5am, Sunday July 20th, 1986, was the absolute low point of my life. My first wife Gill died suddenly in her sleep. We knew she was ill, but the doctors suspected it was the onset of epilepsy, which is emmintently treatable. Sadly it turned out to be a weak blood vessel in her brain, which could have given out at any time in her life, and which would never have been spotted by any scans.
The next two weeks were, and still are, a total blur. But I remember finding out the real meaning of family, and true friends were everywhere when I needed them, and well out of the way when I wanted to be alone. I slowly managed to get back into the daily grind of work, and there is something to be said for boring routine when you are recovering from a huge trauma. But this sort of thing scars you for life, and even 21 years later there are things and places that are painful to re-visit.
Gill and I spent many happy days in the hills, were gradually increasing our skills, and gathering a shed full of gear. We had plans to spend our lives exploring big mountains around the world together. Sadly that wasn't to be, but her death gave me a very different view of the world, and mountains continue to exert their healing influence to this day. If I'd gone into the hills soon after Gill's death I may well not have come back, but by September I was feeling up to a long weekend away, just me, the tent and my dog Kelly.
To be honest, when I set off I didn't have any hard and fast plans as to where I was going. I'd decided that Scotland was too far to drive, and I still wasn't really sure how fit I was after weeks of minimal sleep. So The Lake District it was. A four hour drive, instead of at least eight to Scotland. During the drive it became obvious that the weather was going to be good, so I decided to try and camp wild and high. I couldn't face a campsite full of noisy kids. I knew that my temperament wasn't back to its old mellow self yet, and I didn't want to ruin the trip arguing with defensive parents.
The car almost seems to find its own way at times like these, and eventually it wound its way through Keswick and down Borrowdale. It was a glorious late afternoon by the time I parked the car at the road head, and the wettest place in England looked positively balmy. I left a note with the farmer, in case anyone worried about a car being left on its own for three days, and we set off up the trail to Sty Head.
It is always a bit surreal to be the only person walking against the tide on a footpath. It had been a beautiful day, and the hordes were now returning to their cars from a day on Scafell Pike, Great Gable and wherever else their feet had taken them. I felt sad as I realised that this was the first time I'd been alone on a hill in my life, but the scenery was outstanding so I had little chance to drift into a depression. And I had the dog, but that is a whole different story!
When we left the car I had thought we would camp at Sty Head Tarn, but there were several other tents there and I didn't really want company. So a quick change of plan and we headed onwards and upwards to the east and Sprinkling Tarn instead. This is now one of my favourite wild camp sites. The tarn nestles between grassy hummocks, and is encircled by the 2000' contour. The huge crag of Great End looms overhead to the south, Glaramara and Allen Crags to the east, with Great Gable away to the west. But the main attraction that evening was that Kelly and I were on our own. Although we were probably less than 3 miles from the road end, it felt isolated enough. The occasional bleating sheep, and birdsong overhead was the soundtrack as I erected the tent, idyllic.
I had barely got the tent up than Kelly had dived in the tarn for her usual swim. She was three quarters black labrador, and there are times when I'm convinced the other quarter was otter!
There was no way that Kelly was getting in the tent until she was dry, so I decided to scramble up Great End and see what sort of sunset was developing. At that time I'd never witnessed a sunset from high on a mountain, but that was about to change.
Mist and Light
The scramble up Great End is very straight forward, so long as you know where you're going. There are several relatively easy lines, a few testing winter routes, and lots of greasy vegetated areas of rock. Even if I hadn't already known the route I'm sure Kelly would have found it anyway, she had great mountain sense for a dog!
As we scrambled up onto the stony summit plateau my heart momentarily sank, as I noticed a bank of cloud already laying across Scafell Pike a mile to the south. But I quickly realised that it wasn't moving, and off to the west the colours were already starting to develop in the sky. A mackeral cloud pattern started to turn pink, while thin wisps of mist drifted up Wasdale below me. The valley bottom was soon several shades of aquamarine and purple, with trees looking like toys as they broke through the surface of the mist. The sun cast an orange beam of light into the Irish sea, which led straight to the nuclear power station at Sellafield. All sorts of bizarre imagery went through my mind at that point!
Steadily the mist washed around the base of the mountains at the head of Wasdale, until Great Gable was a large island, with an archipeligo consisting of Kirk Fell, Pillar, Yewbarrow and Seatallan stretching into the distance. I was so transfixed by the light show to the west that I almost missed the view behind me. I actually turned to see where Kelly had gone, and she was just a few yards away, staring into the distance. I followed her gaze, and saw that the pattern of mist and light was repeated all the way across Bow Fell, Crinkle Crags, the Langdales, Coniston peaks, right back to the Pennines on the distant horizon. I only just caught the view to the east before it disappeared, as the setting sun caused our shadows to cover it in darkness.
By now the mists in Wasdale were a churning mass, crashing against Gable like Atlantic breakers, but the summits remained clear. As the sun slipped between cloud layers the colours changed again. Gold, red, pink, purple, yellow, and every variation inbetween, changing rapidly like an aurora. I was aware at some point during this performance that a guy had appeared and muttered something to me about how beautiful it was. I remember not being quite with it, and stupidly muttered something back like "yes it is beautiful isn't it, I'm up here trying to get over the death of my wife"! He quickly shuffled off, saying that I "probably wanted to be alone then".
That remains one of the most deeply embarrassing moments of my life, and if that guy ever reads this I do apologise unreservedly to him, I probably ruined his evening!
But I remained in an almost transcendental state long after the last rays of sun had disappeared, and the colours had all but faded to black. I only have snatches of memory of what I did think during that hour or so on Great End. I remember great sadness that Gill couldn't be there with me. There was a huge warm feeling that Kelly was there with me, odd looking back but quite profound at the time. But I also remember a great feeling of spiritual warmth flowing through me as well, a happy feeling, the first for a long time, as things started to fall back into perspective inside my head. It wasn't a conscious thing, it just happened.
I know that as we returned to the tent, taking the path the long way this time, I was far happier and settled than I had been hours earlier. I hardly needed the headtorch as Kelly led the way straight to the tent door and her food dish!
Back to the World
The following morning we were up early. Why is it that I hate mornings in a house and struggle to wake up, but in a tent I'm up with the dawn? I then fulfilled a lifetimes ambition by having the summit of Scafell Pike to myself. A very rare occurance, but quite common at 8am I suspect! There wasn't a view, the cloud was right down now, but that didn't seem to matter. After spending a couple of hours exploring the hidden corners of this stoney plateau, I decided that human company might be a good thing after all, and we dropped down to Wasdale and the pub at Wasdale Head.
Only a day earlier I was shunning human contact, even on the mountain, but now something had changed. Lunch in the pub was really pleasant. I can't remember what I ate, but I chatted away to anyone within earshot, and not once mentioned death or anything depressing. The dog caused havoc by trying to steal crisps from behind the bar, but as usual got away with it.
Over lunch the cloud had lifted and the day was dry and bright. We explored Wasdale Head, including the outdoor shop and the tiny church. The inscription on the stained glass window is very famous, and I'd seen it before. But the words carried greater meaning for me now, and have stayed with me ever since. I do indeed get strength from the hills, in more ways than one.
Later that afternoon we returned to the tent, against the flow of walkers yet again, the scenic route up and over Great Gable. There was quite a nice sunset again, but it didn't compare to the one the night before so we didn't spend too long watching it. We just laid outside the tent on the grass until the cold drove us back inside.
I can't claim that one weekend in a tent, with the dog and a sunset, transformed my life completely, but it certainly did more to help me on the road to recovery than anything or anyone else. There is indeed a healing power in mountains, a power that too many people simply can't imagine. I suspect that on SP most of you will understand what I mean, which I guess is the main reason we keep going back to high places for as long as we possibly can.