Updated: Jan 25, 2019
Imagine the perfect weapon, that could obliterate a target completely, with no collateral damage. No explosions, no messy coughing up of lung tissue, no burning or blackening or exit wounds. Now imagine it being used on all of humanity.
Too dark a place to begin? Then imagine instead that we all just disappear - cleanly, impossibly, like a wisp of vapour off the freshly made cup of tea left cooling in someone's suddenly empty kitchen. Cars decelerate into one another and harmlessly crash, cranes stall leaving concrete beams swaying over cities where lights change for no one, piles of clothing and objects being carried around drop to the floor with a flump or a thump. For some seconds the world is an industrial din, then over minutes the quieter sounds, like Spotify playlists and Youtube on auto-load, dominate, until after days or weeks the grid crackles out, the computers go to sleep, and the world is left to the birds and the wind.
You know how a house or a pub left unoccupied begins to look derelict within only weeks. Windows get dusty, weeds spring up where feet kept the path clean. And you know that moment of realisation that a thicket of ivy on a familiar stretch of country road conceals the stones of what was someone's home only a few decades ago. We are diligent maintainers. Everything decays faster than we think.
What lasts? How long would it take before an alien visitor to earth had difficulty telling that something like a human had ever existed? Perhaps some footprints would turn up in petrified mudstone, a faint imprint of square patterns left by rubber lugs. Have you walked anywhere unusually squishy of late?
We would leave behind an uncountable collection of simulacra, photography stored in film and computer chips - but how long before that corrodes beyond recognition or use? And what about our infrastructure? Cities, ports, pylons, great buildings and bridges, tunnels, pipes, plastic floating in the oceans? Can you imagine a modern cityscape being erased completely and returned to nature? It would probably take a few thousand years. But once corrosion has begun, metal is not long for the world. That is why they never stop re-painting the Golden Gate bridge. Concrete, brick, tarmac, foamcore, MDF - everything suffers eventually from heating and cooling, moisture and drying, microbes and chemistry. It all breaks up and becomes reintegrated with the particulates of the universe. Glass lasts. Some sources estimate that a glass bottle will last a million years in the right environment, so we might leave behind a legacy impressively biased towards alcoholism in our culture. Other everyday items, even plastic, will be mostly gone within a three-figure span of years. On the monumental scale, anything built of stone would last longest - big holes and heaps in the landscape, the great vanities like the Pyramids and Mount Rushmore, staring out Ozymandias-like to greet our alien visitors with the hubris of an Easter Island statue.
Something was here, they will think, but what was it, and why did it cut stone from the ground to build these things? If only someone had thought to stick down the code to rebuild the internet on a stone tablet and keep it safe somewhere, or at least chalk it up on the back wall of a dry cave, for posterity.
Of course, to reach earth from a distant star system, this hypothetical alien would have to have a far more advanced intelligence than we do, technologically at least - so perhaps it would have more tools to get the answers it wanted. Assuming it had any interest at all. It might not be an intelligence tethered to any form of organic life that we would recognise, or might at least be sufficiently different to us - perhaps some kind of octopus-brain-termite - that it would struggle to decipher the spatial logics that had informed the building of whatever remained of us. Perhaps to better make sense of that notion we had better do away with the rest of the primates too, or they would probably figure it out. Fuck it, let's get rid of all mammalia, we're on a roll.
Let's insert this alien visitor far enough into the future that anodised metal in dry climates has not yet been reduced to red-brown stains on the underlying substrate. Perhaps in the same cave where an acid-riddled tech renegade scrawled the recipe for the internet with a piece of charcoal. This cave where stainless steel eyelets glint all over the ceiling among curiously magnesium-whitened holes and blobs. What sense could a levitating octopus-termite make of this? What sort of strange ritual could lead intelligent life to decorate caves in this way?
The point I am getting to, circuitously, is that viewed from a step or two back, this is a peculiar game. How, at a precise point on an evolutionary limb, where this species had developed capabilities to manipulate its environment and communicate on a planetary scale unprecedented in its star system, did certain among its individuals find purpose in travelling to particular cliffs and caves, which they could climb up but only just? Only just, with great contrivance and dedication. Had they found something primally rewarding by accident in this pursuit, tapped some structure in their simian circuitry developed for different reasons but gratified by it? Something distilled in their entanglement with the spatial properties of the rock, that their fingers and their coordinated muscles could understand even if their conscious minds could not?
Zoom out, zoom in: from the panoramic to the bacterial, from the meaning in it all to the precise way in which you curl your digits into a pocket, rotate the meccano chain of your joints on the pivot of your toes on the last burn of the day, and allez! for muerte or glory. Both are interesting in the right context - and in the case of the zoomed in, the right context is definitely not a post-hoc written analysis for others to read.
We decided to do the winter sport climbing trip thing. We decided to ignore the roster of fashionable destinations and do it in St Léger. This was a risk, but the average temperature and rainfall stats suggested it was unlikely to be much worse as a plan than the wad-pot crags of Lleida and Catalunya. It paid off, because for two weeks we have had a cosy gite in a beautiful valley with an excellent, long and varied crag mostly to ourselves. Mostly in sunshine too, until it dips below the shoulder of Mont Ventoux, and we are excused for the evening to make the most of that cosy gite. It feels like a healthy thing to do, as January in Britain is a sorry space to hibernate, and Ferdia in particular had a tough year. A trip at this precise time of year serves up a good mix, fusing the solstice tradition of renewal to the holiday premise of a change of scene to regather energy.
This was the first time I had climbed in several weeks, and the first on a rope in three months. Hardly a long sabbatical, but I tend to tick over climbing so regularly, if only in a relaxed way or guiding for work a lot of the time, that such a block without it feels like a good sleep, and coming back with fresh eyes. The first few routes feel like an awkward awakening. It's difficult; fingers are cold, arms detuned, this piece of rock might break, what will happen if I fall off? How exactly is this fun?
We spent New Year with Chris and Emilie and Lyndsey in Morzine skiing. I usually ski only a few days a year, but it is so obvious why skiing is fun. No one needs it explained to them why skiing is fun. Given decent weather and snow, skiing is like eating chocolate. Rock climbing is more like an aubergine, really delicious when cooked properly in the right dish, but easily prone to be rubbery and bitter. If the octopus-termite found a VHS tape of outdoor sports preserved in a peat bog or something, and also happened to find a VHS player and a TV and a generator with some petrol in it, I give it a better chance of understanding the appeal of skiing than climbing. A lot of animals seem to get kicks out of fast fluid movement. Climbing is a strange one. I think the appeals in it are quite diverse. The Euro sport climbing paradigm is not one that I have inhabited as regularly as some. It comes in two strains. There is plaisir low-commitment bolt clipping, and there is serious howl-when-you-fall-off project action. A third kind exists in uneasy tension between the two, where you sort of want to push it a bit but sort of want a nice relaxed holiday, and this is usually where I end up.
A little breakthrough on this trip has been to kill the pace. For two and a half weeks we do the same walk-in, down the steps of the bergerie and through the frosty upper gorge of the Toulourenc to emerge in the sunshine under one or another tufa-streaked wall, with attendant robin redbreast huffing its chest and cocking a beady eye at our lunch. The slack itinerary disrupts the impulse to consume: the best routes, the hardest ones, as many routes as possible. It probably makes not much difference to what we actually climb, but having the space to ease in and respond in a clearer-minded way to each day as it comes changes the feeling towards it. The try hard vs. relaxed holiday tension evaporates and it is allowed to be both, even if I really should know that by now.
I embraced the bacterial-scale end of climbing, where your mind makes note of whether or not your knuckle sat in the right place on that hold and how it felt in today's humidity and whether that quickdraw gate faces the right way, and got me a project. Details that would make so little sense if you had no limbs or internal bone structure. I played the part by emitting a howl or two when I took repeated long falls from the very last move, having skipped a clip. The growth mindset takeaway from the experience was that I learned a lot about redpoint tactics. I can share such pebbles of wisdom as these:
- Pick a route with pleasing holds and moves that you actually enjoy climbing over and over again.
- Just because you can boulder the moves bolt-to-bolt first time doesn't mean your work here is done.
- Skipping clips on steep ground is a great idea and you get to take some fun falls, but don't overlook subtler tactics such as finding a better sequence.
- Find a better sequence, especially for the top - just because it feels easy after a rest on the rope doesn't count for much when you can't have a rest, so make it as easy as possible.
- Remember to enjoy the swing after you've stripped the draws, even if you didn't succeed today.
- Try really hard.
- Climb fast.
Don't say my blog is short on practical content. I'll be doing a comprehensive review of locking carabiners next week (I won't. But if Ferdia ever decides to aggregate her research around nutrition and general health over the past few months into a blog, you will be well served reading that.)
Next we go home and I shuffle back into the world of 'winter' winter climbing, which is, without doubt, an even more peculiar game.