In the moment – The Mountain

Maybe happiness and joy don’t mix.  For happiness, you have to work hard and persistently. You have to learn how to find it in all sorts of humdrum situations. Joy is different. You have to step beyond the conventional; you have to take risks.What do you think? The story below is about joy, and the taking of risks – and the price that may be exacted.

In the moment - Mount Aspiring 170613

The picture is of Mount Aspiring, New Zealand, and is courtesy of Pixabay.

Of course, her parents had equipped her as well as they could for the challenge, but, even as she stood in the foothills of the mountain, Alys was aware that she was lacking both tools and technique. Never mind. She smiled as she looked at the trail in front of her. This was going to be one heck of an adventure!

She was well below the treeline and the going was easy. The track was broad, running between pleasant woods and close to a sparkling river. There were others following the same route. Alys smiled at everyone she met, and greeted them with a cheerful “Hi! How are you doing?”

Some of them were faster than Alys. She didn’t mind. If she thought about it at all, it was to remember the story of the hare and the tortoise.

The way climbed. Sometimes it went downhill for a short distance, before climbing higher and more steeply.

And then there was a rock face. At its foot was an opening from which the river, narrower now, bubbled and chattered.

There was a broad path leading to the left, away from the river. There were broken areas of rock going up the low cliff, that may, or may not have once been steps. Alys hesitated, and drew out her map. The path to the left led to a town; her route was shown going straight ahead.

As she was inspecting the cave that was the river’s source, she heard a voice.

“It’s up the cliff.”

It was a pleasant voice. Alys could imagine the man was a singer. She smiled.

“Thanks.”

“My dad told me to expect it,” explained the young man. “My name’s Robert. Would you like to walk along together? At least for a while.”

“I’m Alys. I don’t want to hold you back.”

“The route’s rough. We’ll be quicker together. Here, let me give you a hand.”

He clambered up, and stretched out his arm.

“I can manage, thank you,” said Alys, gripping a rather flaky rock edge to haul herself up. They climbed in company, but separately, to the top of the rock face. It wasn’t particularly difficult.

They were above the woods, and the mountain stood splendid before them. Alys turned around and looked back. She was surprised at how high she was, and how far she had travelled. The canopy of the forest stretched out for miles in all directions from the cliff. She could only just make out the town from which she had started. She took out her mobile and photographed the scene.

“Do you mind if I photograph you?” she asked Robert.

“Go ahead.” He smiled, looking relaxed against the mountains beyond.

“Now I’ll take one of you,” he said, taking out his own mobile. “And a selfie on both of our phones.”

Alys giggled as they snuggled up close for the selfies. The feel of Robert against her was comfortable, and just a little exciting. There was a moment when…but it passed.

“Time to move on,” exclaimed Alys. “I have a long way to go!”

Robert released her, and they walked on together. They scrambled up a scree slope. It was a long, dry ascent. They could taste dust from the stones. The scree gave way to bare rock, and still they climbed.

“Just a little further until we reach the top of this bit.” Robert took Alys’s hand, and they walked the last hundred metres together.

They crested the ridge, and stopped dead. To their right, the ground sloped down towards meadows, and beyond them, to a great plain. There were cities with spires and towers, set in fields of gold, brilliant yellow, purplish-blue, burgundy and green. There were rounded hills draped with gentle woodland, silver rivers winding into the hazy blue distance, where surely must lie the sea.

Robert put his left arm around Alys’s waist and pointed to one of the cities.

“That’s where I’m bound. I’m joining my uncle in his business. Would you come with me?”

Alys felt a sting of disappointment. She pointed up the mountain.

“That’s my way, Robert. I hoped you might be going that way too. You look adventurous.”

Robert shook his head.

“This opportunity with my uncle won’t come again. I’d be a fool to squander it. But please come with me. I can offer you comfort and security, and later I hope to become wealthy and powerful, like my uncle.”

Alys hesitated a moment. Her parents were poor. Comfort and wealth sounded attractive; she could help her parents as they grew older. Nevertheless, “I’m going to climb the mountain, Robert. I have to accept the challenge; it’s part of my nature,” she said.

They kissed, on the lips, each hoping the other would be won over; then they parted, Robert striding downhill, and Alys labouring upwards.

The going was harsher now. A wind blew down the mountainside, bringing the chill of the heights with it. Alys put on a warm jacket from her backpack.

Another cliff face reared before her. This was no scramble; it was a climb, and not an easy one. Alys studied the route she would have to take. She could see handholds and footholds for about twenty metres and then the rock sloped away and the higher supports were hidden. She took a deep breath. She had no rope, and no companion. If she missed her footing she would be lucky if she only broke a leg.

She climbed strongly, making each move positive and precise, never thinking of the drop behind her. As she went higher, the next footholds were revealed. Up she went, steadily. Then she paused. Her fingers were becoming very chilled because the rocks were covered with a thin layer of ice.

The last ten metres of the ascent were a nightmare. No matter how carefully she placed her feet, she always slipped. Sometimes it was just a stutter in the climb, sometimes her foot slithered all over the perch until she found the exact point of balance. And, once, her foot slipped right off the rock, leaving her hanging by her arms with her left foot perched precariously on the tiniest of ledges.

At the top, she pulled herself over the rim of the cliff and lay gasping. It was cold. She was lying in snow, crusty snow left over from the winter. It only took a minute for her pulse to stop pounding, but that was long enough for her to become chilled. Fumbling with stiff fingers, she opened her pack and took out a pair of warm, windproof trousers. They hadn’t cost very much. She hoped they would be adequate as she climbed higher.

The wind strengthened. She struggled to keep moving forwards and upwards. She was on the last stage. A narrow track led along a ridge to the peak. But the wind. The wind seemed determined to blow her off the mountain. She hesitated. Did it matter so much whether or not she scaled the summit? Surely it was the adventure and the attempt that mattered?

“I’ll wait fifteen minutes and see whether the wind drops,” she said to herself – although she couldn’t hear her own words for the noise of the wind roaring.

She found a boulder which sheltered her from the worst of the storm, and waited. The tumult was abating, wasn’t it? Another great gust seemed to shake the heights, and then came calm. Hardly able to believe her good fortune, Alys rose, swiftly walked along the arete, and scaled the last slope to the peak.

She was on the summit! For a few seconds, she felt at one with the entire world. Her spirit soared. She could see so far! She looked at her hometown, dwarfed by distance. There were other towns, other cities, too. Between them, she could just make out motorways, spearing across the plain, and the narrow scars of railways, arrow-straight. The whole power of civilisation was spread out for her delight.

Finally, she turned and looked for the city to which Robert was headed. She hoped they might meet again in the future. She took half a dozen photographs, and then realised that little blusters of wind were buffeting her once again. It was thrilling to have reached her goal, but it was time to go.

Quickly but carefully she worked her way along the ridge path. The wind was treacherous, now blowing fiercely so she leaned into it, then suddenly dropping, unbalancing her.

She was paying so much attention to the wind, that she didn’t see the tell-tale brightness of ice. Her foot slipped. She gasped. Her body lurched to the side. She fought to stay on the ridge. As her body slid over the edge, she grabbed at the path, and, for a moment, she held on. She heaved with her arms, scrabbled with her feet against the rock, sobbing for breath. There was no fear, just a burning urge to survive. She focussed everything on the task of regaining safety. She was only feet away from the path.

Her numbed hands slipped on the ice. Inch by inch she slithered further from safety. And then she fell.

At first the drop was nearly sheer. She heard the air whistling about her, saw, with a sense of awe, the rocks passing her faster and faster. Her left leg struck a boulder. There was a searing pain, and her body began to tumble. Her right hip struck the slope. An intense, fiery sensation stunned her with its ferocity. She rolled. She tried to spreadeagle herself, still fighting, still thinking of how she might stop herself from falling further. And then she rolled into a ridge on the mountain, her left arm shattering. Everything went black.

When she regained consciousness, she felt cold. She hurt. Her eyes gradually focussed, and she saw, with astonishment, how far she had fallen. She couldn’t move her left arm, or either of her legs. Breathing was difficult; little bubbles of blood popped from her nostrils.

Her right arm was still functioning. With what felt like an enormous effort she pulled her mobile out of her pocket. With a flicker of hope she saw that the screen was still illuminated. There was no signal. She tried the emergency number anyway. No response. She tried again. No. She was beyond any chance of rescue.

She clicked on the icon for her photos. There was Robert, smiling, happy. She hoped he would do well, that he had made the right choice. She scrolled on. There were the pictures from the summit. Even in her distress she felt the surge of achievement. She’d set herself the challenge, and by golly she’d done it!

Her vision was dimming. This must be it. Feverishly, she scrolled back. Yes! There were her parents. How grateful she was for their support. They’d let her follow her dream, helped her, supported her, even when they didn’t understand.

“Thanks, Dad. Thanks, Mum.” Her last breath fluttered in her throat, and she was gone.

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