Here we were in England’s Windermere, a town near Glenridding, which was home of Helvellyn Mountain. To say I was focused on hiking this mountain for months is an understatement. I had essentially pleaded my way into Andy’s heart until he agreed to hop on a plane to the UK with me, hiking boots in tow.
“Are you ready?!” I asked my Englishman the day of our hike. My body was literally shaking with eagerness.
“No.” He was still in the hotel bed.
“Andrew.” I slouched. “Please. Can you just act excited?”
He groaned then threw the covers over his head.
“Fine!” he snapped, bouncing off the mattress. “Let’s go! Let’s try not to kill ourselves on one of the most dangerous mountains in the country.”
That wasn’t exactly the start I was looking for . . . and yet, he was accurate.
Wandering through Windermere the day before, we had learned through fliers and shop employees that Helvellyn had a reputation for being ‘daunting’ and ‘formidable,’ to say the least. Rated in the top of “Most Dangerous British Mountains,” Helvellyn made the Appalachian Trail look like a beginner’s walk.
“Even if you want to go, don’t go if — ” This was one Windermere store clerk who got word of our plans. ” — if it is foggy . . . or if it is raining . . . or if it has rained . . . or even if it is about to rain. Don’t go if it is snowing or icing . . . though you shouldn’t have to worry about that in August.” He mumbled the last bit more to himself before pausing. It was as if he were worried the mention of winter weather in the hottest month took away his credibility. Then, with renewed vigor and effort to ensure his overall message was heard, he ultimately concluded the following: “Basically just don’t go unless there is supposed to be full sun.” Then he walked away. Decision made apparently.
Strangely though, his words didn’t put me off. (Fear has a way of doing the opposite for me.) And luckily, the sun cooperated so we loaded into his parents’ car to be chauffeured to our beast-of-a-mountain.
In the backseat, I read aloud the directions as we traveled:
- Eight-point-seven mile circuit
- A massive and incredible 3,117-foot elevation gain in that time
- Level Six of Five difficulty
“A SIX?!” Andrew broke in. “How can you have a six out of five?!”
“I mean . . . yeah,” I told him. “You said so yourself: It is a hard hike.” I had to hesitate then due to concern over him suddenly backing out. “Don’t worry, And. It’s a little less than nine miles. What can possibly happen in that time?”
He cut his eyes at me then made some type of guttural noise that I took to mean he disagreed strongly and was both unsure of what could happen to us and that he didn’t want to find out. Thinking more information — knowledge, preparation — would help, I kept reading. Surely this would encourage him, I thought.
“There are many fine ways to climb Helvellyn but an ascent via Striding Edge has to be considered the most spectacular of all. This narrow ridge has a reputation of being scary and difficult.” Maybe I should have skipped that part but I continued:
“Traversing the mountain is not without dangers; over the last two hundred years there have been a number of fatalities. There have been two fatalities in six months in 2015, eleven in 2014, and fourteen deaths in 2013.” Jesus, this is relatively recent. How had I missed this before? Andy was looking at me with his mouth gapped open. His mother had now turned around fully in her seat and his father was questioning us on if this was a wise decision. In my stubborn (crazy) will-full way, everyone’s doubts made me only more positive hiking this mountain was precisely what needed to be done. I was determined so I continued reading the rest to myself:
“Even in summer there can be poor visibility and a sharp drop in temperature at higher levels.” Summer? Summer was surely the best time to go . . . “It starts with a loose stony drop onto a short steep ridge of jumbled boulders which often require a bit of down-scrambling. A loose and nasty gully going off to the left is best avoided. Slips are very easy in descent.” I was beginning to feel nervous but I read on and on . . .
“On the summit plateau is the memorial to Charles Gough who in spring 1805 slipped from a rock and died. The story of Gough’s faithful dog who stayed with his body for three months until it was discovered has inspired many poems including William Wordsworth and Sir Walter Scott.” Once I reached the part about the dog, I lost it.
“Hey, Andy.” I didn’t want to alarm him but I was about to start sobbing, thinking of this pitiful dog — heartbroken and confused, stuck on a mountain cuddled up next to the dead body of its owner.
“Read this” and I passed over the paper. I didn’t want to risk his parents hearing and refusing to drive us further. If we were going to choose not to go, it was going to be our decision and no one else’s.
“For fuck’s sake!” he said after reading the depressing dog section. All hopes of a covert operation now gone.
“What?” his father said.
“What?!” his mother said.
“Nothing!” we both responded. Of course they didn’t believe us — we were like children incapable of hiding lies — but it didn’t matter. We were pulling into the parking lot. My eyes quickly scanned the rest of our directions. Words started to blur: “Watch for loose stones” . . . “sheer drops” . . . “slippery rocks” . . .
“L,” I heard Andy call in some distant tunnel far far away from me. “L. We’re here” and his car door slammed closed.
Music cued — dun dun duuuh dun-duhduh dun-duhduh — and something ominous, evil was luring ahead. I could feel it in my bones. But there was no time to pause or second guess — We were being dropped off one mile or so from the base of Helvellyn. Our journey was set to begin.
Andrew’s mother began saying her goodbyes as if this was the last time she would see us alive. Bless her heart, she had the glimmer of a tear in her eye, too. Poor thing, I thought, touched by her level of concern. This was, after all, the first time she was witnessing Andrew and I leave for a mountain trail where as my mother was an old pro — She practically has every Virginia federal and national park’s emergency number on speed dial; in fact, I think she even has a draft email, detailing physical descriptions with images of us attached.
“Look after each other,” his mom called after hugging us a third time. “Be careful! Love you both. If you get stuck, give us a call. Bye! Bye-bye-bye! I love you both!!! Be safe! Love you!” Her voice became shrill, more urgent and we had to turn our backs on her. She was making me at least contemplate if our hike was going to turn into a death sentence. I paused.
“Com’on,” Andy grabbed my hand. We had to keep our minds clear — It was time to go.
Earlier, we had decided to flip our trail, hiking from end to beginning. I had heard or read it was an easier journey this way, which we were open to. Ahead, a little non-scary moor smiled from the ground, somehow hiding Helvellyn and all that loomed ahead.
“Listen, if you drink all your water now, what will you drink when you are hiking? When you get on the mountain? What will you drink when you are truly thirsty then?” A tour guide stopped to talk to one of numerous kids he was leading in a group. The guide was fit — tanned, trimmed, and all muscle. The little boy, the opposite — short, pudgy, pale; he appeared as if this was his first outing outside. Ever. I don’t think he had even walked to a car before.
The boy didn’t look persuaded. “But I’m thirsty!” He sounded as if he would cry.
The guide was persistent in teaching. Surely, he thought, he could make this child have a realization. “You need to think — You’ve already gone through half of your water and we just left the car park.” The guide pointed, confirming the mass of pavement mere yards away. “See? These are the types of things you have to think about when you are in the wild and you need to survive.”
“But I’m thirsty!” If I had not seen what was happening and only heard, I would be positive the child was about to die.
“Fine,” the guide sighed helplessly while the boy gulped down more water, leaving one-fourth left and seeming proud of himself.
Andy and I exchanged glances as we zoomed past the guide and his group. “Easy,” we told each other. If that was the stage the guide was at, our fears were put aside. Our self-esteem boosted: We were expert hikers compared to that.
Sheep appeared, eating purple thistle and green nettles, and I squealed with delight — I hadn’t expected to find sheep on the mountainside! Andy, immune to the herd of English fluffs, kept walking until we reached a stone wall which twisted its way along the path.
Let me say in advance, there were many mistakes made on this hike, which I am sure you have caught onto by now through foreshadowing. Here was our first: For some reason at the time, we believed our directions intended us to get off the clearly well-maintained path beside the wall and instead travel directly up the moor through dense waist-high ferns. Looking back, I have no idea why we thought this but Hiking Rule Number One: Every decision is a joint decision so off we went! Stonewall and pebbled path soon a hair-line in view . . .
But the view! All around was beautiful — and we had only just begun!
I craved to see Ullswater and the town of Glenridding from the top so we increased elevation into the greenery.
There shall be no lying in my hike report: There were times Andrew and I appeared as mere dots to one another . . . and there were times the ferns, so full and massive, hid us from the other’s view.
But there was no sense of danger — We could simply yell the other person’s name in this massive open space and come together again . . . which we did many times.
“It’s not as if we are in a forest about to get lost,” we said together after losing sight and re-find each other, oh — I don’t want to exaggerate — maybe the next nine times. “Right, we aren’t in any danger” and we continued on until we saw this: sheep remains.
Wool was strewn across the grass, along with bones that had been picked clean.
But did that phase us? Nope. Were we the least bit concerned? Nah. Was there the realization that death was actually at our feet? Hell no! We did what any normal hiker would do — We used the bones as a trail marker.
“How far do you think since we passed the bones?” I asked him.
“Maybe two miles so that would mean we are maybe four from the parking lot.”
“Great!” I was joyful. “We should be about halfway then!” and off we merrily continued into the now man-sized ferns, joining sheep that bah-ed in displeasure at us passing.
In truth though, it was a pleasant hike: The ground was all grass so it was soft and plush.
And we were smiling and joking the entire way.And it truly was one of our most stunning hikes yet.
But there was no denying it: We were lost.
“The directions say our path is supposed to be ‘very well-laid but steep and hard-going.'” This was another one of several times we stopped to re-evaluate our decision forward. “Andy, do you think would be considered ‘steep and hard-going’?”
“I wouldn’t think so.” He looked around us. “We’ve done harder hikes than this at a Level Two.”
“I agree. And what is a ‘stone summit cairn’?” I asked. “Or better yet — I know what ‘stone’ and ‘summit’ are, but what is a ‘cairn’?”
“How am I supposed to know?”
“And how long is a kilometer?” I asked, looking at the directions. “Is that the same as a yard?”
“A yard is two or three feet, isn’t it — I have no idea! I don’t know! I don’t measure in yards! It’s 1,000 meters.”
“But how big is a meter? And our directions say we should be reaching a ‘Hole in the Wall’.” I pointed at the term. “Is that a place?”
“How am I supposed to know?!” He was becoming exasperated but surely not as much as me.
“Because it looks like it should be a place since it is capitalized but you English don’t believe in correctly capitalizing proper nouns so maybe it is literally a hole in a wall but where could there be a hole in — ”
“Wait, wait, wait!” he huffed back, interrupting me. “Since when do the English not know how to properly capitalize?! It is our language, you know! You colonials stole it!”
“Andy,” I took a literal step back. There was no need to fight in front of the sheep. “I’m not trying to put down any country’s intelligence. But . . . ” It had to be said. “The roadsigns and names of places in England — They are never capitalized correctly.”
“Like what?!” He demanded . . . so I told him a long rolodex of places I had been hoarding in my head, seemingly for this very moment. He was silent.
“All I’m saying is does this — ” and I pointed again “mean a Hole in the Wall or a hooole in the wall?”
“How should I bloody know!”
“Know what, it doesn’t matter.” I skipped that step and read on. “What is a ‘knoll’?”
“L, I don’t know — ”
“And what is a ‘TARN’!?” Every line in every step of the directions was starting to make me anxious.
“A tarn. A tarn? I don’t know what that is!” Then he paused and — as if this helped — added: “But I’ve heard of it before.” We stood in silence for a few seconds. I think I was hoping for a breakthrough from him. I still have no idea what he was expecting from me. Then his voice again: “It’s like a hillside . . . I think.”
“That’s what I said!” he retorted.
“Andy, we are lost — in another country — and you think?!”
“Woah, woah — wait a minute! I’m not lost in another country! This is where I’m from!”
That didn’t make me feel better. Of all Englishmen I could be with, I had one that didn’t understand any of his own English words. “Andrew!!! I am in another country and for what it is worth — if these directions were in Spanish, I’d probably have more luck! This is where you are from so if you don’t know what a ‘cairn’ is or a ‘tarn’ or a ‘hole in a wall’, we are beyond hope!”
“I’VE NEVER DONE THIS BLOODY HIKE BEFORE!” he screamed as echos of alarmed “baa”s surrounded us from sheep that either took off running or jerked their heads above the ferns to stare. “AND YOU CAN SHUT-RIGHT-UP!” he turned in frantic circles, yelling at the wooly beasts.
“Andrew — ” I tried to calm him.
“And that creepy bastard keeps looking at us,” he angrily pointed to this, well, creepy bastard.
It was around the time we saw this sheep — with its black body and bone-white head — that we determined going the opposite way on a hike — already full of terrors — was not a wise choice so we headed back, making our journey total be five-and-a-half miles before we even began our actual trail.
“This is definitely the ‘very well-laid but steep and hard-going path’,” we agreed, plodding up over hundreds upon hundreds of stone steps at the official start of the Helvellyn trail.
“This is going to put us behind meeting your parents,” I fretted. I hated having people waiting for us while we hiked — We had no clue what to expect from the trail so being rushed was the worst feeling.
“I know, but they can wait. It’s okay — They knew we were hiking and they wanted to explore the village so just focus on that.”
But I could never let that feeling go — It is a feeling I battle each time I hike. If a hiker passes me on any trail, I have the urge to overtake him because I worry I am falling behind and will be late. Late for what? On a trail back in the US, late for nothing but here we did have an actual deadline and I couldn’t handle that fact. I felt a need to rush our hike — to run up the mountain — so I walked faster, stumbling and tripping on rocks, losing my breath.
“L, stop,” Andy called from far behind, out of breath and stumbling too in an effort to keep up. “Look. We came this far to hike Helvellyn. Let’s hike Helvellyn — properly. Let’s enjoy it, okay? It’s just you and me — We are in this together.” This he had to remind me many times, as he always does so here we took a moment to look out at a sight that seemed only possible in dreams.And — cue angels — it was around the top of Birkhouse Moore we discovered a stone summit cairn (which for all curious, is a fancy English way of saying “mound of stones”). This is also where I had my first sighting of English heather on a moor.
It was so beautiful that I became overcome with emotions and wanted to cry. Andrew says I shouldn’t admit this as it makes me too sappy . . . but I had envisioned seeing the purple heather for so very long and now here I was standing in the middle of it!The heather and ferns seemed to glow and highlight our trail as we ventured up further.There were no trees and the sun beat down hot on our shoulders and arms.
“You should put on sunscreen,” Andy told me huffing equally as we stopped a moment for breath.
“I . . . ”
“Don’t tell me — ” He knew without me saying anything more.
“We wanted to reduce pack weight. And who would have thought it would actually be warm and sunny in England?!”
His look told me that he knew.
“Andy, this is the first time I’ve evvver seen England sunny and hot!” I said the word ‘ever’ as if I had several incidences to draw upon.
“L. This is only your second time visiting England. The first time you came was the middle of winter.”
Of course he was right, but it did not help our lack of sunscreen problem.
Or our lack of water issue. At this point in our hike, I had realized two things: One we should have brought our hydration bladders because the two liters we bought to share were surely not enough to quench our thirst. And two, if we were to die in this barren moor-desert we did not bring our emergency kit. Not that it could cure thirst, but still.
“Andy?” I became scared in my realization.
“Yea,” he huffed.
“We didn’t bring our emergency kit either . . . ”
There was a groan. Then another groan. Then deep breathing before standing. “Well that doesn’t matter now. Try not to kill yourself then” and after one last pant, he continued up the trail.
We weren’t the only ones suffering, too — which somehow gave me a small sense of happiness. There is little else as true as ‘misery loves company’ on a hike.
“Hi, sorry to bother you!” Two English lads approached from behind on the trail. “Do you have spare wa’er, mate? We’re so thirsty and we only bought this one bo’le between us and drank i’all.” One of the guys held up a single tiny twenty-ounce bottle. We all looked at it. It was indeed empty. There was a moment of silence, as if in remembrance of the days when water was easy to come by. “Mate, do you have any wa’er you could share?”
“Sorry, mate,” Andy told him. “We only got a small amount ourselves.”
“Right, right — no problems then! Enjoy your hike!” and on they briskly walked towards the mountain we all wanted to claim. We watched them go, blending into the distance where Helvellyn appeared. Finally in view, we could see its terrifying crooked backbone called Striding Edge.
Behind us, one of the most extensive views over the Lake District — a view that stretches from Scotland to Wales — but we couldn’t stop so we trekked on next to the stone summit cairn . . .
With one last look at Ullswater and the golden grass, we left the last wooly beasts we would see on our walk up.
Birkhouse Moore left us out of breath with little satisfaction, that is until we stumbled upon this: a wooden ladder leaning against the cairn . . .
“This is it!” Andy told me as we passed the ladder. “The Hole in the Wall!” He was overjoyed and, I’ll be honest, I couldn’t suppress my confusion enough.
“This is what?” I called over my shoulder; I hadn’t stopped walking.
“This is the Hole in the Wall!” He said the words as if they contained magic.
I turned around to face him then looked right and left, right then left. Neither of us said anything so he repeated with more excitement — excitement that showed I should be excited.
“Wait.” The realization struck me. This — this leaning wooden ladder — was the location of our earlier hole-in-the-wall talk. “This — this — is the Hole in the Wall?!”
“Yeaaa . . . ” Obviously.
“There’s not even a damn hole!!!” I huffed. “You’re serious?!” I waited for confirmation. “You British are insane!” and on I went forever done, in my mind, with British vocabulary. I was hot, thirsty, and out of breath — and the ladder seemed ridiculous. It wasn’t even a full ladder! It was honestly a step-stool, folks. A wooden step-stool against a stone wall that we had been walking beside for several miles. How a non-hole and step-stool can be such a crowd-pleaser is beyond me. Bless the British.
But I digress . . .
We passed a hole in the wall . . . or Hole in the Wall . . . or Nonexistent Hole in the Wall near Step-stool Against the Wall and journeyed closer to Striding Edge . . .
As we approached, Striding Edge appeared more beastly than before: It seemed the only way to begin was to climb over the pile rocks that resembled gargantuan bones.
From there, the mountain’s skeletal backbone protruded from the earth in angles that defied logic.Describing the trail as ‘slender’ before made that word take on new meaning — The trail was barely wide enough for one person to stand with both feet side-by-side . . .
This meant even one small error would mean a thousand-foot cliff drop to the left or right.
“L. Just remember,” Andy’s voice, gruff, broke my silent gawking at Striding Edge, “this was your idea. Weren’t mine — I wanted to be drinkin’ beers in’t pub, eatin’ Indian food, havin’ a laugh with memates — I do have mates you know. But this,” and he waved his arms around his body, “was your idea. Weren’t mine.” His voice packed displeasure . . . which only affirmed now was not the time to tell him what I actually thought because what I was thinking was that a miracle had occurred: We both were in agreement! I wanted a bar and beers, hell even Indian food, and I wanted laughs and mates — Yes, I wanted mates in England! What I didn’t want was to be standing here, looking eye-to-eye with my demise.
But I couldn’t admit this — not after I had convinced Andy to come here, made him labor up the mountain, caused him get a sunburn. This was one of those moments when you cannot tell the truth to your loved one. This was one of those moments when it is better to lie.
“I know,” was all I was able to squeak.
So we stopped.
We looked around. We took in the view: On the left, grass covered mountains dipped to a valley far below and on the right, the glimmering Red Tarn (which, we discovered, was a small mountain lake).
Behind us, the way we had come: Beautiful and blue. Peaceful. Full of life.
“Right,” I heard Andy say so I turned towards him and heard these exact words: “If you’re going first, gi’us a kiss ’cause one of us is going to die.” So there, on the mountaintop, we had a kiss — not a sweet, innocent kiss but more of a Goodbye-I-love-you and a I’ve-enjoyed-our-relationship type of kiss.
Then we did what any rational couple would do: We ignored the tranquil trail behind us and walked towards our deaths.
Since Andrew made it clear he was not going first, I held my breath and walked on . . .
The wind howled in my ears and I had to push my weight against the gales to stand. The edge of rocks, so narrow in width, jutted from the ground at a slant that made them nearly impossible to walk across.
Slowly, carefully, and by the grace of everything, I made it to the other side of Striding Edge.
“Com’on!” I yelled in Andrew’s direction, trying to coax him.
I saw him pace a little, apprehensive. “For fuck’s sake,” I heard him say before stepping across the hairline trail after me . . .
Several minutes passed as I held my breath and watched Andy’s unsteady walk towards me. The wind continued to pick up speed so much that I had to sit on the trail and wait. Gradually, gradually, gradually, he stood next to me.
“You come up with some stupid ideas, but this — ” and he pointed in the direction from where we had come, “has to be the stupidest.”
That wasn’t the greeting I was expecting. But we were reunited! We were happy, gleeful, alive, and —
“Mate no, NO! I’m NOT doing it!” Andy and I turned out gaze to where the voices — urgent and horrified — were heard. Miles in front of us, the same two English lads (that had earlier asked us for water) appeared as tiny specks against the rocks.
“Com’on, let’s just go! It can’t be that hard!” ant-sized Person A said.
“MATE! Have you LOOKED?! Look!” and we could see both ant-sized heads peering upward. We followed their gaze. Sure enough a trail of unimaginable horrors was illuminated in the sunlight.
This portion of the trail is what comes after Striding Edge. It is also the bit I seemed to have overlooked. Here, The Chimney — a mound of jagged rocks, slatted together, lean into one another at angles that make hikers feel precariously placed while rock climbing up. And it is became of this rock scramble that many people regularly get stuck, thus requiring a helicopter to rescue them. Listen, I’m not one for exaggerating. There was fear on that mountain — terror in the eyes of every person hiking — so for the sake of you understanding this rock climb, let me provide a visual reference, courtesy Google:
Not only this, but more concerning (because oh, there is always a ‘more concerning’ bit when it comes to this mountain), there is a steep — and I do mean steep — ridge or col just above The Chimney that leads to the highest portion of Helvellyn.
This portion consists of loose rocks, so loose that puffs of dusty gravel were visible from afar when shifted under hikers’ feet and the taps of rock hitting rock was heard as pieces of the mountain plunged down and echoed in the area.
After this too — Little relief because the journey down is more treacherous. Swirral Edge waits with warnings like “Don’t go too far left or right, instead stick to the path where possible, concentrate, and use your hands when necessary.”
Essentially, all of this comes to one summary: If hikers like Andrew and me have somehow managed to cheat death after surviving Striding Edge, there would be no way we could outlive the rest. And this thought — pounding in our heads, matching our heartbeat — was surely the exact thought of at least one of those English lads ahead of us.
“It is TOO steep!” Ant-Person B yelled to his hiking partner. Andy and I nodded in agreement. “I’m NOT doing it, mate! There’s nothing you can say that will make me do it!”
“Oh come on and — ” Ant-Person A interrupted only to be interrupted himself.
“FUCK OFF! I said I’m not doing it! I’m headed back down. I’ll meet you at the bottom” and without further discussion, off he turned towards us.
Andy and I stood frozen — It was an unnerving scene as the duo split, one continuing up solo and the other retracing his trail alone. We watched as Ant B got closer and closer until he became Person B. We watched . . . and then he stopped.
Between us and him, a group of three Frenchmen stood, confused and worried. We had overlooked them because they weren’t causing a commotion yelling at one another, as did the English Duo. But the Frenchies were pointing in our direction then shaking their heads, a slur of French, then pointing towards the sure-death of Swirral Edge. They seemed to be in the process of making a decision, too.
Person B waited.
The French waited . . . until decision made: The three people went off the side of the cliff.
I’m not joking. They literally went off the side of the mountain.
The Frenchies sat down — in the middle of the trail — and slide off the cliff then down the mountain on their asses.
Human B looked at us.
We looked at Human B. All of our mouths were gapping open. We waited for Human B to join us . . . until — down the English lad went! He crouched, he scooted, he slid down the cliff edge!
“What the fuck?!” Andy exclaimed in a tone that was filled with irritation and anger and pure shock.
“I mean . . . they have a point . . . ” What else could I say?!
We must have stood there almost half an hour watching the four sliders. Horror turned to astonishment, astonishment turned to relief as they made it to the bottom and all walked — simply walked — away from the mountain and to the trail around Red Tarn.
“Okay, so what are we going to do?” I asked Andy.
“I’m NOT doing that — ” and he pointed towards a distant Swirral Edge.
“Right. We agree then,” I told him. There was no way I was going to rock climb up an 85-degree mountain either. No way.
“Let’s go back,” Andy remarked.
“No.” I was stubborn. “I’m not going back.” I refused to re-walk the path we had worked so hard to pass. Plus, his parents were waiting so turning around would take the longest portion of time. “I’m not going back,” I reaffirmed.
“L,” Andy exhaled loudly. “If you don’t want to go forward and you don’t want to go backward, what do you want to do?”
We waited. I knew my answer. He knew my answer.
“FUCK NO!” he yelled. “No no NO! That’s stupid. What if we slip and can’t stop?”
“We won’t slip — ”
“L!!!” I’m pretty sure he was full-level shouting. “Chances are we ARE going to slide into each other ‘nd MURDER each other!”
“Andrew.” Someone needed to remain calm, be the voice of reason. I voted myself. “Mercy sakes, we aren’t going to murder each other!”
“WE ARE! We BLOODY ARE! We won’t be able to stop if we pick up speed so we will cause each other painful deaths!!!”
“Andy — hey. Four people didn’t slip. Four. We won’t slip.”
“L. No. We always fucking do this.” It was around here I was starting to think he had lost his mind — The last I could recall, we had never ass-slid down a cliff before (. . . oh, oh wait — As I’m typing this now, I do remember past hiking incidents . . . so I guess you were right, Andrew, sorry!) He continued: “And now we are going to DIE on a MOUNTAIN!” He was angry and sure, maybe he had a right to be. But I didn’t want to correct him — We weren’t going to die on the mountain because we were going to slide off the mountain.
“No,” he said again, making me really use my persuasion tactics. “I want a helicopter to come save me. That is the only way my life will be complete.”
This is an improvement, I thought. He had forgotten that we could turn around and retrace our steps. In his mind it was either moving forward or butt-sliding.
Another ten minutes passed of us arguing. His phone suddenly dinged — a message from his father wanting to know where we were.
“This is what I’m talking about,” I coaxed lightly. “I don’t like to have people waiting for us when we hike because we have to hurry. The only way to hurry is down the mountain” and I pointed.
He knew it was true.
I knew it was true.
“Fine.” A grouchy Andy had accepted his fate. “But LET IT BE KNOWN!” he yelled, “THAT IF I FOLLOW YOU OFF THE EDGE OF A CLIFF, THERE IS NO WAY YOU CAN EVER SAY I DO NOT LOVE YOU!”
I mean, the man had a point.
So we scrambled to a more safe spot, if ‘safe’ is a good word to use.
It was here I can affirm that I have seen Andrew angry — a nasty, red-faced rage — at being in this current situation. Love, for him, did not exist. The looks of fury and blame that he cast my way during this — Let’s just say I was beyond relieved to have cleared the rocks first because he honestly may have cast me from the cliffs with his own hands. However, knowing I was safely in front of him made me only more aware of a need to document this moment so I merrily snapped pictures of one bad-tempered Brit.
But bless his heart — We hadn’t even gotten to the point at which he was most furious over: The grass-bum-scooting down an entire mountain . . .
Crab-step by bum-slide, we slipped down the mountain, dodging rocks which Andrew proclaimed (loud enough for every hiker to hear), “Great! Another bloody rock I’m ’bout to get up me-ass — That bastard would hurt! This is brilliant! ‘Bout the best thing ever!”
. . . Oh and I almost forgot the sheep poo that we had to slide though, which was the point that did him in and the point he roared: “Just fucking MARVELOUS!!! Now I’m COVERED in SHEEP SHIT! THIS IS EXACTLY WHAT I WANTED TO BE DOING ON ME HOLIDAY!!!”
So it was yelling, rock, yelling, poo, more yelling and more rocks and poo until we — at last — were standing at the base of Helvellyn.
But you know what?
We made it.
Alive. Safe. And therefore, joyful.
Or uh, at least one of us was . . .
“Know what?” he told me after I took this picture and showed it to him.
“What?” I asked.
“It actually wasn’t that bad,” he said and here, we both laughed — deep, hearty laughs that bounced off the rocks — as we stood covered in grass stains, bleeding scrapes, and a slick and smelly brownness that we will convince ourselves still was only dirt. “Let’s go home,” he said leaning towards me and giving me a kiss. “Let’s get food and beers and bed and — ”
“MEEEEEEEEHHHH!!!” a sheep bellowed at us.
And of course, the sheep had to look like this: Identical to the earlier ‘creepy bastard.’
“Fuck off!” Andy yelled at him and leaned in again for a kiss. Love, for him, was back.
“Home,” I repeated with a last look up at Helvellyn. The sun was lowering in the sky and the monstrous mountain seemed to swell, to rise higher still above us.
Turning towards the Red Tarn, we dipped our hands into the water, which lapped at the rocky shore . . .
then we followed along its edge until we met our trail again.
Before we realized it, we were on the path home and Helvellyn — Striding Edge, The Chimney, Swirral Edge, all of it — behind us, a mere blue shadow.
We hiked back hand-in-hand, half of the time laughing and retelling our tale — a story that already felt so far away — and the other half, we were silent and full of appreciation for each other, for nature, for life.
“How was it?!” his parents asked when we saw them and greeted them both with dirty hugs. “How did you enjoy your hike?”
But what could we say? What could we possibly say to tell our story the way it should be told — the eagerness, the sweat, the emotion, the fear, the anger, the joy. How could we possibly answer?
“It was . . . amazing,” we said together. “Terrifying and frustrating and — ” and we paused. “And different” we finished because it was different. Something about this mountain made us feel different too, and that — I’ll never be able to properly describe.
What I can say though is that evening after dinner, Andrew and I literally collapsed — exhausted with aching muscles — into our hotel bed. We were one of the lucky ones that got to stay in Helvellyn’s town that night, a town that had numerous hikers gathered for a weekend festival to celebrate the almost-mythic mountain. I felt home then — home in a different way but so content and so safe — as the sounds of the festival music below floated into our open-windowed room and lulled us to sleep.