Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Surface Of Rocks - article in Alpinist 44


He stands there on a dilapidated wooden lookout, looking south toward the coast. A low-slung, grass-covered hill fades in and out of ashen cloud. He stares past the hill, above dark andesitic columns and walls of conglomerate that plunge, unseen, into space where the earth ends abruptly. The ocean is beyond, slated and churned by winds that blur directly from the great southern ice. Dirtied-white horses froth at the peaks of swells, slugging away at coastal stacks hundreds of meters beneath him. Even at the lookout, the salt spray films his face, damp and caustic.
His chest constricts against the vortex of wind. He struggles to focus. This isn't love. Driving out along the convoluted gravel road, he hadn't decided, or didn't know that he'd decided. But the sway of the grasses back and forth, the sweep of the thick clouds with the wind, the sound of the surf's last throes – the abyss that lies within each of us, sometimes so close to the surface.
He cups his hands and rubs them. The cold makes him feel better, more in the headspace he wants to be. The edginess is now a familiar feeling: a tightness in his neck and shoulders, a way that certain objects appear glass-clear while others fade toward insignificance. “I just need time to myself, see where I'm at,” she'd explained a month ago, in a cafe boisterous with lunchtime excess. He'd caught his breath, holding back the sudden words he wanted to shout. The voices at the next table formed a dull white noise that seemed to compress against him; her face blurred out of focus. He scraped back his chair and stood without replying. He'd already known.
A faint, narrow path leads down a spiny ridge on the far side of the lookout. Muddy and slippery, it jags steeply through scrub and rotten sheep droppings. He grabs a fistful of grass and grovels his torso over a short bluff. Here, the track is undercut with erosion, and part has collapsed entirely. The air is heavy with spray and the sounds of the waves. Through the vapor, a spire of rock breathes in to view, a dark finger against the grey.
Months earlier, they'd been at a pub, enjoying drunken banter with the locals. As always, she was articulate and engaging. He sat and listened, watching the two of her – her reflection just as captivating against the surface of the pub's dark windows. Her smile encouraged an old fisherman to join them in another round of drinks.
You climbing types would love it,” the fisherman had said, mostly to her. “We call her The Maiden, but you can only see her properly from the water, standing there, still waiting after all these years.”
How high?” she'd asked. She leaned forward.
What?” The old guy scratched at his scabby, balding head.
How high is the stack? How big?”
Big enough.”
We should find it,” she'd said to him later, raising her hand, palm up above the table. “Bet it's never been climbed.”
For good reason no doubt,” he'd replied. He spiraled his glass of beer. “Probably a crumbly pile of weetbix, if it even exists.”
Of course it bloody exists!”
He wondered now whether his pessimism was another factor.
Come climbing with us,” his friends had coaxed. “It'll take your mind off things.”
But it hadn't. At the belay he recalled climbing with her, how he'd poured so much energy into their relationship, working at what he thought she wanted. That wasted effort still haunts him. He thinks of her – blonde, tanned and strong. As usual, he realized, he'd become infatuated with the physical, understanding nothing of what was important, what could last. After she left, the texture of rock, something he'd once relied upon, began to feel foreign. His fingers struggled to find the right way to grip; his body always seemed slightly off balance. As a young boy, he'd imagined a kind of insulating layer in his mind, a shield. Whenever something troubled him at school, he could sit under a lone tree at the edge of the playing fields and the shield would descend over the branches like an invisible, protective dome. In other relationships, he'd been able to project an image behind that shield, a belief almost, of strength and confidence. Only this time, that image made his insecurity more apparent, at least to him. Train harder, be stronger, climb better used to be his mantra. Yet it isn't physical ability he lacks.
Don't worry, it's just a climber thing,” a friend had said. “We become so focused, so intent on completing the task that some of us can't deal with failure, whatever it is. We say we can, but that's not the same.”
But he feels as if his very fabric has ruptured, barely meshing what's left. There are no more crossroads in his mind, only a constricting corridor that surely ends.
There's a dip in the coast, a cove sheltering from the heaving sea and force of the wind. This is where she waits, he thinks, slipping into an old habit. To personify his climbs, he knows, is to place his own hopes and imperfections onto their curves and within their cracks. He doesn't care. Anymore. Elongated, freestanding and almost fragile in appearance, her edges rise nearly parallel towards the clouds. Beautiful. Enticing. Like an ill-timed voiceover, his thinking distances from his movement. With more purpose than he has felt for so long, he scratches the last few meters over the water-worn boulders, looks up at the conglomerate base and the toned andesite above. When they find my body, they'll know what I was trying to do.
He starts tenderly, testing and weighting each hold before reaching for another. The stone feels chilled and sleek, yet reassuring. The surface of rocks is deceitful. In a way he has always known this. The elements have polished the minerals, dulled reds and greens within the fawn of the breccia. The wall is slick with salt spray. Yet even though he's climbing in running shoes, he starts to move efficiently. The commotion of the sea recedes. This feels different...better. Then his wet hands start slipping from the dimpled incuts. His shoes scrape against pocked slabs. He panics, but remembers: I just need to get high enough.
Seagulls squawk from their pedestals, and before long he joins them on a jut in the rock. Breathing heavily and shaking slightly, he laughs at the irony of having come this far, almost ten meters off the ground already. Slowly, the breathing eases, and he looks up. A thin, sharp-edged crack points through the start of the andesite. Steep and damp, the crack looks too shallow and the faces on either side too smooth. Normally, this is where he'd baulk, even with a rope and climbing shoes. Now he reaches up and forces the fingers of one hand and then the other into the crack. He twists them sideways, and pulls. I want this. I want them to see how good I can be.
The first moves are the hardest, his fingertips barely fitting and his shoes smearing across folds on the rock. Both feet slip off, and he's hanging by two knuckles. The seagulls hold their breath. Instead of cringing, he pulls in and reaches up with his other hand. So strong. So free. The crack widens, and now he can securely twist both hands and feet into it. He pauses.
For the first time, he looks down at the choppy surge of the sea, and then across at grey, broken cliffs along the main coast – the walls of a fortress. The cloud lifts for a while, allowing sunlight to sponge across their ramparts and catch in the wings of seabirds as they glide between the freestanding spire he is clinging to and the mainland. The light allows him to judge how much height he has gained, and how far he has to go. He rests his head against a scoop of rock. This is ludicrous. I can't even pick the right bloody way to end it! He struggles to move again. Why didn't I just jump? At least it would have been quick. But now I'm here. Now I have to do this.
His fingers run across the rock's surface, searching for memories that its texture might inspire. Mental images begin to unveil, half shrouded but enough to remind him of the essence of what really might have brought him here.
Finally, he inches upward – the only thing he can do – following the crack that keeps broadening. Armbar, shuffle, twist, thrutch. He focuses on the moves themselves, defining each body position in his mind, and then the one after it, searching for a way back to his shield, for some means of forgetting where and who he is. Everything other than the right thing fades away to blurred peripheries.
The crack ends abruptly at a precarious crumbling ledge. Only a few meters away, a nightmarish jumble of stacked flakes separates him from the top of the pillar. He can see gannets circling over it, rising and dipping with the wind, so close now. It's too steep. I can't do it. He squeezes his eyes shut and hugs the rock. Eventually, a measured breath comes. She owes me this.
The first two holds disintegrate in his hands. He fights the suck of space, recovers and starts hyperventilating. His ledge begins to disintegrate. He lunges for the most solid chunk of rock he can see, wrapping both hands around it as the last of the ledge peels away, crumbling and falling, slowly at first, then accelerating, bouncing once, twice, before slapping into the sea.
NnnggggFFaaarrrrkkk! The gannets scatter at his sudden arrival at the top of the pillar. He stays on his hands and knees for a time, pulling deep breaths into his lungs and pushing his hands into the heavy soil. Slowly he stands, and then calls into the clouds for help, his voice echoing between the cliffs. He shuffles cautiously to the edge and peers over, wondering for a moment but then shaking his head.
Shadows stretch over the land. He starts to shiver, and curls with his hands between his legs. The wind has eased and the sea begins to calm. The last of the light flickers across smoothing ocean swells, broken mirrors reflecting back towards him. He keeps his eyes open. He prays for the slow draw toward the dark not to finish. At nightfall, the temperature drops, holding him conscious for a time. He hopes someone might come in the morning. He thinks he has the right to hope because, if nothing else, she has finally accepted him. Of course, he dreams of her again, languid, floating, the two of them climbing as one. Then, when he looks back, he doesn't see her any more. There is simply more rock, another climb.
He wakes quickly, as if someone has kicked him. He lies there in the frigid dark, wondering whether this, any of this, is worth it. Not long before the cold finally takes him, he realizes the worth of a thing doesn't really come in to it. 

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