- 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.
For example, his children climb, and he has encouraged them to do so. He recognises what he calls the ‘poignant paradox’: ‘we spend our best efforts bringing our children into the world, bringing them up defended against all harm, only to connive at their being lured onto these slippery heights where only ravens and peregrines are truly at home.’ Craig believes the instinct to climb is as natural as the instinct to swim and describes one of his sons as a toddler standing up and feeling along a little rock face, trying to pull himself up onto it. Expeditionary climbers Andrew Harvard and Todd Thompson would agree with Craig on the early development of the climbing instinct: in Mountain of Storms they remark that climbing finds its origins in the sandbox. But does the presence of such a natural instinct justify a father luring his own children to the heights?
To answer that implicit question, Craig looks partly to his own boyhood. His father, a well-known pediatrician, raised his sons to be careful about everything – not to take chances, always to avoid danger – and Craig loathed the inhibitions that he found in himself as a result. He determined not to raise his own children in fear, not to ‘spend the afternoon hissing at them “Don’t go near that edge!” ’ as his father had done to him in the Highlands. By mid-adolescence, his sons were out-climbing him, leading him rather than being led on the most difficult pitches: he admits the ambivalence of a father being outdone by his sons, but essentially he delights in their ‘blithe dash’ and strength of will and body, and he celebrates such a clear-cut and dramatic way of allowing a generation to succeed its predecessor. Although this particular explanation of why he encouraged his sons to take up a dangerous sport may seem too personal, too individual, to be generally significant, it does, have large implications. Dominated by what it considers to be common sense, our society tends to raise its children in fear – fear of disease, fear of accident, fear of war, fear of failure, fear of strangers, fear of love – and one reason dangerous sports thrive is the perpetual rebellion of individuals, especially the young, against the grain of fear in the guise of common sense.
Several times in the book, Craig describes his own encounters with what he calls the ‘fear barrier’: ‘The barrier is an invisible obstacle – the point where your arms and your nerve will buckle and fail – the divide where impossibility begins, where everything is too much, the steepness, the sheerness, the not-yet known – a kind of break in the world, a space-warp, where the laws favouring your survival will stop applying and pure gravity will take over.’ Although the barrier is a state of mind rather than a place, often it is associated with a particular spot on a particular route, a place which may not be the actual ‘crux’ of a climb but which becomes a psychological crux for an individual climber. Craig himself, for example, suffered one fear barrier: ‘the overhung corner and rib on Castle Rock where Triermain Eliminate, a Brown and Whillans route, goes straight up, and Harlot Face, a Birkett route, veers out onto the rib, then round and up it out of sight.’ For six years, Craig could not make himself pass this point when leading a climb: he knew exactly where it was, ‘six inches out from the rib’, and he would review the proper moves over and over again in his mind. But he could not make himself pass through the barrier, topographical or psychological, until finally he did it by force of will, watched by the son who had been encouraging him. Moments later he found himself on a small ledge, ‘about the size of a large dinner mat’, a ledge that became for him the embodiment of what lies beyond fear barriers. He felt ‘as ensconced in mid-air as a kestrel’, savouring a sense of liberation and jubilation. He quotes Pound’s Pisan Cantos:
Here error is all in the not done,
all in the diffidence that faltered.
Fear is a crucial aspect of the sport. As is true of bullfighting, in fact, one hesitates to use the word ‘sport’ for an activity that flirts so seductively with death. But Craig does not justify climbing on the basis of character-building by ordeal, conquering fear, or any such boy-scoutish psychological and moral engineering. When fear is, in Craig’s words, ‘alchemised into thrill’, it becomes itself a sort of joy, a thing to be sought and relished. More important, it impels total concentration of the whole self in the act, and that concentration is perhaps the ultimate experience of climbing.
Such concentration leads to loss of self, and it can heighten sensitivity to what is outside of self. Much of Native Stones is devoted to the aesthetic appeal of climbing – visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile. Some of it comes from a sense of space – mountains seen from a distance, or panoramas viewed from their flanks and peaks. Some of it comes from the intensive experience of natural phenomena or natural objects – wind, rain, sun, animals, birds, insects, flowers, lichen. For Craig, most of the appeal seems to come from rock itself. The title of his book is appropriate: from beginning to end, he writes about stone and rock. Early on, meditating about rock, he asserts its unyielding qualities: ‘Rock is everything we are not, the hardest thing to be. We have to approach it knowing that it is unyielding and that our fantasies steam back off it.’ Unyielding as it may be, however, Craig the writer constantly attempts to grasp it in words as he grasps it on his climbs. In both his poetry and his prose, he favours the consonantal (‘the cracked strakes of the corrie face’) and he uses the adamantine names of crags and routes like incantations (‘the Barbican on the Castle Rock of Triermain’). He delights in the climber’s intimacy with rock: ‘To climb is to be intimate with the very stuff of our habitat, to smell its minerals (the struck-match odour of split rock or rock in a heatwave), to imitate the lie of it in the twisting and flexing of your muscles, to relish its most durable elements through the nerves of your fingerends.’ He quotes one of his own poems, ‘Into Rock’, about the fusion of rock and climber:
His clay was kneaded to its bas-relief.
His brain infolded, mimicking its strata.
The title of his book comes from a study of Henry Moore, Sculpture in the Making: ‘As a young man Moore preferred to use native stones, believing that as an Englishman he should understand them.’ Craig often refers to Moore in the book, and near its conclusion writes that Moore’s sculptures tell him what crags and boulders tell him: ‘That we at least partake of rock’s strength in the taper and torque of our bones’ shanks, the arch of the pelvis, the vaulting of the skull. That the strong parts of the world are less sensitive, less mobile, than its quick but at least they endure. My skull will outlast, for days or decades, the self that pulsed inside its glossy helmet for seventy or eighty years, as the rocks have outlasted the pulpy tissues of the animals and plants that swarmed over them in the tropical epochs or even went into their making, contributing shells and little castings of themselves to the seabeds that hardened into Cambrian limestone.’
Craig’s book also has an historical dimension, although he does not attempt a systematic history of climbing. He knows that the sensibility that now responds so deeply to mountains is relatively modern, dating only from the later 18th century, and he shows understanding of and even sympathy for the pre-romantic dislike of mountains and the barbarism that was associated with them. He shows less sympathy for the latest developments in technical climbing, which are perhaps even more removed from the romantic spirit than the Archbishop of Dublin when, in 1702, he called mountains ‘rubbish’. Day-glo nylon ropes, emerald perlons and scarlet helmets, practical as they may be, offend him, and so does the competitive and egotistical athleticism of some of the new breed of solo climbers. Typically, he is most offended by them when they tamper with rock – chipping away large chunks in order to make good handholds, for example.
His heroes are the climbers a generation before his own. His book is dedicated ‘to the veterans’, and he celebrates them throughout. Many were workers, miners or quarrymen, and they were rough and ready, using only primitive equipment and their own ingenuity, strength, balance, stamina and courage. Jim Birkett, who pioneered some of the routes most admired by Craig, had what Craig calls a ‘sublime motto’: ‘When I got my fingers over something, the rest of me generally followed.’ Although Birkett talked to Craig on the telephone, he refused to give him a formal interview. ‘People don’t want to know about us,’ he said. But Craig was able to interview Bill Peascod, another of the pioneers; Peascod, in fact, agreed to come out of virtual climbing retirement to go up some of his old routes with Craig. Craig describes those climbs and the pleasure that Peascod gave him with a stream of reminiscence about climbing. Not long after his last climb with Craig, Peascod died of a heart attack while scaling the Welsh crag Clogwyn dur Arddu, and his death sounds an elegaic note at the end of the book.
Many books about climbing, like many books about any sport, are essentially mindless. Usually written for the aficionado, they assume that the reader already is convinced that the sport is worthwhile. They provide esoteric information, dwell on the technical, and make much of derring-do and endurance. When they do meditate on the reasons for climbing and its pleasures, their thought is usually stereotyped, their language platitudinous. Native Stones is exceptional. It may not inveigle the cowardly onto the crags, but it does at least give us a glimmering of their attraction for a hardy, intelligent, sensitive and articulate man like David Craig.