It's a blog! Mainly of book reviews.
A while ago I was asked about my climbing exploits - could I write something, tell a story, explain my motivations. I can rarely think of anything to say when put on the spot like that but today I remembered what follows, which is a fictional story based on a real climbing route in North Wales. My ascent of it was not like the one in the story; I climbed second, for starters. I long since lost objectivity regarding this story; I can't tell one way or the other if it's any good or worth your time, so reader beware!
It was a Mexican stand-off between the human, the insect and gravity. Gravity seemed as impersonal as ever and utterly indifferent to the outcome, having nothing to gain or lose from any of the alternative possibilities. Claiming another victim would have no impact upon it, positive or negative. It would remain unchanged and unregarding, regardless. Human and insect could not harm it, though humans now had a long history of revised understandings of it and insects had a longer history of defying it.
The insect risked its life. It could be crushed. It could have its wings broken and succumb to Gravity. It could make a suicidal assault upon the human. It had initially been alarmed by the climber’s dark clothing. Now it had detected food on the climber’s face.
The human, nearly eighty feet vertically above the boulder-strewn turf as he was, also risked a fall. The chance of a fall being fatal was low, but the climber did not have an overly rational view of the situation. He did not want to become the principal object involved in another demonstration of the universality of gravitation. He did not want to become the victim of a suicidal black and yellow creature with a barbed needle protruding from its abdomen, either. So there was the stand-off: If he tried to move up or brush away his foe he might get stung. If he stayed where he was too long he would surely tire and fall. The persistent insect would die if it attacked. It could move away but it could smell food on the climber. It needed food. Gravity could defeat both human and insect but could not be removed from the fray by either.
The climber looked down at his feet and checked that they were securely jammed in place. They were stuffed into the crack vertically and twisted back towards the horizontal in the textbook manner. They hurt. His left foot was taking most of his weight and felt the worst. His fingers hurt, too. The crack wasn’t wide enough to get his hands all the way in, so the climber was relying on jamming the fingers of his right hand in similar fashion to his feet. His right hand was near his face and his apparent nemesis. The left hand was well above his head, curled securely over the edge of the ledge that represented relative security, rest and the chance to bring his partner up to join him.
The climber thought rapidly. How exactly did I end up in this mess? Even as the words sounded in his mind, images of the morning appeared. It had started off unportentously. Nothing indicated that an epic would ensue. This isn’t an epic; it’s an insect. The words flashed across his mind. The sun was out, the summits were free of the mist that had covered them for the preceding week. Clouds dotted the sky, indicating the position of thermals. There was no breeze. A high-pressure zone was centred directly overhead. The weather forecasters had got it right. This was a chance to get on a mountain crag. No more indoors sports routes, no more queues, no more breathing clouds of chalk dust, no more people standing on the rope. It was a chance at the real thing for the first time that year.
The climber met his partner in the car park at the foot of the mountain. It was mid morning and already steamy. Neither of them had anticipated how unseasonably hot it would become and were over dressed in long trousers and long sleeved T-shirts. They had decided to attempt a little used route on an otherwise popular stretch of rock. It was only half an hour from the road but it was half an hour of unrelieved steep uphill walking and when they reached the foot of the proposed climb neither one made any hurry to organise himself.
The leader lazed in the warm sunlight and looked down. The path they had followed contained a steady stream of walkers starting out on their trip, intent upon reaching the summit, still hours away even for the fittest and fastest of them. Most did not even look in the direction of the two climbers until the path turned a corner only a few metres away. Some said “Good morning,” and received an equally casually friendly reply. Below the path was the road. It squirmed its way through the valley, looking like it belonged elsewhere and knew it. Small car parks were dotted along its length but only the nearest was in sight of the climbers’ chosen venue. It was busy, filled with the cars that had disgorged the hikers. More cars were lining the verges on either side of the tarmac. The hills would be busy all day.
On the other side of the road was a body of water with a boathouse that was partially submerged. The far bank swept steeply up to form the heathery and steep face of the mountain opposite. A stream drained the lake and meandered, growing all the while, through the base of the old glacier formed valley, accompanied higher up by the road. There were worse views in the world. The leader chewed his way through a bar of softening, messy chocolate. His companion had stretched out on his back with his hands behind his head and his eyes closed. He did not look entirely comfortable but would not have admitted so to anybody.
The pair might have reclined all day but the arrival of four noisily chatting people, evidently intent on bagging a few routes, stirred the leader into action. He did not want anybody to start the climb he had set his mind on. He did not really care what else came out of the day’s efforts so long as this one climb was completed in good style. He had been looking at it for some time, it having first caught his attention months ago, during the worst of a frustratingly wet winter. He had been eyeing it up when he drove along the valley, reading the description he had found in the guidebook and waiting. The appeal was largely aesthetic. It was a prominent natural line on one of the valley’s most famous cliffs and not one that should stretch his limits, even this early in the season. Part of the cliff formed a V shaped depression, like an open book stood upright. At the back, where the pages would have been bound to the spine, if it had been a book, not a crag, was a crack in the rock. The climb went up the crack to a ledge, then on again still following the crack, before escaping to the top of the buttress over less steep ground.
Now was his chance. He got up and gently prodded his partner in the ribs with the toe of his boot. Ropes and gear spilled forth from rucksacks. The four newcomers moved round the corner, out of sight and sound. The pair harnessed up, racked gear, flaked rope, put on helmets and squeezed into painfully tight climbing shoes. The leader looked at his proposed climb and tried to work out what the first few moves would be, then imagined himself climbing them fluidly and without hurry. He looked for points where he might be able to place protection and clip the rope in. His second began the ritual set of climbing calls.
Nothing extraordinary. No way of knowing I was going to end up taking a dive off a cliff because of a bar of chocolate. The leader had been motionless for several minutes, getting flustered and trying not to cross his eyes while keeping the insect in sight. I’ll get anaphylactic shock, probably. Crack my skull and swell up like a balloon too. Every time the insect buzzed a little closer the climber moved his head back a little, trying to keep it in sight, then forward again as he felt his balance shifting. The insect darted away from the unexpected forward motion then took up a position near the climber’s mouth again. It showed no sign of losing interest. For the climber the situation was unchanged except for the build up of fatigue in muscles that did not like being held tensed and static. Gravity continued oblivious.
The climb had gone straightforwardly up to this point. The rock was dry, except at the very back of the crack, where slimy mud clung. It got harder as he climbed higher but since it followed the same crack all the way to the top of the first pitch at the ledge and beyond, there was no shortage of good protection. Early on he placed gear in the crack for form’s sake. He tried not to use the best hand and foot holds for his running belays and make the climb unnecessarily difficult for himself and his partner who would follow second and remove it all. Later, higher up and facing more difficult moves in order to progress, he got more nervous and started making placements almost as soon as he was above his previous runner, resulting in pieces of gear not much more than two metres apart. Even so, the difficulties were primarily psychological, it never being a problem to find reasonable holds or work out the next couple of moves. Soon enough the ledge came into view. The remaining moves looked to be the hardest of the pitch, possibly the crux of the whole climb. The leader cautiously assessed his options and decided to place one last wedge in the crack and then get on to the rest point as quickly as was feasible without being reckless.
Talk about persistence. If he moved his head from side to side, which he could not do hurriedly, the insect followed him. If I was wearing gloves I could just squish it. If I was wearing gloves I’d never have got up here. He could feel the incipient pain of lactic acid build up, particularly in his calf muscles. This can’t go on much longer. This is ridiculous. He started imagining newspaper headlines. Rational thought, though not yet departed for the duration, was dithering in the doorway of his mind, part in, part out. The heat under his helmet was making him sweat prodigiously. There was no breeze moving through the vents to cool him.
If I’m absolutely still, perhaps it will go away.
He looked down at his second. Eighty feet or eight hundred feet, it did not matter; it was too far. He could see the red helmet worn by his partner, who was looking up at him. The insect buzzed back into view. From below, he thought he heard a call. It might have been, “You all right?” The leader did not dare answer. He did not dare open his mouth. The thought of the insect in there nearly shook him off the cliff. He turned his head back to the vertical rock immediately in front of him. His doom followed. Be still. Go away.
The crack had narrowed as it got higher and was never very deep. He could only get his toes in as he moved up beyond his final runner and reached for the ledge with his left hand. It curled satisfyingly over the huge, positive, confidence inspiring hold, at the limit of his reach. Glancing down to look for a last spot to jam a foot before heaving up to the ledge, he thought he heard a fly. It buzzed close to his right ear then moved round so that it was in view between his face and the rock. It was not a fly. That was when the stand-off began, with his body stretched to painful full length.
Staying still for nearly ten minutes did not work. Sewing machine leg. I’m gonna fall. Crazy. This is crazy. The build up of fatigue in the muscles of his stretched but unmoving left leg had reached a critical point. The muscles had started to spasm, shaking the leg up and down in an uncontrolled fashion. The climber knew that if he dropped his left heel so that it was level with his toes the problem would stop immediately. I’m gonna fall. I hope that runner holds. The extra height gained by pushing up from his toes was all that allowed him to reach the ledge with his left hand. There was no way back down without falling. Ridiculous. I’m gonna end up in hospital. I’m gonna end up quadriplegic. This is embarrassing.
“What’s going on up there?” I hope you’re watching. I hope the gear’s good. I can’t hold this much longer.
A jet fighter roared up the valley, chased by another. The leader did not notice. His umwelt had shrunk. The universe consisted of ten feet of vertical rock, his black and yellow enemy and the pain and fatigue of his body. Just let go. It doesn’t matter. Just let go. The fall will be easier to control if it’s deliberate. Just let go. Details from biology lessons came back to him. Head, thorax, abdomen. Two antennae, six legs, four wings, one stinger. He gulped. The stinger keeps pumping venom until it is removed. Think about something else. Eyes. Huge, bulging, faceted eyes. Not really. Each eye facet is only one cell deep. The brain is right behind them. A huge, bulging brain. Not huge – tiny. Mad. This is mad. This isn’t happening. Yes it is. Get a grip. More likely to lose it. Bad jokes and I might die. Gallows humour. After all, I’m strung up already.
The insect drifted out of sight and he felt a tickling sensation on his right cheek. His body tensed maximally, even muscles not involved in holding his position on the cliff. Just hold still. It’ll be okay. It’ll go away.
His body ceased listening to his conscious mind. He released his left foot and left it dangling. His right hand went for the ledge at the same time, in an enormous, flailing slap. His right foot almost came loose as his balance shifted but he was able to push up on it. He was propelled upward powerfully so that his head popped up above the ledge, which was even smaller than he had judged from the ground. Quickly, as if stopping would mean disaster, he swivelled his hands round so that the heels were on the edge of the ledge, rather than the fingers, and he heaved up so that his elbows locked. He strained his right foot up on to the ledge and hurriedly shoved himself up. Momentarily he thought he was going to tip backwards as the rope from below tightened. It slackened again instantly and he got his exhausted left leg in front of him, almost falling forward instead. The vertical rock at the back of the ledge stopped him. Once balanced, he froze, remembering what had triggered his convulsive, panicked completion of the pitch. For a moment he imagined the feel of tiny feet on his skin, then realized he was spooking himself. With exaggerated caution he lifted his hands to his face and felt for the insect, expecting a flash of pain, filling his lungs in anticipation of a hoarse scream. He found nothing except his helmet straps. He glanced around. Nothing. Nothing black and yellow, at least. He spat in his hand and hastily rubbed at his mouth. He wiped his hand on his trousers and only then noticed that he was shaking and breathing as if he had just finished a sprint. The insect buzzed up to him and flicked about as if confused. The food had gone. There was no point being here any longer. It had to find food. It veered away and was gone. The stand-off was over. The climber was victorious.
Muscles across his body started randomly contracting, making him tremble violently as he started to anchor himself to the rock. It took a long time, as much because he could not focus his mind as because he could barely control his body. Eventually the job was done.
The leader attempted to call, “Safe” but only a croak came out. He ran his tongue round his mouth and tried again. The ritual of calls and actions was performed and he pulled the slack rope up to the ledge with very tired arms. More calls, more fiddling and his partner was on his way to join him. Breathing had calmed. Excess adrenaline had drained away, leaving behind detritus; muscle aches and lassitude. The sunlight seemed no longer to warm him. He belayed the rope in and suddenly his partner was heaving himself and squeezing himself onto the remaining space on the ledge.
“What was that all about at the crux?”
“Nothing. Just a bee. You’re leading the next pitch.”