“John Noakes, this is all your fault.”
This was the first thought that went through my mind on Sunday morning at 4:30a.m. as the alarm buzzed me out of my fitful sleep.
I’d spent the previous day thinking about where my mountain addiction had sprung from as I climbed along the ridge up to Kashimayari-ga-take in the north Japan Alps. There was the walk with Dad when I was six around Monsal Head in Yorkshire, that certainly lit the fuse. But even before that, there was something. What was it?
John Noakes walking the Pennine Way. In the mists of the 1970’s, I’d watched John walk along Britain’s backbone each week on TV. With his timeless mop haircut (unlike that fop Peter Purves) and quizzical expression, he was like a man perpetually peering at something just over the horizon. Quite why he should have appealed so much to a four year old I’m not sure. But something stirred. I have a vague recollection of Mum saying I could do that when I was older.
The wind had swung during the night, sometime around 1a.m., and was now blowing from the north. A cold Siberian gale lifted moisture from the Sea of Japan, and was now firehosing the Alps with ice. The rock wall I’d built on the west side of my bivy was no longer providing shelter, and the wind buffeted my cocoon relentlessly.
I squinted through the airhole in the bag and could still see a lone star above, but there was an unmistakable pre-dawn glow in the sky. The forecast for rain had proven incorrect; the north wind had blasted the clouds away. I stuck a gloved hand out of my sleeping bag and listened to it scrape across the hoarfrost which had built up inside the bivy, and felt the rigidity which could only mean that the outside was frozen too.
I ran through my checklist as always, a set of steps that minimizes lost time in these cold mornings. Open the bivy. Put on your jacket. Put on your boots. Start the stove while rolling up the bivy. And so on. So much easier to think about than to actually do. But eventually I reach for the zipper and prepare for icy chill that comes next.
But the zipper doesn’t move. It’s frozen solid. Both sides. I heave at it as best you can in what is basically a body-bag, but it is stuck fast.
Noakes never had these problems. They always showed him first thing in the morning propped up on one arm in his sleeping bag, mug of tea in hand and dog Shep next to him. His A-frame tent sloughing off Yorkshire drizzle and flapping lightly in a mild Pennine breeze. You didn’t tell me about frozen zippers and hoarfrost, John. Why not?
Cursing his name, I pull a glove off and start to de-ice the zipper with my thumb. After a few minutes I am able to pull back the cover, and the wind shreds me to the bone. Why do I do this?
There’s a dream-like quality to bivying out. The night before I had watched the lights in the valley below, and wondered about the people down there. Saturday night, gathered around the television, out drinking and eating, making love. And then me a mile above their heads, all alone in the cold. I could feel their lives, but I couldn’t tell them that their worries were all small and meaningless, or about the things that really mattered and they took for granted. The melancholy of the gods.
But in the morning the clouds lay low and thick across Japan, and I thought again about how lucky I am. My day would start with bright sun, a blue sky and a view that stretched from one side of the land to the other. My food would taste good, and I would feel the morning sun warm my face and the backs of my hands. Maybe that was what I saw in John Noakes all those years ago, a man happy with himself and his efforts. Drinking his morning brew with impossible intensity and contentment.
I took photos of the sunrise, and then noticed a line of headlamps snaking its way up the ridge towards me. A quick departure, leaving nothing but a bare patch in the ice where I had lain and a small, ineffective stone wall. And so down once again.
I caught the odor of bear three times on the descent as I cut through the forest lower down the mountain. I sang dirty songs from school and blew my whistle, all the while nervously fingering the blank space on my belt where my bear-spray usually hangs. Of all the times to forget it. Yet another something else Noakes forgot to whisper in my four year-old ear.
I read recently that the TV crew who went with him claimed John didn’t do the Pennine way, that they had filled his rucksack with newspaper and filmed him just doing a few short sections. Much to the delight of bitter cynics who never did and never will understand what he was doing there in the first place. Whether it is true or not is irrelevant. Hiking and climbing are mental transformations, not physical ones. In the soul of anyone who saw John Noakes on the Pennine Way and who has since picked up a sack to climb or walk as a result, he travels on.