Roland in the mountains
Swapping the nine-to-five for micro-adventures…
Words and PHOTOGRAPHS
Doctors in the Highlands of Scotland are now prescribing hiking and mountain walks, amongst other outdoor activities, as a way of combating certain health issues, such as stress, anxiety and depression. I immediately wanted to test this theory, by escaping to the mountains at the end of a working week. A few days in the wilderness couldn’t be that hard, and the benefits sounded encouraging. I was determined to give it a go, documenting how I felt, if and when I undertook such an adventure. But the mountains are dangerous without expert knowledge. If I was going to do this, I needed a good guide.
Earlier in the year I met Roland Williams, on a trip to the Cairngorms. He explained how he escapes the city by driving out to Wales, the Lake District, or even Scotland, almost every other weekend. He goes on solo expeditions in the mountains, with a one-man tent, and enough supplies to last for 3 days. He sees it as a detox from the city, returning fresh and rejuvenated for Monday. He loves a micro-adventure, something he’s been doing for several years. He is now training for his mountain leader award. Roland really has the perfect balance between city life, and rural adventure. If I was going to navigate, and survive, successfully in the mountains, Roland would be the ideal guide. I just needed him onboard.
We met up again in an East London café, where I pitched the idea to document him on one of his weekends away. He didn’t need much persuading, and before we knew it we had pencilled in some dates in the diary. One thing hadn’t occurred to me, it was now late November. It was going to be cold! I am definitely a warm weather creature. What had I got myself into?
The plan was to drive to Snowdonia National Park on the Friday evening, and stay until Monday afternoon, which meant three full days of hiking. That Friday evening came around quicker than I expected.
There I was, fully loaded with hiking gear, whilst also bearing the photographers heavy burden of camera equipment, trekking across the streets of London. I was fully immersed in the chaos of the city, desperate to get away.
After a 4-hour drive, we reached the small wooden hut that we were staying in at half-past midnight. Just a few hours before, I was surrounded by thousands of people, all moving in a hectic festive rhythm, in and out of shops. Now, there was nothing but silence. Just the gentle crackle of rain on our low felt roof. I got into my sleeping bag (the hut was pretty basic) and sank into a deep sleep.
Morning came, and the weather was looking uninviting. Had I been in the city I probably would have turned over and gone back to sleep. But the rain didn’t deter me. I felt excited to be heading out to a place I’d never explored before. Roland offered some sound advice on how to pack for a day in the elements. “There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad kit, and bad planning,” he said, lacing up his boots.
Up in the mountains it soon became clear why Roland does what he does. I got lost in my own thoughts. The feeling of constantly pursuing the next big thing, or my next big idea, didn’t feel so daunting anymore. I felt in control.
Out of the three days in Snowdonia, the first day was the toughest. Part of me had wondered why I’d made this project so difficult for myself. I could have quite easily driven south, and trekked along the Jurassic Coast. But taking the easy option is not within my personality. I do enjoy a challenge. A few days before this trip I’d seen the new film FREE SOLO. A documentary about a climber called Alex Honnold, who in 2017 climbed the face of El Capitan in Yosemite Park, without any ropes. Something he said in that film had stuck with me, and probably will for a long time. “Nobody ever did anything great by staying cosy and warm.” Those words echoed in my mind as we pushed through 70mph winds and near zero visibility. Ice formed on our bags, the zips on our jackets, and in our beards. At one point, a thick layer of ice had formed on the rocks beneath our feet, forcing us to put on crampons for extra grip. With Roland’s guidance, we reached the summit, and began our descent, back to the valley floor.
There’s nothing quite like the feeling of sipping a hot cup of tea, after 6 hours of freezing rain hitting you in the face. That evening I appreciated a few simple things, even more than I ever had before. Our wooden hut had no TV, or bathroom. But to curl up in a warm sleeping bag and drift off to sleep, at 10pm, was a luxury in itself.
The next day started off dryer. No rain, clear skies. We gathered our gear, and drove out to the same valley as the day before, just 10 minutes away. “You see that ridge? We’re going up there.” Roland said, with a giddying degree of excitement. “I doubt we’ll see anyone using that route today.”
Tryfan was the name of this mountain. A popular scramble for keen mountaineers. But the icy, winter conditions made it unattainable for those who hadn’t brought the right gear. Fortunately for us, Roland had pre-planned the routes, checking and re-checking weather conditions, and had produced a kit-list for the conditions he’d expected. There wasn’t much that stood in our way. And so, we began our ascent.
Halfway up, a huge rock jutted out over the valley, like a high dive board. The clouds cleared and we could see for miles. Roads below played host to what looked like toy cars on a playmat. Roland perched on the edge, looking out onto the horizon. He appeared, for a moment, like the figure in Freidrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea Fog. How strange that that painting was made exactly 200 years ago to the year, and still we are embarking on similar expeditions, to take advantage of these unchanged views. I was immediately thankful for this moment, and after a minute of reflection, we continued on upwards.
The higher we went, the colder it got, as again more ice began to form underfoot. Roland was right when he said we would be alone on this route. The only glimpse of other hikers came in the form of footprints in the frozen mud, some thawing out in the sun, whilst others sat encased under a sheet of ice. The isolation felt therapeutic.
We reached the summit of the day’s route, after tackling Bristly Ridge, in high spirits. The scramble to the top was much more physically demanding than the day before. Fortunately, the wind was not as strong, although the rain began to fall as Roland paused to take a new bearing for our descent. We hiked down, making it back to the car is the sun began to fall, after nearly 9 hours in the mountains. Our evening plans were similar to the night before. A hot meal, a beer in a local pub, then sleep. Our final day was to be the most rewarding of all.
5:30am. Roland’s alarm went off, and the small hut filled with orange light as he switched on the lamp and jumped out of bed. The plan for the morning was to be on the mountain for sunrise. While I’ve mentioned that I’m more of a summer sun kind of person, I should also say that I’m more in favour of a slow morning. But that feeling seemed to have disappeared this weekend. The mountains are inspiring places. They change the way you see things. I thought, I could get used to this way of life.
Standing in the car park, I looked up towards the peak of Snowdon, which was hidden behind the clouds. Headtorches on, map at the ready, we set off.
Roland and I hardly spoke for the first 90 minutes or so. We found a rhythm in our pace, and stuck to it. It was pitch black, but you could still feel the mountains looming over us, as strips of light began to break over the crest of the ridge to the east. At 8:30am the sun rose. There was another moment of calm, and peace, as we stood silently adoring the orange glow over the small lodge in the distance, a few hundred metres below.
On our last day we treated ourselves. As a reward, when we reached altitude, Roland fired up the stove. We enjoyed a hot breakfast, followed by a herbal tea, with the sunrise in the distance, and the peak of Snowdon in our sights. This was not my normal Monday morning, but it was by far one of the best. We should all feel inspired, at some point in our lives. For me, it is moments like this that keep me pushing forwards.
After breakfast, I asked Roland why he loves the mountains so much. He told me that he loves his job (he works as a chartered surveyor) and the social aspect of living in London, as well as his family. But some of those things are not always guaranteed. Being able to walk alone in the wilderness is another part of his identity. When he escapes the city for a micro-adventure, it is just him and the elements, and that will never change. This is a feeling that he’s very keen to share.
Adventures can be as big, or small as you make them. A mountain can be a metaphor for anything that you see as being out of your comfort zone. It takes a lot of courage to step outside of the place you feel the most secure. But for the benefit of our mental health, I believe it is essential. As Jack Kerouac says, “Because in the end, you won’t remember the time you spent working in the office or mowing your lawn. Climb that goddamn mountain.” Well Kerouac, I’m sure glad I did, and let’s hope it’s the first of many.