This is how it was that morning on Crib Goch. A Raven's conversation accompanied me as I left the path and began to scramble. A harsh, nails on a blackboard clamour. Call and response, whether territorial or rebuke for some affront, I didn't know. Black wings would split the mist on occasions, in and out of my vision as I laid hands and boots on the wet grey rock.
I'd done this route before so many times, both in Spring sunshine and through the winter days when snow clung to the mountain. In some ways though, mist was best. It would settle around the rocks and muffle every sound but for the birds. You were truly alone with your thoughts, breathing heavily and giving your effort to the climb. Heaven.
Crib Goch is the hardest route up Snowden, it's classed as a grade one scramble, which means that you can't, or shouldn't, do it in weekend sneakers, although I've seen worse. People don't do this route for the slog out the car park or even for the Summit, where the train disgorges its passengers. The elderly, the baby stroller brigade, the unfit. 'We're here for the view'. Well, I'm not. I'm here for the ridge, and once you crest the ever-steepening slope it starts proper. A kilometre and a half of ancient dragons teeth biting the sky and dropping away with perilous exposure to the left and right. One can literally stand astride it in places. On summer days you can pause, looking out to the Menai straights, breeze in your hair, and wait for the occasional unannounced roar of the military jets as they pursue imaginary foes through the contours of the valley below.
Not on that morning though. The rock had been wet and cold and a moment's lack of respect or overconfidence would enter you in the lottery of the fallen. You may slip a few feet and chastise yourself, or you may fall further and end it forever. I couldn't see the ridge yet through the thick grey, but I knew I had some 100 feet of near vertical to go. I had paused for a second and the weight of the silence compressed me. No bird calls now, no sweeping wind, it had been just the rock and me. Beneath the crags above, tendrils of mist sought cracks and gulleys. Mountain wraiths so the legends said. At this point, as always, I had been faced with a choice. To my right the route was less steep but longer, that would normally have been the winter way, safer and more sure-footed. Straight ahead was steeper and shorter, wet rock and moss. I'd briefly considered, and then made my choice. What the heck, straight up. The wind would increase soon and I could do with having finished the ridge, especially if it bought rain.
I had pushed on, three points of contact, both mountain policy and common sense. The slope steepened further and I had leaned back, weight on both feet, finally glimpsing my goal, A sharp boulder at a crazy angle to the hill. The top. The ridge. I was breathing heavily now, looking ahead as always micro planning the route at least five holds ahead. Ten to go. Five now. One last small grip and a pull to the apex…
The Raven had burst from its concealed perch as I reached for my last hold. A snap of wings and a banshee scream of outrage at my intrusion. I'd glimpsed the grey beak and momentarily caught its black eye as it had torn past me into the grey. I'd slapped my hand where the grip should have been, but it wasn't. I pushed my glove on flat rock with nowhere to close my fingers. Then there had been a truly awful two seconds as I felt a foot slip too, and a thousand thoughts rushed in. There would be a moment of free air before the first of my bones broke on the granite, and then, with no hope of purchase or grip I would tumble to the path, hopefully losing consciousness before the final stop. I'd literally screamed as I made one last frantic swipe for any grip at all…
…then a hand, sure and strong had closed on my wrist. Everything stopped. My feet found an unsteady purchase and I squinted upward. A woollen glove, green and wet held firm. It emerged from a tweed sleeve at the other end of which was a ruddy, bearded face topped with a cloth cap, shading two blue deep eyes.
'Steady now, I've got you son'.
I grunted as my thoughts had refused to rally and line up.
'Get your other hand to my arm and you can find your feet and step up, I can pull you the rest.'
I'd nodded and complied. God, he was strong. I found a flat rock with my left foot and felt myself drawn upwards. A moment later I was kneeling on the ridge, in front of my saviour panting and choked simultaneously.
'Oh my God. I thought…I thought…'
'Alright lad. Get your breath, rest easy'.
It was a cultured voice, deep and strong.
I continued to blather, embarrassment, and excuses at odds with my image of myself.
'I've done this many times. The raven just came out and…'
He nodded slowly, and there seemed to be more in his words than what he actually said.
'it can happen to anyone. It really can.'
I appraised him. It was remarkable. In these days of breathable jackets, nylon, and flexible mountain boots the guy was an anachronism. He wore full tweed. Houndstooth jacket and trousers tucked into thick brown socks He stood tall against the fog, a wooden staff in his left hand and black leather boots on his feet.
I'd regained my feet and held out my hand to take his for the second time in a minute.
'I think you saved my life sir. I'm Gary Manning'.
He'd smiled and taken my hand.
'John Burkenset. Glad to know you'. He'd gestured with the staff.
'Are you on your way to the top?'
'No, just the ridge today John, and then down. I can't stand the train crowds at the cafe'.
'Oh that puffing monster. Progress eh? Won't last long. Bit of a novelty if you ask me'.
It was a curious thing to say since the train had enjoyed continuous popularity since 1896. I regarded him again, framed by the grey silence. For a moment it seemed that there was mist between us. An opaque barrier that bled the colour out of him and made him seem part of it. I had a weird moment. Who really dresses like that, and what are the chances of him actually being there at the precise moment I chose to make that clumsy grasp at thin air. We stared at each other, and now it seemed his eyes had lost their glint and were set, haunted, and sad into his face. A ridiculous scenario came fully formed into my head. A climber of renown, lost in a fall decades ago, and now cursed to wander the foggy cold peaks saving those who came after, making sure that they escaped his fate.
I'd said something that I couldn't believe even as the words tumbled from my stupid mouth.
'Are you? I mean, did you die here? Are you a spirit?'
He gave a sigh and dropped his eyes. If it had been quiet before then ,now the silence, the chill, and the mist conspired to own the day. He sat heavily on the rock behind him, seeming to become part of it.
Then a chuckle escaped him, a small laugh without cheer, and he seemed to be staring at something n the mist.
'Am I a what? Oh you mean the clothes? No son, I'm a member of a vintage climbing society. That meets on Thursday nights in the Red Dragon. I live in Bangor, drive a Nissan, and my wife is called Vanessa.'
He had smiled sadly.
'And you thought I was a lost mountain phantom, the victim of some ancient fall, doomed to stalk this ridge for all eternity? That's brilliant. They're going to love this down the dragon.'
I'd exhaled, feeling an embarrassed but welcome warmth in my cheeks.
'Er…for a moment yes. I thought exactly that.'
'You walk this route a lot eh? When it's lonely and quiet, and the weather is like this?
'Er, yes?' My assent held a question.
'Ever seen anything…strange."
'I have not, and I'm doubly embarrassed now. A guy saves my life because a bird scared me and the first thing I do is accuse him of being a ghost.'
"Well'. He had gestured behind me with his walking pole. 'I'm no spirit, my friend. But they are.'
I turned slowly, having to shift my weight on the soggy rock. Two young boys stood side by side some fifteen feet away. They were roped together and dressed in broad-brimmed hats, shorts, and neckerchiefs. They stared at me, empty and soulless. The one on the left had a side of his face crushed, an eye socket distorted and sightless. He was missing teeth and leaned heavily on a wooden staff. His fellow was likewise disfigured, left arm at an unnatural angle and nose flattened to his face. He slowly raised his good arm in a cheerless boy scout salute.
I turned to Burkenset once more and found him indicating a point some distance down the hill at the limit of visibility. A man crouched there, wild-haired and heavily bearded. He wore what looked like an animal skin, and held aloft a large sharp stone. There was fear in him I could somehow tell.
I caught my breath and looked around. There were others, some colour washed, some merely shadows on the rocks around us. A haunted waxworks of climbing gear down the decades, Fleeces torn around twisted limbs, Woollen hats framing dead eyes. There was no threat, just an immense sadness that bled into the rock.
'These are the fallen my boy, from all the ages and times we have dared this mountain. They're the spirits of Crib Goch, not I. I see them from time to time on days such as this. Maybe others do too, but no one speaks of it. I believe they came today to watch me save you.'
We had decided to finish the ridge and descend together, leaving the Ravens to their disputes, leaving the spirits of the mountain to their thoughts and memories. They were all I'm sure, mourned and missed in turn by those they left behind, and whether they were bound to this rock, or chose to remain I really don't know. Yet here they abide, on Crib Goch.