed. See the film The Beach for an example. But, in the case of Snowdon, for those of a certain age, or people not in full health or fitness the train means they can still share in the delights of being at the top of a mountain with confidence and safety.
It's great to be fit enough to climb Snowdon (or anything else like that), but those who can don't always appreciate how it may be for those who can't. I've been in both states now, and I would deny no-one the chance to stand on the top.... it may be that in an individual's state of health or old age their struggle just to get from a car onto the little train to ride to the summit is a greater feat of courage, endurance and strength than a 20-something athlete who's just climbed one of the really hard routes, one-handed, in a record time wearing a 30 kilo backpack. There is a danger in environmentally aware wishes that these trains and cafés go away that we all lose something considerably more worthwhile than we might gain; sure, everyone wants pristine mountains to climb, but if that means only the young, fit and healthy are ever allowed up there, then what? "Countryside access fascism" of some kind?
Some readers may look on my climb as reckless, so soon after surgery. Yes, of course it was a risk (but then, so are all the walks that anyone goes on, even in towns- as the saying goes "you could get hit by a bus tomorrow". ironically I WAS hit by a bus a year later, and was equally lucky then), but this was a considered risk. I have done some objectively crazy things in the past, but never without thinking it all through first. I'd not have gone up any other mountain in that condition, as part of my thought process was planning for the worst case scenario; had things gone awry I would always choose the place with a train, a telephone and a Ranger Station on the top, as well as help at the bottom.
After that most special of days I gradually went from strength to strength, eventually taking in the Glyders (scenery straight out of Lord of the Rings) and another beautiful mountain called Y Garn again (complete with a long scramble and 150ft of freeclimbing), also Moel Siabod and as many others as I could fit in before I had to leave Wales when I officially finished Uni. There was one loose end, and a nagging voice in my head. No news from the lab yet. In my last week in Wales I got the final test results from the hospital.
A lot of medicalese that basically meant 'abnormal tissue, but not malignant'. I was going to live.
In tears of relief rather than despair for a change, I went up the Cnicht mountain at speed to celebrate, and mark my last day's climbing in Wales.
Before all of this I supported the Mountain Rescue (who are volunteers in the UK) with the same outlook that I supported Cancer Research (and a few other charities like lifeboats) in the hope I never needed to use any of them. Now I've benefited from the one I support them all even more.
A condensed message from this long and indulgent story? Two really- First: you've heard it before, but it bears repeating- if you think something's wrong health-wise, go see your doctor sooner, not later. Second: make the most of the countryside; while it's still there, and while you are still able. It can be taken away so quickly. I'm so lucky; I got it back, but I know others who have died in similar circumstances to mine, and I think of them a lot when I'm out in the wilds now. Facing death in whatever way, and dealing with it, is an initiation, and it never ends.
After all of that I had some time in Scotland, and followed in Crowley's steps, climbing some of the mountains he had done. I saw a millennium and a new century that I once thought I'd only be dust for. Today I'm down in Devon, learning new, different walking skills on the moors and coastal paths in my spare time, but my heart is still hovering somewhere in the Glyders, and it's where I want my ashes scattered when the bloke with the scythe finally does catch up with me. Despite what all the voices said, I did see those places again, and I will again in the future. And that is beyond price.
Special thanks to Llandudno and Bangor hospitals, and Bangor University for making this time easier. Oh yeah, and I got the degree.