The Hidden Edge

Aqua-Alpinism and other adventures on Britain's Exmoor Coast

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The heaving swell slaps at my feet, licking along the narrow sandstone shelf like a dragon's tongue before swirling into a through-cave. Reflected light glints on the water on the other side. Swimming across the cave, I point out to the psychiatrist, will cut off a few hundred metres of climbing, saving us precious time. The sun has started to sink into the sea with the coming of evening. Just then, a massive swell set slams into the cavern, and the constricted entrance takes on the form of a cataract on the upper Brahmaputra. The psychiatrist looks at me quizzically.

“Not such a good idea, perhaps?” he suggests. I look back at him, shiver, and laugh. This is the point we decide to abandon ship. 

In case you're wondering, I’m not recounting a flashback from rehab. The psychiatrist is in fact my partner in crime, Dr. Grant Farquhar. He is also largely responsible for the fact that we're traversing towards the base of the highest cliff in England, the Great Hangman, three hours before sunset. It’s just after high tide, and we both have mild hypothermia. In early June 2013, when this mission took place, the waters of the Bristol Channel were still only 12 degrees Celsius after one of the coldest winters in a decade. 

We've been on the move for eleven hours already on the Exmoor Coast Traverse, Britain's longest climb. We're attempting a one day ascent of the most demanding section of the route: Lynmouth to Combe Martin, a distance of some 17,000 metres: around twice the height of Everest from sea level. It's a mammoth undertaking, and has much of the atmosphere and seriousness of a big alpine climb on an unexplored peak. It had never previously been considered feasible – or indeed attempted - in a single, one-day push.

The history of the Exmoor Coast Traverse spans more than a century, and is as complex and convoluted as the route itself. Following the lead of Victorian pioneers James Hannington and Edward Arber, the route was first completed by Clement Archer and Cecil Agar in 1954, but only in different sections climbed on separate days. 

A couple of decades later, in 1978, Terry Cheek, Trevor Simpson, Graham Rogers and Robert Simmons made the first continuous ascent over four and a half days, using ropes and an expedition-style approach with a support team. The route involves serious and in places difficult climbing on wet rock, with only a handful of safe exits in its entire length.

Our approach, by contrast, was fast, light, and totally unsupported. We climbed solo, wearing modified 2/3mm wetsuits and approach shoes, and carried compact dry bags for our food and water. 

David Kester Webb and Elizabeth Webb explain the nature of this extraordinary route in their superb book The Hidden Edge of Exmoor: 

“[This] is a serious mountaineering venture that is compounded by a tide that can rise vertically over six feet an hour and by cliffs that tower over six hundred feet in places. Out of sight of civilization, it is an awe-inspiring wilderness, boasting the highest cliff in England, a waterfall as high as Niagara, and a colony of ancient stunted yew trees that may prove to be the largest in Britain.”

The seriousness of the undertaking is multiplied by the fact there is no phone reception at the cliff base anywhere along this part of the Exmoor coast. In this respect, as in others, the traverse is actually more serious than a big climb in the Alps, where helicopter rescue is just a speed-dial away. 

We made good progress, covering three quarters of the distance between Lynmouth and Combe Martin in eleven hours. The psychiatrist is a proficient surfer, and I’m an experienced open water paddler. But with mutual respect for the power of the sea, we called the 'Brahmaputra Cave' our full-time whistle, and made our escape up the steep incline of Red Cleave, a fine eleven-hundred foot, fifty-degree bramble-festooned couloir.

Lynmouth to Combe Martin in a day, or 'The Exmoor Coast Integral' as Dr. Farquhar and I have called it, is undoubtedly feasible by a highly proficient team of two or three, and under more favourable conditions than those in which we attempted it. This alpine-style adventure, completed without boat support, is undoubtedly one of the biggest challenges of total physical endurance, logistics, commitment, and route-finding skill in Britain, and presents the possibility of a whole new sub-genre of climbing: the psychiatrist and I call it ‘aqua-alpinism’. 

In the same way that para-alpinism links climbing or mountaineering with BASE jumping, ‘aqua-alpinism’ links rock climbing with extreme coasteering to produce challenges that are beyond the scope of either activity alone. In order to complete the Exmoor Coast Integral, you will need to be a strong, experienced climber and an equally strong and experienced coasteer and swimmer. You’ll also need to stay up all night and get lucky, as Daft Punk say.

When the late, great Swiss alpinist Erhard Loretan pioneered his 'night naked' approach for climbing hard routes with maximum efficiency in the Himalaya, it's unlikely he imagined his theory might be used on a sea level traverse of an obscure section of the southwest coast of England. The beauty of climbing in general, and alpinism in particular, is its stubborn refusal to conform to a single definition of what it might be. This is surely one of the many reasons I’m so drawn to these strange, dangerous, and exhausting activities. 

Fast-forward four years, and the prize of the Exmoor Coast Integral remains a ripe fruit waiting to be plucked by a budding explorer. The psychiatrist’s family commitments mean it’s unlikely he can take the time off for a second attempt. Without the enthusiasm - or for that matter the courage - for a solo attempt at the whole Traverse, but with the Exmoor Coast still very much on my mind, I conjure up a more practical, less time-consuming, but nonetheless still highly adventurous means of exploring this awesome stretch of the southwest coast: a voyage by stand-up paddleboard (SUP). 

After extensive testing over hundred of miles of open water, using various different boards, I’m convinced that a 14 foot touring SUP, piloted by a strong paddler, has very much the same capabilities as a sea kayak in all but the most extreme swell conditions. In big seas, a sea kayak will always be a wiser choice of vessel. But in smaller swells and smooth water, both craft are an equally viable option, having similar speeds and handling abilities. 

With this knowledge in mind, and I set off for a solo ten mile paddle from Porlock Weir to Lynmouth in August 2017.  I timed my trip well, passing under the awesome, lonely stockade of Glenthorne House just after mid-tide. This meant I could clear Foreland Point - where the most dangerous seas on the whole Exmoor coast can occur – just before dead low water, and therefore in the most favourable possible conditions. My presence off Foreland Point caused a degree of amazement in a fishing boat heading east (the fishing boat was only other vessel I met on this section of the trip).  

As I flew past the boat, carried by a light easterly tailwind and the last half-hour of the ebb tide, one of the boat’s occupants exclaimed “I think you’re bloody mad”. I guess he didn’t expect to see a guy on a paddleboard gliding effortlessly past one of the more treacherous headlands in south west England. 

The drone of the fishing boat’s inboard engine quickly faded as I entered the vast semi-circular sweep of Lynmouth Bay, and was replaced by just the quiet dip of my carbon fibre paddle in the blue-green water, and the cry of black-backed gulls soaring overhead; my ever-watchful companions on this journey.

A few weeks later, I took advantage of an exceptional high pressure window at the end of August to make the journey from Lynmouth to Combe Martin: the most westerly and arguably the most spectacular part of the entire coast. 

By waiting for the right tide and a window of ideal weather to make the voyage, I took advantage of near-perfect sea conditions. A strong ebb stream took me along the most impressive section of the Exmoor Coast between Woody Bay and the Great Hangman, just east of Combe Martin. Passing Bull Point, another spot where a powerful tide race can occur, a big Atlantic Grey seal popped up ten metres from my board and stayed with me for the next mile. Flying around the jagged rocks offshore of the point itself, carried along by the powerful tidal stream, I remembered the challenging and time-consuming climbing along this section from four years before: it was hard to believe just how much easier this whole thing was on the water, as opposed to the tortuous challenge of the terrestrial version of the Exmoor Coast Traverse.

Just east of Bull Point, the shingle beach at Heddon’s Mouth provides a possible landing spot, although I continued past, needing to clear the Great Hangman four miles to the west before low water, otherwise I’d be in deep trouble. According to the testament of former German submariners, Heddon’s Mouth was used by U-boats during WW2 for restocking fresh water. It’s one of the more remote beaches in England, flanked by 1000 foot cliffs on both sides. 

If you ever visit Heddon’s Mouth, just imagine landing here by dingy at 3 a.m. on a winter night in the early 1940s; you’d have to be quick filling your jerry cans from the river. 

Westwards from Heddon’s Mouth, the coast becomes even more impressive, culminating in the epic 1200 foot sweep of Great Hangman, which is said to be the highest cliff on mainland Britain. It’s named after the striking hooded shape of its summit: a caped figure standing watch over this lonely coast.

Again, I timed the tide just right, and cleared the Hangman just before low water. This is the last bastion of the Exmoor cliffs before the coast falls away to the west, and the quaint fishing village of Combe Martin provides a welcome refuge and landing spot after the awesome terrain you’ve just passed through. 

The final section of the coast that remained to explore was the easternmost part, from Minehead to Porlock Weir. Whilst not quite as high and less dramatic overall than the western part of Exmoor, the brooding cliffs that plunge straight into the sea around Hurlstone Point, which must be passed to enter the wide expanse of Porlock Bay, make up for the lack of real verticality elsewhere.  

On this section - completed in October – my partner and I soon hit the first of the westerly swell barrelling out from Hurricane Ophelia as we left the sanctuary of Minehead Harbour, and were glad to be paddling together on the wild approach to Hurlstone Point. Half a mile off Hurlstone, the swell suddenly dropped away: we’d moved into the sheltering effect of Foreland Point 15 miles to the west, which I’d cleared on my first Exmoor paddle back in August. 

Perhaps the best thing of all about this section of the Exmoor Coast is the fact it’s possible to land at Porlock Weir about thirty metres from the fifteenth century Ship Inn, one of Devon’s best pubs. As soon as we’d pulled the boards up the steep shingle, I began to think about doing the coast in two longer sections, the first from Minehead to Lynmouth, and the second from Lynmouth to Ilfracombe.  Spring tides, prime sea conditions, and some serious motivation would be essential for these voyages. 

And of course the uncompleted non-stop terrestrial traverse of this shoreline – the Exmoor Coast Integral – that the psychiatrist and I tried in 2013 still lurked at the back of my mind. This epic, multi-dimensional journey along England’s wildest stretch of coastline still remains for the taking. When it is finally completed in a single, aqua-alpine push, I think it’ll be one of the more impressive feats of adventuring achieved anywhere in the British Isles.   


Notes on the Exmoor Coast

The Bristol Channel has the second largest tidal range in the world after Canada’s Bay of Fundy, and this means the tidal stream acts as a supercharger to any long distance paddle. If you time it right, on spring tides you’ll experience a 3 knot (5 mph) advantage. This can be boosted to as much as 6 or 7 knots around headlands like Foreland Point and Bull Point, where serious tide races often occur, and where good paddling skills are essential. 


A shorter version of this piece first appeared as an editorial in Climb magazine, and the full version appeared in LEGEND magazine in 2017

The Door To The River

This story first appeared in the 2015 collection of short fiction, After The Crash and other stories

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It was late one July evening, long past his bedtime, that Quin found the rusty door under the trees at the end of his garden. He crept through of the scullery and walked out into the falling light. The air was warm and sticky with the soft thickness of the summer night as he went down the overgrown path that led through the glade. 

There was hardly a breath of wind in the three big oak trees that grew on the western side of the house. There were swallows catching flies in the dusk, diving and turning. There were many sounds in the garden of other birds calling, and the low hum of insects came through when the birds were quiet. Far away, very high up or in the far distance, there was a deeper drone, like the sound of a plane.

The evening sun was almost on the horizon, and the taller oak trees cast shadows right across the lawn, beyond the east wall, and out into the meadow on the other side of the garden. The shadows were long, and it seemed to Quin they might belong to another world entirely, to a realm of plants perhaps never seen for thousands of years. At the far corner of the lawn where it met the copper beech trees at the edge of Briar Wood, he felt the air around him grow warmer still. The scent of the summer day that had almost passed hung heavy in the opening of the glade that led into the wood. 

The light was falling faster in the deeper shadows of the glade, and Quin had to look hard into the middle distance to see which way the path would lead him. He had been this way before, although never this late in the evening. Now it seemed that he was treading a quite different path to the one he knew, and the wood grew darker.

The growing gloom seemed to alter the colours and shapes of the trees. As he turned a sharp corner in the path, Quin stumbled on a fallen branch or a root, and almost fell. He stopped to regain his balance, and looked up, staring straight ahead. In the corner of his eye he caught a glimpse of something between a pair of tangled laurels; an abrupt, blurred flash of colour, noticeable only because it was different to the dim green-black forms of the entwined laurels and the surrounding trees. 

Quin caught his breath as he stepped forward towards it, his steps slow and careful. He could feel his heart pounding, afraid that he would disturb something.

The big waxy leaves of the laurel trees were almost black, shining a certain angles in the dusky light. Quin brushed them aside. He peered intently through the small gap he had made in the leaves, and his whole body trembled. At first, as his eyes adjusted to the gloom, he saw nothing but the darkness all around. Then, suddenly, a shape appeared from out of that darkness behind the laurels. 

There was a door in the trees, in the deepest and darkest place at the very end of his garden. It was a very small door, less than a meter high, so even Quin would have to crouch down to get through it. It seemed to be made of iron, and was completely covered in a thick rust. It looked very old. The rust had spread over the door in swathes of red and brown, and there were a few patches of green moss growing on it. Quin traced around the edge of the door with his fingers, hoping to find a bolt or a catch, or anything else that might give him a chance of opening it. But he found nothing but a few gnarled lumps of rust that protruded from the surface of the door like the warts on his grandfather’s fingers. 

Suddenly tired, he sat down, his back resting against the door. A few of last year's leaves, tinder-dry from the summer heat, crackled here and there as he stretched his legs. Leaning against the door, Quin felt suddenly older than his nine short years. It was as if he had lived here in the garden for an unknown time, quietly moving further into deepening shade. 

He heard the faintest breath of wind touching the upper branches of the highest trees all around him, a long way above. He wondered how high the very highest trees grew, the ones he had read about in the jungles of distant lands. 

The wind soon died, and the whispering of the trees soon vanished with it. The woods were almost silent, apart from the odd rustle and crack from some nearby thicket, which Quin took to be the sounds of woodland animals. After a while, those sounds disappeared altogether, and the woods were quite silent and still. 

For a moment it seemed the visible darkness of the world was completely silent and still. Quin thought that his own breath would disturb the silence, so he held it within him for as long as he could, like an unknowable secret.

Quin hardly took a breath from that silence all around. Then in an instant he heard a strange, slow noise, completely distinct from the other sounds of the wood. At first it was so quiet he could hardly tell what it was. It grew very slowly, becoming audible at last as a sort of creaking, like an old rusty hinge opening. Quin felt his whole back sliding suddenly, like a shoe on a wet stone. 

The door began to creak open very slowly. 

He didn't want to move. He was afraid if he did, the door might slam shut again, and he would never know what lay on the other side. 

Quin now lay on the soft ground, flat on his back. He stared up into the trees and listened as hard as he could. He could hear a ringing sound in his ears, but when the ringing stopped, another sound came through, very softly at first, but then it grew stronger. It was a rushing, gurgling, sloshing sound, like water running through a channel. 

A river!

Quin could hardly believe it. A secret door to a river at the end of the garden that nobody knew about. Maybe nobody had opened it for many years. Perhaps even his grandfather had never been through it. 

He felt a shiver run around his head and down his back as he thought about where he had just accidentally arrived. He was convinced that nobody except Quin, aged nine and three-quarters, had ever been here before. He felt a cool wind blow through the trees, a river wind from far upriver, from another place entirely, and he shivered again. 

But Quin was by now far too curious not to look just a little bit further around the door. Brushing away the tangled briars with his hands, he crept across the threshold. He raised his head and squinted hard into the night, watching and listening for something that might be here, in this unknown country on the other side of the door. 

A gust of wind blew up and shook the trees.

As the trees fell quiet, Quin heard the sound of a great rushing of water breaking through the woods, so clear that he thought he might be standing right on the river's edge. And so he crept on through the trees, heading towards that sound of water flowing through the night and through the trees. Quin stumbled on a log or a branch, just catching his footing before he fell, and looked up with a start. 

Stretching out before him was the river: a wide beam of water that glistened in the night, shining with an oily, blue-black light as it slopped and sloshed its way downstream. There were shapes out there, in the fast stream of water in the river's heart. Quin could only see them because they seemed to reflect a quite different sort of light than the light that came off the water. He thought that perhaps they were rocks that had been smoothed by the flow of the water as it sluiced around them in swirls and whorls. Afterwards, the river would catch itself in an eddy before disappearing into the night. 

Quin watched the eddy for a long time, thinking about his discovery. He concentrated on the movement of the water and listened to the sound of the river flowing through the world of the night, and he listened to the other sounds from the wood that drifted through the infinite mystery of the thick black air. 

The hum of the insects and occasional calls of night-jars mingled with the sound of the river, and Quin soon felt those sounds themselves begin to occupy his thoughts and extend through his whole body. 

After a while, Quin realised he was tired, and leant against a thick clump of tangled rushes at the river's edge. He soon stretched out flat on the rushes, gazing up through the branches into the night sky. Stars were coming out now, high up above the tops of the highest trees. 

Quin stared into the darkest corners of the sky, where there were only a few stars. He watched one star falling through a very dark place in the sky for a second or two, until it suddenly vanished altogether. Quin had heard about shooting stars, and wondered where they came from. This puzzled him, but he soon remembered how tired he was, and slowly closed his eyes. 

After a while, he drifted off into sleep. In the middle of that midsummer night at the beginning of his life, Quin dreamt of trees moving in the night air. He dreamt of a thousand unknown creatures that lived in the trees and of a great strangeness hidden there. And he dreamt of the sound of running water that rose up before it folded back into the green darkness from which it came. 

After a while, the sound of the water faded and merged into a deeper realm of space. His dream ran on with the roll and turn of the midnight water. 

Dawn began to break in the air above the highest trees. A strip of light raced through the sky and the darkness retreated back. Soon, the sun rising over the river would explode into the rushing water. 

Somewhere else, Quin could hear a radio playing. Where was he now? And where was that secret door hidden in the darkness of the garden? 

Quin awoke to the sound of rushing water. Even before he opened his eyes, he was aware that something had happened. The sound of the water now was different to the sound he remembered as he fell asleep.

The sound was stronger, louder, faster. Lost amid that strange, quiet space between sleeping and waking, Quin opened his eyes. He was lying flat on his back, and all he could see was the colour blue. It was a primary blue, the sort you only get if nothing else is mixed with it. It was morning. 

Turning his head and looking up, Quin suddenly found himself in an unexpected place. So that was the reason the sound of the water was so much louder: he was floating on a great clump of briars and rushes, right out in the middle of the river. 

Surely, this was another river to the one he had found the previous night, through the door at the end of the garden. It was enormous. It seemed to him like a very big river, perhaps the biggest river he had ever seen. He could hardly tell how wide it was, as he peered out over the edge of his precarious raft of rushes adrift on the flowing water. 

It was a fine summer morning. Beyond the river's edge, there were woods that came right down to the riverbank, and he watched as a squaw of jackdaws rose above the trees. Quin thought he could even smell a sort of woodland smell on the morning air, the smell of foliage and soil all mixed up with the reedy, earthy smell of the river itself. 

The hills that lay on the far side of the riverbank, on the other hand, seemed far away. The highest ridge of the hills formed the horizon from Quin's perspective at river level, and defined the limit of his vision in that direction. But they seemed so far away it was hard to work out how many miles of country lay between the river and the most distant of the hills. 

Looking downriver, Quin made out what looked like a small island in midstream, a bank of stony ground with a few, hardy trees clinging to it. He seemed to be heading straight for it. Calculating the speed of the current, he reckoned his raft would strike the bank of the island in just a couple of minutes. 

Swirling in the current, he watched the world beyond the river slip by, like a film played back in slow motion. The island was almost upon him now, so close he could make out the shape of the individual trees that somehow had taken root in the stony bank. In a few moments, Quin felt his raft come aground with an unmistakable slew, like a boat's keel coming aground on a shingle beach. The momentum of the raft, driven by the river's current, was cut short suddenly by the spit of the island. 

On the near bank of the island there were three old trees, all dead, their branches white from years of sun and rain. On the far bank there lay an enormous boulder, shaped like an egg, which lay on its side facing the flow of the river. The sun was high. 

It must be nearly noon, Quin thought. 

But then something happened. Lying on his raft, moored precariously on that bank of shingle in the heart of the river, staring into the blue air and feeling the hot sun warming his body, Quin suddenly fell fast asleep. Very soon, he began to dream of a great river running through the woods, and then out into open country.


Through the deep of the night and in the dream, the river swirled around a hundred islands. There were strange shadows across the water. The shadows changed the colour of the river from a dark brown to a murky, inky black. It was hard to tell the islands from the river itself when the shadows crossed. There were very few sounds other than the endless, murmuring rush of the river. 

Somewhere, far in the distance, a long, still cry broke through the night air. It lasted for two or three seconds, and vanished. Afterwards, even the river was silent, as if the water’s movement itself were silenced by that cry. It was a sound like no other on earth. As the sound faded, a stillness descended in the cooling air.

Night thickened, twisting like a great cloak around the river and the river islands.

Among galaxies of shadow, the sound of the night wind began to rise, running through the woods and down the river and across the river’s darkness, on and on, around the blind circumference of the world.  


‘Quin… Quin! Quin!’

 ‘Get up, you lazy little monster!’    

Quin woke with a start to the sharp but soothing sound of his mother’s scolding. 

‘It’s time for breakfast dear. If you’re late for breakfast, you’ll be late for school. And I’m not having you going to school without breakfast, and I’m not having you being late for school. So get up and get dressed and come downstairs right away!’

Quin stirred and rose, shaking his head. His pajamas were damp with sweat and the sheets had a sweet and musty smell. It was, Quin thought, the smell of reeds and river water. 

Quin quickly got dressed into his school uniform. He tied his tie and folded the collar of his shirt. Then he looked at his own reflection in the mirror, blinking. 

Who was this here, this boy with a faraway glint in the deepest reaches of his eyes?  To what country had he been? In what hemisphere did it lie? Where was he now? 

As he crept downstairs, his mother’s voice echoed through the bright hallway, and he looked through the window on the landing that looked out across Briar Wood. 

In the distance, somewhere on the cusp of the morning, Quin thought he saw a series of bright reflections moving beyond the trees, like strips of torn silver on a pale green surface. 

Just then, through the open window, he felt the first warm wind of the summer day rise from the edge of the wood and over the garden, full of the smell of rushes and river mud and old leaves. In the distance, Quin thought he could hear the sound of water rushing somewhere beyond the wood at the end of the garden, somewhere in the night far away and long ago.

 


The Heart of Nature

This essay first appeared in Alpinist magazine in 2015

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In the dream, splinters of starlight surge from the summit ridge. After a while, they burn out and are lost in the desert night. 

“Andy, you awake?”  

“Uh-uh…Yeah.”  

An hour before dawn, February 2005, I sit upright in my sleeping bag under a gnarled acacia tree, by a smoldering fire at the edge of a goat paddock in Oman. 

Six thousand feet above, the blue dark of the lukewarm winter night is broken by the outline of a serrated summit ridge like the upturned spine of a stupendous primeval beast. Below the crest, a wall of pale limestone plummets more than 3,000 feet to vast scree cones.

Jebel Misht is the biggest cliff in the Arabian Peninsula: a massive, topographically complex and often loose concatenation of interconnected walls and towers, extending for almost three horizontal miles above the date palms of Wadi Al Ayn. 

Our intended line runs up a system of jumbled pillars and sinuous grooves on the southeast face, crossing two existing climbs to gain a sheer 200-meter headwall: a remote, smooth, ethereal, almost delicate thing.

After a quick breakfast of coffee and dates, we pass the small prayer room on the south side of our host Mohammed’s garden just as the Muezzin blares out on his tinny transistor radio. Beyond the edge of the rickety barbed wire fence, a ravine rises quickly toward the scree mounds of Jebel Misht; in the purplish predawn light, they look like colossal avalanche cones, dark with grit and latent menace. 

The shadows of two skin-thin dogs follow us. As the approach steepens, they fall away into the breaking light. A mile and a half to the east, the sun bursts across the immense north flank of Jebel Akhdar, the highest peak in the Arabian Peninsula. Synclines and anticlines rise from the fading gloom across the corpus of the world in swoops and whorls, the visible memory of the colossal tectonic shift that made these mountains. As the rising light hits the west summit of Akhdar, a pink cloudburst detonates across the pale grey stone, quickly draining down to iridescent red.  

Five hundred feet above us, a solitary raven croaks twice. 

“He’s telling us to get a move on, mate,” Andy says. “All this sightseeing isn’t going to get us up there.” 

Andy and I look slowly up the face, taking in all the features—it takes twenty seconds, this way, to trace a line from base to summit. 

We rack up at the apex of a narrow shoulder. Even though it’s only 6:30, we climb in T-shirts. Heat radiates off sun-blasted wadis and fluvial plains. Ahead, the shallow cracks become more and more vertical. It’s the kind of rock that makes you check every hold, as if to test the depth of your judgment: the siren lure of exfoliating fissures that lead nowhere; the sudden, visceral recoil from the boom of hollow flakes.

Two pitches up, I breach a roof, finding solid cracks between wobbly blocks, and I make a belay in a shallow alcove. Andy follows quickly, bright-yellow and bright-pink ropes looping down when I can’t take in slack fast enough. All at once, the ropes fly out and my belay plate locks hard. A block the size of a microwave oven arcs into space. Andy swings out, a meter from the roof. As the rock hits the talus, a dull explosion echoes around the face.

“Fuck!” he yells. “Seemed solid….” He’s breathing hard, visibly shaken, at the belay. I offer to take the next lead.

Tiny dihedrals peter out into nothing. Sinuous cracks weave innumerable blind alleys across a broad pillar where the pale limestone merges with the milky haze of the desert sun. I run out our sixty-meter ropes to a narrow pedestal. Tendrils of high cloud build in the morning sky. 

We creep through a vertical maze of narrow pillars balanced precariously one upon another like a spiral staircase of giant Jenga towers. 

On a long, slim ledge 350 meters above the scree, we drink water and share dates and apricots. A thin film of cirrocumulus softens the rust and tungsten swirls of the stone contours across Wadi Al Ayn. After a while, Andy heads toward what we think might be the deep groove and crack system of Geoff Hornby’s 2001 route, Intifada. We round a corner, and Intifada’s impeccable water-burnished crux dihedrals tower above: an alien refuge of smooth, solid rock amid this vast citadel of choss.

I bridge, arm-bar, jam and lieback through the steep upper section of a split chimney—one of the best bits of limestone corner climbing I’ve done. Above, we move together across the base of a gargantuan amphitheater. With our light rack, we might not be able to retreat down this fragile, disconnected wall. There’s no one here to rescue us. If either Andy or I had a bad accident, we’d likely die here.

Ten meters to my right, a single falling stone makes a weird whistle as it flies past. A lost rider on the mountain’s silence. I flinch instinctively.

Then I check the time: 3:45 p.m. Night falls at 6 p.m. sharp in the Arabian winter. Up here, the temperature will drop like a stone. We are a pair of spiders hanging in the atrium of a gothic cathedral. Two minute figures poised in a vast cauldron of turreted rock; a crucible of the wild. 

Shivering in my windproof, late-afternoon clouds swirl around us. On the best rock we’ve yet encountered on the wall, I run it out between cams in horizontal breaks up a seventy-meter band of compact, weatherworn stone: a mantelpiece of solidity on the crumbling edifice of the mountain. Somewhere behind me, a sharp, solitary croak cracks through the light wind and resounds: the raven has returned. 

We reach the summit ridge after eleven hours of continuous climbing. Red light slices through the cloud above Jebel Akdhar, a slow-motion laser shifting the spectra of evening. Eighty miles to the north, the low, elongated caul of Jebel Fahud rises from the sand like an emergent Kraken on the surface of an ancient ocean. As our eyes trace the eastern edge of the Rub’ al Khali, we can see the curvature of the earth. This is the fabled Empty Quarter, the world’s largest sandy desert, which stretches some 650,000 square kilometers across the Arabian Peninsula.

Scree-sliding down the long, complex descent, navigating through cliff bands and around dark, maze-like gullies by headlight, we’re both lost in our thoughts. Seventeen hours after we’d set out from the goat paddock outside Mohammed’s garden, we reach the dirt road that runs parallel with the edge of Jebel Misht’s northern flank.

Despite the astonishing shift that’s taken place in Oman over the past century—a people transformed from desert nomads to the relatively affluent citizens of one of the world’s more benign petro-states—these mountains have remained largely unchanged. Later that night, before I fall asleep, the chromium slice of a crescent moon rises over the jet-black spikes of Misht’s summit ridge. A few degrees to the south, Orion is travelling across the lunar terrain of Akhdar’s highest slopes: a bright barb hooked somewhere, somehow, on the outer edge of our infinite world. 

 

Analogue Climbs in the Digital Age

The new line we climbed that day, Inshalla Salam, was certainly not the best big wall I’ve done. It was discontinuous and loose in places, and it incorporated sections from two existing routes. Even so, it was one of the best days of climbing I’ve ever had.

Afterward, I wrote a couple of short features in the British press about climbing in Oman, but I never wrote anything about that route. All that was recorded was the following one-line entry by Geoff Hornby in the 2007 Alpine Journal: “On Jebel Misht’s south east face, David Pickford and Andy Whittaker linked together Intifada and Eastern Promise and added a 100m finish up the tower to the summit ridge to provide Inshalla Salam (1000m, 5.11 R, ED VII+).”

I don’t have any photos of the climb either, as I had run out of film the day before. Yet nobody questioned the veracity of our ascent—mainly because it was a moderately difficult climb on an obscure cliff in Oman, of interest to only a few. But there’s another reason nobody asked Andy or me to “support” our ascent with “evidence”: in 2005, Facebook and Twitter were not yet part of our cultural mainstream. Back in the mid-‘noughties, as a former editor of The Economist, John Micklethwaite, put it in his recent farewell editorial, “social media had something to do with a very good lunch.”

An extraordinary phenomenon, one that’s gone largely unquestioned in the vertical world, has taken place over the past decade as a result of the explosion of climbing imagery and videography freely available through social media: the way we document, share and process stories about our activity has shifted. The great majority of people in the developed world now have a smartphone, and thus a camera. As Apple’s chief executive, Tim Cook, recently said of the 75 million new iPhones his firm sold in the last quarter of 2014, the phenomenon is simply “hard to comprehend.”  

If we’d climbed Inshalla Salam yesterday, our account might be regarded as spurious. “OK,” people might say, “where’s your Facebook update? Photos? Video?” The demand for visual evidence of ascents is not unique, of course, to the digital age: in 1910 Herschel Parker and Belmore Browne famously disproved Frederick Cook’s claim to have made the first ascent of Denali by matching a picture from a lower peak with the one he described as his summit photo. Yet in recent years, the sheer saturation of digital media has assumed an unprecedented level of control over the making of climbing history. Often, the documented image now appears to confirm the existential event, far more than the words or the memory of the climber himself. 

When Ueli Steck soloed the South Face of Annapurna (8091m) in October 2013, his camera was ripped from his wrist in a spindrift avalanche low on the route; thus, he had no “proof” of the climb as such. Afterward, some members of the mountaineering community raised doubts. Hermann Buhl, after all, had managed to photograph his ice axe very near the top of Nanga Parbat when he made the first ascent of that 8125-meter peak, alone, in 1953. 

Having interviewed Steck at length, I am certain that he climbed Annapurna by the route he claimed. He’s a quiet man of tremendous self-assurance, humility and conviction: not the kind of person who might concoct a colossal lie. Denis Urubko and Jonathan Griffith—both of whom have climbed with Steck extensively—as well as Stephane Benoist and Yannick Graziani, the French alpinists who repeated Steck’s route, all believe him. As they’ve pointed out, there’s probably no other mountaineer alive with Steck’s level of fitness, ability at altitude and experience of hard alpine soloing. Given the exceptional snow and ice conditions at the time (which, said Urubko, might be “seen once in twenty years”), the route would have been well within Steck’s prodigious abilities. It could be construed as a mistake that he didn’t take a spare camera, since he is a professional climber. But if you’re moving as light as Steck, then taking two cameras seems ridiculous. 

Beyond Steck and Annapurna, this conundrum represents a profound conflict between the between the direct experience of a climb and the alternative narratives of its representation, between the actual and the perceived. The notion that an ascent cannot truly be captured in words or images is a longstanding theme in climbing literature. Any form of representation in any medium obscures reality to a certain extent. Multiply those forms exponentially, and do you get something closer or farther from the truth? “The digitized discourse is more complete,” explains the Canadian climber Michael Down, “but it can also seem more inaccessible—with so much noise, so much chatter, reams of it, layers and layers.”

Now and then, a clear and brilliant voice, hitherto unheard, breaks through the chaotic din. In April 2014, Jemina Diki Sherpa’s blog post, “Three Springs,” a response to the deaths of sixteen Nepali expedition workers in a serac collapse on Everest, helped tear away the foreign myths associated with Sherpas, revealing the realities of their to lives to readers around the world. As this case shows, writers working outside the fray can use digital media as a means to shatter the dominant tales of more powerful groups. So it’s not all bad. At times the establishment gets shaken up by digital media, and in a good way. At other times, social media becomes a very powerful tool for that same establishment.

 

Climbs of Our Own

I belong to the last generation to have grown up with books and newspapers as my primary source of written tales. As such, I hugely enjoy the experience of uninterrupted, solitary reading. Sure, I use email every day for work. But I still love print; and I love great stories. 

By content — often a sinister, slippery word in journalism today — we are simply referring to stories transmitted through different media. But what happens when 'content generation' becomes the story itself, as is increasingly common in the new media landscape? The account of the first free ascent of the Dawn Wall is now inextricably bound up with “the story of the story” of the route—the coverage by the mainstream press, the almost real-time retelling online. Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson’s regular updates from the wall gave extraordinary momentum to the snowballing of the news. Caldwell’s post on January 10, 2015, sums up the remarkable power of social media for the instant transmission of climbing history: “The last few days have been some of the most memorable climbing days of my life. Yesterday I finished the last two 5.13+ pitches…. I kind of lost it when I pulled onto Wino Tower, knowing that this seven-year dream is looking more and more like it could become a reality.” 

Dawn Wall is a truly great climb: the hardest and most sustained granite big-wall route in the world. It’s also one of the most beautiful: a sidewinding, swiveling dance up the steepest and smoothest part of El Cap. As many people said, the Dawn Wall coverage represented one of the rare occasions that mainstream media attention focused on a legitimately important climb, instead of on the latest 8000-meter peak disaster or made-for-media expedition. Corey Rich’s dark, spooky, almost otherworldly shots of Caldwell and Jorgeson climbing some of the hardest pitches by headlight will, one day, be remembered as classics of twenty-first-century climbing photography.

Yet my suspicion remains that the most meaningful ascents, in a purely human and private sense, are those that are not supported or “validated” by countless colorful images, wobbly helmet-cam videos or professionally shot footage. Instead, they’re the climbs that take us into the heart of nature and ourselves. As a photographer myself, I am acutely aware of the paradox. The majority of my best climbing experiences were those where the distraction of a camera was not even present, allowing me to climb to the full in the presence of wild nature, uninterrupted by the burden of documenting what I was doing. 

It is true that climbing in the digital age has become more “democratic,” in a narrow sense of the word, since anyone can today create publicity around their ascents. Yet in the process the value of the narrative and the importance of the subject can become secondary to the volume of its proliferation. Climbs that are easily hyped up by ascensionists or sponsors sometimes gain a level of coverage disproportionate to their actual significance. Groundbreaking routes may be left almost completely unreported, such as Norwegian climber Sindra Saether’s astonishing 2010 all-free ascent of The Arch Wall on Trollveggen.

My own recalcitrance to publicize the climbs I do through a blog, for example, that I might then share on social media is because I just don’t want to share the wild architecture of those experiences with anything or anyone that might dilute them. I’d rather talk about climbing over coffee with my friends than post on Twitter. 

Increasingly, I enjoy the priceless inner solitude that climbing offers me in a world in which digital technology is an almost constant interruptive force. In contrast to the incessant sound and fury of the digital age, climbing provides us with something utterly real and profoundly valuable: those moments of utter connection with the physical world that we each encounter during our best days on the cliffs and in the mountains; an undistracted, total absorption similar to the experience of reading – or indeed of writing. Now as ever, our pursuit can remain as private or as public as we want it to be. You can climb the plumb line on a busy crag on a Sunday afternoon and update Facebook from the parking lot, or you can solo a secret route hours from the road and not tell a soul. 

Perhaps because I edit a magazine, Climb—and I spend a lot of time listening to climbing storiesI get the strong impression that a large, grassroots segment of the climbing community is increasingly interested in the ascensionists who don’t shout their tales of power to the world. Out there in cyberspace, there are tens of thousands of two-minute video-blogs of teenagers climbing hard problems to a tech-house soundtrack. The thing is, most of these “stories” just aren’t that interesting, even to avid boulderers. But the tale of an unknown girl or guy who goes out and quietly solos a remote route miles from a road, leaving only a fleeting trail of chalk, or axe and crampon marks—now that is an interesting story. This plot has all the key elements that make for a great narrative: mystery, uncertainty, enigma, suspense. But then, of course, it usually won’t get told. And maybe it’s better that way. 

Does the telling of an experience dilute how true it is? Does it change what it means? As Pilate asked the gathered crowd when he washed his hands: ‘What is Truth?’ He was perhaps the first person in history to understand the inherent complications of the human desire to tell stories.

 

The Leopard’s Eyes

During a recent trip to South Africa, two friends and I climbed at Truitjieskraal in the Cederberg Wilderness Area on sandstone that gleams like the scales of a fossilized blood-orange dinosaur. The crags lie in the rock-strewn, wind-enchanted country between the mountain ranges of the Wolfberg and Tagelberg. Narrow dirt roads cross a landscape of red stone, dry grass and colossal skies. In the late afternoon, rising pillars of cloud built up over the Tafelberg like fire-blackened Doric columns, casting violet shadows over the bunchgrass plains. 

We didn’t see anyone else there. The second morning, fresh leopard tracks and droppings appeared in the sand. He’d surely passed this way overnight. That evening, as the light was falling, we came upon a shallow cave adorned with painted human and animal figures. Nobody knows exactly how old they are, but we do know they were made by the Khoisan, the indigenous inhabitants of this part of Africa, quite possibly long before the first white men ever set foot in the Cederberg. 

That evening, an hour after sunset, a huge full moon rose over Rocklands, to our east, like an orb of fired glass, globular, opaque and pale-bright. It was one of those visions that, years later, you almost certainly recall in a moment of idleness: a hundred thousand sandstone towers washed in pallid, spectral light. A few strands of high cirrus black against the inky blue air. Orion sloping off the summit towers of the Tafelberg. The Southern Cross high and bright overhead, a tall rider on the infinite dark. 

It grew cold quickly. After a while, my friends walked back down from the huge, flat-topped boulder where we’d been sitting. Just for a while longer, I sat and listened to the night. There was no sound at all except the whistle of the light wind in the dry grass. After a while, I heard a footfall, very quiet, like the soft thud of a large pebble dropping in a sandpit. There was another, and then another. I slowly turned around. 

Two wide, bright green eyes hovered in the long grass about fifty feet away. 

The leopard was watching me. He’d been watching, I think, for a long time.  

No more than three seconds after I rose up from the boulder, I heard him dart away into the shadows. As soon as he vanished, an unfathomable emptiness filled the night air. The east wind rose slightly, rustling the dry grass, and a transparent ghost floated across the moonlit Cederberg. 

It was time to leave. 

On the plane home, I looked through photographs I’d taken—some were powerful, richly coloured shots—but none of them captured the essence of the experience. Similarly, Hermann Buhl’s grainy photo of his ice axe, shoved into the snow somewhere on Nanga Parbat’s trapezoidal summit rocks in August 1953, doesn’t tell us much about the landscapes of his mind during that lonely summit push. In the same way, a pixellated image of Ueli Steck’s face on top of Annapurna that October night—had he taken one—wouldn’t tell us a great deal about how tired he was at eight thousand meters, or shown the fire in his eyes at the precise instant when he realized there was no more mountain left above him—only black air, cloud, and stars. 

If I’d tried to photograph the earth’s curvature along the Rub’ al Khali from the top of Jebel Misht ten years ago, I don’t think it would enhance in any way the memory I have of that huge desert wall; the existence of such an image might in fact change the way I remember the climb itself by overwriting my strong need to recall it in accurate physical and psychic detail. And perhaps if I went back and climbed another line on that wall today, taking two hundred pictures of the route on a digital camera as I climbed, I might not recollect much of it. I’d have the photos, after all.    

“Whenever we use a tool to exert greater control over the outside world, we change our relationship with that world,” writes Nicholas Carr in The Shallows; the result can be a loss of some of our original abilities of relating and of thinking. 

In the same way that the traveler who takes an endless stream of selfies can’t experience a place at the same level as one who doesn’t, there’s a possibility that the more photographs we take of the climbs we do, the less we might actually remember of those routes. If this is even partially true, it’s important to keep some climbs for memory alone. Because I don’t have any physical way of revisiting Inshalla Salam, it comes vividly to life as soon I recall it. Secretly and silently, without evidence or epithet, the coiled spring of those compressed hours on Jebel Misht jump back at me from the past, as if they took place only yesterday. The route has been distilled into the wild backcountry of memory, far removed from publicity and audience; a unique, precious, and singular moment in my life.  

The raw experience of something entirely private, pure and free—this is one of the first reasons I chose to climb, and that I continue to do so. A sudden gust of wind from Canyonlands catching a rope as I fling it from a desert tower. The first sight of an unclimbed wall shining bold and black above a Norwegian fjord. An asteroid of light on cerulean ice as I strike my axe. The raven circling overhead, following me up a massive wall. Moments lost in time that are part of who I am.  

I love the athletic quality of climbing, sure. But this aspect alone is an insufficient explanation for why climbing is such a powerful and instructive presence in my life. Perhaps the real reason is that it is through climbing I might come closest to that immense, inexplicable force at the heart of nature; to the sea-green discs of a leopard’s eyes burning back at me under a star-emblazoned sky.

 


A Short Walk in Tierra del Fuego

This essay first appeared in the online adventure magazine, LEGEND, in 2018

  Looking northwest from the summit of Cerro Tonelli, Argentine Tierra del Fuego

Looking northwest from the summit of Cerro Tonelli, Argentine Tierra del Fuego

Just before dawn, I’m woken by a gust of wind that sounds like a low-flying fighter jet with engine failure. 

In southern Patagonia, the legendary wind is a constant companion, but this was something different altogether. Shearing off the icecap with a preternatural ferocity, this particular gust didn’t just howl.  It visibly impacted the world. For fifteen seconds, the entire superstructure of the Torre Glacier appeared to shudder violently at its foundations. A billion tonnes of ice and granite became suddenly unhinged, for a terrible moment, by the unearthly Patagonian wind. As the gust subsided, the primeval boom of an enormous chunk of calving ice echoed around the mountains, sending a series of micro-tsunamis across the silty brown water of Laguna Torre. 

I unzip my lightweight tent and peer out into the half-light. Squinting through the gap in the pines just above my lonely camp, which is perched in a solitary sheltered enclave on the edge of a ravine high above the moraine, fast-moving strands of altostratus make strange, serpentine shapes in the monochrome air. I glance up the ravine. On the limit of the tree-line, which is perhaps a thousand feet above me, the stunted pines bend double under the force of the wind. 

Somewhere up there in the dark air of early morning, Cerro Torre and Cerro Standhart are lost in cloud. The decision is not so much reached, but rather presented by the unavoidable logic of circumstance. I’m not going climbing today. As so often in these mountains, the weather is the expedition leader.

Six hours later I’m back in El Chalten, looking at the weather forecast with moral assistance in the form of a strong black coffee in a half-pint glass. It’s not good. In fact, it’s so far from good it could be accurately described as terrible. A succession of fronts pushing in from the Pacific for the next five days, picking up energy as they cross the ice-cap before slamming into the Chalten massif. On the spur of the moment, I check the forecast for Tierra del Fuego, eight hundred miles south at the end of the American continental landmass. It’s looking much better: a seventy two hour window of reasonably high pressure. Sometimes, particularly when on a solo mission, the best ally in the world is spontaneous improvisation. The decision is quickly made: I book the next flight to Ushuaia, which rivals anywhere in the southern hemisphere for big adventures with quick and easy access.  

The dark and jagged sweep of the Cordon Martial guards the northern edge of the Beagle Channel, the stretch of open water that separates Tierra del Fuego from the much smaller Isla Navarino to the south. The Channel takes its name from the ship captained by Robert Fitzroy that took Charles Darwin on his celebrated voyages south in the mid nineteenth Century, and provides the last safe passage between the Atlantic and the Pacific before Cape Horn.

I leave the still-sleeping streets of Ushuaia by taxi at dawn, bound for Valle de Andorra, the last outpost of civilisation before the wilderness of the Tierra del Fuego national park rises up to the west. I jump out at the chosen point, and watch the battered Mercedes disappear back down the dirt road in a cloud of dust. I glance around. I’m alone at the base of a wide valley that extends westwards towards a great cirque of steep and craggy peaks, the tallest still freaked with traces of snow from the recent storms. Early sunlight sparkles from the numerous icefields that remain on the upper slopes throughout the year. 

Following a sinuous trail through the dense Patagonian forest, I cross and re-cross several rivers that flow down this valley from the small lagunas in the glacial basin to the west. By mid-morning, after navigating a mile-long flooded glade of desiccated pines straight out of Lord of the Rings, I’ve travelled more than fifteen kilometres, and strike up the steepening slope to the south, gradually breaking free of the dense and waterlogged foliage and into the barren terrain of higher ground. 

The trapezoidal volcanic bulk of Cerro Tonelli, the highest point of the Cordon Martial, rises above the col of Paso de la Oveja that defines the southwestern head of this valley. Not unlike the Cuillin of the Isle of Skye in northwest Scotland, it makes up in Gothic drama what it lacks in height. Despite that fact its summit stands at only just over four thousand feet, the craggy ramparts that defend every approach to its knife-edge summit ridge give it the look and feel of a much bigger mountain.

Pausing for a brief rest on the lonely plinth of Paso de la Oveja, I check my watch. It’s 2pm. Despite the forecast deterioration later on the day, pressure is still stable, the wind light, and the signs generally good. All the summits to the north remain free of cloud. I decide to go for it. 

The climb up to the summit of Cerro Tonelli from the pass is technically easy, with just a few short sections of moderate rock climbing. It’s mainly arduous scrambling for over a thousand feet of jumbled scree, interspersed with deteriorating rock terraces between boulder-filled gullies, steepening with height. In the final few hundred feet becomes steeper still, culminating in a seventy-degree chimney stuffed with tottering blocks. At the apex of the gully, I press eject and land just below the crest of the summit ridge.

Here, right in front of me, is one of the most astonishing panoramas I’ve seen in more than two decades of climbing and mountaineering all over the world. The crystal air sparks with snow and light. The shining mountains of the world’s most southerly inhabited place disappear in every direction, at first into the deep blue of the Beagle Channel and the waters the surging Southern Ocean not far beyond. Being up here reminds me of every single reason I started to climb as a teenager on the gritstone edges of northern England, of all the reasons I continue to climb today. For a few intoxicating minutes, I’m swept away by the wild that surrounds me. 

After a while, threatening cloud begins to obscure the upper icefields of Monte Sarmiento; forty miles to the west, this is Tierra del Fuego’s highest and most inaccessible summit. In the moments before I strike down from the summit of Cerro Tonelli, the white air shifts to grey, and the austral sky grows wild with the approach of another Patagonian storm. 

For the sake of speed, I descend the mountain by a different route than the one by which I ascended; a fast fifty-degree scree run results in a rapid altitude loss of five hundred feet, landing me on the narrow col that separates the twin summits of Cerro Tonelli and its southerly companion, Cerro Martial. By the time I reach the col, the tops of both mountains are shrouded in cloud. The wind shifts in a weird game of fitful, powerful gusts followed by eerie lulls. It’s time to get out of here. 

In a few short minutes, I descend a steep gully that’s one of the most efficient ways off any mountain I’ve ever climbed.  It’s a perfectly smooth and deepening chute, steepening beneath the col to a casual 65 degrees, and marbled with treacherously fine scree. All this means that once speed is built up it’s almost impossible to stop, so I half-run, half-scramble, half-fall down the gully, which promptly spits me out at the top of a gargantuan cone of rubble: the mountain’s natural waste disposal system.  

By the time I’m jogging down the spectacular Canandon de la Oveja, the ten mile long alpine valley that extends from the shores of the Beagle Channel up to the pass, the storm has swallowed the mountains entirely, and cloud base hovers a few hundred feet overhead as I continue my descent. 

By the time I reached Ushuaia in the early evening, a chill breeze was blowing. The entire Cordon Martial was lost in a great bank of low cloud. White horses began to rise on the waters of the Beagle Channel. I’d been given a precious gift, I began to realise, in the short window of stable weather I’d used to climb Cerro Tonelli, the craggy, lonely peak at the very limit of the inhabited world. 

For reasons that remain hard to articulate, there was something strange and unusually thrilling about this particular day, and this particular climb. It wasn’t a technically difficult one, but something about the mountain and the process of the ascent itself has stayed with me more than many far higher and more outwardly impressive summits. The long approach through that enchanted forest; the steep climb to that deserted summit commanding centre stage amid one the more spectacular places in Patagonia; the approaching storm; the fast descent back to civilisation.

Climbing, at heart, is a journey into the hinterland of the human mind as much as an exploration of the wild. If that’s true, then Cerro Tonelli was one of those rare quests where the hinterland is clarified suddenly and all at once, like the flash of sun against steel.

 


The Cirque of The Unfallen

This short story first appeared in the collection After The Crash and other storiespublished by Vertebrate Publishing in 2015

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In the distance, cloud had started to build above the high crags that ran along the edge of the cirque. She reached for a blue ripple in the granite wall that ran strong and thin as a human vein over the rough grey stone. At its apex, the fingers of her left hand closed on a small edge. 

It was enough, but only just. 

Pulling hard on the edge, she ran her feet up to the sloping shelf and stood in balance for the first time in a hundred and forty feet. The sun was falling fast towards a gap in the ridge more than three hundred feet above. Her rope disappeared down the steep slab beneath into the rising shadow of evening. Where was the last gear that would hold a fall?  She didn’t know.

Just above, a pair of choughs quartered out from the wall. As they ascended into space, their cries echoed for a while in the cooling air before falling silent.

The evening sky reeked with shifting light and omen. 

The lichen under her fingers smelt of damp earth on an autumn night. Twenty feet above, a stunted pine grew out from the wall: the lone sentinel of this high tower that rose sharply for a thousand feet above a silver lake that gleamed between the trees beneath. 

She swarmed up the final plinth above the sloping shelf and belayed to the pine, wrapping a sling around the base of the foot-wide trunk that disappeared into a small chimney. Why was it growing here, this lonely tree? From where did it find water and nourishment? How did it survive the winter ice and snow?

She didn’t know.

There was almost no rope left to take in. She took off her helmet and clipped it to the sling around the tree. Beads of sweat balled up on her straw-coloured curls and ran down her bare arms and across the weathered skin of her hands that the high Sierra sun had turned to fired bronze. As she leaned back against the wall and took in the ropes, her chalk bag compressed against the stone and a cloud of chalk dust hung in the still air above the pine tree. 

He started climbing almost immediately. No more than a few seconds elapsed between the ropes coming tight and starting to move again. 

They had been climbing together for a long time now, the girl and the boy. Everything they did was intuitive. Fifteen minutes later, he arrived at her belay on the pine tree, breathing hard. 

‘Nice lead’ he said as he grabbed the gear she’d already racked on a sling that hung on the tree, ready for him to take. 

‘Your pitch looks harder’ she replied. ‘Look at that roof at the top the upper arête. There’s a thin crack, maybe small cams. That’s it.’ 

‘Hmm, yeah. Well, I guess we’ll see.’ He chuckled to himself as he got ready to climb again. It was a clever trick he used to calm his nerves. 

She gave him a slow, deliberate wink of her left eye as he was about to set off up the pitch, as if to say she was ready, so he might as well get on with it. The one-eyed wink was her thing, but it had become their ritual before either of them went for a hard lead. 

Twenty minutes later, he was at the top of the arête. The sun was almost touching the ridge on the other side of the cirque. He plugged a small cam in the crack in the roof and chalked up. He could see what looked like a good hold on the lip of the metre-wide roof. His left hand slipped a centimeter in a poor finger lock. He stabbed his left foot against the wall, torquing his fingers harder in the crack. It’s now or never, kid, he said to himself. 

He eyeballed the hold. He ran his right foot up to a high smear. Pulling outwards on the finger lock, he caught the small, sloping undercut at the back of the roof with the fingertips of his left hand. His right hand flew from the finger jam, making a lightning arc through the evening. 

He hit the hold at the same time as his right foot exploded from the smear. His feet cut loose, and he caught the edge on the lip of the roof with both hands. His legs spun in a whirl beneath him, a lone ballerina suspended in space in mid-pirouette above the darkening void below.

The sky crackled with static electricity that made the tiny hairs on the back of his neck rise up as he hung there from the dragon-crest of the wall.  Far to the southeast, thunderheads were building over Nevada. Beyond them and further out, in some lost region of the air, something was stirring. 

On her belay down at the stunted pine, the girl glanced up towards the edge of the cirque as he disappeared from sight high on the arête above. Why did the tiny hairs on the bare skin of her arms and at the back of her neck rise up as soon as she was alone here? And was she really alone here?

She didn’t know. 

He ran out the ropes to a tiny ledge perched on the apex of the upper arête; an eyrie that looked out across the cirque and across the world below. The sun had fallen behind the ridge now, and the sky was shifting from blue to indigo. Long ribbons of dark cirrostratus were floating around the higher crags and were interspersed by vagrant rafts of rising vapour that blew opaque and strange through the low notch where the cirque dipped before the cliffs rose again to the north.

As she followed the pitch, a light wind picked up, blowing in slow gusts through the notch in the ridge. Far below, the surface of the lake hovered at the edge of the forest. The quicksilver film of the dead calm water spread out like a slick of split mercury across the darkening fathoms of the mountains about him. 

As he belayed her up, he shivered slightly in his windproof. 

He knew of all the stories that other climbers had told about this place, about the strange things that happened after dark up here in the cirque. The sudden shadows moving on the ridge. The lost voices in the cloud. The presence in the air. And the whistle of the night wind from all directions. 

She reached the ledge where he was belayed after twenty minutes of climbing in a flurry of laughter and curses. The lines of his face looked pale now in the fading light, she thought, and as keen as a hunting wolf. As she clipped in to the sling at the belay, he turned to her. 

‘See the inscription, just down there’. He pointed to the words etched into the granite at the base of the ledge. 

 

In the cirque of the unfallen

they who passed this way

will rise again

 

‘What the hell is that?’ Her eyes darkened as she looked down at the inscription. 

‘It’s kinda creepy’.

‘It dates back to the early 70s. Two climbers disappeared somewhere on the ridge over there. It was the beginning of winter. There was a freak ice storm that came out of nowhere, apparently. Neither of the bodies was ever found. The inscription was cut by one of their friends, one of the old pioneers of the cirque, the following summer. Nobody knows who. The old guy who lives in that tumbledown shack by the road head told me about it. It’s a legend among the older folk in the high Sierra. That’s why the local climbers are afraid of staying too late here. They think the dead climbers haunt this place at night.’

She stared at a gap in the cloud just above the notch in the ridge. The wind blew in quick eddies around them, back and forth, shifting and starting, then falling away before it suddenly rose up in a series of gusts that made a low whistle as they passed over the crest of the ridge above. 

‘We better get going, then’ she said as she grabbed the gear that was hanging from a sling on the belay. ‘I don’t believe in any of that ghost story stuff. I’m a scientist, remember. Occam’s Razor suggests it’s all bullshit. As does the last five hundred years of human progress.  Anyway, enough storytelling. Time to climb!’

‘Okay, go for it’ he said, glancing upward with a raised eyebrow. It was a gesture, she thought, to find out what really existed here, and what didn’t.

She winked at him with her left eye as she set off up the final pitch. 

Climbing fast, she hardly bothered to stop and place gear; just a solid cam in a horizontal break ten metres above the belay. She ran out the sixty metre ropes up a series of overlapping slabs all the way to the ridge. 

Darkness was falling fast by the time she’d set up a belay in a jumble of blocks just under the upper crest of the wall. The shadows of the cirque had deepened into a sluice of jet-black liquid that swept westwards into the forest beyond the lake, which had become nothing more than the faintest pulse of pale light on the outer edge of the mountain’s penumbra. Why did she feel so cold, all of a sudden?

She didn’t know.

She saw the first of them as she took the ropes in tight and he began to climb. The outline was faint at first among the boulders that lay in the notch of the ridge, but resolved into form as she stared towards it. She was transfixed by the strange appearance of another climber, as if he’d risen out of nowhere. He was tall and lean. He carried an old-fashioned backpack of the style used by climbers of a generation ago, and a long-handled ice axe with a wooden shaft was fastened to the side of the pack. His movements spoke of the careful and deliberate motion of an experienced mountaineer.  Although his clothes were tattered and faded, he was unmistakably moving up the ridge towards her, a lost rider on the rising night. 

As she continued to stare, the second figure appeared. Climbing just behind the man, she moved with the lithe, light and delicate gait of an athletic young woman. She was also carrying a backpack, which was slightly smaller than the man’s though of the same style. 

Now the girl could see the rope trailing between them. The two ends of the rope were coiled in loops around the shoulders of the two figures. The two of them were moving together slowly and carefully up the ridge. They were heading, it seemed, for the precise point at which she’d made the belay. 

She shivered as waves of nervous electricity darted through her. The last words of the inscription on the ledge below suddenly came back to her:

 

they who passed this way

will rise again

 

In a trance of cold and mesmeric attention, she took the rope in through her belay plate and watched as the two figures climbed up the ridge. She could feel her partner’s fast movements across the slab, invisible now in the darkness below, through the sudden release of tension on the rope as soon she took in the slack. He would be here in less than a minute. 

Would he believe her when she told him?

She didn’t know. 

The two climbers on the ridge below continued to make their way towards her as the wind blew a long streamer of pale cloud through the dark air between her position and theirs.  This delicate thread of vapour stretched a thin grey line over the granite, defining the no-man’s-land in the middle distance between her and the two figures. Somewhere in that forbidden tract of boulder and scree, the space between the past and the present suddenly collapsed and was no more part of the world up here. The insatiable mountain had consumed time itself for a while, just as it had consumed those who had once passed this way, and as it might consume others.

It was nearly dark when he arrived at the belay. His head torch beam made quick movements across the stone. High above them, in the centre of a black atrium revealed by the parting cloud, two stars began to blink.

Nothing visible below them now remained. The streamer of vapour was clearing fast, leaving the ridge dark and desolate under the sliver of a crescent moon that was rising above the boulders that lay on the crest of the cirque. Before they started down, the final strands of cloud were carried away eastwards by the wind, and the chill of the night began to fall across the unknown path of their descent. 

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