We shuffled down the steep trail in the gloom, sore toes blindly knocking into stumps and stones, six hundred metres sore. Up the Chief we’d gone, slab and crack and things in between. We stubbornly leave off our torches, that’s what we’re like, her and me, as bad as each other, no doubt leading each other astray, but who wants to live the opposite - whatever that’s called. Instead of seeing where we are going, we wear our head torches like 80’s tennis super stars, just a place to hold the sweat, seeing who’ll be first to crack, either in the giving-in and turning on, or the breaking bone, but neither does. Instead the way down is but a brail of memory steps, the night close and fuggy, dense, as stuck to us as the exertion, granite muck, the days sweat and chalk. I see a man below coming up, too late for sunset summit selfies, or hippie strumming or bongo annoyance, but coming still, head down, headphones stuck in, sure he’s alone. I try and make a noise, a cough, a loud remark, but unheard he jumps out of his skin when our night shadows alarm his reptile brain, two nighttime lurkers, trail bandits, sabre tooth tigers, me and V on him with giggled apologies. Embarrassed for him we give in and switch on the light.
We shuffle to the car around eleven, muscles and stomachs grumbling, bed only ten minutes on, food maybe the whole night further, Canada a country that shuts at ten pm on the dot, like civilised places do, no Sodem late opening, the only place open, McDonalds, a place worth the wait of not having - well for V anyway, and so I tow the line. Harnesses are unbuckled with pin prick painful fingers and dropped into the dusty empty car park, their heavy jangle tangled until the morning sort out, ropes chucked in the back of the sorry hire car, so small we have spare rack packed around the spare tyre. It may have looked to someone peaking from their camper van that we’d washed ashore from some epic, but really we’d simply enjoyed sixteen pitches of heaven, why rush that?
“Shall we go and swim in the lake?” asks V as I slip into the driver’s seat, my toes enjoying the freedom of air and sandals, my face a mask of cakey adventure. I laugh, thinking she’s joking, bed the only place for me, my eyelids only able to be upheld by the buzz of bed. “Shall we?” she repeats. “I don’t have my swimming things” I say, more as an excuse than a reason, my words Vicarish to her single raised eyebrow.
We drive away from our campsite, up the road not down, close to midnight now, past the entrance to the lake once, then twice, then three times, backwards and forwards in groundhog funk of missing the exit. To stay awake we play ‘car head’ a game I invented, where V throws a tennis ball at my head as I drive. Sounds easy really, the aim to dodge a tennis ball, but the jeopardy comes from the open drivers side window, and also having to drive back down roads looking for green tennis balls if I win. Anyway it’s a good way to stay awake.
The car park is empty when we reach it, no lumberjack doggers or yoga mat racers, just bins piled with bottles and cheap floating entertainment that had let their owners down. When I switched off the engine the darkness was total, the world beyond only for the nocturnal and the phantom, a place fit only for lions and tigers and bears.
V digs out a towel and I the headtorches, no costume needed but the night, and we pick down the littery path, walking almost into the lake itself, its edge masked by a windless evening, like I’d only ever seen deep in caves, only the ripple of touch breaking the illusion.
Off come clothes, bare like children, like Germans, hiding a little from each other even though all had been seen, where we stand a head torch puddle, that slips down to the waters edge.
I’m sure I’ve told you this before, but water scares me, washed into the ocean on Boxing Day 1975, eyelids full of sand, donkey jacket lead to the heavy winter storm, my little legs too slow for the wave, plucked out by my father, a man I remember swam in the dark, out the house before the sun, me left in bed with my mum. And so the water scares me, always has, me always the watcher at the waters edge, never the swimmer, the splasher, the jumper. It is nothing to not know what you miss, bit something to know what you miss out from, especially something so simple, so natural, to slip into the water like we once slipped out. But with her I no longer feel that grip of childhood drowning.
I look at her shadow nakedness as she nimbly steps down, her toes at the glassy edge, one toe ripples in, then her foot. “It’s warm” she lies, a Christmas Day swimmer who knows only bearable and the opposite.
I put my head torch on the ground, at the waters edge, its light shining into the green world below, fish moving away unsure what time it must be. The water is cold, that little shock, like a cold burn, the heat of an ice fire, a feeling the swimmer must not dwell on, or dawdle at, but press on, and so on I go: ankle, knee, hip, waist, my breath squeezed up inch by inch into my chest then out with a jangled giggle of shock. I feel the hesitation coming, the will to turn, or just stand there, and so defuse the urge with a hammer blow and dive in.
And what cruel bliss, down I go, wrapped in black water, bubble silence, proud of myself as I come up, stung but knowing it’ll pass - for a while at least.
I look around me and almost everything is black, the water, both its depth and its skin, the woods, the air, the night above. I paddle myself around, V a little way ahead, the beam of the head torch the only anchor I can see back at shore.
I swim into the darkness, a darkness so dark and complete its hard to describe, a darkness made darker still by that single light. There seemed to be no up and down at first, only a plain of liquid the boundary between up and down - but there is never nothing, here is what I saw. I saw and felt the buzz and chatter of insects, flies that battered against the water. I saw the bats or birds or both swooping in and along gobbling them up. I saw the splash and ripple of fish joining in, the water a grand table of crumbs. Then I saw the stars, only a few, framed by the dark forest all around us, saw constellations I know but don’t know by name, that one like a pan with its handle, a triangle, that giant and his belt.
V, a stronger swimmer than me waits, and I catch her up, the cold rubbing me deep now, my hands empty gloves to it, feet numb and tingly. I catch her and she swims closer, to kiss me, and I panic a bit, and she knows it, that’s why she comes close. I feel my dead body rub against her, trying to avoid any touch but her lips, payment needed to be left alone, her cold lips payment once made, she laughs at my terror, and backs off. “Let’s swim as far as we dare” I say, and we do, on to a blind shore, or nothing perhaps, my refrigerated brain unsure just where we are, or what we are doing, where we are going, even if we are moving. My mind sucks in the exposure of temperature and void. We are swimming across a lake in the ice in the Arctic winter unsure what is there, maybe the other half of land or simply black ocean. I’m Edward Jessup, inside his tank, hung in salty water, alone with his DNA. We are in space, deep space, beyond the stars, our minds free of flesh, this space the temperature not of skin and bone and organ, but of thought. And now we are beyond space itself, dark matter, that which is not, that which is not between everything else.
“I’m getting cold” she says, less belly timber than me, atom energy bleeding out too quick to stay much longer, cold as deep as she dare. “Let’s go back” I mumble, treading water, and so we turn, the night unmoving, some stars a million years away the only thing that moves, around us, around the night, until there is a new star, on that far shore, its beam to us like the earth would look to a martian returning, that prick of home, of solid ground, of bright and dull reality.
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Andrew Kirkpatrick is a British mountaineer, author, motivational speaker and monologist. He is best known as a big wall climber, having scaled Yosemite's El Capitan 30+ times, including five solo ascents, and two one day ascents, as well as climbing in Patagonia, Africa, Alaska, Antarctica and the Alps.Follow @ Instagram