Pleasures of the Heights.

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

Pleasures of the Heights

  “WHAT pleasure lives in height? the shepherd sang.” Only a very lovesick shepherd, who had his own reasons for praising the valley at the expense of the mountain, could have asked a question so foolish; for the pleasures of the heights are manifold and beyond count. Let us consider a few of these pleasures, just those cheap and simple ones which are in the reach of anybody who, without aspiring to be a skilled rock-climber or Alpinist, is drawn by his love for our English or Welsh hills to spend long days among their solitudes, and to cope with the difficulties, such as they are, of weather and season in planning and effecting his ascents—the choice of routes, the fording of streams, the avoidance of precipices, and the keeping of the right course in dense and blinding mists.

  Equipped, then, with a modicum of food, with map, compass, and field-glasses, we sally forth emancipated from all that usually deadens us to the direct messages of Nature. For it is one of Nature’s citadels that we are scaling, and we know not in which of her varying moods we shall find her; but we know that in these uplands all her moods are beautiful, and that it is not the fair-weather climber that is privileged to comprehend them best. Here, at least, is a region where in all seasons, and in all weathers, not a sight or sound but brings contentment to the mind.

  It has been remarked by Elisée Reclus, in his charming History of a Mountain, that of all forms of travel to travel upwards is the most instructive, for by climbing a few thousand feet we enjoy more novel experiences than in a lateral journey of as many miles, and it often happens that the first experience of the climber, as of the aeronaut; is to find himself in the country of the clouds.

  As we start up the valley, perhaps, the “white horses” of last night’s rain-storm are still racing down the slopes, and our staircase of mingled grass and rock bears the shadow of the dense cloud overhead—a scene of unrelieved dreariness to those who are unaware of what glories it may be the gateway. Toiling upwards, we reach the swirling fringe of vapour, which closes gradually round us and wraps from us all view of the familiar landscape below. Still on and up we press, till, as we set foot on the higher ridges, the magic of cloudland begins; for lo! what in the ordinary light of day were mere rocks and buttresses are changed now and magnified into mysterious shadowy forms, looming dimly out upon us from the mist, until we half wonder whether the compass or our own memory has misled us, and we have strayed into some strange unmapped district where the air is thick with phantoms. Often and often have I had such thought, when beclouded on the great rocky plateau of the Glyders or Scawfell Pikes, or groping my way along one of the narrow “cribs” of Carnarvonshire or one of the Cumberland “edges”; and I do not think that any one imbued with the love of mountains would exchange these hours of cloudy surmisings for all the crystal skies that give the “views”, so desired of tourists, from the top. Not that I would undervalue the exhilarating sensation—unlike anything else in life—of reaching the summit of a mountain; but to the true mountaineer all other interests are subordinate to the fact of the mountain-presence itself, even if that presence be veiled, as it often is, in remorseless drift of rain-cloud.

  For it may be admitted that mountains, like some other objects of human affection, are apt to subject their lovers to a chilling ordeal, days and weeks of repeated denials and disappointments, until at times the most ardent may despond; or if one present himself as a returned prodigal, seeking instant favour after absence, he may but find, as Thoreau expressed it, that there has been killed for him “the fatted cloud.” But to the faithful there will come at last, quite suddenly anq unexpectedly perhaps, a moment which makes such gracious amends that all past unkindnesses are forgotten. You are standing, it may be, on some high ridge or summit, drenched with rain, buffeted by winds, and wondering if perchance any sign is to be vouchsafed to you. The mist floats by in thick interminable volume. But see! What is that small dark rift in the grey monotonous curtain? Wider and wider it grows, until it is framed there, like a magic stage among the clouds, and through that gap, where· a moment before you saw but twenty paces, you may now see as many miles, a fair expanse of valleys, lakes and rivers, with the sea gleaming in the background. Another moment, and it is gone—to be restored again, and withdrawn again, in quick succession—a shifting scene more glorious than ever eye has witnessed, save in the region of clouds or dreams.

  In a thick mist, such as is apt to enfold with extreme suddenness the hills of which I speak, perhaps not to release them for days from its shadowy grip, the careful use of a compass is almost a necessity, except in places where the landmarks are familiar and beyond mistake; for the transformation which the mountains undergo is surprising even to those who know them best; and if once the true sense of direction be lost, it is most difficult to recover it, especially on broad, smooth plateaus or hillsides where there are no sharp-featured rocks. In the ascent there is less likelihood of going astray, for there is but one summit, and by climbing we shall find it; but in descending there is always a greater possibility of error, with the chance, if we get on the wrong side of the watershed, of emerging some twenty miles away from home. The sensation of the coming down on the reverse side of a mountain range is most perplexing, for at first sight, and until we can readjust our minds to the fact, everything seems confused, the quarters of the horizon have changed places, north is south, and we can hardly believe that our left is not our right. A friend of mine who was lost on Snowdon in a mist, made his way down, as he thought, towards Llanberis, with the intention of thence walking rightward to Pen-y-Gwryd; he reached a road which he took to be the pass of Llanberis, and duly turned to the right. Not until after he had walked some miles did he discover that he was well on the way towards Camarvon, having descended, without knowing it, on the wrong side of Snowdon and into a different part of Wales.

  To be lost in a fog is of course no uncommon experience among strangers who cross the fells. On one occasion (not strictly to be classed among “pleasures” of the heights), when descending from Scawfell Pike to Langdale in furious storm and cloud, I met near Angle Tam a wandering, one-eyed tramp, who presented about as miserable an appearance as human being could attain. The proverbial “drowned rat” would have scorned to exchange plight with him. He had been discharged, he told me, a. few days before, from a hospital in a northern town, where they had taken out one of his eyes without consulting him, and with the remaining eye he was seeking his way to a relative at Keswick by the Stake Pass, from which he had hopelessly wandered. As we descended Rossett Gill together, for I took him back to Langdale, he confided to me that this was his first experience of a mountain, and he thought it would suffice till his death—an event which, but for his happening to meet our party, would probably not have been long delayed.

  A strange effect is produced, when one is descending, if the clouds are descending too; for the deepening mist then makes the delay in reaching sunlight seem endless. Down and down we go, and the gloom is still beneath us, until we begin to wonder, like the first voyagers on the Atlantic, whether we are sinking into some bottomless abyss from which it may be impossible to rearise; it becomes a burden and nightmare to the mind; then at last there is a darkening of the vapour in one spot, and far below we see the jet-black water of a tam, or a bit of brown mountain-side across the glen.

  More inspiriting is the effect of climbing through and above the clouds, as one sometimes can do, until one looks down from an upper land of sunshine on a sea of mist below, from which the rocky peaks and promontories emerge like islands. It occasionally happens, when some high ridge is bathed in cloud on one side and in sun on the other, that a climber, standing on the edge of the gulf, will see a small circular rainbow projected on the mist, with his own head forming the centre of it—a rare and curious experience for the wayworn pilgrim, thus to find his image, like that of a saint, with a halo round his head, emblazoned on the mountain vapours! Who shall say that the modem pilgrim is not blessed, as his forerunners were, with celestial apparitions? The first time I saw this phenomenon was on the ridge of Ben Nevis. I have also seen it from Blaven, in Skye, and from the top of Scawfell, looking down into the cloud-filled chasm of Mickledore.

  Not less marvellous are the transformations of the clouds themselves, when, after a spell of storm, they break up under triumphant sunshine and drift disbanded along the slopes. I remember how once, descending from Tryfan after a wet and dismal day, and returning across the low grassy moorlands to Capel Curig, I witnessed that strange form of mountain mirage recorded by Wordsworth in “The Excursion.” The corner of the valley above Llyn Ogwen was filled with dense mists, which came seething and boiling out of the hollow like steam from a cauldron, and as they broke up into small wisps and wreaths, under combined wind and sunshine, gave an extraordinary appearance to the northern front of Carnedd Dafydd, which was enveloped in a maze of billowy vapour, until it was impossible to distinguish rock from cloud or cloud from rock, and the illusion was exactly that which the poet has described:—

Clouds, mists, streams, watery rocks and emerald turf,
Clouds of all tincture, rocks and sapphire sky,
Confused, commingled, mutually inflamed,
.    .    .    .    .
In fleecy folds voluminous enwrapped.

It is over thirty years since I saw that sight, but we do not forget what we see among mountains as what we read in books.

  There dwell in the memory too (for I must not give the impression that the mountains are always scourged with storm) the days and sometimes weeks in succession when the weather is without a flaw—trance-like spells when the hills stand calm and pensive in every vicissitude of loveliness, now clear and imminent, with ridges sharply outlined against the sky, now dim and ghostly, half shrouded in a mild and breathless haze. But even the loveliest day is seldom perfected without the ministry of cloud, for clouds are the Genii of the mountains, concealing much but revealing more by their presence, and bringing to view the manifold depths and distances that would otherwise be unobserved. You cannot learn the moods and character of a mountain until you have studied its attendant clouds.

  In the joy felt by the experienced climber on arriving at his mountain-top the “view,” perhaps, plays but a subordinate part, though there is always a fascination in a very distant prospect across sea or plain, such as one may get in the early morning, or when the air is clear after a rain shower or a snow squall, as when, from Wales or Cumberland, as the case may be, one sees the Isle of Man resting like a dream on the water, with a pillow of fleecy cloud around it. In this respect the views from the two districts are very similar, for on every side except the east their horizons extend to the sea, and both possess the same great charm, lacking in the Alps and other continental ranges, of overlooking a coast-line broken by shallow estuaries, where at low tide there is an expanse of gleaming red sands, with the plain of dim blue water in the rear. To have seen Snowdon from Scawfell, or Scawfell from Snowdon, across the hundred miles that lie between them, is a rare privilege which few climbers have enjoyed, and of which, in spite of many visits to either mountain, I cannot personally speak; far more often it is the great northern headland of Carnedd Llewelyn which is discerned from the Cumbrian hills and bars the further view. Apart from such remarkable sights as these, the pleasure of the summit, I think, arises chiefly from that sense of power to which a wide outlook contributes—you feel how vast a territory you “command” from your airy fortress; you are for the moment an overseer of men, a super-man, with all the kingdoms of the world stretched at your feet.

  Having spoken of the sights, let me speak of the sounds of the mountain, for the ear is not less fascinated than the eye in these echoing temples, where the upper doughs and chambers are as huge whispering galleries, and sounds are often carried from immense distances, yet in so modulated and subtle a tone as to leave a haunting impression on the mind. There is a solemnity about these mountain voices which is only comparable, on a larger scale, to the effects produced in the hollow space of a cathedral; hence the perfect appropriateness, as has been pointed out, of Wordsworth’s much criticized reference to the “solemn voice” of the mountain lamb. The singing of the stream below, the deep croak of the raven as he sails on his straight course overhead, the shrill cry of the wheeling buzzard, the bleat of a sheep, and even the noise of a detached stone falling from the cliff to the screes, come to us with a significance which would hardly be intelligible elsewhere. The wind, too, has some strange things to tell us, as it tears itself into shreds on the rocks, or lifts the water from the tarns and streams and dashes it in spray to the sky, or startles us with muffled subterranean sobbings as we cross some exposed ridge. Listening among the higher mountains in rough or cloudy weather, we may hear sounds so wild and mysterious that their origin wholly baffles us. There is also felt, at times, a strange apprehension—or should we say premonition?—of the presence of human beings, which may be due to the ear having become unconsciously aware of their approach, if not to some other sense more poignant and occult.

  The voices of the mountain streams become, of course, less powerful in proportion to the height to which the traveller attains, until from the distant summits he hears them only in fitful intervals, now clear, now hushed, according to the force and direction of the wind; but alike in the valley and on the hillside there is that singular aerial quality in the sound which makes it different to all other voices in Nature. This is the music which De Quincey described as like that “of pealing anthems, as if streaming from the open portals of some illimitable cathedral,” and he adds, with special reference to tac river Brathay, in Langdale, that “such a sound does actually arise, in many states of the weather, from the peculiar action of the river upon its rocky bed; and many times I have heard it, of a quiet night, when no stranger could have been persuaded to believe it other than the sound of choral chanting, distant, solemn, saintly.” The same illusion, if it be an illusion, may be felt by one who rests with closed eyes on the bank of any of the small steep becks, which go purling down the slopes, to feed the larger rivers below.

  And now for the joys of the descent. The regret with which the mountain lover turns his back on the summits and leaves

The monstrous ledges there to slope, and spill
Their thousand wreaths of dangling water-smoke,

is tempered with the pleasure of choosing some well-pounded scree-slope or soft grassy stair, down which he may race, with the skill and sureness of foot which long practice has given him, towards the abodes of men, and, like a miser turned spendthrift, may squander in one wild fling the thousands of upward steps so laboriously amassed. It is extraordinary with what speed, given suitable foothold, you may run from top to bottom of a mountain which it took you hours to climb; the Alpine glissade is hardly more glorious. Then, if the day be hot, there awaits you that supreme reward and crown of your labours—the bathe.

  Can bliss be greater than that of coming down, sun-scorched and footsore, to the divine cool streams which fall from hill to valley through a series of rock-pools, each a fit bath-place for an emperor, or to the lakes which tempt the swimmer below, or to the sea itself, never far distant from these mountains? The bathe after a stern day on the heights is the elysium of the climber; no ordinary mortals can understand the passion with which he betakes himself to the healing waters. After coming off the Glyders in a burning sun, I have known the traveller leap into Llyn Idwal, to the consternation of its motionless fishermen; I have seen wonder, too, in the faces of wood-cutters by Buttermere, at the sight of a fellow-being rushing down crazed, as they thought, from the banks of High Stile, and plunging into the lake even while a thunderstorm burst overhead. Assuredly the Delectable Mountains themselves can contain nothing more delectable than their streams.

  There is a reckless joy, too, in the descent on a wet and stormy afternoon, when, after facing rain and wind for hours on the ridges, we return home drenched and weather-beaten, with the exhilaration that arises in the mind which has nothing to hope or to fear. Indeed, the foul day has its proper place, no less than the fair day, in the economy of the hills, when the rain-curtain is drawn visibly across the valley, and scores of white runnels are coursing down the slopes, and the voice of the swollen river sounds hoarser every hour, while it rises as only a mountain river can rise.

  Such are some of the pleasures which the mountaineer is heir to. But whether we leave the heights in calm or storm, in sunshine or shadow, we leave them only for the moment; we descend, but with an inner prompting to return. However prosperous our ascent may have been, there is always the something left undone, the ridge unclimbed or valley unexplored, which is the spur to further effort. “O si angulus ille!” is ever the cry of the mountaineer. Here, if nowhere else in the land, the sense of satiety is unknown; and it is to this mental tonic, even more than to the bracing air of the heights, that we owe the unwearied spirit which nerves us to walk more leagues upon the mountains than we could walk miles upon the plain. For in the lowlands we walk with the body only; in the highlands we walk also with the mind.

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