I originally submitted this piece for Trail Magazine’s John Muir writing competition, which invited pieces on the theme of ‘The Day a Mountain Changed My Life’. I have extended it a little here from the competition’s 400-word limit.
This is from my first wild camp. Phil and I had camped before, but never in the wild; we had very little idea what we were doing. We were armed with our normal hiking gear, a tarp, and Wilderness Weekends by Phoebe Smith. That walk was hard work and it set the tone for everything I look for in a wild camping experience to this day: that a wild camping spot should be a cool place to go to in itself; that enjoyment and comfort is important; and that it’s all about that sunrise.
Nobody starts a new hobby – particularly an adventurous hobby – with a full arsenal of kit and knowing exactly what they’re doing. Sometimes you’ll take the wrong gear, or you’ll take the wrong path and have to double back. Getting out there and giving it a go is the only way to learn what you enjoy and to work out what’s important to you. So grab a guidebook or read some blogs, and get out there and try something new: what have you got to lose?
Sweat ran down my back. I released the straps on my bag and dropped it onto the floor, where it landed on the rocks with a thud. I stretched out my legs. Thick clouds billowed across the opening of Priest’s Hole, and the steep scramble route we had taken to get here was completely obscured.
This was not how Phil and I imagined our first wild night would be. Coldness spread from the walls and ceiling. The sun was long gone, setting on the other side of the hills, buried behind the mist and rain. We heated chilli over a stove and balanced on a sharp rock to eat it. The spoonfuls cooled as we lifted them to our mouths. We hadn’t thought of bringing anything to do, so we sat around and waited while the temperature dropped.
When it finally got dark enough to sleep, we spread a tarp on the floor and folded it back over our sleeping bags. We shuffled into our layers and tried to get warm. The wind snapped the tarp around us and cold air rushed into my sleeping bag through the night. A stone pierced my roll mat and, slowly, it deflated, lowering me onto the cool and uneven rocks underneath. I counted backwards from 100, willing sleep to come.
At some point I must have slept because I was woken by the sound of footsteps crunching on the gravel outside the cave. I peeled my head out of the hood of my sleeping bag. I started to greet the dawn climber, but no words came out: I was silenced by what I could see past him, outside the cave. I nudged Phil awake.
Peaks and crags swelled for miles, washed in the muted colours of pre-dawn. The sun burned behind a ridge to the east. As we watched it rose up, over the brow of the hill. The sky exploded into shades of bright orange and blue; the candy floss clouds flushed pink and red. A bird wheeled across the hills, skimming the summits and sinking out of sight. The wind had stopped. There was no sound.
I don’t know how long we sat in our sleeping bags watching the sun rise. The sky changed from gold to blue, and the hills turned from silhouettes to a bright, lush green. We packed away slowly and drank hot tea, sitting companionably in the mouth of the cave.
Everything had been worth it: the four-hour drive, the damp clothing, the night spent lying on sharp stones. We were by no means experienced; I didn’t know the names of the hills I was looking at and I didn’t know what a Wainwright was. But I knew one thing: this wasn’t the last the Lake District would be seeing of us.