A smiley face came towards me across the campsite. I had first met Zoë three years earlier, when UBES (the University of Bristol Expeditions Society) was running an introduction to climbing event in the Avon Gorge to attract members from those starting university. I was helping to run the event by showing people how to tie the rope onto their harness and then belaying them on top-rope up some easy climbs. Zoë was one of the excitable freshers that turned up. She apparently quickly liked the look of me, and when I asked the group if anyone would like me to belay them for a second go, her volunteering may not have been entirely due to the climbing.
A couple of weeks later, I had my accident and disappeared from Bristol. Despite being the worst thing that ever happened to me, this had an unanticipated positive effect, in that it made me into a sympathetic yet enigmatic character to the people joining the society. The committee didn’t make a big announcement about what happened so as not to scare people, but it came out in quiet words and overhearings, which presumably led on to questions of who I was. “You’ll really like him,” one of my friends apparently told Zoë, prophetically. To be clear, I am not suggesting anyone throws themself off a cliff in order to get a girlfriend, but in this case, it may have helped.
We got to know each other when I came back to Bristol, and we started going out when I was still on crutches. She became my biggest source of happiness through a time when, though I slowly got better, I was still frustrated and uncertain about how I would end up, about whether I would ever be free from the aches and the feeling of fragility.
We embraced when she reached me, and I went over and said hi to her dad and his friend. Zoë has a bit more outdoor pedigree than me as Steve has been climbing and mountaineering most of his life, and is even qualified to aid in mountain leader assessment. I think, on the basis of also liking climbing and mountains, I basically had his approval. He had brought along Murray, a mountaineering friend of his, to tick off a few Wainwrights with.
The five of us (Hugo being the fifth) made our way along the track up Great Langdale. I suddenly realised I hadn’t filled up my water bottle and nipped into the Dungeon Ghyll hotel to ask if they could fill it up. The man on reception not only did that, but also gave me a donation upon spotting my pot.
We came abruptly to the foot of Bowfell. Its east ridge, called the Band, rises suddenly and evenly from the valley floor. The first part of our ascent was a straightforward, old-fashioned slog upwards. I find this is usually the most unpleasant part of a walk – slow, sweaty, and heavy. We soon lumped our way into the low-slung cloud cover. I couldn’t say what we were talking about, but I do remember Steve mentioning something about “southern Jessies”. He wasn’t serious of course. I’m about as southern as they come, despite my dad’s dubious claims of being Scottish, but Zoë’s northern family had never made me feel like a Jessie (or maybe they had – I have no idea what it means).
After an indefinite period of trudging upwards, we ran out of ground and perched on the rocks at the top of Bowfell. There was no hope of seeing anything more than a few yards away, so we had a quick snack and pushed on. As we crossed the saddle towards Esk Pike, Hugo bumped into a fell-running friend. He was on a reconnaissance run for an upcoming race. I knew fell-running was intense, but now I learned that these runners are an even crazier bunch than I had thought. Apparently he was running back and forth, up and down the fells, just to try to find the most efficient route that would allow them to shave off time in a race. And doing this for fun. Hugo told him about my challenge and he was impressed and said he couldn’t do something like that. This was very nice of him to say, given that he could probably have run from there to Snowdon, turned around, and overtaken me on the way to Ben Nevis.
We briefly considered ticking off Great End, but the extra fifty metres of ascent that would have involved conflicted with my commitment to efficiency. We curved round the horseshoe, over Broad Crag and down to the final col. There were more people around us as we approached the summit. Although it was a gloomy day, the rain had held off and crowds were out on the fell, though nothing like what I had had on Snowdon. If you haven’t been, the top of Scafell Pike feels like one enormous, loose cairn. Despite being summitted by countless people every year, the final approach is surprisingly treacherous underfoot, with plenty of rocks that can shift and wobble, and dump your ankle into a sharp hole. We reached the summit cairn and waited for our turn to pose on top of it, with Steve and Hugo loudly saying things along the lines of “Walked all the way from Snowdon, eh? Nice going!” then looking round to see if anyone reacted. Steve produced some celebratory whiskey, which we all knocked back a sip of.
From there, Steve and Murray went back the way we had come, though I think they did summit Great End, and Hugo, Zoë, and I carried on down the northwest ridge towards Lingmell. A short way below the summit, we ran into another charity team, a group of nurses doing the five peaks – the British mainland ones plus the highest peaks in Northern Ireland and the Republic. They fussed warmly around me and all asked about my challenge at once so that I couldn’t keep up with who was saying what. They gave me a special donation of a piece of home-made fruitcake, wrapped up for me to eat later. I felt like a chick being tended to by a whole team of mother hens. We turned right along Corridor Route and passed the great scar of Piers Gill carving its way down the mountainside. Around there, we met and had a chat with the Southampton University Hillwalking Club, who later allowed me to come and give a lecture about the adventure.
Down we went, past Styhead Tarn, towards Borrowdale. Hugo was telling us about his work building paths. I felt like he was revealing hidden secrets that the public weren’t supposed to know. He pointed out rocks that had been laid not for people to tread on, but instead to subconsciously guide them back onto the path, to prevent erosion around it. I was also shocked to learn how recently some of the paths were laid – within the last ten or fifteen years. They feel ancient, probably because of their simplicity. They don’t rely on modern technology (apart from possibly moving the rocks there in the first place); it’s just Hugo and three other rangers working on the fellside, digging holes and hefting big rocks.
We reached the valley floor and the tiny hamlet of Seathwaite (Old Norse again, from “sef” – sedges, and “thveit” – clearing). Having for most of its history been hidden away at the utmost end of a remote valley under the shadow of the high fells, the hamlet now sees a huge amount of pedestrian traffic. “Great days on the fells begin and end here,” wrote Wainwright. We used the public loos, and carried on down the dale. Hugo was becoming more like a tour guide by the minute, and took us to see the Borrowdale Yews, a stand of three trees over 1,500 years old. Yews are one of only three conifer species native to the UK, the others being juniper and Scots pine. They are perfect folklore trees, old as the hills, deadly poisonous, growing twistedly into dark and haunting forms, full of crevices and mystery. To look upon an ancient yew is to learn the true meaning of “gnarled”.
We passed through Seatoller and reached Johnny’s Wood at dusk, where we searched around until we found a couple of flattish spots among the fallen branches and dead leaves in which to place our tents. We were only a few hundred metres from a youth hostel, where we could have gone for a drink and potentially extra company, but instead we stayed in the wood. We cooked our supper on our little camp stoves, and then sang into the night. We sat on the damp earth, with the hoods of our waterproof coats pulled up against the smattering of bright rain illuminated by our torches. Hugo and I showed off our covers of “The Grey Funnel Line” and “Santiana” that we had polished from our tipsy rendition the night before. Hugo taught us to sing “The Parting Glass” in a three-part harmony. Zoë and I taught him a short but beautiful round I don’t know the name of, which I learned from a friend while doing field research in the forests of Borneo, who had in turn learned it from American folk circles, where the story goes that it was originally written by a father for his comatose daughter. I find it amazing how that man’s beautiful, sad expression of love has gone around the world, voice to voice, heart to heart. It seems slightly wrong to write it down, but it goes:
I have been waiting all the day long to see the stars in your eyes.
My love, come dance with me now. See how the evening flies!
And as you sleep, my dear, know that I am near to hold you when you arise.
Those couple of hours together in our bright little circle were intensely happy, and stood out not just as the best evening of the journey, but as a perfect moment. A moment to crystallise and keep, and to look back on with a smile for years to come.