416 days ago, four women and a priest met on an unfrequented path in the outskirts of Snowdonia. The September earth was still verdant with a glory of bracken. They strayed from the path into the open access land beyond.
The eldest of the women peers through bleary eyes, blurred further with tears, and clings tightly to the arm of her daughter, desperate for support, or escape. Her fingers seem to twitch towards a hand that is no longer there beside her, that no longer exists. She is not used to leaning on anyone else.
The eldest of the daughters watches her mother’s footsteps and frailty like a hawk. She has cared for the elderly since she was a young woman, but she isn’t ready to lead what is left of her family. She holds back tears which will, in the coming months, multiply infinitely behind her eyes until she can no longer contain them.
The youngest of the daughters stares straight ahead in horror. This moment feels unreal and surreal to her. She has spent the last few weeks choosing to think instead of her recently failed marriage and the strange diagnosis and DBT workbook a man has given her, as though they could possibly remedy decades of pain and those strange, strange moods.
The forth woman is the youngest of the party. She helps her first cousin, once removed, carry his bible, vestment and stole. He holds a heavy, cylindrical box decorated with trees. She stares at the silvery birches and feels as though she has arrived at the wrong party, the wrong address. She is crashing an event she doesn’t understand and the priest’s gentle oration about leaving this cosmic plane sounds like lies. Why would you want to pretend to leave something so beautifully infinite and connected?
She looks to the near horizon, where the sloping backs of the Glyderau are skimmed by ominous clouds that close steadily in on the bright sun which saturates the valley. She has been in this valley many times before and to her it is one of the most magical places on the earth. A place of promise, comfort, life and death.
She recalls that January, when she first scrambled up to Devil’s Kitchen, was blown up scree slopes and got lost between Glyder Fawr and Glyder Fach, a mistake which seems incredibly foolish to her now. The winter dark approached steadily as she desperately searched for her planned route of descent. She teetered over The Nameless Cwm, looked down at her beloved Llyn Idwal and realized she was unwell.
She had made herself very ill the day before, walking over snowy Snowdon alone, with crampons and ice axe, in frigid rain and 70mph wind gusts. But she smiles to recall how she had run off the mountain once past the snow line, striding across the wide, flat stones of the Miner’s Track, crying and laughing with happiness and acutely, achingly conscious that she was alive and young in a beautiful place.
She realizes she will have to scramble down Y Gribin. She doesn’t know the ridge and doesn’t know that sticking to the left will keep her on an easier path. Y Gribin, usually an excellent Grade I scramble, becomes a Grade II winter climb under a covering of snow and ice. That day it was somewhere in between, numerous pockets of ice and occasional slabs of snow making it treacherous on unaccustomed, inexperienced winter feet and ankles shaky with exhaustion from a poor night’s feverish sleep.
After a few minutes of terrified descent, she stops, sits in a partial niche and accesses her options. She feels the fever, the swelling of lymph nodes, the fatigue pulling her off the ridge. But her mind is strangely clear and she notes briefly for future wonderment that she is not racked by the otherwise omnipresent anxiety, obsessions and compulsions which usually torture her consciousness, no matter the coping mechanism du jour. She grasps that her options are few and simple: get herself down or climb back up and place an emergency call. She is a strange creature, self-destructive, independent and lonesome in nature, so she decides she would rather die of her own mistaken volition that choose the latter option.
She makes it down to the frozen grassy lower slopes of Y Gribin as the light begins to fail in earnest. She jogs east to Llyn Idwal. She wants to stop to lay a palm on the Slabs, a silent promise to return, as she always does, but she is running out of light.
That night, she lies in her friend’s caravan parked outside their family home, sweating and shaking and happier and more at peace than she has been since that fateful year of 2008 when childhood was shattered and she learned the power of self-inflicted pain. She feasts on granola, for once deserving of nourishment and not ashamed of her physical imposition on the world.
Two days later, she is almost well and someboy picks her up in his van and she returns to Ogwen valley to spend a freezing night parked under Tryfan. She learns yet many more valuable skills, such as how to abseil in the snow, how to pee through the three inch gap of a minimally opened vehicle door mid-blizzard, and how certain activities are not worth the increased frozen condensation on the inside of the van’s windows in the morning.
When she returns to Birmingham, she is changed. She is focused and strong.
Then her grandfather dies.
It is not so much the death as it is the further bickering and unravelling of her family that gets to her, creeps into her newly hopeful heart and blackens it, makes her once again a hopeless, desperate, fearful creature. And the image of him, corpselike and emaciated, the death-rattle, appears whenever she closes her eyes, no matter how tightly. In the days before the funeral, she goes in search of something which will make it disappear. Nothing works, but she drinks and snorts as much coke as possible, and wakes up next to someone new in the effort.
Today, the woman is mixing resin. She checks the humidity and temperature of the room, notes the inevitable air bubbles formed by the exothermic meeting of Part A and Part B and grabs a lighter from the drawer to pop them. Weeks ago, she returned to the valley once again and sparingly clipped fronds of bracken, meticulously drying and pressing them. She is making something for those four women who met on an unfrequented path in the outskirts of Snowdonia 416 days ago and touched for the last time the ashy physical presence of a man who loved the mountains and who loved them.
She sits alone in a house which is recently hers to live in alone. Her fingers twitch with the last few hours of nicotine withdrawal as she fiddles with silver findings, and her biceps ache from climbing too much while eating too little. She pauses, looks up from her work and out the window at the grey wetness of the Birmingham street the house sits on. And she smiles. She smiles because, after an interlude of many months, she is returning to that feeling of January 2018. She smiles because she is getting stronger again, she is writing again, she is drawing again, she is planning to make her escape north again. She smiles because she is hours away from another climbing session, days away from another visit to Ogwen Valley and weeks away from the car which will take her there alone for the first time, as she’s always dreamed, just her and the mountains, and far beyond to the gritstone of Derbyshire, the quieter lochs of the Highlands, and the black Cuillin of Skye.
She returns to her work, threading fine chain and knotting faux suede.