The first time we walked up Pen Y Fan I think I can safely say that it wasn’t an unqualified success. It started off so well. We discussed the day and came up with a plan. Find the car park (the one with a toilet), make a picnic, eat the picnic, walk up and down, have a take away when we got home. So far so good. Except when we got there it was, well, overcast and gloomy. And when we got to the top, we couldn’t really see the top, being as the clouds were in the way, so we didn’t really make it to the top, only to the first top. And then, of course, what should happen on the way down, but the clouds emptied themselves upon us, which was fine for me and the kids, but not for R, as, in all the rushing and hurrying about and muttering ‘come OOOOOOOON!’ and shooing us all into the car, he neglected to bring his coat and so had to charge off down the hill before he got himself a nice dose of hypothermia.
And Sam. Sam is not what you might call a willing hill walker. It all seems like jolly fun at the start, but before long, he is deciding that it is all a bit too much like hard work and sitting down in the path, in the mud. Back then, at the time of Expedition Number 1, it wasn’t so much of a problem. R and I just got behind him and pretty much pushed him up. He wasn’t very big. It wasn’t a problem. The biggest problem, in fact, was the other two, charging off into the unknown like a pair of mountain goats.
And then, when it started to rain, Sam decided that stamping and shouting and generally getting cross with the weather was the way to deal with it. Which was vaguely entertaining for all the other hurrying off the hill onlookers, but not especially for me, left alone to deal with it while the coatless wonder headed for shelter.
When we walked up Snowdon, a couple of years ago now, R and I decided it was the sort of experience we would love to share with our children, but helping Sam around to our way of thinking is a challenge (the last thing we would want would be to find ourselves stuck half way up with a reluctant first born) – until, that is, along came the Duke of Edinburgh. Not the real duke, I hasten to point out, but the award scheme. Before we knew where we were, we were organising (or rather R was) a family walk up to the top of the hill. Us and some other families with kids who were similarly engaged at Sam’s school.
There’s something about walking with friends that helps the miles to pass under your feet, and that was just the sort of thing Sam needed to keep him going, we thought. Having families there would mean that the young people would be supported, and everyone would get a really good day out. Which is sort of how it turned out, except for Sam.
You see, we didn’t reckon on me having a heavy cold. We didn’t reckon on Sam finding it quite so difficult. We didn’t reckon on the speed of the rest of the group, who soon left us far behind. And we didn’t reckon on, once he had sat himself upon his rock, it being quite so difficult to get him going again.
When we were on the way back to the car, summit conquered and picnic consumed (I had to come away from the edge we originally perched upon; it made my legs go funny) (and no, that wasn’t a consequence of walking up a Big Hill), we passed Sam’s Rock, and I looked back, and I couldn’t quite believe that I had thought it wasn’t much further, and that it wouldn’t take us long to get up to the top, once we got him going again. I couldn’t quite believe that I had refused to give in to Sam’s claims that it was too hard, and R’s somewhat despondent admission of failure.
You see, I understand how he feels, my son. I understand what it is to struggle up a hill, with your breathing crashing in your ears and your heart leaping out of your chest. I understand what it is like to feel a physical failure, and to lose faith in your ability to achieve what you have set out to do. To see everyone else charging off ahead of you, leaving you far behind because you just can’t. And, then, there is the other thing that I understand: the power of conquering the mountain, whichever one it was you had set yourself. I understand the power of acknowledging that something is hard, and that you are going to do it anyway, that you can push through the difficulty and that you will, and the bitter taste of defeat when you don’t. I know the the ability to do more tomorrow will be built on the success of today.
And then, over the years in which we have grown together, my boy and I, I understand how tricky finding that bit of motivation can be to get him going again, how long you have to wait before he decides for himself that he is, after all, going to accompany me on the journey. I understand that despite the smiling encouragement of strangers, most people either give up, or walk off.
I don’t give up. And I don’t walk off.