The skin of my fingertips is tender from the long climb the day before, stripped down to the thinnest of layers; pink and newborn. I touch the cool morning rock. An ocean breeze blows in past the knuckled headland, curling down the inlet and up the brushy slope to the base of the crag where we’ve dropped our gear. This is a good spot. No one speaks. There is just the thwap-thwap of rope run out, checked and laid down in long loops, and the clink of alloy clips counted out in stacks of ten.
The wall of cracked grey climbs out of the hillside. I trace the line of ascent, the bolted steel rings, seeking out the long cracks and slight ledges, the scattered pockets and jugs. Halfway up a wiry bush clings to the rock. I loosely practice each movement of the climb as my eyes track up the rock.
A long way up the towering crag comes the biggest test, the part of a route that climbers call the crux. There is a sharp blade of rock and then up and far to the right a narrow line cutting out of the rock face. The space in between a slab of pitted stone, a wild distance. I breathe in deep. The raw skin of fingertips tingles. My arms goose bump in the morning air. Beyond the crux the cliff jags up, ragged and broken, towards the sky.
Once on the rock I move slowly, stretching the cold out of joints and limbs. Each movement precise. I focus on breathing, on the in out, deliberate and deep. Chalk on my hands keeps them sure against the rock. Each movement takes me further up the cliff. I fall into rhythm, reaching long, sinking into holds, feet finding ledges, cracks, rough surfaces to smear against. Muscles warm and lengthen. My body explodes through the longest reaches, covering space and distance. In those rare moments I am fluid. There is only the cool rock solid in my hands, the practiced motions of clipping to each bolt, looping the rope through, rising up and past to the next pocket, splinter, arête.
As I move up the face my skin becomes slick with sweat, my breath uneven. There is the slow deadening in my arms, the ache digging into my fingers. Fatigue bites. Smooth movements give way to sharper grabs, until I am just below the crux. I pull and reach for a ledge and almost miss. My heart thuds. I hang there, breath short in my lungs and arms trembling.
I claw out to the right, grasping for an almost invisible cut in the rock. Left foot up on a splintered flake, pulling through and over and up, left hand reaching up blind, slapping onto the narrow blade, breath rushing out and vision blurring. I grip hard and stick. The rush in my ears won’t stop but I am still on the rock.
Blood pumps hard in my fingers clutching the sharp jagged flake of rock, throbbing up through tightening forearms. My hot cheek presses against the stone. My eyes focus only on the closeness of the rock, magnified into erratic chasms, broken mountains, towering cliffs. An ant blown into dizzying size clambers past just inches from my face before disappearing into a break in the rock. Existence is this. The dull ache in my forearms spreads into the bunched muscles of my back. My left leg shakes. There is no breath in my lungs. Concentration bleeds away, tendons swell.
I fight for shallow gulps, the ache in my forearms deepens. I close my eyes, see pins of light against the darkness, push the last breath from constricted lungs and draw more air in and out and back in and out and in again. The shaking in my leg subsides, stops.
My eyes open to the immediacy of the spidering cracks and fissures. I’m locked in stasis by this minute terrain. I need to move. I slowly force my stiff neck to tilt upwards and break the narrow focus. The rock clambers up and away. There is my left hand, its stiff knuckles. The lowest knuckle on my middle finger is grazed and soft white leaves of skin peel away from the small red centre of the cut but the blade of rock my fingers curl over is solid. I breathe out hard, tension coiling down from my forearm into my left shoulder. There is loose grit and sweat between my fingers.
I pull my head across, nose brushing the rock, so I can see the low grip of my right hand on a sharp and steeply angled spur, fingers crimped in hard under the narrow flake. There is a smear of blood on the back of this hand. To the right the rock curves away and out of sight. Past my right foot I can see down an impossible distance to where the cliff stabs up out of the hillside. Far below the slope falls away down and down towards the road and beyond that the sea. I suck in air. Fingers tighten on the rock. Tension bites hard across my shoulders. There is a hollow in my gut and sweat runs down my back. I cling there, a body flung against the cliff face. Every muscle and tendon is sapped. I drag my eyes from the ground. There is only up and the crux.
The heat of the late morning sun hits my face. It is just beginning to break over the top of the crag. Harsh light floods my eyes and the wall’s features become striated layers of sun and darkness. Sweat stings in my eyes. I lick my lower lip and taste salt.
Above and to the right is the narrow ridge of rock, stark and black against the sun. Forcing myself to breathe I hold my body in tension and drag my right foot up blindly up to find purchase on a splintered line of stone. Hot sun and stinging fingers: the intimate landscape marked black by the shadows clinging to the pockets and cracks which interrupt the surface. My mouth is dry. One deep breath and I move.
Everything collapses into this moment.
Pulling reaching demanding to cross this distance here and grasping at the hard narrow line of rock there just there just a little further fingers stretching aching calling. Missing. Fingertips scraping and stinging. Arms free, feet slipping. Falling.
This flooded instant of open space.
The rope snaps taut.
Body whiplashes, then spins in the air. I breathe again and the harness cuts into my thighs.
“Down. Take me down.”
Michael Richardson lives in Ottawa and suspects he is the only Australian speechwriter in Canadian politics. His previously published fiction pieces are “The Writer” (2002, UNSWeetened and winner of journal’s Fiction Prize) and “Falling into Silence” (1999, UNSWeetened). He writes semi-regularly on politics and policy for Australian magazine InSight.