…forced into inhuman, expressionistic postures by its grim logic, Sankey strained and contorted up Wall of Horrors, until his impetus ran out just under the crux. He stretched up: nothing. He tried facing left, then right, grinding his cheek into the gritstone. His legs began to tremble. All the lines on the rock moved towards him, in a fixed vortex. When he lurched suddenly on his footholds everyone looked up: he was only sorting through the stuff on his rack for something to protect his next two moves. If he took too long to find and place it he would come off anyway. His last runner was lodged in a crack like a section through a fall pipe, fifteen or twenty feet below him.
“Can you get something there?”
“Can you get anything in higher up?”
He didn’t hear us.
He was fiddling about in a rounded break, his eyes inturned and panicky, his head and upper body squashed up as if he was demonstrating the limits of some box invisible to anyone else. Under the impact of fear, concentration, physical effort, his face went lax and shocked, his age began to show. By 1970 he had climbed all over the world; he had done every major route in Britain; the ‘new’ climbs were his only hope — violent, kinaesthetic, stripped of all aid. “Wall of Horrors!” he would say. “John Hart talked me up that, move by move, first time I led it. Years ago. It overfaced people then. Ha ha.” He was forty, perhaps forty five. As I watched him I wondered what he was doing it to himself for.
All the time Gaz was watching him too.
He had to predict when Sankey would go. He had to mother him. The runner in the fall pipe was too close to the ground to be much good: if Sankey boned off, could Gaz run back far enough quick enough to shorten the rope ? I didn’t think he could. He fidgeted it backwards and forwards through the Sticht plate, which clicked and rattled nervously.
Up in his invisible box Sankey twisted one arm behind his back to get his hand into his chalk bag. His shadow moved uneasily on the buttress over to his left, the shadow of the rope blowing out behind it. Chalk smoked off into the turbulence as he shifted his feet.
The sun went in.
“OK, kid,” he said. “Watch the rope.”
Suddenly we saw that he was calm and thoughtful again. He stood up straight and went quickly to the top, reaching, rocking elegantly to one side, stepping up.
Things have moved on now, of course, but Wall of Horrors was still a test-piece then. When he came down several people were waiting to congratulate him. Most of them were boys of fourteen or fifteen who would one day solo it; against that time they were willing to give him uncontrolled admiration. They were dressed in white canvas trousers, sweatshirts and pullovers with broad stripes, in imitation of the American and Australian climbers whose pictures they saw in the magazines; in two or three years they would be wearing silkskin dance tights, courting anorexia in search of a high power-weight ratio, exchanging the magic words of European-style climbing: “screamer”, “redpoint”, “Martin Atkinson”.
One of them said, “Are you Stevie Smith? I’ve seen you climb before, haven’t I?”
Sankey gave his nervous laugh.
“No,” he said.
He sat down tiredly among some boulders and began sorting through his equipment, strewing orange tape slings about in the dust as if looking for something that had let him down. Then he just sat, absentmindedly clicking the gate of a snaplink until Gaz brought him some coffee from a flask. As we walked away from the cliff the backs of my hands smarted in the wind. I saw the shadow of a dove flicker over the rock in the warm slanting light. These birds live in the high breaks and caves. They ruffle their feathers uncertainly, hunch up, explode without warning over your head; they come back in the evening. Sankey’s eyes were losing the empty, exhausted look that had entered them on the wall.
From Climbers, republished today with an introduction by Robert Macfarlane. Kindle and paper.