Stood on the third ledge of the day, I pull the drawcords of my hood tight. Snow and ice fall on us from above, wind chills us to the bone. The day started with blue skies and enough promise to get us committed, but it’s gone to shit – conditions are now full Scottish. Above us, Pete works hard to excavate his pitch, slowly digging through snow for cracks. Starting to shiver, I run on the spot, desperate to keep warm.
Sometimes Scottish winter climbing feels more like a series of standing on ledges than actually climbing, and today we’re climbing in block leads, which doesn’t help. Uisdean went first, Pete just started, and I’m to go last. The brief moments I spend seconding barely split drawn out belays, which I spend in anticipation of the infamous Needle Crack.
What on earth made me volunteer to take the final block? What was I thinking? Go first and get the leading done with, that’s the best option. But no, I had to play the tough guy, up for the off width. Right now, I don’t feel like a tough guy. In this weather I’d retreat at half a whisper of surrender, but not one of us will be the first to say what we’re all thinking.
This is shit. Let’s get the fuck out of here.
Besides, it’s not that bad.
Contrary to popular belief, the Scottish winter is perfectly capable of delivering type one fun, as well as what we’re being subjected to now. A couple of weeks ago, Pete, Rocio and I were treated to a moonlit night in the north west. We topped out without the need for torches, and the moonscape before us was only bettered by the aurora on the horizon. We felt the magic that night, thoroughly aware that such savage beauty is best appreciated through the memory of misery. Perfection would lose its charm if it were all we ever saw, but through the memory of storms it rings a special truth. You’ve got to take the bad with the good.
They don’t teach you that at school. They teach you to bury the bad, and only see the good. They teach you that it is possible to transcend unhappiness, that by being successful, unhappiness will disappear, as though nothing matters but being remembered. It is sad that the good intentions of education have been warped into this factory, for the few who are willing, or able to play the game.
I guess for me, climbing has in many ways been a rebellion against that, a way of saying it doesn’t matter. Happiness is impermanent, it is inseparable from unhappiness. So why spend a lifetime searching for it in success or recognition? By feeling the depths of one’s own mortality such notions as success seem incredibly fragile.
It’s easy for me to say this, but there have been many times when I’ve climbed for ego, to be able to say I’ve done something. As though I needed to do that thing to be accepted amongst my peers. I usually know that I’m doing it, but it’s a powerful driving force and I often let it happen. And usually I get slapped in the face. Strung out below the crux of your hardest leads, backstory doesn’t matter, nor the house full of useless crap. You have only what you need to live and get on with it.
I guess sometimes I need ego to get me into those situations, to tempt me into discomfort. The lesson is always the same though. By getting rid of all the trash, you learn that the deepest joy is in coming home, in having gone into the fray and returned. Not in ignoring that the fray exists at all. Ultimately, there is little to learn in permanent pleasure and comfort. We need to see the other side from time to time.
Standing below the off width, I am calmer than I would have expected. Who knows what got me here, ego probably, the remnants of a schooling which taught me that I need to become someone. Who cares. I’m here now and it’s time to perform, time to meet the challenge.
In the left wall of the off width is a crack. Gear, but it’s also the width of my axes shaft. Inverting it, I place the head of my axe in the crack and torque down on the handle, bracing it against the opposite wall of the off width. It jams, solid. I pull up and wedge myself in the crack, arm barring between the wall and my axe handle, my elbow resting on the inverted trigger. The next axe goes in the same way and I pull up again. Bump the cam, arm bar, repeat.
I use this sequence until I’m stood on another ledge. The crack in the left wall has petered down to a seam, the old technique will no longer work. I wedge myself in, unconscious of the damage I’m doing to my shoulder, braced against the edge of the crack. I scrape at the seam, hoping for something solid, until at last I find a thin, pick width slot. The pick sinks to the hilt and I thrutch upwards. Hero hooks keep coming, gear too, until the seam runs out.
On the right wall is another crack, which I need to swing out to. It looks hard, but I make the calculations, decipher the puzzle. Nearing the edge of what I am capable of doing, I am totally focussed. There is nothing else but this. There is nothing outside this crack, beyond or below this pitch. There is nothing beyond this move.
I enter a bridged position, my left foot on a smear, my right on a lump of frozen moss. Scraping in the crack there is nothing. I bump my left foot higher, but there is still nothing. My foot starts to twist off the smear as I reach ever higher, until I remember I can hand jam and squeeze like there’s no tomorrow, bringing my left foot in. At last I can reach a bomber hook, and safety.
Resting, I peer at my gear a couple of meters below. What would have happened had my foot slipped from the smears? I peer into the crack, into its deepest reaches, and from somewhere my self starts to return. I had time to lose my mind in there for a moment, to shatter my self into a thousand forgotten pieces. Now it begins to grow; better, stronger, fresher.
I can say I lead the Needle crack, but as ever, I know how little that matters. For a few moments I lost all that. I forgot about the person, the story, the failure and the glory. And that is what put me on the sharp end. In the end, I’m out here because I want a challenge, a real, honest, no bullshit challenge, a chance to test myself. And having learned young that it is admirable to have status, it is hard not to get those yearnings mixed up in my climbing. But in the end, when push comes to shove, and pick comes to crack, I couldn’t care less. It’s just a moment of freedom from a long line of struggle.
Having regained my breath, I finish the pitch, and make my way to the top. The sky has cleared, and I turn off my torch to look at the stars, to feel the space I’m in. It’s over, and it feels strange. It was a long haul and we worked hard, but that was the point. We wanted to get out of our comfort zones, to see the other side. We’ve been into the fray, and now we’re coming home.