Magic Numbers

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Bow shaped slab. Pembrokeshire

I have a shiny new harness and fresh new rock shoes. Dave suggested it might be a good idea to replace some of my aging equipment. Dave Talbot was the man hanging from a rope next to me as I made my way up a route at Wintours Leap in the Wye Valley,  and buzzing in my ear with the repeated question: ‘Why are doing you doing  it like that?’ I’d paid him to do that: to give me a climbing MOT-  it felt more like a second driving test and I hated my mouth for its insistent excuses and justifications . Instructing  ‘experienced’ climbers must  be like giving driving lessons to ‘experienced’ drivers –  there will be a wall of resistance to any suggestion that what they are doing is in any way incorrect. And that’s how it was – initially. My wall was well built as evidenced by the amount of pleas and protestations and ‘buts’ that came from my mouth last Friday.  I wished I would shut up.

What he was telling me (‘suggesting’ to me) was everything I’d heard before (mostly) , but somehow it had become lost in the mists of time and bad habits… and it was oh so difficult to get to that place where I could listen and absorb without my wall of pride flinching. But we got there, eventually.

‘Starting routines: Have one. Know exactly where your gear is on your harness. Why do you use a bandolier?  It gets in the way. Get more harness loops. Oh look your harness is so worn away the red bit that shows you should replace it has been worn away. Your shoes have no edge and holes on the toes.  Get a chalk bag on a bit of tat. Don’t put it on your harness. Stop clutter and reduce weight. Be tidy. Be exact. Be ritualised. Look up at the route. Where will the first bit of the gear go?  How are you going to get there? Where are the holds? Break up the route into bite sized pieces. Stop and look. Now off you go…’

So it’s not a matter of feeling scared and not looking at it and just diving in with a vague idea where gear might be on my harness?

I start  with his buzzing filling my head, placing nuts, hexs and cams as I go.

‘Look for the V’s. Look for all the possibilities for placements, not just the first one you see. Where exactly will you be placing the gear? Which gear? Grade it out of 5. Outward/ upward /downward pull? Add gear until it adds to 5. When you can rest, put in 2 bits on both ropes – that will make a 10 which is the strength of a belay and that should fill you with happiness before you make the tricky move. You should get to the stage where you can put it in quickly, first time. And it’s a really bad idea not to hold on with the other hand while you put in the gear.Climb every route the same way, with the same routines.’

‘But. But. But’, I want to protest.  By this time a slight melt-down is going on in my head. The wall is crumbling and I have to deal with its tumble and fall and re-construct it as a positive and beautiful thing quickly. I succeed.  I listen and absorb and the light bulb goes on.

My fear as I have gone up the grades as increased because my confidence in my gear hasn’t. I haven’t been accurately appraising it and been throwing it in more and more randomly in the haste  of fear that comes on steep routes with a quick thought of ‘probably good enough’ , which is a vagueness that only generates more fear. Fear on fear on fear. And less and less good gear. I really need to eat humble pie and go back to basics.

I’m shocked how some bad habits are so engrained . Dave has to repeat: ‘Hang on to the rock while you’re putting that in!’ –  and I’m shocked how casual I have become. We peer intently at a  sexy 3 point belay made up of 10 point graded placements  – ‘ Independent and equalised’  – and I realise I’ve forgotten what the  ‘independent’ bit means… please can I go home now and never go climbing again. How is it I am alive still?

Dave the bee buzzes all day. Yes I feel like an amateur again but I know I have to do this – listen and absorb. So I take this rebuilt stack of information and re-found knowledge and take it to Symonds Yat  a week later, where I do a route I would usually avoid – ‘steep and  polished at the beginning’. I put in lots of lots of good gear ( 9 points) deep in the crack high up above the polished rock and make the moves and enjoy it.

I have rekindled my mojo.  Thanks for the magic numbers Dave.

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A Chir Ridge. Isle of Arran

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Backwards With Eyes Closed

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I touched rock again in March and didn’t come up in a rash so I tried it again… and again. I’m still in the grip of addiction and not prepared to go cold turkey,  so instead  I’m walking backwards towards it with my eyes closed  – like some children’s game in a weird dream. In this way maybe neither of us will notice and it’ll all be alright: sweetness and light, like before.

My approach (backwards) is also to pretend I haven’t climbed much before: to do the easy (and fun) stuff all over again to rediscover the delights and soft fragrant places of the sport ; not to go to the door-slamming-in-the-face place, the desperate arguments and sulks. It’s about establishing a different relationship.

So I closed my eyes and went to:

The Peak District – Northerly wind howling across the moor, Mediterranean sun blazing at the foot of the spines of rock that lie along the brown hills. Gritstone climbing is so totally different  to limestone  vertical play that I was destined to be an amateur there – which should have been just right for the backward approach. But I was affronted by how different and my southern drawl could be heard complaining across the crag: ‘This isn’t climbing, it’s caving.’ How the Sheffielders smirked. The delicacy of the limestone dance on rock is usurped by the inelegant thrust, thrutch and squirm of grit as various body parts are inserted in the many cracks and chimneys.  ‘This is stupid’, I declared, forgetting all about the soft fragrant places.

My indignation grew and then peaked during a V Diff that required me to face away from the cliff  and shift my arse and feet up an unprotected corner. ‘Backwards but not forwards’, I thought ruefully.

And progress wasn’t helped by a serious fall about 20 metres away from where we were climbing, requiring an ambulance helicopter and mountain rescue team. The unsaid thought was unearthed: ‘Why do we do this?’

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Goblin Coombe, Somerset: Among the ticks and biting ants I almost frolicked up a blocky limestone arête – rediscovering the dance in a small way and loving the rock. (So there was a point to grit.) Any other progress was limited by a series of mini epics involving my partner that day including a slip/fall, a dropped belay device and a stuck abseil rope. The best bit of the day was scrambling up and down a dirty, dusty, steep gully twice to relieve the situation. ‘Maybe scrambling is the way forward?’ I wondered.

South Wales. Porthcawl: Box Bay on an almost sunny day, away from the ever persistent cold wind. I felt a slight interest in the awkward starts and simple short routes – but I still found the fear creeping around my blind side to take the pleasure away, like an annoying younger brother hanging around on a teenage first date. Two days later there was a day trip to Caswell Bay where children played on the beach and the tide retreated and advanced extravagantly. The sun shone and it was all just right for  a lazy day on the beach, which we weren’t there for.  4 metres up a Hard V Diff I had to stop and breathe.   It  turned out to be short and sweet, no nasty surprises, so there followed the usual face off – the internal scolding about lack of confidence.  We looked eye to eye, no eyes closed stuff. So back to square one.

I opened my eyes, faced front  and accepted I’d totally forgotten where I put my mojo,  so when I got home I put out an appeal by email for help in finding it…

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Thirty . Cornish Spring

Make way for the light

Throw off the chains of winter’s drag

Celebration and jubilation

Pollock has been given free rein

To spill and fling

 

Wind and rain threaten violence

The season is sticking to its old routine

I escape frost-burnt fields

And the awkward nudity

of roadside hedges passing

fields that sing the slight possibility of yellow

 

Fat fingers of renewing colour

On rain-soaked earth

Here a field shows careless splats of cadmium ink

There Jackson ‘s paint is spilled

Thick Snakes trumpeting

A firework of daffodils

 

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 Phew

 

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Twenty Nine

For twenty nine days

I have

squeezed

poetic possibilities

from the kaleidoscope

of my landscape

like

wringing out washing

until

the colours bleed

Scented words

                 Textured text

                                             Playful articulation

                                                                              Delusions and nightmares

                                                                     Truth and lies

                                                                                           Songs of my life

teasel

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Twenty Eight. Strange Flowers

From monochrome to

rainbow in a month.

Among the blossom, bluebells

and bright new grass

strange flowers are sighted.

Bursts and flashes

of red, blue, orange and green

on lapels, on walls, in windows.

They fall through our letter boxes

like petals in the spring breeze.

They have no fragrance

and are neither

carnation nor forget-me-not,

marigold nor fern.

Nothing to put in a vase

and admire.

Just a bunch of

artificial flowers with a promise

of beauty and scent

but always

ultimately disappointing.

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Twenty Seven. Waves

You come to me

Again

And again you come

As ocean waves

Until you drown me

 

I stand

Solid and am

Refreshed by

Each drenching

You come to me

 

I taste the waves

Each is a new draught

Until you drown me

You come to me

And again you come

Brahk 44

 

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Twenty Six. Today I have shown you

Today I have shown you

A Skylark’s filigree tune lifting above gold grass

The long hiss of gust in dry reeds

Slow-motion cloud-shadow unfurling on greening hills

A white sea in the furthest corner of the horizon

Warm quiet places in the valley away from the numbing wind

Blue sky dropped into a mountain pool

The peace that comes from seeing your place

in the tune, the grass, the wind, the colour, the sea, the valley and the greening hill

and how to carry a small part of it home in your hand

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Twenty Five: Breath

We sit like a parliament of owls to watch your time narrow.

New-leaf skin so thin it would tear if you coughed,

peach-soft but bruised with a touch,

 

so translucent it would glow if you had

enough light left.  These are the thinning days

where radiance dims to a breath caught between

 

pain and the numbing sanctuary of poppy dreaming .

We follow your wisp breath as it arches in the air

and falls. Each waver of in and sigh of out,

 

hangs in the room and fades into the darkening corners.

We owls breathe out and hold our own breath

to clasp the moment. You breathe out.

 

We breathe in. Time misses a beat and

thick-blanket silence descends to suffocate.

The owls are left holding our breath.

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Twenty Four. Virtue

Impatience is a lively terrier on a short lead

yapping pulling wide-eyed  taut-jawed

desperate to go  to get

the thing it sees

smells needs

NOW

Patience

is a stalking

cat in the garden

watching prowling slow-limbed

soft-footed focussed on  quiet on stealth

to corner and catch  the thing it sees smells needs

EVENTUALLY

city trainspotters

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Twenty Three. Afternoon Entertainment

Happy breeze blows lightly through new leaves on street trees.

Youth, Hi Vis vest blaring, saunters towards daydream blonde girl plodding the pavement.

Sunbeams glint in his eye. Music drones in her ears.

I follow behind her.

As youth and daydream girl pass

he pushes the button on the leaf-blower that he cradles like a baby in his arms.

I catch his eye as a grin splits his face and the air blast

spins daydream girl’s drift of hair.

Beams all round.

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