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An Ascent of Skiddaw

(Lines Written a Few Weeks after an Ascent of Skiddaw. September 21, 2021)


— Our ascent began in mid afternoon

As distant peaks kept clouds and rain at bay.

You had promised me Helvellyn (ah—that name!

Upon first hearing it, my mind brought forth

Hellish landscapes marked out with barren crags,

A mountain actively hostile to life),

Some breathless scrambles over Striding Edge,

A plunge into the Red Tarn, but—alas!

Such joys would have to wait, for I had been

Impatient, bursting with that childish need

To experience all things at once; with

Maps and dusty guidebooks in my hand, with

Words and phrases copied out, lines of verse

Composed upon these very hills, the Lakes

Had seemed to me a checklist to complete,

A list of summits to ascend.

                                                But O!

You showed me how such restless excitement

Robbed every moment of its joy!—From you

I learnt to greet each new experience

With gratitude, as if it were my last.

We had but three days to explore, and so

You left me wanting more—promises of

Frozen tarns and snow-capped peaks awaited

Us in future months (yet you must’ve known

That such enticements were in vain—you knew

I needed no more reason to return!)

But here, I was content to gaze upwards,

Connecting row after row of peaks with

The vastness of the sky. Remember how

You had warned me of the Lakeland weather—

The ever-changing weather!—clear at first,

Then shrouded all in mist. Thus I arrived

With tempered hopes (it was mid-September

After all); yet imagine how I felt

As mighty Skiddaw reared up before us,

Unobscured by any cloud, and its peak

Edged slowly into view.

                                           Ah! That perfect

Tapestry of colour—cushiony greens,

Fading to carpets of red heather, capped

Off by a rocky golden top—all this

I saw with joy, and started to ascend.

Our walks began with similar energy,

And this would be the same; making our way

Through evergreen trees, I chatted breathlessly

Along the path, almost afraid to

Stop, lest we fell into awkward silence—

If only we had! For then we could have heard

The mountains speaking for themselves, in their

Own language—a language of raging winds, of

Cataracts flowing from unknown sources,

Unceasing in their quest from lake to sea.

I had presumed to speak for peaks and fells,

No, for Nature itself, thinking I could

Glimpse secrets that could only be revealed

To a quietly reverent attention.

Such thoughts passed over me as we walked on

In fading light, the setting sun casting

Long shadows behind us, deepening those

Scars and ravines that ran down Clough Head, whilst

Gold-tinted grass swayed silently ahead.

You said: “Nothing compares to the summit”

As unseen gusts of wind carried your voice

Far away. In our quest for expansive states

And natural highs, this surely was a peak,

That will stand, like a mountain, in our lives.

And yet, as we were marking our ascent

With customary stone atop the cairn,

We saw the true summit further ahead!

For we were stood, unbeknownst to us, on

Skiddaw’s Little Man, our footpath leading

Us onwards and upwards. I felt again

That same need to complete the climb; and yet,

Sensing such impatience, you reminded

Me of future paths left untrod, and with

The sun receding from a blood-red sky,

We too turned back, and started our descent.



                                  * * *



We walked in search of some sublimity,

Some presence neither of us could quite name,

But both have felt and known—that state in which

The world, once thought incomprehensible,

Concealed from our human understanding,

Becomes receptive to us at last, and

In that quiet mood, allows us to glimpse

Ineffable truths of the soul. Yet how

Many weeks, or months, or even years must

We trudge onwards in mutual vacancy,

Before we see the source of this mystery?

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