Alasdair’s eyes were clear, that drunkard’s flush surrendered to healthy colour, those long, brooding silences withered to quiet minutes and a quick grimace bringing him back to life. Found again the man he had been, I hoped, no longer swallowed entire by the past, unable to give up on what never would be made whole again.
We paused on the sunlit stretch of ridge before the escarpment shadow, took five minutes break seated on a flat-topped boulder. A hundred miles and more to the nearest city, six miles from the road, below us a tail of unhurried deer following the white-tumbling burn towards a narrow glimpse of rock-walled sea. A pair of ravens wheeled and swooped, gleamed sable against the mountain’s summer green and grey.
“Look at that!” Alasdair exclaimed. “Nowhere better in the world.”
“Nowhere,” I agreed.
“I’ve never…” he became hesitant, subdued, “I’ve never said thanks, not properly.”
“What’s to be thanked?” I muttered, awkwardly, for we were Scotsmen, after all, and such talk is always uncomfortable between us, no matter we are earnestly bidden to become modern and sensitive.
“If it wasn’t for this,” Alasdair’s self-conscious glance told that he too found this difficult, “I’d be finished. I was near finished when you saw me. Middle of the day and I was pissed, been pissed for three days, maybe four, couldn’t remember.”
“You could always handle the sauce.”
“Not like that, Neil. So, thanks.”
“Told you, needed a partner, I’m not up for soloing.”
“Aye, right,” and Alasdair paused, looked behind at the sheer tower of rock waiting above us. “I should tell you…how it got like that.”
“Only if you want to,” I said, uneasily conscious of a prurient itch to learn the detail of how Alasdair’s life had fallen apart. “If you think it’d help.”
He was silent then, face turning from sunlight into frown, opened his mouth, closed it, looked at me, defeated.
“Can’t…can’t find the words, not just yet.”
Then the breeze dropped, the midges closed and we had to start moving.
“Let’s get on the first pitch, ok? We’ll have time after, if you want to talk.”
We turned towards the irregular, ashen thread running up the quartzite face to the mountain’s high shoulder.
“Amazing,” Alasdair’s voice excited, and something unsure.
Although daunting at first sight, when not sheathed in winter’s ice this route was graded the low end of difficult, nothing as demanding as the severe routes Charlie and I had mastered before he got married, Maggie became pregnant and this our game of fear and elation became a risk for more lives than his own. Alasdair had learned to handle moderate and borderline difficult, should be capable of severe by next summer.
Then we’d see.
The Coe’s tougher routes, Nevis north face, Cairngorm’s Coire na Sneachda. And in two, three years, as ever in the back of my thought – the Alps?
We kitted up, the whole set of keys which unlock mountain stone: krabs, slings, carefully uncoiled rope, different sized wedges jangling at the hip, an old piton I’d had since my first climb – for luck more than anything, quartzite being seamed with crevice and fissure – helmets: Alasdair’s new, sporting just a handful of thin scratches; mine scored and pitted with a hundred scars earned on sharp-edged rock.
Up into the groove worn by aeons of rain, fractured by millennia of frosts, dank and cold enough in the mountain shadow to steal our warmth, have us shiver as if afraid. The route was well-worn, here successive parallel scores telling of winter crampons biting through thin ice, there a deep puncture where a hammered piton had split the stone and sent a long wound striking towards the mountain’s heart.
Myself, belays and wedges would have been few, but every dozen or so moves I still worked metal and rope into breaks and cracks, partly for Alasdair’s assurance, partly for his practice in unhooking and extracting, moving up to the next in the second’s share of that careful, deliberate routine by which we qualify on difficult for the stiffer challenges of severe. And then seek to master the damn near impossible ones of very severe.
Today, one real challenge waited, a long reach between holds which raised the game another notch of skill and strength. I drew Alasdair up beside me, he crouched tight against the rock, listened intently to the manoeuvre to take us beyond – left foot flagged against the wall, left hand pushing down against that pinchhold polished by generations of sweating palms, right arm straight up, ready to stretch – bounce high up off the right foot to jam fingertips into a break not quite as wide as the knuckle of a thumb, pull up to easier holds.
Alasdair remained quiet. I showed him the escape on the right.
“If it’s a bit much just yet, we can get out that way – bit of a shuffle then back on the shoulder approach, practically walking country, summit in twenty minutes.”
“And get back in higher up?
“No. Once we’re out, that’s it for this route.”
Alasdair swallowed and in his face apprehension struggled with courage, then, as if this might be his last chance to tell:
“I tried, I really tried, just couldn’t let Sandra go. First thought every morning, last every night. Even in my sleep…in dreams…no escape.”
“Except the booze?”
“The booze, yes, the booze… dulled it …for a while.”
“Having a drink wasn’t the same without you. We missed you, Alasdair, you’d always kept us laughing.”
At weekends our bunch would assemble in the Woodlands Road pub of our student days, Alasdair the joker of our pack, mocking the absurdity in all our lives as we wrestled with finally becoming adult. Until he met Sandra.
She was quiet, rather serious, long dark hair framing a Madonna’s pale, contemplative face. The twice she was in our company, even her best efforts could not hide that our talk of sport, left politics and rock music was simply dull.
“Sandra wanted the theatre, concerts – I had to make the choice, so that’s where the money went, the time…I fair learned to know my Pinter from my Pirandello.”
And so Alasdair and I had drifted out of touch, the way people do, until that Saturday lunchtime I recognised him in a city centre bar, hair long and greasy, beard tangled and wild, three empty whisky glasses on the table and another double in his hand. It had been barely half-past twelve on a summer afternoon. A drunk man and his aching heart.
“Well, you were good together, back then.”
“Not that good,” Alasdair confessed, glanced down into the emptiness beyond his feet.
“It was, really, more one-sided, you know? I don’t remember how many times I asked before Sandra agreed to give us a chance. I think maybe she just finally got fed up with making me sad.”
“Must have had something going for it – you were together, what, two years?”
“One year, seven months,” Alasdair hesitated. “Whatever we had, it wasn’t enough, even with me giving up my pals and going to plays and orchestras and God-knows-what-else in the culture line. I tried so hard to keep Sandra, so hard.”
He looked quickly towards the broken-headed mountains crowding into the skyline; his jaw worked silently with unspoken words or sounds, his eyes went down.
I did not need to hear the rest, it was plain enough: Sandra had said goodbye to him one last time, probably calm, possibly regretful, and Alasdair had watched that long dark hair swing down across her shoulders to conceal her face as she walked away, then sank himself into a bottle and looked like hiding there the rest of his days.
Till I found and brought him here, to the mountains, to the test rising above this ledge.
“Come on,” Alasdair muttered, then harder, rubbing his eyes, “come on!”
Lifted his head. Looked again at the distant peaks, turned to me.
“I’m fit for it.”
“The next belay’s a couple of feet above that break, see, right there? – a good ramp to stand on – safe as walking down Sauchiehall Street on a wet Sunday morning.”
I faced the wall, left foot planted against a jutting edge, took a deep breath and sprang up off my right foot, arm extended, adrenalin burning along tautened sinews, grabbed the break with two fingertips, jammed the others into fingerlock, pulled and pushed up to where my left hand found the ramp, scuffled the toes of my boots for a moment’s friction against the wall as I reached up again, gripped a pocket edge with my right hand, left now slamming flat against rock, pulled up once more and had my feet secure on the ramp.
Rounded and polished to smooth grey marble by decades of running rope, the fissure clutched the wedge as if made for the job; I tied on, took up slack, smiled down encouragingly into Alasdair’s tense face. At this moment, it’s all about trust, unshakeable confidence that your partner has done his job properly, fixed the belay securely, is ready, fists iron around the rope for that gut-wrenching moment when your life will depend upon him.
“Climbing,” voice determined, mouth set tight, Alasdair took three deep breaths, pushed up with arm and leg, fingers straining for the hold.
Missed and tumbled, Alasdair’s weight slamming through me, rope biting across my back as he swung free with a shout of alarm, easing as he scrabbled and won foothold once more. We looked at each other; his face was pale.
“Bit like the driving test,” I said easily. “First time’s about practice.”
“Didn’t hurt at all,” Alasdair replied, which was not true, for it always hurts, even the smallest fall hurts when the rope suddenly jerks you back from the price of gravity.
Second attempt and this time he reached higher, fingers touched the narrow crevice, slipped, and he went down again, grasped again at safe holds, grinned shakily at me.
“Sorry to hold you up. Must be boring, waiting around like that.”
“No appointments today. Take your time.”
Third jump into free air, third surge of muscle and adrenalin, third lunge with outstretched arm and taut fingers – and this time, Alasdair caught and held the break and dragged and scrabbled himself up beside me, half-laughing, half-gasping his relief.
“Bloody good,” I patted his shoulder. “You’ll do.”
The rest was anti-climactic, the route gradually gentling until any casual hill walker with decent boots and a desire to summit could have found his way up. Another burst of energy and we were out of shadow and back in sunlit afternoon, standing amid scree and boulders to unscrew krabs, unbuckle helmets, coil rope in that exhilaration and triumph with which the hills reward their followers.
We had the top to ourselves, a bare, cracked dome of weather-polished rock where we drank water, shared sandwiches and melting chocolate while the ravens swept beneath us and their shadows rushed over the mountain walls.
“I never saw Sandra again,” Alasdair finished his tale. “I really tried to get past it – you’d think me mad – got rid of everything – clothes she’d bought me, the watch she gave me one Christmas. Burned her photographs, a letter, postcards, scarf she’d left behind, CDs, books we’d both liked. Even got out of the flat, moved south of the river, where we’d never been together.”
He snorted, something like a laugh, a contemptuous laugh.
“Useless. She was always in my head, an addiction, if you like, a craving. Every fucking hour of every fucking day. So, I fought one craving with another.”
“How is it now?”
“When I’m moving on the rock,” Alasdair placed a hand upon the warm stone, tapped his fingers gently, “it’s distant, right at the back of the mind. So, thanks.”
We looked out together at the bare and sunlit mountains, summit after shining summit crowding north until the horizon ran into blue sky, and spoke no more that day of Sandra.
The faint path down the mountain’s shoulder and long flank is easy, no trouble if you watch where you cross sloping scree and place the feet among rock and heather, then splash across the unavoidable stretches of rank grass and bog, wet even on a day of Highland summer borrowed from Attica or Provence.
At the base, where the burn curls back towards the distant road, there is that massive stonefall, perhaps broken from the mountain before men first came here, birthed in an earthquake throwing down colossal fragments which towered above us like broken hulks crashed upon a shore. One of them had caught my eye the time Charlie and I had taken today’s route, but that had been with autumn darkness coming on, not midsummer’s long hours of light. And anyway, I was not then ready for this challenge: twenty-five feet of grey stone curved and smoothed as the blunt prow of a ship, nothing much in climbing terms, nothing at all to get excited about – if it hadn’t been for that deep overhang reaching from ground to top, the final ten feet or so near horizontal to form a miniature gem of a climb, possibly still unclaimed.
“A very nice little problem there. Think I’ll have a go at that – we’ve got time.”
“Looks pretty uninviting to me,” Alasdair commented drily. “I’ll watch and admire.”
“You’ll be on the rope, boy, holding hard.”
I stepped over white bones huddled among dirty shreds of fleece where some poor beast had crawled to die in the damp recess beneath the colossal stone, then I was clipping wedges on slings, eagerly gazing up at the offer of subtle holds and challenges to plan my moves, spotting a dark crevice for the first wedge, a shadow of thread-like fissure for the second.
“Ready,” Alasdair called, and the rope came slipping down.
I couldn’t see him, of course, the overhang hid us one from the other. I tied on, sought the first holds above my head.
“Okay!” The rope whirred easily taut as Alasdair took up the slack.
I reached the flattened incline of the roof, pushed feet hard into a shallow depression, left hand grasping a half-inch flake underhold, my right scraping dense clumps of moss from that dark crevice. Skin tore on jagged rock, blood trickled down hand and wrist. Twice I wrenched and struggled the wedge around and back to find the narrow lock which would clutch it tight. The effort was immense, the strain beyond anything I’d yet known, my whole body shaking with exertion, my limbs hard with pain.
Twice I failed. Third attempt, my left hand finally slipped – I came off, swung out into the air, dropped and gasped as the belay jerked fast. A moment’s fear, purely instinctive, because Alasdair was holding firm and I was safe. Then, the sudden, menacing report of rock cracking open.
In clear light, quartzite is the most beautiful of the rock to which we take our game, shining in any glimpse of sun, grey-sugar sparkling at early dawn. But that beauty is bought at the price of strength.
Wrenched sharply as the rope snapped tight, the wedge had broken free. Belay gone, no hold within reach, fifteen feet of fall waiting.
“Neil!” Alasdair shouted desperately – the rope shuddered, jolted.
Then there were only moments in which looking up I saw Alasdair, head thrown back and teeth bared in a desperate struggle to hold me, a hopeless struggle – he must let go, must save himself, but he clung on, feet grinding inexorably from rock into air and then I was falling with him flying headfirst after me in a cloud of tumbling rope.
My back hit the ground, impact driving out every spit of breath. Alasdair struck with his legs across my chest, helmet springing from his head to soar and clatter against stone.
He did not move; his face was turned away, half-buried in moss and grass, arms and legs loose and still.
“Alasdair,” I gathered enough breath to whisper. “Alasdair.”
He did not move. Slowly, carefully, waiting for the numbing ache which announces broken bones, I pushed out from under him, freed myself from the welter of rope. I had escaped real injury – a sharp pain in my shoulder only a wrenched tendon or something – knelt clumsily at Alasdair’s head, pushed back grass, pulled away moss from around his mouth and nose. Reached for his wrist, found it bent right back, elbow and shoulder distorted, twisted from shape. Put my hand on his neck, searched for the pulse, couldn’t find it, in the moment’s panic couldn’t remember where it would be among the cords of sinew and muscle. Knew surging fear that he’s gone, Alasdair’s gone! His story, over.
And then, he groaned. And I gasped with relief.
“Alasdair!” I did not dare move him, only called him urgently, my face close to his.
Tentatively, he opened his eyes, gazed blankly at the close bright blades of grass, dribbled dirt from his mouth, turned his head to focus wearily on me.
“Still alive, then?” His voice surprised, not relieved.
“Still alive,” my own voice shook. “You should have let go. You should have let go!”
Alasdair breathed deeply, screwed tight his eyes as if waking from deepest sleep, struggled a moment to raise himself, groaned, craned to see his injured arm.
“I’m trying,” head rolling back, he stared bleakly at the empty sky. “I really am trying.”
© Keith Aitchison 2009