In nothing short of disbelief, the alarms blared out at 1.45am, stumbling out of bed, shot of coffee straight to the throat, and off to the base of Snowdon. Starting walking in the near pitch darkness, we made our way up Wales’ highest peak. But this was just the preliminary. I wrote before about what I was attempting – to climb all 15 peaks over 3,000 feet in Wales; it’s more than 30 miles of walking, but that’s not the hard part, it’s the total ascent that equates to half the height of Everest.
As daylight began to dawn the rain swept down, the ridge that had petrified us in preparation loomed somewhere above us fiercely, shrouded in cloud. A few weary walkers had made it to the summit ahead of us and were already descending. An obligatory summit selfie later and we started off again. Discretion being the better part of valour, or so Shakespeare thought, we opted to bypass the ridge, wrestled the necessarily laminated map on the cairn and plotted a safer route down.
Our wonderful support team met us in a cemetery car park with sausage sandwiches, bacon butties, flasks of coffee and handfuls of bananas. Off again we embarked – still only 8am – on the longest slog of the walk, a climb of around 800 metres over two miles. The instructions, duplicitous in their simplicity, were to follow to the right of the stream due north until you reach the summit of Elidir Fawr. Foot followed foot as we slowed to a crawl. We were in thick cloud and rain and wind, which was buffeting our every step. Our boots were sinking into bog and doubts set in. The visibility was non-existent, our navigational challenges were only beginning and the climbs were taking their toll on the group.
Leadership is a hard art. In hindsight I wished we had pressed on, at least for a little further. But I called the group together and suggested we stop. It was easy in the moment to take the lead and make the horrible decision to retreat. I knew it was the safe option. Every bit of advice I had received began and ended with ‘stay safe’. We did that. But we failed.
I’ve had to explain why we didn’t make it, and it feels like a bit of bluster. Blaming it on the weather – which was dreadful, and the number of walkers in our group – there were probably too many. But we weren’t good enough for the challenge the hills metred out to us. Back at the cars by 11am with 16 and a half miles under our collective belts, I claimed to be untouched physically, but there was an awkward twinge in my right knee that I was stoically ignoring.
There were upsides: good friends in beautiful countryside, my body being in one piece and not the physical wreckage I was anticipating. I managed to restrain my control-freakery and only go slightly over the top on my organisational binge.
But we failed.
And despite the conditions, and the excuses I can make, I carry that burden. The mountains are still there and we have unfinished business with them, I’m determined to return and to cross their peaks regardless of what conditions they hurl in my face.
At the end of the day they are only pieces of land that I chose to try and master. There are more important things to life. The friendships with those I walked with are more important than whether we achieved an arbitrary goal.
A more spiritual thought to finish with. Am I using the gifts and talents God has given me to work with Him for the spread of his kingdom or for my own sense of achievement? The hills were alive with the sound of failure as we descended in a semi state of delirium. Failure is a normal part of life: it is a necessity. It is the thing that helps us build character and realise our own limitations, character grows when we look beyond ourselves but do not ignore who we are.
Leadership is knowing when to stop, when to press on, and when to know it doesn’t really matter.