Ticked off

Brian turns his back on the computer, parks himself on the settee and surveys the pile of cams, nuts, hexes and assorted paraphernalia at his feet.  The gear has a faint smell, a subtle oily pong.  Taking a sup of tea, he leans forward again and sniffs, the almost imperceptible scent awakening memories.  He retrieves a piece at random, a scratched and battered Rock, the swaging exposed and tatty.  He twiddles it in his fingers, broken wires pricking his tips, and contemplates it.

A day comes to mind, a summer’s day, maybe 1993, sunshine and a brisk breeze, standing forlornly at the foot of Left Wall’s final crack.  Nerves shredded, arms wasted, Brian is so intimidated he seriously considers backing off.  But the hush below, an expectant second, pushes him on.  Looking up he sizes the crack, shuffles his rack and picks.  Piratically gripping the Rock between his teeth he makes half a move, backs off, pushes on again, three-quarters, reaching, straining, sweaty fingers insecure.  He flattens himself against the rock, extends on tip-toe and with a satisfying thunk the gear drops into the crack.   Back on the ledge, his confidence restored, Brian launches himself at the crux, latches the top and whoops.

As the nut describes a parabola back onto the heap, Brian feels an insidious sadness.  Memory is a dangerous thing.  Happier days sit uncomfortably beside his current gloom.  Leaning forward again, he runs his fingers through the hardware, the touch of each familiar piece triggering remembrance.

An ancient rigid Friend he’d bent double on an early trip to the Grit.  Inexperienced and gripped, he’d placed it in a horizontal break and left it proud a good three inches.  Having lobbed and dangling on the end of the rope, he’d been bemused to see it drooping like a Dali watch.

A karabiner stuffed with small wires, RPs and HBs and another with a selection of Aliens, Quadcams and Flexible Friends.  When he started climbing he’d have killed for such gear.  Armed only with Rocks 1-9, hexes and slings, he’d had none of these luxuries and yet regularly pushed out the metaphorical boat.  Why was he paralysed with fear these days?  Why did he engineer his way up routes, too many runners, too little climbing, too much sweat and swearing?

Another trawl through the heap.  A tatty prussic loop lassos his finger.  Threatened by summer storms and retreating from the Marmolada he had gingerly lowered himself onto an abseil secured only by that very loop of five millimetre draped over the smallest of spikes.  Returning after two stormy days, he’d been amazed to find the loop still in place and had prized it ever since as a lucky charm.

Not that it had done much good recently.  Former warm-ups have become grim struggles and it is now beyond him to second E2’s that had once been party pieces.  Even the occasional success merely reinforces the slim pickings.  Climbing has ceased to be the fulcrum of his life and become a burden.  Brian abruptly embraces the unpalatable truth, he is no longer a climber

Brian steels himself and announces to the room, “I’m not a climber.”  He shudders involuntarily and is troubled by a sense of loss, almost bereavement.  Why?  It’s only climbing, only a bloody hobby.  There’s more to life than ropes and karabiners, grades and rocks, huts and retreats, topping out and dropping off.

Or is there?  He looks around the room. There’s a tatty poster of Phil Davidson soloing Right Wall, a shelf packed with guides, a copy of The White Spider, one of the holds he’d pulled off Red Wall on the mantelpiece, the inevitable copy of Hard Grit.  His wardrobe is a concise history of climbing apparel, from Helly Hansen to Zero G.  He is defined by climbing, it permeates his entire existence.  Or taints it.  It cost him his first marriage, two good friends killed in the Alps and any number of jobs.  What has he to show for his obsession?  Ticks.  Thousands of ticks.  Useless, pointless, valueless ticks.  The parabola described by each piece of gear as he throws it onto the heap neatly echoes the course of his climbing career.  The ticks that have in the past enthused now depress him, traitorous indicatives of an accelerating decline.

Mug empty, Brian refills the kettle and stares out of the window.  The low hills beyond his garden fence have never seemed so distant, such a foreign land.  Somehow though, he now knows their tyranny is over, influence dissipated.  The call of the whistling kettle is greater than the call of the wild.  Replenished mug in hand, he turns, walks back to the computer, positions the cursor and pushes the button on his mouse.  The world-wide-web does what it does and the Climbing-Mountaineering_Carabiners-Hardware section of Ebay finds itself with a new entry.