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Permanent Tourist

A personal website by Mark Howells-Mead

H is for Hiking

(This is one in a series of essays I’m writing about my life. A specific kind of autobiography, I guess. The rest of these essays are here.)

I wasn’t an athletic student. Early memories of p.e. lessons date back to my junior school, where boys were made to join the girls and learn netball, and where we were all dunked in the school’s tiny, ice-cold swimming pool in an attempt to teach us how not to drown. I was even bad at getting changed after swimming lessons; insisting on drying myself properly meant that I was always the last one out of the changing room, to the frustration of my teachers.

Secondary school went to the next level and all manner of horrors hove into view. Indoor sports with a nice hard floor on which to get nice big elbow and knee grazes; rugby and football on a huge and eternally muddy sports field; track sports designed to teach us how to “run” in a great big circle. Only the extremely random combination of basketball and shot-put were even vaguely appealing, and these weren’t enticing enough to convince me to abandon the computer room and the school library more than absolutely necessary. Swimming at “Farnborough Rec” was fun, although that was probably due to the opportunity to mess around rather than any desire to get any proper exercise. (Apropos of nothing, we saw Michaela Strachan filming there once.)

The worst bit of school sports was, by far, the enforced three laps of the local park every now and again: two miles of hell. That experience put me off running for years and years: chest heaving and painful stitches within less than half a mile, everyone else running off into the distance at improbable speed, and being lapped by the more annoying of my classmates. Everyone else lounging around at the end of the run for a rest, waiting for us “slow-coaches” to finish. Those of us who trailed in last then had to suffer the ignominy of having to walk the half-mile back to school without being able to catch our breath.

My physical health when I was younger was only saved by golf. Going round courses with a bag of clubs over my shoulder meant that I could actually count myself as being at least capable of being able to walk up a small hill without keeling over. Thanks to the slow pace of the game, I got to the level of fitness where I could play 36 holes in a day – walking between 8 and 10 miles whilst whacking a ball in varyingly erratic directions – and still be able to stand up the next day.

Fast-forward to 1998 and the Lake District. I’d long wanted to visit after seeing photographic work by a mentor and after borrowing a medium-format camera, I spent a few days there. Staying in a youth hostel, finding my way around, driving up winding narrow roads and getting to see what all the fuss was about. After a great deal of sitting in my parked car, waiting for the interminable weather to break, I’d occasionally venture out to do my creative best with a mass of grey cloud, contrast-free views, and the steady drip of wet forests. I hadn’t yet begun to appreciate the beauty of an inclement landscape and so my photographic goals were those which offered an adjacent parking space. Needless to say, my efforts were extremely poor as a result. The few frames which I can now look at as being successful are conclusively those for which I stretched my legs and moved away from the car.

A few years later, I found myself in Switzerland. It seemed idiotic not to spend time walking in the landscape and so I made my first attempt. A muscle-destroying, steep walk up a great number of vertical metres to a mountain station, done in the heat of an alpine summer without any kind of nourishment or liquid refreshment. After the first steep section of the walk, it was clear that I was hardly up to the challenge and only my stubbornness drove me on. If anyone had been with me, I’m sure I would’ve turned back. After a long, long time, I finally reached the goal for the day and was so completely physically exhausted that I had to lie on a bench and sleep for a couple of hours.

Once I moved to the mountains, I decided not to make the same mistake again and so I began to bring my love of searching for photographic viewpoints in the comfort of a car to my new home. The winding, narrow roads reminded me of my efforts in England and the experience of my leg-destroying first effort at alpine hiking made me consider two things. Firstly, that the views are much better when enjoyed from a larger distance away from the car park, and secondly, that planning and provision are as much a part of walking as the physical effort.

Those lessons stood me in great stead when Jo and I began to take to hiking properly around six years ago. We were on holiday together in the Lake District for the second time and an urge to get “just a bit higher” for an ideal view across Derwent Water led us to begin walking up the steep side of a well-positioned fell. Not along the well-trodden hiking path, but directly up the fern-covered slopes of the peak’s eastern face. After a fair amount of clambering, scrambling and slipping, it became clear that the return to the car would be best achieved by getting all the way to the summit, before finding a less treacherous route back down. It was, in fact, only when we reached the peak’s summit that we even realized what we’d been clambering. A battered wooden sign lay on the ground, bearing the name of the fell: Catbells. One of the better-known of the Lakeland fells, and a name with which I was familiar: even though I was, as yet, barely starting to find my true affinity with the region.

This first ascent was difficult. A steep, uncharted slope, crossed only by sheep tracks and lashed by strong winds. We’d battled our way up through ferns and gorse, and still made it to the top. I realized that if I could make it up a Lakeland fell the hard way, then I could surely do so along the route which everyone else takes. This was the holiday during which I realized that I could hike, and hike properly. It would be a matter of regaining a better level of fitness and a matter of preparation. If nothing else, buying and studying a walkers’ map would make things a great deal easier.

Since this first realisation, Jo and I have achieved several bigger goals. Our subsequent major outing, to Green Crag, left us with screaming muscles thanks to steep slopes and an unplanned diversion brought on by a hail storm.

A couple of years later, Jo convinced me that I could make it up the 825-metre, three hour vertical ascent through the forest from Beatenberg to the summit of the Niederhorn and her conviction led me all the way there.

We’ve walked from home to Meielisalp and then down to Leissigen, before deciding, on our return to Spiez, that we hadn’t had enough. After walking a couple more kilometres home, I’d done my longest hike at around 14 km. The same year, we made it to the summits of Green Gable and Great Gable over a long route and tricky terrain: semi-scrambling over the rocky face of the peak to achieve the seventh-highest of Wainwright’s 214 summits. The great sense of achievement I feel on completing my most challenging walks gives me the confidence to know that I will, one day, be amongst the many walkers who reach the highest points in England.

Where golf used to give me a complete diversion from the trials and tribulations of everyday life, I now pack a rucksack and head for the hills. I began walking seriously for the photographic goals, but as time has progressed, the walk itself has become the goal. Hiking is fast becoming my primary “hobby” (for want of a better word) and the desire to achieve the summits of my “wish list” of mountains and hills is pretty strong. As I have come to love exploring both my adopted home and the island of my birth, so I have come to love the exercise and physical challenge of long hikes.

The fourteen-year-old who used to get stitches in a Hampshire park is now a forty-something hiker, who has learned the lessons of pacing himself and taking the time to enjoy the route, instead of just hurrying towards the goal. As our vastly-experienced Swiss friends say: take it “step by step” and even the biggest peaks are achievable.