Matter Under Mind
Updated: Nov 12, 2018
Fingers piano play the flatness at the back of a rounded break, toes smudge on subtle scoops and dimples, limbs twist and press with assertion to the rock's orchestration - a budding musician improvising to the maestro's demands. It all blends into one, a wee bit. The feel of gritstone, the modularity of its movements, ingrains below thinking into your synapses and sinews. Each pocket monster caught enters the collection, a set of filmy prints from which a bigger picture starts to emerge. Ah, one of these moves...
With a lot of notable exceptions, it's been a gritty year for me. I've climbed hundreds of routes, most of them solo, which is evidently what grit is best for. Half the time leading you're only a cam blown from an eroded flare away from hitting the ground, and I can only boulder for a couple of hours before my fingertips get burny. But soloing! So much rock to cover, requiring a critical concentration window of no more than a few seconds before you're stood safe on flat earth. I didn't move to Sheffield exactly a grit neophyte, but I still feel uncool with enthusiasm for the local abundance of dry clean rock, landing among a scene who've been around the bloc and would rather burn rubber at the Foundry or project something at the Tor.
Of course, the charm of the grit is choked in summer. The pebbles sweat climber-repellent, the bracken, asshole of the plant world, crowds in and fills your lungs. The life of the dark Peak is always drab, but at least that bleakness is a dress that suits, and it's best not screened by clamouring green. The edges thrive on the sense of space, home of skeletons not flesh, colours flushed out so that a low sun's tints dominate the palette. Like about now, when even the dying bracken is pleasing. So back in May, in the honoured tradition, I took my skills honed on the small green rocks to bigger things.
Driving to Skye, I turned down the Etive road, to the first of the summer's many river baths. Shot from the perpetual traffic jam of England back to the mountains, promise was resonant in everything. Early season energy carried me sweaty and breathless through the burgeoning tick forests to the base of the slabs. The air was still cool enough to nip, peeling the rucksack off a wet t-shirt back. A solo of Spartan Slab had been in my mind for a while, but without a spring lapping up grit, I would have been worried about the commitment of a long mountain VS. Etive granite is so immaculate, the translation from grit's friction and flow was easy. On the belay ledges I could sit down, air my mind and absorb the view, check the guidebook, then slip back in again. It was climbing like paddling a river, propulsion supplied, where you only have to pick a course and follow it in control. It was technical but untroubled, satisfying and fun.
A week later, I was in the whirl of hyper efficiency that occasionally gets me into trouble. The one that has me unroped on sketchy ground to rejig a bottom-rope rather than risk clients getting bored for a minute, when I have to catch myself on and waste two seconds getting attached. I wrote in my previous blog about jumping in the sea on Orkney. That was typical of the mood, efficiency at the cost of wisdom, the heuristic trap of rarity - a window in frustrating weather, in a place we had travelled at some expense for and might not visit again for a long time, and I was trying to climb as many routes as possible, ignoring a big red light flashing wasted muscles in my forearms, choosing entirely the wrong route. Eejit.
Anyway, this time the trap of rarity was sprung again. The redoubtable Iain Murray and I had endured bike mechanicals and a chilly bivi to mission it from Skye for a couple of days to the most remote of the great Scottish mountain crags, Carn Mor. I succumbed to Iain's loquacious persuasions and agreed to repeat Fionn Buttress with him in return for a belay on The Orange Bow, which I suspected, correctly, wouldn't actually happen. But in any case, it would be worth it for the opportunity to climb the classics Gob and Dragon. It turned out Iain hadn't been getting out much lately and found Fionn tough enough, so he was quite tired at the top. I threw the ropes around my neck while Iain went off for a poo, and set off to find the top of Carnmore Corner, from which you can just about touch down on abseil to the base of the upper tier, and so access Gob.
I scrambled around, found some runners, threw the ropes off into the abyss. Attached my device, leant back on the edge to check they were down, and saw them hanging, dizzyingly far from the rock, until last few feet snaked onto some grassy slabs. It was daunting, brilliant. Then for a while I couldn't find Iain. I scrambled around shouting, impatient. When he appeared, I knew straight away, before he spoke, that he wasn't up for it. I knew this already, in fact, but was fully intending to sweep his reluctance aside on a wave of enthusiasm, or to believe that he would strike a reserve of inspiration during his poo-with-a-view. It's easy when you aren't the one suffering, to brush it off, but if I was in Iain's socks I wouldn't much have wanted to second a very exposed traverse route either. But knowing it as I did, I already had the answer. "That's all right, I'll solo it."
Within two minutes, the rack was jettisoned. I was a spider on a lonely thread, lowering into a vast auditorium, stage-lit by the bright glow of the afternoon sun. The Gods are the distant Torridon peaks, the upper circle the frowning battlements of Beinn Lair, the grand circle the long ghostly slabs and impenetrable hanging gardens that sweep down to Dubh Loch. And where the stalls should be, Fionn Loch reflects back the sky and opens up solid ground to infinity. As I had fiddled in wires for the abseil, I made a convincing case to myself. Mountain HVS sounds pushy, but at only 4c I should have plenty of margin to cope with any dubious holds, and the possibility of retreat. The threat of a missed opportunity was throwing its weight around in the jostle for rationale, but I kept an eye on it. As long as the other factors, which orbited around the core principle of not dying, or even feeling like I might, were in accordance. I called up when I touched down, and Iain pulled up the ropes. I was hopelessly small beneath the giant overhangs, and fantastically alone.
And now the curtain drops. This happens offstage. Representation is always a poor relation of experience, though it can colour and shape it in interesting ways, but I don't want to pocket this one in prose. While shadows move behind the veil, an all-consuming hum, a frequency you can't quite hear or feel, fills your body and mind. If it has a colour, it would be golden. It begins imperceptibly and builds, so subtly you don't notice it, until you are infused with it entirely. Thoughts flit through it but they are like birds, not expressions of you, just things passing in front of your mind. Until suddenly, you step out - and feel the absence of the hum as a sudden void, a rush of silence that is filled in an instant by the world rushing back in. As waking from hypnosis or an instantly forgotten dream - something happened, a genie bottled forever in a shimmer of memory. There is only the relief of flat ground, and a relieved looking Iain Murray. Back at the Carn Mor cowshed, I went to the burn to fetch water. I felt tired, but still floating somewhere above the quotidian ruts of my mind's track. Walking back, eyes watering in the wind and in the face of the setting sun, not far ahead a stag crossed my path. He was cautious but unfazed by my presence, and carried on his way. His hind, following, stopped and watched me as I passed. I looked her in the eye, and completely unexpectedly, something I had been pushing out crashed back in on me through the animal's gaze. The cynic in me despises the cheesiness of how that sounds, but it did. I saw in the deer's eyes some abstract realisation of what I am most entangled with outside of my self in the world. Some cypher for what we stood to lose. And in that moment, for all my strident self-counselling about experience, judgement and risk, I imploded in doubt, that I alone could be trusted to look after myself. And more, that I was accountable only to myself.
But what is the alternative? In anything involving risk and doubt, you can take all the advice you like, but the final decision rests in yourself.
A week later, I guided a party of three up the Dubhs ridge and bivied in Coir' a' Ghrunnda. I'd stowed a pair of rock shoes, a more practical luxury item than the usual nip of whisky. Arriving at the bivi with daylight to spare, I set off with a plan to climb Grand Diedre, planning then to downclimb into the TD Gap in practice for a solo traverse, and maybe up Commando Crack afterwards. Only as much as I could possibly do.
The rock felt polished and greasy, and I phantom-dipped for absent chalk. My trainers hung clunkily off my skinny mountaineering harness, and I was wearing the wrong trousers. None of the rock was actually loose, but some looked as though it could be, and the route was steep enough to make this stressful. I had to pull or push harder than I wanted to move without committing weight to anything suspect. I topped out only relieved, and felt exhausted, the day's prolonged strain of judgements to keep people safe weighing heavy in my arms and brain. Enough. Only a week ago I was having some quasi-spiritual revelation about the practice of risk, and now I go and break the rules? Worse than eejit. Where Gob had been beautiful, and I didn't want Spartan to end, Grand Diedre felt like a mistake. I only wanted the top.
I was never out of control, or even close, but anything above really easy soloing demands commitment. On short outcrop routes you can get away with less - you only have to summon it for a few moves. In the mountains, you have to genuinely want to be there. If you live in the abstraction of wanting to have done the route rather than to be doing it, your centre of gravity is outside the moment, your mind is barn-dooring. But it's not so simple as to say that any doubt means you shouldn't be there - the challenge of those internal conversations can be a powerful part of the experience.
Motivation is never pure. It's tangled up in the ephemeral pathways of the mind, an infinite maze where the hedges don't stay put. It is rare to move in a crystal kingdom of perfect clarity, for me anyway, where unwelcome shoulder-devil thoughts don't occasionally permeate and need to be grappled out. I would be lying if I said ego never drops a dirty bomb in the mix, that I have never made of a route a dead butterfly on a pin. Still, underlying that should be an authentic desire, a sense of belief. How else can you turn the tiny propeller of your brain through the universe?
No, I cannot be trusted, and neither can you. Together, if we try, perhaps...
In the past few weeks, I could characterize my life in a duality. In the morning, I plug in to the bewildering, discordant echo chamber of the internet and social media, never more than a click away from whatever it is practical I'm supposed to be doing through my robot, and often closely entwined. Look at us now, shuffling around our volatile little world. We're the chinstrap penguins of Zavodovski, oblivious in our chattering superabundance to the fact we're all marooned together. The mindless ease of connectivity jars hideously with the turmoil behind the every door that's opened here. The Russian dolls and rabbitholes of media and opinion, the fury and the mire of human veins digitally reworked. That complexity should lead to overstimulation of the mind, but somehow it's the opposite - anger flares and burns out like paper, and I'm numbed and nonplussed.
In the afternoon, I go up to the Peak and solo on the grit. It is the utter counterpoint in its simplicity, its drawing of focus to the immediate. It is contrived, yes - but I am not hunted by wild beasts, and I am hardwired like every human with the ancestral instincts made for them, which twitch if unused. That is not what runs through my mind when I throw my shoes and a flask in the car and go - it's just a retroflective theory for why it is so compelling. We need something, whatever it is, to calm and centre our diverging and embattled minds. When I know with certainty that I want to be there, I can access a space that is otherwise inaccessible, a feeling of pure presence. To be at the behest of absolutely nothing - the views of others, profile and image, the dizzying abstractions of a planet spun on money - totally in possession of your space, all the fractured pieces of your self pulled into orbit by the gravity of the moment - that is freedom.