An epiphany among mountains
One cannot say the unsayable nor name the unnameable. But both the unsayable and unnameable exist, and a confrontation with either can be as powerful as any more easily described experience.
To Sprinkling Tarn
I was walking up and out of Upper Langdale in strong sunlight, past the stream in the wood, past the birdsong and the insistent cuckoo, and wondering, at a crossroads, which of two paths to take. One, a right turn to a long dogleg via the Stake Pass to my destination at Angle Tarn. The other, to the left, a shorter, steadily steepening rise up and through the rocky Rossett Gill to the same place. I stood waiting for guidance but none came. Without thought, without words, I turned left and found myself beginning to feel the weight of my pack as the ground rose before me towards the Gill.
The sweat came and dripped off my nose and something told me that at about a third of the height I should stop and drink some water and bite on a fruit bar. I sat by the path side. A man and his young daughter, who was about 10 years old, were descending and stopped by me. ‘Wild camping?’ the man asked. ‘Yes – I’m heading for Angle Tarn’. ‘That’s a lovely place, but Sprinkling Tarn is even finer.’ ‘And it’s not much further on’, said the girl. ‘I think I am getting a little too old for this lark.’ I said. The girl looked at me and said, ‘Don’t be downhearted. You will get there’. I said that I thought I would. They carried on down. It was some time after, with the struggle up Rossett Gill behind me, that the lovely words of the girl struck home. I had said nothing to her that acknowledged her kindness and now the chance had gone. An empty space where a smile and a simple thank you should have been. An empty space between me and the girl, created by what I had not said.
I arrived at Angle Tarn and sat for a while. It was early in a long summer day – around one o’clock. Too early to camp, and what would I do for the next nine hours of daylight? I pushed on up to near the Esk Hause pass and then began the descent under the huge cliffs of Great End towards Sprinkling Tarn. Great End’s bigger neighbour, Great Gable, on the other side of the Styhead pass, began to dominate the view. And then there was the Tarn just below. It seemed small and unassuming and welcoming. A few late walkers ambled passed and a family swam among the tiny twinkling lights of the tarn surface. Then they were gone.
I stood looking at the surroundings, seeking out a good place for the tent. Another lone camper, a young woman, had already staked out a claim by the path on the far side of the tarn. I could see a lively dog scurrying around her tent. To my right was a flat space with convenient boulders on which I could set my kitchen. The tent went up and all my gear organised. The late afternoon crept on. The sun streamed across the Styhead pass from above Wasdale and turned Great Gable into a massive bulk of blue-grey brightness, with its ridges and buttresses barely visible through the haze. At one point the woman opposite stood up outside her tent and was silhouetted against this massive wall of light. Her tiny figure’s presence transformed Great Gable into something monstrously huge and overwhelming. She stood still for a while, then turned back to her tent. Behind her silent, slight and graceful movement, the mountain remained, weighed down by its own gigantic mass – immovable, solid, indifferent. What subtle, unfelt movement of the brain’s synapses were responding to this unwritten drama? The woman and the mountain.
To Beck Head and beyond.
Rising and packing up the next morning I presumed I was in for an easy day, descending to into Wasdale. And so it was. Crossing the pass at Styhead I had my first far distant view of the shining white speck of the Wasdale Head Inn where I would arrive two hours later. I would drink cool beer, eat well and stay that night, not camping as I had thought, but stretching out in the one single room they had available.
The next morning, I was surprised to see that not many people were about, in spite of the good weather. Today I was making for Beck Head, the pass between Great Gable and Kirk Fell, then further on to a mountain called Haystacks. Ahead and above, I could see the path slanting up the side of Great Gable. A gentle stroll through stone-walled, sheep filled fields took me to the beginning of the rise. And so it began. Slow, small steps. Keep going. Do not stop unless you need to. Slow small steps. Don’t look up. Or, if you do, choose a goal not far ahead where you can rest. No other thought. Nothing. A steady rhythm and an empty mind, an echoing space with perhaps some plaintive sounds moving in and out of focus. Was that all?
A question was raised some years ago which asked, ‘What is it like to be a bat?’. No-one could answer. But what about, to me, the more pressing question? ‘What is it like to be me?’
There seems to be constant activity in my brain, only fully conscious in part, with fleeting moods, emotions, images and sounds arriving and fading as if continually rising and sinking in and out of a deep sea. Physically it is the same. My senses, via my brain, were telling my conscious self that I was surrounded by green grass and silver grey scree and a wide mountain landscape. I could hear the burble of a stream and the bleating of sheep. I could feel the sun beating on my head and the sting of salt sweat in my eyes. I could feel my clothes and boots. I was aware of some parts of my body. The aching calf muscles, the thigh ache, the gallstone sting, the steady deep breathing and the near addictive flushes of pleasure to be had from mild discomfort and mild pain. And, although I have used words here in retrospect, at the time all this was without any of these mental, visual and physical sensations coalescing into language. This must all be part of what it is like to be me. But I am not sure. Not sure at all. Does language block any way to experience what it is like to be me?
The climb went on. I rested. A sheep walked close by on the path as I sat there. It stopped within a few feet and looked at me. What is it like to be a sheep? What is it like to be a sheep looking at me looking at it? I couldn’t tell, of course, but I am sure it didn’t have the words or grammar that can clutter the pre-frontal cortex in my own brain. Was the muted cacophony and misty imagery I was partly aware of below the spoken experience, some semblance of what the sheep was experiencing? Strip out the words and what is left?
Having reached Beck Head I could see, on the other side of the pass, the long line of my path stretching across the hillside – ‘Moses Trod’ (a famous said-to-be smugglers’ route from the Honister slate mines to Wasdale). The main work of the day had been done and I strolled along in some content towards the next objective. Haystacks looks a diminutive and uninteresting mountain given its surrounding higher peaks but none the less, a place I had wanted to visit for some time. One reason was that the ashes of a famous walker are scattered there, and I wanted to see why he had chosen it. It was also on my route towards Buttermere and in a good position to break halfway and camp.
My map had shown what I had thought would be an easy walk and scramble up a short distance from Blackbeck Tarn to the higher and, from where I was heading, a small hidden lake. Through winding rocky passes and gullies, I made my way up. It is one of the delights of these walks that the first sight of the desired objective can give rise to a mild sense of achievement, relief and a muted joy that very soon one can throw off the pack and not put it on again until the next morning. All this is more so if the objective emerges such as the one which now appeared. Innominate Tarn. My first sight of the water was almost at eye level and the surface a thin sliver of light. As I mounted the last few feet, it opened out into an expanse of calm water in a small depression surrounded by rocky outcrops. It looked as though it had been lifted above the surrounding landscape in a bowl. Like a wash bowl of a giant. A bath for a minor god. Perhaps a drinking pond for an enormous, fabled eagle. But it was just as it was.
I threw down the sack and sat on a boulder for a while at the edge of the tarn. A few late walkers passed by from time to time. None of them stopped to look. Even on first impressions, this place had some powerful charm but nobody seemed to sense it enough to stop and ponder. The number of passers-by gradually dwindled to nothing, and I was left alone.
All the chores of camping were gone through. Tent up, sleeping mat laid out and sleeping bag put in place. The food and cooking gear set out. Water filtered ready for cooking and drinking. Not least making myself comfortable. Boots off. Everything loosened and relaxed. Cooked a meal, washed up and propped myself against a rock and sat.
In the foreground was the water. In the middle distance some rocky outcrops on the opposite side. Then nothing, as if the earth had fallen away and the tarn and I were resting on the edge of an immense precipice. Across a vast space were green grey mountains in a row. Kirk Fell and Great Gable, with, in the gap between, Scafell Pike. The small ripples on the surface of the tarn appeared and disappeared as they do on all watery surfaces, be they minute as here, or on the vast turmoil out on the sea. It is impossible to ‘see’ moving water. The changes are so numerous, so fleeting and intricate that the eye and brain do not have the capacity to capture the experience. And so these endlessly frustrating mini-dramas of the waves are played out before us without our ever being able to grasp the movement nor experience the reality of it, which is for ever just out of reach.
I let the thought go and sat and stared and listened. A mother duck and six ducklings were circling the tarn, round one way, then back the other. As they approached I could hear tiny pipings from the little ones as they pirouetted in front of me. A flycatcher met a horsefly in mid-air just by me and made off with it. Beetles with metallic green heads and golden bodies landed on me. But slowly, what moving life had been there retreated to their holts and hideaways. Whatever wavelets were there moments ago were now stilled. The tarn’s surface disappeared. The light faded into a silvery white. The distant mountains receded. And a full moon rose over Great Gable, its perfect disc mirrored in the tarn. The light faded again, now a watery pale grey pink.
Nothing. My mind had emptied. I sensed nothing. I had nothing to say. I sat in this demi-world suspended somewhere unknown, without emotion. The unblemished brightness of the sky was perfectly reflected in the tarn’s mirror. It now began to look as if there was a hole in the world and a fathomless brightness shone up from the vast emptiness below. This illusion tipped the experience over into something full of a terrifying wonder. I felt dizzy and calm at the same time. The world was spiralling, with me in the middle. And the lake had become a void daring me to comprehend it. I couldn’t. ‘That’s enough’ I said. ‘There is no more for you here. You have it.’ I unzipped the tent flap and rolled in.
It was enough. It was enough for Innominate Tarn to lodge into my psyche like a personalised jewel that had been mounted somewhere deep but accessible and that it was utterly mine and safe where it was now resting. Being aware that there was not much more of my life in front of me, I was happy that, at this late stage, I had suddenly been given this unearned gift and that it would stay with me to the end. I zipped up the tent and later slept.
I didn’t want to look at the tarn in the morning. The thing, whatever it was, was done and dusted and I wanted to clear off. I left and started up the rise to the summit of Haystacks without turning back. My aim was to spend one more night under canvas and that that should be at Bleaberry Tarn. To get there I had to climb and traverse the fells of High Crag and High Stile then descend slightly to Red Pike before a notorious scree-run down to the tarn.
I had a rocky and awkward descent from Haystacks, with my big sack making things difficult. On my way down I met a tall, wiry German woman dressed in a lycra outfit who seemed to be running up the route I was stumbling and scrambling down. I asked about her route and whether she had come up Red Pike. She said, ‘Yes. It’s very loose. All scree and slippery and unstable. Steep at the top. You need to take great care. It’s slate so you will need gloves’. And she trotted off uphill. Gloves? This made me think on the coming scree-run with some nervousness which became stronger the nearer I came to it. On steep ground, with my heavy pack, if I fall over there is no stopping me.
I reached the col at the bottom, the Scarth Gap, and looked up in some dismay at the new steepness in front of me. The same game had to be played. Slowly, slowly. Small steps. Rest when you need to, but try not to stop. The ascent turned out to be quite friendly with a good path of stepping stones rising to a levelling off, then the final climb. Now, looking back, I could see over to Beck Head where I had appeared at the pass yesterday morning. Beyond that, the mountains drifted away into a haze. Innominate Tarn was out of sight behind an outcrop of rock. I crossed to High Stile and sat for some food and drink. I looked to the west and there it was. Below me a broad ridge leading to something like a raised and inflamed boil, a sore abscess with watery blood spilling down the right side. The scree-run. Red Pike. I became more nervous.
Reaching Red Pike top I was now in a state of high tension and, rather than traipse to the summit a few yards away and enjoy the view to the Irish Sea and Scotland, I decided I would plunge straight down and take my chances. It was indeed extremely unpleasant. The slope divided into steep craggy gullies with sharp rocks sticking out on both sides, the gullies themselves filled with very loose scree. Negotiating this place, I was forgetting to breathe at times as I stumbled down trying to keep upright. A moment came when sliding down one of the ledges I had to sit down to lower myself off, ripping the seat of my trousers as I went. Once out of the gully life seemed less dangerous and although still slipping and sliding downwards I made it to safer ground. This slowly transformed into a gentle slope and a long stretch down a good path to Bleaberry Tarn.
This was not what I had expected. The lovely Tarn with its dramatic backdrop of the Chapel Crags, had a kind of beach by the path and there were many people there. Some having picnics, some swimming. The place I had spotted for my camp from above was now taken by a family noisily putting their tents up. The chatter was constant from all sides. I had descended into the realm of language and the naming of things. I couldn’t take it. My last camp was no camp and I set off downhill to Buttermere. Now very tired indeed, the rock slab and boulder path became a hard, seemingly interminable slog. It entered some woods at halfway with an arrow-straight path going down and down into a tunnel of trees. I felt like Sisyphus in reverse, lugging a heavy weight downwards rather than pushing a boulder up.
It came to an end, and I walked very slowly into the village, dragging my feet in the dust while holiday makers in colourful shorts and t-shirts ran around and laughed and talked. This dusty, overdressed elderly man had made it back to the describable, the truncated experience of social exchange and the limitation of words.
I took a room in a hotel and sat in the sunlit bar with a beer, listening to the shrieks of laughter and murmured interactions of my fellows. I sat silent as a man with a secret. Smug, but with no words to explain my smugness. I had, somewhere in me, an image of a small mountain lake which would, I believed, somehow sustain me to the end.
‘Don’t be downhearted’, the girl had said.
I had been to Innominate Tarn. The nameless Tarn.