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Mountain retreat

It was the second day of Lent and I had asked my friend Brian, a priest, to give us something to think about when we reached the summit of the Helderberg Dome. The intention was to make a sort of retreat of the day’s climbing.

The Dome is a splendid peak giving a wraparound view of the Western Cape winelands to the north and west, Table Mountain hazy in the distance, the sea looking south and mountain peaks, including the majestic Somerset Sneeukop, towering above us to the east. The day was crisp and clear.

The route starts through the Helderberg Nature Reserve, famous for forests of proteas, and traverses diagonally upwards through montane forest before breaking out into mountain fynbos on the higher slopes. Some stiff upward boulder-hopping and rock scrambling brings you onto the summit ridge as exposure to the height begins to weigh a little on the mind. A little frisson of height-induced excitement mixes pleasantly with exhilaration and awe as the sheer size of the mountains and the view takes hold.

We flopped down beside the summit beacon, pulled our snacks from our backpacks and boiled a billycan for tea. “Okay Brian, what have you got for us?” I asked.

“Ultimately,” he said, “we are saved by that which ignores us.”

That’s all he said.

We were quiet as we looked at the magnificence around us. It’s true. The mountains welcome us, but couldn’t care whether we live or die. There’s no allowance made for pettiness or self-absorption, no moving aside for us to find our way more comfortably. We’re there on the mountain’s terms, not our own.

There’s a peace that comes with that realization, an exhaling of tension and inhaling of freedom that is a mountain’s special gift.