Sam stretched his arms high above his head and felt the bones 'crack' as his body moved from sleep mode to day mode. The ache in his limbs, which had been with him since the mountains, was beginning to subside and the thought of a relaxed day's climbing filled him with excited anticipation. After the stresses of wilderness mountaineering this would be fun and he could begin to feel the enjoyment of touching rock again.
He'd been away for almost a year, struggling with the challenges of Canada and Alaska. Pushing further into the wilder parts. Taking on the unknown. He looked at the clock - 5.30am - and remembered the conversation with his old friend Aden, a climbing partner from the past. "Have to get up early if we want to get in and parked," his friend had said.
He'd thought it an odd comment at the time but hadn't pursued it. He'd been awake early most mornings anyway since his return. He also hadn't had many opportunities to climb with his mate since Aden had settled down to suburban bliss. It was odd, though, that they were only going to the local crags and, although popular, there'd never been any problem parking before.
Sam had a quick shower to clear his head. The water reminded him of the crisp, cold rivers of the Canadian mountains. That breathless shock as you hit the pool from the kamikaze leap made a split second before. The sting of the cold liquid engulfing your body and the exhilaration of surfacing to take your first gulp of air. Butt naked and only your climbing partner near you for a hundred miles in any direction. That was living.
Two slices of toast, a bowl of cereals and a cup of tea. Breakfast was finished and he wouldn't need to eat again 'til the evening. He'd found that he didn't need to fill his gut as often as he had before and felt much better for it; leaner and fitter.
He heard the car pull up and went to the door, grabbing his pack as he passed through the hall.
He met Aden half way up the drive. "Christ you're efficient," said Aden, "no hanging about and everything in the one bag. I suppose that's what comes from looking after yourself for so long". Sam just smiled.
"Oh by the way, Sara sends her love and says to tell you to bring me back safely."
"Safely," thought Sam. "What does she think we're going to do, take on Everest?" but he kept the thought to himself. His views on life, its dangers and the cotton wool world of modern Western culture had changed since his trip.
It was 6.30 am, an hour in the car to the crags and his friend rambling on about stresses of work, kids, the mortgage and lack of a decent sex life. Sam switched off and watched the rolling countryside through the window of the car. Not quite the wild, untamed world of the North American continent but better than the four walls of his bottom floor flat on the outskirts of Manchester. Aden turned down the narrow road to the crag and pulled up to the barrier. "You're lucky," said the man in the kiosk, "car number seventy five and I've only been open half an hour." Aden drove through.
Before Sam could speak, Aden began to explain. "Whilst you were away, the access issue got really heated. There were large demos in all the cities and the Government was on the back foot. In response to popular opinion they nationalised all the uplands and put them under the control of a committee made up from all interested groups. A quango really with English Nature, RSPB, National Trust, the BMC and the Ramblers all having an equal share of the vote. Similar set-ups in Scotland and Wales. The first thing they did was to restrict car traffic to all the major park areas. I think it's a good thing except you have to get up early to get in."
Sam nodded. It was no bad thing to keep car numbers down. They pulled in to a lay-by below the crag and slotted into one of the newly-painted parking spaces. Aden got out. "How long do you think we'll be?" he asked. "Only its £3/hr and a £50 fine if we go over time. I suppose it's only fair, though, as it stops people hogging the spaces."
Something was now beginning to nag at Sam. How the fuck should he know how long they would be out for and, anyway, watching time shouldn't be part of the experience. Aden made the decision for them. Three hours was long enough and he'd promised Sara that he'd take the kids to MacDonalds later that day.
They slung their packs and started up the slope towards the crag. Sam began to feel at ease as they approached the rock. The weight of the pack and the strain in his legs brought him back on familiar territory.
He sat down and started to gear up. A young man in a bright blue uniform approached them from further along the crag.
"Morning gentlemen," he said. "Got you're permits ready?"
"Ah yes," said Aden, "I've got them here," and passed over two red cards for the lad to inspect. He looked down at Sam and winked. "Got them in Manchester yesterday as they are a pound cheaper if bought in advance and I knew you wouldn't know about needing them. Only a tenner each which isn't bad for a day out these days and some of it goes to running the Parks and looking after the environment which must be a good thing, eh?. The BMC did object to this one but were out voted by everyone else."
The lad turned to Aden and smiled, "Everything in order, just need to check you've got your helmets and know how to tie in to a harness properly."
Sam choked, wanted to tell him to piss off but could sense Aden urging him to comply.
"He's a nice lad that one," said Aden when he'd gone. Ex-army I think, but I've only seen him throw one person off the crag before and that was because he was soloing. I mean, how irresponsible can you get?"
They climbed a few short routes, getting back into the feel of it. Touching rock, the ache of forearms, calves straining and the metallic taste of anxious tension. These all came swimming back to Sam. The feel-good factor as he topped out. This was why he climbed. Taking himself to mental and physical limits. Scaring himself. But something was missing this time. There wasn't the same sense of freedom.
Alaska was the most beautiful, desolate, awesome place he had ever been. They'd flown into a remote area in a small Cessna and put down on one of the many glaciers. The plane got as close to their objectives as possible and they had to walk the rest. The arrangement was for a re-supply every two weeks if the weather was good. Radio contact was marginal at best but they took their chances. Climbing there was out of this world and out of any rescue team's area. They were on their own and it had felt great.
He looked around, 9.30am and only a few climbers on the crags. He made the comment to Aden. "That'll be the restrictions on climber numbers," Aden replied. "All the agencies, apart from the BMC, voted that one in. Said there was too much damage to the fragile environment, too many wild birds being disturbed. Even the ramblers voted for it just so they could get a concession for their own issues. I suppose when you look around and see how some of the tracks have re-grown you have to admit that it works."
'Fuck all use if no one gets to see it," thought Sam.
"And," said Aden, "a study has shown that 90% of people using these parks never go more than 100m from their cars. The argument is that if they restrict the other 10% then the environmental benefits will far outweigh any infringement of civil liberties. Mind you, the way things have started to overgrow since all the sheep were taken off the hills, I doubt many would want to make the effort."
Sam sat down. His head was pounding like someone had put him in a cell and thrown away the key.
"Anyway," Aden continued, "it's worse in Scotland. There you have to gain a certificate of competence which involves a week-long course and that's only for summer access. If you want to go out in winter you have to complete an additional four weekends in winter conditions with a qualified guide, and he has to sign you off at the end of it. Part of the new insurance requirements. Still, it keeps the outdoor centres busy." Aden took his turn at the lead.
"I've climbed all over the world," thought Sam, "and never done a fuckin' course yet!" He was shaking now. The day was dead. He wanted to go home. He closed his eyes.
The bear was 300m away and running at them. Sam looked at his partner and his partner looked back. He didn't know whether to shit or go blind so he just shouted "run!" Hearts pounding, adrenaline pumping, they both made it to the tree-line with time to spare. The bear stopped at the camp, trashed the tent and ate most of the food. When it had gone they went back to survey the damage. No radio. Time to go home.
It took over a week to trek to the road and they were half starved when they got there. The experience had been strange, almost spiritual, a struggle to stay with it but the thrill of life was more tangible now. The experience had cleared his head and only the important things remained. When Sam had left for home his partner had stayed back saying that there was nothing for her back in the UK. How right she was.
Sam opened his eyes. Aden had topped out. "Time to get going or we'll be clamped."
On the way home they passed the tourist busses parked outside the new visitor centre where people could see all they wanted from the comfort of a warm cinema. "It's brought a lot of work for the locals," remarked Aden, "but I'm glad that I'm a real climber. It's good to get out into the wilds once in a while." Sam just smiled.
As the plane took off from Manchester airport, Sam could see the hills below. They didn't look so green anymore. This was the new Britain with its CCTV, speed cameras, blame culture and nanny state. It seemed to have missed the point. He wouldn't be back.