I remember chatting with my sister back in November 2015, probably sitting at my mum's kitchen table. Nik and I were about to go off travelling for 3 months in Colombia and Peru. We had been together for just over a year back then and were embarking on our first big trip together. Half joking, my sister said something about who she would be really angry if Nikolai proposed at the top of some mountain in the middle of nowhere where we would have no reception to be able to call her and let her know. I laughed it off and didn't really think about it again.
So, it's fitting that at the top of a mountain in the middle of nowhere in France Nik got down on one knee and popped the question. It's almost like the passing remark my sister made 18 months ago foreshadowed this life changing moment.
I feel like mountains are such a central symbol in our relationship.
When Nik went to India and Nepal he hiked the Annapurna Circuit in the Himalayas. I was at home frantically trying to finish my degree and write my dissertation. We were miles apart in both physical and mental circumstance. I was sitting in my house not seeing or speaking to anyone for days on end surrounded by my books, buried in my thoughts. Whilst Nik was hiking (at times alone) through crazy beautiful mountains. Most days Nik would check in from wherever he was laying his head for the night and send photos or show me the view of the most magnificent mountains, but also tell me about his homesickness, feeling alone, and how his body was tired and sore from pushing it too hard.
We were both facing challenging and overwhelming emotional and physical hurdles. Being so far away and at times so alone in our own struggle was really bloody hard. But in the end, the distance also made our relationship stronger, it helped us build trust and have empathy for each other.
Then, last year, whilst we were hiking in the Andes together Nikolai gently and lovingly encouraged me through the hardest, most physically and emotionally challenging thing I've ever done.
I’ll never forget the first day of the hike, we set off onto the trail full of expectation and anticipation. I had never done anything like this before so I was thankful to be in good company with Nik and three friends, two of whom were pretty much professional adventurers. But, the first day brought with it a pretty quick reality check, I knew I wasn’t going to find it easy but I had no idea how hard the altitude would hit me, and then, of course, I slipped on some rocks, injured my toe and my boots started rubbing. After hours of hiking, we made it to camp and it started chucking it down. We hurriedly set up camp only to find our hired tent had numerous broken zips making it little more than a draughty plastic bag for 3 of us to sleep in. Not the best way to start.
That first night we were all exhausted, in pain and hungry but the thing I remember most is how Nikolai went out in the pouring rain to fetch water from the river and get the pot on to boil while all I could do is curl up in the tent trying to warm up. I'm pretty sure the meal he made us that night was most amazing pasta and veg sauce with garlic bread ever cooked on one dodgy camping stove!
On the second day, about ten meters from where we had packed down camp, I stopped and broke down crying. I just couldn't fathom 5 more days of hiking like the day before meanwhile, Nik was hurrying off like the mountains were his natural habitat unaffected by the high altitude (we all decided his spirit animal is a mountain goat as a result). For most of the five days, I whinged and whined and felt frustrated that the altitude was killing me whilst not bothering Nik at all.
I have never felt more broken than I did on that hike and I felt like the worst version of myself. I’m sure Nikolai was deeply frustrated at times, but I hardly saw it, instead whilst I felt weak and afraid, Nik told me I was strong and brave. He could have walked ahead and left me behind but instead, he took my backpack and slowed right down to my pace gently nudging me along, cracking jokes with me, stopping when I needed to rest and hugging me when all I could do was cry because I was struggling to catch my breath in the thin mountain air.
The hike was tough, but it wasn't all bad. When the mountains broke through the thick rain clouds we found ourselves walking through scenes that could easily be found on the front of National Geographic. We sat eating our dinner awestricken by the glaciers surrounding us. We worked really hard to see and experience things that most people only dream of.
When we had finished the hike, I had been pushed right to the edge of my physical and mental capacity. I had been well and truly in 'the stretch', that place where you learn the most about yourself. At the end (after having to push our bus out of a small landslide) we were sat on the last leg of the journey back to Huaraz and I distinctly remember feeling so exhausted, dirty and gross but deeply proud and so grateful for this amazing man who swallowed his frustration and with great empathy showed me what love looks like on my absolute worst days.
All this to say, we have a history with mountains.
For us, mountains hold stories, strength, struggles and dreams. Mountains have separated us and brought us closer than we’ve ever been. We have been pushed and tested and made stronger.
So, it really is no surprise that on this trip to the Pyrenees we wanted to fit in some hiking.
After rising early in the morning and catching a beautiful sunrise from the balcony of our Airbnb, we drove to pick Jason up from the airport and drove a few hours south to Aulus Les Bains where the trailhead to Cascade d’Ars lies.
We started off on the picturesque trail, as we walked higher into the mountains the path underfoot gradually turned to melting snow. Being my mother’s daughter I became anxious (and grumpy) because the sight of melting snow could only mean AVALANCHE. As we hiked the path grew steeper and narrower, whilst I got grumpier, and I’m sure Nikolai got more nervous.
At the top, we were met by spectacular views of the waterfall and snowcapped mountains whilst we were surrounded by crisp white snow with the tops of coniferous trees sticking out.
I'm standing there snapping some photos, thinking these will be great for Instagram (I know, I'm that person) whilst Jason, Simeon and Laura casually made themselves scarce. Then, Nikolai, rummaging in his bag, got down one knee and I’m there blissfully unaware. He produced from his bag a beautiful ring and asked me to marry him. I was so surprised, I thought he was joking at first, and then it sunk in and was overjoyed and overwhelmed. It was emotional. I cried, of course.
I don’t think I can fully express how it felt. I’ve tried writing it down but I’m not skilled enough a writer to put it into words that make sense of it all.
It was both magical and really awkward because we're both really awkward. So, we're there making really ridiculously excited giddy faces at each other, and the ring won't fit me because my hand is all swollen from being at a higher altitude and we keep falling over in the snow and Jason and Simeon are trying to take photos to capture the moment. It was very classic us!
The story doesn’t end quite there though. After our little engagement photo shoot, (thanks Jason and Simeon), we walked back to the car all giddy and excited, had a little snow ball fight along the way. The five of us got in the car and got ready for our drive back to the house and we thought 'hey let's take the scenic route home'. About half way along this long, dark, winding mountain road we took a corner and drove straight into the aftermath of a small avalanche. And there we were, newly engaged and stranded on the snow covering the road. It was now pitch dark and the wind was picking up promising a full-on storm would hit any moment and we’re stranded on this dark mountain road!
We all went from giddy excitement to super-efficient, we-need-to-get-the-hell-out-of-here mode very quickly! We started pushing the car to no avail. Then, we dug snow from under the car with our bare hands and we prayed no trees would come tumbling down on top of us. Eventually, we gathered nearby fallen branches and dug them into the snow creating enough traction for the car to get out.
After what felt like a long time, Simeon managed to reverse the car out without sliding off the edge of the mountain road and we were free of the snow and driving back home. Of course, five minutes from the house we see a sign saying the scenic road was closed due to snowfall.
Still, we got home with stories to tell and we lived to tell our engagement story!
If you made it to the end of this post thank you for reading! I wrote a more informative less gratuitous post about the holiday we took a few weeks ago. Check it out if you want links to the Airbnb and other things we did on our trip.
*photos in this post are a mix of mine and Nikolai's and our engagement photos were taken by our lovely friends Jason and Simeon.