The obvious and natural place to start, is with a definition of a mountain, because people seem to feel it’s necessary to mark out dividing lines. And perhaps this is only natural given that mountains for most of us are marked with topographic lines on the map, or with fences and intake walls on the hillside itself. Mountains are inherently demarcated areas, straddling country borders horizontally, and may be comprised of linear geological strata vertically. A mountain is a lined thing. And so, when we want to stand the mountain against the wall and draw a line from its head to the door frame, scribbling a note in metres or feet for posterity, then we do it knowing that as a species we are obsessed with gaining height.
Yet, I don’t want to define a mountain. I don’t want to suggest that such an arbitrary measure is important. A mountain is what you see and feel it to be, held against your tacit belief of what a mountain is and should be. The point at which a hill becomes a mountain can be written down in text books – let’s call it 600 metres – and yet any mountain dweller will tell you a hill can become a mountain if the weather is inclement, you are under-fed or when the light is fading and you forgot your torch. Moreover, a hill may have no discernible route up or down leaving it undisturbed and impenetrable, and a full-scale mountain by conventional definition might be so clearly marked as to feel like a motorway on a summer’s day.
I’m not sure that my backstory is of any interest – it doesn’t offer the clues as to how I ended up consuming mountains this way – but my own significant turning point was when I began my geological studies and became a specialist in Himalayan mountain building; Orogenesis – the birth of mountains. As a geologist, I carry a structural understanding with me in my head, and I know very roughly how most of the world’s mountain ranges are formed by one mechanism or another. But when I let this formal education go, my definition of a mountain changes. I think little of orogenesis when I’m walking in the uplands, thinking instead about how it makes me feel, what I can see in the environment, how the light changes, how the world looks smaller below, and how I feel bigger above.
In this regard I don’t have a scientific approach. Neither am I adrenaline-fuelled and keen to spend the mountain bounty any way that I can. On the contrary, my way is considered and steady; dare I say slow. Paraphrasing my hero, Nan Shepard, I walk into the mountains and into myself. I go to learn and to be quiet in nature, in the company of old and great friends. I am interested in the experience of being in the mountain in terms of what I can learn about the earth and indeed myself, and I am less interested in what the mountain can do for me.
Mountains are areas of great natural beauty, quietness and violence. They inhabit all spaces of the mind. They cover 25% of the planet. They are dynamic environments, as old as time itself and give up their secrets in ways that are only visible when you take time to look. If you choose not to look, a mountain will always just be a playground, and soon enough you will be expelled. But if you listen to the mountain’s story you will better understand how to live with and in them safely, and with wider eyes. Where you now see just steep slopes, you will come to see the delicate topographic pathways through craggy gullies, the hidden sheep tracks, and the unclothing point of the tree line, the ruined drystone shelters, the strike of the rocks and how you might scale them.
Truthfully, I am in a lifelong love affair with the British uplands because there is an enchanting, old-world quality to our mountains that is easy to love, but hard to quantify and explain. Someone from the high Alps or the Pacific North West is unlikely to understand what appeal a low-mountain can offer. To understand, you need to go to the mountains, as you would an old friend and enjoy time with them for the reasons that make them special. You go humble, and you return more so. The British uplands, of which all the countries of the UK have a part, are the earth’s gentle elders; with ages topping out at around 500 million years old. Compare them (and their Caledonian brother’s in the United States) to the high, but juvenile Himalayas at just 55 million years old. Height is not the only measure of worth, and the top 100 metres of any mountain is always the top 100 metres. Wind is still wind, sun is sun and rain is rain. Some experiences are immutable.
No old friend has captivated me as deeply as the Cairngorms in the Scottish Grampian highlands. Like Nan Shepard, it is here that I go to know myself more, or sometimes to become myself again. I find only mountains can restore that thing which goes missing in modern life: the wild heart. On the sparse and minimal plateau you will find yourself in one of the least populated areas of Europe, and it is not a place to take for granted. Though the hills are not alpine, they are a different kind of mountain, the type that has swallowed people whole who have not recognised the risk in its wide open topography. Approaching almost always from the Glenmore or Glenfeshie sides, I feel myself come back to life winding my way to the top through the cool and rangy Caledonian Pines, smiling to myself as the crested tits busy themselves amongst the branches. One of my greatest pleasures is looking out for the winter-coated mountain hare, and tracking Ptarmigan amongst the rocks guided not on visuals, but by their haunting gobble that echoes around the lee slopes of the mountainside. If you are lucky you might see a Brocken spectre across the Lairig Ghru, or gaze down, full-hearted, into a valley where the clouds have gathered entirely below you (as if from a plane) due to a temperature inversion between the ground and the air.
Whether I am removing rocks from the hill tracts of Bangladesh, cycling the Dolomites or refreshing my work-tired spirit in North Wales, my relationship with the mountain is what defines upland areas in my mind. If it is less than 600m or over 600m I care very little: the point is, that I am Up, I am Happy, and I am Home. I would encourage anyone interested in the mountain to learn about its environment, to walk out often unshackled by someone else’s definition of height and grandeur, and instead simply let the mountain do what it can do. It will always be bigger than you, and that’s the point.
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