The last time I descended by night from a mountain in the Lake District I watched the slow arc and colourful burst of distant, silent fireworks as I ran. It was Guy Fawkes’ night and we galloped jubilantly down soft grass towards the pub. Our training for the Bob Graham Round was going well.
A month later and our nocturnal descent took somewhat longer. Atop a snowy ridge my headtorch picked out nothing but black void on either side of my feet. Picking a tentative route downwards we could barely even see our feet through the fog. I had long since lost any feeling in them. It was 2am. I reflected on whether anybody in England at that moment was voluntarily having a worse time than Ben and I were.
The descent, however, was preferable to the tedious wading through knee-deep heather to reach the mountain in the first place, or the ice-crusted boggy ascent that froze our feet and caused some silent soul-searching as we trudged upwards into the darkness.
There had been high points as well. An apocalyptic gale on the summit of Skiddaw blasted the mist away and revealed the night-time lights of Keswick far below us. We might as well have been in space, so detached from the swaddling of civilisation did I feel. The world scoured raw, the cold “coursing and spuming through the sour and stale compartments of my brain, dulled eardrums, bleared eyesockets, benumbed nostrils”. It was the primeval equivalent of emptying my cache and beginning again.
And to avoid wading through a river we had hauled ourselves across a single strand of wire, the remnant of a broken fence. Hands and feet wrapped around the wire, hanging low above the cold black water, there was much merriment and laughter. Successful, smug, we ran on, pushing against the clock. Seconds later we both ran into a bog! The ghost of Bob Graham laughed down, reminding us that this was not a challenge for softies unwilling to get their feet wet.
At 3.30am we decided to sleep for a few uncomfortable hours. Four people in a car full of stuff, a bit of shivering fidgeting and then it was dawn, or what passes for dawn at 54 degrees north of the equator a week before midwinter.
Up once more into the wind and the rain and possibly the worst day’s weather I have experienced in the mountains of Britain. Raw rain, snow, ice, fog, and a wild wind. I hunkered down into my hood and ruminated, not for the first time, on what on earth we were doing this for. Because, surely, that question should be at the core of all I do, and its answer crystal clear, like a clarion call.
Yet the answer is elusive, and has been ever since I took an interest in voluntary suffering. Certainly I was not running through the night to impress others. Nobody with any sense would be impressed anyway. Besides -mercifully- I’ve stopped caring what others think. I wasn’t doing it to dazzle myself either. I’ve done harder things than this, and the curse of this Sisyphean struggle is that each one pushes a little higher the benchmark for being allowed to pat oneself on the back. This was not one of those occasions.
Thankfully I’ve also grown out of my demented fear of my own weaknesses, my youthful, pig-headed refusal to give up under any circumstances whatsoever (a trait I have both cursed and given thanks for), and my withering scorn for those who see sense and stop. The fact that I was able, with grace, to cancel our plans and retreat from the mountain shows a change in my character. We had warm clothes, our navigation is good, we consider ourselves hardy: so why did we descend? Perhaps I have proved myself sufficiently to myself to be able now to accept that the wild is just that: it is wild. Better a live donkey than a dead lion, as someone said.
Hunched into the gale, futilely trying to minimise the flaying of my face, soaked to the bone as we trotted between peaks, I was singing at the top of my voice. I would like to report that I was singing a manly, inspiring song against all the odds. In fact, thanks to Andy’s iPod playlist, I had Leona Lewis’ “Run” stuck in my head. The weather was insane. It was time to bail out. The fells were alive, bouncing with rivers where hours earlier there had been none. White water galloped down off the tops, spontaneous torrents, a world in motion. And we were running too, fleeing the weather, running for cover, bounding down scree slopes and splashing across the valley back to Wasdale and the sanctuary of the Land Rover.
24 hours earlier than plannned we were back on the M6, windscreen wipers pattering out the rhythm of the long return to London.
Perhaps, after all, nobody in England has voluntarily had a worse time in the last 24 hours than we did up on those mountains. But thinking that had only made me smile. I got through it smoothly enough, and in a weird way I really enjoyed it. Perhaps then that is answer enough to my question of what we were doing out there. We shall certainly be back soon for more.