Above the overlap
I always thought of herons as silent and solitary birds.
Last night on the Åbyfjord in Bohuslän, I scrambled to a promontory above the harbour at Rågårdsdal. Juniper and knotted dwarf pines lose their jostle for purchase where the orange granite domes overtumble to the lapping water, and the view is clear. A defiant burst of late sun has punctured the spitting sky, and three herons are in flight on the fjord, flapping and screeching, as though tormented by the cliffs’ sheerness denying them a landing to ambush fish. The scene is otherworldly and othertimely as a vision from the last days of the dinosaurs, the burnt atmosphere and the taking flight on awkward wings of the great lizards’ envoy to the other side of the cataclysm that would end them.
It’s uncontroversial: an extinction event is underway. Birds, bees, cetaceans, fish. Will humans make it through, recognisable as what we are now? Will something evolve to survive us, like herons do the archaeopteryx, or is this limb of life’s tree doomed to wither? It seems we live in interesting times. The logics of evolution matter less and less, as we kill disease and rewrite genetic code and outsource intelligence to silicon. Will we accelerate fast enough to squeeze through the bottleneck? And in what shape; something engineered, something else entirely?
It’s exciting, it’s disturbing, but what can you do?
Not buying seats on aeroplanes and instead driving a diesel engine 3000 miles around northern Europe is quite a shot-glass gesture in an ocean of wrongness, but it feels better to cheers with the angels, even if they sniff at our contaminated offering, than to embrace the nihilism of plain defeat in trashing the planet. At least we’re not riding around on jet skis.
Ferdia visited Lofoten some years ago, and often said she wanted to go back to Norway, and to build a relationship with it. I had never been to Norway (or Sweden, or Denmark, or Germany, or the Netherlands). We both like climbing large pieces of granite, and Norway has these in abundance. Initially we thought we would drive to the Arctic north, Kvaløya most likely, but then I spent two minutes on Google and realised it would be substantially quicker to drive to Athens, Moscow or Istanbul, so we trimmed our horizons and focused on the south.
Ferdia often says that trips away give a particular opportunity to think, a space to re-evaluate habits, to take in a fresh perspective on what matters. Climbing may be the focus, the object in the crosshairs, but like trying to see in poor light, it is often a shape in the periphery that we make out most clearly.
I have tried a lot of angles on the ever-present complexity of being an individual in a world of problems, but I keep finding more. The field is deep. How far do we expand our horizons for caring? We must perform triage. I don’t want to cause anything capable of suffering to suffer, but I care less about a fish than I do about my mum. I care less about seven billion people I’ve never met than my sisters. I care less about my great-great-great grandchildren, which I will probably never have, but who will be pretty much equally abstract to me even if I do, than I do about some of my furthest friends. But I can’t snip it off at an arbitrary point.
I tell myself I’m at peace with life being unanswerable, and my own mortality, and that I haven’t simply got away with not confronting it too much.
As Ferdia and I prepared the van for sleeping one night in Uskedalen, there was a rumble.
“Was that thunder?”
No. A great puff of rock dust drifted off the Øktertindveggen, the breeze carrying it too quickly to identify the exact location of the rockfall, but it had come down somewhere in the central bay above the approach slabs.
We thought of the white scars on the slabs as we had scrambled over them to reach En Midtsommernattsdrøm, Uskedal’s most celebrated climb, on our first day here. We gave each other an eyebrows-raised look.
“I thought this place felt really solid.”
Some days later, I clambered over shattered ledges of fresh angular granite in the lower part of that central bay, feeling only a little like a sitting duck, and I wasn’t sitting. I moved towards the sheltering safety of our objective, a 140 metre long elegant corner that remained, like many strong features in Uskedalen, inexplicably unclimbed.
Over the past few days we had made two first ascents in the valley, both good independent lines seven and five pitches long, around E3-E4 in difficulty. We called them Divided Kingdom and Algorithm & Blues. For climbers used to Britain, where you have to look to the peripheries these days to find strong, easily accessible unclimbed lines of moderate difficulty, it is exciting to find such long and high quality routes only a short walk from a farmed valley and a bustling village. It feels like cragging in the Lakes, but on the scale of Switzerland.
This long corner on Øktertindveggen proved less difficult than it looked, though Ferdia had pulled off an outrageous slab move on the lower wall that led to it; the corner itself was no more than E2, three excellent pitches with surprise ledges to belay. I led towards its top, where it flared briefly into a leaning chimney before slicing off left in an overlap. Beyond this we did not know what would happen; the distant black-and-white photograph of the wall in the guidebook showed some faint features, but we had learned on previous routes that what appeared to be a crack might be no more than a closed seam. We might not make it to the top of the wall; we might have to retreat by multiple abseils, abandoning gear.
I poked my head over, and retreated to a kneebar half-rest. I put another cam in next to the one I already had. The crack above was shallow and rounded, and would offer no holds or gear. I was already 50 metres out from the belay and rope-drag was bad; the right side of the corner bulged out in a couple of places, creating choke points in the run of the rope. My calves and feet were screaming from days of standing on off-vertical granite, pressing me to hurry. Another meerkat recce, then I launched through, fighting the drag until I stood in balance on the slab above. Relieved but still harassed, I carried on, running out of rope just as I reached a merciful ledge.
Ferdia came through the overlap, smiling and cruising without rope drag.
“I don’t like the look of this flake,” she said, in reference to the thing I was sitting on. “It’s one of those ones that looks like it shouldn’t be here.”
My belay was built in the sound rock above, but I had already been taking note of the condition of my ledge. Shards and white angles, biotite flecks like bloodclots in the cloven flesh of granite. It was the same at the point I had pulled through the overlap. Already it had crossed my mind that this was the line of the rockfall. I thought of crystals contracting in the evening shade, and remnant shards resting on gravel like ballbearings somewhere in the unseen sweeps above. The improbable flake would be fine; already it had withstood major impact. But I was truly a sitting duck, a pinned duck.
Above, a flake ran out into a section of blankness capped by another overlap, hiding more of the unknown. While Ferdia set about finding a way through, I dwelt on my feeling of vulnerability and powerlessness. The chances were slim, but the consequence extreme. I played it out in my mind’s eye; a sound at first, a crack or a rumble to speed the heart, then the rocks would come out of the blue sky and smash me to pulp, or explode nearby sending splinters through my bones and arteries. I would not feel pain, only an immense shock if the impact was minor enough not to kill me instantly; a feeling I somehow knew without knowing how I could know it; a dream feeling maybe, or a projection from the instant of impact from falling off a bike or being punched unexpectedly in the face, the long moment of the brain jammed by signal overload, where it cannot deliver the answer to its own urgent question; is it fine, or am I broken? Then a lessening of my consciousness, then the mystery of nothing.
Before long, I wasn’t thinking about it. Ferdia was performing her impressive skill in holding calmly in strenuous positions, fiddling tiny pieces of protection into half-blind placements and inching upwards. She took two falls, lowered back to the belay, prepared for another shot. My hands were cold, I felt hungry, and even in trainers my feet hurt for lack of a fully level place to stand. Petty discomforts outweighed an abstract threat of real danger, and my mind wandered as the mind will do, quietly mocking the vain illusion of a volitional self.
Would the rock above prove to be an impasse, or would we find a way through? Ferdia pressed her toe carefully onto the lip of the overlap, somewhere close to her ear. Precision is essential, and timing too. Nothing is certain.
Days later, it strikes me how dinosaur-like those screeching herons seem, but of course: herons are dinosaurs. The pterosaurs and non-avian dinosaur species died out in the mass extinction, but the proto-birds survived and diversified. What exactly selected for their survival? I doubt that to a hypothetical observer of Earth’s great Petri-dish 66 million years ago, the answer would have been obvious. I doubt it seems obvious now, in the recent explosive dominance of rogue apes with grand designs, with their robot lawnmowers and competitive eating and violins and self-touching photographs and Hallowe’en costumes and crypto-currencies and little bags of dogshit.
Who knows how we take flight?