Nathan Munday’s Seven Days is a story of adventure and spirituality as father and son travel the “Rue du Bonjour” across the pilgrim route of the high Pyrenees. It is a journey with a writer grappling with some of the questions of modern life, his love for the mountains, his beliefs and aspirations and examples set both by his father and the enigmatic fellow traveller they meet in a remote auberge who comes to symbolise and shadow their sojourn, a man he nicknames Hemingway, although he is neither a writer nor an American.
In the beginning God created the Pyrenees. And the hills were without form and void; and darkness was on the face of the cliffs. Everything begins in the dark. The absence indicates an imminent presence which is hiding in the void. At night, it’s like being there at that Genesis moment hearing echoes of somebody speaking existence. The wind is like the brooding Dove slowly shifting the darkness through the valleys. As I walk, the silence is disturbed by a crooked line on the horizon. It rises. Echoes become sounds as huge tectonic plates grind one another, pushing the mountains up. At first it looks like teeth before changing into a row of books leaning on one another in an old chain library…
Robert Macfarlane wrote that ‘most religions operate on a vertical axis […] to ascend, therefore, is in some fundamental way to approach divinity’. In the secular world too, ‘to peak’ has become a symbol for endeavour and human accomplishment. There is something very appealing about going uphill. In 1336, Petrarch and his brother Gherardo climbed that Provençal hill called Ventoux ‘to see what great an elevation had to offer’. It is not a high hill like some of its southern and eastern siblings; Ventoux is only 1910m above sea level. Petrarch recorded his hike in a letter, probably written by candlelight in the mountain inn, to Dionisio da Borgo San Sepolcro where he notes how, in that single day, he had raised his soul, as he had done with his body, to higher places. He was overwhelmed by the view:
As if suddenly wakened from sleep, I turned about and gazed toward the west. I was unable to discern the summits of the Pyrenees, which form the barrier between France and Spain; not because of any intervening obstacle that I know of but owing simply to the insufficiency of our mortal vision. But I could see with the utmost clearness, off to the right, the mountains of the region about Lyons, and to the left the bay of Marseilles and the waters that lash the shores of Aigues Mortes, altho’ all these places were so distant that it would require a journey of several days to reach them. Under our very eyes flowed the Rhone.
This book documents my seven days on that barrier between France and Spain. In a way, I imagine both me and my father mirroring Petrarch and his brother. If my mortal vision was better, I may have been able to see Ventoux in the distance and we would have waved at the poet and his brother who, in my mind, are always sitting on its bare peak. He is a father-figure to so many writers who like going uphill. But we are mortal and I must leave such imaginings to what Macfarlane calls the mountains of the mind, rather than the real Pyrenees: ‘What we call a mountain is thus in fact a collaboration of the physical forms of the world with the imagination of humans – a mountain of the mind.’
Those mountains have other figures on them too. This is a book in dialogue with the greatest book ever written – the Holy Bible – as well as a return to the iconic mountains which can be climbed in that book. The Bible is full of hills, peaks, and high places which have always fascinated me. Seven Days explores those heights where the extraordinary communes with the ordinary and where the lower things of earth grow strangely dim.
Seven Days is also a thank you to all the storytellers who have made my first twenty or so years very full and exciting. That particular week seemed much longer and yet each mountain trip we made before and afterwards seems to fuse into that single week where the whole world was under our eyes. In Black Apples of Gower: Stone-Footing in Memory Fields, Iain Sinclair wrote that the ‘walks that truly haunt, and hurt, are the ones that walk you’. In my mind, the crooked lines on any horizon always take me back to that ridge just below Spijeoles and every ascent takes me back to that particular snowy climb a few years ago.
Dad and I are nearing a Pyrenean Eilean a ‘Cheò (Isle of Mist). The mist is a sea and the hills appear like those Misty Isles that Ossian saw growing in the distance as he sailed towards Skye. I cannot quite see the shoreline yet but I am anticipating archipelagic hills. At the moment, I can’t see anything. Going down would be easier and quicker, but going up is always rewarding.
The sun. At last. The misty sea breaks onto the shore of a hill. Sunlight quickens the stone and breathes life into the whole area. The mountain transports us to the beginning, demanding that we face the shadows of some unutterable holiness. It feels like I’m the first man on earth. Everything is fresh and new. I am exposed. The sound of our clanking ice axes disturbs that silence and echoes around the cirque. I look around – the massif presents itself – an unfinished cathedral, with the mark of divine stonemasonry scraped into its cliffs.
Ahead of me is my father. I study him. A Pyreneist. The rhythmic guide of the axe sets our walking tempo like a metronome. One minute he is a climber with a strange trust in the hill, and the next minute, he is an old-fashioned pilgrim – an unfamiliar phantom wanderer; he looks lost, but he is not. He stops when a chamois or an isard (Rupicapra pyrenaica) appears. Everything is so still. Perhaps she is one of Culhwch and Olwen’s Oldest Animals, another Carw Rhedynfre? That old stag witnessed the life span of an oak tree but had never heard about the son of Modron. This creature is not a stag, but her marble, amber eyes are pensive and mature. The brown curves of her body move elegantly across the rocks.
A slight slip causes one of the rocks to tumble. She stops. I gaze at her horns before being drawn down to her eyes again. We look at one another. I am no Gwrhyr and I cannot speak her language. By the time the rolling rock is still, she has disappeared.
We are getting higher. A snowy ramp comes into view offering us a straight passage towards the col. I can’t be bothered to put my crampons on because the snow looks safe enough. The rim is haloed by bright light; flickers trick my eyes and create a personal aurora borealis.
‘I’ll kick some steps’, Dad says. He kicks the mountains’ cheeks, making steps with his hard boots. I plod up the steep bit, foot by foot. Kick, kick, snow flying, ice, crunch, step, step… something like that, as we ascend in a zig-zag towards the col.
the first thing to do is to
this ice axe in the ice
once rubbish I’ve missed
I’m speeding up
no I’ve missed and cut myself by missing––
I’m bleeding. I’m only nineteen.
I’m going to die.
I’m not going to graduate. Unbelievable!
Third time. Here we go.
Lord, have mercy!
The fiery alp on one side has stopped moving whilst the hill I’m on has grown overwhelmingly large. My arm hurts. The snow has burnt and blistered the area between my elbow and wrist. My father slowly comes to a halt before turning around. He takes a long time to descend but, at last, he is familiar again.
Two years go by and we decide to return to the mountain.
 Gwrhyr Gwalstawd Ieithoedd was one of Arthur’s knights in Culhwch and Olwen. He was a shapeshifter and could speak every language including the languages of birds and animals.
 Col – The lowest point on a mountain ridge between two peaks.