U is for Unkown Pleasures

November 25, 2008

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A journalist asked me the other day what I got out of climbing, as it seemed to her, after talking to me and looking at my pictures, that what I did mostly involved me wishing I was somewhere – or someone – else.

It’s a good question, and one that most non-climbers assume to be “the view”.  Well, the views are often nice, but you’d be pretty stupid to climb up the Frenay Pillar just to look at the clouds scudding over distant mountains.  That’s what paths, mountain railways and telephriques are for.  Also, views are things best enjoyed sitting in your car drinking out of your flask, or on a picnic blanket, not while looking backwards and forwards between your partner’s discoing legs and a belay you wouldn’t trust to hold a dog outside Tesco’s. 

In my book, views are best bought afterwards, in postcards, and sent to non-climbing friends to reinforce that it’s all about sunsets and pink clouds. 

The rewards for risking your neck, all that travel and disappointment, and a mortgage worth climbing kit, are many and unexpected, and all deeply personal.

It’s an expensive cup of crap tea and a stale cheese beget in Montenvers café.  It’s sitting on a chalet balcony sorting out what rack’s still left, and feeling the sun sink into my cold bones.  It’s a glass of water, a roof, a door, a bed, a tap, a smile.  It’s the pain of frost nipped fingernails warming.  It’s coiling the ropes and putting them away.  It’s finding the first rap anchor, the soft tumbling sound of the rope end pulling down around you.  It’s sore shoulders and knees, and rucksacks cast down in doorways for the very last time.  It’s getting away from your stinking partner, and your stinking socks.  It’s forcing open the frozen hut door and wrapping yourself up in filthy blankets while you wait for the unlimited gas to melt your first brew in a week.  It’s writing it up in the book.  It’s a warm toilet, chocolate hobnobs, coke and cheap Argentinean steaks.  It’s about not caring about the big things and understanding the value of the small.  It’s seeing the magic.  It doing the impossible safely.  It’s laying in bed the day after and hearing the storm batter on the window, a day too late.  It’s being on top.  Better still, it’s being safely back at the bottom.  It’s telling someone you’re safe and not to worry any more.  It’s a handshake at the top.  It’s about saying you did it when you enter the bar, or else having a great storey why you didn’t.  It’s kissing your child.  It’s lifting them up.  It’s putting them to bed every day for a month in recompense.  It’s stepping from ice to concrete.  It’s taking off your crampons for the first time in days and feeling like your feet are full of helium.

It’s the sound of the ignition and the burst of light from the car’s headlamps in an empty car park.  It’s putting on your sandals.  It’s laying in the meadow.  It’s my wife letting me fall asleep at 4 pm on the settee with jet lag.  It’s awkward hugs with strangers and exited, babbling conversations in the dark walking down from a climb.  It’s putting on cotton jeans, socks and T-shirt, and going out to celebrate, whether you were successful or not.  Just because you can.  It’s having an answer when someone asks you what you’ve been up to.  It’s saying “not much” and letting them find out. It’s scanning your slides and seeing them appear good or bad on your computer screen.  It’s laying down at the road head and knowing it’s over.  It’s not having to go any further.  It’s deep French baths where you can sit until the water begins to go cold, then fill them up again.  It’s about having a story to tell.  It feeling just like the hobbits in the final scene in the last lord of the rings film, where they all go to the pub once they’ve returned from their epic journey, and just sit there and smile, the whole world around them unaware of what they’ve done.  It’s coming home.

For me it’s about endings, which some may think is a good reason for not setting out in the first place.  But for me, it’s the end of the journey I like, because I relish the fact that my world has changed, at least for a little while.

These reasons are many and strange, and deeply personal.  They are honest answers that can betray the simplicity and stupidity of what we do. How can you risk so much to find the worth of something so worthless?  Well like all unknown pleasures, it’s only those who have experienced them that know why. These are only a few reasons, none of them suitable for grabbing headlines in the times.  But for me, they are reason enough.