Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote a blog post about failure after pulling out in the early stage of a 3 Peaks Challenge. I vowed to return to Ben Nevis (my Ben Nemesis, if you like) to tackle it at my own pace and without the threat of two other effing great mountains at its heels.
‘The mountain isn’t going anywhere,’ I wrote. True, it was still there nearly 12 months later, although they did add a metre to its official height (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-35837773). Bloody typical.
Mum, a keen walker, wanted to complete the challenge too, so we made our plans, booked guest house, flights, hire car…and soon the week of the walk was upon us. I was nervous. Would the weather, notoriously changeable in the Highlands, thwart us? Would one of us take a tumble and get injured? Would I just be exposed as unprepared and ridiculously unfit? I couldn’t bear the thought of failing again.
What is it in the human psyche that makes us want to climb mountains, anyway? Who first looked up at the Himalayas and thought ‘Let’s get our boots on and have a crack at those’?? (I also often wonder who it was who first looked at a lobster and thought it was a good idea to try to eat it. I salute them, though, I bloody love lobster even if it does require tools). The truth is, there’s no reason to do it. There’s no practical purpose. We climb the mountain because we can, because it’s there (as Mallory said of Everest). There are the physical and psychological benefits of being outside, of exercising, but you can get quite a lot of those on a good long walk somewhere flat. So there must be something about moving upwards – reaching something – getting to a peak, literally and metaphorically.
Now I realise that walking up Ben Nevis is not a particularly outstanding achievement in the grand scheme of things. It’s reasonably common: over 100,000 ascents are made every year, most of them via the Pony Track. Certainly on the day we were there, there seemed to be thousands of us. So I’m not writing this to get any pats on the back (although kudos to my mum, I don’t know how many people in their 60s do it). I just wanted to capture something about the process, and what I learned from it.
Suprisingly, I found the first section the hardest. This is probably physical to a degree – your muscles and joints are warming up, your body getting through the ‘Eh? What are you doing to me? An hour ago we were cosy in bed’ phase – but surely mostly psychological. When you know you’ve got probably 4 hours of climbing ahead of you, and you’ve done, ooh, ten minutes and your knees are hurting, holy shit it feels like this was a bad idea.
What’s more, whereas with some mountains (like Snowdon), you feel like you gain height quickly, with Ben Nevis the zigzag path means that the first third just feels like a slog with very little reward. It’s pretty enough but you’re waiting a long time for the really spectacular views (see picture). Here I am, I thought, on a mountain that feels like a bloody great rock-covered metaphor for life.
Then about 3,000 feet up I had an epiphany (or possibly mild altitude sickness): it’s a metaphor for writing, too, and a good one, not one of those you have to really shoe-horn to make it fit.
See, I’m trying to write a third book (I find I always say ‘I’m trying to write…’ rather than ‘I’m writing…’ What’s that about?). Not really sure if anyone cares if I do or not, but I’ve set myself the challenge and even if not a single soul ever reads it I’m going to write it. Because that’s what I do. (Back to: because it’s there).
And I realised on the mountain that STARTING IS THE HARDEST BIT. You can’t imagine, at the start, that you will ever, ever finish. Be it 80,000 words or 4,000 feet: it just seems too momentous. You can’t think about the end. You can’t even see it (especially if you’re a ‘pantser’ like me and you don’t even know the ending when you start – gulp) – so you just put one foot in front of the other, and keep doing it, because the only way is up.
Over Summer we watched the charming ‘Finding Dory’ and I love her mantra ‘just keep swimming’. So simple and so helpful when things get a bit rough. Just keep walking. Just keep writing. Keep moving forward and sooner or later you’ll see the view.
As for past ‘failures’, I remind myself of Edison saying ‘I haven’t failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work’. I’ve learned from the last two books and I hope I’m getting better. I found a way to climb Ben Nevis that didn’t work for me and then I found a way that did.
Of course, the peak is a bit of a false ending. It’s momentary joy before you contemplate the less rewarding trudge back down (admittedly the beckoning pint at the Ben Nevis Inn was a good motivator). It’s well-known that most hiking and mountaineering accidents happen on the way down (read or watch Touching the Void for a spectacular example – and for an unforgettably inspiring story). Going down is the real work.
Bear with me if I do, here, get out the shoe-horn while I relate it to writing, but it works for me. The peak is ‘I’ve finished! First draft done! Woo hoo! I have a book!’ Well, that’s great, have your sandwiches and your flask of coffee (laced with a tot of whisky if you’re like us) but then get ready because there’s a hell of a lot of work ahead.
Editing is the downward trudge. Here’s why:
- There are no bloody surprises. YOU’VE SEEN ALL THE SCENERY BEFORE.
- It uses different muscles and it’s often painfully slow.
- You’ll feel good when you get to the end but not quite the delirious ‘I’ve achieved something’ good that you felt at the top. What you’ll feel will be more like relief.
But hell, who cares, because right now I’m still on the ascent. In fact I’ve barely left base. I have very little idea where I’m going, to be honest, but that’s okay.
The point is, I’m going. I’m going and I’ll just put one foot in front of the other.
Last word to George Mallory, writing about Everest:
‘If you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won’t see why we go. What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life. We do not live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to enjoy life. That is what life means and what life is for.’