Approximately fifteen years ago I spent a few days in the Lake District. I was staying in a farm house bedroom and ate at the Glenridding Youth Hostel. “It’s like a big white golf ball” a chap said, referring to Swirral Edge. There was a sense of us and them camaraderie against the winter. We sat on the lounge seats while another chap browsed the books and magazines. We all waited for dinner.
I’d had a relatively easy day and was considering Helvellyn. I had no crampons, no axe, and little experience. I was still learning. I was worried but felt I must see it for myself because I didn’t know what he meant. I climbed Birkhouse Moor, crossed beside Red Tarn, feeling nervous but intent on getting up high. I could easily have died.
The initial climb to Swirral Edge was hazardous but not particularly difficult. Winter walking is inherently technical. You must pay attention to snow and ice but you feel that with your body. One slip and you will tumble a few feet. Your feet know that and what your eyes tell you is secondary. You must go slowly but this is no different to an icy city pavement.
I reached the beginning of the Swirral Edge ridge and the situation changed. If I slipped here I’d plummet seriously but not fatally. Snow was everywhere and sharp rocks underneath. It’s very unattractive thinking about cutting, bruising trauma in cold conditions. Better to stay in the warm indoors and read a book. The reality is partly about extreme discomfort and pain but also emotional shock. Adrenalin will cushion you. Not pleasantly so, but you won’t experience the pain with as much normal feeling. We know this when we walk, stumble and cut ourselves badly and don’t realise this until we get home. I’m not saying this is good. I’m saying we can analyse and think about it.
The path was narrow. Two or three feet for much of the time, which meant one way direction only. There were passing places where you had to wait, or pass others waiting. It was worse going back. I considered doing that but it meant descending not climbing very slippery areas. The next day at a Glenridding pub I heard a woman had got stuck, frozen in fear, and had to be helicopered to safety. I heard other tales too about the dangers of Helvellyn, Striding Edge, and Swirral Edge.
I kept going, reaching the point where the white golf ball appeared. This is what he meant. Thirty feet of curving snow and ice, it was mountaineering not walking. I looked back again. I didn’t think I could do it. The narrow track dropped back down to Red Tarn, much more dangerous in descent. The day had progressed and more people were snaking upwards. There was a queue with people waiting at the bottom, more coming across to begin the climb.
My safety – and I reflected on this later – depended on the traction of a few square inches of icy contact. There were kicked out footholes and nothing more. If your foot slipped out the slip would continue. I’d been surveying the drop on both sides. To the right, it was impossibly precipitous. The rocks there were black, brutal, ugly. My body weight inclined toward the left with every step on the approach: this was inevitable but not a good idea. You want your feet as flat and perpendicular as possible without leaning. The drop on the left was snowy and icy ending at black Red Tarn. You would look – you must do as of human necessity – and think if you fall you won’t stop. But I had no choice. People were coming up behind me. I reasoned the golf ball was a desperate but shorter option of thirty feet. I kicked every step into the holes but it made no difference. They were impacted as much as possible and I wondered who had started them. I twisted my boot a little, testing, and the problem was partly the size of the holes. Your foot must fit there and nowhere else. There was no room for manoeuvre; the margin of error was tiny and unreliable.
I resolved I must get to the top – it was how I would survive – but I knew it was very dangerous. I lost concentration because I was hyperventilating and frightened. Before I began the final climb I gazed across to the Helvellyn summit and Striding Edge opposite. I thought of the cold stillness of the hills and their oblivious lack of care. I thought, later, of Breughel’s painting The Fall Of Icarus. He falls to his death unseen and unnoticed by workers in the fields below. They cut and dig and retrieve vegetables from the earth.
I read later another chap’s rumination on the possibility of death in the hills. It’s no place to die, he said, not Romantic but full of dread and devastating alone. That’s true but it’s also true everyone dies alone. There’s no possible comfort. You leave the sentiment of others as you leave the world. German philosopher Martin Heidegger spoke about this. He said anxiety about death is not about death. It’s about the unknown. Where you have no control and no knowledge. He differentiates between idea, language, and reality; which you also see in Chinese philosophy. The other emotion Heidegger discusses is wonder. Wonder too relates to the unknown and the hills. We feel awe, sublimity, expansion.
Dylan Thomas tried to summon a rage against the light for his dying father. He wrote about the green force in the fuse, the life and growth of nature. PJ Harvey sings about “cruel nature” which in the final analysis refers to impermanence and death. No one gets out alive. The next day, in a local shop, a man told me how he’d found a body at Red Tarn and had to drag it across the ice.
One year later I climbed Striding Edge in winter with an axe. I looked back every few metres, frightened of making a similar mistake. I’d not read it and no one had told me this advice. I worked it out instinctively and repeat it now: if you’re concerned for your safety, always make sure you can turn back. You don’t know what lies ahead and if you think it’s dangerous, you’re safe. Be aware of what’s behind you. I was frightened but determined too: I would surmount the Swirral Edge trauma.
It’s for these kind of reasons I think of the hills as an existential playground. “To venture causes anxiety” said Soren Kierkegaard “but not to venture is to lose oneself.”
The gallery you see above is of Helvellyn and nearby.