If you had told me 15 years ago, as I stood on the side of an English hill inside a particularly uncomfortable cloud of driving rain with a college-kid’s-first-time-in-Britain hangover having an epic meltdown and questioning my ability to continue, that someday in the future I would do this sort of thing for fun, on a somewhat regular basis, I’d have told you where you could go.
That hill was Helvellyn, and it was the last one we were going up on the England portion of our trip. Dr Gillin (or G Money as we had started calling him) had been psyching us up about this hill all week. At 950 metres, it was the highest we’d climb, so of course we couldn’t have done it at the start of the week (when we had glorious sunshine). Once we’d been up some more intermediate hills, I believe we were trying to wait for favourable weather for the big push. But waiting for favourable weather in Britain is a fool’s game, and we ran out of time.
So our last day in the Lake District we would be going up Helvellyn regardless. It just so happened that the night before that was going to be our last night in the local pub, so we all went a little overboard. The morning was rough, and the weather was rougher. We went head-on into wind and very cold rain coming at us sideways on a pretty steep walk.
Somewhere maybe about a third of the way from the top when everything – even the supposedly waterproof – was soaked through and freezing and I was out of breath and out of charge and out of fake, hungover energy, I shut down. I was in the middle of the hardest physical thing I’d ever done to that point in my life by a long way. I had no context for how to deal with it.
My 19-year-old-self would struggle to believe it, but now I do often go up mountains voluntarily – in Scotland no less, where we give even England a run for their money in terms of particularly uncomfortable clouds to get stuck in. I think of that meltdown every single time I’m on any kind of difficult walk. Because I did continue. I made it to the top – despite not actually being able to see the top – and I’ve always liked to think Barbara Gillin got me up that hill.
She did not physically carry me, although given her energy levels I don’t doubt she could have despite the fact that I was about twice her size. I don’t even remember what she said to me, but she got me moving and kept me moving. I think she did it for all of us at some point. Because there was nowhere else to go and nothing else to do and she knew better than I did at the time that I was fully capable of getting to the top of that hill despite what may have been in my head.
The trip I was on was the Washington College Kiplin Hall summer program. Every summer for 20 years, one of my English Lit professors, Rich Gillin, and his wife Barbara would take a group of students to stay at Kiplin Hall in Yorkshire and go walking around the Lake District and the Yorkshire Dales, reading the Romantics in the places that inspired them. Once I heard about this trip, I couldn’t not do it. I’d always wanted to go to the UK, and here was an educational excuse not just to travel, but to be legally allowed into a pub. I signed up for the summer after my Freshman year.
I don’t think most of us really knew what we were in for. Hills in the Lake District are serious stuff, and the weather is, at best, unpredictable. But G$ and Mrs Gillin knew exactly what they were in for – coaxing often hungover-from-the-novelty-of-the-pub college kids up mountains bigger than most of them had previously attempted, leading chaotic mass shopping trips to Tesco, putting up with questionable music choices in the cars – and they kept right on doing it every year. They were an incredible team.
If it were in Scotland, Helvellyn would qualify as a Munro. I didn’t manage to get up an actual munro til 2018, which makes me feel like making it up that damn thing in 2003 with almost zero hillwalking experience outside the preceding week was really impressive, even if it did include a meltdown. It was the only top where we didn’t get a group picture. I can’t even remember hearing Mrs. Gillin’s then familiar call of ‘Crunchies! Maltesers!’ which was our usual reward for making it. (I still hear her saying that in my head when I get to the top of a hill, although my preferred summit treat these days is Percy Pigs.) The people with heads for steep drop-offs did not get their chance to do Striding Edge, as we only caught brief pieces of it as the clouds blew through. I think one person took a hasty photo of some of us huddled against the wind break at the top, but the weather was truly horrific, and we didn’t hang around long. So it has been on my list to go back and actually see the view from the top of Helvellyn since I moved to Scotland 13 years ago.
In the past few years, I’ve been up some good hills, a few in far more difficult conditions than anything we experienced in the Lake District. I am still not some seasoned hiker. I’ve always followed my friends who have the maps and compasses and way more experience and hill fitness than I do. They are patient with my fear of slipping off steep rocks and my near inability to do any serious scrambling due to locking up with terror. But they also get me out there and push me past what I’d probably attempt without their influence, so I’ve managed some pretty impressive things.
This summer, I joined Holly (who is my go-to outdoor navigation expert) and Chris on a trip up to Torridon for a long weekend. Their goal was to go up Liathach, which I wanted no part of (if you look at the description you may see why. Terrifying.) but there is a long walk that goes around the back side of Liathach that I figured I could do on my own.
I had never done a walk by myself in the highlands before, mostly because of the aforementioned lack of navigation experience. In cities and towns, I’m one of those compass-in-the-head people. I may not be able to tell you the name of the street you need to turn on, but I know when to turn right. But it’s completely different in the hills where I have no familiar frame of reference, and I have a very healthy respect for how bad things can get quickly.
So, while I was fully confident in my abilities to physically walk a relatively simple path, I was still kind of scared. I bought a map and compass and got a crash course in using them, and I had offline GPS on my phone, but I had no immediate human backup. If the weather turns on you and you don’t know how to find your way, you can be fucked even if you’re on relatively flat ground. It’s easy to get lost when you can’t see. And you’re probably more likely to see a unicorn than any mobile reception where I was going.
As it turned out though, the weather was amazing. It was sunny and breezy enough that there were no midgies, even next to the water! Chris and Holly dropped me off at about 7am at the start of the path before heading to their own start point, and then I was truly alone. I didn’t see another human being until over halfway through the walk when some trail runners passed me in the opposite direction.
I really love going for walks with friends, but I am pretty slow compared to most of them. I just don’t have the speed over rocky, steep terrain, so I’m often holding progress up. So this time I was much happier to be on my own looking up at Liathach from below and challenging myself in a different way. I stopped whenever I wanted to. I put my feet in the stream. Twice! I had a lot of snacks. (One of the best parts of walking.) And at the end of it all, I walked back down into Torridon for a beer and a black pudding and egg roll in the shop, then had a nap in the hostel. Well worth the risk of my first solo walk.
Naturally, the next day was awful and rainy (because Scotland), and we ended up on a buggy, hot, drenched, steep, slippery walk through thick, high ferns down to a rocky beach, which, in other circumstances, I’d probably have loved. But I had been way behind the entire walk and I had a minor panic attack when I lost track of how the other two had found their way through the greenery to the beach. There were some very slick rocks (my nemesis) on the final approach, so by the time I got to the water, I had to sit down and sort out my breathing with the added obstacle of a midgie net. All in all, not a great or relaxing walk for me. But once I was in it, I had to keep going. So I collected myself and that’s what I did.
I will not even categorise that last walk as type 2 fun – for me it was shit. Sometimes things just are. It’s good to learn which ones.
But there are plenty of walks I go into knowing that at some point, I will probably be miserable even though the overall experience will be awesome. After a particularly rough one where visibility at the top was nonexistent, most of the path up and down was a vertical, rocky stream, and I spent a great deal of it mildly terrified, Chris asked me if I even LIKE doing this. A fair question. Sometimes, from the outside, it probably looks like I’m torturing myself for no reason. But I DO really like it. And not because of the type 2 fun thing. It’s more like a kind of meditation.
I find it helpful in the course of my everyday life to be able to recall multiple times when I felt like I was going to collapse and die rather than make it to the top of a hill, but I managed to do it anyway. Barbara Gillin may not be standing next to me with a Kendal Mint Cake every time, but she’s there in my head, and if I squint I can see G$ leading the charge up ahead like an incredible, unstoppable, literature-loving mountain goat. Going up any hill is physical evidence that I can get through anything. I have drawn on this countless times, and it started in the Lake District when the Gillins wouldn’t allow me to give up.
Dr. Gillin retired at the end of last year. I started writing this to send to the upcoming celebration event in Baltimore, which will also serve as fundraising for a Kiplin Hall scholarship. They had asked for stories to share at the event, and this is my contribution. Most of my Kiplin Hall photos are in an album in a closet in my parents house, so a few old scans were all I had for this post.
Sadly, just after Christmas, Mrs. Gillin passed away. I know she’ll be getting me up hills for a long time.