the m john harrison blog

Category: climbers

in real life, postscript

If you’re interested in the epistemology, phenomenology, and existentialist issues of adventure, and you like science fiction too, you couldn’t do better than read a novel called Rogue Moon by Algis Budrys. It is a much less woolly and more concise analysis of ”exploratory values” than either Roadside Picnic or Stalker, and preceded both. Aesthetically, I prefer the latter two, obviously (and I am aware of Budrys’ problematics, so please don’t @ me). But he makes his points—about exploration and the learning curve–in a more clinical manner than the Strugatsky Brothers or Tarkovsky, while artfully using the metaphor they rediscovered to do double duty: his set-up also allows him to examine the repetition-compulsions on which risk sports are founded. (Also worth a look in that context is the movie Flatliners, in which, as in Rogue Moon, killing yourself repeatedly becomes both the exploratory method and the basis for a game.)

in real life

Along with the imminent publication of Rob Macfarlane’s masterpiece Underland, this retweet by Andrew Male reminded me of something. I’ve always been fascinated by the praxis and professionalism of cavers. Especially cave divers. A friend of mine gave up climbing to do that activity for a while. He supplied me with some fine anecdotal material. In the late 1970s I had written part of a sci-fi/horror novel in which a team of contemporary cavers and climbers, prospecting the Irish karst for new routes in their separate disciplines, rediscovered the remains of William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland. Their subsequent exploration of the associated geology would have had all the predictable results and in addition allowed me to make a critique both of the Hodgson novel and Lovecraft’s “The Rats in the Walls”. It was also my idea to catch the reader up with contemporary caving and climbing techniques and attitudes. (The “exploratory value” would be seen being absorbed into the new values of risk sport, for instance, a transition later touched on in Nova Swing and Empty Space.) I dropped the idea because it seemed too ordinary, too direct and too glib. All that’s left, apart from perhaps ten thousand words of yellowing draft, is the short story “The Ice Monkey”, which I cut out of it. “The Ice Monkey” started me off in a completely different direction and led to Climbers. I stopped trying to literalistically incorporate my real-life interests and experiences into fantasy fiction (see Tomb the Dwarf’s solo of the first pitch of Medusa, Ravensdale, or Alstath Fulthor’s trail-run up from Hadfield via Yellow Slacks up on to Bleaklow, across the Woodhead and then down by Tintwhistle Low Moor in A Storm of Wings) and instead began to let the two kinds of content and technique blur together, in search of what the result could tell me. You can see that immediately you look at the stuff. You can also see that I became happier and more comfortable with the way I was doing things. You can call these very self-aware metafictional explorations of the exploratory value and its inevitable structures “the Weird” if you like. I call it being the kind of writer I started to be in 1979.

climbing is weird

I told R we were doing so well I was thinking of trying to find a way back into writing about it. I forgot that with climbing you don’t need to do that. You only have to wait. We went to Froggatt. Sunday morning, around ten. A fine drizzle in drifting patches, with proper rain forecast, had kept the car parks empty. We found the crag empty too. Soon, people would start driving over from Stanage, which was piss wet through. For now everything was eerily silent and belonged to us. Not an experience you expect in the Peak District in June. The rock was bone dry, with lots of friction; we’d gone to do really easy routes but after an early success, got tempted by Sunset Crack. R floated up; while my memories of the 1985/95 decade, when routes like that were still a soft touch, earned me the quiet, careful slap I deserved: I stayed aboard but only just. I felt every year of my age. Gritstone is always in charge, even in the lower grades. Gritstone decides what you’ll feel, what kind of fun you’ll have, what kind of lesson comes along with it. That’s why some like it & some don’t. When we got down we found, on the warm shelf of rock under the start, this tiny dead thing.

Apart from being dead it was still in perfect condition. It was laid out with two foxglove bells, something yellow & a couple of bits of greenery (which R moved to take the picture). Had it been there all along? Or had it been put there while we climbed? Neither, or even both, was his opinion. Some kind of different physics was in operation. I’m not quarrelling with that because he’s the physicist. On the way back we went to Brookside Buttress–which, unfrequented and unpolished, with turf still growing on the easy way down, sitting in a mossy gully next to its own little water feature, is the perfect Gothic crag–and did a route neither of us had ever been on. What more can you ask?

photo: Richard AL Jones

When the world has gone to hell in a handcart & the muppets are admitting they never had a plan, there’s only one thing to do & that’s watch Jain Kim. There’s a heel hook & rock-on (or whatever they call them nowadays) at about 6 minutes 40 that almost restores your faith in human beings. We’re all desperate for a rest from the shite at the moment, so don’t bother reading me any riot acts about this. Each to their own bottle of scotch & loaded Webley in the study. Best in full screen.

cold grit

“You’d have to be mental,” Sankey said, “to go climbing in this.”

Nevertheless you can see him on the polaroid I took that afternoon, his bright orange waterproof jacket blowing out behind him like a comic book cape as he stands anxiously looking up at Normal who is stalled out halfway up the crag. The picture deteriorated in some way — perhaps because of the cold — soon after it was taken, chemical changes giving the light a dead green cast and making the rock look black and featureless. Normal seems to be pasted on to it, one arm raised wearily. The snow is the same colour as the sky, and only a row of little outcrops marks the division between the two.

These few buttresses of rough grit, heavily pebbled with quartz and perched like boulders on the skyline, are nice to come to on a summer evening, when the hang gliders lie out on the shallow slopes beneath them in the golden light like exhausted butterflies. The day I took the Polaroid we could hear each separate gust of wind building up miles away across the moor before it burst round the aretes on to us, whipped Normal’s rope out into a tight parabolic curve, and whirled off down the valley to strafe the sheep. There was snow packed into all the cracks. When we excavated it we found hard ice underneath, as shiny as solidified Superglue. Our noses ran. The wind pulled the strings of mucus out grotesquely, so that during the instant before they snapped they floated with all the elegance of spider-silk. Our fingers went numb, only to come back to life twenty or thirty feet up, at just the wrong moment, the size of bananas and throbbing with hot-aches.

Eventually Normal had to give in and come down.

“It’s no good. I can see what to do but I can’t convince myself to do it.”

His hands were curled up and broken-looking from the cold. They were bleeding where he had knocked them without knowing on the rock. He pulled his mittens on with his teeth and for a while all three of us huddled beneath a big undercut, where it was a bit warmer. But the wind got in under the lip of it and drove ice into our faces, and soon that became a misery too.

“It’s no good.”

Normal and Sankey began to pack up the gear, stuffing ropes and harnesses untidily into their rucksacks.

“It seems a bit brighter over there,” I said.

“It always seems a bit bloody brighter over there.”

–from Climbers, 1989.

teasing the dog

View from the cafe window: a part of the railway bridge, trees, a car parked with its nearside wheels in a long puddle. Some hikers come past with their trousers tucked into their socks. The cafe dog, a big alsation, looks up. Half a dozen climbers are eating out there, grouped round the weathered grey tables in the ten o’ clock sun. A boy nineteen or twenty years old stands out from the rest. His hair is dyed dark red and worn in plaited rats’-tails down his back; his arms are thin and white, and will show no muscle until he locks them off later in the day soloing Quietus Stanage, which he nearly falls off; he has on elegant dirty fatigue trousers and a T-shirt with the sleeves torn out. He is teasing the dog with the remains of his breakfast. “Look at this!” he shouts. And then to the dog, “Hey!”, snatching the food away at the last moment, offering it and snatching it away until with a look of understanding the dog loses interest and moves away.

From Climbers, 1989

sixty foot stack

As an apprentice, Stox had ignored the ladders one day and climbed instead the steel reinforcing bands of a l50-foot incinerator chimney on a waste tip near Birmingham. “It was quicker,” he claimed; but really he had done it out of mischief, and a desire to stir up his elders. The other jacks, he said, had been “well surprised”; but generally they would admit to no interest in rock climbing, and seemed unimpressed by his photographs of routes like London Wall and Coventry Street.

Stox phoned me at seven in the morning on Christmas Eve and asked me if I’d like to see what jacking was all about. I’d known him for a fortnight. I was so flattered and surprised I could only answer “Yes.”

If this seemed brusque he didn’t say so.

“I’ll pick you up in half an hour.”

He turned up ten minutes later, in a bruised Transit van belonging to his firm. Inside, it smelled of oil, Swarfega and old polypropylene rope. Stox drove impatiently. He was unforgiving of other drivers. But compared to Normal, whose wild lunges, sudden U-turns and lapses of concentration or memory were legend, he seemed quite safe.

“Ever watch stock car racing ? Well exciting!”

Stox’s contract was at a steelworks near Rotherham. Another team had been in the day before to prepare it for him. His brief was to do a Sonartest and make recommendations. I sat in the Transit for half an hour, reading a three-day-old copy of the Sun, while he went from Portacabin to Portacabin looking for the site engineer, a thin Sheffield man who took him by the arm, pointed silently at a smallish stack made of riveted steel cylinders, brick-lined, supported at the base by four vanes so that it looked like an abandoned rocket from some old-fashioned war, and promised, “You’ll do nowt wi’ that.”

It was crawling with rust even at ground level. We found five sixteen-foot wooden ladders in situ, tied on at intervals with steel cable. There was a pulley-block in place.

“Are your ropes always this frayed ?” I asked.

Stox smiled distantly, and in the faint but authoritative tones of Harry Dean Stanton in Repo Man answered: “Steeplejack always seeks out intense situations. It’s part of his code.”

“Piss off, Stox.”

About sixty feet above the ground was a batten-stage, eight planks and a few bits of scaffolding fixed to the stack with cleats, through which it was easy enough to see the ground. It was bitterly cold up there. In winter, climbers try to pick a sheltered crag: here, with three-hundred and sixty degrees of air around us, there was nothing between us and the wind. “I couldn’t work up here,” I said, looking out over British Steel. The skin at the back of my neck crawled. “Not for money. What do you want me to do?”

“You can admire the view.”

Parts of the works were being demolished prior to privatisation. For as far as I could see, cutting torches fizzed and flared and sent up showers of sparks from among the buckled girders. Heaps of waste smouldered in the mud between the huge corrugated sheds, giving off an acrid, low-lying smoke through which I could make out gantries crawling with oxygen pipes; muddy yards where the Mercedes, Volvo and Magirus Deutz trucks were parked in rows; the venous curves of a disused railway line–a bright, almost luminous green moss grew between its dull rails. As we walked past the shed now directly below us, I had seen what I thought were huge steel wheels piled on top of one another. They were already beginning to rust. This reminded me of how, at the turn of the Eighteenth Century, stone from France became cheaper than Hathersage grit. The grindstone industry collapsed, and work stopped in a day. Half-finished millstones are still scattered around at the base of the Peak District edges, for tourists to eat their lunch off.

After a moment or two, a man strolled into view through the smoke, pushed his goggles up on to his forehead, and pissed against the side of a huge tank of brownish liquid.

“Very nice,” said Stox.

He held the Sonartest against his ear and shook it.

“This thing’s a bit Mickey Mouse today. You’re supposed to be able to calibrate it against the samples. Still, it’ll have to do.”

There was about twenty feet of the stack left above us. Stox smeared some vaseline over the Sonartest pick-up and set off from the batten-stage, ignoring the ladders in a display of pure technical cheek, climbing on bolt-heads, rivets, things I couldn’t see, moving up and down with an intent grace while he passed the pick-up over the surface like a doctor’s stethoscope and called down the thicknesses– “2.98…3.77…There’s supposed to be four millimetres even, up here…2.01! Site engineer’s not daft….3.12….l.80!….” The pick-up left little green patches of Vaseline wherever it went. Brittle flakes showered down on me as Stox scraped the rust away to get a better contact. “Wait a minute,” he told himself, “if you–” He swung out lazily and delicately in that characteristic posture of a climber assessing the next few feet, legs straight, heels down, head tilted up intelligently. “Got it. 2.88.” By the time he’d finished we were both freezing.

“Time for some nosh,” said Stox.

As I was about to leave the batten-stage he stood in my way and stared at me intently. “I land the soft jobs,” he said, “the jobs like this, because I got a CSE. Do you see ?”

From Climbers, 1989.

involuntary memoir

Boxing day we walked along Stanage Edge, sat eating cheese and lettuce sandwiches in the cold wind and clag. I kept trying to remember the names of the climbs either side of Quietus: failed. That was odd. They weren’t even on the tip of my tongue. I’ve sat under Stanage so many times in the sunshine, trembling from the usual incompetent five-minute adventure and thinking, “I’ll never forget this.” I suppose I haven’t. Still hope I’ll get my ashes scattered there. I could feel snow in the wind but it didn’t fall until later, when we were back in Sheffield. Cheese sandwich, the gritstone madeleine. It was like returning to an old life, but as some other, less convincing person. I miss an identity so clearly defined.

get out for a walk

while you still can.

“National Parks are extensive tracts of country that are protected by law for future generations because of their natural beauty and for the opportunities they offer for open air recreation.” –YouGov
Stop the Tories using a false housing crisis to break the National Parks Act.

new wavelengths of light

A bit of Climbers, first blogged under the title “Lay Down Yr Weary Tune” to mark the passing of the Sony Walkman in 2010. Repeated here because it’s how I feel today–

My knee had begun to hurt again, and it felt stiff when I got out of bed; but effort seemed to ease it, so I took increasingly to the rocks behind Sankey’s house. There, a cheerful lad called “Red Haired Neil” to distinguish him from some other Neil who no longer lived locally, showed me how to solo with a Sony Walkman.

“Go on. Try it. Here.”

It was like discovering electricity.

“The big hazard at this crag is still falling in the dogshit,” said Neil;
but as long as I had the Walkman on I was invulnerable. I could thrive on risk. I played Brian Adams, “Straight From the Heart”: my intuition astonished me. I played Bruce Springsteen, “Ramrod”: problems succumbed so easily I was filled with energy. I played ZZ Top, “Deguello”: my aggression seemed endless. The music fell obliquely across the rock, illuminating it like a new wavelength of light to reveal brand new ways of climbing. It was still possible to be outfaced: but, burning magic fuels, I would know the end of the day had come only when my fingers let go of their own accord: I would look up suddenly, dazed with fatigue, adrenalin and rock-and-roll, to see headlights sweeping down Holme Moss and into the valley. My arms were grey with cold, the elbow joints painful from repeated pulling up, the fingertips sore and caked with chalk. Only then would I change back into my Nike shoes, turn the music up louder to combat a sudden sense of depression, and, shivering, walk down past Sankey’s cottage where the FOR SALE board had been up for a month.

I never saw anyone viewing it.

The front room curtains were down and all his furniture had gone: but you could see scattered across the bare floor the Subaru catalogues he had been poring over the month he died.

Towards the end of that fortnight the weather became strange and undependable. Above the Holme Moss transmitter you could see alternating bands of weak sunshine and low thick cloud; shifts of pressure pumped them down from the plateau one after the other to give first a cold wind then a blue sky that seemed warmer than it was. Resting for a moment at the top of some problem, I would watch the late sun burning the bare trees and mill chimneys, igniting the windows of the double-glazed barn-conversions all the way to Greenfield. One minute things swam in light; the next they were flat and wintered, ordinary.

“It cuts like a knife,” whispered the Walkman: “But it feels so right.”

By now my leg ached all the time. At about two o’ clock on a Thursday afternoon–in one of those lenses of warmth and sunshine, with the Walkman turned up full so that energy and excitement flooded up inside me from moment to moment–I made a high step on a problem I had done a dozen times before. Something seemed to lurch inside my knee, like a small animal trying to escape. I was twenty five feet off the ground. A bit desperately, I threw my weight on to that leg and tried to stand up. Nothing happened, except that the headset of the Walkman came off and dangled on its wire in front of me, so that I stepped on it. The knee wouldn’t straighten. I tried to reverse the move, but I was already falling. Each time I hit something on the way down I thought, “That’s my shoulder, but it’s OK,” or, “That’s my foot, but it’s OK.” I could hear myself saying, “Christ! Christ!” I finished up in the heather under the climb, where the ground sloped away suddenly enough to absorb most of my momentum, with a sprained ankle and a few bruises. The sun had gone in. I was shaking. I could hear the motor of the Sony turning over creakily: and Mick’s clear voice in my head advising me,

“You’re not fit to be allowed out on your own, you incompetent wazzock.”

Fluid swelled the ankle, crushing the soft tissues until they blackened. I could still get about on it, but my knee would lock unexpectedly. I sat in the house for a week watching TV with the sound turned down and the Walkman turned up until it hurt my ears, trying to infer the news from jumbled footage of tanks and elder statesmen, the weather from the weatherman’s smile. High winds and rain were forecast until the New Year. Sometimes the moves I had done recently would pass before my closed eyes. Or I would hear jackdaws, and see with sudden heartbreaking clarity some crag in the summer sunshine: Hen Cloud, Bwlch y Moch, Beeston Tor.

“You can’t be ‘more or less’ lost,” I remembered someone saying.

You’re either lost or you aren’t.

You can buy the rest of Climbers here, with a stunning introduction by Robert Macfarlane.