Tuesday 22 July 2014

Mountain goat, mountain sheep

A weekend in intimate contact with a competent guide took me back 25 years. Towards the end of our stint in Newcastle, The Beloved and I crossed the Pennines for a weekend in the English Lake District. We stayed in a farmhouse B&B, which had been in the same family for several  generations. Then, as even more now, it's impossible to make a living from traditional farming and the B&B was part of the economic diversification that enabled that family to continue to live and work where their people were buried. The man of the house also acted as a guide on the fells and on the Sunday he offered to take us to the top of Scafell Pike, the highest point in England (not the same as the top of Scotland or Wales both of which are higher).  At the end of the day, we were a little taken aback to be asked to stump up £60 (or some such king’s ransom) for the pleasure of our host’s company for a day.  But that was his business and we sh/could have seen it coming.  ANNyway, I learned a lot that day about local history, geology, geography from the sweeping view from the top but I can’t remember a thing about that.  Two things have, however, stuck with me: the first is sticks.  This professional hill-walker in his late 50s used two ski-poles to spread the load as his limbs propelled his frame uphill.  When he was younger, he said, he’d yomped across the hills like a mountain goat but now he felt that his knees could use a little support.  He was an early adopter of these props.  Now, in the Blackstairs ‘mountains’ , the modest rise of which surrounds our home, every third person uses them.  But most of these same pole-carriers are kitted out for months in the Yukon: gaiters, gortex and a compass, maybe a survival bag, water, food for two days. When she was seven, Dau.I, admittedly on a sunny day, walked barefoot to the top of Mt Leinster 620m vertical / 5km horizontal above us.  Which kind of begs the question: How difficult can you make it?  How much clobber do you wish to encumber your day?  Not to mention the fact that, with all this back-up and a mobile phone with GPS, hill-ignorant folk are tempted to take risks that put them beyond their competence and in danger.

The other thing I learned that day is that you don’t need to be a sheep. The Lake District is within 90 minute’s drive of maybe 5 million people which makes for a lot of foot-traffic.  As we approached the top of Scafell, the grass got more worn, and the path more obvious.  We came across a cairn of stones beside the path and in the clear summer air noticed a line of these mini-mountains pointing towards the summit.  We both paused a dutifully paused and added a stone to the cairn.  Our guide stepped forward, picked up another stone and cast it away.  He explained that, while we could do as we pleased, he was against making man’s impact on the lonely hills so obvious and also implying that there was only one way to the top.  His vocation, in this small matter, was to act contrariwise.  It showed me that you can critically evaluate anything that everybody knows and sometimes come down agreeing with Mark Twain: “It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.

Twenty years later, walking the Camino Frances to Santiago, I had many occasions to remember this revelation.  On that pilgrim highway, the flechas amarelas get so intrusive and so managing that people come to a bemused halt at any fork in the road, unable to proceed unless the route was confirmed, eventually a critical mass of pilgrims would agree that left (or indeed right) is the correct way to the City of God.  What you come to realise after 500km is that the correct way to the City of God is The Way itself.

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