The shortest day of the year. We perch on the saddle of a promontory jutting west out of Anglesey into the Celtic Sea and look down into Wen Zawn – the white inlet. It seethes, the waves lift slow and bulky and burst suddenly, propelled by a force-8 gale. Rain hits our anoraks like grapeshot, pelmets of fog lour and droop on South Stack lighthouse, the airstream throws us off-balance and makes breathing difficult if you face into the wind. Across the rocking water is our goal – what was our goal as we planned at home over roast chicken and red wine: the crag of quartzite that armours Wales at this point, three hundred feet high, seamed with cracks. Ed Drummond found the first way up it 17 years ago and gave his line the most beautiful of rock names, A Dream of White Horses. For seven months we’ve been exchanging poems between his home in San Francisco and mine in Cumbria. Now we’re here to pluck his route from the teeth of winter but it seems madly unfeasible. I couldn’t live in that maelstrom. A thread of waterfall near the start of the route is blowing sideways and upwards. Ed looks and looks, saying little. Then: ‘If you don’t mind, I think we’ll leave it. It doesn’t look good. In these conditions.’ Pause. I say: ‘I’m glad you’ve said that. Because it looks terrible to me. I’m glad you didn’t feel you had to decide for it, for my sake.’
‘Let’s walk round and down the slope to the notch on the arete, and have a good look at the whole of the zawn.’
The nearer we creep to the sea, the less drastic is the wind, away from the focused up-draught.
‘Will you belay me?’ says Ed. ‘And I’ll have a look’ – now using ‘look’, apparently, in the Scottish climbers’ sense of ‘go and climb it although it’s clearly impossible.’ Why am I not terrified? Because there’s still a stage or two of non-commitment before I have to step into the vortex? Ed climbs unhesitatingly down a groove, tiptoes out along a tapering ledge, fixes a metal protection nut in a crack, and manoeuvres onto the wall, through the cascade, into the grey, fleeing world of spindrift and squall. Even the wintry twilight (at 11 in the morning) feels to be against us, subduing life. I chill and qualm as Ed places his left toe-tip on an invisible feature, poises with fingerends on other invisibilities, and clings with his right foot frictioning. Seconds tick. Nimble foot-change, then a mantis’s or gekko’s locomotion left and upwards. Can I do that? I can’t do that. But we’re inside the experience now, the huge looming and sucking fear has moved beyond the rim of vision, the climb is happening, it’s controlling me, its practical demands locking onto me, supplanting emotion.
After ten minutes’ enthralled spectating as this modern rock-master moves at his ease up and down the first big crack, holding onto the rope with one hand, establishing a hanging belay where he roosts like a large orange bird, I untie from my anchor and clamber down the groove. It should feel like lowering into a bottomless ocean but no, all is possible, at our command. Ed’s total competence flows along the rope. His smile of steady geniality, just visible, shows through the on-ding like a lantern. Under his guava-pink balaclava he looks like Punch – like an Andean shepherd steering his flock through a clouded pass – like the Pied Piper playing us into the hillside: contradictory symbols have begun to form.
Commitment time. From now on each perch will be precarious, spreadeagled; retreat from the razor-edge no easier than what lies ahead. As I cling to take a runner off, my fingers chill down towards the zone of incapacity, strength ebbs, command wavers. But a cat’s cradle of manageability has been woven along the cliff. At the crux I shout into the wind, ‘Looks difficult,’ and Ed shouts back: ‘Good little ledge level with your hip.’ Well remembered – there it is – a rung of possibility in the midst of nothingness. I press more blood out of my congealing fingerends, bracheate to the slim vantage-point (4 inches by l¼), and try to will the next stage. I don’t want to move, to take my left foot off terra firma and trust my compulsively curling fingers yet again. I must. I pull up a foot or two, lock my arms bent at right angles, shimmy my feet, and it’s happening – I’m in balance – the abyss of nothing, of non-possibility, has firmed over and turned material. I reach for a protruding rim of quartz, it’s rough below its film of wet, in ten seconds more I’m stretching for the karabiner on the soaked yellow sling that hangs from a fang of rock below Ed’s feet. I clip on, plant my feet, lean backwards at my ease, and chat happily on the flush of adrenalin.
As the wind poured its moisture and the winter day gloomed darker and darker, Ed decided against finishing the route by the overhangs, where the climbing is less hard but a slip would leave you hanging above an implacable sea-cave. We climbed homewards up Wen crack, a near-vertical ladder of black holds as convenient as an old-fashioned route in the Dolomites. On the ledge which was now our goal, huge tumps of sea-thrift bulbed out like green brains. As Ed’s silhouette merged with the silhouette of one tump, I saw it as a thought absorbed back into a mind. When I told him this fifteen minutes later, he laughed and said: ‘Oh no! I hoped they were breasts, and I was suckling up to them!’ As he led up the final rearing shield, these images started to grow and many phrases and lines of poetry were drafted before I pulled up over the last high step.
That degree of consciousness seems natural in climbing because so much time on the rock-face is necessarily still – contemplative. In extreme cases a discipline like meditation can even be necessary for survival. One rock-master of the Seventies, Pat Littlejohn, has been described, at extreme points where he feels near his limit, as ‘staring fixedly at the piece of rock in front of him’ in ‘an eerie, fascinating aura of quietude’ for ten to fifteen minutes (Jim Perrin in Climber and Rambler, March 1982). Equally, if you’re a climbing writer, you’re hard up against, almost inside, your subject, it’s inches from your nose and eyes. Behind your eyes, behind your front (the word still has for me the Latin connotation of ‘forehead’), your mind teems, with physical perceptions, often of tiny things (a pellet of fur and bone hawked up by a peregrine, stuck to a crystal; rust weeping from the stub of a piton hammered in by the first person to tread this way thirty years before), and with self-images. On a climb that frightens me my self feels to myself like an overheated cave; doubts of my adequacy flicker and dart like a maddened bat; not until this uncontrollable soot-black monster deigns to retreat into the deepest shadow and pretend to fold its wings in sleep can I muster my fingers, toes and forearms, my balance and my daring, and apply this mixed bag of faculties to the struggle against gravity.
Are such things felt at all by the ‘hard men’, as leading climbers are called in this golden age of machismo? On television climbs they’re as studiously monosyllabic as subalterns from the heyday of Empire and the stiff upper lip. Their humour is typified by the famous one-liners of Don Whillans, the great climber who died last month – on the Eiger, for example, ‘Somebody’s left a boot here’ drew the response: ‘Look and see if there’s a foot in it.’ But in 1976 I saw Ron Fawcett, rock-master since the middle Seventies, on the second ascent of Footless Crow in Borrowdale, then the hardest climb in the Lake District – 190 feet of overhanging rock without a resting-place. When his second called up, ‘What’s it like?’ he answered, ‘An ’orrendous place – Ah’m scared out of me wits,’ as he leaned way back on his fingertips, relaxing as comfortably as a sloth under a branch.
Some climbers use music from Walkmans or transistors because the rhythm steadies them as they climb near their limits: it gives them something to focus on, a means of earthing their rational fears and their neuroses. And in Mountain for July/August 1978 there is a photo of one American climber reading the Bhagavad-Ghita to another on a granite face in New Hampshire. Each one of us has a threshold beyond which we feel our selves will implode, crushed by the sense that the thing is too much, that it is beyond us (beyond our fingerends, beyond our belief in ourselves). Physically I was able to climb through the maelstrom of that winter day on Anglesey, mentally I was dependent on Ed Drummond’s rational knowledge that the thing could be done, and I know that this dependence (the cause of my limit being where it is) is rooted in my upbringing – my father’s fear of the injuries that my daring and love of wilderness might bring down on me. Whenever parents say to their offspring, ‘Be careful,’ instead of leaving them to discover for themselves that an edge or a drop or a depth is dangerous and must be explored with care, they cut at the off-springs’ sense of balance, their self-reliance, their ability to estimate risk rationally. It is analogous to leucotomy or amputation. The mental tendons, the driving-belts between mind and limb, are threatened with severance, the person starts to look elsewhere than in himself for the faculties that will enable him to survive. So, on the hardest rock that I can climb physically, I need a leader – usually, so far, my eldest and youngest sons, whose mental tendons I have tried (and apparently managed) not to sever.
I offer this not as a sad case – I climb many thousands of feet of rock each year and lead climbs to a quite hard standard – but as an example of how fully climbing engages our whole complex selves. So it’s natural that intense awareness and a habit of self-expression have been common in the history of the sport. Robert Graves climbed difficult routes in Snowdonia with Mallory just before the Great War and was told by Geoffrey Winthrop Young that he had ‘the finest natural balance’ he had ever seen in a climber. At the height of his enthusiasm he wrote that climbing ‘made all other sports seem trivial’, and in Goodbye to All That he records a fine physical image of the well-being that springs from it: ‘I remember wondering at my body – the worn fingernails, the bruised knees, and the lump of climbing muscle that had begun to bunch above the arch of the foot, seeing it as beautiful in relation to this new purpose.’ I.A. Richards loved to climb with his wife Dorothy Pilley and both wrote eloquently about it: in a Borrowdale climbing hut the other day I found the handwritten note of what may have been their last mountain walk in England, in the same logbook as my eldest son’s record of some of his first hard routes.
This long tradition (it starts with Coleridge’s tense letter describing his downclimbing of Broad Stand on Scafell in 1801) flourishes now as much as ever. Jim Perrin, one of our most intelligent writers on the outdoors, has been a leading explorer of the tortuous sea-cliffs at the south-west extremity of Wales. Steeped in literature (with a PhD in 17th-century biography), he has named some of his routes after classic works (Heart of Darkness, Second Coming, Strait Gate), as has Pat Littlejohn, a former teacher of English (Desolation Row at Bosigran near Land’s End, Crow in Cheddar Gorge), and Littlejohn also made up the inspired Joycean name Darkinbad the Brightdayler for his fearsome route up the sombre expanse of Pentire Head in North Cornwall. Now Perrin has used his scholarship to write an exceptionally wise biography called Menlove – the life of John Menlove Edwards, one of the strongest and boldest climbers between the wars and the chief explorer of the cliffs round Llanberis and the Ogwen valley in Snowdonia.
Edwards was a psychiatrist in Liverpool, noted for his success with difficult psychosomatic cases. His poems struggle to express what sometimes amounts to a metaphysic of inanimate rock in relation to sentient humanity. Perrin’s subtle analyses manage to treat such passages as biographical evidence (e.g. his noting of Edwards’s use of ‘valley’ as an erotic symbol) without any relaxing of his critical judgment. His biographer’s appraisal is focused as exactly on many passages of formidable Welsh cliff (‘passage’ was in fact the old word for what climbers now call a ‘pitch’ or section of a route), like the Devil’s Kitchen, which obsessed Edwards: ‘Whether or not he saw in these buttresses and damp grooves ... built of fissile rock and unregenerate grass in equal measure and vying in their states of decay, an objective correlative to his own condition of mind, we cannot know. Did he equate their rottenness with his own feelings of guilt about his homosexuality?’ So this study in climbing history, to be complete, must find its way into the depths of a person – one whose own climbing writings used creative means. In an article for a club journal in 1937, for example, Edwards wrote:
The arms of the sun, as if driven into quick motion, lifted their beams clear of the earth, and the particles of their warmth, despairing, concentrated their last effort in a soft rose light along the western aspect of the strip of cloud. Down on the rocks a squat yew tree, clinging to the face, shivered and drew itself up. The shadows came together and lay cramped stiffly over it.
We turned our backs finally to the hills and began to chatter: setting about to make our minds easy. But behind us, fighting their slow wars, the forces of nature also shifted steadily on.
For such a writer it is natural to perceive nature as a being, a presence. Wordsworth’s crucial passages – ‘a motion and a spirit that impels/All thinking things, all objects of all thought’, ‘a huge peak, black and huge,/As if with voluntary power instinct,/Upreared its head,’ ‘Black drizzling crags that spake by the wayside/As if a voice were in them’ – were palpably still potent in the Thirties and the Forties for writers at home in Britain’s wilder uplands, as they are for me to this day.
The sub-culture has changed. I like my cliffs to rise out of lonely valleys, whether pastoral or trackless. The new climbers are at least as happy on faces that overhang motor-roads, quarries, transport yards, and they specialise in sustained angles beyond the vertical, manoeuvring by sequences of mini-holds invisible from ground level. The style for such experience is often more aware of self than of the rock, fraught with instantaneousness, the verbs violent, the syntax fragmented into verbless phrases or streams of short principal clauses separated by commas, and the tense is often the present – vividly present and extremely tense:
Soon, there is a brain whisper, all jumbled like bearings scattered off a shop table. ‘Do. Go. Wrong foot, but do. Why have ...?’ The whispering is me but not me. It is like a possession. ‘Just do. Fall up. Something. Try that. Do. Do.’ Outside myself, I watch a foot near my shoulder. I’m catapulting over little sections, prying and foaming, a little crying sound bubbling out. ‘Lovely horrible. Lovely horrible.’ It’s a veritable ricochet of thought bits, not passion, not tactic, but a precious drop of madness. ‘It goes. Lovely horrible goes. Bitch! Sweet bitch! Foot flake. Nail hold. Enough. Go! There!’ Finally, there is a platform for most of my foot. With rest, the fire fades and logic returns.
Such writing (by Tom Higgins in the San Francisco magazine Ascent for 1976) is more American than European, it draws deeply on the drug/pop culture of the past two decades and specifically on the New Journalism that reported the trips of people like Andy Warhol and the Merry Pranksters by letting them invade the prose rather than drawing back to explain or judge.
This was a culture of heightened, even deranged perception, of pushing well beyond the limits usually deemed sane or civilised, with the help of heavy music and potent chemicals. When an Australian climber writes his account of a seven-day siege of Pacific Ocean Wall on E1 Capitan in the Yosemite valley (in Mountain for May/June 1978), his prose climbs jaggedly like a fever-chart from peak to peak, congested with specialist terms and images of excruciation:
A race against time: it’s only a matter of moments before my brainweight pulls the teetering rurp [a kind of piton] that holds the memory together and unzips the entire string of flimsy aids from the present, the whole recollection of the climb falling into oblivion. Like so much suds sucked down the sink ... I am nodding off into a belay dream when Eric zips a few copperheads down to a bolt at the start of the pitch, jarring me back to reality. Back up there he welds those ‘mothers’ with a vengeance and makes progress on nested pins. Again I am awoken by pain-ridden screams ...
A few lines later, the climbers’ use of drugs shows through in a moment’s zany comedy:
Kim reaches us and suddenly has the grim realisation that he has forgotten our vital life support and mellowing-out formula – the grass. Darryl begins to foam at the mouth and I have to beat him over the head to stop him from chewing through Kim’s rope.
Even where drugs are unused, or unmentioned, we can see how the experience of living for hours, often days, at the vertical or beyond it, flushed by maximum secretions of adrenalin (and we can become addicted to our own adrenalin), forces the imagination to screen so many signals at once that only the Modernist prose of the cinema age can re-enact such moments.
The more conscious climbing writers know very well how modern, how momentaneous and high-strung, their experience is: it shows in their readiness to use the language of ego and subconscious, masochism and schizophrenia, and explicitly in an observation such as the following (anthologised by Perrin in Mirrors in the Cliffs, 1983) whose title, ‘Coast to Coast on the Granite Slasher’, epitomises the culture of speed in both its senses:
A hyperkinetic hotshot from the Bay Area named Zacher talked me into a free repeat of the West Face of El Cap. He talked so fast I had no chance to refuse.
That’s the parking lot though, a market place for partners, gear, and simple amusements. People you hardly know will ask you to launch off on all manner of routes. All manner of people too. Sometimes the walls will echo to the screaming matches of teams in the throes of divorce.
The motives that impel us to take it to the limit (the name of a recent Extreme climb in Far Easedale) lie in our depths, but they seem to me not mysterious. Certainly we can get well beyond Mallory’s consciously off-hand ‘Because it’s there’, or Menlove Edwards’s laceratingly self-critical ‘symptoms of some psyclioneurotic disorder’. Michael Roberts, a notable literary editor in the Thirties, reviewing ‘The Poetry and Humour of Mountaineering’ in the Alpine Journal for 1941, opined that the risking and gruelling of oneself on climbs were good because ‘they show superiority to all mere utilitarian values: they show an excess and overflow which is really a gesture of confidence and vitality.’ These days such positives tend to be entertained with an ironic or problematic twist, as when Ed Drummond adds capital letters to them in his classic essay ‘Mirror Mirror’ about an agonising epic on a huge Norwegian wall, ‘To climb is to know the universe is All Right’, or the Cumbrian climber Neil Allinson writes in Hard Rock (1975) that we climb ‘to play at life’s brinkmanship ... to live like a searchlight of survival searing through the total darkness of failure’.
For myself, when I climb, I’m getting back as nearly as possible into the elemental immersion I left at birth. The hand sinks sideways into a dark crack, the toes take the shape of the rock, the nose smells moist fibres inches away as the fingernails delve into an earthy crevice, the spine plants itself against a bulge, the eyes pick out the shadow cast by a crystal, the arms embrace a burnished yew trunk, the eardrums vibrate to the hoarse hissing of jackdaw chicks three feet inside the rock ... During one of my first hard climbs, on White Ghyll in Langdale, I had a sense of myself cladding the rock as intimately as the clay applied to a sculpture to make a mould, and this came out seven years later in a poem that ends:
It moulded him. He was its casting.
His clay was kneaded to its bas-relief.
His brain infolded, mimicking its strata.
And when he called, and the echo heard his note,
It parodied his language.
Such experience is whole, it is inseparably physical and mental –
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 ...
– and this wholeness of the experience enables it to be a paradigm for all that we know. The impossible is that gritstone prow my arms will never haul my body over, the unknown is the foothold waiting round the blind arete in heavy cloud, space is the void between your heels and the backs of pigeons skimming the larchtops a hundred feet below, effort is the squirming of muscles round your nose and upper lip as you strive to get your weight above your hands, imagination is conceiving of the will it must take to leave that half-inch flake top when the next hold is smaller, more sloping, and the angle is still 100° ... Being alive is when the organic mix that is you remains together, remains itself, in the pressure-chamber of Wen Zawn on the shortest day of the year.