The shortest day of the year. We perch on the saddle of a promontory jutting west out of Anglesey into the Celtic Sea and look down into Wen Zawn – the white inlet. It seethes, the waves lift slow and bulky and burst suddenly, propelled by a force-8 gale. Rain hits our anoraks like grapeshot, pelmets of fog lour and droop on South Stack lighthouse, the airstream throws us off-balance and makes breathing difficult if you face into the wind. Across the rocking water is our goal – what was our goal as we planned at home over roast chicken and red wine: the crag of quartzite that armours Wales at this point, three hundred feet high, seamed with cracks. Ed Drummond found the first way up it 17 years ago and gave his line the most beautiful of rock names, A Dream of White Horses. For seven months we’ve been exchanging poems between his home in San Francisco and mine in Cumbria. Now we’re here to pluck his route from the teeth of winter but it seems madly unfeasible. I couldn’t live in that maelstrom. A thread of waterfall near the start of the route is blowing sideways and upwards. Ed looks and looks, saying little. Then: ‘If you don’t mind, I think we’ll leave it. It doesn’t look good. In these conditions.’ Pause. I say: ‘I’m glad you’ve said that. Because it looks terrible to me. I’m glad you didn’t feel you had to decide for it, for my sake.’
‘Let’s walk round and down the slope to the notch on the arete, and have a good look at the whole of the zawn.’
The nearer we creep to the sea, the less drastic is the wind, away from the focused up-draught.
‘Will you belay me?’ says Ed. ‘And I’ll have a look’ – now using ‘look’, apparently, in the Scottish climbers’ sense of ‘go and climb it although it’s clearly impossible.’ Why am I not terrified? Because there’s still a stage or two of non-commitment before I have to step into the vortex? Ed climbs unhesitatingly down a groove, tiptoes out along a tapering ledge, fixes a metal protection nut in a crack, and manoeuvres onto the wall, through the cascade, into the grey, fleeing world of spindrift and squall. Even the wintry twilight (at 11 in the morning) feels to be against us, subduing life. I chill and qualm as Ed places his left toe-tip on an invisible feature, poises with fingerends on other invisibilities, and clings with his right foot frictioning. Seconds tick. Nimble foot-change, then a mantis’s or gekko’s locomotion left and upwards. Can I do that? I can’t do that. But we’re inside the experience now, the huge looming and sucking fear has moved beyond the rim of vision, the climb is happening, it’s controlling me, its practical demands locking onto me, supplanting emotion.
After ten minutes’ enthralled spectating as this modern rock-master moves at his ease up and down the first big crack, holding onto the rope with one hand, establishing a hanging belay where he roosts like a large orange bird, I untie from my anchor and clamber down the groove. It should feel like lowering into a bottomless ocean but no, all is possible, at our command. Ed’s total competence flows along the rope. His smile of steady geniality, just visible, shows through the on-ding like a lantern. Under his guava-pink balaclava he looks like Punch – like an Andean shepherd steering his flock through a clouded pass – like the Pied Piper playing us into the hillside: contradictory symbols have begun to form.
Commitment time. From now on each perch will be precarious, spreadeagled; retreat from the razor-edge no easier than what lies ahead. As I cling to take a runner off, my fingers chill down towards the zone of incapacity, strength ebbs, command wavers. But a cat’s cradle of manageability has been woven along the cliff. At the crux I shout into the wind, ‘Looks difficult,’ and Ed shouts back: ‘Good little ledge level with your hip.’ Well remembered – there it is – a rung of possibility in the midst of nothingness. I press more blood out of my congealing fingerends, bracheate to the slim vantage-point (4 inches by l¼), and try to will the next stage. I don’t want to move, to take my left foot off terra firma and trust my compulsively curling fingers yet again. I must. I pull up a foot or two, lock my arms bent at right angles, shimmy my feet, and it’s happening – I’m in balance – the abyss of nothing, of non-possibility, has firmed over and turned material. I reach for a protruding rim of quartz, it’s rough below its film of wet, in ten seconds more I’m stretching for the karabiner on the soaked yellow sling that hangs from a fang of rock below Ed’s feet. I clip on, plant my feet, lean backwards at my ease, and chat happily on the flush of adrenalin.