“But I tried goddammit”

July 16, 2015

Reading Time: 16 minutes.| Comments: 2

I’m sitting on the balcony of the hotel Fungo Reale in Valloriate,  a tiny village set within the lush wooded foothills of the Italian alps, sun shining on the vegetable patch below - beyond the lettuces - the donkey ‘nanok’ - competing loudly with the goats to upset the glorious peace. Today for the first time in a while I feel a little rested after the Sea of Dreams, and a little stuffed like the fine ravioli we had last night. In the room behind me Ella’s laid on the bed listening to a podcast about drag queens (she thinks I should become one), recovering from an Italian breakfast of croissant and stale bread, plus some pretty bad sunburn from a day on the hill yesterday climbing Lago Della Maje - one those mountains you climb in someone else’s country and wonder why you’d never heard of it before.

I’m here to speak tonight at the small “L’Alpinista” mountain festival, the kind of festival you get in Europe which feels like a family affair, ran with pride and passion and love (and a very Italian sense of timekeeping). Last night I sat and tried to get the gist of Catherine Destivell’s story in the community hall, spoken in French, and translated into Italian - which wasn’t so easy as I speak neither.  Of all the languages I could learn, if I could be arsed, it would be Italian.  Not that it would be useful, but because it seems the most expressive and romantic, spoken as if every word has fallen in love with itself.

A slideshow is a funny thing to watch in a foreign language, making you see that although it may seem like a visual medium, really the power lies in the listening first hand to a story, but with Catherine, really you simply need the pictures and those TV clips of her climbing in the ’80s, all lycra leotard and skimpy nylon shorts.  There were female climbers before Catherine, and female climbed after, but I don’t think any came close to the physical poetry of Destivell.

Catherine must be in her fifties now, and no doubt it must be tough to come to terms with age when once you were so desired and worshipped, as much a sex icon as a climbing one, when you set a standard that I would argue has never been bettered by any woman since, on rock and ice and high mountain, her beauty unlocking doors that allowed her to accomplish climbs way beyond good looks and the desire of men. But growing old must be tougher than for the rest of us, each time she comes to such a festival she must meet so many other young female superstars, most in their twenties, their youth weighing on her a little, each a mirror to the past - the only satisfaction being that although the crimps may be smaller, no one yet is a match for her legend.  I think that’s the curse of age, that unavoidable youthful dismal of the irrelevant old, is that one day it will on the once young, that what you did or who you were is unimportant, or worse still not worth even knowing. There is also something sad about speaking about your past, her stories 30 years old, memories that become worn out in the telling.  I guess I’m lucky in that I always have something new to say, some new climb or experience in the bag - that when I speak it’s like a long-running serial, that I can feel life (as a climber and as a human being) is still evolving in a way that’s of interest to someone.  It’s easy to say it now, but I don’t think I’d have the heart to talk about experiences that happened so long ago.  I think it would just make me sad - too old.  Make me feel my age, miss the recklessness energy of youthful possibility and imagination.

Another guest of the festival is another icon of the ’80s, Johnny Dawes, a climber I seem to bump into a lot, both professionally, at events and festivals like this, as well at home, knocking into him at B&Q, The Rude Shipyard and Stanage.

I’ve known or known of Johnny for much of my climbing life, seeing him first when I was about 14 I think, on Stone Monkey in channel 4, probably the first time many of us heard of this young springy upstart.  I can see it as clear as day still, that first scene - filmed from below - the climber in profile - as Johnny grabs a hold on some steep overhanging boulder, and then launches himself upwards - defying gravity - and good climbing practice - grabbing the top like a small ape and swinging out of frame.  I think for a lot of climbers of my age there is climbing before Stone Monkey, and everything that came afterwards - his energy, confidence and sheer physical talent bringing a new kind of magic to climbing.

But that was then when I was a kid and Johnny was king, and the years have not been easy ones for Johnny, who like many great people - legends and icons - what comes next was a hard as any ground fall - part comedown as age and illness added ballast to his talent - part confrontation with the fulcrum of that legend.

No one could ever really understand how Johnny ‘ticked’ because he never has, but his book ‘Full of Myself’ goes a little way to understanding why he is Johnny Dawes.

The few times I met Johnny in my twenties he never disappointed me, full of Wizz and words and action, climbing’s very own Philippe Petit, a magician of one legs presses and mantles, impossible moves of body and believing.  People willed Johnny to be the Johnny they believed him to be, his routes that hard, his tricks and lines impossible, and like I said, he never disappointed.  I remember climbing on the old Poly wall, how we used to look at the Dawes problems, touch the holds he’d somehow how used as if we were touching the True Cross.  But then he had that air of someone who is as improvable and unapproachable as his talent, placing him beyond the rest - sometimes a lonely place to be - his ego and self-importance as large as the rocks he climbed.  It could also be said that when you’re the king it can give you licence to hold court, to be kind and generous at times, that that ego was deserved, that people were lucky to stand in your shadow, hold your ropes, or put up with you being a bit of an asshole.

I don’t quite remember when, or how or why, but it seemed one day Johnny was a God, and then one day his divinity was gone, and there was a man who came in and out of climbing’s focus, struggling, shabby, not in a good place.  Yes sometimes still great, but also sometimes ravaged and bitter and confused by the leaving of something he had thought would never go.

When you read ‘Full of Myself’ you can see this loss of something as the book progresses, that he had it all, and lost much of it - as he says himself “I’m the least successful professional climber ever” - which is true, that in any other sport a man like Johnny would have had the treasure born of his talent to offset its loss - but not in climbing, especially UK climbing.

In the car yesterday we drove up to climb Lago Della Maje, me, Johnny, Ella and our new friend, the young Alberto, Johnny tells the story of Beat Camalander, now an elder statesman of Euro climbing, still replete in sponsors logos, coming into a cafe in Llanberis where Johnny was working behind the till and proclaiming in a loud voice “I know you!”.  “How did it feel to have maybe the best climbing in the world, now serving soup?” I ask.  Johnny doesn’t answer.

I hope Johnny doesn’t read what I’m writing here - and I guess he won’t - probably playing chess instead on his iPad, but although I have very little of his talent I see myself in him a little and it scares me.  I have often cruelly joked that Johnny is a lesson to us all, how life can turn out, that having it all does not mean you get to keep it - a cruel lesson that I fear will happen to me one day.

“You have a very turbulent personal life don’t you?” asked Johnny at dinner the night before, me and Ella joining him at his table, and I reply “I guess so”, thinking him the kettle, me the pot.  I’d walked onto the dining room on that first night and seen him sitting alone, reading a book, looking like a man who was once important, and the man who holds himself still like a king in waiting, waiting for a kingdom he guesses he will never have back.  It shames me to say it, but for the moment I wondered if I could pretend to have not seen Johnny, that when later he noticed us I could say “Oh my god, I didn’t see you there” - and lie like that.  It’s terrible to admit such a thing, especially to someone like Johnny,  my hero, but I think people do the same to me when someone seems to be in the midst of some great and difficult personal journey, part madness, part breakdown, part dark epiphany.  Such people are best accidentally ignored.  It’s like cancer - what do you say? - or what will they say?  Around Johnny I am also always shy, nervous, unsure what to do - I babble and fill in the silence.  I find it tough to see him, that life is not dealing the best cards making me sad for someone who deserves a strong hand or two - for old times sake.  But I don’t ignore him - maybe because Ella was there - I have known him long enough to walk up and say hello and ask to sit with him and take the good with the bad (and with Johnny, there is always a lot of good).

But this Johnny is not the man last I met, whose life seemed to be slipping at low speed towards the edge, broke and broken in all the worse ways.  He puts down his book, and slowly at first, as we both warm-up, he seems calmer, more humble, funny and interesting, a man who seemed at last to have some grip of himself - just enough to be safe - but not enough to be boring.  Ella had only met him once or twice in passing, but tonight she got the whole show, Johnny being funny, interesting, insightful - Johnny be Johnny - Johnny be good.

We got onto the subject of therapy and I argued - half-joking - that people paid me to talk to them, so why should I pay someone to listen to me, and that I was astute enough to work it out myself, that although the outcomes were complex, the source of the problem was simple.  Johnny didn’t agree, having been on a long journey himself of counselling, but then when I listen to Johnny I see the leaks are many, where for me they are few.  Unlike other times, that night, instead of making my excuses and leaving, we hung on until it was time for bed - well until Johnny hit the Grappa with our hosts.

We arrived at the crag yesterday on the most beautiful of alpine days, warm and sunny, but high enough not to be hot, the mountain set like a cathedral upon one of the more beautiful alpine meadows I’ve seen, a mosaic of alpine flowers tended by scurrying marmots - cow bells knocking below our feet as we approached. 

Johnny looked like the most British of climbers, with a buttoned shirt, green corduroy breeches and a tweed flat cap.  Johnny no longer looks - and no doubt no longer feels - like a spring, but he still looks like a man not to be underestimated, mentally or physically, an old and potent strength there as he stands or walks, that if you were to push him hard he would not yield easily.  I would not want to get into a fight with him.

We got to the bottom of a route called Peter Pan, a multi-pitch 6a+, me Ella arriving a little later, with Ella struggling with the new altitude (the summit is 2700 metres).  Johnny and Alberto geared up while we sat and watched, me knowing that the route was beyond Ella, and that we’d be walked to the top instead, the route up a bit like the way up Tryfan.  Johnny was climbing in his running shoes, which had very little grip on the limestone, and so I offered him the boots that had been loaned to me - a size eight.  “I wear four and a half” he replied.

Johnny set off up the first pitch, and stated how it may be too hard, the rock very compact and looking like a sandbag for 6a+, that “my shoes are not in good condition”, and for a second I almost shouted up “like their owner” - but didn’t, remembering how someone had once said that same to me once - how much the truth hurt.  That morning as we drove Johnny said an interesting thing, that I could give him the greatest compliment, and then take it away again in the next breath, and this stuck in my mind much of the day - wondering why - especially to someone like him. 

Me and Ella and Alfredo stood and watched as Johnny began to climb - and in only a move or two, we saw it, clear as day, like a Jimmy Hendrix brought back from the dead and given a fender Stratocaster, the way he moved - impossible to describe, but undeniably Johnny.  Later he would tell Ella that “you need to imagine the sound the move makes, and then do the same”.

“No way this is 6a+” shouted down Johnny as his feet peddled on the rock.  “It’s a bag of”. From below it looked impossible in trainers, and yet bit by bit, sideway mantles and grumbles, up her went, pulling off a sizeable chunk of rock halfway, a good time to leave him to it.

The summit tagged we walked down and waited in the meadow for the two of them to return, pretty certain they’d bail off the route, me falling asleep in the grass - one of those five minutes naps that feel like five hours.  When I woke up they were there - Johnny looking a little crazed, red in the sun, but happy to be down.  It turned out they’d done the wrong route, a very loose 6b+, Johnny leading the whole thing.

Driving back down the valley Johnny was on form, talking about how a young upstart had repeated Indian Face, and how when asked about it while sat beside Johnny had said “I enjoyed it, but I also enjoyed the pizza that night”, a pretty disingenuous and disrespectful thing to say. “He’s disrespecting a route that was thirty fucking years old and he’s getting kudos for repeating it”.

The night we sit again at the same table, this time set for four, Alberto our guest, the conversation fast and funny, especially when Alberto tells us that saying “the black man under the bed will get you if you’re bad” is not racist.  I tell Johnny what a change I see in him, that although crazy it’s in a good way, and that he seems to be getting a grip of himself - well most of the time.  “I like myself more” he admits “but I also don’t care if I don’t, I don’t take things as seriously”.  He says how refreshing it’s been doing things, work and hobbies, that have nothing to do with climbing at all - where he is not judged by who he was, but who he is.  I can feel it, that sat at the table we are all equal and think it funny how some people are trapped by their past. Johnny tells me how maybe he got me wrong, that he was never sure about me, that he thought I was always taking the piss, something a lot of people say, unfortunately - something I put down to just being awkward around people (I’m actually a bit shy, and being funny is my way of compensating for it).  “But Johnny you’re the first hero I ever had in climbing” I reply, and he raises a Dawes’s eyebrow.  “Oh wait for the comeback,” he says to the others and sits back, holding his red wine as if to toast its arrival.  “You brought climbing alive for a lot of people, you brought a magic to climbing that wasn’t there before - you’re a magician”.  “Oh God - I can’t wait for the bow wave from that one everyone!” he laughs, not sure if to take me seriously, that my words were no doubt reeling him in for the kill.  “You know what Johnny - you’ve inspired me so much in my life as a climber, but hanging out with you this week I think you inspire me even more as a man.  You give me hope I can sort the shit out in my life. You’re still my hero”

And with that, we lifted up our glasses and toasted heroes.


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