Many years ago, before the internet was anything more than a twinkle in the eye of a University computer lab technician, I met @ian_bec, in Aberystwyth, where we were both at University. We played chess together, argued about politics and studied hard. When we weren’t hanging out together, we chased girls and pursued other, more prosaic hobbies. My hobbies included rock climbing and hunt sabbing. Returning to my digs with injuries I would find him incredulous that I would wish to participate in such activities. “You’re bleeding”, he would say. “I know”, I would reply. Sometimes other people would ask why I wanted to do such things. Being a young man, I fumbled for a reply. Ian would often supply one for me, typically something like, “He loves the risk of being close to death.” He was wrong, of course, but I couldn’t explain why.
From time to time I would suggest to Ian that since I lacked the words to describe what John Muir called, “the clearest way through the Universe”, he should simply come out into the wild mountains with me. Try as I did, I could not persuade him. After I we’d been friends for 17 years, he came with me to see another pal from University, Stefhan Caddick, whose home nestles in the foothills of the Brecon Beacons. We talked Ian into coming out onto the hills for a walk. It was so bitterly cold that afterwards I actually checked with the Met Office; it has been -21 degrees centigrade! The wind tore into our struggling souls as we slowly ascended the steep slope of our chosen hill, tearing the air from our lungs and biting icily into our extremities. Heads down, we laboured on. I wondered what Ian was thinking? This was not a persuasive case.
Eventually, close to the top of the day’s first summit, we rounded a spur and found ourselves suddenly sheltered. The sun was hot, the little flowers delightful and instead of bent double with privations, we were skipping about and giggling. For the first time, we could enjoy the fine view. My wife said, “This is what it’s all about!” Ian remarked that he was unconvinced that this sudden respite wasn’t anything more than illusory joy and, besides, we had to get back into the howling gusts soon enough. My wife rephrased herself, “That is what it is all about – it is only when you take yourself to edge of what you can cope with, to just outside your envelope of existence, that you can get a proper perspective back to what life centres on!”. Looking at Ian I could see the penny of understanding finally drop. I’d never seen him look so moved before. He looked at me and I nodded. Those were the words which I’d sought for all those years. Perhaps I’d had the words but not the right time and place in which to say them. Stef said, “It’s nice in the sun because we know what the cold feels like.” For once, both Ian and myself were speechless.
The rest of that day was hell on earth, except it was the day that hell froze over. No matter what sufferings we endured, Ian raised no complaint. Far from it, he was relishing every last inch of it. He never stopped smiling. With impeccable timing, his Mum rang him. Evidently, she could not believe what he was up to. “I’m on a mountain! Yes, a mountain… a mountain, you know, like a bigger than normal hill. Yes, a mountain…”, and so on. When he came off the phone he said his Mum was worried about him, as if he might have finally lost his marbles. She had ordered him to ring her back when he was safely down in the valley floor.
When our day was nearly over and we were safely down, we warmed ourselves in a pub. There we debated whether the true joy was to be found in the pub after the trials of the day or on the exposed ridge with the prospect of the pub to come. I said the latter, the others pitched for the former. Somewhere along the way of that argument, I struck a deal with Ian. If I went to watch a football match with him (something I had never done), he would come mountaineering with me in Scotland for two weeks.
He’d finally discovered the spiritual high of a wild place but not yet completed his journey to enlightenment, I insisted, or something like that. Besides, these particular Welsh peaks were really just hills, not mountains and as quiet as it had been up on the ridge, it could hardly be described as a wilderness. It was dark outside and the temperature was dropping further. “I bet it’s a lot more quiet up there now“, said Ian. As bargains go, that must rank as one of the most unusual. Many folk have commented that I had the better end of the deal. In tomorrow’s post, I’ll explain what happened during the first football match I ever saw: Portsmouth v West Ham at Upton Park on 18th March 2006.