Monday, 9 August 2010

Something about Rock

Jeanne Iris gave us three options for this weeks Poetry Bus Challenge: poem, song, or flash fiction. Apologies for inventing a fourth. Whatever the word is for "un-flash fact", this is it. What is my favourite sensory summer memory? The smell of warm rock.

I'm not sure when or why I started rock-climbing. I know that when I was very small we went on holiday to Cornwall and I was very impressed by the rocks at Cheddar Gorge (my parents and I slept there one night in the back of our three-wheel Reliant van) and I remember clambering over the rocks at the seaside with a passion. Then we went to Wales, to a hotel near Capel Curig (I was still very young) and I remember feeling powerfully drawn to the tops of the mountains. Some colleagues -I think- of my mother were there. We met, and they talked about climbing in the Llanberis Pass. Later, we drove up the Pass and we could just see people through the mist, climbing on the cliffs (probably Dinas Mot, looking back). It looked like the thing to do!

Probably to "get it out of my system" my dad bought a climbing rope, a karribiner and a book, Know the Game: Rock Climbing. I still have it somewhere: it just came out at the tail-end of the era when people still stuck nails in the soles of their boots (there was much discussion as to the best kinds and the patterns thereof, but that's another story). We spent several afternoons, my dad tied to a fencepost at the top of a quarry, holding my rope as I attempted to climb up it.

After that, there was a gap of some years. I wasn't a particularly athletic teenager. However, once you're into your twenties, working, with a bit of money in your pocket, it occurs to you that you can do more or less whatever you want, within reason. A group of us started to walk - and most of us quickly gravitated to walking up hills. We soon found our way to Tryfan, a Welsh mountain so steep and rocky that it stretches the definition of a "walk" to breaking point. You need your hands. You find yourself face-to-face with the rock and as you work your way up it, you realise you are part of an environment that is usually alien to you and which, if you are so inclined, triggers your more adventurous instincts. In summer it feels warm: you can smell the rock, and it's a smell that lingers on your hands for hours afterwards.

My real chance to rock climb came when we moved to West Yorkshire. The moors in that part of the world are littered with gritstone outcrops: dark, uncanny, rounded natural sculptures that cry out to be climbed. I learned to drive, which made it a lot easier to reach them. I joined a local club and bought some climbing gear. I was never very good at it - I just enjoyed doing it. Rather than aiming to climb harder and harder climbs, I aimed to climb longer and longer ones. Scottish mountains seemed to carry a good selection of huge, technically easy climbs, so Scotland was the place to go. My friend Graham and I climbed quite few.

The end of my serious interest in climbing was a route in Glencoe called Agag's Groove. It takes an obvious line up a tower block-like cliff overlooking Rannoch Moor. The first pitch, which I led, is 90 feet long, as I remember. I found it totally impossible to protect it. I found myself climbing the whole pitch facing the risk of a serious fall. The holds were large, but I had to rely on friction as they sloped outwards. Retreat was impossible and the further I climbed, the more serious the risk became. My hands began to sweat. I had children by then, and it struck me forcibly that risking my life in this way was in my opinion, for me, idiotic and something I definitely did not want to do. Obviously, I survived and, having decided that this might well be my last ever climb, made up my mind to enjoy the rest of it. I have vivid memories of sharing a ledge with Graham on that vertical face, barely large enough to accommodate the soles of three boots, hundreds of feet above the moor, while we arranged our gear to climb the final, exhilarating pitch. It wasn't exactly my last climb, but I'd passed a watershed - I never attempted anything half so challenging after that trip. As the pioneer mountaineer Edmund Whymper put it (and he spoke from experience, having lost several of his colleagues on their ascent of the Matterhorn):

Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are naught without prudence and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime. Do nothing in haste: look well to each step, and from the beginning think what may be the end.

I still like to get close to rocks and clamber over them - but  nothing too hard, or too high: nothing that demands a rope. There's still something magnetic for me about the touch, the smell and the close-up view of them that will never go away.

11 comments:

The Bug said...

I used to think I would enjoy climbing - I did enjoy clambering over rocks when we would hike as children. But I was also not very athletic, & unlike you never tried to overcome that. Plus I had terrible upper body strength - the idea of doing something that might require my arms to support me was pretty terrifying!

I'm glad that you stopped doing it when it started feeling like the risks outweighed the joy.

Totalfeckineejit said...

Very interesting Dominic.I must try smelling rock.And by way of abstract cioncidence Cheddar Gorge figures in the pre marriage holiday lives of me and Mrs EEjit as does Capel Curig.

Rachel Fenton said...

"something about rock"..that's a hard one!

Well done for what you came up with - very engrossing memory.

Gwei Mui said...

Rock climbing I've always admired people who do this, I now the moor pretty well as I grew up there as a child. I guess being able to go beyond each peek and wantng to go beyond each razor's edge.
Great post thanks for sharing

Argent said...

I always thought I'd like rock-climbing but my fear of heights has grown over the years. We did scrable up Tryfan a few years back to scatter the ashes of a dear friend who had enjoyed climbing there as a youth. I really enjoyed your piece.

The Weaver of Grass said...

All I can say is that I am so glad that I am reading about these climbing adventures years after they occurred!

Erratic Thoughts said...

You are a great climber and even more fascinating writer :)
Rock climbing is tough thing and I have done it just once and that was the last time I did it!!!
More than climbing up,I was scared of coming down!

Very Interesting :)

NanU said...

Wonderful story, Dominic. Rather have it than fiction anyway!

Jeanne Iris said...

Wow, what a gneiss memory, Dominic! ; )

Other than a little hiking in Colorado and climbing Croagh Patrick in Ireland, my only experience with rocks includes removing large boulders from my garden.

There is something to be said about connecting with nature in the way you have described here that is absolutely poetic. Thank you.

Dominic Rivron said...

Thank for these comments, everybody. Two specifics:

Argent, Tryfan is great, isn't it? Did you manage to get up onto Adam and Eve?

Erratic Thoughts: Interesting you should say that. I've been pondering a post about the joys of descending.

jinksy said...

Sounds as though you still like to "Rock on!" :)