What does it mean to know a mountain? Norman Hadley tentatively asks whether we can be a bit over-focused on reaching the top as directly as possible, to the detriment of a deeper appreciation.
"Have you done Helvellyn?" might seem a simple question at first glance, but it hides complexities. For a start, "done" is a rather perfunctory verb: it reduces a joyously life-affirming experience to an offhand notch on a bedpost. Meanwhile, more specific verbs may prove perversely too specific; "climbed" is more suggestive of ropes and cams than most people's experience of Helvellyn is likely to sustain. Conversely, "walked" sounds like an amble along a canal towpath, which it definitely is not. "Ascended" prioritises the literal over the poetic.
But my focus is not on the verb so much as the noun. Suppose I were to say that I had walked up, climbed or ascended Helvellyn from Wythburn church via the sprawling grassy slopes of Whelp Side. Suppose further that I had descended by the same route. Would I have "done" Helvellyn then, having experienced nothing of the teetering aretes of Swirral and Striding Edges, or the stepped crags of Browncove?
My knowledge of any mountain will always be incomplete. The possibilities likely exceed what can be achieved in my remaining active time on Earth. I choose to find that immensely comforting
The combinatorics of a mountain
Wainwright suggests fourteen different routes up Helvellyn and it is not a huge mathematical leap to the realisation that one-hundred-and-ninety-six different combinations are possible on any given day, though you might inconveniently end up in a different valley from where you started. If you insisted on returning to the same valley and not going up and down the same way, the number of options would be, rather pleasingly, forty-two. Should the aspirant compleatist traverse every permutation?
This is particularly germane if you absorb Wainwright not merely as the originator of a two-hundred-and-fourteen-box tick-list but as a proponent of a certain philosophy. It is striking how he highlights direct routes to almost all the summits, often taking great pains to avoid the obvious enchainments. For example, he suggests direct routes to the summit of Ill Bell up both the Troutbeck and Kentmere flanks. In reality, I doubt if more than one ascent out of every thousand is anything other than as a waypoint on the Kentmere Horseshoe, or part thereof. So how many have explored the quiet recesses of Over Cove, with its populations of fox, deer and the piping calls of ring ouzels? How many know the quarry-riven western flank, where shy patches of the dazzling wildflower Grass of Parnassus are scattered?
Suppose you undertook to climb not just all two-hundred-and-fourteen summits, but each suggested route in the guides. No other fell has as many as Helvellyn but there must be upward of a thousand in total. Would you need to both ascend and descend each one to truly know it? Would once for each route be enough or would repeats in a variety of weathers afford a greater depth of understanding? Depending whether your path is in sun or shadow, stair-rods, swelter, snow-crunch, slush or starlight, a mountain can be a whole other animal.
Call the expert witnesses
Wainwright was effusive, inasmuch as he was effusive about anything, in his praise of exploration. This shines through in his love for Haystacks, a love that now stretches into eternity as his final resting place. Indeed he could be disparaging about hills that offered insufficient inducements to the explorer. Here he is committing shocking heresy on a Lakeland giant:
"the failing of Great Gable is that it holds no mysteries, all its wares being openly displayed. The explorer, the man who likes to look around corners and discover secrets and intimacies, may be disappointed, not on a first visit, which cannot fail to be interesting, but on subsequent occasions. There are no cavernous recesses, no hidden tarns, no combes, no hanging valleys, no waterfalls…"
Another person who was eminently quotable on the subject was Nan Shepherd:
"Yet often the mountain gives itself most completely when I have no destination, when I reach nowhere in particular, but have gone out merely to be with the mountain as one visits a friend with no intention but to be with him."
She was famously sceptical of the monomaniacal focus on the summit as be-all-and-end-all of the mountain experience:
"But to aim for the highest point is not the only way to climb a mountain, nor is a narrative of siege and assault the only way to write about one."
Wainwright suggests 14 different routes up Helvellyn; 196 different combinations are possible on any given day
She was also keen to emphasise that the breadth of our relationships with mountains should expand beyond that tranche of the day between breakfast and teatime:
"No one knows the mountain completely who has not slept on it."
This last point has been picked up with particular zeal by the author Russ Moorhouse, who has recorded an unusual first by camping or bivvying on every Wainwright fell over the course of a year. But, even if you lack Russ's compleatist devotion, just the occasional night out on the fells will add a rich layer of knowledge of, and engagement with, mountains. There is something magical about the playful rustle of a flysheet against dry grass as the evening light oozes over the tops and a pan of pasta bubbles in the annexe. And this may yet be surpassed by a richly adorned canopy of stars or dawn flooding honey over the eastern sky. Even on a dull or damp night, the profound sense of connection with the landscape is another dimension beyond what might be experienced in a standard nine-to-five ascent.
If I return to my original question, I must pause. Yes, I have visited Helvellyn's summit dozens of times, in many weathers, variously propelled by Vibram soles, step-in crampons, double axes, single axe, running studs and cleated tyres. I've climbed it as a nine-year old, racing my dad up the final summit slopes from Striding Edge to emerge unexpectedly first, in a new reality. I've patrolled its precipices in middle-age, hearing a new depth of meaning in the sepulchral croaks of the resident ravens. Tempus fugit indeed. I've cut old-school steps up Catstye Cam's cleft northern face, and front-pointed up the brittle ice-smears of Jogebar Gully. I've ridden Helvellyn by moonlight, slewing great arcing tyre-tracks across the icy summit. I've run it in snow to camp overnight on its lofty summit armed only with the contents of a bum bag. That felt like fully knowing the mountain, I can tell you.
I have never skied it, although I have watched other, braver souls flinging themselves down the Red Tarn face into a bottomless cauldron of mist. And I have never flown over it, though I have watched a parapentist soaring the updrafts of Lad Crag, his rate-of-climb sensor whistling like a mildly anxious Clanger.
Just as Joni Mitchell struggled to fully comprehend clouds, love and even life after seeing them from both sides, I must accept that my knowledge of Helvellyn, or any other mountain, will always be incomplete. There will always be a hidden plunge-pool, a quiet corrie or secret gully that I don't yet know. The possibilities will likely exceed what can be achieved in my remaining active time on Earth.
And I choose to find that immensely comforting.
A non-shouty, inconclusive conclusion
What's that? You were hoping for a definitive finish? Well, the Internet has no shortage of shouty corners where you can find that sort of thing. Depending where you point your browser, you can read a table-thumping denunciation of summit-bagging as the work of the devil, or a robust defence as 'just the impetus the connoisseur needs to explore the otherwise-neglected slopes of the Monadhliath' or some such. The truth is, I'm at home to both arguments. Or neither. Just as I'm up to the advice that climbing An Teallach two-hundred-and-eighty-two times is a more worthwhile use of your time than a Munro round, or the argument that you should do five Munro rounds before you can truly claim them all. I'm liberal to my bones; all perspectives are fine with me.
If you really insist on a concrete conclusion, I'd say: keep heading for the summits. It's not as if Helvellyn is Kangchenjunga: we don't need to stop ten paces shy of the top for fear of displeasing the gods. And I'm as goal-oriented as the next person: the pull of the trig points is ineluctable to me. But what I would advocate is a good delve into the hidden recesses on the way to the summits. In Helvellyn's case, there's an embarrassment of coves awaiting your exploration: Nethermost, Keppel, Cock, Ruthwaite, Glenridding-side Brown and Thirlmere-side Brown. Go and seek out Hard Tarn or sup from the bubbling-in-the grass that is Brownrigg Well.
So far as I know, the poet Norman MacCaig never wrote a line about Helvellyn, but he did finish his great poem, "Landscape and I" like so:
So then I'll woo the mountain till I know
The meaning of the meaning, no less. Oh,
There's a Schiehallion anywhere you go.
The thing is, climb it.
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