The Heart of Nature

This essay first appeared in Alpinist magazine in 2015


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?”  


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.