Pilgrims of the Mountain.

From: On Cambrian and Cumbrian Hills (1908)
Author: Henry S. Salt
Published: Arthur C. Fifield 1908 London


Pilgrims of the Mountain

  THE pilgrimages of which I write are not made in Switzerland; my theme is a homelier and more humble one. Yet it is a mistake to think that to see great or at least real mountains it is necessary to go abroad; for the effect of highland scenery is not a matter of mere height, but is due far more to shapeliness than to size. There is no lack of British Alps within our reach, if we know how to regard them; as, for instance, the gloomily impressive Coolins of Skye, the granite peaks of Arran, or, to come at once to the subject of this book, the mountains of Carnarvonshire and Cumberland.

  For small and simple as are these Cambrian and Cumbrian hills of ours, when compared with the exceeding grandeur and vast complexities of the Swiss Alps or the Pyrenees, they are nevertheless gifted with the essential features of true mountains—with ridge and precipice, cloud and mist, wind and storm, tam and torrent; nor are snow and ice wanting to complete the picture in winter-time. Why, then, with this native wealth within our shores, must we all be carried oversea to climb Alps with guides, when without guides, and at far less cost of time and money, we may have the same mountain visions, and hear the same mountain voices at home? A few of us, at least, will refuse to bow the knee in this fetish worship of “going abroad”; for the benefit of going abroad depends mainly on person, temper, and circumstance; and to some mountain lovers a lifelong intimacy with their own hills is more fruitful than any foreign excursions can be.

  For my part, I like to do my distant mountaineering by means of books. If I wish, for example, to see the Sierra Nevada of the West, can I not do so in Muir’s Mountains of California, a book scarcely less real and life-giving than the heights by which it is inspired-far more so than any superficial visit in the weary role of tourist? And then, if the mood takes me, I know where to find and enjoy a Sierra Nevada of our own; for is not Snowdon, is not Scawfell, too, a Sierra Nevada during half the months of the year?

  My pilgrims, then, are pilgrims to the less lofty, but not less worthy shrines of Lakeland and Wales; and nowhere do we see more clearly than in these districts the startling change that has come over the relations between Mountain and Man. When Gilpin visited Derwentwater in 1786, he quoted with approval the remark of an “ingenious person” who, on seeing the lake, cried out, “Here is Beauty indeed, Beauty lying in the lap of Horrour!” and in like spirit Thomas Pennant, in his Tours in North Wales, described the shore of Llyn Idwal as “a fit place to inspire murderous thoughts, environed with horrible precipices.” Then gradually the sense of beauty displaced the sense of “horrour,” and awe was melted into admiration; though still, to a quite recent time, we see reflected in the literature of our British mountains the belief that to ascend them was a perilous feat not to be lightly undertaken. Thus we read of a traveller who, having inquired of his host at Pen-y-Gwryd whether he might venture to ascend Snowdon without a guide, was dissuaded from such a headstrong attempt, which “would necessarily be attended with great risk”1; and another writer, in narrating his ascent by the easy Beddgelert ridge, some fifty years ago, exclaims with solemnity, “You felt that a false step would be fatal.”

  But there were some pioneers, long before climbing became a fine art, who knew and loved the mountains too well to fear them. Take, for instance, the story—one of the most interesting in these early records—of the unknown clergyman who, about the middle of the last century, used to haunt the Welsh hills, and was “possessed with a most extraordinary mania for climbing.” It is delightful to read of the enthusiasm with which he engaged in his pursuit.

  His object was, to use his own expression, “to follow the sky-line” of every mountain he visited. For example, he would ascend Snowdon from Llanberis, but instead of following the beaten track he would take the edge of the mountain along the verge of the highest precipices, following what he called the “sky-line,” until he reached the summit; he would then descend the other side of the mountain toward Beddgelert, in a similar manner. He appeared to have no other object in climbing to the wild mountain-tops than merely, as he said, to behold the wonderful works of the Almighty. In following the “sky-line,” no rocks, however rough, no precipices, unless perfectly inaccessible, ever daunted him. This singular mania, or hobby horse, he appears to have followed up for years, and continued with unabated ardour.2

That enthusiast, I am sure, was a true pilgrim, and it is to be regretted that his name is unrecorded.

  People sometimes write as if these mountains were “discovered,” and first ascended, by English travellers, and as if the native dales-men had known nothing of their own country before. Such statements can hardly be taken with seriousness, for it is evident that, as sheep were pastured on these hills from the earliest times, the shepherd must have long preceded the tourist as mountaineer. Thus we find Pennant, in his description of the “stupendous” ridges that surround Nant Ffrancon, remarking: “I have, from the depth beneath, seen the shepherds skipping from peak to peak; but the point of contact was so small that from this distance they seemed to my uplifted eyes like beings of another order, floating in the air.” To the shepherds, of course, mountain climbing was not a sport but a business, and it would not have occurred to them to climb higher than was necessary; but who can doubt that, in the course of their daily rounds, the summits as well as the sides of the hills must have become known to them?

  And if the tourist thinks the native cold and unimpressionable, what does the man who has been born and bred on the hills think of the man who comes on purpose to scramble there? It is difficult to say, so friendly yet inscrutable is his attitude; but I remember hearing from a shepherd in Wastdale, who had tended sheep on the Gable till every crag was familiar to him, a story which seemed to throw some light on his sentiments. He had been asked by a rock-climbing visitor, in the dearth of companions at the hotel, to join him in the ascent of a ridge where it would have been rash for one to go alone, and he did so; but, as he said to me, though he was always ready to go on the rocks to rescue f a sheep, it did a bit puzzle him that the gentleman should wish to go there “for no reason.” That, I suspect, is the underlying problem in the mind of the hillsman with respect to the amateur; but, of course, both interest and politeness prevent the free expression of it.3

  There are cases, however, where the mountain dwellers become themselves inspired with the love of climbing for climbing’s sake. I was told of an inhabitant of Snowdonia who had been away in a lowland county for several years, and when at last he returned, and saw his beloved hill-tops again, could not satisfy his feelings until he had trayersed, in one walk, the whole circuit of Snowdon, the Glyders, and the Carnedds, a distance of some thirty miles. Even when there is no such visible enthusiasm, we may feel assured that the mountains wield a real though subconscious influence upon their children.

  It was not till the early eighties that the Alpinists discovered that there are fine gymnastic “problems” among the rocks of Wales and Cumberland, and the word went forth that every buttress and gully, every pinnacle and arête, were to be mastered;—from which time onward the cry of the ambitious climber has been (like the cry of the religious devotee) “scando quia impossibile est,” with the result that the “impossible” has mostly become the accomplished. So that whereas, some twenty-five years ago, an ascent of the more precipitous ridges and rock-faces was a rare achievement, we now see the very hotel walls covered with pictures of “pillars” and “needles,” with adventurous cragsmen perched in alarming postures on the verge, and the frivolities of visitors’-books interspersed with the grim seriousness of the climbers’ records, telling in technical language how Messrs. So and So, “led” by Mr. Dash, surmounted some particular “pitch” (ominous term!) in Mr. Blank’s gully-for every gully must now be named after its conqueror.4

  Let me not be misunderstood as wishing to depreciate in any way the craft of the climber, which, even apart from its great scientific and geographical value in the pioneering of Alps, Andes or Himalayas, and regarded merely as an athletic exercise, is one of the finest of sports; for which reason those who have long been familiar with the mountain life, though themselves not rock-climbers, will be the first to admire, and to envy, the marvellous skill which has carried men into places where, a quarter-century back, no one dreamed of venturing. But I would point out that there is another and still more important function of great mountains-the culture not of the athletic faculty alone, but of that intellectual sympathy with untamed and primitive Nature which our civilization threatens to destroy. A mountain is something more than a thing to climb. To the many who, on a fine summer day, swarm up Skiddaw or Snowdon by the well-worn pony-paths, it is pure holiday-making: to the few who (in another sense) swarm up Scawfell Pinnacle or the Napes Needle, it is pure gymnastics; but between or beyond these two classes there are those pilgrims I call them-who find in mountain climbing what only mountains can give, the contact with unsophisticated Nature, the opportunity to be alone, to be out of and above the world of ordinary life, to pass from the familiar sights and surroundings into a cloudland of new shapes and sounds, where one feels the fascination of that undiscoverable secret (I do not know how else to name it) by which every true nature-lover is allured.

  Now, judging from the current literature of mountain climbing, one might suppose that mountains had no such secret at all—that they were mere fortuitous masses of rock-structure, formidable indeed to those unskilled in the cragsman’s pastime, but supplying a ready playground for the expert. In the popular and less ambitious class of guide-book, written for the “tripper” who is deemed incapable of attaining an easy summit without instruction, and who is warned of the foolhardiness of deviating a yard from the appointed track, we do not of course look for any real appreciation of mountain character; but it is to be regretted that the same defect is scarcely less observable in the records of the new school of British rock-climbers, if we except the writings of its men of genius, such as the late Mr. Owen Glynne Jones, and a few others who might be mentioned.5 There are many fine cragsmen, it would seem, to whom the Jells are little more than a gymnasium, and who cannot see the mountains for the rocks.

  A story told me by an artist who is a true lover of the mountains will illustrate what I mean. Returning to Wastdale Head one evening along the side of the lake in company with some climbers, while the seamed front of the Screes across the water was glorified by the setting sun, he pointed out to one of the party the splendour of the sight. “Yes,” replied the gymnast, with a glance at the gullies, “you get a good look at number one and number two, don’t you?” To him the illuminated mountain-side was just a line of numbered chimneys to scramble in; he had as much feeling for them as for the numbered bathing-machines on a seashore.

  Still less is there any real understanding of the mountains among the bulk of the tourists who rush through the districts and throng the hotels in the “season”: of the motorists, of course, we need not speak. They will ask, no doubt, the usual well-worn questions “Which is Snowdon?” and “Where is Helvellyn?” and “Is that the top of Scawfell?” but you quickly perceive that they are but jesting Pilates who do not wait for the answer; they may take coach-trips over the passes, and admire a show waterfall or two, but they see no more in the mountains than the panorama of the moment, an incident in the day’s amusements of less import than their lunch.

  Who, then, it may be asked, are the “pilgrims” of whom I speak? They are the small handful of enthusiasts whose concern with the mountains, as compared with that of the rock-climbers, is of a less venturesome but not less personal kind—devotees who have made it their pleasure to become intimately versed in the mountain lore, and to whom the numberless moods and phases of the hills are more familiarly known than to many expert cragsmen. To such solitary nature-lovers what name is more applicable than that of “pilgrims,” a pilgrim, we are told, being one “who visits, with religious intent, some place reputed to possess especial holiness”; and have we not the authority of a great poet for so using it?6

  It is gratifying to me to be able to claim episcopal sanction for my own share, such as it is, in these mountain pilgrimages; for it was by a Bishop, as renowned for his physical prowess as for his piety and learning, that I was first inducted to this work, and ordained (so to speak) in the high calling which I have followed, more or less faithfully, for nearly forty years. It so chanced that, as a sixth-form boy in a great public school, I was sent in the summer holidays to act as tutor to a “lower boy,” a nephew of the Bishop, and the scene of our studies was a village on the Carnarvonshire coast, under the great northern spurs of Carnedd Llewelyn. With shame I must confess that both pupil and tutor preferred the allurements of the shore to the austerities of the heights; but the Bishop, muscular Christian and walker that he was, proud of traversing the length and breadth of his diocese on foot, was bent on finding his way—and what more troubled us, our way—to the little tam, Llyn an Afon, which lies under the steep front of Y Foel Fras, itself a mountain of 3,000 feet; and in search of this lakelet we were “commandeered,” much against our wishes, to march with the Bishop across the hills. Even now I see him, as he waved his stick encouragingly to us from some far headland, while we two boys lagged wearily behind, and wondered at the strange climbing propensities of bishops; and I remember that when an irreverent groan of “Oh, what a fool the Bishop is!” escaped from my pupil’s lips, I inexcusably failed to reprove him. Little did I foresee that, though the task was so unwelcome to me at the moment, I was soon myself to be bitten with the same mountain madness, and that the image of Llyn an Afon, nestling under a semicircle of rocks at the head of its long pastoral valley, was to draw me back many and many a time, in later years, to revisit that lonely region! The Bishop himself would be flattered, perhaps, could he know that, as a result of that walk, one of his two laggards became a confirmed pilgrim, and has since made more ascents than he cares to confess of those Carnarvonshire mountains, and at all kinds of seasons.

  For the notion, at one time widespread, and still by no means extinct, that these districts can be properly visited only in July and August is wholly erroneous. There is no doubt that in May and June the climate is usually at its best, and there most often occur those halcyon spells of sunshine which the drenched August holiday-maker is apt to regard as a myth; for the tourist waits till the wet weather has set in, and then has some hard things to say of the mountains’ rudeness. The autumn, too, is often a goodly season for the climber, when the last torrential rains of August or September have sent the last disillusioned visitors to their homes; and even the wintertime, or early spring, as Southey, with other authorities, has pointed out, is far more fruitful than the late summer in those “goings on in heaven” which give an ever-shifting glory to the hills. The very snow, as he says, “which you would think must monotonize the mountains, gives new varieties-it brings out all their recesses and differentiates all their inequalities.”

  Eastertide is now a popular week among the mountains, but thirty years ago the hotels were practically empty at that season. I well remember how, as an undergraduate at Cambridge, I planned my first Easter visit to Cumberland, and was gravely warned by a learned Fellow of my College that it would be a very rash undertaking to go at that time, for “the passes,” he said, “would not be open.” He had in-mind, possibly, a sentence in Gray’s account of his trip to the Lake District in 1769, where it is stated of the gates of the Styhead Pass, at Seathwaite, that “all farther access is here barred to prying mortals, only there is a little path winding over the fells, and for some weeks in the year passable to the dales-men; but the mountains know well that these innocent people will not reveal the mysteries of their ancient kingdom.” If my monitor could now stand on the Styhead on a fine Easter Monday, he would see a sight to surprise him!

  Nor is it strange that the mountains should attract their worshippers at all seasons of the year, for the passion, once acquired, is insatiable; you may tire of the hills for awhile, but if you have once felt their power you will assuredly return to them; and that perhaps is why we think of them as holding some inner secret of their own. Who that has sympathetically studied them will deny it? There are moments when, as we stand in the presence of a great mountain group, we are almost overwhelmingly conscious of the brooding watchfulness, the sphinx-like reserve and expectancy, with which these silent sentinels confront us. What is the source of the strong yet mysterious attraction that draws us again and again to these wildernesses of rock and cloud, this “builded desolation” which might seem so antagonistic to human sympathies? Why is it that we find even a humanizing influence in wastes where our grandfathers could see nothing but what repelled them as “savage” and “ferocious”? The charm that binds us is as inexplicable as it is real. If human love is “of the valley” and calls us down, there is another and wilder love that is of the mountain and calls us upward.

  What, then, are the requisites for the pilgrim of the mountains? Two only: a strong purpose in his heart and stout nails in his boots. With these, and with no other guides than map, compass, and common sense, he may go his ways among the Cambrian and Cumbrian hills, and may see sights (if he be worthy to see them) which will make his memory the richer; and if he is wise enough to take but little baggage and live on simplest foods, to shun the hotel and make the cottage his resting-place, he will perhaps learn, if not the secret of the mountains, yet the secret of the mountaineer—the full and abiding happiness of the mountain life.

1 The Cambrian Sketch Book, by R. R. Davies.
2 See the account from which I have quoted, in Notes and Recollections of an Angler, Rambles among the Mountains, Valleys, and Solitudes of Wales, by J. H. Cliffe, 1860.
3 “The simple people who till the soil of Westmorland and Cumberland cannot view in any other light than that of childish ‘laking’ the migrating propensities of all the great people of the south who annually come up like shoals of herrings from their own fertile pastures to the rocky grounds of the north.”—De Quincey.
4 The very word “to climb” is beginning to be appropriated by the gymnasts, in whose records we find mention of meetings with “non-climbing parties” at the summits. Scott’s verse, “I climbed the dark brow of the mighty Helvellyn” will evidently have to be rewritten.
5 I would also refer to the admirable photographs taken by Messrs. Abraham, of Keswick, in which the spirit of the mountains is faithfully rendered.
6 See the well-known lines in Scott’s “Helvellyn”:
“Dark green was that spot mid the brown mountain-heather,
Where the Pilgrim of Nature lay stretched in decay.”

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