A dirty little secret

A cool summers afternoon tempts us out. Tuesday at work proves unsatisfying, but as we drive home towards Sheffield a low light illuminates the eastern edges, and alters our course. No time to go home, stone and a sweet Yorkshire nectar are calling. We park at the fox house and walk giddily into Burbage south, pads on our backs, nursing a strong desire to familiarise ourselves with an old friend. We find some shade and rock that isn’t too hot, but our timing is off and we swim through clouds of ants. Soon swarms of midges join them and we retreat, tails between our legs – the nectar awaits.We drink, and he leaves me at the fox house. She’s coming to meet me later, I’ve some time to kill. A love has been rekindled, and determined to find solace from the insects I wander downhill, until I find myself in the smaller of two quarries. A pool lies motionless beneath the walls, and the woods shelter me from the noise of the road. To my great surprise there are neither insects nor people, and so with a smile I sit down, boot up, and prepare for a vertical self interrogation.

There is little to be found. Silence is the dominating force within me today, and I climb up and down without so much as a thought. I’ve entered a rare and beautiful place, where actions are pulled forwards by something, rather than driven forwards by ones own will. I am entering, not exiting.

I continue, gradually becoming more daring, though not by will so much as chance, until I find myself traversing, the pool inches from my feet. A long standing romance tempts me on. I throw a heel hook up and rock onto a small ledge, where I pause and look up. More edges lead to blankness, and from beyond that blankness, thrill beckons. I move up; remembering, feeling, seeing with fingers and toes. I reach a break and without stopping swap my right hand to an undercut position. My left holds the side pull whilst I place my left foot by my right hand, and prepare to commit. Rocking up, my right hand automatically inverts and reaches a thumb sprag. My right foot matches my left in order to flag and match my hands, now on double thumbs, before leaning rightwards to get the crimps. Only now I pause, totally committed, and enjoy the sound of my heart beating – the only noise. I look down and search my reflection in the pool for some meaning. Finding none, I look up and continue, connecting crimps until I can stand in balance again. Like the last time, the crux of Suspense feels harder than anything lower down, and without a rope the consequences of an adrenaline fuelled slip weigh in hard. I pull on through though, and sit on the top in raptures, my heart trying to escape through my mouth.

“Did that really just happen?”

The following evening I fight a desire to return to the scene of the crime, and go plastic pulling at the works. I find some friends there, but keep my secret well hidden, unsure of the reaction I’d receive. They’d be worried perhaps, and ego played no part in my actions, so I say nothing. Besides, my dirty little secret provides me with a pleasurable giddiness which might be broken if I spoke of it. I sleep soundly that evening, and wake the next day still deep in the trance I’d entered two days previously.

Work passes quickly and before I know it I’m heading towards the quarries again. This time I head to the larger, electing to climb the usual circuit, just some classic HVS’s. It starts that way, but before long I find myself staring up at an arête, memories swirling deep within. I don’t consider that I might fall, nor that I might succeed – I just climb, enjoying the moves, breathing in the exposure. From the rest below the crux I look rightwards into the corner, seeing clean crimps where grimness usually lies. Within the hour I’m embroiled there also, climbing on sight without the peg; enjoying, enthralled, excited.

Reaching the top I move rightwards, not wanting to exit the same way as last time, and choose the route of greater consequence. I climbed it a month ago behind a gibbering Lancastrian, and found it hard, though it’s difficulty only drags me on. Soon I’m committed to a small ledge, the crux well solved beneath me, a blank and edgeless arête above. I breath deeply and prepare myself for the precariousness, but something is wrong. I look down and laugh to myself, a technique I’ve developed to combat fear – the floor is distant. “If you fall here it’s over for you.” I place my foot on a smear and move up, but as I bring my right hand to the arête it slips on the smooth sunned rock, and for an instant I resign myself to fate. But during those split seconds the animal has taken over, and he won’t be beaten now. With a strength and determination usually reserved for far safer situations I slip and slap upwards, reaching the top without a good feeling other than gratefulness at having survived. The trance is over, reality has returned with a harsh slap in the face, and all the good feelings of the week’s endeavours are replaced with a deep turmoil. What do I think I’m doing? Who do I think I am? I leave hurriedly and wrap myself up in duvet, whimpering softly, trying not to remember.

In the days that follow I tell no one, but try rather to rationalise, until eventually the black shadow is greyed. I tell a few people what I’ve been doing, and other than a few raised eyebrows, their reactions are ordinary. No super heroics have taken place, just a daft boy soloing, lucky to escape.

It had all been fine until the great arête. Before that I hadn’t felt in danger at any point, and moved thoughtlessly and solidly upwards. But I’d made a conscious choice to climb that final arête, against my better judgement, whereas the others had been made neutrally, without decision, and with total acceptance. Perhaps the trance ended without my noticing, during the elation of having climbed The Green Death, allowing desire to mimic the magnetism that brought me to the base of the other climbs in the first place. Perhaps I’m thinking about it too deeply, but the experience of climbing those routes is firmly etched on my soul – they were worth the near miss. I cannot undo them, and every so often my memory lingers in their company.

In climbing I seek those elusive moments during which my self becomes inseparable from the climb. Those moments that require countless factors to come together, allowing me to move through challenging territory with ease. Usually I’d be happy with two to four of those experiences a year, but there I had three in as many days, and I’d love to know why. But as is the case with those moments, the more tempted I am to think, the further removed I become from the truth. Those elusive moments are exactly that, and I won’t find more of them in the recesses of memory. I will, however, continue searching through the context of adventure, perhaps with a little more trust in my gut, and certainly with renewed respect for the rock, without which I’d have never found those experiences to begin with.

2 thoughts on “A dirty little secret

  1. Where does it all come from? Your incredible bravery and tenacity to climb in such places? And your amazing ability to express yourself in writing? You make me so proud but also aware that there is so much of you that I don’t know or understand. Is that what being a parent is about…letting your child that you love more than anything in the world, become someone who can constantly astound you with their incredible but incomprehensible achievements? Ben, you are amazing.


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