18. The selfish gene
Summer, Edinburgh 1990 or 1992…
It’s been sunny for 4 weeks and all of the high mountain crags are dry. Shelterstone Crag in the Cairngorms has finally lost the snow patch, which sat on top of it all spring causing the climbs to remain wet for day after frustrating day. I know this dryness won’t last, but my girlfriend keeps asking me ‘why can’t it wait until next weekend?’ when she is visiting her parents. After all, I have been away every weekend this month. She also points out that I have trained twice this week in the evenings, and there is a party this weekend and she wants me to come with her.
Oh fuck, a dilemma. I know the outcome even before the discussion arises; I am going climbing, come hell or high water. But she still thinks or I let her think, there is a chance I will relent. I knew it on Monday as soon as the smelly clothes from the previous weekend had been tipped out on the floor. No rain, no boyfriend in the city. The debate rages all week, right up until Thursday evening when the forecast shows rain on Monday. The conversation edges around the usual topics of… “you knew what you were letting yourself in for”, to… “Make a choice, the climbing or me”. That I am afraid is the clincher. We sleep beside each other in tension. This is an unresolved question. No one is winning here. I wish her well at the party and the door is closed.
Gordon and I are navigating in a cloud “white out”, to the climber’s path that splits Hells Lum and leads down to the base of Shelterstone Crag. The bad weather is moving in faster than forecast. Despite the cloud, the crag is still sort of dry. We rope up at the start of Needle, the classic “extreme” route of the cliff. The entire walk-in I have been totally preoccupied by the week’s bullshit. Can’t she see I won’t change? Does she not realise how important this is to me. Even when Gordon finishes the first 100-foot pitch I am still debating with my split needs. Love (or sex) or the escape to the hills. Is it possible to find a balance?
As soon as the rope comes tight at my waist, things change. I am jerked into seeking balance on the rock. The pink granite is cold to touch, hard and unforgiving. The rock is a hard mistress. It easily pushes you away. Its rewards are sometimes elusive and painfully won. Now there is no hidden agenda; total focus. I am leading over a small bulge in the rock. It’s steep and there is not much protection to keep me feeling safe. I must trust my strength, my feet and my instinct. Gordon and I move up the 1000 foot cliff, leap froging each other into the lead position. There is a fantastic tension on a big rock route; driven to climb but in awe of the position you find yourself in… natural trepidation, carefulness, the space beneath your feet. By mistake, at the top belay stance, I push a small rock from the ledge with my feet. It bounces once, 50 foot below and spins vertically 800 hundred feet down, smashing into pieces on the scree below. Suddenly on this ledge, I feel exposed, stuck between the sky and the hard rocks below. The top pitch of the route is still a puzzle to me, its secrets waiting to be unlocked. I am in a limbo state, on a journey I have not finished, I have not reached the sky, but nor am I standing on the firm ground.
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