Its Friday night and I’m tired. Motionless red tail lights smear into a blur against the tarmac and grimy city glow. The rock is forever away and the two of us sit in silence with nothing to talk about. An hour later I fight through a scrum at the petrol pump. The burger queue is even worse. No fuel, no food and no f**king sense of humour. We still have a long way to go and the road is a mess. We swap driving and within minutes I’m fitfully asleep: dreaming not of routes or moves, but scratchily processing work and imagining endless cars stretching into the dark.
I get shaken awake. Its pitch black and the stars are blazing. I fumble for the directions, written in precise German-English to two decimal places. The tar ends in a fence-lined dirt track. Thorn trees and dry grass clumps flash white and crisp in the headlights, then turn to shapeless blobs in the swirling brown dust. Left-right-right-left through gates and intersections onto ever-sandier tracks. A wrong turn ends in an awkward thorn-tree-sandwiched U. A spotted creature blinks across the track in the glare. I don’t know what it is, only that it’s rare. The wheels wallow in thick sand and squelch around corners. Then the trees thin and I grin. The stars ahead are gone, hidden behind a massive black stain.
The next morning the first moves are rude. The yellow lichen that so often signposts good rock is misplaced here on these rounded, exfoliating rails. I pull out a clump of grass and slot a cam. The sun is a red dollop rising just beyond the edge of the thorn-tree plain. As I reach into the next jam the warmth massages my clunky fingers. A rounded, vertical break plunges up into the orange glow. Between rails the rock hangs off like rolls of fat. My body eases into the rhythm: hand jam, shoulder in, high step, foot jam. By the time I reach the stance I’m crisp. The movements, climbing calls and ropes fuse into a continuous upward flow. The pitches roll by in a blurry, solitary journey punctuated by moments of crystal connection. Chuckling at the tied-off bush on a stance. Standing up in the belay as the runout above widens. Sitting down again when the piece goes in. “Look – a black eagle!”. Paying respects to the first ascentionists who climbed it before I was born. Comments about the gravelly rock, a bomber piece, a hidden jug.
The orange glow fades and then vanishes. The features become flat, less than beautiful. Shadows no longer reveal the hidden slots and edges. But I’ve been moving long enough this morning for intuition to take over, and the grips appear where I expect them. The ropes still flow up, never stopping for long. At a stance I swig back some water and a bar while the ropes move through my hands. Before they pull tight my shoes are on, ready: “that’s me” “on belay” “climbing” “climb on”. The words get distilled into action.
The crux inflicts itself violently into the rhythm. The gear is inadequate. The grips are loose, gravely. He tries, more than I would have, then lowers off. My turn. I try it once – that’s enough to know. My body moves left onto a plan B my mind hasn’t seen. Rounded, loose rails draw me on. I grab a dinner-plate stack. It totters and so do I. I stay on and move past. Easier moves, but they take time now that my protesting mind has caught up. The stance is involved and the ropes are a mess. I make a plan and it works.
The broken flow slowly reconnects and we keep going, drawn upwards, retreating into ourselves again. The car is in the thorn trees far below, with sleeping bags tossed haphazardly into the back after last night’s bivvy. The sun is still high and we’ll be down before dark. Somewhere under the sleeping bags are some cold beers. I think of stars and a campfire.
A black eagle glides by again as we coil the ropes. Two small figures waving arms in unison on the edge of a wall are of minimal interest. The black wings dip and the white V flashes in the afternoon sun, and then the bird is gone, swallowed behind a quartzite wrinkle.