FYQ: The Voices
The voices in my head snarl and snap. Like wolves circling around prey, they make me shake with fear as I run it out, six metres above a cluster of RP’s. Fingers uncurling, sweat stinging my eyes, I am at the mercy to the voices in my head.
But the voices can also shout encouragement and push me further than I ever thought possible. They calm me before a summit push, make me ready to step into the unknown, or settle me before a hard onsight.
This is the last route of our training trip - we must get fit and strong for our expedition. I’m in Gorge du Tarn, 30 metres up, the chains in sight, and I want this 8a more than I care to admit. I calm my breathing, but I sense the voices are close.
I flick my wrist, trying to force fresh blood into my forearms. I relax my fingers and shake my hand a couple of times. The voice speaks up, sarcastic. Come on, hurry up and recover. What’s that flicking going to do? You look ridiculous, waving your arm like that!
I push the toe of my right foot into the brown rock, twisting the knee inwards just a fraction. I can feel the wind as it ruffles the trees in the valley and washes through my hair. My left hand holds an undercut, keeping me in balance and close to the rock. Uncurling a finger at a time, I brace myself for the inevitable swing when I let go. I can see the next hold, grinning at me. The voice shouts louder now. Ignore the ressure. Forget the stupid song you heard on the radio. So what if this is your last day? You didn’t think this was going to be easy, did you?
My face moves into the sunlight, warmth prickling my skin. I take a deep breath, filling my lungs with the smells of the gorge. The limestone bites into my fingers, sharp, reassuring. Bloody painful, actually. I wish I had better skin. I’ve just given it three days rest - what more could it want? Focussing on the next hold, I get ready to release my index finger from the undercut and prepare to jump. This is your last chance. Don’t mess this up...
Winter. Scotland. A battle of wind and snow; man and rock. The voices are a cocktail, a confused mix of enjoyment and misery. I stamp my feet and try to warm my fingers. Stupid numb fingers. Always cold. Come on, come on, hurry up... I pause and glance around the Ciste as the wind howls over the cliffs, spindrift showering down. The snow continues to fall - we’ll have to be careful on the descent to avoid being avalanched. The mountain drops away behind me; it’s a cold, unwelcoming day. We’re in a world of flat light, all grey and white. The weather’s coming in, I’m freezing cold and I just want to go home.
A shiver runs down my neck and I swing my hands again. I haven’t been able to feel them since the second pitch, but I can’t blame him for taking so long in the chimney. I’ll take the crux over that, any day. I push my left front-point against a square edge and swap hands. Everything is a game, a puzzle to solve. I tug the gear I’ve welded into this icy crack but I’m not convinced. I don’t want to be leading any more: I just want to give up. Concentrate. Dave has done this, we can’t back off here. I can’t delay any longer. Just take a look at the crux...
The rain moves up the valley of Gorge du Tarn, a hanging veil of grey, but it doesn’t touch me in my enormous cave. We hadn’t expected it to arrive until tomorrow. It starts with a soft pitter-patter on the leaves but quickly rises to a roar. Raindrops hammer into the river and the gorge is filled with noise.
John is a smudge of colour against a brown canvas, climbing 50 metres above me. Move by move, he climbs steadily up one of the longest pitches I’ve ever seen. Crossing his arms above his head, he swings through to stab his fingers into a pocket way out right. Dropping his left knee, he uncoils towards a fat lip of a smiling pocket, exhaling is relief as he connects.
He’s through the crux of his first 8a and just has to keep the voices in his head quiet for the next ten metres, but the sudden rainstorm has stopped the rope from its steady rise. He’s going to get soaked up there. Come on mate… Come on!
On this morning’s attempt he fell off near the start and I winced. I thought the pressure had got to him and we were going home empty-handed. He must be shaking out, he’s not moved for ages. If he drops it here he’ll be devastated. We’ll have a very grumpy Irishman on our hands.
Uisdean and I managed to climb our projects today, so it’s down to John to complete the hat-trick. He doesn’t seem to notice the rain, but I’m sure he’s getting wet up there. He can do this. I shout encouragement and it echoes up the cliff, willing him onwards. Come on John! This tension is unbearable.
I hear a scream and glance upwards, expecting to see a silhouette falling through the sky, the rope to whip tight: oh no! Instead, I see nothing but the skyline arete and hear another shout. ‘Yeeeeaaaahhhhhhh!’ He’s done it!
The day is over but we’re far from home. Night has arrived. We’re still in this Scottish winter paradise (or is it hell?) but we’re late finishing our route. The voices are lost: What are we doing here? Is this supposed to be fun? They can’t believe our situation and we’reso wasted, so far gone, we can’t see our way back.
The snow falls in thick, heavy swirls. I pull my hood down over my face but the spindrift still finds a way in, stinging my cheeks. My headtorch throws a weak pool of light onto the snow but it quickly disappears beneath my feet, down into the gully. We’re only halfway when we reached the summit, and I can’t relax yet. My legs feel tired now and all I can do is sink my heels down into the snow, over and over again. An endless escalator, darkness above and below. Please don’t avalanche. Just don’t avalanche. I stick close to the gully wall and continue down.
Random pieces of gear are clipped to our harnesses. Wires and hexes full of snow, slings frozen solid like a spider’s web. The night makes everything unknown. Is this the right gully to descend? How long until we get down? Please don’t avalanche. Was that a rumble? I stop for a second and turn to check he’s still there. He stomps down the gully until level with me, clothes caked in snow. His face is also sheltered from the storm, pulled into a grimace. Our eyes meet for a second, but nothing needs to be said. We both turn and
head down, each in silent prayer. It can’t be long now…