Saturday, 20 November 2010
The smell of the thyme and crushed rosemary wafts across the hillside as the last rays of the sun dip behind the snow capped peaks. Huge Corsican pines stand on the hillside, the hardiest silhouetted on the ridges against the dying late autumn sun. A pair of Ravens wheel and talk to each other high above our heads catching the last warm up drafts of warm air at the days end.
We are in the Vallee de la Restonica in central Corsica, and my god its beautiful. There are few places that touch the sensory buttons like this; it has a wild, ancient impenetrable beauty, so rarely experienced in Europe. Its granite mountains are huge and impressive, its tree filled valleys soft and shaded. At this time of year the countryside is bursting with the colours of another dying season. Reds, yellows, fire bursts of orange. The complexity of the topography, the pouring boulder filled rivers, the dusty vineyards all combine to create a picture of a land of such huge contrasts that could not fail to make an impression. We are here to climb, to eke out a few more pitches on dry rock before the silent snows arrive. The rock is turning from orange to ochre as the sun leaves the cliff, almost immediately it goes from tee-shirt hot to fleece cool, and whilst the rock will retain the days warmth for an hour or so more, this change heralds the mystical turning of the clock from climbing time to the magical beer o’clock.
But before we pack up the climbing detritus, count the carabineers, coil the rope and drink the last of the day’s supply of water I have one more thing to do. Its been a while since I have been on a trip where the focus has been on the climbing, life just seems to have been in the way; the daily tasks simply leaving little time to find the required hours for the selfish pursuit of my vertical world. I need a little test, a reminder of what I can do if I push, and not to simply climb easy routes from memory or autopilot.
The rope is secured at the top of the cliff, so the stress of leading is taken out of the equation, leaving no chance of taking a knee grinding elbow scraping whipper (fall). I ask for a tight rope at the base of the climb as I would hit the ground in the first 2 meters just on the stretch of the rope. I pull off the ground onto the small sharp starting holds. The change of gear is evident, it’s a reminder of days and years in the past, hard pulling, on small granite edges, the feeling of being light and free on the rock, of looking quickly to work out the sequences, the pressure of crystal under skin, sore, pressing deep into the stuff of being.
I can feel myself become alive, the controlled aggression required to climb well, is dredged up from deep within my soul, where it has lain dormant for over a year. It comes up from the soles of my feet with a rush of adrenaline, a fighting shout, a grunt of power (what remains) to the crushing tips of my fingers. It’s a reminder of what commitment feels like, the desire to succeed, the hunger, the over riding the fear of falling. It’s a window into a long gone youth. But more pertinently it’s a reflection; a mirror so blatantly held up against my face, the only thing that’s holding me back is me, my own fear of failure.
Late Tuesday afternoon, it’s just above freezing, and it’s already dusk. It’s 5pm, the team emails and texts have circulated, and the meeting is set. The nights have drawn in and by this time in November the majority of the light-weight mountain bikers have already sprayed down there steeds with GT85 and are heading to another lame spinning class in some designer gym somewhere in the town.
But for a few slightly perverse and dedicated riders, the onset of the comfort-eating season brings with it a whole new game. Night Riding, for most committed cyclists owning a flashing red light and a headlight for their bike, is more to do with making sure some distracted commuter does not mow them down on their way to the pub, or a fly date with a mistress.
But for us, tonight, it’s the lumens that count. The brighter the better and by the time we are all assembled in the Glen Tress car park its already dark. Not just a wee bit dull, but black as a coal cellar. After the usual dicking about, fixing lights, wiggling loose connections and waiting for stragglers, we start spinning up the hill to the start of the single track. Night riding is quite peculiar; who would choose to ride at speed in a dark forest, past shoulder brushing trees, over jumps and down rock steps, sometimes covered in ice and wet pine needles? But it’s wonderfully addictive. The chat from the group is filled with edgy friendly banter, as those with the less powerful lights ride in the beams of the night riding technocrats.
If there was ever an arm of mountain biking that would appeal to the slightly detail orientated, socially dysfunctional, it is this. Discussions centre on wattage, beam angles, head mounted lights or handle bars, burn times and the all-important deal. Soon the rhythm of the climb falls into place, warm breath caught in the lights makes us look like a band of two wheeled dragons.
Centred on the column of light, the familiar trails become a new experience and little shadows become huge obstacles requiring a concentration never exercised when daylight riding. The dark places in the forest become magical hiding places for deer, foxes, badgers and childhood beasts of the imagination. Its sensory depravation of sorts but it leads to new heightened senses. The feel of the bike, the sounds under tyre, the reflected sheen of a tree root or wet rock. The cold too adds a dimension to the blue-beamed focus of the journey. A puncture or chain mishap becomes a communal experience. Everyone pitches in as to be abandoned alone in the forest with a mechanical issue is as isolating as it is dangerous. At the top of the climb, the first of us wait and switch off our lights so as to preserve the valuable battery life. Once all the lights are switched off, we are plunged into immediate and utter darkness. In the distance, the occasional shout is heard from the others in the raiding party and as they approach flashes of their lights flick through the tightly packed pine trees. Assembled at the summit of the climb it’s time to switch on the downhill brain, as well as the descending lights. With little margin for error on the fast descent, this is where night riding comes into its own. Like Alice down the rabbit hole we careen downhill, through our own long tubes of blue light.
The pheasant hit the windscreen with an alarming thud and exploded into a thousand feathers. For an instant, in that moment of impact the world stood still as Subaru and hunters’ target collided. One bred to provide the tweed-clad with a kill trophy, the other built to transport at high speed 4 hand-handed boulders (climbers) to the crag with road sucking handling. Thousands of well-bred birds lined the A68, oblivious to the dangers of flying into the path of metal machines and getting in the way of the small bands of late autumn cold rock hunters. Northumberland is a very special place, tens of sandstone edges break though the moorland heather all over god’s county, providing some of the best bouldering (climbing without ropes) in the UK. After the ubiquitous café stop to indulge in fruit scones, cream and jam washed down with strong coffees, the four of us piled back into the car and headed to “Back Bowden” crag. After a short walk across the moor, we arrived at the sun lit cliff. It a perfect morning, the puddles are ice capped and frost on the grass is waiting to be released from the night’s icy grip by the first kiss of the early morning sun.
And so the ritual begins, a slow warm up both mentally and physically. Its time to loosen the drive from the neurons and engage in a world of ice cold rock, power and friction. The finger tendons are supported by rolls of zinc medical tape and climbing shoes are squeaked and rubbed clean. The rock is cold and bites into the skin, the pressure and the cold squeezing the blood from the fingertips. After a minute or so the hot aches begin, painful but welcome. They herald the start of the day’s full action.
Bouldering is about learning what you physically can and cannot do. It’s about pulling on the smallest holds you can imagine. It’s about attempting the hardest movements you will ever do without the encumbrance of rope and gear. It is the essence of climbing -pure movement. It’s raw because it comes down to skills and strength, nothing else. I think that is why it’s such a fun and fabulous volume in the mountaineering library. Unlike tramping up an alpine peak which is a macro experience in so much as it involves thousands upon thousands of individual movements made over great distances, a bouldering problem may only have 5 or 10 body movements made on a 3-6m high lump of rock and in a field full of sheep. It’s a chance to get involved in a world of micro subtleties. It’s the millimetre perfect placement of a foot. It is the ability to use a minuscule outward slopping hand hold where the ancient individual grains of embedded sand have to be caressed, or crushed into success. It’s about trying and not being put off by failure, it’s the Robert the Bruce spider, refine, refine, and then flow. Ultimately though its not the climbing that I remember with the most fondness. It’s the crunch of the frozen grass under foot. The sharing of the coffee flask, the encouraging others to push to their limits and being pushed myself to attain what a first may have literally seemed out of reach. It’s the joy of shared experiences, laughs and the banter. Oh yes and the speeding tickets and the green unmarked police Volvo……
The bag is packed, flights booked and the pre trip arrangements for bills, work, and final goodbyes said to lovers and friends. For some trips these are just the normal formalities; who will feed the cat, and walk the dog. And if this is often an enough occurrence, even the dog gets used to being abandoned as you pursue your driving passions. For me this has been a pattern for over 30 years of travelling to do adventurous things and to work.
Up until now, its more often than not been me dishing out the goodbyes, throwing the sac in the plane and flying off without a backwards glance to those left behind, who then are consigned to waiting for news good or bad and the prodigal sons return. Of course I have done close to my fair share of being the house husband, holding the fort when wife’s and partners head of to visit friends, or take extended journeys to yoga retreats in far off Fort William or Karalla India.
Nope this month was different, someone very close to me (more on that later) decided to finish a very adventurous year by flying off to Nepal to climb a mountain. As soon as the date arrived this felt different, the flights in to Kathmandu during a storm prone October, started the process of slight concern, the sms message from the back of a motorbike (with no helmet) made me twitch a little. But through the pixilated world of low bandwith skype, enough contact was maintained to keep the heart from fluttering every day.
Then came the jeep journey to the trailhead, and anyone who has trekked or climbed in Nepal / Himalayas will understand, this is something else. Steep sided washed out roads, poor vehicles and mad “ god willing” drivers compound the madness, a text saying, “ tire blow out, 6 hours late, now dark with huge drops off the road, great fun” was the marker for a big change. I know I should not worry, after all life is for living experiencing, loving new exciting places and pushing the comfort zones every so often. Over the next few weeks no contact was had, I know she is sensible, fit, and quite skilled in looking after herself in the mountains and well able to turn back if it turns to poo, but its the not knowing. What was the sherpa like, what were the others on the team going to be like at altitude or under stress, and with such a short window, 2 days, being allowed for the summit, would they push to hard if the odds looked close?
Sitting back at home with no contact, no real understanding of the trip program was an interesting experience, a very mixed experience. I know that having this experience was and is important to her, that to project irrational worries and concerns did no one any good especially me. Not being able to see and feel the risk, make informed decisions and live it myself, left me just having to trust in the universe, but I am not sure I liked it. So to all those I have left in front of the fireplace over the many years I have been playing in the mountains, sorry, I now know a little of what you have been through. However to cage a lion and having to live with the frustrations of the caged beast, mmm….