Comin’ down the mountain
One of many children
Their own opinion
‘Mountain Song’, Jane’s Addiction
I stood on the precipitous summit, a heart-stopping pinnacle, 13,435 ft up, looking down over the rainforest fastness of Borneo, exuding its mist like a tropical collective unconscious – the intoxicating, dangerously wild dreams of the jungle. It was 1996 and I was 25 and I had just climbed the highest mountain in Malaysia and the 20th most prominent in the world, topographically. It was an exhilarating experience, but even then I knew my achievement was relative. For me it was a ‘peak experience’, a personal high, whileas in mountaineering terms, it’s a cake-walk. Thousands of people climb Kinabalu every year. That doesn’t make it easy – it is an interminable slog, one that requires overnighting halfway up to make it possible to reach the summit for dawn. Even if packs are carried by porters or left at base-camp, the steep trek through the sticky heat leaves one dripping sweat until you get higher up – and then the air starts to get thin. But this isn’t Everest base-camp (which at 17, 598 ft is 4000+ ft more). Still, it felt like an effort – and the final ascent, across the plateau to the ironically-named Low’s Peak, is out of this world.
I was reminded of this incredible experience by my recent Viva (Monday, 29th October) and its immediate aftermath. It is a truism, but a wise one, that the most dangerous part of climbing a mountain is the descent – for that is when over-confidence, and fatigue, can kick in. There have been waves of euphoria over the last few days – each time the reality hits me – but also, at times, an emptiness and malaise. This is not surprising – I’ve been pushing myself, hard, for days, weeks, months, years. I’ve handed in my thesis and passed my viva. Apart from some minor revisions, the show is over. And so no wonder it feels like the post-gig blues, the ‘adrenal-out’ as my partner calls it. The endorphins have been discharged and you are left with a serotonin low. It is hard to find the motivation to do anything. Yet life continues – marking, teaching, preparation for dayschools, filling in application forms, etc. I should allow myself a few days to recover. It has been an intense time, and I do feel completely wiped out. It hit me last night at a Halloween gathering – when I found myself struggling to stay awake. Maybe by next week I’ll start to feel myself again. For the PhD isn’t over yet. It is akin to the last day of my Pennine Way hike. 13 miles in I had reached the highest point of Windy Gyle, but there was still 12.5 miles (and several summits) to go. This was the hardest part of the hike as culminative fatigue set in (from 17 days of 15 mile hikes in a heatwave). I had to really draw upon inner reserves – but I had been building towards this for over two weeks, and I was ready. Also, I knew I didn’t have to hold anything back, for the next day I would be jumping on a train and heading south. A few blisters and aching limbs wasn’t going to kill me – but it was still painful, as my feet really reached ‘peak blister’. I had to ration my water carefully in the heat, but after training up for half-marathons I knew I could go for 6 miles without a sip. Just as well. My dwindling supply of jelly beans saved the day. The combination of exhaustion, heat, pain, adrenalin and mild euphoria at the prospect of reaching the end made me slightly bosky, and at one point I ran down the steep paths of the Cheviots, with my full pack on, singing my heart out to a song that I had kept in reserve for a final boost. I would have looked quite a sight, running down the mountain. It was a crazy, reckless thing to do, which could have easily led to an accident – but … I lived to tell the tale. As I reached Kirk Yetholm my fellow hikers (all of whom had split the 25 miler by either getting picked up and dropped off by the guest house in Byrness, or bothying it, unlike Muggsy here) burst into cheers and applause, as I came hobbling into sight. Wainwright advised not to expect anyone to care when you walked into the bar at the Borders Hotel, but here I was, getting the hard-won respect of a dozen or so Pennine Wayfarers. And similarly, these last three days I have had the pleasure of receiving heartfelt congratulations from many dear friends – which has meant a great deal. One undertakes these things alone, and to achieve them is a long, lonely effort – with the odd, deeply appreciated bit of supervision or support along the way – so this sense of acknowledgment feels like an important stage of re-assimilation into the community. One has had the vision upon the mountain. Now it is time to reincorporate it (and oneself) into the tribe. Time to chop wood, fetch water. Each day, a slow descent back to the Plain of Being where the existential challenge of life continues.