The Totem Pole

An excerpt from the award winning book, The Totem Pole.

The day dawned cloudy and blustery. Celia and I ate banana, mango and oats, filled the Nalgene bottles from the outside tap of the toilet block, slung our rucsacs on our backs and walked off up the narrow track. The path wound all over the place and up and over fallen trees.

Celia was nervous. I attempted to make conversation, “we seem pretty lucky with the weather", but she wasn’t having any of it. It was then that I realised that she didn’t want to be there at all. She was doing this for me and me alone. I had been so selfish that I hadn’t seen it in her or, to put it more succinctly, chose not to see it in her before, such was my obsession. Whenever I was involved in a climbing project I was completely obsessed, from the beginning until its completion.

The tormented water had the consistency of a creamy head of beer and lumps were breaking off and flying round and round in the wind that was rushing through the narrow channel. I felt nervous for the first time. It was a mad perspective from where I was hanging. The tower’s twelve-foot width seemed to taper to nothing at the base and it felt strange that it should still be standing.

The rope danced in the updraft as if it were some uncontrollable serpent as we cast it loose. I put my Decender on the rope and slid over the edge watching Celia’s face depart.

I was aiming for a two-foot dry patch on a half drowned boulder alongside the Totem Pole. As soon as I landed I commenced fighting for my balance on the seaweed-greased rock, first sticking my crotch out and then my arse. All the while my arms behaved like the crazy cop in the silent movies who is trying to stop Harold Lloyd’s motor car.

The next minute I was up to my waist in the sea that was flushing through the narrow channel. I couldn’t believe my bad luck, we only had one try at this and I just blew it. I would be hypothermic soon if I didn’t get out of these soaking clothes and, besides, my boots and rope were wet and my chalk bag was full of water.

I fixed my jumar clamps onto the line and took in the slack, which is about two moves on the rope. I cut loose in a swing off the boulder.

I had to tuck my knees up to avoid getting my feet in the water as I flew around the arete… And that is the last thing I remember - until I came around with an unearthly groan.

When I regained consciousness I was upside down, confused and there was blood pissing out of my head. I was immediately aware of the gravity of the situation. I needed to get back upright if I was to stem the flow of blood so I concentrated on shrugging my pack off. Once off, I tried again and again to get myself sat up in my harness but failed miserably. I was too weak and strangely uncoordinated. I gazed despondently down at the orange stain spreading in the salt water from an obtuse angle.

I had a moment to reflect on what seemed to be my last view. A narrow corridor of pale grey cloud flanked by two black walls, with the white foam of the sea, which was turning quickly red, right there by my head as a ceiling to my fear. I could feel the life’s blood draining out of me, literally, and there was nothing I could do about it.

Suddenly Celia was there, by me, telling me sweet lies about how it was all going to be OK. “I heard a splash", she said in her Buckinghamshire/Yorkshire accent. “You’ve taken a little rock on your head but you’ve had worse.” It’s funny but those untruths are extremely comforting in moments like these. It’s like you want to believe them, so you do.

She prussiked the thirty meters back up to the ledge and rigged up a simple two-way pulley system through a carabiner. Now, I weigh eleven stone and she weighs nine stone, so you may ask how is this humanly possible? You must have heard about the child who lifted a car off her father who was being crushed when a jack failed. There are numerous such stories of superhuman strength fuelled by adrenaline. I can only put this down to just such an event. She says it was hard, but it had to be done, she had no choice in the matter. She either did it or I died. So there was no decision to make.

Celia struggled in desperation for three hours to get me up to the ledge but faltered at the last hurdle. There was a right-angled edge to be surmounted to get me onto the ledge and the harder she pulled the tighter the rope became without moving me. “You’ve got to help me here if we’re to get you out of this", she barked. It was the first time I’d heard her lose her composure over this whole episode. I tried to placate her by telling her not to worry but a tired moan was all that came out of my mouth.

She gave me a hug, then told me she was going to have to leave me and get help. I was terrified that it was the last time I was going to see her but I didn’t show my feelings. She was probably thinking the same thoughts.

The Totem Pole won the Boardman Tasker Award for Mountain Literature and received Grand Prize at the Banff Festival of Mountain Literature. 

Buy it online.