In a time of limited freedom, Andy Moles considers ways to find space in crowded terrain, and to allow experience space to breathe through the layers of representation we build around it.
First there is granite beneath my feet, granite beneath my fingers and palms, granite filling my field of vision.
I scuff my toes on my trousers, dip chalk, flicks of habit to prepare each shift of balance. Fingers seek sureness and thumbs some indent to oppose; toes join dots only a willing eye can see. Slowly, this study in precision unlocks the macro scale of the rock surface: overlapping corners and flakes, drafting passage through a sea of slabs.
Later, huddled around a thin pencil, the muscles of my hand cramp for lack of conditioning to the learned grip, as I make careful lines and rub them out and redraw until satisfied, then go over them in pen and remove the pencil entirely, trying to make an accurate representation of the new route we climbed. Alone it is not enough, so I add numbers and words. Finally, I photograph the piece of paper.
Somewhere, underneath or through the image captured on the screen, is that sea of granite.
Finding good new routes at a level to challenge us in Uskedalen was easy, pitch after pitch linking strong features. It would be hard to find unclimbed lines of such sustained quality as these, only a short walk out of a farmed valley, in our own country.
Britain is a crowded island. Few parts are untouched by our intrusions, our dashed lines worming into even the most remote valleys and moors, isolating greenness in cropped cuts. Trace the capillaries back to the heart, where urban sprawl overworks its connective tissues; growth spurts abrupt blocks; arteries labour in a state of congestion. If the characterising image of a place was not some nostalgic meme but the dominant experience of the present, half of England is a traffic jam.
That sounds harsh, even misanthropic - and a pointless gripe, when there is no solution. But I can't shake the feeling, welling against some inherited threshold, that living at such concentration is an adaptation not all of us can easily make, that we are stretched from the social conditions that favour our better instincts. It is informed by a priority, a selfish one perhaps, on freedom to move, on the nourishment of solitude and space. In the mixture of motivations that keep me hooked on climbing, this always floats to the top - as though intimacy with the basic matter of the land could bypass the knots of human complexity that bind it. But in its own ways, the world of climbing can also feel increasingly crowded.
No other country can have worked out and written up with such thoroughness the climbable character of its cliffs and outcrops. Any substantial or solid rock face is overwritten with crisscrossed lines, numbers and names: climbs, grades, personalities. In places, the passage of rubber and of tools and metalwork is inscribed literally; blackened edges, whitened slots, an arcane Morse of rusting peg stubs and bolts, an angry scar exclaiming where someone's ambition was out of step with erosion's schedule. Elsewhere, the text exists only in the collective imagination; the overlaying of a canon of abstractions, stories and desires onto an unfeeling substrate. History is recessed in cryptic geometries of flakes and overlaps and grooves, defining craggy skylines with characters so familiar that the moorland crest of Stanage or the slanted oblongs of Cloggy can be as homely and as rich in meaning as the face of a friend.
Dog-eared magazines, guidebooks and cherished coffee table tomes are clunky organic scripts for the action, in garbling conversation between past experience and stage directions for the next act. The breathless turnover of online media is a street performance, recycling winning routines to keep an audience rapt. Of the most popular crags and routes, so much has been written and said, so many representations of experiences overlaid across time, that hardly any white space seems to remain. Amidst the scrawl of notes and signatures, any further comment appears pastiche and redundant.
The imagined climbing map of Britain is plotted with an optical focus; with painstaking accuracy in the centre, in the close spaces between the clustered lights of northern cities and the traffic-moated mountains of Wales and the Lake District, and blurred only in obscure blindspots and at the margins, where accumulations of knowledge lie thin. It is those spaces, like the monster-tossed seas bordering old maps, that hoard intrigue.
Scanning maps, the areas that attract the eye are not the places I have been and know, but obscure places, in-between places; hollows in hillsides far from any road or path, which are nonetheless precisely contoured and distinguished by a name. The depth and precision with which Britain is mapped still amazes me. The charm of it is to show so much, and yet so little. The shape of terrain, exaggerated lines where humans have built on it; these are bare bones of information. Little of the character of a place is related in the code, and nothing of what happens there - the colours of seasons, actions of light and wind, quick movement of birds and slow growths of lichen, the texture of brick and bark and stone. Maps are lifeless things, dated to the moment they were made, inevitably wrong; both elegant and banal.
I return to my photographed hand-drawn topos from Uskedalen, minimal maps bespoke to the climber. The impression of each image is mainly words. They are made for the benefit of someone else, if anyone actually goes to repeat those routes, with a level of explanation it felt responsible to give. But perhaps they are made as much for my own gratification, another iteration of the photograph or diary entry's purpose to preserve something of a meaningful experience, in fear that memory alone will not be enough - an attempt to cast in permanence the value of a moment, before its imprint fades. Didn't happen if it's not on Instagram, goes the joke, and the joke persists because it's partially true.
The act of representation concedes a kind of loss; it makes of the thing a museum exhibit, a butterfly pinned behind glass in dim light, curious but lessened. I think of a bygone type of wildlife enthusiast, who could think of no better way to get closer to the animals they loved than to kill and stuff them. What else can be done, other than simply to let go, and allow the caprice of forgetting to proceed? The experience belongs to the past, and can only be revisited in one ghost form or another.
Behind the image, I summon memories of the raw material: shadows arcing and plunging across the wall as we climbed higher, the breath-held commitment of a thin slab traverse or a tense pull through an overlap, hoping the half-hidden seam beyond would accept fingers and protection.
In that moment, as in this, not only the past invaded the present, but the future too. As we worked our way up the long corner system of the climb that was to become Arrhythmia towards the event horizon of its crowning overlap, already we worried that this thing - not yet even a thing - would end up flawed or unfinished. The features and protection would run out; we would be forced to abseil or traverse off. Already I was storing in my memory the details to write up a description, imagining what the climb in its finished state would be, what it would mean.
One of the profound things that climbing can give is surrender to the moment, an uncluttered synthesis of being and doing, but it can be an elusive thing. I want silence, but voices follow me around, looping like snatches of song. I want white space, but get lost in the scribbles, the noise, and worse - I add to them. Here I write, fitting words to make an artefact of vapour, stamping another line of prints in a field of snow.
Perhaps it is not so much places in the world that are overcrowded, but my mind.
On the wall there is a poster of Gogarth Main Cliff, a stitch of the Ground Up guidebook topos. It is a brilliant thing for a crag which can only be viewed properly from the sea, seen normally from the skewing perspectives of the side-on approach or the craning and foreshortening view from the ledges at its base, particularly when the lines of the routes are so interwoven and interchangeable. I have traced with a marker the lines that I have climbed, a more visually satisfying record than a tick in the guidebook. They do not always follow prescribed routes, but cherrypick combinations of pitches; Stimulator into Achilles, Rat Race to gain the Positron headwall, a busy junction at the Dinosaur belay where you can abseil off to save repeating the final pitch and getting buds of heather in your shoes.
There are large and appealing gaps that the pen has not explored. Gogarth is a place that, despite having representation draped on it thick as sea fog, still feels accommodating to personal discovery; one that keeps releasing, in some liminal folding of ocean and metamorphic distress, new strains of otherness. I remember my first visit, not for the reasons I wanted at the time. We abseiled down the Wen Zawn slab for A Dream of White Horses, the name and fame of which had captivated me, as it has many climbers. I set off on completely the wrong line, which, returning with more experience years later, I recognised to be Quartz Icicle. This put me as far out of my depth as my failure to read the topo and the rock would suggest. Run-out on unfamiliar striated quartzite, frozen by doubt and bitter wind slungshot from the arch, a squall of hailstones came to my rescue, forcing a shaken retreat to the belay and back up the abseil line, to thaw clawed fingers and sulk.
When I finally climbed Dream, it no longer meant as much as it had then. It was another good route on a sea cliff, still remarkable for its position and improbable appearance, but not for the impression it made. The original idea of the route, before I had even seen it, and in ignorance of all that had walked and chalked its line before, a vague and ethereal notion of a sea-washed white wall and wheeling gulls in the air beneath my feet, remains as profound as the memory of really stepping across its famous traverse.
It is all one kind of experience or another. Memory is both a representation and an experience in itself, and any form of representation is an act of imagination that can frame the experiences yet to come. I can't separate Gogarth from the idea of Gogarth, because there is nowhere else to stand, and it all proceeds in riotous discourse, and I must accept space and silence for the luminous flickers that they are.
Busy Britain is in lockdown, but the sun is shining. Yesterday, I cycled up the Pass and sat in the riverbed. I dabbled my feet in its remnant flow and my spirits in the presence of the empty crags, and felt fortunate. Outside the open window, birds chitter and trill. The sound is peaceable, but I know that elsewhere the world is an aviary, and the volume is oppressive.
I know where to go to find space; it is obvious that the ruffled northern fringes of these islands have plenty, even if the experience industry is doing its best to plug that disparity with a seasonal congealment of motorhomes. Similarly from a climbing perspective, pages less scribbled take little special knowledge to find, only a little commitment and time. When it comes to the actually new, logically this only gets harder. Witness the lengths to which climbers go to unearth new terrain in the busier parts of the country. As craving for fresh experience wrings ever fewer drops from the remnant material, still we scan the forest for hidden edges, tug ivy, lever blocks, bolt and glue and scrub. The land keeps giving, but it is finite; all too literally in places where the rocks are popular and soft.
But newness is a matter of perspective; everywhere is mapped in one way or another. I keep hearing how people have discovered interesting things on daily walks close to home, as limited travel opens fresh eyes and apertures adjust to their altered perception. Even this island is big enough for experience to turn up something fresh in unexpected places, or in those friendly faces you have come to take for granted, if you go openly to receive it.
Treading familiar paths, I dream of crags that do not exist, phantom shapes glimpsed in the forest that draw the eye like the curve of an animal's back to become great mossy boulders, or dappled sunlight tricks my eyes to make heaved root balls into walls of rock. Steep bastions stand in the ambiguities of the map, or are hinted at between the lines of the guidebook.
And sometimes, they become real.