Seconds Turn To Hours
Two ropes disappear over a black overhang and I, being the belayer, am at the end of them. How long has he been up there? And more to the point, how long have I been down here?
It it’s been a long time now since I arrived on this ledge. And oh how lovely it felt to first be here. The pitch below had been harder and scarier than I’d expected and I’d barely dragged myself over from the vertical onto the lush grass of the ledge, ropes dragging heavily, pulling downwards on my harness. I hauled against their friction making for the shallow corner at the top of the grassy slope and relaxed. I looped a few feet of rope and draped it over a blunt spike and from the remains of my rack, placed wrong-sized nuts into perfect placements and tied myself off.
And breathe. I squeezed my feet out of my boots and tore off my jumper and T-shirt in one exposing my sweaty torso to the mountain air. My scalp was filled with the dust and hard flakes of lichens that I had swept from holds on the pitch below and I tousled them out of my scalp. I sat back, wriggled my toes, and felt the joyous comfort of the thick, dry grass. The sun was shining back then, its warm reach on my shoulders.
It’s not shining now. Hasn’t done for some time. As the afternoon has worn on grey clouds blanketed the sky, making it heavy and low. The temperature dropped. The steep side of the mountain across from me, once a glorious spray of purple, green and yellow is now just grey, grey and low as the flat sky. I can just about tell where the sun is through the opaque cloud. It’s a long way from when it first shone on me.
I was still happy when he arrived on my ledge. Relief had turned to thrill and that had slowly become contentment as I scanned the mountains and broad glacial valleys. He said nice things. I said them back, as he racked, reclipped and reslung.
I was relieved not to be leading the next pitch. It was technically harder in the description and used scary buzzwords: ‘blind’,’ groove’, ‘search’, lonely’. But he’s better than me, isn’t he? He should be okay. He set off at a good pace up easy, loose ground. He cursed bad gear before starting to traverse right above the overhang that hangs above my perch. Watch me, he had called, and for a few times I did. Can’t see what to do, he said, and for a few times I called encouragement and said positive things. I paid the ropes out as he went and pulled them back in again when he retreated. I craned my neck to be in view. After a while I lost some interest. I stopped sending positive vibes, didn’t bother to take the ropes back in. Eventually my apathy must have urged him for after a growl I felt a new tug on the ropes revealing he had broken through the barrier into good ground. Then he had stopped again.
Why the hell doesn’t he hurry up? What’s he playing at?
The time passed, very slowly. This cliff feels ancient. First time I’ve been here. I’d always heard about but thought it would be one of those old-fashioned crags, all wrinkled slabs, hairy socks and grass moustaches. Didn’t expect it would have some bite. But oh yeah. The ancients came here, the old guys, the pre-war, black-and-white guys. It must have felt hostile then. The steep walls below would have pushed them hard. I suppose this ledge felt like an oasis to them as they lashed a hemp rope loop over my spike. I can tell they’ve been here, sat where I’m sitting. Something of their spirit still lives here, not shooed away by modern hordes with their shiny metal and sharp clamour.
I look out at the mountains about me, and down at the broad glacial valley. The valley is lonely and goes on forever, like a belaying session. The more I look the more I pick out discolourations and old hints of past existences. A field pattern, a forgotten track. A ransacked wall.
God I’m bored. Move, ropes, move!
That’s it. I’m taking up bouldering. I’m going to become a boulderer and spend my time climbing rather than existing on ledges. I didn’t sign up for this. I want to be doing something.
I look again at the ropes, for the hundredth thousandth time. I follow their arc from my belay plate, follow them as they diverge and lose their colour, two black lines disappearing over the overhang; one on the left, one on the right. They nod in the wind, a harmonic motion that long ago I took as progress. I wouldn’t fall for that now. God it’s cold.
The last time I felt the ropes really move was some time ago. The breeze had carried down primal sounds. I followed the ropes up to the black overhang, a black, upsidedown horizon, and saw flakes of lichen drift down. Some landed near me and I picked one up and turned it in my hand. Hard, matt and sharp, like a burnt leather cornflake. Horrible stuff.
“What’s happening up there?”
But I know he’ll not hear because I’ve tried many times before and heard nothing back. Or maybe he does hear and just doesn’t respond. I wonder if he likes me. Like, really. I quite like him, or at least I think I did until two hours ago, when he left me on this ledge alone. Or was it three hours, or four? I’ve climbed with him a good bit and we always get along, but why doesn’t he belay and bring me up? Was I really slow on my lead? Is he getting revenge, sat at the top of the crag wearing his down jacket drinking tea from a flask and eating a sandwich? Perhaps he’s talking to a passing rambler, a cute female one, and he’s telling her about me sat down here and they’re laughing?
Why am I here. What am I? I am a climber? No, I’m just sitting here, and have done forever. I am a belayer then? No. I’ve not moved the ropes since I can’t remember. I am just part of the scenery, like the rock and like the grass.
It’ll be dark soon.
“What are you doing up there?” I call again into the void, just to hear my voice echo back from the hillside opposite. What am I doing down here, I ask myself.
Then, sudden as a snake attack, the ropes start pulling upwards, locking on my belay plate. I pull slack through then unclip altogether. Finally. Finally! I rip the nuts from their slots, unhitch the spike runner and stand in that ancient spot, now haunted with some of me and my feelings. I shake and dance some blood into my limbs and make bird calls. The rope comes tight.
“Climbing” I holler at full voice. And I was.