The Peaks

We set out on day three, full of expectation. The peaks and valleys ahead were laid out on the map, but the metaphorical ones were to be discovered as we walked.

Our group, four adults and nine soon to be, stretched out on the rocky path. The early morning sun lifted our spirits and helped us ignore the dull ache of past exertion. The packs on our backs were full of clothing we could not imagine we would need. As we reached the bridge we regrouped; an opportunity to capture a digital memory. For that moment we stood together, knowing that our individual pace would soon separate us again. Drink. Take a moment before the climb. Look up the valley towards the dominant peak ahead.

“Is that where we are going?”, someone asks. It looks so far away, so high.

“No. Beyond that”, I reply. Faces fall.

Our destination is the highest peak in England. Two lesser mountains have already been conquered. This geographical fact creates excitement and not a little nervousness. For me, the weight of guiding nine novices deep in to the hills pulls like the straps across my shoulders. I know the terrain and I know my abilities, but those I am responsible for are not known to the same degree; even with those I have taught, only a superficial relationship exists. What I know of their aptitude and character in the classroom tells me little about what will be revealed to me in this remote environment, tired and in an unfamiliar world. I observe them, looking for clues as to how they might respond to this challenge. I note how they walk (how confidently each foot is planted on the ground), how they interact with each other (if at all) and how they respond to my deliberately casual conversation. As we climb higher their shortness of breath reveals something about their fitness. All these mental notes accrue and I get to know them without them really getting to know me.

The other adults drop neatly into role; not according to a predetermined plan but instinctively as they see the need arise. One falls back to skillfully coach the struggling, applying techniques of distraction, counselling and positive reinforcement, testing out which leads to the desired outcome; more resilience, self belief, but ultimately a faster pace. When their patience or skills fail to achieve this they move away and this signals that it is someone else’s turn, and so another steps forward, or rather falls back. At the front of the pack the aim is different; slow it down. The temptation for the able to push ahead is too strong. In their minds this is an individual endeavour, not a team effort. We remind them (again!) that success comes by us all completing the course, that the measure of the team is how well they bring on those who struggle most. Failing reason, we resort to more subversive strategies, giving then more weight to carry, more jobs to do. When we break, they seek to strike out again as soon as the stragglers catch up, barely allowing them to catch their breath. We control their behaviours through precise commands. In the absence of self control and a team ethos, we will employ coercion. Secure the desired behaviours first, understanding why will come later. Behaviour Management 101. These skills are second nature, gained not through an outdoor pursuits qualification but through years of being a teacher. This is what teachers do.

We reach the tarn and stop by the mountain rescue box which holds a stretcher to take the injured to sea-level safety. I tell the boys that that is where they keep the bodies until they can get them down. They smile uncertainly, not quite knowing if I’m pulling their legs.

Mountains surround us on three sides. I name them for the benefit of a disinterested audience; what do the names mean to them until they have conquered each peak? They ask which one is ‘ours’ and I point to a cloud sitting just higher than the surrounding, clear, peaks. Later, I overhear one say to the others that they thought they’d finished as the ground leveled off, before looking up and realising that they had only just begun.

And so we begin again, heading in to the clouds. The ground becomes more uncertain beneath our feet. Trip, stumble, slip. The path temporarily drops and we scramble over steep rocks to reach it. This path is exposed, the mountainside sloping away to our right. The air here is cool, in contrast to the warm morning we have left behind. Jackets and fleeces go on, then come off, then go on again. On the one hand the sweat is cold on our skin and we crave warmth, but when covered the exertion creates too much heat. More sweat. Undress once more only to find that we are even colder than before as the dampness evaporates from our skin.

Up ahead we can see a steady stream of people making their way up a more popular route towards the summit. We join the flow of traffic. Our feet slip on the loose stones as the gradient increases. We are well into cloud now, visibility low and the temperature dipping to single figures. This feels like an alien environment, so different to that which many of them have experienced before. Their dependency on us is absolute, to navigate our way to the top and, more importantly, to navigate our way back down. They instinctively bunch together and stay near to those they trust know what they are doing. The relentless ‘up’ takes it’s toll on morale as the summit never arrives. Strain and desperation is a facial expression, one which some of them wear for perhaps the first time. Modern life doesn’t dish up much hardship; not in rural villages in the shires.

And suddenly we reach the top. For a brief moment we are the highest sentient beings in the nation. We take on food, the process an act of absorbing energy rather than savoring taste. When we stand again there is no evidence of from where we came and no path to tell us where to go next. Compass, Map. Bearing.

“This way.”

There is a supplementary peak ahead. After a brief exchange among those making the decisions we decide (like the bear hunt) to go over it, not around it. Huge rocks emerge out of the mist, like a cathedral. The realisation of what we are about to ask of her causes one girl to burst into tears. For the majority, however, adrenaline kicks in and they clamber like monkeys up the rock face. This is the real mountain and now we are starting to have fun.

At the other side the cloud lifts. I point ahead towards a great, rounded husk of a mountain and offer the first choice of the day; to take the direct route down or bag one more mighty peak? For some the choice is simple, the chance to slow down and head down. For most, after some internal dialogue and peer pressure, the decision is ‘what the heck’. We set off at pace knowing that this moment will never be repeated. Carpe diem.

When on top, looking out at the valleys below, I tell them that this is the seemingly unachievable mountain we had viewed at the beginning of our expedition. We were down there, now we are up here. Our past selves gazed up to where we would eventually arrive. How often can we see our future which so much certainty?

We drop down below the face of this monolith, descend by a deep gully and gradually, in increasing heat and ever more familiar terrain, return to the world we knew. We stop frequently, not, as before, to let others catch up, but because we know that we are leaving this episode behind, reluctantly. We talk little; everything has been said. As we reach our start point we know that it is also now the end.

We came together later that evening as the sun set over the distant hills. A fire was lit, marshmallows roasted, the barriers between us had been somewhat worn away.

For a moment there was a break in the conversation. A wistful voice broke the silence.

“This is the last school trip we’ll ever do”, she said. Then her words were blown away by the cool, mountain breeze.


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