I am mid-training to be a Mountain Leader (I have to say “I’m almost a qualified guide” doesn’t really roll off the tongue…), and if there’s one way to accelerate your rate of learning it is to go out on the mountain by yourself. With no-one to correct your mistakes as you go along, you tend to find out the hard way… “In at the deep end” I believe would be the accurate turn of phrase here.
On my first two-day exploration out of training, I headed up to Wasdale to take on some English mountains, and full of post-Plas-y-Brenin enthusiasm and with a typical ‘go hard or go home’ mentality I managed to learn some good life (and life mountain) lessons in a very short amount of time.
1. Read the map properly, regardless of your levels of joy.
This goes without saying (and I am the first to admit that I can be blindsided by my own excitement), but due to the aforementioned haste and eagerness to start to accumulate some Quality Mountain Days (including criteria such as being 5+ hours on the mountain, ‘off path’, having to reach a peak each time etc.) I overlooked some key elements of my planned route, namely the close spacing of the contours and presence of rock – lots of it. All was well as I ascended Yewbarrow, a bit of scrambling here and there, it was a lovely sunny morning, I’d had a great nights sleeping in my little tent: brilliant, great, fantastic, let’s go. Even the heavy cloud that descended behind me and followed me across the top posed no problem, because it wasn’t far until I descended below 600m and back into blesséd visibility! Now I don’t mind a scramble, up or down, but when the rock is slippy and the drop is far, and it’s not entirely what you expected in the first place, it comes as a bit of a surprise. Nevertheless I sucked it up, and down I went with my instructors words “green is mean” echoing in my ears, I avoided the slimy rocks in favour of the sodden but black ones. When I hit the reassuringly less steep terrain where I no longer needed both hands to stay in contact with the mountain face, I breathed a heavy sigh of relief and cursed my tendency to rush into things when I get excited… It’s safe to say I won’t make that mistake again.
2. Don’t sit-down on particularly grassy areas after these unintentional down scrambles to recover for too long.
I plonked myself down on a grassy bank to munch on some oatcakes and regain some energy after the little escapade, and pondered where I was going to head off to next (minus the rock climbs). After about five minutes I noticed some wee spiders crawling on my hand, which I gamely tried to flick off. When they didn’t budge, I tried to squish them (sorry not sorry) and when they didn’t squish, I inspected them closer and discovered that they were in fact Lyme disease carrying, blood sucking, stomach churning, ticks. With a squeal and a leap worthy of an olympic high jumper, I managed to get the blighters off. Although I underwent a full on tick check back home, because apparently they get into nooks and crannies like you wouldn’t believe. *Urgh.
3. The claim that “there are always Foot Bridges in England and Wales so you’ll never have to do a river crossing” is almost certainly untrue.
We were told repeatedly in training that river crossings are only really necessary in Scotland because that’s the only place there aren’t always bridges. Absolute poppycock. Not once, but twice, have I had to precariously pick my way across an overflowing beck to get to the other side. The first time (the third of my trials on that epic day in Wasdale), having carefully planned to take the left side of the river back down the valley to the carpark I discovered the farmer had closed his field, kindly notifying us walkers that “the path continues on the right side of the river, over the bridge”. Only there was no such bridge. Walking back a kilometre meant sheer 10m drops either side of the river, and in front of me there was a raging waterfall into some deep pools. There was nothing for it – I’m too British to ignore passive aggressive signs and trespass, so I tried to find a spot where I could hop across to the other side and remain dry. Only there was no such spot. Within seconds one foot was in, and one arm soon met a similar fate. It’s at this point I realised that it was either full commitment, or to fall face first into the icy current. So I packed my map away safely (priorities) rolled up my sleeves (symbolically) and waded knee-deep to the other side, cursing the farmer who was no doubt chuckling to himself as soggy hikers squelched past – on the far side of the river of course.
Just think, if I had been with a more level-headed person that day they might have stopped me, or at least forewarned me of what was to come. I wouldn’t have got myself into varying degrees of terrifying-ness and learnt so much about my own mentality, and indeed ability. Confidence and self belief, confidence and self belief. I’m pretty sure this isn’t the last of the pickles I’ll have, but I’m glad they happened, and as Terry Pratchett indeed says: “Wisdom comes from experience. Experience is often a result of lack of wisdom.” (See what I did there.)
If pickles are what it takes to be a good mountain leader I’m happy with that, and for all the harder moments there are an equal amount of incredible ones…