Dave Pickford shares an essay from his new book Extreme Horizons: the climbing & adventure essays. In this extract, he reflects on climbing trips to Oman and South Africa in an attempt to explore what makes climbing unique and how storytelling can fail to capture the full meaning of an experience.
In the dream, splinters of starlight surge from the summit ridge. After a while, they burn out and are lost in the desert night.
"Andy, you awake?"
An hour before dawn, February 2005, I sit upright in my sleeping bag under a gnarled acacia tree, by a smouldering fire at the edge of a goat paddock in Oman's Hajar mountains.
Six thousand feet above, the blue dark of the lukewarm winter night is broken by the outline of a serrated summit ridge like the upturned spine of a stupendous primeval beast. Below the crest, a wall of pale limestone plummets more than 3,000 feet to vast scree cones.
Jebel Misht is the biggest cliff in the Arabian Peninsula: a massive, topographically complex and often loose concatenation of interconnected walls and towers, extending for almost two horizontal miles above the date palms of Wadi Al Ayn. Our intended line runs up a system of jumbled pillars and sinuous grooves on the southeast face, crossing two existing climbs to gain a sheer 200-metre headwall: a remote, smooth, ethereal, almost delicate thing.
After a quick breakfast of coffee and dates, we pass the small prayer room on the south side of our host Mohammed's garden just as the Muezzin blares out on his tinny transistor radio. Beyond the edge of the rickety barbed wire fence, a ravine rises quickly toward the scree mounds of Jebel Misht; in the purplish predawn light, they look like colossal avalanche cones, dark with grit and latent menace.
The shadows of two skin-thin dogs follow us. As the approach steepens, they fall away into the breaking light. A mile and a half away, the sun bursts across the immense north flank of Jebel Akhdar, the highest peak in the Arabian Peninsula. Synclines and anticlines rise from the fading gloom in swoops and whorls, the visible memory of the colossal tectonic shift that made these mountains. As the rising light hits the west summit of Akhdar, a pink cloudburst detonates across the pale grey stone, quickly draining down to iridescent red. Five hundred feet above us, a solitary raven croaks twice. "He's telling us to get a move on, mate," Andy says. "All this sightseeing isn't going to get us up there."
Andy and I look slowly up the face, taking in all the features. It takes twenty seconds, this way, to trace a line from base to summit. The cliff is truly huge. If you put El Capitan next to it, the world-famous granite monolith would look smaller. We rack up at the apex of a narrow shoulder. Even though it's only 6:30, we climb in T-shirts. Heat radiates off sun-blasted wadis and fluvial plains. Ahead, the shallow cracks become more and more vertical. It's the kind of rock that makes you check every hold, as if to test the depth of your judgment: the siren lure of exfoliating fissures that lead nowhere; the sudden, visceral recoil from the boom of hollow flakes.
Two pitches up, I breach a roof, finding solid cracks between wobbly blocks, and I make a belay in a shallow alcove. Andy follows quickly, bright-yellow and bright pink ropes looping down when I can't take in slack fast enough. All at once, the ropes fly out and my belay plate locks hard.A block the size of a microwave oven arcs into space. Andy swings out, a metre from the roof. As the rock hits the talus, a dull explosion echoes around the face. "Shit" he yells. "Seemed solid…." He's breathing hard, visibly shaken, at the belay. I offer to take the next lead. Tiny dihedrals peter out into nothing. Sinuous cracks weave innumerable blind alleys across a broad pillar where the pale limestone merges with the milky haze of the desert sun. I run out our sixty-metre ropes to a narrow pedestal. Tendrils of high cloud build in the morning sky.
We creep through a vertical maze of narrow pillars balanced precariously one upon another like a spiral staircase of giant Jenga towers. On a long, slim ledge 350 metres above the scree, we drink water and share dates and apricots. A thin film of cirrocumulus softens the rust and tungsten swirls of the stone contours across Wadi Al Ayn. After a while, Andy heads toward what we think might be the deep groove and crack system of Geoff Hornby's 2001 route, Intifada. We round a corner, and Intifada's impeccable crux dihedrals tower above: an alien refuge of smooth, solid rock amid this vast citadel of choss.
I bridge, arm-bar, and jam through the steep upper section of a split chimney which is actually one of the best bits of limestone corner climbing I've done. Above, we move together across the base of a gargantuan amphitheatre. With our light rack, we might not be able to retreat down this fragile, disconnected wall. There's no one here to rescue us. If either Andy or I had a bad accident, we'd likely die here. Ten metres to my right, a falling stone makes a weird whistle as it flies past. A lost rider on the mountain's silence. I flinch instinctively, thinking about Alex MacIntyre, one of Britain's best alpinists of all time, who was killed by a single falling stone on the South Face of Annapurna in 1982.
Then I check the time: 3:45 p.m. Night falls at 6 p.m. sharp in the Arabian winter. Up here, the temperature will drop like a stone. We are a pair of spiders hanging in the atrium of a gothic cathedral. Just two minute figures poised in a vast cauldron of turreted rock; this high place is truly a crucible of the wild.
Shivering in my windproof, late afternoon clouds swirl around us. On the best rock we've yet encountered on the wall, I run it out between cams in horizontal breaks up a seventy-metre band of compact, weatherworn stone: a mantelpiece of solidity on the crumbling edifice of the mountain. Somewhere behind me, a sharp, solitary croak cracks through the light wind and resounds: the raven has returned. We reach the summit ridge after eleven hours of continuous climbing. Red light slices through the cloud above Jebel Akdhar, a slow-motion laser shifting the spectra of evening. Eighty miles to the north, the low, elongated caul of Jebel Fahud rises from the sand like an emergent Kraken on the surface of an ancient ocean. As our eyes trace the eastern edge of the Rub' al Khali, we can see the curvature of the Earth. This is the fabled Empty Quarter, the world's largest sandy desert, which stretches some 650,000 square kilometers across the Arabian Peninsula.
Scree-sliding down the long, complex descent, navigating through cliff bands and around maze-like gullies by headlight,we're both lost in our thoughts. The descent is complex, with lots of places to seriously screw up if you go the wrong way. Seventeen hours after we'd set out from the goat paddock outside Mohammed's garden, we reach the dirt road that runs parallel with the edge of Jebel Misht's northern flank.
Despite the astonishing shift that's taken place in Oman over the past century – a people transformed from desert nomads to the relatively affluent citizens of a petrostate – these mountains have remained largely unchanged. Later that night, before I fall asleep, the chromium slice of a crescent moon rises over the jet-black spikes of Misht's summit ridge. A few degrees to the south, Orion is travelling across the lunar terrain of Akhdar's highest slopes: a bright barb hooked somewhere, somehow, on the outer edge of the infinite world.
The new line we climbed that day, Inshalla Salam, was certainly not the best big wall I've done. It was discontinuous and loose in places, and it incorporated sections from two existing routes. Even so, it was one of the best days of pure climbing adventure I've ever had. Afterwards, I wrote a couple of short features in the British press about climbing in Oman, but I never wrote anything about that route. All that was recorded was the following one-line entry by Geoff Hornby in the 2007 Alpine Journal: "On Jebel Misht's south east face, David Pickford and Andy Whittaker linked together Intifada and Eastern Promise and added a 100m finish up the tower to the summit ridge to provide Inshalla Salam (1000m, 5.11 R, ED VII+)."
I don't have any photos of the climb, as I had run out of 35mm slide film the day before (back in 2005, many outdoor photographers were still using 35mm film). Yet nobody questioned the veracity of our ascent, mainly because it was a moderately difficult climb on an obscure cliff in Oman, of interest to only a few. But there's another reason nobody asked us to "support" our ascent with "evidence": in 2005, Facebook and Twitter were not yet part of our cultural mainstream. Back in the mid-noughties, as a former editor of The Economist, John Micklethwaite, put it in his farewell editorial, "social media had something to do with a very good lunch."
An extraordinary phenomenon, one that's gone largely unquestioned in the vertical world, has taken place over the past decade as a result of the explosion of climbing imagery and videography freely available through social media: the way we document, share and process stories about our activity has shifted.The great majority of people in the developed world now have a smartphone, and thus a camera. If we'd climbed Inshalla Salam yesterday, our account might be regarded as spurious. The demand for visual evidence of ascents is not unique, of course, to the digital age: in 1910 Herschel Parker and Belmore Browne famously disproved Frederick Cook's Denali claim by matching a picture from a lower peak with the one he described as his summit photo. Yet in recent years, the sheer saturation of digital media has assumed an unprecedented level of control over the making of climbing history. Often, the documented image now appears to confirm the existential event, far more than the words or the memory of the climber himself.
This conundrum represents a profound conflict between the between the direct experience of a climb and the alternative narratives of its representation, between the actual and the perceived. The notion that an ascent can't truly be captured in words or images is a longstanding theme in climbing literature. Any form of representation in any medium obscures reality to a certain extent. Multiply those forms exponentially, and do you get something closer or farther from the truth?
"The digitised discourse is more complete," explains the Canadian climber Michael Down, "but it can also seem more inaccessible, with so much noise, so much chatter, reams of it, layers and layers." Now and then, a clear and brilliant voice, hitherto unheard, breaks through the din. In April 2014, Jemina Diki Sherpa's blog post, "Three Springs," a response to the deaths of sixteen Nepali expedition workers on Everest, helped tear away foreign fantasies associated with Sherpa climbers, revealing the realities of their lives to readers around the world. At times, writers working outside the fray can thus use digital media to shatter the myths of more dominant groups.
I belong to the last generation to have grown up with books and newspapers as my primary source of written tales. As such, I hugely enjoy the experience of uninterrupted, solitary reading. I still love print; and I love great stories. Against the natural interest in narrative, 'content' has become a somewhat sinister, slippery word in journalism today. It often comes to denote the uneasy but potentially profitable no-mans-land that now exists between real journalism and content marketing. The rise of AI language models only complicates this further, making it even easier to generate readable, bland content about anything, anywhere, extremely quickly. But what happens when content generation almost becomes the story itself, as is increasingly common in the new media landscape?
The account of the first free ascent of the Dawn Wall is now inextricably bound up with "the story of the story" of the route – the reporting by the mainstream press, the almost real-time retelling online. Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson's regular updates from the wall gave extraordinary momentum to the snowballing of the news. Caldwell's post on January 10, 2015, sums up the remarkable power of social media for the instant transmission of climbing history: "The last few days have been some of the most memorable climbing days of my life. Yesterday I finished the last two 5.13+ pitches.... I kind of lost it when I pulled onto Wino Tower, knowing that this seven-year dream is looking more and more like it could become a reality."
The Dawn Wall is a truly great climb: the hardest route on the most famous big wall in the world, a sidewinding dance up the steepest and smoothest part of El Cap. As many people said, the Dawn Wall coverage represented one of the rare occasions that mainstream media attention focused on a legitimately important climb, instead of on the latest 8000-metre peak disaster or made-for-media expedition. Corey Rich's dark, spooky shots of Caldwell and Jorgeson climbing some of the hardest pitches by headlight will be remembered as classics of twenty-first century climbing photography.
Yet my suspicion remains that the most meaningful ascents, in a purely human and private sense, are those that are not supported or validated by countless images, helmet-cam videos or professionally shot footage. Instead, they're the climbs that take us into the heart of nature, and ourselves. As a photographer myself, I'm acutely aware of the paradox. The majority of my best climbing experiences were those in which the distraction of a camera was not even present, allowing me to climb to the full in the presence of wild nature, uninterrupted by the burden of documenting what I was doing.
It is true, at least to some extent, that climbing in the digital age has become more meritocratic and democratic, since anyone can today create publicity around their ascents. Yet in the process, the value of the narrative and the importance of the subject can become secondary to its sheer proliferation. Climbs that are easily hyped up by ascensionists or sponsors sometimes gain a level of coverage disproportionate to their actual significance. Groundbreaking routes may be left almost completely unreported, such as Norwegian climber Sindra Saether's astonishing 2010 all-free ascent of The ArchWall on Trollveggen. Very few climbers have heard of this, because Saether doesn't like publicity, and the route was barely reported.
Increasingly, I enjoy the inner solitude that climbing offers me in a world in which digital technology is an almost constant interruptive force. In contrast to the incessant sound and fury of the digital age, climbing provides us with something utterly real and profoundly valuable: those moments of undistracted connection with the physical world that we each encounter during our best days on the rock and in the mountains. Now, as ever, our pursuit can remain as private or as public as we want it to be. You can climb the plumb line on a busy crag on a Sunday afternoon and update Instagram from the parking lot, or you can solo a secret route hours from the road and not tell a soul.
Perhaps because I once edited a climbing and mountaineering magazine, Climb, for many years, and I still spend a lot of time reading and listening to climbing stories, I get the strong impression that the more grassroots segment of the climbing community is increasingly interested in people who don't shout about what they do. Out there in cyberspace, there are tens of thousands of two-minute video-blogs of teenagers climbing hard boulder problems to a tech-house soundtrack. The thing is, most of these 'stories' aren't that interesting. But the tale of an unknown girl or guy who quietly solos a remote, interesting line miles from a road, leaving only fleeting trails of chalk or axe and crampon marks – now that's an interesting story. It has all the key elements that make for a great narrative: mystery, uncertainty, enigma. But then it probably won't get told, and maybe it's better that way. Does the telling of an experience dilute how true it is? Does it change what it means?
During a trip to South Africa in 2014, two friends and I climbed at Truitjieskraal in the Cederberg Wilderness Area on sandstone that gleams like the scales of a fossilized blood-orange dinosaur. The crags lie in the rock-strewn, wind-enchanted country between the mountain ranges of the Wolfberg and Tagelberg. Narrow dirt roads cross a landscape of red stone, dry grass and colossal skies. In the late afternoon, rising pillars of cloud built up over the Tafelberg like fire-blackened Doric columns, casting violet shadows over bunchgrass plains.
We didn't see anyone else there: the high Cederberg is a truly wild place. The second morning, fresh leopard tracks and droppings appeared in the sand. The big cat had surely passed this way overnight. That evening, as the light was falling, we came upon a shallow cave adorned with painted human and animal figures.Nobody knows exactly how old they are, but we do know they were made by the Khoisan, the indigenous inhabitants of this part of Africa, quite possibly long before the first white men ever set foot in the Cederberg.
An hour after sunset, a huge full moon rose over Rocklands to the east like an orb of fired glass, globular, opaque and pale-bright. It was one of those visions that, years later, you'll recall in a moment of idleness: a thousand sandstone towers washed in pallid, spectral light. A few strands of high cirrus black against the inky blue air. Orion was sloping off the Tafelberg. The Southern Cross burnt high and bright overhead, a tall rider on the infinite dark.
It grew cold quickly. After a while, my friends walked back down from the huge, flat-topped boulder where we'd been sitting. Just for a while longer, I sat and listened to the night. There was no sound at all except the whistle of the light wind in the dry grass. After a while, I heard what sounded like a footfall. It was very quiet, like the soft thud of a large pebble dropping in a sandpit. There was another, and then another. I slowly turned around.
Two wide, bright green eyes hovered in the long grass, perhaps thirty feet away, or maybe closer. The leopard was watching me. He'd been watching, I think, for a long time. No more than three seconds after I rose up from the boulder, I heard him dart away into the shadows. As soon as he vanished, an unfathomable emptiness filled the night air. The east wind rose slightly, rustling the dry grass, and a beautiful, elusive ghost floated across the moonlit Cederberg. It was time to leave.
On the plane home a week later, I looked through the photographs I'd taken in the Cederberg.There were some brilliant shots, as the place is incredibly photogenic, but none of them captured the essence of the experience. Similarly, Hermann Buhl's grainy photo of his ice axe, shoved into the snow somewhere on Nanga Parbat's trapezoidal summit rocks in August 1953, doesn't tell us much about the landscapes of his mind during that lonely summit push on the first ascent. It's very hard, and maybe almost impossible, to capture the visceral experience of climbing through photography and videography.
Similarly, if I'd tried to photograph the Earth's curvature along the Rub' al Khali from the top of Jebel Misht in 2005, I don't think it would enhance in any way the memory I have of that huge desert wall; the existence of such an image might in fact change the way I remember the climb itself. And perhaps if I went back and climbed another line on that wall today, taking two hundred pictures of the route on a digital camera as I climbed, I might not recollect much of it at all.
"Whenever we use a tool to exert greater control over the outside world, we change our relationship with that world," writes Nicholas Carr in The Shallows; we can lose of some of our original abilities of relating and thinking. In the same way that the traveller who takes an endless stream of selfies can't experience a place at the same level as one who doesn't, there's a possibility that the more photographs we take and videos we shoot of the climbs we do, the less we might remember of those routes.
If this is even partially true, it's important to keep some climbs for memory alone. Secretly and silently, without evidence or epithet, the coiled spring of those compressed hours on Jebel Misht almost two decades ago jump back at me from the past, as if they took place only yesterday. The route we climbed on that huge desert wall has been distilled into the high backcountry of memory; a unique, precious, and singular moment in my life.
The powerful experience of something entirely private, pure and free is one of the reasons I first chose to climb, and that I continue to do so. A sudden gust of wind catching a rope as I fling it from a desert tower; the first sight of an unclimbed wall shining bold and black above a fjord; an asteroid of light on the ice as I strike my axe; the raven circling overhead, somewhere on a massive wall. Moments lost in time that are part of who I am.
I love the athletic quality of climbing, sure. But this aspect alone is an insufficient explanation for why this pursuit is such a powerful presence in my life. Perhaps the real reason is that it is through something like climbing I might come closest to that immense, inexplicable force at the heart of nature; to the sea-green discs of a leopard's eyes burning back at me under a star-emblazoned sky.
This essay was first published in Alpinist in 2015 and later in the Korean version of Alpinist in 2022.
What do we learn from encounters with wild and hostile environments? The experience of physical risk, the relationship between uncertainty and choice, the deep psychology of exploration, and the moral value of adventure and fellowship are central themes of this fascinating and far-reaching book.
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