By John Cox
“I'm sorry,”, he said. “I'll have to borrow your chalk bag.”
I can't be sure, but I believe I actually clutched the article to my person and squealed mutely in horror, rather like a nervous girl scout emerging from the shower and unexpectedly meeting some lusty scoutmaster.
Ignoring this, he reached down into the water and fished out the treasonous hardware which had landed us in this situation. “I thought that was a good zero friend placement.”, he continued, inspecting it accusingly and re-racking it on his harness in a purposeful manner, and then, as another thought struck him. “I can't see. Where are my glasses?”.
I was glad he couldn't see. It meant that it would be longer before he discovered that I had allowed the end of our abseil rope to float away in the sea. Not that I could hope to avoid exposure for ever, but it was clear that the next few minutes were going to call for a managed process rather than an emotional reaction to events.
It had all happened completely without warning. We were in the middle of an exceptionally sunny week in Lundy. Admittedly I had been taken under the wing of a far more experienced and vastly fitter climber, and I had spent the last four days on viciously fast route marches around the island interspersed with struggling up routes I couldn't really do. But the day had been going very nicely. Whatever time it had taken us to yomp up the island had been satisfactory in the eyes of our leader; I had been allowed to lead Headline and had acquitted myself with only acceptable levels of whinging and faffing; we had abseiled down again and he had been making smooth progress up the gorgeous granite wall of Stop Press.
It was true that the water had got rather near to the belay. About a foot below it, in fact. Still, fortunately the sea was as calm as a millpond, and it didn't seem to be coming any higher. This pitch is about a hundred feet according to the guidebook, and my chap had just cranked over a little roof up there into what was obviously the finishing groove, barely stopping to place any gear, and would clearly be on the belay in a matter of moments. I was already psychologically readying myself for the ordeal of following.
And then it happened, just like that, from one paragraph to the next. Calmly he shouted 'Off', leapt backwards into the air, and floated down against the sky for a time; there was a barely perceptible tug as the rope plucked the said zero friend from its crack, that sense of the rushing of the atmosphere from place to place which portends the arrival of some object from the skies, and then an almighty splash beside me, followed by some thrashing and watery grovelling back on to the very tip of the pinnacle which constitutes the belay, where we now stood eyeing one another, delicately balanced twelve inches above the Bristol Channel.
“My chalk bag's soaked”, he repeated, half-heartedly wringing out his T-shirt and peering vaguely into the water in the hope that his glasses were somehow floating. “I'll need to borrow yours.”
I had to guess, and quickly. Obviously there could be no question of permitting a repeat attempt, let alone entrusting myself to the care of this madman and his rope-holding, after what I had just witnessed. But all experienced seconds will recognise this situation: some leaders take this sort of affair as a challenge to their manhood and can only be deflected from their path by confessing one's own real or pretended inadequacies; others can be undermined more subtly by little remarks about how difficult the crux smears will be in wet rock boots, which eat away at their own confidence and bend them to the craven course one has in mind. If you start on the wrong tack, it can be hard to recover, and before you know where you are you've had to lend them your chalkbag for another go.
I didn't hesitate. 'I think it might be too difficult for me to follow without chalk.', I whined. 'And I'm a bit worried about the tide. I think we ought to retreat. Of course I'd love to do the route (I lied), but I don't think it would be sensible.'.
I had hit the right note. 'Sensible' is always a good word for the orator to bear in mind in these crises. The hardiest leader can be affected by unpleasant visions of the coroner's summing-up. 'Yes,' he said thoughtfully, 'perhaps you're right.'.
I introduced my plan of swimming the fifty yards or so across the millpond to the far side of the zawn, pulling the gear across on the joined ropes, retreating up the slope at the back of the zawn, pulling up the abseil rope, going to the pub and leaving the gear to dry in the sun.
It didn't go well. 'There's no need for all that.', he said, indicating the team at work on the other side of the zawn. 'We don't want them to laugh at us. We'll just prusik up the ab rope.'.
Well, I told you he was mad. A number of retorts came to mind, uppermost perhaps being, 'My dear sweet child, don't you think it's a little late to stop them laughing at us??'. I didn't lose my composure, though.
'I don't know how to prusik.', I bleated. 'And I haven't got any prusiks.'
'I'll show you', he said firmly, squinting about him and groping behind me for something or other. 'You don't need prusiks. You can use nuts on cord.......... Where's the abseil rope gone?'.
I pointed miserably along the cliff. About thirty feet away the errant rope was frolicking happily in a little whirlpool formed where the tide swirled round the arête of the buttress, to where it had made its escape the second or third time I had had to shift the entire belay up the pinnacle to avoid getting wet.
'Well, you're the swimmer.', he said. 'You'd better go and get it.'
It was touch and go. But I knew that if I pointed out that he was already wet whereas at the moment, however unsatisfactory the position might be, I was still dry, that would jeopardise the ground I had already won, and the horrid possibility of climbing the route after all might resurface. I preferred even prusiking to that. Gloomily I lowered myself into the water and splashed over to the rope and back. He belayed the rope smartly, showed me how to prusik with a couple of nuts, lashed his own prusiks to the rope and departed diagonally upwards.
'What happens if these things slip?', I yelled after him.
'Pull the end of the rope up as you go and tie into that.', he yelled back. 'Then you can't fall further than the length of the rope.'. And he disappeared with a few more competent pulls.
Unhappily, I freed the rope from where he had belayed it, tied myself to the end of it, wound the nuts vaguely around it a couple of times, and stepped gingerly into a sling attached to the bottom one.
The reader will be ahead of me here. The rope, now transformed into a stretchy pendulum, did what pendulums do, and after an undignified horizontal hop along the base of the cliff I entered the water again, this time with a kind of slow-motion back-flip. Once I had finished coughing out the resultant lungful of seawater, it became clear to me why he had attached the rope to the belay before departing.
So, after a third swim to retrieve the rope again, I re-belayed it, and struggled up the hundred and fifty feet to safety, vowing to all the deities I could think of that if they allowed me to live through this experience I would buy a set of prusik loops and carry them in future.
When I squelched over the top he was just concluding a conversation with his wife on his mobile telephone.
'So you see, I didn't want you to be worried.', he said. 'Goodbye, darling.', and then, turning to me almost before I could reflect that if she wasn't worried before she would be now, 'You know, the guidebook description is very misleading. I was completely off route. I'm going to speak to the guidebook editor about this.'
It seemed to me that this approach might leave us open to a certain amount of ridicule, since I knew that the other team in the zawn were friends of the editor who had been repeating a new route he had put up the week before, but I deemed it wiser not to speak. There still remained the question of fixing a more direct abseil rope, going down that and recovering the gear in the belay, supposing that the pinnacle wasn't underwater by now, and I didn't want to prejudice our discussions about who was going to do that.
I won that discussion – it always pays to leave the other fellow's gear behind in this sort of situation -, and my silent thoughts were right as well, since by the time we made it to the pub the whole island knew of our misfortune, and Paul Harrison, while very polite, was completely unable to contain his mirth when my partner ventured his criticisms of the guidebook description.
The next day we went back and did the proper route, and the next year another friend climbed the false line as the Zawndecker Finish. So if you ever wanted to know why that route or Paul Harrison's route Letters to the Editor are so called, now you do.