It’s strange that feeling you get, at once in your chest and your stomach, sometimes in your throat. It’s not quite a gag reflex but something similar, a sickly sort of feeling that makes your whole body tremble imperceptibly; never quite enough to pin it down, but enough to know its there. Your shoulders ache and your forearms feel heavy, your fingertips sweat just from looking at it, thinking about it even. A photo of it on the back of a book is almost enough to make you run away, or maybe towards it; both, because you want what it holds, but not what it offers. It’s like a ghost just walked through you, but it isn’t the phantom of something gone, it’s the spirit of possibility, the maybe-just-maybe of something that could happen, for better or worse.
The first time you saw it, you wanted it then and there, no matter the tired arms and tight shoulders. You set up the abseil and tightened your shoes, but as you descended past it, bravado turned to butterflies, and you fluttered away, scared to close your eyes in case the ghost came in the night. Good job you thought better of it then, because damned straight you weren’t good enough.
Two years pass and you’re in Spain. Hard on sights, though fulfilling in themselves, are only way markers on a road of preparation. Every power shout is a promise to yourself, that you can and will. You know what the purpose of all this is, but the ghost still frightens you some, so you think about it little; you drink the beer and clip the bolts and enjoy the sun. But ghosts like this one haunt for a reason, and soon you’re looking at the back of the book, feeling that strange feeling, knowing that the time is upon you. You imagine yourself at the end of the runout, feeling calm, focussed. The physical progression marks the end of a process that has captivated your imagination since you first saw that sheet of stone. You are ready.
Odd, you think, that you care so much about something that means so little to anyone else. The world will not be moved even if you are, nothing will be lost if you don’t manage to climb it, and you’ll have nothing to show for it if you do. Unless, of course, you take the fall and find that what it offers is true. Perish the thought though, you can’t allow fear to become the focus of this enterprise. Besides, you recognise that the arbitrary nature of the thing is exemplary of the jewel it holds; a crime of passion in a world of order and restraint.
Soon the Spanish sun is replaced by British cloud, grim by both its imposition and its contents. It all helps with the mood though, and the moments of warmth felt through lashes of wind feel almost earned. A week passes and the time arrives; low tides, good conditions, the right partner, all at once. And of course, enough confidence that you can commit, balanced with enough respect that you won’t if it doesn’t feel right. This time, as you set up the abseil, the butterflies are there from the start, because this time you’re not putting on a show, not doing it for anyone else. This time it’s real.
Ropes uncoiled and shoes tightened, chalked hands take a while to warm. Sloping crimps on the lower wall give cause to concentrate, but arriving at the rest with light arms, you know that the time is right. Some deep breaths, and reality unfolds. A committing stretch right leads into technical foot sequences, side pulls, an undercut. The moves flow fast and smooth. A metre below safety, on a good hold, you remember to appreciate what you’ve anticipated for so long. Shaking a mild pump from your forearms, you look down, you see the threads hanging far below, see the ropes swaying uselessly in the breeze. A ground fall would seem almost inevitable. You breathe in deeply, twice, noting the taste of salt on your lips, feeling the texture of the stone beneath your fingertips. The stone is cold, but your hands are warm, and in the contrast between the two a sort of fusion occurs, a spark of energy that bonds climb and climber, flesh and stone, then and now. In the pearly hues of pure experience, a hand reaches up and clips a rope into a quickdraw, a sigh of relief is breathed, and then you are you again, a climber on a rock, an ant amongst giants. A tricky sequence almost ends the attempt, but you climb lightly on, observing your action through the peripheries of consciousness, aware of only a building joy which threatens to bring tears to your eyes as you approach the top. A gust of wind almost throws you off balance, but the moment of doubt washes through you, and you make a mental note to appreciate all moments, to be patient in letting the good ones come, because though they seem better they are only part of the picture and its the whole story, the life of the thing, that makes it so worth it.
And then it is done, and when they ask you say yes I did it, but although that makes you smile and them smile, inside you shed a tear because it’s gone, the ghost has gone, it’s boarded a train and departed to lands unknown. It seems that all there ever is is ghosts, but deep down you know that they are only ghosts of the self, and if they exist for anything, they exist to guide you towards a moment which is also a jewel, and that jewel is now, and has always been.