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