A departure from the usual light hearted frivolous nonsense this week, but it’s for a necessary reason. Tomorrow, 7 November 2013, it will be ten years to the day since my mother Elisabeth died very suddenly while out walking on the moors in Cornwall, and it would be careless of me to let the date pass without marking it in some way, so please forgive the indulgence.
Cheesewring Quarry on Bodmin Moor in Cornwall is a picturesque spot for walkers and climbers alike. The granite mining which took place there in the 19th century has left behind a 40m cliff providing a number of rock climbing routes of various grades. The summit is marked by a classic granite tor containing a series of flat rock slabs piled on top of one another, a vast natural cairn which looks like it was built by giants, but in reality has been formed by erosion over millennia. Several nearby peaks, including rounded Caradon Hill with its radio mast, and Sharp Tor with its jagged rocks like the armoured back of a sleeping dragon, are visible close by, and the sea can be seen fifteen miles away to the south. In 1999 I watched a total eclipse of the sun from there, and within the space of a few seconds the whole sweeping panorama vanished into complete darkness like the lights being dimmed in a room.
The open moorland is a popular place for horse riders and there is a small pool on the southern slopes of Cheesewring where riders often take their horses to drink. A steep bank on its eastern side is studded with boulders, and my mother was walking past it on a fine November day in 2003 when she stumbled and fell down the bank, landing in the pool where she drowned. When her body was found by a rider the following day, there was a scar beneath her knee where she probably tripped over a boulder, and a bruise on her forehead where she fell against a rock. She was a strong swimmer and there was no sign of a struggle. It’s likely she was unconscious by the time she landed in the water. She was a few weeks short of her 60th birthday.
It was a stressful time for us over the following days as we tried to piece together what happened, and the months which followed were very difficult, but time heals and hard times pass. I’m no longer sad about it now; I learned a lot from her over the years, and even in death she taught me a number of lessons.
I was barely beginning my journey as a mountaineer back then. I had been on a few treks in the Himalayas and Andes and climbed Kilimanjaro, but my technical climbing skills were non-existent. She may have wondered about some of the risks I have taken on high mountains since, but I’m really quite a cautious mountaineer. I would rather live a long life and continue travelling to amazing places than take unnecessary risks in pursuit of unlikely glory. She was a cautious person too, but for a brief instant in a seemingly harmless location she lost concentration and paid the ultimate price. A high proportion of fatalities on high mountains occur on the way down, when climbers have reached the summit and forget they’re only halfway. There are a few times I’ve stumbled back to camp exhausted, but I’ve done so in a heightened state of awareness, never forgetting to lose concentration for a single moment.
But there are deeper lessons than this. She was a keen reader of adventure writing, especially the Antarctic expeditions of Scott and Shackleton, and was halfway through one of Joe Simpson’s books at the time of her death. I’m not a religious person. I’m an atheist, and I don’t believe for a minute she’s been looking down on me and watching my adventures over the years, but one religion I’ve found it easier to identify with is the Buddhism of the Himalayas where I’ve spent much of the last ten years. A cornerstone of the Buddhist teaching is the acceptance of impermanence: everything we become accustomed to in life will eventually disappear, so there’s no point becoming too attached to it. While determination is important, it definitely helps in mountaineering if you don’t cling too much to the idea of reaching the summit, but on a deeper level it helps in life if you accept that everything comes and goes. While I may have lost a very dear family member, the last ten years of my life have undoubtedly been my happiest, and I’ve experienced many things I never dreamed possible.
Buddhism also teaches you to live for the moment, not in the past or the future, which are only aspects of your imagination. Nothing reinforces this more than death. My mother was a very placid and gentle person who was extremely forgiving. She seemed to have a superhuman ability to see things from somebody else’s perspective. It’s a skill I find difficult to master, but thanks to her I keep trying. Although she was quiet, she had a mischievous sense of humour lurking beneath the surface and that’s something I seem to have acquired more easily.
But the very last thing she taught me was to seize the day because life can change in an instant. If there’s something you always wanted to do then start making plans to do it, because otherwise it may pass you by.