Triermain Eliminate

Chauncey Loomis

  • Native Stones: A Book about Climbing by David Craig
    Secker, 213 pp, £10.95, May 1987, ISBN 0 436 11350 3

I admire mountain, rock and ice-climbing from a respectful distance. When young and foolish, I tried it. I even went up what some experienced climbers call ‘the milk run’ to the peak of Matterhorn, but that climb was my last: all the way up I visualised Lord Francis Douglas coming down the way that he did in 1865 – straight – and it spoiled the trip for me. Soon after I read a book entitled Alpine Tragedy. Its most telling point was made in a series of photographs of the great Alpine peaks: etched down their crags were dotted lines ending abruptly in horrid little X’s marking places where the various tragedies were simultaneously fulfilled and terminated. That cured me for good.

So now I admire climbing from a distance. As David Craig effectively demonstrates in Native Stones, however, it is an activity best understood from close up. Much of its delight and terror is almost microscopic in source. Non-climbers may associate the sport with acrophobic spaces, alp on alp arising, but most of the climber’s experience is lived on a scale of millimetres rather than kilometres. Usually, after all, rock-climbers in particular must face inward, their eyes fixed intently on details immediately before them: every tiny fissure and minute flake of stone can be crucial, a matter of life and death. Climbers must be intimate with their environment. One commandment is that they keep at least three of four points in contact with the surface they are on – two feet and one hand or two hands and one foot – but often they press their entire body against the rock for friction, and Craig has a friend who once in a high wind clamped on a nubbin of rock with his teeth. The intimacy can become almost sexual: ‘The hand sinks sideways into a dark crack, toes take the shape of the rock, nose smells moist fibres inches away as fingernails delve into earthy crevices, arms embrace a burnished yew trunk, eardrums vibrate to the hoarse hissing of jackdaw chicks three feet inside the rock.’

Native Stones is not a handbook of rock-climbing written by a professional climber: rather, it is a meditation on and celebration of the sport written by a poet who is an accomplished amateur climber. Craig does not even bother to explain climbing terms or to describe its techniques, although they become clear enough in the course of his book. His main intent is to discuss the aesthetic and psychological appeal of climbing by evoking the experience and reflecting on it. He may not convert the sceptical who prefer to keep their feet planted on the horizontal, but he is an eloquent advocate for an activity that most people consider to be insane. To some extent, any climber writing for groundlings is bound to be defensive. Most of us look at climbers with a mixture of suspicion and admiration, feeling impelled to ask such blunt and aggressive questions as ‘Why do you do such a crazy thing? What’s the matter with you – are you suicidal?’ Usually the answers are unsatisfactory. Mallory’s famous comment when he was asked why he wanted to climb Everest – ‘Because it is there’ – has more stiff upper lip than significance in it. Craig does not retreat into such manly taciturnity or self-effacing understatement: he asks himself hard questions and he attempts honestly to answer them.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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