Millie Mason returns to the Peak District playground of her youth and discovers the life lessons learned from climbing with her father...
A friend and I – we'll call her Bettie – recently took a train into the Peak District. Both long-time lovers of the Peak, we knew it would give us a break from the quarter-life crisis; an existential pitstop in life where you have absolutely no idea what you are doing.
Luckily for Bettie and me, the Peak District is, by its very nature, transformative; the seasons change the landscape, and the landscape changes you. You can never leave the same as you entered. It was on this walk, and on this particular day, that the Peak threw me back into my childhood, where I discovered something unexpected.
I once stumbled across a photo of me as a baby; I was asleep in a carry-case next to a boulder. On that boulder, with chalk-dusted fingers, my dad: a sign of what was to come. My dad, the climber, wanted to share his passion and with that came the Peak District.
My childhood in the Peak consisted of days in the sun, wind, rain, and snow; of storming up to Curbar Edge – also known as the Gum Gums (so called after my siblings became obsessed with 'Night at the Museum' and fancied that the rocks on Curbar resembled the Moai) – we'd wade through the bracken, taller than us in summer, and would pick at the crusted ferns come autumn.
As I grew older, making mud pies with a seasoning of bracken became a less regular item on the menu. Instead, I became my dad's belaying partner. I say 'older', but this is relative. I was still young enough that were my dad to fall off, I would go soaring upwards. We'd both be dangling from a rope until I'd given enough slack to get me down.
As Bettie and I passed some climbers, I giggled to myself at the memory. My dad would always (well, mostly) warn me when he was about to come off. On his mark, I would shout to my younger siblings to stop playing hide and seek or clambering up rocks like mountain goats, they'd grab hold of me and, much like a human chain, would keep me just off the ground until the slack was given. But I'd still race ahead.
I glanced up at the routes these climbers were tackling, happy to see so many women confronting the journey and simultaneously relieved that it was not me. My belaying days were a nice way to share in my dad's passion without having to climb, but for many years I did. Despite being attached to a rope, knowing my dad would have me if I fell, I was alone on that rock, scared.
Unlike my dad at the bottom, I was unable to see the bigger picture. I was unable to see a route up and over the top. Never mind the wind whipping my hair into my eyes, my problem was always a belief in myself — not that I knew that then. I knew that I wasn't as big as my dad – my arms weren't as long. I couldn't understand his instructions being shouted up from the bottom. All I knew was that somehow, yet again, I'd found myself on a rock face and my dad being my dad, the only way off the rock was up. I would find that route because I had to find the route.
Though at times marginally traumatic, this fear never overwhelmed me. Over the years, my dad had somehow taught me to turn that fear, uncertainty, or discomfort into something. I wasn't sure what that something was, but after some deep breaths and rubbing my hands with chalk again, I would attempt to make another move.
It was on those climbs that I learnt that the chalked-stained journeys of others were only a guide, not an answer. Like I said, I was smaller than most climbers, so following the chalk wouldn't always lead me to where I needed to go. Somehow, attempts for a move became moves themselves; a change in foothold would boost me up towards new hand holds and holes to squeeze my already tiny toes into.
I would climb higher, traversing, attempting, and then overcoming the final move. "It's just like getting out of a swimming pool. Come on, you can do this," my dad would shout up. Finally, an instruction I could understand. I'd cling on, still unable to see over the top, and have faith in the move and in myself. Three. Two. One. Push.
Sitting on top of the rock, waiting for my dad to come and get me, I'd have a precious sixty seconds. In that time, my heart would be beating from exhaustion, pride and relief in equal parts. I'd look out at the rolling hills, the lake to the right, the power plant in the distance, and sometimes the rain drizzling down in another valley. I had got to the top. I had done it - me! And this view, this beauty, was my reward.
After many hours of walking, Bettie and I stopped to take a selfie at the top of Curbar, which Bettie pointed out looked like an engagement photo. I looked out and saw the same view that my younger self had witnessed: still beautiful. But Bettie and I were a good trek away from the station and had promised ourselves a solid slice of cake. Down we went, one foot in front of the other, hoping that without a map (and my appalling sense of direction) we'd find ourselves back in Hathersage… at some point.
After our climbing antics, the rest of the day would be filled with our usual routine: pack the rope away, bumble back down to the car, drive to the nearby Outside café and get sausage, chips, and beans. That café was witness to many happy meals and one very awkward orange juice spillage where I made my dad look like he'd wet himself and then some. When our mum joined us, we'd stop at the little ice cream shop across the road. I don't know if my vanilla ice cream tasted delicious because it genuinely was the best ice cream the world had to offer, or if it was because I was still so hungry, even after a full meal. Dad would steal a lick of whoever's ice cream was closest, then the car would pull away.
Homebound, Keane's 'Somewhere Only We Know' would play as the landscape of sun-kissed fields, sheep on the ground preparing for rain, and little lone stone buildings would blur on by. I'd feel the warmth of the black seat on my legs, my head would tip to the side, and I would let my eyes droop. My dad would tap my leg with his palm; his way of checking that I was OK. Once I had nodded off, I let myself drift into the music and the warmth and the feeling of peace.
An hour later, I'd be home as if I'd been transported out of heaven and back into the real world of grey buildings and flat roads. But there was no sadness. We'd be headed back up there again next Sunday. I'd be back to making food out of mud. I'd be clambering up rocks. I'd be looking out at the view wondering, even as a young child, how it was that something so beautiful could exist in my world.
"We've done a complete circle! Well done us!" Bettie made me giggle at her sheer joy that we had in fact - somehow - walked a full-circle route. "I love a full-circle," she beamed at me. "I had absolutely nothing to do with it," I assured her. Bettie likes to give you credit even when it's not due; she's incredibly kind like that. "We followed our noses," she continued.
Exhausted, we found a little tea room where I had once sat outside with my dad, siblings, and uncle on a much warmer, sunnier day. Despite the less appealing weather, Bettie and I sat in the garden, ate our cake, and resigned ourselves to the fact that we too needed to return to the real world. On the Sheffield platform, we hugged each other goodbye as we had done many times; we were OK.
I ran onto my train, just as the doors were about to close, and found a seat amongst many bodies bound for Nottingham and beyond. I sat down, feeling that my body had been worked and my soul had been lifted. Yet again, the Peak District had worked its magic.
I went in feeling that I was once again halfway up a crag, unable to envision what my next move was. But on that walk through the woods and rocks and fields; through the sun, hail, and wind, I realised that the little girl, harnessed up, was not fearless but incredibly brave and determined. She was stubborn, even.
Her dad had shown her weekend after weekend after weekend what it was to have a passion, to have a love of his life. He had shown her that routes are not easy, but he always believed that she would reach the top, and she always did; the next time she was half-way up and wanting to come down, she would have words with herself. She'd remind herself that she had been here before and that, in fact, she could do it. That little girl – determined, passionate, hopeful – is still there. Some days, she is harder to find, but one trip to the Peak and she is laughing and running and singing through the heather again.
The train pulled away after a short delay. It grew warmer as the afternoon sunlight flickered through the window and I, windswept and weather beaten, fought to keep my eyes open. I allowed my eyes to rest, just for a moment and let my mind wander: I'm in my dad's car; the blurred fields of gold and green are painted across the window. I feel the warmth of the sun on my face, hear my dad's playlist through the speakers, and smell the chalk powder on our hands. I smile. My dad's hand pats my knee. I glance his way, offer my smile, and close my eyes again. Both there and on the train, I am truly content.
I know at that moment that I have no clue where my journey will take me, but it won't be without the stubborn determination and passion that my my dad's climbing jaunts taught me. It may not be stable or secure or even sensible, but it will be full of all the love and fear that comes from an adventure. On that train, I am at peace and ready. Ready to try for a move. Ready to look out at the world and see the beauty that exists.
And if I fail, then perhaps it will be time to get the old harness out again.