The Cure for a Sick Mind

The following is an excerpt from my upcoming book

Sitting on a limestone boulder I was preparing my climbing rack, silently, below a cliff at the north end of Lake Garda; Placche di Baone was it’s name. It was far from a difficult climb; it’s higher reaches seemed to blend into the hillside as odd grassy tufts gave way to a full green carpeted embankment. I have friends who would have relished climbing this cliff in a ‘no hands’ style to pep up the challenge. Still, this was my moment, I was about to embark on my first post-accident lead climb, going first, making the clips. Climbers like to call it ‘The Sharp End’. I could hardly believe it had been eleven years since The Totem Pole calamity. 

Moments before, myself and Mario Manica drove down narrow Italian streets and through fragrant olive groves. Maybe it was the tiny espressos I had been drinking but I found that I was paying particular attention to minute details on the approach up to the crag; I found myself gazing astonishedly at the neon green of the moss on a limestone boulder. Tiny droplets of dew clung to delicate sporophytes and when I looked closer each dewdrop had a blinding microscopic pinpoint of light. The effect was of whole spiral galaxies on one plain clump of moss. However, just as I was beginning to get fixated on this “World in a Grain of Sand” a giant slater beetle bulldozed through destroying whole star systems. 

I heard foreign voices, a group of colourful Czechs were preparing to climb the slab also. They dressed as if they had escaped from the Eurovision Song Contest; all big hair and happy pants. I squinted up to the sky. There, a solitary golden eagle, or perhaps a buzzard (it did not matter which, names and types holding no meaning) was circling miles up.

Climbing partners mentally sign a contract which can be of great importance; it is a partnership that should not be entered into lightly. Mario and I had been great friends ever since I ended his climbing career by accidentally dropping a block sixty meters down onto him, shattering his tibia and fibula. That was the last time we climbed together. As we were on a remote mountain in Patagonia Mario endured a three day rescue, dragging him down the glacier in a rolled up tent fly, back to base camp. It was during this morphine soaked descent that a hideous infection crept in and he almost lost his foot. There could be no other choice but Mario on such an auspicious climb. 

Four spaced bolts were all that linked together Via Bottoni Bianco up the first ‘no frontiers’ climbing wall in the world. This unique cliff catered specifically for para-climbers (climbers with disabilities). The climbs are wheel chair accessible with names and grades of the climbs written in Braille at the base of each line. Some routes have a bolt every meter, preventing a climber falling a long way. 

By contrast, Bottoni Bianco had eight meter run-outs between the bolts. This meant that if I was to slip clipping one bolt I would fall, well, slide, roll and bounce - leaving much skin and blood behind as I grated probably - eight meters to the previous bolt, then eight meters past that bolt. That is sixteen meters, though once you add the rope stretch (modern ropes are like elastic bands compared to static hemp ropes) and account for slack in the system, I would have fallen at least twenty meters. That is a hell of a long way to fall and was not something I could allow myself to contemplate, but contemplate I must as it was a distinct possibility.

There is an old adage that states 'THE LEADER MUST NOT FALL'. This goes all the way back to when a climber used to tie a brittle hemp rope around the waist and set off up a cliff with just a few looped rope slings for protection. If a climber fell in those days ‘he’ (in the Victorian era ‘the sharp end’ was invariably reserved for the man as it was no place for ‘the gentler sex’) would smash himself up, have severe internal injuries from the rope and likely die. Climbing began to get much safer with the advent of dynamic ropes and modern hardware such as camming devices. However, the old adage rang true again in the 1980s with climbs such as The Indian Face on Clogwyn Du Arrdu and The Bells, The Bells at Gogarth (both climbs are to be found in North Wales). With these climbs and a whole host of others ascended in this era the lack of protection was such, and the danger so great that once again if you fell you would likely die. And so here was I now repeating that old adage like a mantra… “I must not fall… I cannot fall.”

Tying my rewoven figure eight knot with one hand on to the rope at the foot of the giant low angled slab, I had to pay special attention to get it right. As I squeaked my smooth black soles I was trembling with fear. I began to climb. This fear was not abnormal for me. All animals experience fear; it is the ‘flight’ in the ‘fight or flight’ response. Pancho, my rescued greyhound cowers when strangers come to pat him from above instead of showing him their palm from below. Everyone gets scared. It is not about overcoming ones fear. There is no way of avoiding fear. Fear is reality. So, one must befriend fear, really cozy up to fear. To put it simply one must do it scared. 

My 1967, second edition copy of ‘Mountaineering - The Freedom of The Hills’ , which I had on virtually permanent loan from the Bolton library, stated “the climber must maintain three points of contact with the rock at all times.” However, as only my left side functions properly I really only have two points of contact plus a very shaky third point - my right foot (with it’s paralysed and floppy ankle). Thus, with only three points in all, I can only ‘maintain two points of contact’. Now, two points, is inherently unstable - a bit like walking on a tightrope, even on a low-angled slab my climbing style is a rather dynamic series of hand slaps and foot hops. 

As a drunk attempting to get back from the pub I staggered up the cliff. My heart was throbbing… I was so scared my right side stiffened with spasticity… And yet, curiously, I felt like the drunk was indeed making it home. One meter out from the bolt and I was fumbling with the key in the lock. I already felt vulnerable to injury. But it was when I ventured to two meters that I fell through the door and the real fun began. I was teetering further and deeper into the darkness. There was, however, a residue of the old boldnesss I used to possess and I could not stop myself from moving ever upward, making moves I could not reverse. There was another old adage that I sometimes climbed by: “Never climb up what you can’t reverse.” I used to use it whilst soloing, butwhen I had a rope on I would show a blatant disregard for this ‘old fashioned’ rule.  

At three meters out from my protection bolt I was facing a fall of maybe eight meters with rope stretch. That is a hell of a long way for someone who cannot control the way they will fall, and is bound to plummet like a sack of spuds. 

At four meters my body became a black cavern, a grotto, my ribs stalactites. There was a heart, my heart, suspended by wires to the stalactites, it’s beat was deafening - thud thud, thud thud. The beating of my heart seemed to be causing the cliff to shake… wait… yes it was really quaking! Later, Davide who was hanging above me taking photographs, said that he could here my heart beating from several meters away. 

Five meters out could have been five miles as far as my body was concerned. The quaking of the cliff was causing the whole face to fracture. Hairline fissures were stepping down the slab toward me… first vertically downward with an audible “craaack"… then right-angling… then carrying on it’s plumb-line descent until the tiny fissures passed directly between my legs. 

My mind was pleading for help but at the same time my body climbed on… “One more move wouldn’t hurt”. It was as if there were three of us on that climb that day: my fearful mind, my brutish body, overriding everything the mind and it’s attempts to say no… “And another…” And there was another entity, neither mind nor body, somewhere outside, beyond both, looking on… Keeping us safe? It had better!

At six meters, and only at six meters I began to surface. Bubbles like crystal baubles filtering the light floated up and it was tempting to rise at the same velocity with them, but I had to avoid rushing… slow down… I was now up against a seventeen meter fall if I muffed it. White light, kind of blinding me… Fresh air, lots of it, I could breath… There was the cold breath of a breeze upon my wet cheek. I peered down between my legs where the rope hung prophylacticly, used. I could hear the chitter chatter of the Czechs on the ground (what were they talking about?). I could see Mario on the starting blocks, Pietro Mennea-like, ready to sprint off and take in all that rope should I fall.

Seven meters. My friend, the third entity, hovered above me and my body for what seemed like an eon. However, my consciousness was attached to my physical body by a string on an inertia reel - like a key on a security guard’s waist or a dog on one of those extendable leads. Suddenly, the inertia reel retracted and my friend came suddenly crashing back into my body, which was mid-tripod move. Placche di Baone became a white room, at once both expansive, like a vast echoey cathedral, and tight, like a bright claustrophobic cupboard.   

Eight meters. I then felt my body and my consciousness expand to include the whole world. In that moment I was a little child in a Bolton council house… A great forest… I was ocean size… I was a mountain and a mosquito simultaneously… I was at once as powerful as a volcano and more vulnerable than a daisy in a meadow… Perfect. I pulled the rope up and, with a metallic “clip” as satisfying as any sound in the world, I was safe.