The Crux

Photo courtesy of PhotoPost

Photo courtesy of PhotoPost

The crux of a rock-climb is the most difficult move or sequence of moves that a climber will have to make in order to complete the route; it is also the true name of a Constellation that shines at -60o and is commonly known as the Southern Cross

As she awoke she heard the sound of the ocean, and then felt the tepid water that filled her boots and the rough sand against her knees and elbows. Lacing sandy fingers across her face she carefully opened her eyes to brilliant sunshine. The first thing was that she was on a beach of incredibly white sand, turquoise water lapping at her legs and a warm breeze lifting the long sun-bleached hair from her face. The second thing was that the pain had gone.

Now she sat up, pulled her legs from the tiny waves, and looked around. The beach was small and empty. There was nothing, no drift-wood, no rocks and no trees; nothing but sand, a tooth achingly blue sea and a huge cliff. The beach was hemmed in at either end by the biggest wall of rock that she’d ever seen, a huge golden rush of granite, racing skywards until it dropped out of sight. And as her eyes dropped back to the sand she saw her feet and a big old grin whispered across her face; the Velcro was tattered and filled with sand, the sticky rubber edges were worn a little round, but climbing shoes are climbing shoes and she’d need them on the cliff.

Now she lifted her head and gazed at the wall, it was huge and it was complex, she saw massive arches above towering buttresses, cracklines that snaked into huge golden slabs and curtains of overlaps. The centrepiece of the wall, an immaculate pillar that dropped directly to the sand was a delicate thing, massive and elegant and tempting. As her eyes followed the line of the pillar toward the sand she saw it, and she bent and peered at it and grinned still harder. Sunken into the granite as it swooped in to the sand, tiny and almost invisible, was a golden arrow. And it was pointing up.

A shadow flowed across the sand and with a raucous cry the bird landed. It didn’t cross her mind to question where the bird came from, or why the bird came at all. It was simply there, like the beach and the big wall and the faintest sound of music that was almost delicate enough to smell. It simply was. It was a gull, a big gull, white as the sand and looking at her with a big grin across its face; and hanging from it’s beak by a piece of sun-bleached climbing cord was a bag, a torn bag covered in fiery red chillies, torn and faded and almost broken. But every climber knows that a chalk bag is a chalk bag is a chalk bag, she’d need it on the wall to dry the sweat from her fingers.

The bird walked toward her, big orange feet flattened on the sand, still smiling. She took the bag from its beak and passed the cord around her waist, turning to face the wall again as she did so. The gull dropped her a wink and then with a single flap of its huge wings it floated away on the warm wind. Now she bent and tightened her boots, dipped her hands into the chalk bag and absently blew her fingers to remove the excess. Then she laid her hands against the granite, it was warm and rough, and the touch of it stirred a memory in her which she couldn’t quite catch, for it was lighter than the wind and quicker then her. And she raised a foot and began to climb.

Photo courtesy of PhotoPost

Photo courtesy of PhotoPost

The pillar was steep as the wall of a cathedral but covered in tiny hand holds that took her fingers to the first knuckle and were sharp enough to cling like cats claws to the rubber of her climbing shoes. She climbed fast, as she always had, and soon gained height, the beach dropping quickly away as she climbed on and on. Later, she didn’t know how long or how far he’d climbed, she paused and looked around. The beach was small now, a tiny white crescent, like a waxing spring moon, she’d climbed much higher than she’d thought, but felt no fear or fatigue. She was in the centre of the vast cathedral, with huge towering walls of air and a ceiling made from the sky. There was nothing to fear here, just the exhilaration of freedom and movement and of moving upwards toward the crux, where she would need to master the hardest moves of the route. To the crux, toward which the entire universe points, where all the lines converge into a single point, where the stars are born.

And as she climbed higher, the granite became blinding white limestone with tiny fossils like windows into the past; and then harsh rough sandstone with crocodile edged cracks and pebbles from another world; and then frozen lava and molten sand and Scottish gabbro rough as a dinosaurs back and then greenstone, shiny as jet, older than time itself. Her hands wedged into perfect cracks; she muscled through black overhangs and floated up holdless walls on tiny slivers made of air. And the beach was lost now; there was nothing below her, just the great walls of air and the ceiling of sky and the ground made of water and the stars, silver in the blackness that had fallen around as she climbed.

The wind moved though her now, for she was as insubstantial as the cathedral and as ephemeral as the crux that was coming. She felt it, above her and in her, the point where all the lines converge, where time and air and light and water and the stars come together, at the crux. And the holds were smaller now, no more than tender fingertips but solid and sharp and her boots would hold a little longer, just a little longer. And now she saw it, the point where the holds ran into the very centre of the wall, smaller and smaller and fading to nothing. This was it then, it’d been waiting a while. And the wall was smiling at her and in her, she’d come home at last, they’d be waiting there.

A moments hesitation, then she smiled and moved across the rock, it was the English Lake District volcanic, her favourite. And, grinning again, she balanced onto that final wall; dancing on crystals as delicate as eggshells.

Epilogue The room was dark, black rain sprayed across the windows and the man sitting beside the bed sighed as her hand twitched in his. Hanging alongside the bottles and wires on the frame was a pair of battered tan rock-boots and an almost but not quite broken chalk-bag, covered in red-chillies. And as the green line on the monitor stuttered and flattened, her fingers squeezed his hand, and then the constant beep stopped and an alarm began to shrill. His hand stroked her skin and he looked into her face, she was grinning, that big old grin of hers and he smiled. The pain was gone.

Stephen Quinn - steverockgod at hotmail dot com