The Pyrenees Mountains

I have not often enjoyed a more serene possession of myself, nor felt more independent of material aids. The outer world, from which we cower into our houses, seemed after all a gentle, habitable place; and night after night a man’s bed, it seemed, was laid and waiting for him Robert Louis Stevenson

Whereness is crucial to human identity. Without whereness neither language, person nor thought could commence. All the fundamental imagery of the world would be impossible without landscape. The human journey, the search for meaning, would be inconceivable. Landscape is then a condition of the possibility of everything John O’Donohue

There’s a section in Ton Joosten’s book Pyrenean Haute Route reflecting on how it feels to complete this long walk, from Atlantic to Mediterranean. He suggests as you dip your feet in the sea it will then take you several weeks to assimilate and order the variety and depth of memories and experiences you’ve had; that then, you will begin to dream about further exploration because walkers are always dreamers.

I think it’s difficult, though not impossible, to consider mountain walking in terms of a psychological activity and define some of its central attributes. This ‘dreaming’ is I think one of them. In some respects it’s similar to the common feeling when we return from a holiday of whatever kind, and yearn to be there rather than back in normal life. We might call this, the Shirley Valentine syndrome. When my Pyrenean flight returned to Manchester air space, there was a change. Over continental Europe we drifted across an ocean of serene white cloud, through bright blue skies. Back in the North of England the clouds were still below though now grey rather than white, but more significantly they were also above. The blue skies had vanished, and we hadn’t even descended. When we did descend, it was raining. Describing this to a work colleague a few days later she reported the same experience the previous week returning from Greece, and said she “could have cried”.

The Shirley Valentine syndrome shares some of its characteristics with mountain walking psychology, but its extent is more limited. The RL Stevenson quotation provides a clue in the eloquent, “serene possession of myself”. ‘Serene’ is easily understood, in regard to the relaxation of big empty spaces and the peace they correspondingly instil. No one to threaten us, challenge us, make any demands of any kind because few people are there. No one to comfort us, make us laugh or make us a cup of tea either; but this solitude and what it discloses has an inherent reward and meaning. We find ourselves part of a wider and natural eco-system, that is gently but profoundly refreshing. The rhythm and details of the day are delineated by basic needs and simple pleasures: we have to eat, drink, sleep at night and navigate by day, and alongside this we are bathed by sunshine, and delighted with beautiful views. Beauty, and its pursuit, is central to my mountain walking, subsidiary to athletic desires: I find grey skies depressing, and have little inclination to labour up hills when the land is drained of colour and interest. If I attain a peak after several hours, I feel no great achievement when all is grey.

General remarks about weather have to be qualified, that the Pyrenees can and do present harsh and dangerous conditions even in summer. Thunderstorms can be epic, with a real danger from lightning. Climbers once told me they had to retreat down to the valleys, because of the metal they were carrying and because the cairns were humming: the electrical charge in the air was palpable. In 2008, there was heavy snowfall in June. Generally though, the Pyrenees have wonderful summers: sunshine, blue skies, and settled conditions. It’s quite a revelation to pitch a tent on a plateau above a huge valley, enormously exposed in a vast area, knowing the still air will last the night as it has for previous days and will continue to do so for several more. I recall a wild camp above Britain’s Wasdale valley, pleasurable because it was so quiet and peaceful: no wind to thrash my tent around, no rain to pound it. Memorable because it was pleasant, and unusually so; in the Pyrenees this is normal, predictable, and in a landscape of a much larger scale. If British hills are a tasty snack, the Pyrenees are a three course feast.

From the Introduction

Coming soon