Mountain Article and Photographic Competition 2011
MCofS Article Competition Winner:
Report by Jayne Glass
The Mountain Article Competition continues to go from strength to strength, this year receiving 19 prose and 21 poetry entries of a high standard. Both competitions included a variety of stories, styles and settings, ranging from romantic and thrilling to quietly informative.
In the prose category, Chris Thorndycroft’s Shadows on the Snow told a tale of “love and supernatural horror in the Himalaya”. The judges described it as a “very readable story with real tension and fine scene-setting on the mountain”, which “captured the feeling of doom” well. Similarly, Peter Biggar’s Away with the Birds recounted “a rather dramatic account of a near miss on Meall nan Eun that reminds us that no ascent in winter is without danger”. Peter’s “narrative drive” and “real feel for describing the hills” were commended by the judges.
Helen Watson shared third place with her “poetic, romantic and subtle” Knoydart Heartbeat, a “romantic account of a shared love of mountains and each other”. Also in third place, Liz Cleere’s Trekking in the Shadow of Kanchenjunga was enjoyed for its “interesting, alternative-to-travel-writing approach”, which was “filled with names, people, families and workplaces”.
Second place went to Lorn Macintyre for Will ye no come back again?, a “beautifully written” and “wistful, almost romantic account of a brother’s exploits in the mountains”. Lorn was praised for writing a “technically professional” and “well-rounded story”, which “grips the reader with every paragraph”.
In first place, and this year’s Mountain Article prose category winner, was John Burns’ Cheating the Reaper. “A dramatic account of being avalanched whilst ice climbing in the Canadian Rockies”, John’s piece was described as a “solid story”, which was “well told, with vivid and emotive natural imagery”. With a “skillful handling of time (from flashbacks to the present)”, it was a “joy to read”.
In the poetry competition, Susan Richardson’s Angels Whisper to a man when he goes for a walk was highly commended for its “mastery of image” and “highly-achieved sequence of four poems which intrigue and excite with imagination, brio and verve”. Susan’s poem used “stunning images, telling details, fresh descriptions and a confident voice” and she was described as “a writer who really understands this environment and has the ability to communicate it to others through poetry”.
Sharing second place in the poetry entries, were Specks of Dirt by Sarah Rest and High Atlas by Abbie Garrington. Specks of Dirt was “a poetic picture of the atmosphere on a winter’s day”, which used “splendid images” and impressed judges “with its economy, communicating several ideas in a few well-chosen words”. High Atlas was a “sad poem” with “lovely imagery” and “emotional honesty”. “The narrative and the poignancy both worked well” and the “central imagery of ‘lines’ – both as climbing ropes and written lines of communication” was applauded.
This year’s winner of the poetry competition was Whymper on the Matterhorn by Alice Herve. A “technical tour de force with strong, sustained rhythms and language”, the poem is a “very vivid and beautiful description” of Edward Whymper’s ascent of the Matterhorn in 1865, in which four of his companions were killed. Comments were “full of admiration for the poetic expressions and powerful feelings”, and the language of the poem was described as “authentic for the 19th Century voice”.
Congratulations to the winners, and many thanks to this year’s judges (listed below), who put a lot of effort into reading and commenting on the entries.
Tom Povey (winner of Mountain Article Prose Competition 2010)
Rachel Humphries and Cynthia Rogerson (Moniack Mhor, Scotland’s National Writing Centre; www.arvonfoundation.org)
Patricia Ace (award-winning poet; www.soutarwriters.co.uk/patriciaace/)
Helen Needham (Out of Doors, BBC Radio Scotland)
Mike Merchant (editor, writer and designer, ex-editor of John Muir Trust Journal; www.merchant.uk.net/)
Ingrid Parker (former MCofS Vice President and member of ‘Women of Scotland’ for services to mountaineering)
Edinburgh Mountain Film Festival Photo Competition Winners
|Mountains Days category: Graham Niven - “Way Home"||A Bold Move category: Paul Zizka – “The Dragonback”|
|This shot was taken at the end of a simply incredible day in Glenshee in January 2011. Fresh snow the night before and a windless bluebird day with virtually no lift ques. At the end of the day we witnessed a mesmarising sunset to the south and this, an amazing twighlight to the north; tired knees and muscles were comforted to see this sign out the mountains after a memorable day in them!||The Dragonback, Castle Mountain, Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada|
The EMFF Photo Competition 2011 was judged by Lukasz Warzecha
The 2012 Competition is now open and the categories are:
- The Mountains and Me
So this is how it feels. Dying I mean. It ends here, alone, afraid, crouching on a ledge, struggling for breath, vomiting quietly. A rock, a metre square, lands on the ledge beside me, exploding on impact. The next one won’t miss. I don’t have long. Close by a twenty meter rock gendarme topples slowly forward like a drunken old man and collapses. And there is the noise. The roar all around me, so loud the mountain trembles and my ribs reverberate. The rope pulls hard at my waist, a reminder that it leads down to Steve’s lifeless body. He has already stepped into the darkness, I wait at the threshold. A leaf brushes my face, just the gentlest of touches, looking up I see a tree falling past. Hurled to its death by the monster it reaches out to me with its finger tips. Through the fog of terror and despair that clouds my brain, a thought struggles to be heard. I am not dead, I realise, not yet. Somehow I have survived the last ten seconds. Perhaps, just maybe, I can survive the next.
I had always thought that birds were dumb, not that I gave the matter any thought, I’m no ornithologist. One of many things I learned that day is that they are smarter than they look. We were descending, the hot sun had thawed the ice making it too unstable. I relaxed; no more hard climbing today and looked out, across a thousand snow capped peaks of the Canadian Rockies. l looked down and noticed, with mild curiosity, that in the forest, a thousand feet below, a line of birds was flying away through the tree tops. There were brown ones, white ones, fat ones and thin ones eagles, sparrows and pigeons, all were leaving the forest at the foot of the climb in a ragged line. They were flying away, I now realise, as fast as their feathers could carry them, because they knew something I didn’t. They were sharper than me. They knew that in the snow basin, way above the ice climb, a crack had ripped across the face of the snow pack. A monster was coming, and the birds knew it.
I dreamed ice in those days, lived it, breathed it, and spent long summers waiting for the first kiss of frost to turn the glens sparkling white. I began my climbing in the Northern Corries of the Cairngorms, survived my novice years and endured the endless weekdays waiting for Sundays on Lochnagar, Creag Meagaidh or Ben Nevis. My days in the winter hills were Technicolor, days that lived bright in the memory, shining amongst the grey every day. Green Gully, Zero, Emerald, The Curtain these were gifts from the mountain gods on rare bright days when the sunlight seemed to splinter on the ice. The disappointment of damp black winters led Steve and me to look far afield for places where the ice god lived. Canada was the place, we decided, in Canada it would be cold and we would have all the ice we dreamt of. Reality, and global warming, conspired to disappoint and we caught the warmest Canadian winter for twenty years, a fact that had sealed our fate.
I noticed something else unusual as I was watching the birds leave, that sunlit Canadian day, it was going dark. I remember thinking how odd that was, curious, peculiar perhaps, but of no real concern. It was warm, way warmer than it should have been and water was dripping from the surface of the ice as we climbed the lower pitches. We had forgotten to check the avalanche warnings and as we climbed our ice screws melted out. The mountain had tried to tell us but we had not listened. The signs were all there but we couldn’t see them, we had tunnel vision. All we could see was the shinning ice that had drawn us thousands of miles from Scotland. The seeds of catastrophe are frequently found in a collection of small inconsequential errors. I was watching the birds scatter when Steve called out, as I turned to reply...the mountain exploded.
At moments like these, time becomes distorted and the memory a series of disjointed moments. The monster leapt over the cliff hundreds feet above us and landed on top of us bringing with him tonnes of wet snow, shattered ice, rocks and trees. He vented his wrath on anything that stood in his way and we were very definitely in his way. I was just to the side of the ice fall and Steve was retreating down the climb towards me, one rope clipped to a runner behind him with our second rope as back up, when the monster grabbed him and hurled him from the mountain. I watched in horror as he disappeared into the maelstrom and thousands of tomes of rock and ice poured down on top of both of us. Moments later I knew he must be going over the cliff below us, I had to stop him. I’m not a brave man, I knew that if I locked off the belay the shock would hit me and if the belay failed I’d be catapulted into oblivion. I hesitated, transfixed by fear while the battle within me raged. Then something happened, I watched, as though from somewhere far away, as my arm swung across my body and locked off the belay. I had been on a winter climbing course at Glenmore Lodge and they told me to use a body belay, to hold a fall by gradually slowing the climber down in order to protect the belay from a sudden shock. What they hadn’t told me is what it feels like to hold a falling climber in the grip of a monster. The moment I locked off the rope I was convulsed with pain, the rope tried to separate my pelvis from my chest. It cut deep into my body cracking my ribs. Just when I could hold on no longer the rope broke and I collapsed on to the ledge, gasping and vomiting, waiting for death.
I learned something then. When it gets really bad, surviving the whole thing feels too much, so I broke it down into small chunks, bite-sized pieces of survival. Just get through the next ten seconds, I thought, then worry about the rest. I was pressed hard against the rock face whilst the monster hurled everything it could at me. Rocks, trees and wet slab thundered down. The certainty of death was replaced by some glimmer of hope. I spotted a peg I’d missed before and stepped out from the meagre shelter afforded by the stance to clip into it, anything to maximise the chance of survival. If you have seen the film “Saving Private Ryan” you’ll have some idea of what it was like breaking cover. Remember the scene when they land on the beach and step out into a hail of fire. That’s exactly what it was like. As I clipped the peg a rock playfully bounced off my right hand breaking a couple of fingers but, much worse, bringing a temporary paralysis. I will never know how I wasn’t killed clipping that peg, in retrospect it was probably a mistake but there was only one mantra going through my mind at the time, “protect the belay.”
As quickly as it had arrived the monster departed, its mischief done. The sun came out and the birds returned. It was hard to believe that, moments before, I had been fighting for my life. It was as though nothing had happened apart from the fact that the ice climb we had come up no longer existed, at the foot of the crag was a huge cone of debris. The first rope had broken but the second had held, it pulled at my waist, still attached to Steve’s body. It seemed so utterly pointless, so stupid, to have come all this way to die on a piece of ice. I didn’t call down to Steve, after all there is no point in shouting at a corpse. I tied a prusik knot around the remaining rope and set down to find the remains of my friend, dreading what I was about to meet. Just beneath small overhang I found him grinning like a baboon, but obviously alive. He had had the presence of mind to roll under the overhang. His lung was punctured, he was bloodied but alive. I will never be more surprised or relieved than I was at that moment. A Park Ranger had been amongst the cars that had stopped on the highway below to watch the spectacle unfold. He called in a helicopter. Twenty minutes later Steve was in hospital and I was standing on a helipad trying to stop shaking.
Every time you tie on, every time you make the first move, you take that chance. If it had ended there, would it have been worth it? The years of climbing in Scotland, seeing the starlight sparkling on the summit of the Ben, the mates, the laughs we had, the good times and the bad, would all have ended there. Somehow we had cheated the Grim Reaper, he had us on his list but we escaped him. I doubt if he was troubled, after all, I’m sure he has pencilled us in for another day. Next time I’m climbing, if I notice it’s going dark and, looking down, I see the birds are leaving, I’ll know... the Reaper’s back.
Mother always maintained that my brother Alasdair could climb almost before he could walk. She would turn her back and he would be gripping a chair, trying to pull himself up, and on one heart-stopping occasion she was cooking when she turned to see that he was on the table. The floor was flagstones, and she was terrified that he would fall head-first. She had to inch towards him, all the time talking to him before she snatched him up.
Nowadays they call Alasdair’s condition hyperactivity. Even as a boy he was always on the go in the outdoors, building himself a hut in the small plantation beside our house, making himself a swing which he fitted up himself, and shinning up the chestnut tree to the highest boughs.
‘He’s going to be a joiner,’ mother said at the supper table.
That didn’t please our father. He wanted his son to take over his practice as the GP in the Highland community. However, he encouraged Alasdair’s love of the outdoors by sending him to Gordonstoun School, where he learned to climb. When he came home for the holidays he was always out, no matter the weather. At the age of sixteen he announced that he was going to camp on the mountain behind the house.
‘But you could catch cold,’ mother pointed out with maternal solicitude.
‘Colds are caught from other people,’ father pointed out, and went with his son up to the attic to bring down the tent he had used as a boy. The reason why father never worried about Alasdair in the great outdoors was because he had been a medical student during the war, and knew, as he said, that survival was an important lesson in life, and not only for a doctor.
I was sent to board at St Leonards in St Andrews where I never learned the art of carrying the ball in a netted pole called lacrosse, and where my academic progress was undistinguished, but sufficient to allow me to study botany at university. I loved gathering flowers and pressing them between the leaves of father’s heavy medical tomes, with their black and white photographs of people with grotesque deformities and diseases. It was as if the flowers were a healing balm.
But this story is about my charismatic brother Alasdair and his many activities. He learned to play the pipes at Gordonstoun, and when he came home for the summer before his final year he was wearing the kilt which would be his habitual garment, wherever he was. Alasdair was six feet two inches tall, with fair hair and a most endearing smile. The years of rock climbing and other pursuits at school and in the holidays had given him massive shoulders, but gentle arms when he hugged me, because we couldn’t have been closer. That summer when he was seventeen, with a year of schooling left, he told us that he was entering the local Highland games. We took a picnic to the slope above the field and sat on our Campbell tartan rug to watch him. In the hop, step and leap it looked as if he would never descend to the sandy pit, and when they applied the tape it was a ground record. Next he won the hundred yards easily, and as the heavy events were about to get under way he quickly buckled his kilt over his running shorts. He swung the heavy weight on the ring between his legs, giving himself balance by digging the prongs on the toes of his boots into the turf, and won that event also. The caber hadn’t been tossed since being felled in a local grove five years before. The kilted Alasdair, bare-footed and bare-chested, heaved the tree up against his shoulder and ran with it, his hands locked under the end. As it swayed I thought it was falling back towards him, but it toppled over to a great cheer from the crowd and lay dead straight on the turf. That night we celebrated with a barbecue in our garden, roasting the haunch of venison that father had received from a grateful patient, and as I watched the sparks from the aromatic fire rising towards the mountain I thought: I am never going to be happier.
The summer before he went to St Andrews University to study medicine Alasdair spent mostly on the mountain. I tracked his progress with binoculars from the lawn as he ascended the scree, father’s tent strapped to the backpack which contained his provisions. I yearned to go up with him, but mother said that one worry was enough. When Alasdair came down for a bath and more provisions before the next ascent I asked him what he did on the mountain.
‘As you know the mountain has four peaks, so there’s a good choice. I’ve already climbed two of them.’
‘Isn’t it dangerous, climbing alone?’ I asked apprehensively.
‘Not if you’re careful and have a head for heights. I take it very slowly, and from time to time I look down at the house and ask myself: is my lazy sister Eveleen still in her bed? Last week when I was climbing I saw an eagle’s nest on the ledge above, so I made a traverse to avoid disturbing them, because I could hear the chicks. When I reach the summit I admire the view, and then I descend to my tent. I always pitch it beside a burn so that I can wash away the sweat, and then I cook myself a meal – or rather, I reheat what mother has given me.’
‘And then what?’ I wanted to know.
‘By this time the light’s going, and the stars are beginning to come out. The landscape below me starts to change, and I sit watching the lochs beginning to turn dark, as if they’re getting deeper and deeper, and then the world goes very quiet. Sometimes I think I hear you playing Scottish airs on the piano, but it must be an illusion.’
In October Alasdair went off to St Andrews University, wearing his kilt and driving the modest car which father had bought for him. He was in a hall of residence, and when he phoned from the coin box in the lobby the instrument was passed round between us. He told father that his studies were going well and that medicine was very interesting, and he assured our anxious mother that he was keeping warm in that chill town by the North Sea. He told me that he had played the pipes for an eightsome reel at a student dance, and that he loved me dearly and was looking forward to seeing me in the vacation.
When he drove up the avenue it seemed that he had grown even more, and when he came into the drawing-room the Christmas tree which mother and I had adorned with baubles and lights seemed to get brighter. Father monopolised him, interrogating him about what he was studying in medicine.
The following year I went to Glasgow University to study botany, and my brother and I exchanged weekly letters. He revealed that he was bringing home ‘a fellow medical student, Marjorie, whom you will like, because she also adores flowers.’
Marjorie came to our hospitable house at Christmas. She was small and very pretty, and it came as a surprise to us at the supper table that she too was a climber.
‘Where did you learn?’ father asked, intrigued.
‘With the university climbing club.’
Alasdair spent the following day sawing logs for our festive season fires, and then informed us that he and Marjorie were going to climb the mountain.
‘But there’s snow on it,’ mother pointed out.
‘That doesn’t bother us. We have crampons.’
‘What are these?’ mother asked for enlightenment.
‘Spikes we strap to our boots for snow. And we’ve got ice axes.’
They left in the dawn in fair weather. I went downstairs to see them off as they mustered their equipment in the hall, hauling on their haversacks, zipping up their anoraks, pulling on balaclavas because these were the days before hard hats for the mountains. They picked up their ice axes and kissed me, and I stood on the bitterly cold step in my dressing-gown, watching them trudging away, their torches scanning the plantation where my brother had built his hut. At lunch-time it started to snow heavily, and mother began to worry about her firstborn and his sweetheart on the mountain. I waded through the snow of the back garden with father’s binoculars, but a white curtain was descending on the ben.
Father had to go to the garage to have chains fitted to his tyres in case he was called out to an emergency. When he returned at four, mother was visibly distressed.
‘They should be back by now. It’s getting dark.’
‘They’ve probably been held up by the snow,’ father advised her, though I could see that he was worried.
That was the first night ever in our house that mother the consummate cook didn’t serve supper. We huddled round the drawing-room fire piled with logs which Alasdair had sawn, hearing the wind in the wide throat of the chimney. The coloured bulbs on the Christmas tree began to flicker, and then we were plunged in darkness apart from the firelight.
‘That’s all we need,’ father complained, groping his way through to the cupboard off the kitchen for the paraffin lamps we kept filled, wicks trimmed, for the power cuts which happened every winter, with the lines laden with snow. He brought the light back through to the drawing-room, and for the first time in my life I saw mother crying. At nine o’ clock father took the lamp out to the phone in the hall, to ask the police to call out the mountain rescue team, but the line was dead.
The wind dropped, and more snow fell, silent, eerie, submerging the world. I went upstairs to my bedroom at the back of the house and lifted the window on the bitter night. I put the record of the Corries singing Will Ye No’ Come Back Again? on the turntable of the battery operated player I had received for a past Christmas, turning the volume up full. I kept playing the record over and over, until mother came up.
‘For God’s sake, Eveleen, how can you play such loud music at such a time?’
‘Because I have hope, mother.’
I was falling asleep, despite the rousing song filling my room, but somehow I knew that I had to keep playing the same record over and over. At around 2 a.m. the batteries gave out, and I sat on my bed weeping. I don’t know what made me raise my head to look out of the window, and when I saw a light flashing on the mountain I ran down to tell father. We drove over treacherous roads, the chains snickering on the tyres, to the house of the leader of the mountain rescue team.
My brother and his sweetheart were brought down at first light. She had lost her footing on the ice face, and in holding her on the rope he had injured his leg. His shin bone was exposed and Marjorie had concussion.
‘We were sitting on a narrow ledge, trying to stay awake, but the cold was putting us to sleep,’ he told me. ‘I’ve read about climbers drifting into unconsciousness and death through hypothermia. Then I heard Will Ye No’ Come Back Again?’ being sung, but thought it was a hallucination, until I remembered your favourite record. My fingers were frozen, but I put them into my mouth and managed to signal with the torch.’
Alasdair was back on the games field the following summer, his leg healed as he carried the caber, and Marjorie had an engagement ring on her hand.
Translated as "Five Great Treasures of the Snow", Kanchenjunga's sacred peaks are said to contain divine texts, gold, grain, gems, and salt. As a mark of respect, when the first climbers attempted to conquer it in the mid twentieth century they stopped short of the summit. Sadly, modern day mountaineers no longer honour that ancient tradition.
Wilting in the pre-monsoon heat of Kerala, Jamie and I discuss ways of keeping cool and decide, just like the British Raj before us, it is time to head north.
“I've wanted to see the Himalaya since we arrived in India," says Jamie.
Thirty-six hours later we're drinking tea in Darjeeling. At 6710ft, 'The Queen of Hills' clings to the side of a steep valley, its narrow roads almost vertical in places. Our room is on the top floor of a five story house, and the nightly trek up to bed is good training for what is to come. Norbu and Sangay Dekeva's traditional home is snug and welcoming, its floors and walls decorated with photos and flags. Sweet masala tea is handed round in the wood panelled lounge, amid comfy sofas and a central wood burning stove. The view from our corner room offers the first panoramic view of the Himalaya: one window faces two kilometres down the valley; the other faces north west, across town to the Kanchenjunga massif. India's highest mountain (the third highest peak in the world) plays hide and seek with its admirers, sometimes appearing through the clouds at dawn or hanging in the sky at night. Although distant, the view is a spectacular, and memorable introduction to the Himalaya. The air is satisfyingly cool.
Before we can continue towards our goal, we have to visit the Magno Vale Academy in neighbouring Sukhia Pokhri. A friend of ours was a volunteer there, and we have promised to act as “ambassadors” for her UK charity, the Mondo Challenge Foundation.
After a few days of discovery in Darjeeling – visits to gompas, hill tops and forests, as well as joining a day-long procession to celebrate the birth of Buddha – we set off for the school.
Jiwan Rai, the Foundation's local smiling face, drives us over rock-strewn roads that twist and turn past jaw-dropping passes on one side, and pastel-coloured timber and clay houses on the other. The school is reached from a stony path, down which we walk in single file. At the end we climb over a slippery dirt wall into the playground (the path and wall were washed away during the monsoon later this year, closing the school for a week). The building is half completed, with no glass in the windows, no plaster on the walls and a precarious attitude to electricity. We are met by cries of welcome from the children, who range between four and sixteen.
“Some of them walk for three hours to come here every day,” says Deven Subba, the young headmaster.
“They walk up through the fields and forests. There are no roads.” He points across the valley. “Most of the children's parents work in the tea or quinine plantations and can't read or write.”
There are no computers or televisions at home; the erratic power supply, (sometimes there is no electricity for days) means they are often in darkness. Deven introduces us to a class of seven year olds, all keen to show us their book work. The entire school is eager to meet us, so we make a point of visiting each of the tiny, cold classrooms. With saucer-eyes, they drink in everything we say. We play games, swap stories, listen to them sing and watch long and intricate dances.
We spend the final hour with six of the older children, and are astonished by their high level of spoken and written English. We ask them if they have any questions, and are surprised by the topics they raise.
“Do you think Osama bin Laden is really dead?” (The news that week has been about the US hit on bin Laden's fortress in Pakistan.)
“Do you believe in the Big Bang theory?”
“Has man finished evoluting [sic]?”
When it is time to leave we are given a loud send off by children and teachers, all asking when their next volunteer will arrive. We promise we will tell the Foundation to send someone soon.
Jiwan asks if we'd like to see some of the other mountain schools. How can we refuse?
Over the next week we put our plans on hold and visit a further seven schools: all are dependent on charity; all are crushingly poor; all are run by dedicated and knowledgeable staff. Best of all, they are all populated with healthy little sponges, eager to soak up information and knowledge.
Before we leave, our new friends take us on an afternoon tour into Nepal, where we drink beer and are served noodles by the family of one of the school children. We ask them where we should go for the best view of Kanchenjunga. Jiwan tells us to avoid Tiger Hill, where the noisy domestic tourists from Darjeeling come by Jeep every morning. Deven insists we try the view from 10,170ft Tonglu: it's closer (just) and clearer. It's also a pleasant walk. They persuade us to take a trek in the Singalila National Park, and arrange a guide for us. Great believers in local knowledge, we happily accept the invitation and the following day we set off just after sunrise.
Pemba is a 21 year old local student, who has recently trained as a guide; he is eager to practice his new job and excellent English on us. We soon learn that the Nepali idea of an easy walk is quite different to our own. The first day includes the steepest part of the journey and takes eight hours. It drizzles. It thunders. The lightning crashes around us. The Tibetans weren't wrong when they named Darjeeling the 'Land of Thunderbolts'. In fact it rains during the entire trek.
At Tumling, after a toasty night under thick blankets in a mountain hut, Jamie dutifully rises at 5:30 for a hike up to Tonglu; he hopes to catch the sun hitting Kanchenjunga with his camera. Unfortunately the vision lasts only a few seconds before the clouds come lumbering across the horizon, gobbling up the mountain and valley.
We stop at the homes of Pemba's friends along the way, and drink an odd assortment of tea, sometimes with butter and at other times with salt. We gulp down anything they throw at us. At 'Chitray' ('Bamboo House') we meet a young Lama and his entourage of monks. The place, with goats, dogs and chickens mooching around the yard, is a farm. The largest building doubles as a family home and restaurant. We fall into the warm, dry dining room, steam pouring off us, and sit knocking back masala chai as we chomp on biscuits. After a while we notice an old man sitting in the shadows. He smiles and raises his glass to us, so we nod and say hello. He is 'Chitray Pala' ('Bamboo House Papa'). We chat to him and, through Pemba, learn he is 80 years old and comes from Tibet. 58 years ago he was imprisoned by the Chinese. It was a deadly situation, so after twelve days he escaped and ran, taking his mother and father with him. He doesn't know how many miles they walked over the mountains, but he knows it took two months to get here and build their first farm out of the local bamboo. He finishes his coffee and goes to talk to the Lama, who blesses him. Chitray Pala shouts goodbye to us all and sets off up the hill in the rain, carrying a huge piece of corrugated iron on his back.
“He's going to mend one of the shacks on his farm,” says Pemba.
We never manage to glimpse Kanchenjunga during the trek, the clouds never part for long. But we see bunches of orchids garlanding the forest trees, fill up on wild strawberries, spot eagles and meet maroon-clad Tibetan monks in sandals playing football with a can.
With the school visits over, we are still no closer to Kanchenjunga, instead we find ourselves trekking alongside the quinine plantations surrounding Kalimpong. Jiwan has invited us to his brother's house for the night, and is taking us on an afternoon's traverse across the mountains to his family's village of 'Barranumber'. Having learnt our lesson at Singalila we are prepared for vertical climbs and knee jarring drops, but the walk turns out to be gentle and dry. Barranumber village is only accessible by foot, so the valley is quiet: there are no roads or tourists. We arrive at the home of Jiwan's brother, Santa Rai, in the late afternoon.
Santa's wife, Kabita, stokes the hearth in preparation for our evening meal, while their fifteen month old daughter, Sumnima, plays in the ashes. Houses of the Lepcha, Nepali and Bhutia tribes are constructed of wooden frames, slatted bamboo, and cow dung. At first glance they are indistinguishable from our own twee wattle and daub dwellings. It is disorientating to see what appear to be Tudor houses lining the roads in the Himalaya. The roses, geraniums and other English country garden flowers lined up outside in pots only add to the effect. Inside, however, there are no chintz suites, no clever paint-effect walls or walk-in power showers.
Santa's kitchen is coated entirely in smooth odourless cow dung. The low range, also made from dung, grows organically out of the floor. Its two open fires give off plenty of smoke, and the food is cooked directly on the flames. In the semi darkness we crouch and eat fresh momos, noodles and pork, while Santa plies us with 'Tiger's Milk', a gently fermented maize left to work its magic in a bucket. The baby greedily sucks the opaque liquid from her cup, while we move on to Tongba (millet beer) then a much stronger Himalayan hooch called Rakshi (pronounced 'roxy'). It is a hot version of alpine schnapps, and comes in a variety of flavours from apple or maize to rhododendron (or anything else the maker chooses to add).
The next morning Kanchenjunga beckons, so we spend one more day walking in Kalimpong before driving to Gangtok, Sikkim's capital. In 1975, pinned between Nepal, Tibet, India and Bhutan, the little Kingdom of Sikkim sloughed off three centuries of Chogyal rule and welcomed the protection of its largest neighbour. Now the second smallest state in India (Goa wins the top prize) sits high and alone at the eastern end of the Himalaya. Deep river valleys slice through its vertiginous mountains, each fold in the earth's crust looming higher as it marches towards Asia.
Running out of time, we move higher up, to Pelling. Really just a row of hotels along a ridge, it is a characterless place full of smart domestic tourists, and yet it has some exciting treks, is close to the Rabdentse ruins and the magnificent Pemayangtse Gompa, and is a springboard to the Kanchenganga National Park. Sitting with a beer later that first evening, we watch the sun go down behind India's highest mountain range, and decide we will walk the 34km trail to sacred Kechopari Lake.
The next day we heave ourselves out of bed to catch the sun's first rays as they caress India's highest mountain. In the silence of a crystal clear Himalayan dawn we watch tiger-toothed caps emerge from the blackness, changing from pink to peach and finally to a pure, glistening white. One kilometre below us, the valley is tucked under eiderdown clouds as we begin our trek in the shadow of Kanchenjunga.
“Strange how fast his heart is beating”, I thought. My ear was scratching the waterproof jacket as I hugged his chest, his arm around me to warm against the chill wind. We were standing looking out to where sunrays were making pools of mercury on the grey sea between the islands. To Rum, where we had been in the summer, and the strange fin of Eigg. I should have been watching the clouds shift the light, and the mist stroke up against the mountainside. And that moment I was. Almost. But I was also staring at the flat screen in my neon office… and dozing between bent newspapers and empty crisp packets on the stuffy Friday train from Edinburgh, impatient to meet his hot kisses on the station. And then the dark walk to his small flat in Inverness which was always freezing and damp because of the storage heaters so that all we could do was warm each other in bed and draw lines across the folds of Scotland, back and forth, weekend after weekend to see each other or meet in the hills...
On the first day, the walk in, our eyes had been heavy from the week, and later, I lay awake in the dank bothy listening to the whining generator from the cottage next-door, annoyed that this was not the private peace by the glassy loch I had imagined. Just after we’d rounded the last point on the coastal path, a large herd of stags had poured down from the hill, crossing the path in front of us. They raced out onto a promontory and then splashed into the shallows of Barrisdale Bay, creating wobbles in the reflection of the green hillsides. As the sides of the hill lapped at the shore ever more lazily, we’d stood and watched the deer watch us. Both parties in quiet anticipation. I rested on my walking poles, forgetting the rucksack of food and sleeping bag pulling hard on my shoulders, feeling regret at causing them anxiety but wanting to watch for longer. One stag bent down to chew some seaweed, breaking the reflection and the tension. The rest of the herd of antlered heads lowered in unison and we whispered in jest that perhaps they knew we were in the wrong coloured Gore-Tex to have guns.
But it was so strange that then, with the wind aching in my other ear, I could still hear his heart beating through all those layers of clothing. “Perhaps”, I thought vaguely, “he’s actually a bit exhausted...unlikely though with all that Wednesday fell running … still the constant weekends seeing each other and late phone calls take up energy”. I pushed a strand of hair that was whipping into my eyes back into my hat. The mist was wrapping a little thicker over the ridge, and the mercury waters gleamed palely through wisps drifting in front of them. Grey boulders merged with grey. “What I love most” I thought “is that every moment the light changes”. A warm yellow glow on a hill in the distance singled it out from dark ranks.
Just earlier we had climbed up onto the mossy side of Ladhar Bheinn, but I had refused to go on across a steep traverse of spring snow topping the wet bank. A damp lump slithered into pieces down the hill as I walked. Always a wimp, the wet grass was suddenly that under a friend’s foot, somewhere else a few summers ago. I stopped in fear, reliving their slip and fall forever.
“Oh come on, it’s not that hard” he had called and cajoled, disappointed I knew and I felt bad because it was a long way to come and I wanted to be braver for him. Like him my heart never felt stiller than in the quiet of the hills, but I didn’t have his head for heights. Somehow though, we could never make an argument last a long time. “Come, we’ll go up Luinne Bheinn instead” he pulled me off the rock that I was a cragfast sheep on and into the shelter of his body, his three-day stubble prickling my face and the toggles from his rucksack digging me hard in the chest. We’d gone along the ridge then, hand in hand talking about plans for the summer holiday in Skye, three whole weeks of being together by the mountains and the sea. Not too long now.
The mist was thinner again and I could see a raven flapping above the boulders on the ridge. A small spot of rain hit me on the cheek and I shivered, hugging tighter into his armpit, but it would not come to much as there was still light shining on the sea. And I said “you know it’s strange but your heart’s beating so loud that I can hear it”.
There was a pause, “That’s because there is a question I’ve been wanting to ask you”. And somehow he was on one knee in the wet moss and, in Knoydart, a second heart was beating strong.
By Alice Herve
At first, it sated me to sketch the mountain:
festooned with fringed mists, riven with chasms;
durable, defiant, and dreadful in shadowed reflection,
the tortured frosted tower of lone spire soaring.
Spellbound I heard the ethereal sound of wind-driven
snow swarm down from above like damaged language.
I cannot name the snows. There is no language
jagged or chill enough to limn this mountain.
Obsession overcomes me. I am driven
to pick out punctures on the veiled chasms;
to stand among the eagles swirling, soaring,
defying God with my untamed reflection.
I shall surmount that face of stony reflection,
which fires in me a pledge without a language.
I shall prevail upon that spiny, soaring
triangle of threat that crests the mountain;
dazed by sugared ice and ragged chasms,
satisfied, at peace, no longer driven.
Embarking from the east, the snow is driven
in squalls, to whet and whittle my reflection,
unsettling my resolve to conquer chasms.
It worries from my mouth the sacred language
which, climbing, I whisper to the mountain;
and it sends my hushed words wild and soaring.
I essay the peak and now my spirit is soaring
itself among the eagles and the driven-
down, feather-bedded, pebble-leaded, mountain
spiralling all around me. On reflection,
I realise I recall this language,
the howls and whimpers echoing in the chasms.
And oh the deadly and the deathly chasms,
where griefs I do not dare to dwell on, soaring
into my mind, leave only caustic language;
as four friends into the depths are driven.
And I see that hell too has its reflection
here on this murderous, mutinous, mountain.
The whiteness in the chasms is ash, driven
from the bones of soaring hopes and vain reflection.
My lips chill with the language of the mountain.
(Edward Whymper (1840-1911) conquered the Matterhorn in 1865. Four companions were killed)
By Abbie Garrington
In the looped line of the belay you were held close,
On a portion of air so fine
It seemed your fall was inevitable –
The rope a joke, the slightest pause before you hastened,
Wingless Icarus, in a delicate descent to
Frigid seas; to African ice.
At the end of a written line I waited,
Sure the last of those scribbled loops would be, not yours
A telegrammatic account
Of your failure to cheat gravity,
The scantest of details sketched for my memory –
High heroism; self-sacrifice.
But the lines held and you returned
Corporeal witness to the upper regions
Uneasy on the horizontal plane.
And I lost you
Not to rock wall or flitting spree
Nor a harsh night of low mercury
But to another, closer danger.
A spinning compass took you elsewhere
New landscapes unknown to your senses,
Routes for a tentative step;
But the promise too of triumph
And of discovery.
So you left
Your heart roped to another, and not a line to say.
Now, summit-bound, I recall our years
And find some happiness in ascent,
The climb a consolation
A Berber pilgrimage
To a place where the atlas spreads beneath me
Plateaux of longing, gradations of loss,
Issouâl, Id Aissar, Aoulime.
By Sarah Rest
Cornflower sky above
But no flowers below,
Just snow falling
Down gaunt gullies
On a whipping wind.
To become a dead weight.
Trees touch their toes.
Dead white silence
Embalms meadow grass
Silence as golden
As dawn’s dabbling touch
On distant summits.
Waterfalls hold their blue breath.
In the threadbare light
Crisp quiet is ground
Into icy shards
Under the dogged heels of
Fervent men and women.
They squeeze the short days dry
To satisfy their desire.
The air sighs and eats their clamour.
Under the deep sky
Now scratched with vapour trails
They are specks of dirt
On a sheet.
They hack, crash, kick and clatter
Until they hear
The hum of blood through body.
Spindrift soothes their ardour.
They leave before
Night’s tight cold
Clutches at their core.
The debris and damage of their hunger
Heals in the sorcery of altitude;
Melt waters are held still
And smoothed by bitter chill.
Snow gently restores silence.