Climbing for me has always meant exploration and discovery. Only very few known lines have really struck me –Vector, Great Wall, the North America Wall, The Moon – drawn me out of myself, transfiguring my consciousness like lightning the night. Only the possible frightened me enough to attract.
This saved my life. I am convinced that had I been, for example growing up in a plain flat land like Kansas as a young person with, let me call it for the present inoperable (because forgotten) brain damage – and being abused at the same time – whatever primal, aboreal, simian instinct to reach out and take hold that I had been born with would have been stunted. I could have become an assembly line worker, preacher, serial killer of the imagination, even beaten my kids. The freedom of the hills led to self-government.
At 17 I ran away from home, puttering on my motor bike to North Wales, not because I was dying to try some new line I’d seen – I simply hadn’t thought of rock climbing at all – but because, though I did not know it at the time, I was trying to die.
For almost three days I starve myself and drink nothing. Secreted in the corner of a bare, windowless, stone hut, stuporous; no one knows where I am. Cocooned in my sleeping bag the only sounds are occasional distant cars going up or down the Nant Ffrancon Pass, my prayers to never wake up again, a pathetic bleat. Needles of light pierce the preserving gloom. In the night the wind tries the door.
Beginning to stink I force myself out of the bag. Resisting the nearby river, dazed and feeling really awful, for several hours, mainly on all fours I crawl and drag myself up the grassy flank of what I later learn is Y Foel Goch. God knows where I’m going. After several hours, close to passing out I shed myself loathsomely onto a flat shoulder overlooking the cwm; ‘a hanging valley’ I say to myself as if wishing I had a rope, for there certainly is a drop. Slumped in the sun like a homeless man, almost past caring, for hours I stare and stare.
Slowly, a face appears. My inner eye cracks a window, swings wide, my spirits lift. Out on the ledge – standing up with a shudder – imagination takes off, skimming across the gap like a swift, landing on a garden-size lawn of snow at its right foot. Something’s happening. Plotting, joining together declivities of late winter snow clinging to the grey-black shadowed face of Y Foel Goch like the points of a graph, a line – of kinds – appears, ragged, rising jumpily to the broad summit. What path I’m seeing so transparently could easily, inevitably, have been drawn in between the coordinates of the Cross – the outspread arms of death – branded in my mind through the sinister, ministering attentions of that verbal bully, the bible-bouncer in the pulpit, the self-proclaimed-divinely-inspired religious abuser who keeps putting his tongue in other peoples’ mouths. But instead, in my eyes those world-dividing axes of Yes or No? are neithered – defied by an erratic, climbing curve that seems more, in that clear blue air like the signature of a butterfly than an arrow through my heart from the savage god of love.
Facing the bluff, north-easterly hull with its broken, mosaic wake of fan-tailed scree and steep, green-splashed grass – jerking my head up – in a lightning sketch – skip! skip! skip! – I see myself leaping from snowy crest to crest, ledge to ledge, up, past the past pagan as a dolphin. Over and over, retracing the line until I can see it with my eyes closed, following it in my head until I know it by heart, faintly threading through my neo cortex like a new root.
By now, 45 years later, I imagine it’s branched out, a hand-drawn map showing the location of the secret stepping stones back across the River Lethe, the bright path of recovered memory and freed speech leading back from our personal underworlds. Impulsively, climb after climb, poem after poem cracking its code of silence brought me back alive to this, world – revealing by the grace of memory and embrace the treasure we bury everyday.
That incident at Y Foel Goch was the very beginning of a climb down from the heights of despair to the depths of gratitude that I feel every day for not having extinguished – or blown out – my light prematurely. For there and then, taking one last long look before heading down, I vowed to return and climb the face, following that passage the wild imagination had read into my future. And I do so, two weeks later.
(40 years later; at Y Foel Goch)
2007: The gap lives between two mountains…
Here and now, firm ground I’m standing on, swaying
in the wind, sparse grass gone, no home for sheep; and, there
and then, my timely, niche-estate of mind. Bequeathed to you who
read between the abstract lines on rock I drew then signed with hands
and feet, may they bring peace to you. And more: threading through my
inner eye again on weather-tempered walls and crags – chanced, clawed,
some days climbed like a mounting lion – roars of joy. For mind’s thin
air condenses, dances – grit, granite, wind and rain, pearls rapping
on our brains – into poems, sometimes prayer, sixth-senses
that appear, unexpected as a cairn, harebell-bold,
to guide, take hold a life.
In 1963, in danger, neither there, at home
where I had run away, nor here, in my body
where it lay upon the floor in a coma of disgust,
what brought me back you may well ask what pushed
me up onto all fours, then hauled me upwards several hours
many hundred feet until I breached myself upon that crumbling
edge. A ledge, a shelf, where someone might be pleased to see me
on the spot, feed me, not protest me water, food, anything...
(Except abuse me). Asking a lot – after three days
starving, I… stupoured in the dark, staring
at the wall inside a bare, stone hut; un-
heard of, except for distant cars
and prayers I’d never wake
up… no word.
up there, of
course. I rest,
air myself; reckon
I’ll….eat at home tonight.
And came back at Easter in
the school vacation, whispering
through the passes on my motorbike
from distant Wolverhampton. Found
my hands on the crown of the mountain.
Never looked down to see if I was followed.
Or back… until now.
For I’d seen another side, over there, stirring in the early mist.
Which – at 17, manic, and deep-pressed to get away from
what was left of home, and girls – seemed a kind
of Chartres; my life, I guess, out of a cloud
assumed a student pilgrim’s progress.
If you’re ever at that point….there’s a
broad-backed ridge gives access
to an unseen, greener side,
where snow’s white
feathers never fly,
and shadows pass like
hands uncovering your eyes;
take that path I missed and you
may not be left to trace this phantom
of the heights
Now, nearer to
each other, staring me in
the face, squinting in the crystal,
impressionable air to trace – compare
with memory – that route I chose, stops me:
Like an easel, propped with my walking
stick, a little wobbly, I could have
sworn – my eyes like a kite
drawn in a vague zig-zag
forth and back – I saw
across the gap,
– perhaps a steeplejack –
a ladderless, solitary, silent
Like a tree that’s half-
detached puts out its roots….feeling for
some purchase on that blank, stalled surface,
still attached, at first the youthful form is cautious
relaxing its demands of stone for fluidities unknown to
flesh, until – un-leashing bone to grasp the restless air –
like a statue taking shape that far-off figure lifts,
hesitates….disintegrates into a veil of mist.
Him, her… pale spirit? Animal, human,
prodigal child? Nothing alien,
to me extraordinary,
wild, alone, wily,
playing like a flame,
fed by itself – wandering
in and out of sight upwards –
the changing form adheres towards
those vacant heights that are our own
rewards: The view… Those kneeling hills
whose feet we stand at first; the new mouth
of the moon being born in the night; the red crack
of dawn….insight of home; her warm arm on your shoulder.
there – where, if and when we’re left alone – invites….trust….step….
Thus at what heights such depths as death itself erupts we
never need to ask – unless we’ve had that crushed.
Holding angels back from their rush to catch
some troubled devil’s push: to such
depths my hopes collapsed. Best
left to acrobats, climbers,
fools like us to grasp…
It is an art to hurt.
If you ask me why, when handholds, footholds,
break, my mouth holds on the sky I make
a sacred pact – every breath,
that I have left – I
can’t take back’s
the word I’d
you must answer.
the tops; the sun –
drops….out. I do not
see the other fall – or hear
a cry of fear, or joy: if
he survived to climb
the final stone
did he resign
Shall we end it here,
or over there; after my boy
who disappeared – dare I say
still climbing on – or on this other side
of the great, dividing sky? Until the well,
my cup of blood-thick black thoughts’ ink’s
dried up, while there’s still time I think
I’ll turn around, try and go back
down… all the way; start
again, by heart I may
yean, yearn, to
live to learn
to love, dy-
ing – to