We met walking. And by that I mean it was when we first really spent time doing something that we both loved to do. The summit of Pen Y Fan in the Brecon Beacons, Wales in late summer of 2003 will always hold a very special place in our collective memories: it was where ‘We’ began.
Fast forward 13-years, still together and still walking whenever possible. It was a National Geographic article and picture that seduced me, completely: the Huayhuash Cordillera in the central spine of the Peruvian Andes was listed as one of the top ten walks in the world. The remit: 10-days walking to cover 125-kilometres; 9-nights under canvas above 13,000-feet; and every day a pass to cross as high or higher than France’s Mont Blanc – 15,777-feet.
Even I had doubts not having been at those altitudes since my twenties; and as for camping, not that amount of time since my teens. Grace had never been that high, walked for that long or been so long under canvas. It was a big ask for both of us. I desperately wanted to go for it but was not prepared to commit unless Grace was thoroughly convinced it was right. So what to do? A few trial walks should see whether we had the necessary fitness, acclimatisation and grit. Five days and three hard core training walks later we walked into the office of Eco-Ice Peru in Huaraz and signed on the dotted line. We would go supported, with a guide and an ‘Arriero’ to manage the five donkeys and mule to carry all our supplies.
During those 10-days we both pushed ourselves higher, further and harder than we had ever done whilst walking together. The weather threw a bit of everything at us: sandwiches were eaten sheltering behind giant boulders as rain and sleet swept over us; paths turned to mini-torrents as rainwater rushed downhill; hail bounced off us as we plodded uphill, heads down, adopting a style I call the the ‘Nepali Porter Plod’ as we endeavoured to keep our breathing and heart rates steady and not racing out of control (ideally between 140-160 bpm). Keeping clothes dry became of paramount concern and any dry or sunny period was seized upon to dry wet or damp items. Temperatures swung wildly up and down as we crossed in or out of the sun or wind and for someone who feels the cold quite keenly Grace never complained once, even when splashing glacial river water on her face every morning.
Days began at 6am or earlier with a cheery “Buenos Dias Chicos’ from our guide Jilmer as he brought us two steaming mugs of Mate de Coca tea, useful in warding off the effects of altitude sickness. The transition from ‘sarcophagus’ type sleeping bag to clothes in a small two-man tent had to be achieved with a high degree of flexibility and mutual consideration and we never once poked each other in the eye with a careless elbow. Then with woolly hat pulled low and down jacket zipped tight it was necessary to scoop oneself forward through the A-shaped aperture dislodging as few raindrops or ice as possible to then disappear off in search off the local ‘bano’ such as it might be – and there were quite a few horrors!
One day saw us up even earlier and on our way by 6:30am. It was devilishly cold and the path set at a calf-busting angle with a thin coating of granulated ice and mud for almost the entire 2,500-foot ascent to the pass. The view from the top of the San Antonio Pass was one of the trek’s highlights as it basked beneath a near cloudless blue sky. The downhill by the same route was equally brutal and was followed by a long valley before another steep descent and then a long gradual ascent to that night’s camp. Ten hours walking with ascents of over 6,000-feet and descents of 5,500-feet. Grace just got on with it, no complaints whatsoever.
The following day we crossed two high passes, walked along a magnificent ridge with views in every direction, before dropping several thousand feet down an incredibly steep mountainside. We were almost round the entire mountain range. The next day we walked off on our own up the valley beneath exquisite snow and ice sculpted peaks. Eating a picnic of by now quite dry bread, salty cheese and tomatoes we felt thoroughly ‘walked in’, the hard yards were now behind us.
For my part, watching as your slightly mad hair blew in the Peruvian wind on that penultimate day, I remember feeling enormously full of admiration for you. Nothing the mountains or the weather had thrown at us had caused you to falter: altitudes of 16,500-feet had not affected you adversely, nor biting cold, rain, sleet and hail; nor punishing ascents and descents, al fresco toilets and icy river water; not 10-days cramped living, sleeping constricted like a ‘mummy’ or wet and damp clothing. Nothing. You are my perfect walking companion, as at home on a high Himalayan mountain in the icy pre-dawn as you are lying in an English Beech wood in autumn watching as the leaves float down to land on us. When we are out walking I feel as though I have everything I need right there with me. I have learnt so much from you these past years and so much came during our walks. There is often a paused quality to the rate at which minutes pass and I find myself heedless to the passage of time as it slips pitilessly away. Nature seems to be on our side. It seems to me now as though I always walk with you because even when you are not there me I feel your presence, your enormous emotional, physical and spiritual strength.
We have walked in so many spectacular parts of the world and will I hope walk in many more. So simple, left foot, right foot: look around, life rarely gets any better than this. And even today you still insist I took you walking in the Brecon Beacons that day to ‘test your mettle’. Flying colours my lovely girl, flying colours from that day to this.
We are both walking each other back home, together, forever.
“Of all the paths you take in life make sure a few of them are dirt” – John Muir