The Track Re-visited
I am here again. On Asanga’s wild land. Slow running up the track that I walked and slowly ran up during the first lockdown in March and April 2020 when I was here in N Wales, in Gwynedd and scared. Of Covid. Of societal collapse. Of the food chain failure. Of being treated as an interloper and sent home to London.
This is where I saw that hand-written sign on the telegraph pole right at the start of the track – GO HOME STAY HOME.
What happens when you – that is me, 67, and my partner, Asanga, 77 – have in a very small way become a poster couple for Living Apart – last year we were just about to be on the One Show when Covid hit and I’ve written various articles about it – and then are thrown together by lockdown?
Suddenly instead of Living Apart – as in five hours apart by car, we were Living Together in Wales. Heavens to Murgatroyd!
The first time round, we learnt a lot. It was not a pretty sight. There was quite a lot of shouting. I am a woman of my own terrain, and then I was on his admittedly very beautiful wild terrain and in his farmhouse. The trouble for me was it was exactly that – it is his. And he had very precise ideas about the execution of most household tasks. I struggled with this dynamic. I had lived on my own for far too long. No wonder he refers to me as the Duchess of Harlesden!
I enjoyed returning to London at the beginning of June. To the friendliness of the city. To my road’s tight squeeze of terraced houses. To people. To neighbours. Friends. I revelled in that warmth. It’s a topsy turvy world in more ways than one. Well, okay, not everyone yearns to live in the countryside. But there is a growing trend amongst my friends for moving out of the city.
And now in January 2021, back on the track, there are no shoots of new growth. No blackthorn blossom. No hare. No vole. No willow warblers. Just the bare bones of the trees to identify. And those mountains.
Asanga moved up here for the mountains. He has been a rock climber since his teens, but had a major climbing accident in his early 50s, took 15 years off, then returned again to the crags in his mid-60s. By the time I met him, he’d more or less given up because he couldn’t attain the same levels. I used to joke vaingloriously ‘I am your mountain now’. Ha ha.
No Ropes, No Ropes, No Ropes
Like a balletic Welsh goat
he devils the overhang.
A saucy clamberer, his ferocity
belies any sinking libido.
Before me, he’s a circus performer
eager to reverse salty-old-lady disapproval.
Tantric Goddess (Eyewear 2017).
I’ve given up being his mountain now though! More recently, Asanga has started going to an indoor climbing wall and joined the Mega-Vet competition for the Over-70s. The wonderful Ginger Cain aged 90 died recently so maybe he’s in with a chance! Formerly a bit of a purist about outdoor climbing, he’s now an avid indoor climber too. And during the lockdown, of course, there is the Zoom Climbing Group where they cook up their next ventures – sea stacks, slabs, overhangs – when it’s possible to go out again.
Five years ago, Asanga took me into the mountains, up Tryfan, a 3,000 ft mountain in Snowdonia. I was unprepared. I had had very little sleep.
We scrambled up the final rocks and it was scarily windy and misty on top. This is what mountain-lovers call ‘atmospheric’ and I found terrifying. And the way down was much worse. Not the manouvering between rocks but the long journey down with the loose stone to negotiate. By the end, I was trembling with exhaustion.
It put me off. I love the coastal paths from Borth y Gest to Samson’s Cove, the pebbly beach at Criccieth, the Dwyfor river walks down past stunning reed beds, I love the woods at Tremadog and the walk along the Glaslyn gorge near Beddgelert.
But I was wary about mountains.
The turning point was more of a gentle roll. We had talked about going up Cnicht, which is referred to as the Welsh Matterhorn – it’s the shape – for years. But somehow we had never made it. I’d been sticking to the sea, rivers and woods.
Yet my appreciation of Asanga’s climbing skills – his nimbleness and balance, that ‘balletic goat’ stuff – had been growing. Secretly. I started to be able to actually listen to his amazing accounts of ice climbs, of Himalayan treks or of leading feats at outrageous sea cliff locations. And even watch the very occasional climbing film like Free Solo.
Gradually it came to me that it would be great to join him in some way. Not climbing. Even if I laughing talk about it. But by finally going up Cnicht together. A going towards – from me. A sharing of his mountain love.
Finally, we went. I was anxious. Not just about being on ice and snow while climbing upwards but also about wearing the right clothes. I borrowed boots from this daughter – Asanga bought new laces – he found me some purple rainproof over trousers, I had layers, a woolly hat. My first and maybe last time in a woolly hat. I have to add that I still had flowers in my hair underneath. My loyalty to floral adornment did not waver. Oh yes, and the gaiters – they had straps that went underneath my boots and waterproof material which went up to my knees.
I looked hideous but was so content to be ready for the mud, the ice, the snow. I was also warm. This was a good start. Also, Asanga was reassuringly organised when it came to getting ready. Flasks of tea and hot chocolate.
‘Look, I’ve got these two survival blankets,’ he announced showing me these two shiny packages. I am still not sure whether he should have told me that or not. But I understood that the intention was to keep us safe whatever the outcome.
Importantly for me, we discussed various possible eventualities before we went. I said that I felt vulnerable, that mountains were his territory and unknown to me, and that I might have to say that I’d gone far enough. He agreed that that was okay. I had to do this because I didn’t want to feel pressurised into going to the top. I knew that he would want to go to the peak.
The climb starts in the spectacular mountain-cradled village of Croesor and a mossy oak wood. Reassuringly, there were four young people leaving at the same time as us. ‘Good luck,’ said a broadly smiling woman.
The lowlands were muddy and sheep-scattered, we could see one peak ahead, but it turns out there is another ‘true peak’ behind that. As we walked, we looked down and saw the Glaslyn Estuary at Borth Y Gest and the Cob, as well as the other snow-covered peaks around us – Moelwyn Mawr to the right, the Nantlle ridge to the left. I was a little concerned about the clouds coming down and being engulfed in grey. I was afraid of getting lost even though Asanga knew the way.
And it was raining. Raining was unexpected and not what I wanted on this mountain walk. It turned into sleet as we got further up. But there were sheltered pauses. I avoided all the ice at first, and then found what bits I could walk on safely. Of course, it’s all about feeling confident. And the sticks – this was my first time – helped with balance. Asanga really is like a mountain creature when he gets going on these steep trails and the sticks were a good aid for me.
At about a 1,000 feet, we got to the snow line. In fact, it was still fairly thick and we were accompanied in our hot chocolate drinking by the deep croak of a raven flying back and forth. We wished for a peregrine but the raven was thrilling in itself.
Now, we started a steeper climb, winding carefully up this spinal ridge because there was a drop on the other side. I followed Asanga. I was happy for him to lead. Of course. He was exhilarated to be up here in his magnificent mountains again. He really is in his element.
I took in the silence. I felt the aloneness. The snow and ice. And that sense of expansiveness as we looked down to nothing except other hills and peaks. No cars, no villages. Just the mountains.
And as we kept on, it wasn’t physical tiredness that got to me, it was more the constant sleet and the grey clouds descending. And the drop down the side. There came a point where I felt my ‘No’ gather strength and eventually emerge. Asanga graciously accepted. We were three quarters of the way up, I didn’t feel the need to get to the peak.
Afterwards, I felt content that I’d done it. And I know Asanga did too. I had shared a few steps of his grand passion. My going towards had created a new layer of togetherness. I could feel the difference in our disagreements. There was a different layer there. A new trust. Another bit of the love web.