My father’s hobby is walking and climbing. As a teenager he’d go off walking and climbing at weekends and holidays, sometimes with friends, often alone; naturally he became more adventurous as he got older.
He used to drag us all along too which we mostly hated. We had to train up for big walking holidays, spending the weekends going for “nice long walks”. I used to fall behind and get lost in my own little world as we didn’t really share conversations, especially when I was trying to keep up with legs twice the length of mine. My parents would end up in the pub having food and a couple of pints and we children would be stuck outside sharing a pack of crisps between us. And I’m not exaggerating. I am however sounding bitter and that wasn’t the point.
When I was very young, my father got invited to climb a mountain. It was quite a big mountain, the plan was to go up the hardest side, and the expedition wanted a journalist who could write about the journey and climb a mountain at the same time. My father was the obvious choice.
I remember at the time being incredibly proud of him and to this day it still is his achievement that I am most proud of. I looked up the mountain on the map and read the expedition programme (which is still up in the attic) and read his articles as they flew over and took trains and walked. It was the first time I’d read any of his articles as they were usually way over my head but I was proud of my father being in print.
They got to base camp. Base camp was two thirds of the way up the mountain and already higher than most people travel. And then came the headline “My skin was turning blue, what was going on” (also in the attic) as they moved up to camp 1. My father was dramatically diagnosed with altitude sickness and came back down the mountain and home again. With a beard that I’d never seen before. He was almost a stranger. But he was my hero.
Years later the cracks in this story began to emerge. My mother suggested to me that he didn’t have altitude sickness but that he was scared stiff and it was all psychosomatic. I wasn’t sure whether she was being cruel or honest. It set me thinking.
Last year my father and I were meandering through the second hand book stall on the South bank, under the bridge when I saw the book that the expedition leader had written about the experience. I bought it under protest of my father and a conversation then followed. I feel that in many ways this highlights the difference between our attitudes to life.
My father said it was the most stupid thing he’d ever done in his life and and he wished he hadn’t done it.
I said it was brave to give it a go, to challenge yourself possibly beyond your capability.
My father said it was dangerous and irresponsible of him to risk his life when he had a wife and 3 children to provide for.
I said I was proud of him, that I admired him tremendously for trying.
My father said he was a failure as he didn’t reach the top.
I said he wasn’t a failure. He came back off that mountain and not everyone did in that expedition.
As an older child I asked him to teach me to climb. I thought it was something we could enjoy together that didn’t involve walking miles. I was wrong. I gave up when I realised that he was absolutely terrified for me and his fear just succeeded in making me nervous.
As well as starting off a conversation, the book also provided a completely independent glimpse of my father from 30 years ago
the one person on the team who had not been completely accepted … He was a big, slightly clumsy man who had almost cultivated a blunt Yorkshire accent as a protective shell.
This seems mainly because he wouldn’t share his reports with the others before sending them off and they felt it was unfair. One of the other members said that it was my father’s loss:
he seems to make no effort to penetrate the fascinating lives of the individual members and, in his words, “stands back from the expedition”. It would be so nice if he was a member of the expedition who could share the joys and arguments and the tragedies.
Well yes, years later I think it would be nice if could share my joys and arguments and tragedies, if he demonstrated some emotional involvement and compassion for others. I do think these few lines are however completely accurate and show true insight.
As a child he used to tell me that building a wall between me and the outside world was a good way of protecting myself. He was wrong.
This story really tells me how sorry I feel for him. Imagine going on the greatest adventure of your life, a once in the lifetime opportunity, and not having the courage and confidence to enjoy it or to remember it. That is what is so sad.