• Sarah Mussi: In a land of myth

    In a land of myth, and a time of the magic…  brilliant opening words from BBC’s immortal series:MERLIN.
    Once upon a time… classic line from every fairy story going…
    What better way to start your story than with a time and a place?

    Once upon a time, in a land of myth, I set out to find the most inspirational time and place where I could tell a story that would touch every storytelling nerve I’d ever had. I didn’t have to go far. For me, born on the Cotswold hills, the mountains of North Wales are just a Golden Valley away. 
    If any of you have ever been to Snowdonia, or have the good fortune to live there, you will know, only too well, that the Mountains of the West - as well as being the most beautiful things on earth - are the birth place of bards and the home of some of the oldest stories ever told.
    HERE BE DRAGONS, my story about Snowdonia, starts on the slopes of Mount Snowdon itself.  One cold winter’s morning, when a serious weather alert has snow locked everybody into their cottages…
    And as I spun the story out from that beginning - like the metaphorical little Welsh lady in her tall black hat at her spinning wheel – spinning out the stuff of fairy story and myth – I thought of other metaphors for the magical, for the mysterious and for the myths of the mountains.
    I imagined the snow perhaps as a symbol for something else - bigger and much more dangerous, but just as intangible.  I imagined the mountains as a symbol too, as the manifestation of the tangible – huge and perilous. 
    And I searched wider and deeper to find out just what that something might be… and I found the Dragons.
    In Welsh mythology underneath the rocks of Mount Snowdon lie two fighting dragons, interred, entombed and locked away from mankind, because they are so dangerous. These dragons are – perhaps themselves - a huge metaphor in their turn for that deep, dark, dangerous, locked-away subconscious – often at war with itself - that lies in everyone of us.
    The Welsh word for ‘Snowdon’ is ‘Yr Wyddfa’ – which some translate as Snowhill - but others, those who know the older, deeper Welsh translate it as The Burial, or the Snow Den. 
    When I discovered this a tingle went down my spine, and I knew I had found the heart of my story.
    Through peeling back these layers of metaphor, I got to what I wanted to write about. I began to understand the pull and call of mountains: why people put on their hiking boots, go out, climb, buy expensive mountaineering equipment, set out to conquer cliffs, beat mountains, bankrupt themselves, risk death to stand on summits – to be on the roof of the world… and why I tried at age 9 to climb my very own Devil’s Chimney.
    I understood why somebody decided to build a tower of stones right on the very summit of Snowdon, a marker that it would stand forever, a symbol that mankind had conquered the mountain.  
    The more I thought about this idea, though, the more I realised how hopeless it was to think that mankind can ever conquer nature, can ever chart it by erecting some kind of flag or marker. And conversely how futile it is for mankind too, to ever hope to map the depths of the human mind. 
    The human psyche is much higher than any mountain summit, and much deeper than its valleys  - and I believe quite unconquerable, quite un-map-able –wise men and women have showed us with their storytelling to work with the mind rather than to attempt to fathom it - have devised myths to describe its heights and depths and dangers. 
    And mountains are, perhaps, the best symbol of those two extremes. Great writers, poets have always understood that.
    No worst, There is None
    O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
    Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
    May who ne'er hung there. Nor does long our small
    Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep,
    Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all
    Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.
    Gerard Manley Hopkins
    So it was under Snowdon that I looked for my story not on top of it.
    And under Snowdon are the dragons. 
    When you walk through the mountains of Snowdonia you can almost feel the presence of these huge subterranean, mighty, majestic creatures and it was about them that I wanted to write.
    The retelling of myths surrounding the Dragons of Wales and the exploits of King Arthur and the magic of Martin and the battles of the giants in and around Snowdonia, have, of course, been retold many times, over the ages, right from the 12th to 13th century Mabinogion, down to the current, popular TV success: MERLIN, and the soon to be released epic fim : KNIGHTS OF THE ROUNDTABLE: KING ARTHUR (2016).  I was writing a great tradition then, with fabulous company! 
    Yet, I wanted to bring something new and different to the stories. It seemed to me that nobody yet had quite written a modern love affair based on the mythologies of the mountains of North Wales. In Cornwall, we have the mythologized love affairs of Tristram and Iseult; in Arthurian  legend we have many a gallant knight’s  quest, to bring back trophies to his lady love. We have the doomed love affair of Guinevere and Arthur – of Guinevere and  Lancelot… but specifically in North Wales there are very few love stories set in Snowdonia.  
    So I set out to create a love story that was going to be accessible to a teenager living in today's world.  Teenagers today love legendary romance, but expect a little bit more than a rusty sword and a metal overcoat- or for their boyfriend to go gallivanting off on a big swim, across rivers, or trek, across deserts, to prove his love. So I created Ellie, the mountain girl, who has already climbed many of the peaks, and in her own right was victorious over the landscape, but had not, as yet, really plumbed the depths of the human psyche – that deep well of emotion that first love taps straight into.   
    So she encounters the dragons, mythical monsters that dwell under the landscape and so begins a heartbreaking romance with the things that live beneath the hills, the buried selves - symbols perhaps of the unconscious desire to become one with the self, the unknown, the other and the magical – things that nevertheless are monsters in their own right.  Symbols too of a very human desire not to just conquer the elements and the geography of a place, but to fall deeply in love with it as well.

    My own love affair with North Wales began a very long time ago when I was a small child and went on family holidays to a caravan near Barmouth, for one glorious week every summer. During that week everything was totally magical. We did many things from hill walking to building castles on Barmouth sands - to visiting old mysterious and damp churchyards, poking around little villages with their huge, grey, thick-walled cottages, but the best bits of all were telling tales in the caravan, on windy evenings about the Breath of the Grey King, about the Dragons, about the giants, about all the mysteries of North Wales.
    It is hardly surprisingly then, as an adult, when I was looking for a story about the depths beneath and a first powerful love affair - that I should return once again to Snowdonia in North Wales and once again climb Snowdon and sit in the café on its summit and write the opening lines of HERE BE DRAGONS.
    IT WAS CHRISTMAS. Although, you’d hardly have known it. I was at home pinging my friends in front of the telly. The telly wasn’t going, of course. Nothing was going, unless you counted the snow. Since 5.00 a.m., my mobile had indicated a serious weather alert.
    You need to know what a serious weather alert means when you’re me, Arabella (Ellie) Morgan, living in a remote farmhouse on the slopes of Mount Snowdon with only your mum. It means life comes to a standstill… 
    What better way to start a story than with a time and a place…

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    The human body has incredible capabilities. It can adapt to deep sea pressure, it can survive extremes of heat and cold. It can rebuild after disease and famine.
    It also has systems to cope with extreme altitude, but, as climbers know, you have to approach things in the right way or things can quickly go wrong. 
    Everest is the ultimate test. To take the body to 8,848 metres pushes the human body to the absolute limit. On the summit there is just 30% of the oxygen we normally breathe. This puts the whole body under pressure:
    - Cells cannot rebuild and repair themselves.
    - Mental ability and decision making is severely impaired.
    - The lungs and brain may suffer catastrophic effects ... namely water build up and subsequent failure.
    - The blood may become so thick it causes strokes or even a heart attack.
    So, what is the secret? How do Everest climbers manage to adapt? 
    The answer is to go as slowly as possible, gaining height in a series of gradual stages (with rest days built in) so that the body can produce more red blood cells to cope with the gradually thinning air. The climber's motto is ‘climb high, sleep low,’ pushing the body as hard as possible during the day by gaining perhaps 500 metres or even 1,000 metres of height then dropping back down and sleeping at a lower altitude. 
    Using this system, it takes about two weeks to be able to live at base camp level, at 5,400 metres. 
    Even so, sleeplessness, headache, loss of appetite and nausea may still occur. Even the most experienced climbers get these symptoms from time to time. 
    If you rush to high altitude and get sick there is only one solution: go down as fast as possible. The thicker air will quickly restore normal bodily functions. 
    On Everest most climbers resort to using supplementary oxygen above 8,000 metres. Fed from a tank, a trickle of air helps the climber to gain height while still remaining warm and strong.

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    Travelling to Everest is giving me the perfect opportunity to observe climate change in action. The region is filled with many glaciers and climbers frequently have to travel across them to gain access to the high peaks. Climate scientists have published many papers recording the rapid pace at which these high-altitude glaciers are melting. Controversy has flared up about the likely date at which Himalayan glaciers may disappear but it seems one thing is sure: the majority of Himalayan glaciers are shrinking fast.
    Earth Observatory provides graphic proof. The organisation takes historic photographs of glaciers from early expeditions and compares them to modern photographs taken from the same position. It is fascinating to see how things have changed. 
    So, what will happen if the glaciers of the Himalaya do melt away? Will the mountain range become a desert? How will the people who live in this region be affected? 
    One massive impact would be the gradual drying up of the many important rivers that spring to life in the high Himalaya. Many millions of people in Asia depend on these rivers for their livelihood. If the glaciers disappear so will some very important rivers.
    Meanwhile, for our expedition, the Khumbu Glacier is our home. We are camped right on it and the creaks and cracks and groans are a reminder that this vast body of ice is moving, like a great icy snake, heading ever downwards, shaping the mountains in amazing ways. 

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    The trail to Everest Base Camp is a long and hard trek. Even experienced mountaineers find it a challenge to carry an average rucksack (weighing perhaps 20kg) up and down the valley walls that separate each day’s destination. 
    A daily trek can easily be six to eight hours and the air gets thinner and thinner the higher you go. 
    Think that’s tough? Think again! It’s nothing compared to the loads that Everest porters carry. 
    These are the hard men of the Himalaya. They are mostly young (from eighteen to twenty-five), from poor villages all over Nepal. They often carry in excess of 100 kg on their backs! And some of them only weigh fifty or sixty kg themselves so they are carrying twice their own bodyweight. Imagine carrying two of your friends on your back for hour after hour after hour ... up a huge hill! 
    For each kilogram they are paid just twenty Nepali rupees for a two day trek between villages. That makes a reward of just fifteen to twenty UK pounds for two days of arduous work, often in cold and wet conditions with inadequate clothing as protection. Often they sleep on the floor in teahouses to save money. They have little access to medical care. 
    It’s back breaking work. Literally. Many of these porters end up with spinal problems and crippling joint conditions which can last a lifetime. 
    Reputable western tour operators are doing their bit to try to make things better. They subscribe to the work of organisations such as Porters Progress, The International Porter Protection Group and the Himalayan Rescue Association. 
    The problem is a deep one. Nepal is a poor country. Many uneducated young men have hardly any opportunities to earn money. Many of them reject attempts to restrict the size of their loads because it reduces their earning power. So long as wealthy trekkers and climbers come to the Everest region it seems porters will always be attracted by the work on offer. 

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    The Everest Team Witnesses Earthquake Destruction in Nepal

    Our journey began in Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, a country devastated by a terrible earthquake just one year ago. Kathmandu still has many visible scars from that catastrophic event; the central temple area of Barkhor Square is flanked with buildings in a state of collapse. 

    Outside of the city, we witnessed even greater human tragedy in a small village called Harisiddhi, just one hour from Kathmandu. We were greeted by a villager called Mohindra and taken on a walk of the village, which left us in no doubt as to the lethal effects of the earthquake. 
    ‘Five people died in this collapsed house,’ Mohindra told us sadly. In total the village had lost almost thirty people. 
    Many of the victims now live in emergency shelters of canvas and corrugated iron. Families of five or six can be cramped into a tiny living space with only the most basic amenities. Many children have been a full year off school. Others in the village of Harisiddhi have been sick as a result of disrupted water supplies.
    When we asked villagers when they thought they would be able to re-build their houses, many of them simply shook their heads. ‘They have no money for construction,’ Mohindra told us. ‘There are rumours that money and materials might be available but we don’t know when.’ 
    In another part of the village we did find some construction but only of the most basic type. Working by hand, without a single machine to mix concrete or help to dig foundations, a team of villagers were working side by side. It was a sign of hope in the midst of a terrible tragedy – an earthquake which cost many thousands of lives and which is still affecting the lives of many tens of thousands more, even as the first year anniversary comes round. 
    Yet throughout this dark chapter the people of Nepal remain positive and optimistic. Many villagers smiled as they welcomed us into their basic shelters. Earthquakes are deadly and unpredictable but they cannot squash the spirit of these wonderful people.

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