We park at the lighthouse and slither down to the tide line. Waves break onto glistening black rocks. The tide is on the ebb. The sky is grey, the water like steel and a cold wind blows down the Firth of Forth. It is the 4th January: we have come to Aberdour to kick start the new trad season. I'm glad I wore so many layers.
We tread carefully, stepping on barnacles and slipping over bladder wrack as we make our way to the foot of the crag. There is little shelter from the wind, but the sun comes out for a moment and at the top of the crag, between fierce green prickles, the gorse flowers radiant yellow. Time to blow away the Christmas-cobwebs.
My fingers feel their way around edges, sliding along cracks, grasping openings. They are happy to work the rock again. Calling my brain back from a heady post New-Year fug, I appraise a crack and wonder what gear to place. Like a vision from some distant dream, the red wallnut springs to mind. I lift the nuts from my harness, fumble around and slot the red one in. It fits. Perfectly. My other placements are less dreamy. I jangle through cams, nuts and hexes, trying to remember what goes where. It will take some time for hand, eye, rock and rack to align once again.
Moving around the dolerite pillars, we find our way up orange-grey slabs, dark fissures and crack lines. The rock has a sharp edge. Rough patches snag skin and clothes. We climb through feathers and guano; the birds are absent. On this bracing January day, we are in a volcanic world. Across the Forth, Edinburgh is dwarfed by the greater forms of Bass Rock, North Berwick Law, Arthur's Seat and the islands. Like slumbering giants, each volcanic intrusion is a formidable mass, pointing to forces and time-spans beyond reckoning.
At 3pm, the light starts to fade. The Pentlands disappear under a veil of drizzle.
I sit at the cliff top belaying Peter up our last route when three blonde toddlers appear, wide-eyed and fascinated. "A climber!" Moments later, two harassed parents rush around the corner lunging for the tots' wrists. "That's close enough!"
The little ones examine my anchor system. "Why is she tied up?" I try to explain physics and crag safety to the tots while taking in slack. Then the mother screams. I jump – then relax. Peter's head has just appeared at the top of the cliff. The family beat a hasty retreat.
Slipping back through mud and gorse bushes, we return to the car's shelter and refuel on coffee and Christmas cake. If this were summer, it would be grim. But we are only four days into the new year. I have never trad climbed so early before. I should be in winter mode, pulling plastic inside a cosy cave on an industrial estate. Instead I am out with rope, rock and rack, dancing between wind and waves. Each climb is a gift.
Anna Fleming writes about adventure, environment and ecology. Her writing is published in the Guardian, Waymaking and Caught by the River. She is currently writing her debut book Time on Rock: A Climber's Route into the Mountains, an account of ten years learning to trad climb on rock across the UK, from Yorkshire gritstone to Lake District rhyolite, from gabbro on the Cuillin ridge to Cairngorm granite. Time on Rock will be published by Canongate in 2022.
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