Simple Pleasures

They’d seen a sign pinned to some kind of electricity sub-station on the way to the crag, ‘Danger of Death, Do Not Climb’.  It’d made them laugh.  Someone had wondered out loud if it was some kind of portent and they’d laughed again.  Brian didn’t feel like laughing though, he was by his own admission a superstitious bastard and such an obvious omen left him jittery.

Climbing was an act of faith for Brian, a constant battle with the laws of probability, not that he’d ever admit it to his friends because the cruel bastards would just take the piss.   They’d laugh even harder if they knew he kept a tally of every tiny mistake he made, every time he tempted fate, placed a dubious nut, didn’t back up a belay, slipped on a crux.  Each of these appeared on his mental balance sheet in red letters, tiny debts to the climbing gods.  He berated himself for each one, cursed each panicky, slipshod, amateurish moment.

He’d blot out the sheer folly of his chosen hobby by concentrating on the simple pleasures:  the heft of a Camalot four, a piece of engineering that made him glow with happiness every time he placed it, the beauty of a figure eight with a triple fisherman’s stopper knot, the unalloyed joy of a climb completed.  As far as he was concerned, a climb could only be enjoyed in retrospect.  His anxiety levels ranged from anxious to terrified and it was only when he topped out that he could luxuriate in the moment.  Survived again.

Why did he put himself through this?  What kind of idiot actually tortures himself on a weekly basis, forces himself into situations where there is no hiding place, only a good chance of making a complete tit of himself? He values his group of friends and would find it hard to replace them.  Bizarrely, this futile pursuit gives his life some meaning, a focus.  More often than not he bluffs it, controls the dread, stifles the panic, lives to climb another day.  For how long though?  He’s convinced that it’s only a matter of time before he screws up in a big way, that the immutable laws of probability are stacking the odds against him.

Climbing easy routes doesn’t help, he needs the frisson of climbing hard routes to keep him sharp.  Seconding anything reduces him to a gibbering heap because he then has to rely on other people.  He only allows certain members of the club to belay him, his standards are so high and he’s often called Old Watchme behind his back.

Yet here he is again, at the foot of a crag, going through elaborate preparations, little rituals.  Helmet on first, then harness, right boot before left, then chalk bag and finally gear.  Heart aflutter, sweat prickling the back of his neck, he hates the warm up climb more than any other.  It should be hard enough to challenge yet simple enough to ease him into the vertical world, a toughish VS or an easyish HVS for preference.  Checking out the options, he hears a scream.

Only twenty feet away, a climber has fallen, ripping gear and hitting the ground with a whump.  Brian runs over, hating himself.  Outwardly calm and efficient, he does a primary survey and reassures the groaning climber but inside he’s a conflicted mess.  He is both genuinely concerned about the climber, who probably has both a broken leg and a badly bruised coccyx and absurdly comforted by her misfortune.  He was the first to reach her, first to touch her, receiving absolution for his climbing crimes, the crag appeased by a human sacrifice.

The mountain rescue had decided not to risk a carry out and had summoned the air ambulance.  The patient had quickly calmed down once she’d had a whiff of entonox and was now on the way to the hospital.  His spirits soared with the helicopter.  As she departed, so did Brian’s guilt.  Witnessing the accident had lifted his spirits, spurred him on, confident that no further ill fortune would blight the crag today.  “Come on,”  he says to his climbing partner, “that E4’s got my name on it.”

Half an hour later, Paramedic Phil can’t believe he’s back at the same crag.  Almost at the same spot as their last pick-up, a figure lies prone, unmoving.  Besides the body, Phil notices a small, melting meteorite.  The mountain rescue guy follows his gaze, “Yeah, what’s the chances of that, eh?  A lump of frozen piss from a passing aircraft hit him right on the noggin.  Some people are just born unlucky I guess.”