The most baffling part of the climb was getting to the base of the Rock. Or so we thought until we embarked on the Face itself. On a Saturday we started to ask our way along the limpet-horde of wrecked garages and scrapyards that encrust the base of the reef. Nowhere does the 500-metre soaring triangle of raw limestone actually sprout from common ground. These rusting corrugated-iron shanties shut us out. At Rock Haulage Ltd, 26 Devil’s Tower Road, a tanned and stubbled man is standing in the doorway of a den stacked up with cannibalised cars. When I say, ‘We want to climb the cliff here,’ he says instantly, ‘Are you sure?’, looking me full in the eye. He is friendly about access but must clear it with his boss, who ‘should be back by 6’. As we talk, the crag leans over us hugely.

For a few hours Neil (my youngest son) and I work out at the other end of Gibraltar, on the sun-warmed and flowery tiers of Buffadero Bluff, where I had climbed two years before. When we get to No 26, the door is padlocked shut. At No 24 (Rock Services Ltd) another tanned and stubbled man, younger but with a bigger paunch, is sharing a brew in the doorway with a stoned-looking man whose lower face is invisible behind a luxuriant walrus moustache. They too must wait for the boss, who ‘should be back soon’. The Paunch says: ‘I wouldn’t have the guts to climb that. Or the brains.’ At this my own guts turn to water. The sun dips, more tea is brewed among the scarred limbs and torsos of unidentifiable cars. Paunch takes us through to the back and gestures at a great sagging hole in the roof: ‘A big rock came through there. Whole place was fuckin shakin’. He grins, half-proud of his desperate environment.

Giving up on the invisible bosses, I wander along Devil’s Tower Road to what looks like the only other feasible access, a pair of open steel gates in a solid, well-painted yellow wall. It’s Royal Navy property, apparently. A young serviceman in a blue uniform and beret was here earlier. Now the yard inside is deserted, seemingly disused. Nothing could be less shipshape or Bristol fashion. The bare concrete is littered with stones from fist to skull-size. A reinforced concrete walkway leads to a painted metal door in the base of the Rock. As I walk about eyeing the drifts of nettles and sagging mesh marking the boundary with the cliff, the young rating comes out of the door and says: ‘Can I help you?’

‘Yes,’ I reply, ‘we could do with a strong boarding-party, preferably with helicopter back-up.’ Actually, I utter my usual request for access and he beckons me to follow him into the Rock. Inside, a few feet from the seeming dereliction of the yard, are passage after passage lined with immaculately-maintained consoles, generators encased in metal, vents and piping and wiring and needles in dials quivering with massed voltage or tonnage or whatever. From here, I suppose, are powered the instruments with which the Forces monitor all shipping and aircraft movements in the Straits. An RAF flight lieutenant has already given us clearance (by letter) to finish our climb beside their little nest of masts and pylons; a major in the Army has given us clearance to approach the base of the cliff. The Face itself is owned by the Gibraltar Government, which doesn’t care what we do. Now only the Navy stands in our way.

Deep inside the Rock, entrenched in his phalanxes of generators, a less junior naval person is sitting at a desk in a cubby-hole, under a closed-circuit TV monitor, entering figures in a ledger. When his mate explains my mission, he looks openly derisive and phones his superior: ‘There is someone here, sir, who wishes to climb the Rock, because he, er, likes doing that kind of thing. Can we give him clearance to access the cliff. No? Very well – no chance at all? Thank you, sir – very good – g’bye, sir.’ He then explains with relish that nobody is ever allowed use of the yard, ‘not even our own vehicles’, because rock-fall is so frequent; that’s why they’ve built the covered way. I’m left to find my way out, which I do, planting a little Semtex here and there.

Back at No 24, Paunch and Walrus have sportingly agreed to open up for us next day and let us through. We are ‘armed only with an old photograph’, as they say in adventure stories. Adrian Cabedo, the Gibraltarian most expert in the Face, has lent us his print of the photo used by the first ascensionists in 1980 to record their routes. Broken lines in ink mark Metroway on the left, climbed by Smiler Cuthbertson, Don Whillans, and D. Coward, and Regina Mater on the right, climbed by Ben and Marion Wintringham. Adrian has told us how he was hit by a falling block, which broke his arm. He had to be rescued from the Notch, the col between the massif and Devil’s Tower. Cuthbertson has encouraged me on the phone by saying that their line was ‘very good – it takes an Alpine-type curving crack. It’s about VS’ – Very Severe – ‘with a Hard VS bit where it goes through an overhang on jugs [big holds]. No, it wasn’t all that loose’ – the article in Climber and Rambler in 1981 had used the word ‘loose’ many times – ‘only near the start, where the weight of the whole Rock is cracking it a bit.’ On the other hand, the people who work in the firing-line have stressed that ‘a lot of rock has come down the last few years’ because of heavy rains.

On the light-table in Adrian’s artists’ shop in Irish Town, his big slides of the Face shine glamorously silver and proud. The details of gully, groove and vegetation which they are too small to show are more or less visible in the grainy murk of the large black-and-white print. In the morning we can see detail in plenty – the curving crack, perhaps three hundred metres up, blocked by a rugged cave (the HVS crux?); the steep groove which is the entry to the upper Face, with its bristling ilex copses; the lower part where smeared-looking brownish walls must be outflanked by puzzling a way up labyrinths of cracks. The Face hangs over us, scoured by the dawn wind whisking along the coast from Algeciras. Hundreds of gulls straight above our heads are gyring in brilliant sunlight which turns their flight-feathers into ermine fringes.

We wade waist-deep through jagged layers of car-body and collapsing drifts of rotted timbers from demolished houses. We gear up and uncoil our ropes among beds of nettle and corn marigold which have been turned into a rock garden by dozens of stones showered down by the Face. I lead off up easy, flowery ramps, then a series of rounded rock steps and bollards. When the drag of the rope starts to hobble me, I look for a belay and can find only a crack between an unstable rock and the shoulder it’s parting from. I put in a nut on wire and yank it to test it – the lips of the crack splinter and I replace the nut further down.

Neil reaches me and climbs on through, then belays surprisingly soon. I find him eyeing a 40-metre cracked slab which steepens into a wall before fading back into the ilex groove. The rock of the steepest part is suspiciously discoloured. We’d noticed in the Dolomites that only white or grey limestone is strong limestone. Below us the scrap-yards are starting to shrink, so directly underneath that stones loosened by our feet plummet onto the rusty roofs. The crash-crash arouses the guard dogs in No 26: a brown Alsatian, a white Alsatian and a pair of dusty blackish mongrels. They bark furiously, fight each other in little circles, then settle down again in the shade. As I do myself for the next half-hour – hour – hour and a half. Why is Neil so slow on that comfortable angle? There must be a reason for it – he is trained and fit and very much at home on vertical Spanish limestone. As he puts on yet another nut and stands staring expressionlessly (balefully?) upward, I call ‘What’s it like?’ and he answers: ‘It’s horrifying. And I can’t see where I’m going.’ He keeps on going as the sun above the container ships moves round towards Africa and the white dazzle it’s been making on the face of Regina Mater to our right turns fish-grey.

When Neil reaches a steep discoloured area, I’m encouraged to see his feet, as he steps up on protruding wafers, disappear almost completely. I’d been expecting mere toe-holds. He still gains height at the pace of a tendril unfolding in time-lapse photography and keeps looking all ways, across to right and left as well as up. Then he disappears–always a bleak juncture for the second on a steep and problematic route. And time passes, and the dogs wrestle, and the wind dies into the warmth of noon. Down in the car park Anne gets out of our hire car from time to time – too miniature to be recognisable – and a man, presumably Walrus, mooches across the road and back again. The ropes are taken in by the invisible Neil and vague shouts from him tell me it’s time to go.

The ‘slab’ is fairly steep, and quite blank apart from the black cracks that seam it–all too closed to help us except the one Neil chose, which is wide enough to take a boot. The fissure is choked with rubble – precariously lodged. Its right edge is mostly strong enough to act as a handrail, and this is all right as long as the bounding rock is not too steep. As it nears 80 degrees, I’m forced to search for lodgments for my feet. Nothing but wee bevelled facets. I feel like a frail bubble of flesh, inhabiting a thinned air. At home it would smell of earth and moss. Here it has the fish-and-distemper whiff of gull guano with a sweetish-resinous under-smell of sub-tropical flowers – the wild candytuft and com marigold which adorn the face.

These tiny footholds might do if the handrail had continued solid. It’s cracked through now, in places cuttingly sharp, and the fissure is stacked up with big wedged blocks half a metre square. They have fine edges, my fingers itch to clutch them and heave up on them – they’d unstack like children’s bricks. I could lay-away rightward on the handrail – it’s too nearly vertical. When I sketch the move, I start to lose it and my toes slur downward half an inch. Sink your hand in the crack – feel up as far as you can – there must be something. My forearm disappears up to the elbow, my fingertips feel a little upright edge: if I laid-away from that it might put less of a destabilising stress on the wedged block, and the one above it, and the one below it. This is madness, nobody and nothing can live in all this totter and collapse. (Neil did.) I make the move. I think I remember a moment’s grating, like a tooth starting to come out of your jaw under the dentist’s forceps. Everything stays put. I can’t trust my full weight to that block I just pulled up on. I do. It holds its own (for another year or two). I leave this place of barest equilibrium and step thankfully up beneath the discoloured overhang.

Those fine big shelves are cracked right round. One of them looks to be lodged in a lateral crevice like a packet in a letterbox. I repeat Neil’s steps, trying to perform the trick of withholding half my weight, making myself lighter, weightless even. Again no downward lurch, no crash (of rocks or bodies) onto tire rusty roofs. I ease myself out of the perpendicular world and stand in a brief daze among more or less solid ribs upholstered with little flowerless plants. Neil’s dirty white helmet comes into sight above the lower lip of the ilex groove. He has found a roomy stance. I ensconce myself, tie on, take off my helmet and let sweat pour down my forehead.

The debriefing is terse – we both want out of here. ‘I just carried on,’ he says, ‘because there was nothing else to do – nothing was strong enough to rope back down off. It’s horrific. D’you think it’ll get any better?’ We peer upward, knowing we can tell nothing from down here. We’ve climbed about eighty metres – so how much more is left of Cuthbertson’s ‘start’? I nibble melting chocolate and swig lukewarm water from my rucksack. Neil says: ‘If only we could get to that tree ... D’you want to lead this next bit?’ Want? Want? Yes, it’s only fair. I add some of Neil’s gear to my own rack of nuts and slings and step up onto the solid left rib of the groove. A small ilex grows in the middle of it, shading a gull’s nest with two big turquoise eggs blotched brown like gravemarks on a hand. I have to step into the bed of the gully, which is hard without breaking the eggs. The rock of the bed is made up of arrow-heads in crazy paving. ‘Crazy’ is right – each one shifts and could easily be lifted out. The rib is now vertical and blank. When I give Neil the disgusting news, he says with little emotion: ‘What d’you think then?’

‘Shouldn’t we go down?’

‘What about your book?’

‘That’s okay – this is just one aspect of Gibraltar. And anyway, isn’t all this interesting, in its horrible way?’

‘Is there anything to go off up there? What’s the tree like?’

The tree is hard to suss; its base is defended by huge nettles. I seize it as low down as possible and give it a shake. It is so thin it trembles, and it is only rooted in such soil as has gathered here, dusty-gravelly, shallow, friable. The thick brown root, then, on which the nest is draped? Respectfully I lift the nest a little, trying not to send the eggs rolling down among the guard dogs, and the root turns out to be a rusty rod – not a tube, a rod, planted at a slightly upward angle in the bedrock of the rib. A dream anchor. I put a sling round this memorial to long-ago sappers, another round the tree-stem, and climb back down to our eyrie. Then we set up our abseil and retreat. The Face gives its last grimace: as I plant my feet on a plaque of rock near the overhang, it shatters and a fusillade hits the roofs with the biggest crash so far. For the rest of my backward-downward journey, I’m staring up at the edge where the rope goes tautly over, wondering furiously if the strain is about to burst the stone, twang the rope onto a freshly jagged edge, cut it right through and ...

When we rejoin Anne, it turns out that ours was not the only danger. Walrus had offered her a cup of coffee, then bolted the door of the cabin and started kissing her. She got the bolt shot back, he shot it to again – finally she laughed and talked her way back outside. It seemed the final squalor of a day bristling with pitfalls – an episode on rock that couldn’t have been more grotesquely unlike my preference for a Wordsworthian experience. The colossal triangle with its soaring, skyward-reaching grain is one of the most handsome shapes in Europe. We have done our best to ruin it. No great rock in the world has been so hewn, mined, drilled, shelled, blasted. The Spaniards threw a quarter of a million cannonballs at it in the Great Siege of the 1780s. The British Army blew and dug out gun emplacements inside it, and air-raid shelters during the Second World War. If charges were to be set off inside it now, the whole North Face would quake and the cracks all over it would spurt out dust like smoke. Will it ever settle down again into solidity, having shed all its manmade debris, or will its racked body give off shards for millennia until it is transformed into unimaginable shapes, or no shape at all, as it takes the first shock of the African tectonic plate on its grinding northward voyage and the doors which Hercules opened five and a half million years ago start to close again?

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