Climbing Helvellyn

This is a conversation I had recently.

‘Everything scares me, if I didn’t do the things that scare me, then I would do nothing,’ I said, exasperated.

‘But the things you chose to do – the biking, the mountains, the pressure you put on yourself – they seem to have a similarity to things that have happened in the past…’

She means the horse I had to take out as a timid 11 year old. We headed out alone, galloping grass verges, passing articulated lorries, motorbikes, buses. I was afraid but I did not think I had a choice. I took anxiety for granted, it was just a part of life.

I’m nearly 40 now and anxiety plays the same role it always has. Only, I definitely have a choice now and my choices are in question.

It was my idea to climb Helvellyn this November. It came in the way of the best ideas; one minute I was clueless about how we would spend our down-time during the Kendal Mountain Festival, next I knew, if the weather was right, we would take our bikes up Helvellyn to see sunrise.

5 am. I am rousing myself after four fitful hours of trying and failing to sleep. Our car headlights move over cottage walls and poppy-strewn memorials as we leave the village. At Kendal, fumes mushroom from a chimney into the clean indigo sky. The pin points of Orion’s Belt glitter above before we lose him to the fog at Windemere. Then we trace the dry stone walls for direction, finally pulling up by the water’s edge.

I want to be on that mountain. If I was to have that conversation about fear right then I would say, biking, the mountains, they are an escape, that’s all.

We set off in the mist. True, the light is growing but we can still get high before the sun comes. We climb steadily out of Glenridding, the heat building close and sticky beneath my layers, before we find Sticks Pass and I lift my bike onto my shoulders to pick my way through the loose stone. It is here that the first thought comes – I don’t know if I can ride this down.

When the sun comes the climb has eased off. We are in a bowl filled with quarried stone. We must climb out of here eventually but not before the sunrise. The light is still grey but the sun is beginning to scorch the hill tops – it won’t be long.

I don’t have the words to describe sunrise. When the first rays flood the land they are golden and suffuse everything. We stand blinded on a narrow traverse. We try to capture it but everything around us is either black or gold.

We continue, with the sun on our backs. The going is narrow, technical, but rideable. Mostly. There are just these sections where I have to get off, walk my bike up a rocky problem. I have lost confidence over the last 12 months, narrow, technical ups have been my undoing. Dave is a little way ahead, I don’t know if he got off. But there is disquiet in me. I’m perfectly safe, but I unhappy because I feel that I have failed.

This feeling intensifies as we climb higher. At the termination of the pass we meet three other bikers, younger, stronger, clearly in less need of sleep as they made it to the summit for sunrise. Now they are hooning down, hollers of joy ricocheting in the bowl while we continue climbing doggedly up. My steps are slow on loose, steep switchbacks and I moan something like, ‘I don’t know if I can ride this down.’ I don’t expect Dave to agree that I can’t, I don’t want him to tell me I can. I’m not going to die, at worst I can get off and walk. But that scares me most – failure. Like if I concede and walk, it is a void I will not come back from, I will retreat and never push myself again if I figure out there is an alternative.

When we reach the top of this hump we find the wind raking the mountain and I feel small and afraid. As we drop down an incline of scattered rocks, buffeted and pummelled, the fear of failure and helplessness are growing. By the time we are on the shoulder of the third steep ascent I am gripped.

I step slowly beneath my bike, the lemon sun and the slowly scudding clouds preside and my journey is made harder by the cloying, sucking fear of shame; of climbing to the top of this heap and not having the skill to ride down again; of having to admit that I could not ride it. Because I feel that my achievements give me worth and without them I feel small, as if I do not matter.

So, we reached the top. I capture Dave cycling the ridge to the cairn, the land dropping away to his left. I can see it is beautiful. But I do not want to linger or celebrate our success. I simply needed to know, could I make it down?

So, if I return to that conversation I have to admit this: on my bike and in the mountains I am driven to prove something. I believe this; if I just conquer this challenge, or the next, then the approval and recognition I did not get when I rode that horse out alone and afraid, will come to me. Salvation is just a mountain away or on the other side of the next gap jump. That’s sad. Because, this will not happen. But I will act out a cycle of anxiety and distress until I know better.

And it is not so sad. Because I made it up that mountain with MY determination (misplaced as it can often be). And it was beautiful and I was able to share that with another human. I made it down Helvellyn, weight driven deep into the pedals, hands light and focus strong. I’d come a long way to test my technique on steep, loose terrain but the views were phenomenal and I rode it, body and bike working together, skidding, finding grip again, never out of control. These moments strip you down to the basic working parts, they hollow you out and carve new texture inside – the shape of the land, the slant of the sun (or the sheet of rain) and the feeling of moving through them. At least my miss-placed drive has given me this.

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