‘Don’t climb it!’ The anxious voice came over the phone. I was seventeen, somewhere in the middle of Wales halfway through a solo youth hostel walking holiday. I’d met quite a few people. Most I liked, one or two I didn’t, and here I was at King’s. The next stop was Corris YHA and there was a mountain in between and a day that stayed with me for many years.
Cader Idris is a mountain that you rarely hear mentioned because it isn’t as tall as Snowdon or Ben Nevis, yet I fell in love (if one can with a mountain) the first time I went up it. On the verge of leaving home, this walking holiday was to be the first act of being independent. Cader was to be the highlight of the tour. And it was. The route I had chosen took a whole day to get across to the other side. Some incredible views, some landscapes as barren as Mars, rock curtains reaching to the sky and the sheer height and grandeur of the mountain itself. There were very few people about that day so I had the path and the mountain largely to myself. She was mine.
The mountain itself has been scooped out by a glacier millions of years ago, leaving a corrie with Tal-y-llyn Lake at the base of the circular chain of peaks and ridges – Lyn Cau, the lesser peak, Graig Cau, a knife-edge section before Penygader the summit, crawls into view. Across the top it’s about three miles with two climbs of 980 feet. You know you’ve done it at the end of the day because your legs tell you, but you will sleep well. That day saw me climb the summit and then head directly east to the next stop.
I was to learn later that the name came from legends that said that the giant Idris used the mountain as a chair to lie back in and study the stars. Hence the name ‘Chair of Idris’. It was also a backdrop for the story of Mary Jones, the girl who in 1800 saved her meagre wages for six years and walked 25 miles in bare feet to buy a Welsh language Bible from the Vicar at Bala. As a result of hearing her story, he set up the British and Foreign Bible Society for the task of distributing the scriptures in the UK and worldwide.
A few years ago I had the opportunity to climb the mountain again with a group of friends. I was concerned that the golden glow that surrounded my memories of that day would be lost in the confrontation with today’s reality. How wrong I was. It was still an awe-inspiring sight. This time we would follow a slightly more circular route, around the edge of the corrie. This gave us some splendid views of the peaks as we descended (you can see one of them on the header to this blog). Again, this turned out to be another special day not to be forgotten. However, there was one difference I had not counted on: The visceral fear that occasionally grips me when I feel insecure at heights.
As we had lunch at the lake, preparing for the main climb we could look up at the ridge joining the two main peaks together. Across this section we could see the silhouettes of climbers against the sky. In my mind they were balanced on the knife-edge top of this curtain of rock that plunged down to the lake at the bottom. I imagined this ridge to be little more than a few feet across. By the time I had reached the first peak, in my mind this had shrunk to a few inches. I was scared. What if I couldn’t make it across? Would I endanger my friends?
By the time I reached the ridge I could see that although it was narrow, on the scale of Cader Idris this was in excess of 50 feet and the fact that you appeared on the sky line was a trick of the angles of view. You didn’t have to look over the edge unless you wanted to. In relief, I did, and was rewarded with a sight which I found difficult to impose a scale on – breathtaking as the shifting curtain of clouds parted to reveal a landscape made for giants.
I understand that a fear of heights is a natural protective instinct designed to keep us out of harm’s way. But sometimes it gets in the way, especially if like me you enjoy hill walking and climbing up towards the sky. I love the views from high places. I love looking down on birds as they ride the air currents far below me. As long as I feel secure, glued to the side of a huge lump of rock, I feel fine. It’s when I feel out of contact, where I have to rely on my own sense of balance that I feel unsure and anxious. I need to feel the earth.
As a Christian I can easily see the lessons here: In order to see a better perspective on the issue you need to climb higher. But this involves a risk – imagined or otherwise. Peter writes ‘ Throw all your worry on him because he cares for you’ (1 Peter 5 v 7, ISV). Sometimes we need to see the knife-edge ridges from the correct angle – God’s view – to get the correct perspective and not to see things solely from our earth-bound point of view. Isaiah says ‘For just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts’ (55 v 9, ISV). Sometimes this will take us higher than we can ever imagine at some personal effort, to places that stay with us for years afterward and leave us with the strong desire to go there again, because this is where we know we should be.