Free extract -Waymaking
- Thursday 16 April 2020
Enchantment Larches by Nikki Frumkin, featured in Waymaking.
Waymaking is an anthology of prose, poetry and artwork by women who are inspired by nature and wild places.
Published at a time when the call for more books by and about women has never been more prevalent, the book aims to continue the legacies of Gwen Moffat’s Space Below My Feet and Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain which set a precedent for women writing about wilderness that isn’t about conquering landscapes, but instead about living and breathing alongside them, becoming part of a larger adventure. Scroll on to read a contribution from one of the editors of the book, author and athlete Heather Dawe.
There is No Substance but Light
‘There is no substance but light’
— NAN SHEPHERD, ‘EMBODIMENT’, IN THE CAIRNGORMS
The midday heat was stifling but we found some shade on the trail from the sweet-smelling pine trees as we descended down to Courmayeur. Light came through the canopy, dappled, the cover a welcome respite from the glare of the sun. We were on our second day of running the route of the Tour du Mont Blanc. It was also the second time I had run around this classic long-distance Alpine route. The first time was in July 2010, when I was training for the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc, a race I was due to run later that season.
Racing or training for racing used to be my main reasons for spending time in the mountains. I didn’t have time to slow down and appreciate just being in the hills; I needed to get to wherever I was going as fast as I could. However, this time, I wasn’t there to train for anything. Don’t get me wrong, I did try hard, but I intended to savour every moment on the trail.
These days I don’t get to spend as much time in the hills as I used to. With two young children waiting for me back home and a high-responsibility job, my free time is squeezed into smaller and smaller spaces. While I still do the odd race, racing itself seems to matter less. In running around the TMB I was getting an intense hit of mountains. These places of natural grandeur have a seemingly unending pull to me. Coming to them helps me to recoil from the everyday; the important things in life become clearer, along with an awareness of who and what I am. This time was precious. I wanted to make it last, and to notice everything that I missed last time.
This was my second visit to Courmayeur. Much like the first time I would only be passing through, which I thought was a shame; Courmayeur felt like the kind of place I could stay for a long time. Given its position at the foot of the Italian side of Mont Blanc, Courmayeur has a place in the history of Alpine mountaineering, skiing and all other kinds of mountain-going to rival Chamonix, its French counterpart on the other side of the mountain.
The route of the TMB passes through the narrow alleyways of the village of Dolonne before you cross the river and reach the centre of Courmayeur itself. It was refreshing to walk along streets shaded from the sun – the shadows cast by rows of terraced houses. Deep pink geraniums contrasted with the dark browns and creams of the buildings, the blue of the sky and the greens, browns, greys and dazzling white of the mountains and their tops. This part of the town felt like it had not changed for a hundred years or more. There was a palpable sense of history that got me thinking about the buildings’ past residents: who were they, and what adventures had they had in their local mountains?
From Courmayeur we would climb again, out of the Aosta valley, back up into the hills surrounding the massif. The route climbs steeply up to the Bertone hut, from here continuing along the Mont de la Saxe to the summit of the Tête de la Tronche. After this we would descend into the Val Ferret, passing the Bonatti hut to finish our day at the Elena hut and the foot of the Grand Col Ferret, the Italian-Swiss border.
I had been really looking forward to this section of the route; I enjoyed it so much the last time. One of the reasons the TMB is a classic route is because of the wonderful scenery and this, the Italian part of the trail, I had thought the most picturesque, with stunning views of Mont Blanc and its surrounding peaks. While space was limited in my rucksack for this trip, I had allowed myself the luxury of a book, and like the first time I ran the TMB, it was Walter Bonatti’s The Mountains of My Life. Perhaps this shows I am a creature of habit but it is so thought-provoking – something I keep coming back to. I wanted to feel the same inspiration I had felt the last time: to travel his paths, look up to his mountains, read his words and marvel at the combination of them all.
The Mountains of My Life is Bonatti’s account of his development and achievements as a mountaineer, from his time as a boy walking in the foothills of the Alps in northern Italy, to becoming one of the foremost climbers of all time. It is inspiring to read of all of his achievements, but also to read of how he achieved them: with his own sense of ethics and values that would have made things harder, but also more honest and pure in his eyes.
Travelling along the paths he traversed, looking up to the massif and the tenacious lines he climbed first – and often solo – filled me with awe. His was a fearsome drive – tremendous courage, a real vision for a great line and a sense of the aesthetic. Given that at the time these were some of the hardest routes ever climbed, his achievements stand out all the more.
Bonatti climbed his last major climb, a solo ascent of the North Face of the Matterhorn, in 1965, when he was thirty-five. After that he still spent much of his time in the mountains, but his focus shifted to travelling around them, capturing them in photography and writing. There is a theme of wilderness and journeying to this work. He still clearly needed to suffer in wild and remote places, but he now indulged his deep appreciation of the spirit of the places he travelled to and through.
I think reading his story helped me to open my mind up to the idea that I could paint mountains as well as run and cycle up them. When I think about it now there had been the hint of a little voice in the back of my head for years, encouraging me to lose some of my inhibitions, forget about the training and racing a little, and to express myself in different ways.
Bonatti’s words and spending some more time in ‘his’ mountains helped me to listen to that voice, to get hold of an easel, canvases and paints, to shake away at least some of my reserve and begin to paint. I honestly think that this is one of the best things I have ever done, and not really because my paintings are any good. The interpretation of art is a subjective thing, the process of creativity all-encompassing, absorbing and relaxing. I can lose myself painting just as much as I can running up a mountainside.
I immerse myself in the creative process in my painting, writing and in the mathematical problem-solving and innovation that forms much of my day job. These three activities are very different from one another but in doing each of them I get my head to the same place. It is an exciting and stimulating place and, paradoxically, a place that calms and even soothes me. When I feel stressed, a little painting, writing or – dare I say it – maths can do me the power of good. Much like going for a run or a bike ride.
More than just the psychological benefits, painting mountains has helped me to see them in a different way, almost with a more enhanced sight. I also now understand what it means when people say there is ‘good light’. Late afternoons in November, when the sun casts long shadows on rich autumn colours. Early mornings after rain in March, a pink sky to the east and the promise of a bright spring day. Just two examples of how a scene is made by the state of the light. When I am out running or cycling and notice such a scene, I can’t help but comment on this to my companions. They are used to me as a racer in the mountains, focused on exceeding limits and pushing hard, so I don’t know what they make of this at times.
When I spend time out in the mountains now I always carry my camera, even when I am racing. I learnt a lesson in August 2014, while running the Sedbergh Hills fell race in the Howgills. These hills are some of my favourite to run in, they lend themselves so well to it: wonderful smooth ridges so well defined and interlinked, and which always feel remote and quiet.
I was having a bad race; my legs felt heavy, and I generally had no zip in me. Just a few miles into the route, contouring the fell side north towards the waterfall Black Force, I resolved to just chill out and enjoy the time in the hills, running along at a pace I could maintain to the finish without blowing. A late summer day out on the fells of Westmorland, there was sunshine and cloud with a breeze that kept you cool while running. Perfect conditions; it doesn’t get much better.
One scene in particular from this race stays in my mind. Climbing eastwards out of the valley formed by Langdale Beck, I looked up. The clouds and sun combined to create the dappled light typical of theYorkshire Dales in summer. This light brought out wonderful colours on the fell side: golden greens, yellows and browns, along with shadows that defined the ripples and lines of the valley with a great deal of depth. I remember feeling so appreciative of this scene, and had a strong desire to paint it, in an attempt to save the colours and the shape of the sky and the fell for my own posterity. I had no camera with me and so could not capture it to paint. I felt frustrated that I had missed this chance, even going back the following weekend to try and get a photograph. The weather was different and so was the light; I will never see that valley in that way again.
Mountains never look the same way twice. The weather, the season and the time of day combine to make them unique at every glance. Sometimes these combinations can be obviously jaw-droppingly beautiful; other times I find I need to take my time, to look a little longer. The beauty appears as I take the time to properly see, and the associated thrill is an all-consuming experience.
I don’t think it’s necessary for me to photograph and attempt to paint all the inspiring scenes I see, but sometimes the anticipation of what I could try to capture when painting a mountain scene is at least as thrilling for me as the time I spend in the mountains themselves.
It took us four days to run around the TMB. I loved all of that time, special days in the mountains with memories that will endure. For months after, I painted pictures of the journey and that process transported me back there. Instead of sitting in my home in Yorkshire, I was running along an Alpine trail, breathing the air, seeing the mountains in the summer light.