Now, viewing this picture, I see a summit of chaos, aburdity, madness. I could never have got there on my own.
There were gale-force winds, below-zero temperatures, exhaustion.
"What the *uck am I doing here?"
I am standing on top of an enormous heap of rubble.
I felt pure exhilaration.
I was at the top. A dream had been realised. Nothing had changed.
The tears froze and bit into my skin.
Nothing would undo the past.
It had brought me here, I had followed, I was, despite the presence of my fellow mountaineers, alone, vertically challenged, feeling existential vertigo.
I must have been about five years old. I was barely tall enough to see the display of mountain boots in the shop window without assistance.
My father lifted me up.
A pair of enormous, technically advanced boots took my attention.
That was it.
I was hooked. I would be Edmund Hilary. I already saw myself struggling over glaciers, with attendant sherpas planting union jacks.
That my hiking boots were sufficiently robust for doing the Pennine Way was enough to spark my imagination. Weren't the Pennines just south of the Himalayas?
I would certainly be part of a major expedition.
I would need sophisticated bottled oxygen and breathing equipment to get as far as the Buddhist temple somewhere near Leeds.
Rabble, in a room
I had refined my plans. With little personal finance, a mountain guide or a paid trip to the summit of the Mont Blanc was beyond my means.
Divorce was costly.
This rabble, or to give them their official title: the Club Alpin de France would be my path to that summit. And the following year perhaps to further peaks in the Hindu Kush.
On opening the door, I was met with a hive of people who took absolutely no notice of the stranger who had ventured into the room. There was no welcoming party, no apparent organisation, just a bunch of people buzzing around.
In my fragile state, only those child-remembered boots drove me forward. This was to be my approach march.
I just picked a straggler on the outside of the crowd and started a conversation. It was clearly too difficult for me to venture straight into the centre of some close-knit group who clearly had advanced plans about what they would be doing for the next season.
The first visit to the rabble mulling was inconclusive. I had sort of figured out that there appeared to be a number of separate but interconnected groups who were involved in different activites. There seemed to be a keen rock-climber group, a ski-mountaineering group, a mountain-biking group who would hang around a particular table in the room. This was starting to make some sense.
Gradually, after a few weeks of lurking, I began to discern familiar faces, identify cliques, spot groups. After about a month, there were even nods of recognition when I appeared on the outskirts of some community. I joined the climbing group, discovered about weekend trips to the Alps, noted meet-ups in bars.
I became a member, a curiosity, someone that they could introduce: the token English guy with a toddler. I became a character in their plots.
However high you get, however recognised one becomes, there comes a time when one has to face a series of irritating questions.
- What the hell are you doing all of this for?
- Why are you putting yourself through all of this?
- Who is it for?
- What counts for me?
- So what?
No pain, no gain.
I am fortunate in my lack of ability, in my down-to-earth, no-nonsense appreciation of the unsense of our existence. There are so many tales of Icarus-parodies. The pythonesque mountaineer who gets to the top of his Everest, loses his hands, his feet, his nose to frost-bite only to realise that what really counts for him are his family, his friends, his life.
I have been lucky. I can write this without a hook.
Because you are here, because my family are there, I can take my time to address the summit of absurdity and how to get down from it.
We are driven by dreams, we can get our wings frazzled too late...
Our lives are grounded in little groups of familiar faces making sense in an anonymous rabble. Sometimes, we can live to share stories of our exploits.