I have enjoyed mountain walking since doing adventurous training in Snowdonia and the Brecon Beacons with the school cadet force in my mid-teens. In recent years, my love of the mountains has only grown stronger. Perhaps that has something to do with living on the edge of a capital city in a flat land that is happy to be part of ‘the low countries’. From a spiritual perspective, mountains are ‘thin places’, where the glory of God is revealed: it was on Mount Sinai that Moses is given the 10 commandments and at Mount Tabor (traditionally) that Jesus was transfigured. And spending time in the mountains has become an important source of spiritual nourishment for me.
But would that be possible in 2020? In the era of Covid-19?
I had booked a trek in the Dolomites just after Christmas, carefully timed to synchronise with my son James’s Scottish teaching summer holidays whilst also avoiding the Lambeth Conference. But in March-April everything was in lockdown: no Lambeth Conference, no flights, no refuges open, no travel allowed. Nothing! Very gradually, things began finding their way to a new normal. A few flights resumed. At the beginning of July, most of the Dolomite refuges re-opened. And by enabling James to stay in Belgium for a fortnight, we met the quarantine restrictions imposed by Austria on visitors coming direct from the UK. At the eleventh hour, our trip was ‘on’.
There was, however, a subsequent question: was it right to travel? We weighed the risks. There had been virtually no cases of Covid-19 in South Tyrol for a few months. On arrival in the mountains we would be staying in small huts, with small numbers of people. Most of the time we would be outside in the mountain air. The virus hates ultra violet light and warm sunshine – precisely the weather conditions we were expecting. The most risky part of the trip would be the flight – and there we could rely on the fact that relatively few others were travelling. Balancing the small physical health risks against the big mental and spiritual health benefits we came to a ‘yes’.
The Dolomites are a UNESCO World Heritage site, and one of the most fascinating and beautiful mountain ranges on earth. Our route criss-crossed the mountains from San Candido in the North East to Bolzano in the South West. On our second day we reached the iconic Tre Cime. The extraordinary North Face of these gigantic limestone slabs changes colour depending on the time of day and angle of the light, from grey, to silver to gold.
Alongside the extraordinary scenery, the Mountain Refuges are one of the lovely features of the Dolomites. ‘Ucia des Muntagnoles’ (‘refuge of the marmots’) is one of our favourites, a small and cosy resting place next to a stream in the spectacular Fanes region, run by the wonderfully hospitable Sonya. On the night we stayed, there was a group from France and ourselves. Sonya mentioned that it was the first time this year a group had stayed and the first time the hut had been full. The previous night we had stayed at an equally nice refuge, where we were the only guests. Our host was so pleased to see us that he gave us free beers and as much free grappa and limoncello as we cared to drink. That evening, I noticed him pouring anxiously over his spreadsheets… It has certainly been a quiet year for the hospitality industry, and we were genuinely pleased to be helping some of these small businessfolk.
Yes, it was really quiet and those few people we did meet were mostly local Italian and German speakers. On several days trekking we met more marmots than humans. The absence of people made these adorable creatures more confident than usual, and the mountains frequently rang with their distinctive whistling. We saw many kinds of birds, the alpine flora (edelweiss, gentians, orchids…) was abundant, and on one occasion a chamoix jumped out of the woods in front of us, eyed us for a few moments and then ran off. No bears, however! A plaque at the foot of one mountain route aptly quoted Psalm 104:24 “How many are your works, O Lord! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.”
Climbing and descending thousands of metres whilst carrying a pack is great exercise. It clears the mind and is genuinely ‘re-creational’. The mountains and most of the refuges have the added advantage of being out of mobile phone/Wi-Fi range, so there is no choice but to leave work responsibilities behind. And that is precisely what those who teach resilience advocate. Human beings are remarkably good at dealing with stress – provided that we build in proper periods of down-time. Hence biblical provisions for sabbath rest.
Dealing with Covid-19 has been demanding for those in Christian ministry. We know that the virus is going to be with us for many months to come. Autumn and Winter 2020 may see a resurgence of infections. So I encourage everyone to get a good holiday this summer, whilst the weather is warm and infection rates relatively low. You might not share my enthusiasm for mountains, but do take a break from the computer and the emails!
As we deal with the real physical health risks of coronavirus, it is important too to attend to mental and spiritual wellbeing. My experience has been – to my considerable relief – that taking a holiday is possible with proper care about the destination, and proper observance of hygiene and distancing rules. In retrospect, we probably faced more risk of being butted by the cows nursing their calves, or of falling from a precipice, than we did from Covid-19.
And finally, spending time together as father and son was one of the great joys of the trek. Covid-19 is making it far harder for families to get together. We can’t travel to the USA to visit our daughter in Boston, neither can she travel to Europe to see us. A visit to see our new baby granddaughter in the UK has only been possible with a great deal of planning and a relaxation of travel restrictions between Belgium and Britain. This is a reminder that family time is precious. Amidst all the isolation and loneliness caused by the virus, I hope those reading this blog get some precious family time this summer!