Tuesday, December 30, 2003

“Because it’s there” 

Those famous words were of course Mallory’s response to a journalist’s question asking him why he was planning to climb Everest. I’ve heard it said that Mallory wasn’t expressing the need to fulfil some deep mystical urge; it was simply an exasperated response meaning “If you have to ask the question, you wouldn’t understand the answer”.

Mallory began his climbing in the mountains of North Wales. Some of the routes he pioneered, although technically not difficult by today’s standards, remain serious, committing routes not to be undertaken lightly. There’s an anecdote I read in a climbing magazine a while back that illustrates this beautifully: A party were climbing on Lliwedd; one of Mallory’s original routes. At nearly one thousand feet of rock face, it is a full day’s climb for an experienced party, and that’s if you don’t lose time by straying off route. The group had been away all day and were long overdue for return, so their friends judged it time to call out mountain rescue. When they arrived at the foot of the face and called out to the stranded climbers, half a dozen torches flashed in response – several groups, all marooned, but sheltering safely for the night half way up the rock face.

I’ve not yet climbed on Lliwedd – too serious an undertaking for me until I can notch up a little more experience on long multi-pitch routes. Maybe next year…

I know of no way better than climbing to dismiss all extraneous thoughts and anxieties; concerns about the past, fears for the future. Climbing demands total focus on the present; on the rock nine inches from your face, on the balance and power of your body, on the precise placements of gear to protect you in the event of a fall. I’ve never been very good at meditation; I find it so difficult to empty my mind of its clutter, but climbing is a superbly effective way of displacing all that internal chatter and replacing it with just a few powerful essentials for survival; essentials that expand to fill all consciousness.

You climb with your eyes just as much as with hands and feet – or fingers and toes – examining the rock, searching out its most intimate structures; a depression here giving just enough purchase for a toe; a pocket there big enough for two fingertips. Always seeking out the route – the sequence of holds and moves that can be joined together to create a vertical pathway to the top. The experience can be intense – all sense of time and place recedes in the face of the overwhelming need to find a solution. Just me and the rock and total focus on it; the roughness of its surface or the polish caused by the passage of previous climbers over the decades; the precise form of the constriction in a crack – will it securely hold a nut wedged in place for protection?; the micro-shape of a finger hold, finding just the right position of the fingertips for maximum grip; the loss of friction caused by dampness as it starts to rain.

Climbers soon develop a capacity for immense trust – you are quite literally placing your life in the hands of your partner at the other end of the rope. Sometimes that will be a close friend; usually in my case it will be one of my sons; sometimes though it will be a complete stranger. Unless you’re soloing (climbing on your own with no rope) you need a partner and it’s not unusual for people to meet up via the internet or via mutual friends and climb together having never previously met. That’s one of the delights of climbing – knowing that in spite of huge differences there is one vital thing at the core of your being that climbers share.

You learn to trust yourself as well. Like a Formula 1 racing driver who wins only by driving constantly on the very edge of his ability, so a climber is forever pushing the limits, never relaxed, nearly-but-not-quite losing adhesion or grip or balance or all three. Mind is stretched as well as body; climbers often refer to the mind games of keeping control when a corner of your mind is screaming out that now would be a good time to panic.

The one abiding memory I have of the first route that I led is a sense of the rightness of it all; of belonging. Every time before that I’d been second on the rope – following the leader, secure in the knowledge that if I fell, it would only be a gentle slip of a few feet, just enough to take up the stretch in the rope. This time though it was me out in front – I’d never been there before, but it felt right, a place that I was meant to be. That feeling has never gone – not for long, anyway. Going to the crags or the hills always feels like coming home. Yes, there have been occasional moments half way up a crag, several feet above the last piece of dodgy gear, no likely placement for protection in sight, no easy way up, down or sideways; muscles trembling, mind games at their most intense; times when Mallory’s words are forgotten and one overwhelming question fills my mind: “Why am I here?”

But for the rest of the time, everything about climbing feels right; feels perfect; feels that this is the way it should be. Smiling at the unmistakable chink of protection knocking against rock as it dangles from my harness echoing from the rock; delight at employing rarely-used muscles in the gymnastics of the vertical; laughing even at the pain of bare toes scrunched into tight-fitting rock shoes; revelling in the criticality of the ropework and belays.

Leaving the ground is like jumping into a swimming pool. There is a moment’s disorientation as one form of security vanishes and is replaced by another. Or like a plane at take-off, supported on the ground by wheels but in the air by wings, I am supported on the ground by two robust feet and legs, but on the rock by a delicate balance of fingers and toes, and a body permanently in tension.

Reaching the top is almost an anticlimax. Now the climbing is over; the top is incidental to the climb itself. Now it is the turn of my partner, waiting patiently at the bottom, shivering in the wind as he feeds out rope whilst I ascend. Now it’s my turn to shiver, the warming exertion of climbing replaced by enforced fixity of position as I’m held from behind by belays back to the rock, and held in front by the rope descending taught to my partner.

It’s been quite cathartic writing this. I was feeling a little cross with myself for having allowed circumstance to prevent me from joining Euan yesterday. But going back over past memories whilst I sit and watch the rain outside has been good. Perhaps some of that climbing focus has displaced those negative feelings. I’ve often felt that climbing is a superb whole-person exercise – stimulating and testing body, mind and spirit. Even just thinking about it, reliving the experiences, regenerates the benefits of that focus.

Mind games…

[Note to self - must learn to write more compact posts...]

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