Updated: Nov 12, 2018
Summer drains the last of its energy, browning the bracken and plumping blackberries. There will be no grandstand peroration for the mountain rock season in the Alps this time, with plans curtailed by Ferdia's lingering mystery illness, so we nestle into the nooks of the hills and the seaside on our island instead. We are occupying a house with Tess and Ben, two of the good ones as far as humans go, on Llanberis high street, because to cut a long thought process short, in the absence of any fixed commitments to living anywhere in particular, it made a lot of sense to try out living here. It's good.
Driving south from my last summer work in Scotland, I stopped first in Edinburgh to drink beer at the Fringe and laugh at people with Dr Moles, then stopped at Bowden Doors, both for old times' sake. It had to be Bowden, and nothing else would do, even though it was windy enough to blow my t-shirt over my head - the crag may be a washed-over sandcastle in places, but there remains something very beautiful about it. There was a kind of double symmetry in this - back at the end of the winter season when I drove south down the other side of the country, I stopped in Langdale and soloed Bilberry Buttress - my first ever VS, climbed as a four with Burton and me seconding Fran and Kim, on an EUMC meet twelve years ago. On both stop-offs I felt like I was dropping on an old friend. I was free from the various hints of agenda that sometimes encroach on my activities - trying to climb a particular route or grade, ticking something off a list, making sure someone else is having a good time. Not a chance of me climbing something new at Bowden these days anyway, not without some serious padding and effort. I was climbing for the pure sensation, the joy of it.
When the wind whipping the lip of the crag made another top-out a bit too engaging, I withdrew to the van and finished listening to a Jam Crack podcast with Steve McClure. It was a good chat. At one point, they spoke about how sport climbing is in fashion, no one climbs on grit any more, and everyone is training hard but hardly anyone is performing on the rock. My goodness, I thought, none of this accords with my experience. Are they in a bubble, or am I? On reflection, probably both.
For my part, I have been becoming increasingly aware how distanced I am, for a committed climber, from the zeitgeist in climbing - the booming indoor and competition scenes. I was recently shown Shauna Coxsey's progressively pouty Instagram feed, and it was about as much of a piece with my world as a royals appreciation blog. My aspirations are mostly routes first climbed in the 80s and 90s, which were nowhere near cutting edge even then. I am an anachronism, albeit one who's dipped a toe in enough of climbing's increasingly separated pools to know what they feel like. It's four years since I worked at TCA and knew the feel of holds at Dumby better than my own skin, and since then my engagement with the world of strength and training has been sparse. Then again, and happily, there are many like me. The zeitgeist doesn't happen to everyone.
I am not a close follower of the news. I don't listen much to the radio, have never had a TV since leaving home at 18, don't buy a paper, visit online news sites only sporadically. Sometimes I am caught out by a lack of awareness of what is going on, but mostly I don't mind. I'm convinced that most of it is noise, important to you only if you let it be. In fact, I'm convinced that there is clarity and perspective offered by avoiding immersion in the daily chatter, of keeping media engagement at arm's length.
It's a labyrinth. Even that which is not ostensibly biased is partial - the prominence given to a story merely in becoming news is in itself political, in the sense that it relates to status and power, even if we are so conditioned to the format that we forget to see it that way. The media influences, to the point of defining, the kind of knowledge we regard as important. A choice bugbear of mine, probably not the most insidious but one of the most grotesque, is the private tragedy - the child killed in a house fire or similar - which somehow makes the cut to be one of the clutch of stories fronting a news bulletin. Take a moment to think about that. Why? What is motivating the editorial decision to class such information as one of the four most important things the public needs to know right now, and what do you, as a member of that audience, learn or gain from it?
Even so, if you don't keep up it is easy to feel hamstrung by ignorance. Knowledge is power, after all, and as Foucault taught us, it's really all about power. To hold your own in any conversational joust without the lance of knowledge on a given topic takes some acrobatic discursive skills. I have been asked by various relatives and strangers what I, as a younger person, think of Trump. My first reaction, probably rudely, is to find it funny that they are even asking. What is my opinion worth? What does it even mean? I am a middle-class university-educated white European fella, and you can probably estimate my views on Trump closely enough from that basic profile alone. Beyond that? Well, I have ingested much the same British mainstream media representation of him as everyone else. I have listened to the thoughts of various interesting public intellectuals and political scientists, and yes there is some nuance there, but still my view is partial, unstable, and prey to any number of biases arising from complex and fluid social pressures on my own sense of identity. In fact, much like the self itself, there is nothing really there at the core - it's a swirling fog which will take on an false impression of cogency if I attempt to shape it into a straight response, like the cloud sculptors of Vermilion Sands. I actually think it's OK to admit the limitations of one's opinion and go from there, instead of shooting from the hip on an emotional response with some post hoc reasoning tacked on. Though I don't take this line of reasoning to its irrational conclusion, where I distrust the authority of information so radically that I can't have an opinion at all.
I'm not sure if this meta-response is satisfactory. Am I speaking for 'my generation', or just for me? If there is an us, I think we may be the 'best' of those prophesied by Yeats in The Second Coming: we lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity. I thought I was peripheral and a bit disengaged, but then I read an article describing 'millennials' and realised I'm not a snowflake, but a cardboard cut-out from the 80s. Of a snowflake. It was like in that film, I'm not sure which one, maybe Edward Scissorhands or Westworld or Pinocchio, the moment of catharsis when the machine comes to self-knowledge of what it is. Then I read another article that proved the previous article was bollocks, then another which muddied the waters a little, and in the end I found myself splashing around on my own again. A familiar process. Can you really define a generation? They definitely observed some traits I could identify with, but who are they, and what's their agenda? Is my disengagement the essence of the zeitgeist, or causing it to pass me by?
When it comes to nailing down the meaning of things, I have a particular fondness for music journalism. I love having a session now and then of reading reviews on Pitchfork or Resident Advisor. What I think is pleasing about it is twofold. Firstly, there is the art/science of well-chosen words, words that fit and describe the sounds in a satisfying way. A taming of abstraction into translatable code. I am never sure if this is a kind of violence to the original expression, an imposition of dead-handed empiricism on something that speaks for itself without language, or just an act of foolery that misses the point, like dancing to sculpture. Even so I am compelled by it. Secondly, there is the designation of significance to the music, the imaginative effort to situate it within a broader cultural narrative. Again, I am not sure if this is the best way to appreciate art - to make it fit within a tradition - but I can't resist. Like setting music to images, I am captivated by the space created through and between, lens and prism and mirror all at once.
I would love to be able to write with such authority, but I can't, because I know dick all about music. I can only hop on the bandwagon, and participate in other people's description of the zeitgeist, in laptop and headphones isolation. That's very appropriate, you know, now that music consumption is cheap, the album is atomised, the culture of individualism is rampant, etc. Here, we only speak for ourselves.
I remember Zeit, the album by Tangerine Dream, as an eye-opener when I was 18 - it was relentlessly oppressive, dark and without anything I could have identified as structure. I had taken common gateway drugs like Radiohead's Kid A phase, early Pink Floyd psychedelia, but never anything so sustained and uncompromising in its sound palette. It was too much for me; like the more abstract kinds of electronic beat driven music I was trying to like by Autechre and Aphex Twin, it did not fit anywhere in the paradigm of what I understood in music, how I was supposed to feel when listening to it. It was just uncomfortable, abrasive noise.
Did I get there eventually with weirder experimental music because my tastes naturally matured, as they do for olives and mushrooms and beer, or because I craved inclusion, however remote, with those who had the sophistication to appreciate such things? Was I enchanted by their narratives, that celebrated the influence and importance of these things, as much taken with the gloss on the text than as with the text itself? And were they describing the zeitgeist as they saw it, or actually creating it through that process? The question is impossible to answer. We are social beings, in the literal sense that our relation to others is inseparable from who we are - there is no discrete essence glowing at the core.
Maybe I simply like a challenge, because I see something similar in my attitude to different forms of climbing. (As I write this now I'm suddenly sure I've written it before. I'm going to become one of those annoying old people who tells you the same story over and over again, and you will be too polite to tell me, and I will ramble on my polished beat down cobwebbed corridors of memory while you gaze beyond the window at the solar space shuttles taxiing in from our toxic Venus sky...but I need it here, to close this meandering arc and bring it back into the comfortable, gurgling channel of thoughts about climbing.)
While I might always have identified with the more adventurous side of climbing, if only because it made for more interesting stories and the people who did it were cooler in my eyes, the truth is that in the first few years I was pure gripped whenever it got committing enough that I couldn't escape easily back to the ground. I was more comfortable doing objectively dangerous things close to the ground, like onsight soloing at my lead grade at Bowden, than I was doing a well-protected traverse four pitches up on Dun Mingulay. The belays were the worst - at least when climbing my mind was busy, but on a hanging belay with the sea crashing below, I would have to continually re-assess each placement, each carabiner, each knot, my harness, to convince myself how small the chance was of everything failing at once, and the heart-stopping lurch of the ensuing terminal fall. It was all pretty Autechre.
But with persistence I stretched my comfort zone, and lo, it grew. There is still a ceiling - I don't have much interest for now in serious adventurous climbing, of the kind where you might be killed by altitude or seracs, but I like routes that are long and hard enough that safety and success require sustained and exhausting execution of good judgments. Why did I persist, instead of specialising in the things I was naturally better at, more comfortable with? Did I want to be like the cool kids? Or did I only think they were cool kids in the first place because I thought what they were doing was cool? I still take the view that the last word on 'cool' in climbing is hard, ground-up trad (deep water soloing is included). No other type of climbing is cool, and don't let the sponsored content sell you anything different. But I'm a little bit old now, and this attitude is even older. Possibly its only claim to 'cool' is by the backdoor, as retro.
Just over the road is Pete's Eats, the most iconic greasy spoon in British climbing culture. Where the much-written scene hung out in the 80s, when it really was a scene - and they still have macabre sexual Redhead paintings above the stairs. The first time I climbed in Wales, when Calum and Marcus and I bailed from the Alps one summer, we went there because we had heard of it, a little pilgrimage of sticky tables and baked bean sauce. I wondered aloud to Ben the other day if any sort of 'scene' still hangs out there, and he pointed out that there isn't really a 'scene' any more. No. Just lots of dispersed little ones, overlapping each other. Sometimes I feel there is still a loose sense of community among climbers - other times I'm not so sure. It struck me the other day, when I was reading the Llanberis guidebook history section, how explosive and seminal the development of the 80s had been. It was really the birth of modern route climbing - all the developments since in equipment and style and performance have been incremental by comparison. Now in many ways we have it made, spoiled for choice with technical kit and a range of accessible disciplines laid on for us in fastidious guidebooks. But the cutting edge, the exploration of the best crags - it all happened years ago. Every now and then someone still stumbles on a Creag Rodha Mor or Port Vasgo or Ellen's Geo (they are always on the Scottish coast) or finds a great unclimbed line somewhere else that isn't elite-level hard, but like fossil fuels, they are finite. We're in the backwash, scavenging sprats - the wave has rolled on.
Or so the history books may say. Like with the news, it's good to keep a sceptical distance - to engage enough to be informed, but detach enough not to be swept up in the latest grand narrative. Any account is only a part of the story, which can be over-represented by authority of its voice. We are good at identifying trends and singling out exceptions in the cultural landscape, and the ego is good at internalising that map and looking to place itself. Everyone, at least everyone within a high standard deviation of the norm for gregarious apes that we are, wants to fit in somewhere - even if it's only with the ones who don't fit in. But the world is too big and too diverse for our simian minds, evolved to forage in the Rift. Our zeitgeist is truly balkanized, and our acuity for seeing patterns is lost - the stats may say one thing, but look around, look closely, and real people are doing real things, just about anything you can imagine, unbent by analysis to fit a pattern. Forget the geist - this is alive!
Never mind if no one is climbing on the grit, or music in the charts is all shit, or they did it all before in the 80s with worse shoes on. If it is out of kilter with the drift of the times, all the better. I have always felt drawn to the under-represented, where the intrigue of the unknown still has room to breathe. I want to celebrate what I love on its own terms, and to say something positive, not to champion it within the prescribed context of current trends by scorning the alternatives, like it's a zero-sum game. Since when was anyone won over by mockery? I want the dirt under my fingernails, the lichen in my eye, the taste of salt spray and a threat of rain at the cusp of commitment, and I want to moan about it and laugh, and I want to tell the story when it seems worth telling.
After the desert and Moonlight Buttress last autumn, my rat was fattened and ready to hibernate. Rats don't hibernate, but mine was helped in this aberration of nature by a punishing schedule of Christmas tree selling followed by some nasty tenosynovitis in my heel and a winter of preparing for MIC assessment. The latter did involve a fair old bit of 'climbing', but most of it in the low-angle shuffling vein. I managed a few pitches of steeper shuffling, which in the cases of Crypt Route and Raven's Gully is not just disparaging of winter climbing but is literally true, and I did scratch up Sleuth and Gargoyle Wall in order to pass myself off as a winter climber, but come the spring I had had probably my least intensive spell of climbing ever.
Which is great. I had to reconcile myself to the surprising discovery that my performance was not peak, but once I had done so it was like unboarding the windows and dusting the cobwebs off my summer house - and there was my nice extended comfort zone, ready for me to cruise around in. I flailed a little on the exacting walls of Buoux and the Verdon, but was less strangled by the mad exposure than I have been there in the past. I got spanked like an obstreperous child in Pembroke and later the Burren, and I accepted that these sustained limestone walls that sporty climbers think are piss are just quite hard for me. Next year, I'm writing it here, I will get me some stamina.
It has not been a year of peak experiences, or peak mishaps that make for better stories, which is a proud statement for how awesome the 'usual' can be on the wild edge of these islands - often just out of sight below the clifftop or over the hill from the herds whose range is expanded by slash 'n' burn package tourism every year. I was working through much of the warm and dry first half of the summer, but as that work included consecutive days of guiding remote VS classics and bivying in the Cairngorms, and more in Ardgour and Ardnamurchan, I can't complain too much. Another season on Skye passed with much less than hoped in the way of personal climbing, with the notable exception of tagging along with Ferdia and Caff on one of their mountain rock tours to do Stairway to Heaven. The best part of all the hot weather was the delicious swims in mountain pools, which as a bonus side-effect gave me the confidence I needed above water to relax and enjoy myself at Berry Head.
Ferdia and I had a fine week taking in classics in Glencoe - Shibboleth, Crocodile, Freakout, Yo-yo, and best of all, Temple of Doom. No, no better than Shibboleth, but it is much less climbed, much less celebrated, much further from the road and so touched with the spotter's prestige of a rarer species. We had to kick steps across a remnant tongue of snow, which widened above and corralled us along the base of the cliff, and all day its pocked dirty-white face swept away beneath us into the ragged morning-after boulders, giving a little flavour of alpine commitment. The tall steep grooves on the right hand side of Church Door Buttress have a dank and abandoned gothic air, haunt of ravens or maybe even Nazgul if your imagination is feeling lively. I had never seen the transformation that happens when the late afternoon midsummer sun reaches the face. The darkness is driven cowering into the backs of grooves and eclipsed, the drips slow and wet streaks recede - like the briefest of alpine flowers, the crag blossoms into an inviting place. The rock up there is exceptional, and remarkably clean considering its elevation and aspect. The lines are impeccable.
The most excited I got about climbing this year was in Ireland. I don't know if there's a parochial bias there or that it just happens to suit my tastes. I have already recently eulogised Fair Head, but the Mournes too retain a special place in the left side of my chest cavity. We stole a day at the rarely-dry Blue Lough Buttress, which manages somehow in the spite of the bog on top to be immaculate, save the odd patch of standard Mourne scrittle to keep the charm intact. I am not good at friction slabs, so it should make little sense for me to seek out bold ones, but I still love the Mournes. I was so enthused with my home turf that I actually extended my stay there, and teamed up with Ireland's best belayer for a couple more days at the Head and one at the undervalued Ben Crom.
Once when I referred to Uncle Ali as 'Ireland's best belayer', mum thought I was being disparaging, but he really is the best. Not only does he hold your ropes with expert attentiveness, he convinces you that you are really good at what you're doing, in his uniquely reassuring and garrulous manner. It's no coincidence that he has belayed a lot of the top first ascents in the North over thirty-odd years. It's one of the reasons anyway. Another reason is that the 'other' A. Moles, the original one whose ubiquity in guidebooks makes people wonder how I was on the first ascents of all these E5s aged six, is rightly regarded as a legend. Ali denies that he is a legend, on the rationale that he was never as good a climber as some of his peers, but he is missing the point. He is a legend because he is the most generous climber you'll ever meet, more than happy to slog into the heart of the Mournes to repeat routes that are too hard for him in current form, just because you, I, or his latest talented protegé like Rory wants to. He also insists on carrying most of the gear in his enormous rucksack, which Ferdia interpreted as old-fashioned chivalry, but he does it to me too, so he really is just nice. On both our routes at Ben Crom, The Dreaming Air and Blood Strangers, I fannied around and wittered and hesitated on their committing crux slab moves, and all the while Ali persuaded me how solid I looked. At Fair Head, I led what for me might be the best pitch of the year, Track of the Cat, which it turns out is Ali's anti-route, with its many thin semi-finger-locks. He couldn't enjoy it, and I realised afterwards that for his own sake that Ali needs to be more selfish, to push to do what he wants sometimes instead of always facilitating other people's ambitions. He's like a 60 year-old bald talkative Irish version of Amélie.
The next episode. I already know North Wales relatively well from a climbing perspective, i.e. I have been to all the most famous venues at least once or twice. Last year I thought I had better address my lack of familiarity with the mountains here in the spirit of a lazy man's load, and ran (...'ran') the Welsh 3000s as a loop, which did mean doing some of them twice. It hurt. But it hasn't taken long burrowing in comprehensive guidebooks and going climbing with people like Ben and Calum the Muskett, who are over the shiny accessible classics and elbow deep in Anglesey weirdness and slate offcuts, to have it sink in just how many rides this park has. I could get my finger out and use it to poke around for some work, but then again...