As the Scottish Winter season reaches its zenith, David Canning reflects on the nature of time, change and a passion for getting onto the ice while it lasts.
If time is made it can be unmade. If the ticking hand of my watch is a construct of human civilisation, it can be deconstructed, made uncivilised, laid aside and replaced by wilder measures, ages of light, daybreak to star rise, meridian to aurora. Here lies our dilemma: to experience such wild freedom we must voluntarily submit to the cage of the clock.
My first meeting is at 9am. The winter sun is cresting the horizon, I watch my garden fence gently steam away its frosted coat through my home-office window. My day is mapped out for me: catch ups, status reports, team meetings, board meetings; I am back to back until 5pm when I can clear emails and hit deadlines, finally put a line through tasks on my 'to do' list. It is black dark when I am done and I am inside a box on every video call throughout the day, a rectangle at the bottom corner of my laptop screen, a mental cell in which I commune with others as if we are all prisoners in a vast neural network in service to virtual gods.
In between meetings I eye up the weather forecast and see that Scotland is due to receive a dump of snow; my heart leaps a little. Watching the temperatures plummet as winter gets a grip, calculating the daily altitude of freezing level and confirming this with the Mountain Weather Information Service becomes a daily routine, and Scottish Winter Climbs is a regular bedtime read. I have ice on my mind.
The north face of Ben Nevis, the long dead crater or a massive volcano is snow-caked and white with millions of tons of frozen water, falls in suspended animation, all of nature in hibernation but the mountain is alive with the colour and busyness of climbers colourfully picked out against the snow slopes. I left the Glen Nevis hostel in the dark but by the time I near the CIC Hut, the place is bright and full of teams gearing up.
Following the beta, my partner and I eschew the classics further in, and divert towards the base of Green Gully (IV 4) cutting a trail through knee deep snow. We are rewarded as my axes slice into plastic ice, perfect, blue and vertical. The route is freshly frozen and is not hooked out yet, so every placement is into a pristine slope, requires the sort of problem solving that makes climbing ice unique and deeply satisfying. It is also sub-zero with a keen wind chill that takes me by surprise in how quickly it can take hold of an ungloved hand.
The temporary dominates, albeit time beats slowly here. We must move constantly or die in the cold, and tomorrow the ice may melt or grow its limbs further, its lifecycle similar in longevity to that of the dragonfly. In a month or a week's time the white may be green, or brown. Other footprints will follow ours already partly filled by fresh snowfall. The granite pillars either side of us, and beneath tell their own story of rock boiling then freezing, and then of collapse and erosion. Change is constant.
The climb, the descent, the tick tick of our axes and crampon points, the unravelling and ravelling of ropes, the next day's plan - all circular, and in this is the point of it all. Our ascents only have meaning in the descent, the evening's storytelling that follows, passing the guidebook around the circle of friends, the dream of the next adventure.
A lifetime divides us from the withered city,
aging, finite, accelerating;
time here expands to fill the space between our footsteps.
We tread with care the ice-cracked crust,
nylon thin, stretched across a lava heart,
kettled within a heaving caldera,
senses, pin-prick keen, surface and boil,
cold slaps like a midwife
as we gulp at the milk-white air,
retreat glacially into the womb of the mountain
cast from the fontanelle of the earth:
newborn, grey-skinned and ready to gasp.
Suspended by umbilical ropes
we walk the water's winter-silenced rage,
a belayed cascade captured in the act of falling;
everything that before appeared certain and fixed,
melts, fuses, and re-forms around
arcing flows of hands and feet-
thought and instinct,
known and unknown,
seen and the unseen,
sensing and believing,
falling and ascending,
end and beginning
become as the wind is to the sky,
blood to the heartbeat,
gravity to the turning earth.
We will be old again in the time-kept city,
but the eternal mountain
lies like an ice splinter under the skin,
a flash in the corner of the eye,
a word caught on the tip of the tongue,
a thought frozen at the moment of its dreaming.
David Canning's poetry has been published in various magazines, anthologies, film, and on television and radio. He has also served on the judging panel for the Boardman Tasker Prize for Mountain Literature. Ice Climbing was first published in David's first poetry pamphlet, An Essex Parish. It was further published in Extreme Scotland by Nadir Khan.
David's latest poetry collection, The Celestial Spheres, is available from Camulus Poetry Publishing, and you can follow him on Twitter @canningdavid, Facebook @TheMountainPoet, and Instagram @poet_davidjcanning