New kid on the rock

A breezy day in May that carries with it ozone from a restrained sea. I sit on a beach of pebbles feeling their shape and texture with my fingers while I look at the horizon. Distant walls of grey cliffs, dwarfed boats on a wide steel-blue sea, and the sweep of a million billion smooth stones heaped together to make the longest beach in the world. Most of this is kept in peripheral vision as I focus on the day’s purpose – the fortress of limestone and its satellites. What the hell am I doing here? My previous ambition now seems mad to me – to get to know these cliffs intimately and to scare myself in this process of intimate acquaintance. But it’s too late to be thinking this  – my companion arrives. There’s no turning back.

Weighed down and unbalanced by tall and heavy rucksacks, we steadily follow a steep and narrow path that follows the foot of the cliff. It’s worn by many feet intent on reaching the rock that shoots up from the steep bramble and sea-grass covered slopes. Like many before us, we’ve come here to play.

My companion, a doe-eyed man in a loose brown short-sleeved shirt and equally loose trousers that have often to be hitched up over his narrow hips, looks like he’s come home and stops. I look around at this playground. Above me looms a rock face, the top barely visible. It’s grey, brown, white and cream. It’s cracked, smooth, rippled, folded and angular – all these things at once. It’s face and character changes from yard to yard, inch to inch.

On the other side of the path the ground falls way to gentler slopes and a beach made up of a mass of huge fallen rocks. On the sea’s wide horizon a fishing boat is going about its business. Two men in red waterproof suits are working the nets. But there’s no time to stand and stare – we want to get on with our intended activity now we’re here, however much part of me resists the idea.

Bags are unpacked and contents casually thrown across the chalky yellow path. There are bags within bags to unearth, rope to carefully release like a snake from its confines, and a water supply to put in the shade. I hear the first clinks and chinks of the equipment – a noise that immediately recalls the activity. These are the indispensable tools of the day; the things I don’t even yet have a name for. Technically perfect clasps of light modern metal, whose job in keeping us safe has evolved over the years to near state-of-the-art precision. This noise will soon evoke sea breezes, calm yellow evenings, and distant figures. And fear of course.

Before attempting to strap myself into the intricacies of a new (to me) harness for the first time, an assessment of the route must take place apparently. On the rock above I pick out a vertical line of giant staples. Like any good dot-to-dot they don’t make a straight line but meander up the rock until they disappear. The challenge is to pick a line that seems possible to follow using our bodies: one that won’t defeat us but neither will greet us with open arms. My companion’s eyes are used to picking out the way, assessing the degree of effort needed. Mine aren’t. I’m blind at the moment and learning to walk. So he chooses a path. It’s a fossilised lava flow. It’s a sheet, twisted and folded in on itself to create a picture of an alien’s skeleton. It’s not rock-like at all. It’s almost disturbingly organic.

Decision made, I manage to get into my harness without giving away what a complete beginner I am. With the spirit of mutual responsibility that’s climbing, we check each other for kinks, twists, badly secured ties and belts that could compromise safety. Green and gold rope is attached in its stylish twist, and it’s ability to save life and limb also checked. My companion is to make the first ascent and I’ll be his lifeline. The rope hangs loosely from his waist and I thread it through a small and simple piece of shaped metal whose part in this risk reduction exercise amazes me. We grant this ridiculously small thing the responsibility of saving a life.

We confirm that it’s time to start. He’s ready to walk this strange vertical path. He approaches the rock and his fingers touch it. Seemingly without any effort he pushes his slight and supple body up the first few feet and then in a series of twists of hips, arms and long legs he stretches his way up and across, up and across this wall of limestone, slowing now and then to look more closely at what the wall can reveal. He seems attached only by his fingertips and toes. Brown shirt flapping loosely in the sea breeze, he continues to push and pull, to stretch and twist the four points of his body against the rock; holding it at a distance. It’s a strange dance but there’s grace and such subtle movement that it’s the only thing it can be. I know my own attempt won’t be as pleasant to watch. As he goes up he stops occasionally to precisely add his clasp to the staple, threading his rope through.

He disappears from view. I’m craning my neck uncomfortably all this time to see and to learn. I fear I won’t remember any of it. I fear my turn. Can I do this?  I really don’t know. My experience of cold hard rock is limited to bouldering three feet above hard chippings in bare feet in the Avon Gorge. I know only too well this is an entirely different world. I’ll just have to get on with it and not to think too much. I’ve given up wondering ‘why’ – it’s the ‘how’ that’s important now. A short cry comes from above – the sign that he wants to return to earth the quick way.

I tighten the rope and give my slight weight to gravity. Allowing the rope to slide quickly through the hoop of belay, it runs through my hands in as controlled manner as possible and, suspended and slightly swaying, he’s brought down to earth, calm and happy. Something has been accomplished but no celebration is called for.

My turn. I desperately attempt to block all thoughts of possibilities and probabilities. I’ve chosen to be here and there’s a job of work to be done. We quickly swap roles. Rope is attached to my harness and I don shoes that I would like to think will help me stick to the rock. He checks me out for safety and our eyes meet to acknowledge readiness.

I face the rock and look directly in front of me. I take a deep breath and slow my mind, closing down everything to see the route as a corridor and this as the first stage of the journey along it. I see only this initial challenge – the rest, above me, cannot be contemplated.

I scan the rock for the dents, cracks and bulges where I can hang my weight and that will stabilise me as I pass through. I touch the rock, feeling for its yielding places – places where I can fit. Now everything’s gone from my mind except for the hunt for the way up; how I can use the rock’s irregularities to pivot my body; how I can use my body by stretching, heaving, pulling and pinching. I don’t feel the pull of the rope attached to me. My head is full of reasoning, analysis and the weighing-up of risk. I know I can fall off safely: I’m attached and watched carefully. But in my mind the aim of the game is not to fall; it’s to get to the end of the route. I have no fear of the height: I fear falling as much at the bottom as at the top.

I become totally absorbed with trying to achieve this pointless task. The fear is palpable all the time. It sits with me and tries to hold me back, but I argue with it, cajole it and even ignore it sometimes, but it’s always there.

My forearms turn against me – they become hard as the rock they touch. So hard they limit the movement in my hands. My eyes refuse to find a way; my brain will not piece it together.

I climb to a ledge where I can relax and rest, and once there I exhale and shake the tension from my body, down my shoulders, arms and out through my fingers – I can sense it streaming away on the breeze – and I notice at last my environment: The waves below, the sun on the sea, and the blueness and the whiteness. The beauty of it and the privilege of being part of it are sobering.

I’m ready to continue with the battle. As I go I say ‘I can’t’ to myself more times in half an hour than I do in a normal day.  I discover this strange activity brings out all of me, all at once. It makes me brave and calm; it makes me angry, fearful and negative. I find strength from determination, and find weakness in negativity and exhaustion. The only extra energy added by anger is immediately wasted on the emotion itself.

At the top at last I’m too tired to think but recover on my quiet and graceful fall to the ground, suspended like a spider at the end of her web.  By the time my toes are on soil again I’m grinning broadly and a feel huge quiet self-pride. There’s been a battle, but there are no losers and there’s no blood. I have made my acquaintance with this vertical path of rock. I hate it and love it.

And since that time a year ago? I have scaled sea cliffs in Pembrokeshire; scared myself silly deep water soloing at Berry Head; fallen across a chasm at Baggy point; dealt with mile deep drop-offs in the Dolomites; climbed quarry walls at dusk and faced off the vertical slippery limestone of Cheddar. I have denied the addiction up until now – now I can say quite unashamedly: ‘My name is Sarah and I am a climber’.