'The balance between the physical and the mental leads us to a true sense of self. This is not a judgement of intellect or fitness, rather an openness to challenging ourselves in both forms of endeavour'

Monday, October 10, 2011

Taming The Honey Badger - The Last Pitch in Climber

I love writing. I love trying to piece together the physical jigsaw of words and sentences while unlocking the emotive nuances attached to them. I see worth in sharing personal experiences and the stories of other’s experiences. There’s a collective goal.
But sometimes the process doesn’t come easily. Or, what I’m trying to write about is too raw and emotional to let me find the right way to explain things. Words won’t fit. There becomes a growing void – an inadequacy – between the experience and the story. Author Greg Child describes trying to fill this void as ‘slashing at reality’. He reckons that we can’t trust the written word.
I don’t fully agree with Child, but can understand his reasoning. In the cut, paste and edit world of writing and publishing, the experience is chewed over, regurgitated, and placed into whatever bite-sized pieces the word count allows for. The end result separates from the experience.
I found this when asked to write about the February earthquake. I grappled with making sense of my experience of the seconds of terror, near misses and ‘what ifs’. The words felt clumsy and lacking. Then later, after a number of retellings, the words partly became my recollection of the experience. I came to trust them more than my fading memories.
Now, with another recent ‘close call’ experience, I find myself again struggling with turning emotions into words. But I’m a writer. I don’t see any other choice:

‘Have you guys watched the honey badger?’
‘What?’
‘The honey badger. It’s a video on U tube. You know…nasty ass?’
Shelley and I looked at each other. We had no idea what our friend Graham was on about. I reached for the laptop to try and shed light on the conversation.
Graham or ‘Zim’, a Kiwi-American in his mid 20s, has already learned to pursue life with an intensity that most of us only dream about. I was stoked to hear that he had won the latest New Zealand Mountaineer of the Year award, but more stoked just to see him, and maybe get the opportunity to go climbing together again.
Within half an hour of picking Zim up at Christchurch Airport, we were back home drinking beers and spinning yarns like it had only been days, rather than years, since we’d last seen each other.
‘See what I mean?’ Zim said, after we watched the honey badger video for the third time (I can’t do justice to the video here, other than to say the honey badger is one tough hombre that doesn’t back down from anything. You need to watch the video for yourself).
‘Whenever we’re struggling on a pitch,’ Zim continued, ‘the belayer calls up ‘honey badger don’t give a shit!’ to the leader. Works every time.’

The day after Zim received his award, the three of us headed down country in search of winter delights. Despite average weather, we found an unclimbed frozen waterfall in the Hopkins Valley that looked pretty cool. Excitement levels rose.
Sometimes things just go wrong. I don't know whether to acknowledge that we were unlucky to get caught by the falling ice, or lucky that things didn't turn out a lot worse.
At the top of the second pitch, I had just built my anchor, clipped in, and was belaying Zim up to me. Shell was still clipped to the V-thread anchor at the top of the first pitch, about 40 metres below.
The ice came, 5-10 seconds of brick-sized blocks slamming into us. Driven against the snow by the blows, I thought it was all over.
I don't remember the end of it, so must have blacked out for a few seconds. Everything ached and there was blood over the snow. I yelled down to the others, but could only hear muffled replies. Only one thought developed: 'Get the fuck down!’ I tried to untie and retie the ropes with one working hand while talking to myself. Small things took on new significance.
Abseiling, I saw Zim slumped on a low angled snow slope, and Shell staring at me with huge eyes. Zim mumbled that he wasn't good. He thought that the impact of the ice had broken his shoulder and maybe his leg. I offered to abseil together, but then decided to lower him straight away. I followed Zim down, and checked his injuries while Shell abseiled. After slinging his arm, I started considering the rest of the descent. Zim said that he thought he could walk.
The three of us shuffled slowly downhill to the nearest hut. I then walked out to the road, found a family with a 4-wheel-drive who were holidaying nearby, and asked them to drive in to pick up the others.
By the time we all reached the road end, Shell was feeling a bit better and said she could drive.
We headed for Timaru, making a quick detour to Burger King. The staff at BK's gave us a funny look, not surprising given that three smelly, blood-stained, down jacket wearing individuals were standing at the counter asking directions to the hospital while ordering double whoppers.
Zim broke his fibula and scapula. The duty doctor initially refused to X-ray his leg after hearing that he had been able to walk out. Zim is off climbing for at least four months. But I spoke to him the other day, and he is already riding a stationary cycle. Shell and I escaped with cuts, bad bruising and concussion. We all needed new helmets.

I returned to the same ice three weeks later, wanting closure as much as anything. But the rest of the four pitch route had fallen away. Instead, we climbed another single-pitch line nearby. Kester led the route, and my hands shook as I prepared to follow. Despite my nervousness, I wanted to get back on the ice that had spanked us. Looking at conditions, I figured my chances were over until next winter.
Two days later, one of the biggest snow storms in our history plastered much of the country. The temperature plummeted. More than 20cm of snow fell outside our home on the coast. My thoughts returned to the possibility of ice forming in the mountains. I called Jamie and, as long as we could get out of Christchurch, he was keen.
In the early morning light, we could see the route from the valley floor. It was thin but on! Even Jamie wasn’t his super-confident self as we wordlessly roped up at the base. Light bathed the route with warmth, but we figured the ice would cool again soon enough, as the sun tracked west. Small fragments bounced down from above, and I flinched. We started climbing.

There’s no motto here, nothing life affirming other than the obvious. We are faced with choices and dictated to by chance. But I quite like this from a band The Mermen: The album is called ‘A Glorious Lethal Euphoria’ and the song is ‘With No Definite Future And No Purpose Other Than To Prevail Somehow…’

'Native Stones' by David Craig - Book Review in Climber

Why do we read climbing literature? Is it to pass the time; be entertained; informed; appalled; to be perched voyeuristically on our armchair while soaking up another knife-edge experience; or to try and tease something out that is actually inside us? Add to that our personal views and experience, what we’ve read before, and even how our day has been. There’s a whole lot going on that influences how we feel about what we read.

I found David Craig’s book ‘Native Stones’ by accident. I’d never heard of it or him, and tripped over a hand-me-down copy of it in a Wanaka second-hand bookshop. The inside cover blurb about Craig said he was an English professor who discovered climbing in his later years. This is how the book begins: ‘The crags act on us as the moon does on the seas, inert mineral masses exerting their force, leading us to their poles. People, birds, goats and sheep – we are drawn along the ledges, up the gullies, out onto the buttresses and pinnacles.’
For me, this is lyrical writing. So often in climbing literature we are bombarded with climbing heroics and stoic fortitude. While certainly page-turning and palm sweating, at times I find myself disappointed with the sameness of it all.

Yet these gentle fumbling of a moderate climber on gently-inclined rock routes in the Midlands showed me that not all climbing writing needs to follow the tried and true. And this highlights another point: do we enjoy more the works of climbers trying to write or writers trying to climb? I would suggest that, while Craig is certainly the later, the genre is loaded with the former. I guess it only matters in the end result, in the quality of the writing. And I’m drawn to Craig’s writing just like he describes being drawn to the crags; because there is something hidden there, some meaning that’s not explained explicitly, but if we stick at it we may at least discover something about ourselves that’s worth knowing.
For me, there are two things that Craig does really well. He gives us a strong sense of place, and he has a distinct voice. For climbers reading about climbing, we need more than the typical reader. We are intimately attached to the interaction between the climber and the environment. It’s natural that we want it explained in detail, so that we can imagine ourselves there, or feel damn lucky that we’re not.

This has turned into a book rave rather than a book review. I make no apologies. I love Craig’s writing. Finding and reading it raised my expectations of future climbing authors that I would seek out.

If there’s one thing I feel that is perhaps missing in Native Stones, it’s a continued narrative. This is more a collection, or recollection of Craig’s musings and experiences. Given that, I find myself rereading passages often, sometimes for inspiration and other times just to realise the wealth of this writer’s talent.