What’s the first mountain I climbed?
That depends. What do you mean by climb, mountain and first? But that’s a philosophical path I don’t choose to tread here; for there lay sleeping Jabberwocks (in this gentle memoir they will remain untickled). So for this happy, as true as long ago childhood memory story, we’ll stick with a simple physical mountain (a lump of rock, mud, heather etc. over 610m altitude) on the Isle Of Man.
Away we go then, to August 1970 (relax, time travel works in our imagination), at Laxey tram station. Specifically the queue for the Snaefell Mountain Railway (actually an electric tram, but this is the Isle Of Man, so railway it is). And in the queue, with his beloved dad, there’s a very excited small boy; me. Always fidgety, this day I’m close to bursting. I am though on best behaviour (think Pooh holding Tiggerish energy in check) standing politely and outwardly calm.
This day, I’m going on an expotition (I’d discovered the Pooh Bear books, to this day I remain convinced the word is perfectly correct). I’m going to climb a mountain. Not just any mountain though, Snaefell, the highest mountain (yes, I know it’s technically “the only mountain”; shush, I’m seven here) on the island. I’ve been up there before with dad, but today’s special. Today if I’m judged sensible, I’m going to climb the mountain on my own. For a seven year old, an awfully big expotition. There are well worn boots on my feet, blue woollen socks tucked neatly into grey breeches. There’s a thoughtfully packed bag on my my back. A bag replete with compass, map, aran sweater, honey butties and something for the journey. That something for the journey is my well thumbed copy of The House At Pooh Corner (read on the tram from Douglas, ch6 “In Which Pooh Invents a New Game and Eeyore Joins In” probably).
The Snaefell tram rattles in, the passengers shuffle off, we scuttle on. I grab a window seat, dad beside me and the tram rattles out. For the next half hour the book remains in my bag, unread. Instead I try to read the mountain landscape rolling by as we’re carried over 500m to the misty summit station. The tram rattles in, the passengers shuffle off. Most, realising it’s a little chilly here at around 600m, scuttle away into the cafe and gift shop.
Driver, guard, dad, a hopeful sheep and I are left in the wind shredded mist.
“You walking to the top with your dad?”
“No, I’m going on my own!”
“Oh; smashing. Well, have fun and we’ll see you on the next tram down.”
It’s all tremendously, excitingly real now. Driver and guard are suitably impressed (as this is the Isle Of Man neither think my plan odd) and dad’s happy. The sheep has lost interest and wandered off. A final show of the route and I’m away. Off on my expotition, I’m climbing a mountain, on my own. Carefully navigating, treading the familiar but now fresh path, one walked by thousands of feet before mine. A wide, clear path (though one people miss every year) winding gently around to the summit. I’m concentrating so carefully, stopped occasionally by stupendous views over to Scotland (never once of course spotting dad, in the mist, keeping careful watch) then vigorously striding out once more for the summit.
I can still, near half a century on, feel that slightly surprised calm euphoria (I’ve never felt one conquers a mountain or climb or descent) as I touched the trig point. I’d done it. My first solo summit. There were tourists, the radio station and a very troublesome sheep. To me it felt, there and then, the very wildest place on earth. Settling in a leeward hollow a celebratory honey butty and drink of water were lingeringly taken. As the descent was to come one butty was carefully saved for later. Lunch done, bag repacked, time for the second part of this expotition. Getting safely back down again.
Now, I’d been walking most of my life. This meant dad and I had a habit of descending, let us say, at pace (ascending too, where we could move quickly, we did). So away I went. A skinny, clumsy kid in boots and rucksack galloping past bemused tourists, casting occasional sincere apologies to the wind’s mercy.
Of course dad was sat waiting on the station bench as agreed. He’d waited there patiently since I set off (yeah, of course he did, I’m a dad now). Hugs and congratulations were exchanged, then hot milk and expotition report in the cafe. Drinks and debrief done we wandered out for the next tram down. The friendly driver and guard waiting there as promised;
“You do it then?”
“Well done young man.”
Smiling, they shook my hand in congratulation. I suddenly felt very grown up (sincerely given praise I still feel is important for children).
Somehow the tram whisked us back down to Laxey in the blink of an eye (yes, I know, the seven year old me fell asleep) to chicken and chips in the corner cafe.
So, in a pedantically technical sense not my first mountain. But in a truly practical sense (one that matters to me), very much my first mountain.
I’ve been in so many mountains so many times since, in so many ways. With my misfunctional mind, the best times are like that first time. Willingly alone, moving light and fast through the fells, my joyous, curious internal child grinning, a book and a honey butty in my bag.