17 May 2010

The climber

On the edge of the town the high stone buildings, grey with age, with small, high, grimy windows, begin to change, to transform into the cliffs that ring the plain. A small figure climbs on those cliffs — a man, climbing with no rope, alone in the dull afternoon light. He slides a hand into a long crack that runs almost the full the height of the cliff; he twists slightly and lowers his free hand, shaking his arm for a few moments. He pauses, looks upwards, then resumes climbing, jamming one hand above the other alternately into the crack, placing his feet deliberately, precisely, until he arrives at a great slab projecting horizontally above his head like a roof.

He locks his left hand hard into the crack and leans back and outwards, reaches wide with his right arm and feels for a hold over the lip. Another pause. He drops his head and waits several seconds, stretched out with arms wide. Then he looks up and releases his left hand from the crack.

His feet leave the rock; his body swings out over forty metres of empty space. Forty metres of nothing; forty metres of the long fall into oblivion. He swings from a single wiry arm, out towards the point at which his hand must surely slip from its hold. He draws his legs up to slow the swing and begins to pull himself up on one arm; he reaches up with his free hand and grasps another hold.

The sight makes you feel nauseous. You see him from a great distance, a tiny form hanging over the void, a speck of muscle, bone and blood on that great hard face, hanging there on the edge of life. You see him as if you were a bird hovering a metre from his left shoulder; you hear his hard breathing, you see the thin tough muscles in his arms move as he swings. The ground seems immensely far below; it seems like a memory, the recollection of safety too long ago.

You feel nauseous, sick with the fear that arises from imagination. You feel exhilarated, knowing his freedom, his utter independence and self-reliance, his complete focus like a meditation, the feel of movement like a dance. You hold these polarised emotions in your heart as you begin to walk across the plain towards the cliffs. You walk through desiccated grass, over flat stones like the remains of an ancient plaza; you walk in an arid wind that sends small eddies of dust scampering over the plain. As you walk, the edge of the plain grows outwards so you never draw closer to the cliffs — they recede continuously, like the horizon, as you walk. The climber still hangs there on that edge, always about to make his next move.

You realise you are walking towards yourself.

1. John Palmer completes the difficult (V7) boulder problem Chris & Cosy at the Baring Head Rock Hop in 2008.
2. Ivan Vostinar marks up problems at the 2008 Rock Hop.

Photos and original text © 2010 Pete McGregor


Bob McKerrow said...

Kia Ora Pete

It's a stinking hot day in Jakarta and it was a welcome respite to see your clear, cool and crisp photos of the climber. Your words struck a few aging chords and a thrill ran through my spine and fingers as I boldy reflected on climbing great cracks on rock spires in the Peruvian Andes 40 add years ago. Is there a better feeling in the world than being truly exposed and knowing that one mistake and you're dog or condor tucker ?

Thanks Pete.


Relatively Retiring said...

I find this writing quite terrifying (and not just because I'm your caring old Aunt!).
It's so vivid, so immediate.
I've never climbed anything other than a step-ladder, and now I am filled with fear for those who put their fragile bodies through this sort of treatment.
Thanks for an electrifying arm-chair experience!

Ruahines said...

Kia ora Pete,
I get a strong sense of connection between this writing and the previous one on Time. Looking for those small moments of perfection, or overcoming obstacles even fear, and wondering if we will ever have them again. Thanks Pete.

Anonymous said...

The powers of your words, your observations are enchanting. I have a feeling that if you were to focus on something even so small as an anthill I would be drawn in. You take me places with your words and fire my imagination. Thanks. Maureen

pohanginapete said...

Bob, clearly you understand those mixed emotions — the exhilaration and barely-under-control terror. I'm very pleased to know the post brought back good memories for you. :^)

RR, my apologies for terrifying you! ;^) Rest assured, my days of getting myself into situations like that are long gone (I trust).

Robb, that's beautifully put — that realisation that all we have are moments, the untouchable past and the unknowable future. Thanks :^)

Maureen, thank you so much for the appreciation and encouragement. Now you've got me wondering about an ant's-eye view of the world. Hmmm... ;^)

isabelita said...

Wonderful! I'm less inclined to go bouldering, since it doesn't take but a few feet's worth of a fall to mess one up, but I enjoy watching it and reading about it. Now, ladders are fricking dangerous!!!
There's a young woman from NZ who's been climbing hard and well.
Her name is Mayan Gobat Smith. She has some video footage of her climbing, and sweet photos of a road trip to the USA. Worth a look.

pohanginapete said...

Thanks Isabelita. I photographed Mayan climbing at Baring Head in early 2004, but I was still using film then, supplemented with my little Pentax point-and-shoot digital. Still got some reasonable photos, but I've learned a lot since then, and Mayan's climbing prowess has continued to develop. As for me... well, my photography might have improved a bit, but my climbing's gone the other way. Lack of practice, I'm afraid :^(

Beth said...

Pete, it's always so good to read what you're thinking, and your illustrations of those thoughts. I'm one who will never be a climber; it freaks me out to think of being in those situations, but I can imagine the freedom and the intensity of the total concentration it must require. Like Robb, I saw connection between this post and the previous one...thanks.

pohanginapete said...

Thank you, Beth. The trick with climbing like this ("free soloing") is to climb well within your limits. The mental control required is beyond most people, including me, which is why I've only ever once done it deliberately, and never at the kind of level I describe here. But anyone who's climbed much can easily imagine the feeling — that's probably the reason most of us don't climb as well as we could.

Don't Feed The Pixies said...

today i've been really stressed with my job, dashing about as people run from fire to fire wondering which to put out first and i thought - wonder what Pete has been up to

i really love your writing - you should definately write a book if you haven't already. Your words are as breathtaking as your photography

pohanginapete said...

Hungry pixie, thank you — I really appreciate the encouragement. A book is in the pipeline; no ETA yet, though.

Avus said...

Thoughtful meditation and technically brilliant images, Pete. To have preserved all detail in both sky (light) and rock (shadow) takes some doing. Did it need much photoshoppery?
You will have to keep us all updated on "the book".

pohanginapete said...

Thanks Avus. I was aware the sky was much brighter than the foreground, so I underexposed most photos and kept the ISO low because I knew I'd have to recover the shadow detail. Of course, I was shooting RAW files so I had plenty of latitude to adjust the files in Lightroom before taking them into Photoshop. Photoshop's "Shadow/Highlight" feature also works very well for bringing out detail in highlight and shadow areas. I usually find I need to adjust the mid-tone contrast for these kinds of photos, because they can look very flat. So, the short answer is, the post-processing was straightforward; the photos appear pretty much how the subject appeared to me at the time. The capabilities of the human eye far exceed those of any lens, film or sensor in terms of ability to deal with contrast.