"Oh My God, give me the strength to let go!"
I never really understood this statement. It was uttered by a friend on the crux of a new and rather unexpected HVS on a Donegal sea-cliff. Then, it was a plea in extremis, later it was the humorous route-name with the story attached. It was only recently I returned to the original utterance and felt it expand in me like an emotional blush of the utmost severity as I found myself on the crux of a Scottish winter VII, lacking the obvious strength to let go: hanging on for dear life, in other words.
The route is a classic of the Southern Highlands and is named Messiah: first on-sighted by Graham Little and Bob Reid in January 1988. On the neglected dark cliffs of Creag an Sogach, where climbers pass on their way to lap up the dripping ice tongues of Fahrenheit 451, it is easily overlooked and usually regarded as thin, technical and, thankfully, never in condition. Murray and I saw it from the corrie, in obviously good condition. As we were looking for a challenge, this somewhat forced our hand. We veered up the steep approach slopes to the right.
For some inexplicable reason to do with the weird patterns of confidence in climbing, I felt up for it, neglecting entirely to mention to Murray I hadnâ€™t even led a VI. I had no idea what VII,7 felt like. The bottom groove looked steep, sure, but it had stacks of turf, and if that was frozenâ€¦ I tried to keep my eyes from the blank traverse left at the top of the groove. Funny how we ignore those big spaces, those blanks inside us, consigning them to the unknowable. But as has been cited on exploration of the unknown: it requires no particular understanding of the topic.
Murray banged in a Scrube for belay and handed me the ropes. What the hell was I doing? I felt like I was back in Cub Scouts, diligently tying knots around my waist, trying to remember the rhyme about the rabbit round the tree. I spent a while tightening the leashes on my axes, gathering and sorting gear, then I was off up the easy steps to the big corner. I found a forbidding cap-stone blocking my way: a little cave to hunker under and slip a wire into. I clipped in, almost giving in to a belay and bringing Murray up with a hang-dog, sorry-mate look.
I managed to commit myself to the groove and front-pointed up on ridiculously slim coverings of frozen sphagnum moss. â€˜Fucking sphagnum!â€™ my brain was screaming. At least there were some nice clumps of frozen grass and cress (mmm, cressâ€¦) to sink the axes into. I was on an awkward step: suddenly I couldnâ€™t really climb down without jumping. Oh Lord... I whacked in two dodgy pegs, committed them to some easily fooled psychology and pressed on. More good clumps of vegetation and a better rest. This time I found a micro and a number six tucked behind a wee lateral spike. Oh dear. I looked down at Murray, who had his head buried in his hood, chin tucked in, trying to keep warm and patient. The next couple of steps found me desperately groping with a glove for a rock flake and I scuttled into a small cave, wedged my body awkwardly and wrapped a sling round a chock-stone. At last, some gear I could count on! My calves did an Elvis with the sudden release of tension. Then I looked up and left. Oh Lord, give meâ€¦
It was about forty minutes into the pitch and I dropped the axes onto their leashes and reached up with Neoprene hands for those typical weathered wafers of mica-schist. Not bad, so I scrabbled on crampons to step up and reached further left, found another good hold, prayed it wouldnâ€™t snap and scuttled further left. Now I was leaning back, axes swinging in space, crampons being touched gently on that frozen sphagnum scurf stuff. I could see a good turfy foot-hold way left and stretched for it. I was beginning to pump with the exposure and stupidity of the whole bloody thing as my brain rallied to come up with calming diversionary tactics. Lord knows what went through my head but I wanted for all my life just to let go, just to be able to have the faith to let go. It didnâ€™t happen. I found another hand-hold and pulled onto the turf, got my axes in again and whooped with the thrill of it all. I rattled up to the belay like a mynah-bird shaken in its cage.
â€œBloody hell, Murray! Whoo! Awesome, man! Whoo!â€�
Murray took me off and began warming up to the hot-aches and the Second. I ate all my wine gums and left an orange one on a ledge for the next leader. Murray coped fine and found it all steady, slowing at the traverse to be precise and take it in a little more than I managed. He quickly led through the bold wee second pitch to the side of the big icy snot of the top ice pitch. It was Murrayâ€™s big lead now and my turn to feel relieved and relax on the belay, look around a bit. Jesus, was this in the bag already? Murray hacked away at the poor ice at the bottom until he found a good hex to take the fear out of the belay, then he tapped in the axes high up on the first overhung bulge of ice and pulled up strongly. The crampons broke away more ice and he had to scrape up to get established, banged in a screw and, though I couldnâ€™t see him anymore, I felt the slack pause on the rope as he looked up.
That awful testing silence of observation, as fear bloomed once again.
Murray proceeded upwards in starts, great hunks of ice whistling out of the corner to my right and thumping on the snow below. I tensed each time, thinking he was off, but it was only ice. Spindrift rained down occasionally, like hundreds and thousands - pin-pricking bits of cold round my wrists. Murray occasionally spoke to himself. After another age, the rope came tight and I rushed curiously over to the hanging groove. Bloody hell, it was steep! I followed up, my glasses incomprehensible with melted spindrift, blood marks everywhere, the occasional tied-off screw, awkward body-positions, hunting pecks with the axes, and the constant rubric of â€˜Jesus, bold!â€™ in my head. When I pulled through the tiny snow cornice at the top, I slapped Murray on the back and we shook hands with nervous laughter, as though weâ€™d just been let off with a misdemeanour, or played with a brotherâ€™s special toy while he was out.
It was only while slurping peppery soup in a bergschrund below the cliffs when we realised weâ€™d caught the mountain unawares and stolen something rather special: something we didnâ€™t know we were allowed to steal, or able to steal, or if we had ever really conceived of stealing.
But there it was. Somehow, we had found the strength to let go.
That was a time of limits, today is a time of gathering strengths learnt, exercising composure and breathing the whole day in with one breath rather than a thousand fear-filled arpeggios of life. Sean follows up the icefall, hacking with animal enthusiasm and whoops of joy, staining the ice with bloody knuckles. We smile all the way up the Salamander, the cliff is silent bar the odd tinkle of sun-melt ice, we lie on the summit in the snow and are thankful for such days, melding into each other in the memory, there is almost a silent utterance of disbelief in the sky. Like a pause between synapses before they fire again. They do and we are off back down the Coire for a pint in the Invervey, Sean inspecting his knuckles, I eating Pea and Ham Soup noisily. We are not thinking about anything in particluar, each day in the mountains finds its own cadence, each its own timbre, each day lets go in its own way... I recall Murray and wonder what he is up to now, what millions of decision trails have led him to... I know, somehow deeply, memory upon memory is layered down entirely by accident and we can only will it so.