by Hilary Jocelyn
There’s something about mountains
I work on the sixth floor of an old building, and as I meander up the metallic staircase, I often pretend that I am breathlessly lumbering up a mountain. The linoleum steps transform into slippery rocks and irregular boulders to clamber over, and the view from the windows as I ascend, shifts from city scape, to an ocean of purple gleaming mountain tops, tinged by the morning sun.
I have been climbing mountains since I could put one step in front of another. My dad was a troubled soul and found some solace from his life burdens in the wilderness of the Scottish hills on our doorstep. When I was just a wee toddler, and my older sister was just shy of four, and my younger one a tiny babe in my mother’s arms, he disappeared for two long days, lost and disoriented in the dangerous terrain of the lonely and savage Cuillins of Skye. Search and Rescue Teams failed to find him, but mercifully for us all he was stumbled upon by random ramblers, who rescued him and led him back to the safe and accusing arms of my mother.
Funnily enough, this life-threatening experience did not put an end to his exploring, but rather, to my mother’s dismay, it seemed to inspire him to adventure further and deeper, longer and harder. In an attempt to appease her, he worked hard on improving his navigation skills and became an expert with a map and compass as he headed out to Scotland’s untamed terrain. Then, despite my mother’s anxious opposition, he decided to take me along on his wildest jaunts as soon as I was steady on my little feet. Throughout my formative years, we huffed and puffed up many a friendly mountain and ascended together multiple hostile slopes. I will always be profoundly grateful that I inherited this desire for high and remote places, that lie within me, deeper than a hillside loch.
There’s something about climbing mountains
A couple of decades, and many Scottish mountain tops later, I moved to Canada, and lived for a few years in Montreal. I would smile a little to myself when the locals there would talk about “La Montagne”, which is the name they proudly give to a small heap of green that lies smack bang in the middle of the metropolis. This was indeed an oasis of outdoor beauty, with many silent places tucked away in its corners, and I satisfied myself for a while by exploring the twists and turns, and also got busy with other things in life, putting my mountain passion on a temporary hold.
A few years later we moved to the Outaouais region and my parents bravely “crossed the Pond” to visit for the very first time, and to meet the bundle of grandchildren that had since come their way. My dad took one look at the Gatineau Hills that loomed invitingly on the horizon and sniffed scornfully, turning up his height discerning nose in displeasure. It dawned on him with shock that these weren’t anything like the Canadian Rockies, and that the hills he could see before him didn’t even offer him the challenge of a few moments of breath catching. He retreated to a corner and engrossed himself in looking at an area map to see if he could find some kind of a challenging ascent.
A few moments later he jumped up decisively, closing the map with a flourish “We need to go to the Adirondacks “he said with his eyes shining in excitement. ” There are lots of proper mountains there that are over 4000 feet high, and it’s only a three hour drive to get there.! “
So that evening we jumped in the car, said good bye to the wee ones, and off we set to drive over the border to explore this beautiful group of mountains. Of course, my dad would tackle nothing less than the highest summit in the range, so bright and early the next day we aimed straight for the dominant and towering head of Mount Marcy. Upwards we ascended on a well-defined path, and a good many hours later we finally sat exuberantly satisfied on the summit, swigging back a well-earned mouthful of tea. I gasped at the awesome crowd of mysterious shapes that appeared in front, around and beside me stretching out in all directions almost as far as the eye could see. I knew that I would be back to befriend the multitude of lesser-known peaks that peered at me enticingly from across the valleys. A new love affair had begun.
There is something about summits.
Since this introductory foray, many years ago, these mountains and I have managed to develop quite an intimate relationship. I have climbed all of the 46 summits that reach over 4000 ft and I know each of them by name, recognizing their individual unique shapes as they stand silhouetted against the sky. I call out to them silently and wave at them across the valley, as if I were greeting my dear old friends.
“Hello Colden. Hello, Sawteeth. Hello Giant”. I say as they appear shyly from behind a thick layer of cloud, and my pleasure rating rises with each familiar sighting.
Unlike most of my friends, however these mountains are not always kind and can change in the blink of an eye. An ambling gentle path turns suddenly, into a steep thread, along a turbulent rockface. Around a corner, a gradual gradient switches dramatically to a tough and nerve rattling ascent. Unpredictable and moody they are full unexpected surprises and challenges. Water. Mud, Rock, Roots. Weather
There’s something about memories.
I have indeed many very cherished memories. Some are of being alone- when it’s just me and the hills around me. Others are of walking the gentler trails with my family, playing games and telling stories as we ascend, to distract from the climb. Still more, are of adventures shared with friends as we follow along on our upward trajectory. And then there are the memories of the places themselves, of harsh weather, of jaw dropping sights of beauty. Of nature in all its wonderment spread out below me. All memories are special, and I nurture each of them in their entirety, as I face my concrete stairs.
A few years go in the middle of April I set off at dawn with a couple of friends, to attempt what was a very long and arduous hike called the Dix Range. As we set off the rain was emptying itself relentlessly onto the path in front of us. There was still snow on the ground, but spring was delicately alive and beating in the mountain air. We squelched back at the end of the day a few soggy summits later, tired and weary from our exertions, and we found that the benign stream we had crossed easily earlier that morning had now turned into a pounding mass of non negotiable energy, bursting with the day’s heavy rain and melting snow.
We looked for several hours, under the darkening sky, trying to find a safe place to cross, but every option called out death by drowning to us. We blundered upstream in the dark, but the torrent was unforgiving, and it finally dawned on us that we would not be revisiting our warm beds that night, but instead would have to snuggle down in the slush and the mud, until morning, when the gush had subsided to a safer flow.
So out came the serious hiker’s faithful survival gear that I always carry that usually sits unused in a corner of the pack- a dry change of clothes, some stale granola bars, an oversized garbage bag, a survival blanket, a spare headlamp, and mercifully, a pair of warm socks. Then, most deliciously, there came a swallow of a few dregs of lukewarm tea, left over in the bottom of my thermos, and suddenly all was well with me, until we walked out across calmer waters to safety in the morning light.
And then there is the memory of solitude. Of when it’s just you and the hills around you.
On my most recent visit to these magical mountains, in the middle of one of the coldest months of the year and just three weeks before the border closed due to Covid, I tender a different treasured memory. This time it was of being alone, on a gloriously windy, ice-covered summit. Suddenly, with almost no warning, an Adirondack flavoured snowstorm blew in and wiped everything away from my sight. All I could see was dense, blue tinted, circular snow, landing ferociously on my eyelashes.
I was terrified as I could not see my return path or even, barely, the boots at the end of my feet. I knew that the safest thing to do was to try to get off the cold and exposed hilltop and descend to the safety of the sheltering tree line, a couple of hundred feet or so below. I breathed in a calming breath and quickly consulted my frozen compass. Then I got down on all fours, and started to crawl downhill with my face close to the ground, following the tiny holes in the ice that I had made on my ascent, with my poles and my snowshoes. I knew there wasn’t much time, before they too were obliterated by falling snow. Around me loomed the vague shapes of stunted frozen bushes that had been sculptured by the wind into glorious and ghostly ice carvings. It was eerie, it was silent, it was briefly nightmarish, and it was completely, magnificently, awe inspiring.
Time stood still as I descended carefully, with my heart knocking in audible beats of fright, but in the end, I successfully reached the shelter of the tree line. There, I was met by a rough well marked path that greeted me warmly and led me down the mountain. On the way down I met some other hikers and so together a few hours later, we reached the safety of the valley below.
Au revoir to you, my dear mountains. I hope to see you all again soon.
And when you are gone, the rocks remain. And you remain in the rocks.