The sky began to glow pink as I packed away, so happy to be here experiencing this, the beauty of the day beginning, the tinges of light turning the mountain yellow brown with colour. I walked towards the mountain peak, turning to blow a kiss and say thank you to the land that held me, one of my most beautiful camping spots ever. I had 6 peaks to climb over before I reached Hoverla, rises and falls of a hundred metres of more each time. I walked for half an hour before seeing the first piece of light hit the peak I was heading for, where I’d told myself I’d eat breakfast, it illuminated bright rosy pink and I cheered, climbed towards the light. The rocks and grass were frost rimed and I placed my feet carefully, paying attention all the time. Any slip or fall here could be a bad accident, so far away from any people or help. I’d seen 6 people the previous day, a group of young men bouncing energetically across the wiry tufts that formed the vegetation up here, climbing a frozen snow patch for fun. They’d asked me the usual questions, are you alone? Are you scared? Then shaken their heads in amazement when I’d told them I wasn’t scared.
Why aren’t I scared? I’m starting not to know – when so many people tell me I should be. I have everything I need to survive up there; good equipment, insulation, waterproofing, food, water, first aid kit, the knowledge of what to do in an emergency. I have come to this expertise through practice.
I have a calm head when I need to think quickly, to assess the risks and take appropriate action. I have come to this expertise through testing myself, in all the things I’ve done through the years, all the hitchhiking, all the travelling, all the throwing myself into uncertainty.
I have the ability to be alone for long periods of time and not feel bothered, to be happy in my own company and not feel lacking. When I do get out there and go somewhere alone, it’s never as bad as I think it might be, it’s never as difficult, it’s never as frightening as the anticipation of what might happen. Maybe I’m a fool and one day I’ll die. Maybe I won’t, I’ll just have an incredible time forever. Maybe it’s their problem that they can’t imagine climbing a mountain alone.
I did it alone, I climbed Hoverla. By the time I reached the highest peak here it was 11.30am and I was out of excitement, it was just a long slow plod across land to get here, the views were incredible but I was no longer ecstatic, there was just a peacefulness in the bright blue air. The summit was a surprise, with several crosses and monuments, Ukranian flags wrapped wherever possible, names scrawled on every surface, coins jammed into cracks. I sat and ate my chocolate, wondered what to do next. I’d had a shock when I stopped to eat breakfast, digging through my food bag I’d realised how empty it was. I had food for the rest of that day, snacks and an evening meal, then only two more breakfast porridge sachets, and snacks – peanuts, sunflower seeds and walnuts. But looking at the map I saw at least another full day of walking ahead, probably a day and a half. There was a mountain that was bothering me too, another peak that was just as high as Hoverla and I couldn’t see what it was on the map. Don’t worry about the descent until you’ve reached the peak, I kept telling myself, stop worrying about what’s ahead and think about what is happening now.
But once I looked properly at the map my heart fell. It was another 2000m peak, called Petroc, and I had to drop down to 1500m before I could climb it. The way I was going it would be falling dark as I was somewhere on the slopes. I could camp before Petroc but that would definitely lengthen my journey past my food supplies.
I gave myself a talking to, the lack of food wasn’t a problem, I’d be hungry for a day, no more than that, I could be hungry for a day, it was an inconvenience rather than a crisis.
That left two remaining problems, whether to tackle the mountain and risk being stuck on a slope in the dark, or whether to take the side path and risk a dangerous off-path climb to change routes.
This was the Chornohirsky Massif, in the centre of a national park area and the slopes off the peaks were coated thick with pine forest, undisturbed. This was primeval forest, home to viable populations of lynx, bears and wolves, said the information boards. I looked at the route ahead and realised I’d be camping another two nights, one near Petroc and the other further down towards Trostianets, at about 1200m, off the heights but still in the middle of forest. I imagined that was where the bears lived and my nerves grew. I didn’t feel good about this route, but my choices were limited.
As I came down from Hoverla, picking my way down the stones, supporting the jarring of my knees with my trusty walking poles, I looked for the spring that was marked on the map, my first water source in 24 hours and my bottle was empty. I’d drunk my belly full at the last stream so I wasn’t dehydrated yet but I needed to fill up again soon. Here it was, a stream with a bottle jammed into the flow, creating a spout that poured into air rather than trickling over rocks. I sat and drank as much as I could, feeling my stomach swell to pain with the amount of water. Good, this was what I needed, in this bright sunshine all my panting and sweating meant I constantly lost water.
I walked down a track that gradually became wooded as I lost altitude, pine scent surrounding me in the warm air, yellow rocks reminding me of Spain. I realised that there were tyre marks here, that a vehicle had reached this spot. It must be the highest access point for mountain rescue teams. I gradually processed that if a vehicle was up here then there must be a way down to the road, that was different to the way I was going to follow ahead to the west. No cars could travel those paths so there must be a driveable track down to the south. I stopped and pulled out the map, there was a winding black line leading down to the valley bottom, down to the village of Hoverla, where a road led west to Rachiv. I knew immediately that I wanted to take it, that I couldn’t face this second mountain, that I was scared of camping in bear territory. The lack of food was just an excuse to enable to to leave, a cover story for my tiredness. I had nothing to prove, I’d climbed all the way up here and now I was going to descend.
There was a hunting lodge up here, the mountain route led into it and then off up towards Petroc, a useful stop offered for toilet and water facilities, men in camouflage clothing stumping around and ignoring me, I was their opposite in these places in my bright clothing. This was where the road turned down and away. I measured it, the mountain route was 150% as far, at least. I knew what I wanted to do and I had to stop justifying it, this was my choice. I saw a hotel marked on the map down in Hoverla village and my heart leaped. I didn’t want to camp again down in the forest, I wanted to go straight to a bed behind a closed door. It was 2pm, 3 hours until dark and I had 10 miles to walk. I’m not a fast walker, my usual pace when rucksack loaded is about 2 miles an hour. If I wanted to reach the hotel I’d be walking in the dark – but somehow I just couldn’t face the forest that night.
My fear of bears had crept and crept; as I began walking downwards into the trees I realised I wasn’t appreciating the beauty, I was starting to want to look over my shoulder, my subconscious was seeing bears in the shape of every log on the ground, flinching at every rustle. I was reminded of Pa in Little House In The Big Woods, how he went out hunting one day and on his way home late, saw a bear in a moonlit clearing. He waited and waited for the bear to move but it just stayed there, reared up in the white and shadow. Eventually he picked up a huge stick and advanced on the bear, only to see it was the same dead tree he’d passed that morning, transformed by his fear.
I sped down the hill, focused on walking as fast as I could, marching downwards. My feet began to ache and I stopped to stretch them, squatted down for a wee and looked around me at the beautiful trees. The road wound back and forth, looping in order to make this descent as smooth as possible for the vehicles. It would be a rocky and bumpy journey anyway, at least half an hour long. I could see the road below me, heading back in the opposite direction and found the worn patch where other people had cut down the sheer slope. I tried it but didn’t feel like it saved much time, gingerly lowering myself with tree roots for footholds rather than striding ahead on packed stone. I measured my progress every hour, 2.75mph, this was going to hurt my feet.
I’d been trying so hard not to strain myself all the way from Kiev, so aware of the tightness of my muscles leading down to plantar tendon pain, and yet here I was rushing down a mountain because I was scared of bears.
I tried to measure the remaining distance on the map with the edge of my compass but could only get as far as a rough guess. 6 miles more, then an hour later, maybe 4 miles more. The light left the sky, I was down beside a river by now, picking my way through the muddy sludge left by logging lorries, the river rushing white beside me, dampness in the air and nothing but steep slopes climbing either side of the banks.
There was no camping here any more, I had to continue to the village.
I came to the edge of the national park as it became truly dark, the single bulb of the vehicle barrier shining out towards me, a small hut next to it billowing out smoke. I imagined the steamy warm inside, the metal stove blaring heat and walked on, almost at the village. It was a long thin settlement, following the river down, a single line of houses either side of the road to where it joined another river and turned a corner to head west.
The land changed once we were out of the park, fields opened up, misty in the river air, wooden fences. I could have camped there but I thought of the hotel and pressed onwards. In the streets of the village there was a woman in a car outside one of the houses, she opened her door to see what my light was, my phone tucked into my belt to guide me. I stopped and asked her where the hotel was. ‘There’s no hotel here’ she said. Oh disaster. It was way past dark on a soon to be icy evening and I was in the middle of a village with nowhere to camp, having just walked 18 miles off a mountain. I slumped, what could I do? I kept walking out of habit, not knowing what to do next. Knock on a door and ask to camp in a garden? Walk further out of town to camp somewhere quiet? Turn around and head back on myself to the flat fields not far behind me? None of those options were tempting, I looked at what seemed available in the yellow glow of streetlights, the corners of flat space beside woodsheds, the unknown earth in the riverside darkness. This was impossible, I never camp in the centre of villages. The houses were close and cramped together until I walked further on and realised that they rose above the road, that here was a house with a fence then a stretch of flat grass then a slope to the house above. There were no lights on. Could this one be unoccupied? I ducked behind the fence and waited for a while, nothing happened. I put my tent out, I had to, it was really cold here and I needed to get insulated. It was OK for an hour or so. I put the tent up and got into bed, too tired to eat anything, I could do that tomorrow. I slept a little, but it was still only about 8pm and I was attuned to the noises of people walking near me, talking on their phones, the rake of vehicle lights as they passed the fence. I was too nervous of being here to relax into sleep, not comfortable with the proximity of people. Then, oh woe, a car pulled up outside the fence gate and stopped. Then a person walked through the gate and out to the car.
Oh woe oh woe, there were people in the house and I’d camped in their garden. I sat up in the tent, pulled off my hood to hear the outside better, unzipped the inner door and applied myself to peeking out of the tent doorway, waiting to see if they’d question me or drive away or what might happen. A young man went in and out of the house, got into the car and sat there, engine running. A young girl walked out of the house, past the tent and out into the street, staring at her phone.
Eventually, as I sat watching, I heard another woman’s voice up above, coming from the house,she was standing outside the house, shouting down into the street. I steeled myself and got out of the tent, pushing my fluffy pink bedsocks into my boots and walking up the slope to where the woman waited, silhouetted by the house lights. I typed into my phone translation, ‘I’m sorry, I thought the house was empty’ and showed it to her. She said words I couldn’t understand, as I’ve said before the accent is different here and even the small amount of Ukrainian I could previously tease out of a sentence is now impenetrable to me. I asked her questions to see if I could interpret what she was saying, no dice. I began to shiver, I’d been out of the tent for too long, sitting up with too much of my body out of the sleeping bag and I was cold. The woman gestured down at my tent and I decided that, happy or not, I needed to get back into it. We walked down and stood by the tent, all the other people came back, the young man, the young woman, another young man got out of the car.
The woman was saying the word ‘cold’. Yeah I’m cold, I nodded. The woman made a shape in the air that was pulling tent pegs up. Oh no, oh no no no. It would be awful to have to find somewhere else right now. ‘Problem ya tut?’ I asked. ‘Is it a problem that I am here?’ The simplest way I can find to express my questions is the best, no room to be misunderstood. No, no problem, said one young man. The woman gestured again, she was shorter than everyone else, with a rounded pot belly, short messy hair and missing teeth. I realised she was inviting me inside, saying that I should pull up the tent. Yes, I said simply. I couldn’t insist on camping, even though I felt like their pity was misplaced. If I’d been lying down in my sleeping bag, firmly insulated, I’d be toasty warm, it was only my nervous door watching that had chilled me down.
But there we went, uprooting the tent and pulling it up the hill to the front door while a dog barked in the background. We hurried into the warm room, it was a kitchen, living room and bedroom all in one. A storeroom was beyond that, then at the front of the house were two unheated bedrooms. Carpets were hanging on the walls, extra insulation. The stove was built out of the wall, a squat piece of brickwork with a few doors at the front and a large metal place on the top for cooking, with several saucepans on it already, some crusted with an unidentifiable brown mush. The woman bustled while I sat, slightly dazedly, at the table; she built up the fire, pushed some saucepans further back, brought others to the front, set about changing the bed clothes. She scattered some food, leftovers, on the floor in front of the stove for the cat to eat, a solemn grey tom. I thought that she must sleep in here, this catchall room, and protested a little. She took me through to the rest of the house, showed me all the other beds, reassuring me that there was a place for everyone. It was really difficult for us to communicate, the daughter came back, in her late teens with perfect nails, glitter painted, so different to the older woman’s work-worn hands. It got a bit better once we had a phone for translation but was still unclear. I resigned myself to just being the unknown wierdo for the night, I mean I was definitely that anyway, just pitching a tent in their garden on a frosty November evening, but now I was the wierdo who was incapable of clear conversation. The woman served me food, rice and slivers of meat wrapped in neat cabbage leaf parcels with some crusty fried pieces of fat and meat, their delicious oil poured over the cabbage parcels. There was white sliced bread on the table and a mug of fruit tea. She asked if I wanted milk and when I said yes, brought in a white plastic bucket, from which she ladled out a lumpy liquid. ‘Kefir!’ It was tangy and delicious. I asked her name, she didn’t understand and looked for her daughter who was out of the room, but I did it again, pointed to myself and said ‘Ya Ursula’ then pointed at her. ‘Luda’ she said, and we finally smiled at each other. I packed the tent away, going outside in the chill to where the confused dog on the chain watched me in silence as I rolled everything up, packed it down in its right places, reorganising the jumble of a collapsed tent that had been dragged up a hill.
The next morning Luda was up at 6am, bringing another bucket of brown mash out from the storeroom, ladling into the crusty pan, adding kefir into it, pouring water to loosen it and setting it on the stove to warm. She also peeled potatoes and set them on to cook before tying a scarf over her head and putting on a housecoat in order to head outside. It was cold, she told me, and I peeked out. The valley was white with frost, smoke rising from chimneys and the sunrise hitting pink light onto the forested hills opposite but it would be hours before it lapped over to these houses.
Luda came back in and then stirred the mash before taking it outside again, telling me it was for the pigs. She was gone for a while and I did my stretches, the TV blared adverts through the screen and the potatoes bubbled.
When she came back, Luda brought a bucket of milk into the house, frothy and warm. She offered me a mug and poured it through a strainer. The milk was utterly delicious, thick with cream, as if I was drinking hot chocolate, the first time I’d ever tasted it so fresh from the cow. The cat meowed and wound itself against her, waiting for its own portion, poured into a tiny tupperware at the base of the stove that was obviously used daily for this purpose.
The potatoes were for borscht and Luda went into the storeroom, coming back with a bowlful of salted red cabbage. She gave me a pinch to taste then rinsed the rest of it, taking water from a bucket that sat with a mug on the lid, and pouring the waste water into a second bucket on the floor. The borscht was served with sour cream from a jar, cold from storage. ‘You are very kind’ I typed into the phone and showed it to her. Luda smiled in acknowledgement and another piece of the barrier between us was broken down. She brought out a bottle of clear liquid and asked me if I wanted some schnapps. ‘Domachno’ she said, ‘homemade’. We worked out together that she fermented sugar, water and yeast before distilling it. Everything was homemade, her cream, her potatoes, her sauerkraut, her meat. I asked if she sold the milk and she said no! Who would buy it? Everyone here has their own cow. I thought of the doorstep milk sales I’d seen elsewhere in Ukraine and wondered if the hills here made collections unviable. All her work here was to maintain the home, to feed the pigs and cows in order to eat them, to grow vegetables in her garden in order to make food. I asked about her husband and Luda told me he worked abroad in Russia, came home for a few weeks every 6 months. We made a face at each other, this was sad but so normal that it was barely worth acknowledging, the tragedy of people leaving their families in order to work abroad became the lesser of two evils when starvation was the other option.
We drank 3 shots of vodka together, people quite often give me alcohol in 3s. I think there’s one shot for welcome, two for something else and the third for friends. I’ll have to try and find out. I joked that I needed to walk in a straight line, not a wiggly one, using my hands to emphasise. It was 7.30am.
Finally I left, full of borscht and warmed by booze, giving Luda a quick hug, heart light and happy at my unexpected night indoors.