A few weeks ago, I had some of the most intense dreams that I’ve ever known. I don’t usually dream much, but for some reason this week was different. I learned recently that we dream something like six or seven times a night, and that each dream is a more developed repetition of the one preceding it. During this week I was remembering the full sequences, and although they made no sense, I wondered why our brains do this. It’s like something in our unconscious is trying to unravel itself, and so we enter a world of wild metaphors to try and make sense of what is happening in our lives. Like so much, it’s a process of moving from chaos into order.
There’s been a fair bit of change in my life recently, so this has been a necessary process. I’ve just moved to Llanberis after a decade in Sheffield, which I’m both excited and nervous about. Previous to the move, Tess and I spent seven months living in the van and climbing constantly, which was a brilliant time, but left me feeling a bit burned out. And now, just as I’m getting settled, it’s time to go to India for six weeks, on my first Himalayan expedition.
I can’t say too much about the trip for now, but I’m going with Pete (obviously), and Uisdean Hawthorn (pride of the highlands). It’s all pretty much sorted, but the planning got quite stressful for a bit, so I think the dreams were a way of processing this. When I return from expeditions I usually spend a lot of time writing, to try and rationalise and explain my experience, but a lot of the most difficult emotions occur before we set off. Expedition climbing is so expensive, and Alpinism requires a certain acceptance of risk, such that I invariably go through a tough process of questioning my motivations beforehand.
This is becoming a bit easier. Recently, I’ve become very interested in the idea that we are each enacting in our lives the archetype of a hero, by which I mean we are constantly faced with problems that we must overcome, in order to claim the benefit of moving into a position of greater security. We must slay the dragon and claim the gold, we must move from the constant threat of chaos into the eternal promise of order. I actually think that actively participating in this narrative is a crucial part of the human experience, and that we are lost without it. A huge part of Alpinism can be put down to the desire for this narrative; we choose to enter a place of unknowns, in order to find a better version of ourselves.
I think the week of crazy dreams I had was my subconscious grappling with these ideas. Rather than try to explain them, I thought I’d share a short bit of writing, which is itself rather dreamlike. It’s about the terror we feel in the face of the unknown, and especially in the face of nature’s capacity to destroy. It’s about the error we make in trying to control that fear by persuading ourselves that we know why things happen, and the way in which we have a tendency to apply a predatory nature to people we do not understand. It’s about the value of entering a place where we know nothing, and that in doing so we can be renewed.
Icons in the darkness
Standing in the dark, with your back towards the wall, the door opens. A meagre shaft of starlight, accompanied by the howling of a wind which speaks of all the space and emptiness you ever knew, creeps around the doorframe and wraps itself around you. There are icons buried in this half light, but you only meet the fear that walks alongside revelation. It is a fear that at the same time opens up a new horizon, whilst closing off the world you left, and in recognition of this fact you fall to your knees, whilst the ground opens up beneath your feet.
You fall, and through smoking plumes of scarlet tinted light, imagery cuts about the darkness. You try to fix your mind on a single object, to anchor yourself to a place, but you can make sense of nothing. It is all submerged in affect. So much meaning implied, but none given; is it the human eye that sees in such a way, or do things truly conceal an impetus for action? Indeed, action itself is endowed with a property that we as humans cannot fail to regard in every happening. It is a strange and distorted beast, lurking in darkened corners. It snakes amongst the wants and will of man until it cannot hide from the wrath of time and emerges, moth like, into perception. It is the tiger’s eyes.
And like a tiger, the archetypal form begins to emerge from the sum of all the rest. It prowls around you, lurking on the edges of this vortex, and speaks in melancholy tones of a transformation, a leaving behind of the certainty which paints figures into a landscape, and of welcoming that which hides. It tempts you out of safety, and in response the vortex becomes a track. The tiger chases you along its undulations, lime trees dancing above you in timeless repetition. At its end, a farmhouse. You recognise the walls, the church that sits to its rear. At a table in front of the house you recognise your father, dark haired and moustached, your mother at his side. They share a hand, and on your mother’s stomach his other sits, feeling the life which is beginning to stir inside.
The image vanishes, and you are left alone on a desert plane. In every direction, sandstone walls stand like the abutments to an ancient monument, and you are possessed by the fear that no matter how far you ran, you would never get out. The labyrinth echoes your fears and from every corner you see the twisting, crawling movement of snakes, congregating towards the tiny island of stone that you have dared to occupy. They fold over themselves, racing to arrive and claim their prize, but as they approach you realise that they are not snakes but people, going about their business in an ordinary way. The desert is gone, you are stood in the middle of a high street, watching as everyone passes with their laughter and smiles and sadness and tears.
The initial confusion is quickly replaced by a crushing weight, as though the world were yours alone to support. How did you become so stuck? For so many years you saw the truth in the actions of your fellows, recognised your place amongst them, and understood why the morning broke without falling, whilst the darkness fell without breaking.
So many stories that you recounted to yourself over the years, and understood to be the penultimate truth; but stories exist to learn from, not to dictate how time will pass. You feel an age beyond your years, and the feeling is accompanied by the crippling realisation that you know nothing. The feeling is akin to a shadow that holds everything within its grasp, and standing up in the room where you have been dreaming, you feel yourself pushing back against a wall. It is a clear night outside, and in the stillness you hear the breath of a creeping wind. It grabs a hold of your door, and opens it up.
This time the wind does not speak, nor does revelation walk by the side of fear, and you open the door and step out into the night. The labyrinth presents itself as a straight and narrow road, and you walk along it, mindful of the new place. Forms appear to either side, the eyes peer as they always did, but you see now that intent is only an implication, rather than an emergent property of the things you perceive. Indeed, it is the foresight of a human eye which perceives meaning in form; and similarly, intent is a seed planted by human hand, and so reaped.
The new forms fold and open beside you, and unweighted by the knowledge you carried so stubbornly before, you are able to see what is meaningful to you, and what is useful in this new place. You feel young again without the fear of what everything might do. New meanings are assigned, and out of the perplexing edgeless dark, a garden is formed. It is as though you always walked there, but never knew. And from beneath the rushing sounds of a glacial stream you realise that it is not the birds, but your heart that sings.
Regarding the expedition planning, big thanks to everyone that has supported us, not least our friends and family. We have received financial support from the BMC, the MEF, the Alpine Club (Montane Expedition Fund), and the Austrian Alpine Club. Thanks to Mountain Equipment for sorting me out with some lightweight clothing and sleeping bags, Grivel for some super-light hardware, and Scarpa for some new boots! This time we’ll be eating Summit to Eat freeze dried meals, and GU gels. Pretty psyched for GU’s gel flask so you don’t wind up with loads of sticky little packets in your pocket, check them out here – http://www.guenergy.co.uk