Mind Over Mountains
How do we keep going when we can’t see the top of the mountain? GetOutside Champion, Alex Staniforth shares his top tips for how he manages his mental health during tough times.
How do you go about inspiring those above you? For OS GetOutside Champion Jessie Leong, her journey took her surprisingly close to home by encouraging her Dad – a typical ‘Asian Tiger’ father who had never set foot in the mountains – to try out an adventure in Snowdonia National Park.
With a few coaxing Whatsapp messages, a car full of borrowed outdoor kit and an optimistic MWIS weather forecast printout, she managed to persuade her Dad and brother to lace up their boots and explore a mountain horizon – one foot in front of the other.
‘The journey is much more important than the end destination.’
If you were to ask me how I got into the outdoors, I’d say I didn’t come from an outdoorsy family at all.
If anything, I accidentally fell into the outdoors as a by-product of being the daughter of a very motivated set of parents, keen to get me into extra curricular activities to make me into a well-rounded academic person, only to accidentally have instilled a lifelong sense of adventure and curiosity.
Ah well… As a ‘second-wave’ immigrant with parents that were born in countries outside of the UK, the outdoors wasn’t as accessible, especially in the mountain regions I spent most of my weekends. Culturally speaking, a day out in the outdoors simply wasn’t ingrained into my background.
Instead it was usually represented with a day out at the shops, or shared with a meal around the table on a Sunday lunchtime with other family members, dipping into little steamed bamboo lidded plates known as Dim Sum for a few hours before everyone offered to pay the bill and hastily ran back to their own business.
I hadn’t originally planned on taking my Dad and brother up the Snowdon Horseshoe (minus Crib Goch) – but when I scrawled a message into my Dad’s birthday card – offering him the chance to go on a mountain adventure soon – he decides to take me up on the offer and asked me to create an itinerary spanning a long weekend.
Naturally, this leads to a bit of classic Dad-daughter micro-management with the full weekend broken down requesting postcodes of the places we were staying, complete with web hyperlinks and itineraries of what we would do & when. I brief them on what kit they will need for the mountains, such as bringing spare layers for the summit, spare torches, maps and how much recommended water to carry.
Like most parents, my Dad’s heart sank with dread when he realized the long weekend would fall on an August Bank holiday weekend. My Dad has long held an irrational belief of driving on a bank holiday often meant imminent traffic related doom, but with some reassuring sounds and reminding him that we would travel outside of the busy periods by heading up on a Thursday evening and returning back to ‘civilisation’ on a Saturday night, I arranged to meet him and my brother Jonathan at YHA Idwal, for a few days of mountain fun.
Having worked at a YHA in the Peak District, I was well accustomed to the rules and feel of staying in a youth hostel – but for my family, it was eye opening to see it through their eyes. For my Dad and brother even the drive up to the mountains was going to seem a daunting prospect, and packing kit suitable for the mountains.
With a reuseable shopper bag full of food (I decided to go all out and make seafood paella in the kitchen) my Dad who had proclaimed he wasn’t that hungry was soon wolfing down a bowl of steaming rice along with a bottle of local Snowdon brewed ale. Fuel loaded up into the tank, I set the alarm on for relatively early - checking the weather forecast one last time for a surprisingly good looking mountain day ahead - and packed bags once last time with poles, spare layers and mountain snacks.
It might sound woefully predictable, but a sunny blue forecast Friday meant only one thing - a journey up to the Snowdon summit via Pyg track.
The mountains haven’t always been home until I discovered them in my adult years – but Snowdon always held certain magic, being part of a mountain environment with wonderfully exotic names that I still couldn’t quite pronounce. The past few years has seen me step out into an mountain environment that feels increasingly familiar every time I returned.
I’ve done a few occasions where I’ve lead walking groups up Snowdon, usually with fairly proficient friends who don’t need reminding what kit and equipment they might need for a weekend away. Yet in this instance, I felt a kind of vulnerability that only comes with the realisation that comes with age – the unusual feeling that the people who brought you up are now looking at you to look after them.
My family members asked all kinds of questions – which included a constant barrage of curiosity, boredom-busting kind of way. It started off articulate, such as ‘What kind of mountain is over there?’ (Carnedd Uchain) to the tired-induced pathos, ‘Can I get up another way?’ (Yes Dad, but we’re not paying for the expensive steam train), to the downright petulance about how long it’ll all take ‘Are we there yet?’ (Dad, it’s 3km away, we’re not that far away.)
The walk up Pyg track went without too much drama, and slowly we climbed the steepening criss cross of smooth rocky moraines that interrupted the path upwards, their gradually steepening surfaces reminded us to pause and to take regular breaks, my Dad leaning onto the walking poles, sweat trickling under his hilariously perched beige sunhat.
I had an immense feeling of pride when we reach the col, which meets the Llanberis path, and suddenly the wave of mountain traffic reminded us that we are on one of the busiest mountains in the UK. We greeted fellow passers by, some families we had overtaken and then some who had caught up with us. The summit is clustered with people taking photographs and looking at the summit trig point. My Dad faux pretends to collapse on the steps, but I can sense a huge wave of relief and pride.
We break for the highest picnic spot in Wales and the UK – watching as a large seagull greedily swoops around unsuspecting tourists munching on sandwiches. The view is clear and the lakes of Llyn reflect the deep blue skies above, the vista a trifle layer cake of white clouds, green rolling mountain sides and grey gravel and scree of the summit.
Now the ambitious, curious side decided that there was still enough energy in the tank – and I asked my Dad and brother if they were keen for still a bit more adventuring. My Dad agreed to continue, and so with best intentions we decided to hike off the back of Watkins path.
Negotiating the piles of scree, mud and loose gravel was perhaps not the best descent off the summit of Snowdon. I sandwiched myself and my brother in between my Dad’s shaky steps and remind him to use the walking poles to help steady himself down the discernible path.
We made it down to the path to the Bwlch Cilliau , the first bit of smooth descent, before the little rocky peak of Y Lliwedd looms ahead of us. My Dad turns to me, a look of exasperation and annoyance when he realises that the route includes more ascent. I make some coaxing sounds and tell them that the next section will offer some exciting, safe scrambling with some ‘ big feels’ – yet nothing too precarious, unlike its opposing neighbour, Crib Goch, a crouching dragon with its rocky spine stretched across the horizon line.
My Dad clambers up on all fours – trying to steady his balance, and I spot him as he comes up, following my lead as we descend down East peak towards Lliwedd Bach. The views are breathtaking – it’s one of those rare mountain vistas, which provides that awe-inspiring sense of achievement in the form of a brilliant horseshoe route. The Llyn Llydaw looks a long, long way away – and I see him attack the ridge, each of his huge hands clasping onto the rocky holds for purchase. It’s exciting, the first piece of contact that requires using both hands and feet to move along the spine of the mountain, another spine to clamber up.
Its once we’re on the summit of Y Lliwedd where my Dad delivers the solid comedic gem of a line that gives me great hilariousness to deliver - wiping a bead of sweat, and muttering under his breath, he turns to me and asks plainly looking down at the Miners path:
‘Jessie – can you go ahead and bring your car around to the bottom (he gestures to the lake) so you can come and pick us up?’ I chuckled aloud – before I realised he was deadly serious.
Trying not to seem too bemused, I gently reminded him that it was a strict footpath – with barriers that prevented all road traffic from using it so! A long, slow descent down the mountain – my Dad asking if we were there yet, me telling him to continue, followed by my brother repeatedly telling him to also continue ensued.
The warm, glow of the sun’s rays turned the evening sky to a peachy dusk, and we made it to the miner’s path slowly as evening falls – the lights of the Pen Y Pass YHA just visible in the distance. We were less than a 1km away, and my Dad is increasingly more annoyed and tired as we reach the tarmacked path, a reminder that we are very nearly at the end and the hard ground providing little relief for his aching knees.
It’s been a long day – nearly 9 and a half hours, which isn’t bad for a first attempt in the mountains.I take Dad to a pub for a celebratory pub dinner- and can tell he’s absolutely knackered when he half-heartedly eats his dinner, a half-eaten lamb steak left on his plate tells me even he’s super tired and just wants to rest. My brother is also quiet, sipping on a beer, but I can tell he’s enjoyed it too, his mood thoughtful and stirred by the day’s events. He tells me he really enjoyed the scrambling up onto Y Lliwedd, something he’d never experienced before.
For me, the mountain experience was something quite different to taking friends and people ‘familiar’ with the mountain culture, but truly rewarding as a challenge for me to take on. It felt right, being the person to hopefully try and inspire my family to try the outdoors – my thought process being if I can’t get them inspired by the outdoors, who would do it? I can’t wait to take them for their next mountain adventure, maybe with a bit more scrambling too!