The carriageway passed through the middle of Saint-Étienne, a city in the south eastern central of France. Plastered walls painted a salmon colour and covered by graffiti, skirt the road. Large letters, tags, cartoons, sharp angle shapes with shadows, a multi-coloured aerosol mosaic… Cars speed past the graffiti and past my little red van missing it by inches. Tower blocks look down – some have broken windows and the graffiti blooms like confetti, upward, up into the dark cloudy sky, up, a sprayed bark of red, blue, green, graphite… letters cling to the building and flow out of sight around the man-made arêtes.
I was driving by myself from Chamonix to the Gorges du Tarn in the south west of France. Phil Dowthwaite was also taking the same journey to meet me and in a few days Rich Kirby, a Northerner with humour as dry as a washed up lump of wood was joining the two of us.
Three hours earlier, leaving Chamonix had been heart wrenching, I had clicked to the Guardian website and immediately I was punched by an image of a uniformed man on a beach carrying the lifeless body of a small child. The three year old had drowned while attempting to escape Syria, and what I can only guess an existence like the horror of a painting by Hieronymus Bosch. I sat in my friend’s apartment looking at my laptop and all I felt was guilt. Every day pictures appeared – my newsfeed was full of images of people travelling and eating and loving and drinking and exercising and marrying and hashtagging and @’ing and I thought about how content and satisfied I had felt having recently returned from climbing the Brandler, Hasse on the Cima Grande in the Dolomites. How insignificant it all was in comparison to how bloody terrible some people have it. I drove through St Etienne and the walls and letters closed-in.
The morning thatTim Neill and I had set off for the Dolomites, we had left Chamonix at about 11am. The drive was long and it was night when we parked in the rain and the damp and the dark. We sat in my van and waited for the people to leave the toll gate which would allow us to drive, FOC, the final two or three twisty miles to the car park. I took the chance to ring my Dad who lived on his own since Mum’s death last Christmas. “Hey Dad, you’ll never guess where I am?” He didn’t, but when I told him, knowing Mum and he had visited Tre Cima, he couldn’t remember when, or even if he had actually visited the area. People in a hotel opposite sat in the warm and dry. Through the glass I could see blurred images drinking and eating and laughing. After a brief conversation I told Dad to take care and ended the call feeling sad and a little empty.
Tim and I dossed on the upper car park nearly at the foot of Tre Cima. The heavy rain had stopped by morning and the chime of the bells around the necks of the cattle reminded me of Nepal and yaks. The mist and cloud hung in the valley below and clung to the orange spires. The sun cut shadows full with energy. It’s been a few years now since I climbed in the Greater Ranges and I was beginning to miss Asia but in the previous two weeks I had been in the Alps, Tim, Keith Ball and I had climbed about thirty pitches on the North Face of the Piz Badile, five pitches on a great route down the valley from Chamonix and five pitches of a climb called California Dream on Pointe 3038 de Trélaporte before bailing in the rain. When Keith left, Tim and I had climbed a five pitch route surrounded by high Alpine meadow near a hut with bunches of flowers in the windows and an old Toyota 4×4 parked beneath a wooden lean-to. The climb was called Xscream Limit, which given a grade of 7a was the limit with l’ Arve Valley grading. I had filled myself on more climbing than you would ever do in ten years of visiting the Greater Ranges but of course going to Asia was not just about climbing and summiting, I missed the people and experiencing a world and a people and attitudes to life very different than in the UK.
I drove further into the heart of France, past disused steel factories – corrugation, concrete, rusting metal pipes, guilt… It had been my first visit to the Dolomites. Rock towers and green meadows and mile upon mile of forest – there didn’t appear to be any litter, graffiti, rundown buildings, stray dogs, homelessness… but what could I tell on my first visit, a tourist, someone dipping in – there was not the run down feel that areas with poverty and low income have. Where did all of the wealth come from in places like the Dolomites and what do people do with it all? I wondered if money made the local people happy? The park warden who moved us on from where we were camping the moring after the climb didn’t appear happy. “You cannot do this here, it is not allowed, ten minutes.”
The carriageway had turned to an A road passing through the large market towns of Le Puy and Mende. I stopped at a pedestrian crossing, a sure sign I was from the UK. A young woman with a beautiful smile crossed the road. She looked at me, dark hair flicked across her face. I waved and smiled. She laughed. I laughed and for an instant the world was friendly and fun. I continued through the narrow streets of the busy town. On the side of a building a large mural of a woman with red hair stroking a cat made me think of an ex-girlfriend. I drove across a humped bridge made of stone with beefy balustrades; a river flowed beneath – swans, swallows, willows… leaves starting to turn.
Recently, after one of my more extreme pieces of writing on my blog I had been attacked on Facebook by someone who does not know me. They said I was obviously very unhappy and I should go back to work and begin to climb for fun again. It’s strange how people don’t see writing as work, I suppose in some ways for me it also doesn’t really feel like work as I enjoy it and its not locking people up. How little this person understood me. A sign of these times we live where personal attacks have become an almost daily occurrence for anyone whose writing is challenging or thought provoking or even has an opinion. As for being unhappy about my climbing, I enjoy it much more than ever in the past when ego and comparing myself to others frequently affected me and on occasion made me beat myself.
I was driving to the Gorges du Tarn specifically to try and climb a route I had been on once before in the spring after belaying Lucy Creamer who on-sighted it. The climb was called Les Ailes du Désir Extension; it was fifty metres long with spaced bolts. The upper headwall was orange pockets with gaping Goldfish mouths, big airy moves, technical and very overhanging. Since getting to know Lucy and climbing with her I find it difficult to believe she isn’t more well-known and celebrated within rock climbing as her on-sighting ability and determination and boldness are remarkable. I suppose her under the radar may have something to do with the fact she does not self-promote via social media, a lesson in humbleness to many including myself I think?
The excitement and freedom I felt on my one venture into that big open space on the upper wall of Les Ailes in the spring had left an impression and I wanted to experience this feeling again…
…and so I did, many times and many times I took possibly the largest fall possible until I desensitised and saw only the mouths of fish heavily chalked with hope.
Morning sessions on the climb before the sun worked for me. I would drive on my own down the zigzags from our van doss on the plateau, high above Les Vignes, the small village with its bridge and bullfrogs, before Rich and Phil joined me. Sometimes I stopped on a hairpin to watch the cloud clinging to the valley base and above the mist there were often groups of Vultures circling slowly on thermals, gaining height, slowly gaining height.
Reaching the shelf beneath the climb, a yellow rock-band already warm, I would stretch and solo the first few moves of the climb before sitting and watching the slow moving river and the heron as she set her balsa wood wings before splashing unceremoniously.
Another day breaks from the grip of the early morning mist. In the previous weeks I have grown accustomed to watching the red kites hopping from orange crest to dark furrow in the ploughed field. The smell of earth and wet pine with the backtrack hum of insects. I have looked across a million sunflowers each bowing their brown heads in acceptance. I suppose this is it; this for me is climbing and the life I live. What attracts me is the space, the thrill, the challenge, the learning, trying to understand, the unknown, the feelings, the emotions, the life around life that is life, but as important as climbing is, appreciation that it is not and never will be horror and war and displacement. It will never be daily hardship and survival. It will always be privilege and play at whatever level, be it millimetres of intense movement or days out on a north face and I will always try to remember this and reflect it in my writing and I hope I will always carry some weight.