Notes From The Mountains: Male And Female Tuesday July 22, 2014

A few years ago I read an article discussing ‘immersion’ in the hills and how women have the feeling but men don’t. It became silly with talk about the moon, water, and the ladies educating us chaps. Watch a lady swimming in the sea, one person said, and see and learn how she is emotionally enveloped. I’m going to talk about gender and the hills, not the moon and the sea.

There is some truth that it’s ‘female’ to immerse yourself in the hills but as an idea not as gender. Chinese philosophy described this thousands of years ago in terms of yin and yang. Lao Tsu differentiated between the mountain and valley spirit. One is hard, thrusting and upward and the other is soft, moist and nurturing. I wasn’t thinking of the bedroom when I wrote that because those are relevant geographic descriptions. Levity aside – those different qualities relate the masculine and the feminine to biology and the difference is not only physical.

Outdoor activities are dominated by men and you find much of its surrounding culture is ‘male.’ We have the challenge of summit bagging the Munros, Wainwrights, and others, and emphasis on words like expedition, extreme, and the concept of conquer. Much of this traces back to mountaineering. I remember my first significant summit – Helvellyn in the Lake District in fifteen foot visibility. I was spending a few days in the northern Lakes. We went up Catbells on a glorious autumnal day with russet colours and blue skies. It was the moment when the mountains got to me. I gazed down to Borrowdale fascinated with its distant charms and yearned to be there. It was stunningly beautiful. I suspect many of us have such moments, as the Kendal accountant (Wainwright) did when he went up Orrest Head and was astounded at the panorama. It wasn’t my first hill walking experience. I enjoyed a school trip to Wales but in grey and wet conditions. It was an ‘adventure’ but it was not aesthetically comparable to my walk up Catbells and Maiden Moor – which was after Helvellyn.

The plan was to get up Helvellyn so I was intent on doing it. My friend took the bus back to Keswick and was possibly wise in doing so because I saw nothing. It was frightening climbing up on my own without seeing what was there, knowing there was a dangerous drop to my left: adventure, challenge, conquer. I did enjoy the summit – summiting, topping out, bagging it – but it was a psychological experience separate from the environment. I couldn’t see the environment. For seasoned hill walkers the story won’t impress. The Helvellyn plateau is several football pitches in size. Striding Edge and Swirral Edge can be challenging – adventure, conquer, extreme – but only with snow and ice. The rest of the time it entails some scrambling but it’s not difficult. Some years ago a chap landed a light aircraft at Helvellyn: challenge, adventure, extreme – because slight miscalculation would be disastrous. My Helvellyn climb was adventurous because I had no idea what I was doing or what to expect. I couldn’t see the drop to the left and didn’t realise I was walking along a large plateau.

I no longer have the same summit exhilaration as I did my first time at Helvellyn. With wonderful clear days it’s mostly the same because the summit is not the point of it. It’s the journey, feeling and sensing the mountains and how they refresh the soul. Photography is part of this too. The most impressive vista and stunning outlook can be photographically boring in gloomy light. Conversely, a gentle valley might be satisfyingly attractive and in some respects make a better photograph.

What I’m describing here is a ‘female’ approach to the hills described by mountain writer Nan Shepherd as going into the mountains. The point is to be there, walk there, linger there, know the mountain and not imagine – because it is only imagination – that you somehow conquer it. This is a ‘female’ principle however, not gender as such, and as such doesn’t mean chaps don’t have it too.