Mountains of the mind: ‘I’ve become part of the landscape and it’s become part of me’

Kevin Rushby writes: We begin in darkness and head up towards the light. It is that time just before the dawn when it’s neither day nor night. Down near Lake Coniston, I can hear an owl and a curlew calling, both claiming the hour for themselves. “I like to come this early,” says Sion. “There’s no one else around. I can’t handle crowds. I get confused.”

It’s 4.30am and I am with Sion Jair, 67, and his partner, Wendy Kolbe, 63, and we are heading up the Old Man of Coniston, an 803-metre Lake District fell noted for its sharp ascent and great panoramas of southern lakeland. Or at least we hope so: there are some clouds massing in the east.

For Sion, this has become a daily ritual, adopted seven years ago when a visit to the doctor changed his life for ever. “I had been feeling permanently tired, and suffering some memory problems. It meant I couldn’t get out walking, you see, and when I can’t walk, I really shut down.”

After tests, the doctor diagnosed chronic anaemia from vitamin B12 deficiency. Injections usually sort that out, but Sion reacted badly to the shots and, without them, was given three years to live. Determined not to give in, he set about walking in earnest, covering around 10 miles a day. “Eventually, it worked. I reckon it cured me of the chronic fatigue,” he says.

But there was another blow. The anaemia had been masking signs of dementia. Given the particular type of condition he was suffering from, he was warned that he could expect periods of total memory loss, mood swings and eventually the inability to look after himself. Sion had become one of the estimated 25 million people worldwide suffering this progressive neurodegenerative disease, as feared now as the Black Death was in its day.

“It was quite scary,” says Sion, adding, in something of an understatement, “I didn’t like the idea.”

Sion’s response was typical of him: he walked even more. Not just the Old Man, but other fells, too: Scafell Pike, Helvellyn, Blencathra, Dollywaggon Pike – all the greats. “I’ve done them so often, I know them blindfolded.” And all this he did without any technological intermediaries, smartphone or GPS – just the steady rhythm of his feet. On one occasion he did 12 peaks and 28 miles in 22 hours, raising cash for his three favourite charities: the Alzheimer’s Society, Mountain Rescue and the Great North Air Ambulance. He also walked in Wales – he walked the Snowdon horseshoe more than 200 times – and Scotland, but it was in Coniston that he found his walking mantra. I suppose you could call it his Coniston Old Man-tra. [Continue reading…]

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