On Sunday morning two weeks ago, I looked up at a never-ending wall that seemed like a ladder to God. Fear nestled somewhere close by. After 33 years, I was back at a rock-climbing face, roped but not ready.Climbers, creatures of a beautiful insanity (could you climb sheer walls with no rope, would you?), have a weird humour. One once wrote: “Climbing is the only cure for gravity.” But nothing feels funny right then.
Up the ante: To be a successful climber takes a leap of faith.
At 14, I first climbed a rock in Darjeeling during a course at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute. Then, young fingers searched for tiny holds on cold stone. Now before me was this artificial wall, full of helpful holds, yet no less intimidating. What I needed was what Abhinav Bindra, the shooter, told me over breakfast in India two weeks ago. He won Olympic gold, he said, partly because he took a “leap of faith”. It’s what you need for victory, not just over other men but over yourself. Not just in sport, but in life.
This leap is one of belief. This leap is also one of discovery, it helps you locate physical reserves you weren’t sure you owned, it takes you to hideaways in the mind where a faint bravery might rest. It is a finding of the self, a pushing of the body through unsureness. It is why I admire climbers, solo sailors, North and South Pole walkers, Sahara crossers, for whatever their mode of transport, they are nevertheless leaping, and they have a magnificent faith.
Climbing is alarming yet soothing. It requires this faith. On mountains, roped together, a man puts his life literally into another’s hands. Hold me, friend. Then he steps into the unknown. Climbing requires trust. In instinct, technique, skill, equipment. On another rock wall near me, one that curved fearfully backwards, a climber simply dangled from a short rope and a carabiner high above the ground, contemplating his options. It was beautiful.
Waiting for my turn on the wall, I abruptly summoned a man from the crevices of my memory. Years ago, a climber called John Bachar intrigued me, astonished me. He climbed complex, smooth, unhelpful rock faces, 200ft high, with nothing, no rope, no bolt, no carabiner, only toothbrush to clean tiny cracks and chalk to assist with his grip. It was him and the rock, alone, imagination against stone, an artist communing with his rough canvas. Except that to fall was often fatal.
I knew Bachar through a piece by author Craig Vetter, written over 20 years ago. How he hung a 70ft ladder from a tree and climbed it, using only hands, three rungs at a time. Walked a wire for balance. Did one-armed pull-ups, one-finger pull-ups. To see a film of Bachar is to rethink the law of gravity and I found him strongly heroic. He redefined for me in a way what was possible in life, that boundaries could be reset, that achievement had no real finish line.
Bachar had faith, I need this faith. So I put a foot on the wall and start. Climbing is pensive, personal, private, challenging, maybe like a runner and the road, but laced with risk. The ground is our comfort zone, we are safe on it, and so to take just the first step up a wall, even if roped, is to walk past fear.
What I’m searching for (and can’t find) is to be encased in concentration, where nothing exists, not rope, not ground, just the hold, just going higher. Pushing myself. Literally. And otherwise. Behind me, people are doing brilliant manoeuvres on more intricate walls, but they don’t matter to me. For me, 10ft is a start, it seems nothing but it is something. A beginning. A small leap.
Vetter in his piece all those years ago, captured climbing beautifully: “In Yosemite (in America), the grapevine ethic...is that you do not climb to be famous or to make a living. You climb to climb, and if you do it with intensity, the rewards are deep and private. At its purest, you go alone, and when you get back, you might not even say where you’ve been or what you’ve climbed.”
I am climbing with two friends. A young woman, Rhea, who climbs wonderfully to the top, her legs shaking but not her resolve. Her mother, Sherene, strong, driven, gets halfway up. Me, I don’t get far, maybe 25ft, and my hands are fine but my faith gives way. I let go. To not go back and try again will be a failure to leap.
It is a good Sunday, but Monday brings quiet. I pull out Vetter’s story on Bachar, reread it, savour it. Then I wonder where he is and search on Google. I wish I hadn’t.
On 5 July last year, near Mammoth Lakes, California, Bachar fell from a rock face and died. He was 52.
Rohit Brijnath is a senior correspondent with The Straits Times, Singapore.
Write to Rohit at email@example.com