Actually, 1085 metres is quite high enough for me, as it turns out.
Six months ago, in the throes of an ongoing early midlife crisis, I was inspired by a Facebook ad for Macmillan’s Snowdon Moonlight Hike. Hey, when would I ever get another chance like that? I wondered. Having reconciled the whole lunatic idea with my family by booking us a delightful little seaside cottage not too far from Snowdon during the same week as the event, I signed up, got the teeshirt, and casually browsed the training schedule.
Living in a leafy valley at the foot of the Wolds, one of my favourite ways to stave off complete physical atrophy has been to take a weekly march up the very steep road out of the village, appropriately named Totterdown Hill, and perform attention-seeking yoga stretches in the middle of the crossroads at the top, before marching back down again. (It’s a really good way to meet local farmers!) So to extend my walk a little further, up a pretty mountain in Wales, seemed right up my street, especially as the by-product would be raising funds for the amazing Macmillan Cancer Care charity.
As the weeks rolled by I gently eased myself into a slightly increased level of hill walking and attempted to improve my fitness levels by swimming more regular circuits of the open water lake at Allerthorpe. The fundraising started slowly, but with more frequent shout-outs on social media, my Just Giving page (which is still open here BTW) started to gain momentum and the pressure mounted as the big day approached. Had I done enough training? Had I raised enough money? Would I let everyone down and look like a big fat failure?
These thoughts swam round my head as I opened the key safe of Arwel, the 200 year old herring fisherman’s cottage in Nefyn where I was to live out my final week before facing the Welsh giant. I was increasingly aware of protecting my physical health, avoiding kissing Arthur who was complaining of a sore throat, popping Floradix iron tablets and drinking plenty of water.
In a weird way it felt like I was suffering from something incurable myself. I was plagued by morbid thoughts; brushing Rose’s long hair into a fancy plait I wondered how Danny would do it if I were gone.
I took a photograph of the three of them seated on a cliff top bench, motherless, and saw it as a premonition. And then we heard the sad news of the death of our friend’s father, Bruce who had for years bravely battled a pernicious form of cancer. My hike became a mission; one of us, sooner or later, would most likely be asking Macmillan for help, and it was time to do my bit. Mercifully, the Welsh weather broke with tradition and we enjoyed a rare meteorological phenomenon; a week of hot sunshine in Snowdonia. For whole hours at a time, distracted by glorious sea swims and rolling sands, Mediaeval castles, wild flowers and heaps of piscod a sclodion, I was able to ignore the ordeal ahead of me.
But the day of reckoning soon arrived, and it was time to swap Birkenstocks for boots. Like a lamb to the slaughter, my family delivered me to Llanberis where we ate a last supper at Pete’s Eats. I was less chatty than usual, and it suddenly occurred to my husband that I was about to set off on this challenge alone. ‘So, who are you meeting up with? Is Sophie and that lot already here?’ he asked as I forced down half a baked potato and chilli. ‘Err, no, it’s just me.’ His confusion was evident. He had assumed that I would be hiking with my friends, the ones I sometimes like to walk with back home. But no, not me, I had decided to do this ‘tout seul’.
Standing helplessly in a field next to a giant marquee surrounded by fluttering green banners, and 479 other people wearing the same green tee-shirt as me, I waved goodbye to my departing family with a very odd feeling in the pit of my stomach. If I survived, I would see them again the following morning, but first I had to climb a mountain, in the dark, without even so much as a nap.
The lamb metaphor became even more significant as we were funnelled into the ‘starting pen’ while our bib numbers were recorded. At the stroke of midnight we were released out into the dark, and I wondered if there might be wolves on Snowdon. Despite doom-laden weather forecasts the air was mild, scudding clouds revealed a beautiful full yellow moon which was to guide, lure and cajole us up the mountain with it’s eerie beams. Earlier, as we all checked our back packs and counted our spare head-torch batteries, I caught the eye of another loner, and we started the walk side by side. She was from the midlands, and a bit potty, but good fun. As we trudged towards the start of the Llanberis Path though, our conversation dried up, partly because we didn’t really speak the same language, but more so because I was already out of breath. Nevertheless it was exciting to watch the snaking line of head-torches weaving it’s way ahead, and behind us, and at about 3k I started to catch up with some of the 11.30pm start group. Counted through a gate, like sheep through a turnstile, we were then issued a group number and a cyalume stick was tied to our back-pack to identify us to our designated shepherds. My brummy mate had disappeared and I was now in Team Seven, herded by three jolly mountain guides, who chivvied us on up the path with infuriating gusto and helpful hiking tips. An hour or so into the ascent, just as I started to lose my sense of humour, I found myself trudging beside a friendly face, a kindred spirit, someone who was hating it as much as I was. The two of us struck up a conversation, (in between my lungs hanging out and my head exploding with the exertion of hauling my middle aged carcass up an interminable series of boulders and rock strewn passes). Her gentle and honest demeanour was so refreshing it gave me the strength to carry on. Aimee saved me from throwing in the towel, and on a few occasions I was able to elicit a hearty and infectious laugh from her. This camaraderie and mutual support was exactly what was needed to get us both to the summit, and I don’t believe I could have done it without her.
We passed fellow hikers puking violently into the darkness, there were women gasping ‘I can’t breathe!’ and some just sat down and wept, but the two of us forged on with little steps, and words of encouragement- ‘Oh, look at the moon’, ‘Hello Sheep!’ and ‘Ahh, is that the summit?’ (-no it wasn’t, it was still fecking miles off, but we didn’t know that.) Seeing the lights of Ireland was a high point, pardon the pun, and everyone was so supportive and encouraging, but I simply hadn’t appreciated the horror of walking that kind of distance, up a steep hill in the dark, where the only other things to look at are stones and rocks passing under your feet and the blinding lights of other people’s torches. At one point I was a bit delirious, (I stopped beside a rock where a little mouse jumped out at me. I only just managed to exclaim “Mouse!” when the man beside me saw it too, so I know I wasn’t hallucinating.) Aimee started to feel nauseous and I thought I would pass out, but on the stroke of 4am, we found ourselves queueing for the last few steep steps to the summit. We literally had our heads in the clouds, the atmosphere was surreal. Victorious shouts of glee filtered down from the torch-lit mist above, as those up ahead were photographed beside the famous bronze-topped cairn, providing proof of their brave and death-defying feat of endurance for those back at sea level. (There’s a nice folk tale about the cairn here) All around us the abyss dropped away into blackness. Apparently the daytime view from Snowdon is one of the best in the world. I’m still yet to witness it as, on my first visit to the summit, having travelled sedately up by train during daylight hours, like a sane person, I was also darkly shrouded in cold clammy cumulus.
After our moment on the fabled cairn, I cannot tell you how delightful it felt to be going back down hill, and for the next couple of hours Aimee and I were almost euphoric, there was a tangible “Valderee-Valderaah!” bubbling up inside of me as we chatted (I think I was talking a great load of bollocks most of the time). Then it suddenly became apparent that the starry sky was fading to inky blue with a rose tint to the East. It’s funny how much better everything always feels at daybreak, but we still had two more hours of leg-trembling boulder steps and scree-surfing ahead of us. Stopping to take in the sight of colossal rock cliffs at Cwm Brwynog hanging above the still waters of Llyn Dur Arddu, all bathed in rosy morning light was one of the best memories of the trek back to the finish line, and the romantic ideal that I had imagined on that fateful day back in January, when I signed up for this walk, was finally realised.
At 0716h Aimee and I staggered across the finish line together, received our hefty silver medals of honour and necked a dizzying glass of prosecco while a handsome young man photographed us up on the podium (it was a struggle to even lift my boot onto the step). The same man had chatted (I like to think ‘flirted’) with me nearly ten hours earlier at registration, and it transpired that he had been the doctor on duty through the night. I momentarily wondered if it might have been worth collapsing, just so that he could have given me the once over, but in fact I was very glad that I had completed the course. It came as a huge surprise that I had in fact done it without making a spectacle of myself, or crawling on my hands and knees at the very back.
After half a sausage sandwich and a cup of sweet tea back in the Macmillan Marquee, my lovely family arrived to bear me triumphantly back to our cottage, and I had to say a fond farewell to my new hiking buddy, but not before we became Facebook Friends so that we might one day tackle another perhaps less arduous walk together. I was in awe of the fact that she was going to drive herself all the way back to Northamptonshire after breakfast, and hoped she would make it home safely.
Obsessed as he is with outdoorsy kit and paraphernalia, my husband suggested a ‘quick drive’ to Betwsy-coed first, where Marmot and North Face is in plentiful supply, and I wandered stiffly behind him through the early morning streets feeling like a zombie. Back at the cottage I ran a deep hot bath laced liberally with Nelson’s Arnica Bath Oil, and submerged my aching limbs. I had bought a set of walking poles in Pwllheli, and had never used them before, but found them very useful on the mountain to help spare my knees, haul me up some of the bigger rocks, and act as ski poles on the more hairy parts of the descent. As a result though, my shoulders, arms and hands were aching almost as much as my hips knees and ankles, not to mention every muscle fibre in between.
And then I slept. A lot. I was good for nothing. I felt like a hit-and-run victim. The day passed in a haze. At about 9pm I started to feel more human, (due in part to the imminent episode of Poldark; always a tonic) and the whole big adventure settled in. I had done it, and raised over £700 to boot! I owe a huge debt of thanks to all my supporters, sponsors and especially to Aimee for being the still small voice of calm that kept me going and, along the way, taught me some fascinating facts about wine imports and canine surgery… or did I hallucinate that?
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