Finding the right one
Yesterday, on the summit of Fremington Edge after a glorious walk through sunlit snow, I asked Hannah to be my wife. She said yes.
We’ve been together for over six years now, but our story actually goes back almost a decade. In 2007 my life was very different. I was twenty-one years old and in my second year of a Computing Science degree at the University of East Anglia. Climbing was my obsession and I was gradually gaining more experience, increasing my grade and just starting to dip my toes into winter mountaineering. I lived in a terraced house in Norwich with several other students. I spent a lot of time arguing about winter ethics and conditions on the UKClimbing (UKC) forums.
My girlfriend at the time was a Law undergraduate called Grace. With hindsight it’s obvious how different and incompatible we were, but you don’t notice these things when you’re twenty-one. Our futures were already heading in opposite directions in 2007, and the following year they would diverge completely.
I remember one particular afternoon in summer 2007. I was sitting at the kitchen table scrolling through UKC on my laptop, reading a thread started by a forum user called Little Miss No Idea. I don’t remember what the subject was, but I do know that LMNI used to post a lot on UKC – but very rarely about climbing. I knew that she was a florist and that she lived in Lincolnshire.
‘I don’t think LMNI actually climbs at all,’ I said to Grace as I chewed on a mouthful of toast. ‘But look at all those replies! Sixty-odd already. Her threads are like catnip for the UKC masses.’
Grace moved her hand to the trackpad and clicked on LMNI’s profile. ‘She’s got a witty turn of phrase,’ Grace said. ‘Maybe I should keep my eye on this one, just in case.’
That’s the precise moment when the story of Alex and Hannah began. It’s mind-bending when I look back on it now. I can remember the sunlight streaming in through the kitchen window quite distinctly, and I had to angle my iBook away from the light so I could read the text on its dim and grainy little screen. Maybe it’s one of those fixed points in space and time – the moment when the most important person in my future life reached back through time and grabbed my attention through the unlikely medium of UKC. I can hardly believe the vast tangle of events that led from that distant day to me kneeling in the snow on the summit of Fremington Edge.
It took time before Hannah and I started to talk. By 2009 we were exchanging emails every now and again, then chatting on Facebook, but there were long pauses. I was living in Glen Coe and mountaineering consumed all of my attention. It just wasn’t the right time for us. But by late 2010 I knew I wanted to meet her, and on the 21st of August (shortly after I’d returned from a long and not entirely successful expedition to Jotunheimen) we met for the first time. Days later I jumped on a plane and headed to the Alps, bound for 3,000m peaks in the Arolla area. Hannah was surprised when I phoned from Switzerland to say I was missing her.
I returned to live in Glen Coe after my mountainous summer, but this time things were different – this time my thoughts were elsewhere. By May 2011 I had made the decision to leave Scotland. Maintaining a long-distance relationship is a challenge when visiting requires a twelve-hour journey by public transport. My mind was made up: I’d leave Glen Coe and try to move nearer to Hannah. Most of my friends were very supportive, and realised at once that my decision was the right one, but a few people warned me that I was obviously making a mistake, that no woman was worth leaving Glen Coe for, and that I’d be back.
As usual, my instinct was correct. It was the right move for me.
We’ve been living together for about five years now. You might think that a florist and a mountaineering editor/writer who regularly disappears into the hills might make an unlikely pair, but there’s a lot more to it than that. Hannah is an enthusiastic hillwalker and camper who enjoys the great outdoors just as much as I do – although my tolerance for discomfort and suffering is a bit higher. Because my lengthy solo trips have been part of our relationship from the very beginning, they are not a problem. She is remarkably understanding of the fact that I occasionally need to disappear into the wild for a week or two, especially now it qualifies as work. She misses me when I’m away, and I miss her, but over the years this has forged an even stronger bond between us.
Hannah also has a shrewd mind and is a valuable ally when I’m struggling with a story idea or turn of phrase. She has insights that I lack. Although we’re remarkably alike in many things – we can both be pretty lazy, we’re untidy, we both like reading, we have similar ideals, and our sense of humour is basically identical – she has all the common sense in our relationship. She’s also the only person who completely understands the specific blend of forces that drives me.
Although I’ve known for several years that Hannah was the one, there’s a time and a place for everything, and the right time has been elusive. In 2013 I was working at Carphone Warehouse and increasingly aware that I needed to make a big change. In 2014 Hannah’s sister got married and I was launching a new business, barely profitable at first. Last year I started a big push to kick-start my outdoor writing work and get more editorial clients on board. This year, I promised myself that if I went on my big summer stomp (originally planned for California, then Norway, then the Pyrenees), I would ask her as soon as I got back. But when I returned everything went a bit crazy for a while. My dad was diagnosed with cancer and I had a massive backlog of work to complete, having been slightly too ambitious with my scheduling. Hannah and I went into crisis mode for a couple of months.
But the opportunity came. I’d originally planned to be at Kendal this weekend for the Mountain Festival, a chance to network and finally meet quite a few colleagues and clients. Last time I’d been to Kendal, in 2014, Hannah had come with me and enjoyed it; but this year I knew that it would be a bit too much like work, and that we needed a complete break.
We booked a self-catering cottage in Reeth, a secluded little town in the northern Yorkshire Dales. I know this area well from my childhood but had not visited for many years. The plan was simple: spend a few quiet days recharging our batteries, with a little hillwalking thrown in for good measure. I took a diamond ring with me and decided to play it by ear.
One thing I’m good at is finding the decisive moment. On Thursday it rained and snowed buckets, confining us to the cottage, but on Friday the skies cleared and we made our way to the ridgeline of Fremington Edge under crisp snow cover and bursts of golden light. As soon as we topped out at the cairn, I knew the time had come. Hannah’s first word was ‘Really?!’ then ‘Yes!’.
Afterwards, we set up my camera and tripod to record a re-run of the moment. She skipped over the snow-covered rocks like a gazelle, smiling and laughing. This amazing woman can climb a snowy mountain, knows how to put up a tent, copes with my regular absences, bakes the most incredible chocolate chip cookies, and looks damn fine in a dress. What more could any man want?