Behind the desk where I spend most of my evenings hunched over the laptop keyboard is a corkboard that is home to family photographs, children’s paintings, newspaper cuttings, various precious knick-knacks and an assortment of bits and bobs that serve as a reminder of who I am. Among these photographs is the one that you see at the top of the page, and it is this photo, or more precisely the circumstances that surrounded it, that forms the basis of today’s sermon.
Before we can get onto that though, there are one or two things that I have to tell you about the image itself.
• It was taken with a very long lens and shows only the very toppermost portion of the rockface that was being climbed.
• The moustachioed man at the top is Paul. Paul is a rock climber. Paul is, a man on whom you would stake your life. Paul is holding the rope to which the ginger geek on the rockface is attached.
• The ginger geek on the rockface with the fat arse is me.
• I do not know what that is near my elbow, but I do not recall there being any flower-arrangements present.
• The ginger geek with the fat arse is terrified of heights.
So, now perhaps, is time to slip back to the beginning. Paul and I had headed out into the country for a walk with our wives. We parked the car and walked. I was a little mystified as to why Paul required such a large rucksack for a wander around the Derbyshire countryside, but Paul is resourceful. He is always prepared. I presumed he may have been carrying anti-venom, first aid requisites, Kendall Mint Cake, beer – that sort of thing, and it wasn’t until we arrived at the bottom of the craggy rock monolith, whereupon he delved into the bag and pulled out the pair of soft, rubber-soled boots with which, he assured me, I would be able to walk, Spiderman-like, up a brick wall, that I began to feel uneasy, and my suspicions, being somewhat slow on the uptake, began to be aroused. I tried to explain that I had no intention of walking up anything more perilous than the loft ladder, but Paul had helped me into the boots even as my toes had begun to curl. ‘I’ll go first,’ said Paul – six foot plus, slim, toned, fit – ‘I’ll tie-up at top and you can follow me.’ I nodded. I had understood every single word he had said, right up until the bit about following him.
‘I can’t do that,’ I said – five foot seven, chunky, baggy, tired – ‘I think I may need the loo.’
‘Just watch what I do,’ said Paul. ‘Use the hand-holds that I use and I’ll talk you up from the top.’ With which he was gone, gazelle-like (Do I mean gazelle? I’ve a feeling that I may be thinking of a mountain goat. Anyway…) up the rockface, tied to nothing, but dangling a rope behind him. ‘It’s really easy,’ he said, from a height that made my head spin. ‘Other than the overhang, you’ll walk it.’ I think I might, at that moment, have expressed a very definite preference for the walking alternative, but it was not to be. Paul was at the top and beckoning me on. I moved to the rock with the kind of lead in my soul that you can only normally get by being tied to a barometer.
I looked up at the first handhold. I reached for the first handhold. I jumped at the first handhold. I could not reach the first handhold: it was definitely beyond my grasp. It presented, you might conclude, the ideal opportunity for packing up and going home, but people were watching and injured pride is very hard to swallow, so I looked around me for the answer. I dragged a small boulder to the foot of the cliff and stood on it. I could still not reach, so I fetched another rock, and then another. Eventually I was able to curl my fingers into the tiny fissure in the rock. Triumphant, I prepared to climb, even as an unfamiliar voice behind me chided, ‘You’re supposed to climb the rock, lad. Not build a f*cking staircase.’ I refused to turn. I gritted my teeth and I began my laborious, grimly determined ascent. The handholds were always just within my reach and the boots did offer grip where there really shouldn’t have been any. I was not feeling confident, but I did not feel death tapping quite so insistently on my shoulder until, probably half way up the face, I realised that, however I tried, I could not reach the next handhold. The fingers of my left hand became numb in their tiny, rocky lair whilst my right hand groped in vain for something to hold onto. My feet began to slip. My knees began, imperceptibly I thought, to shake.
Paul could sense my predicament, but could not fully see the position I was in. He remained calm as panic began to grip my soul. Paul would, I knew, climb down to me if he needed to, but I wasn’t sure what he would do when he got there. I sensed myself slowly taking an all-body limpet-grip on the rock-face. It could well take dynamite to move me. It was then that I started to hear voices. Few at first, but rapidly increasing in number, all offering advice on how to progress, some of which I somehow followed and found myself moving on just before my legs gave way completely. From that point, my pace increased and the scramble to the top became ever more ungainly but effective. I clambered over the brow and, after taking my first proper breath in about thirty minutes, I looked down. There was a lot of it. At the bottom of my little cliff the gathered gaggle of rock climbers gave me a spontaneous round of applause. I stood, unsteadily, and gave them a ‘thumbs up’, with a grin like rigor attached to my face, whilst I waited for my spirits to soar and my confidence to grow, but, sadly, neither occurred. What did occur was, ‘How do I get down?’ I asked Paul. ‘You abseil,’ he answered. I died a little.
Well, such was my desire to be back at base level that I did it, even, to my recollection, managing a little bounce here and there along the way. My tiny fan club watched on, shook me by the hand when I reached them, and dissipated instantly. I took my boots off quickly, lest Paul should appear at my side and encourage me to climb a more ‘exciting’ route. I reflected upon my achievement: I battled my fear and, with much encouragement from Paul and a handful of climbers who had recognized a bottle that was about to be lost, I won.
And now, I look at that photo on my board and I smile in recognition of a victory over myself and in the recollection that I have never climbed anything higher than a kerb from that day on…
There are only 3 real sports: bull-fighting, car racing and mountain climbing. All the others are mere games – Ernest Hemingway