Boxing Day morning, the telephone, and Les did it probably the only way you can, every word a hammer blow in one short sentence.
‘Bob … Andy … dead … avalanche … Christmas Eve’
He went over the details while the words thumped into a sense of disbelief.
I didn’t know what I wanted to say or where I wanted to be. My trip to the Lakes with a lot of people I hardly knew lost its appeal. The fancy dress party on New Year’s Eve was the last thing I needed. Scratching around at home in that deep dip between Christmas and New Year, however, seemed equally daunting.
I drove to Buxton to be with old friends. In different houses we started the same conversations and were unable to finish them. Children, recently gorged on excitement and novelty, now took their place in the solemnity of the feast gone sour. In one house, friends busied themselves blasting heat against pans of beans and spaghetti hoops. In another we sat in the half light, the computer monitor ignored as it flashed out new attractions. It was where I wanted to be and there was nothing to be said.
I never really climbed that much with Bob or Andy although I knew them well. They did seem to be there stitched into my life, weaving in and out of the incidental and touching moments of significance and intensity.
I opened a diary – 1982 – picking around for memories:
January 21: Jenny and Bob came round to discuss World Disarmament Campaign petition. Haven’t been out since before Christmas on Macclesfield Road with Bob, who kept smiling even with snow down his neck and doors slammed in his face.
March 24: Plumbing bathroom with Derek this morning, scaulding water right down to our armpits. Abandoned at lunchtime to go to the Roaches with Andy and families. A good first day’s climbing, the rock still warm at teatime.
June 6: Have been telling people June 6th would be a day for the history books. Up and away by 6.30. Crowds at Stockport station, more at Kings Cross, then filling Oxford Street. A quarter of a million in Hyde Park and a great sense of solidarity, Jenny and Bob, on their way back from Skye, stayed last night in Cumbria and left at 3.45 this morning to be with us!
June 24: Climbing tonight for the first time in ages. Met Derek, Andy, Steve and Bob at Curbar after work. Weather cold and climbing badly. Drink in The Moon afterwards then very late fish and chips at the house with Bob.
October 3: A half marathon near Cannock, Derek and Andy called at 7.45. Beautiful clear sunny day. Felt good for first ten miles. Lunch with Andy’s parents and back to Buxton by late afternoon.
November 5: Steady rain all day but decided to go ahead with bonfire at Derek and Wendy’s. Andy built it and kept a superb blaze going. Everyone enjoyed it especially the kids. Then everyone quiet and pensive as it died down. Supper afterwards.
December 18: The CND Christmas vigil masterminded by Jenny and Terry. Went up to the market place this morning as various people were erecting scaffolding and tarpaulin. Jenny, Terry, Bob and Ben have been going around the town with sandwich boards advertising the procession.
December 19: Singing carols in the rain, drinking coffee with brandy, and unpacking the scaffolding will, like yesterday’s torchlight procession, stick in my mind for a long while.
I went to the Lakes insisting to myself that I would turn around and come back home the moment … the moment what? I didn’t know. They were climbers and would understand. They asked about the details and I knew very few of the answers. I wanted instead to talk about the sandwich boards and the posters Bob used to stick all around the town, high on hoardings and railway arches, in the middle of the night. I wanted to talk about Andy setting off on the first pitch of Gash Crag only a few weeks earlier and how, when he looked back down to us with water running all down the mountain and with rain in his face, he was grinning.
But the week progressed and I relaxed into it. We froze up on Pike’s Crag at nearly three thousand feet because Irwin assured us it would get the afternoon sun. We huddled, six of us, on the stance half way up Nape’s Needle, thick ice in the depressions that should have functioned as holds, with only a packet of extra strong mints between us. We took a day in the valley on Wallowbarrow Crag but found no respite there. And on the final day, we squared up to Overhanging Bastion.
I hardly knew the bloke I was climbing with and I hardly knew whether I wanted to climb anything challenging ever again. I did know that I was probably biting off more than I wanted to chew in my present state and at this time of the year.
Beneath the wall Nature was in retreat, damp with winter. Waterlogged tree trunks and branches gave way beneath us and our boots smeared fresh moss across the boulders. The north face of Castle Rock soared and leaned above us with all the confidence that I was lacking. Andy, Bob and I had shared this knowledge of our place in the scale of things.
I was unsteady on the climb but getting up it. Thankfully the ramp was his pitch and I sat perched on the spike and belayed him, leaning back over two hundred feet of air and vertical rock. We had also shared this welling sense of delight in our own audacity, tiptoeing up walls while giants slept.
The crux did not turn out to be the problem I had feared and I relaxed onto the ramp.
‘It’s easier than I was expecting’ I shouted.
‘You’re not there yet’ his voice came back. ‘There’s a sting in the tail’.
I crouched, bunched up at the top of the ramp, my head against the bulge that blocked the way. The only alternative was to step down from the ramp and stretch my foot a long way sideways, three hundred feet above nothing, and place it in a small nest of stones and gravel. I practised loading my weight against an uninspiring sideways pull, limbs at odds with each other being pulled through uncomfortable angles like a spindly music stand. Daring myself to move the centre through and beyond the boundary of retreat. Every bit of thought and memory, every hope and aspiration now disappearing into that extended step across, locked in and lost, focussed to the exclusion of all else. The seconds seemed to take over and set their own pace as tension and slack played against each other through my arms and legs, back and neck. Extreme care now to avoid the giant.
At last my left foot landing in the nest and all the release, endorphins in the brain stem spilling over into the whole body, cymbals crashing and the giant roaring and being so alive, pulling into the rock with arms stretched, and leaning out, and we had known and shared this saturation of delight when we could have roared like giants after all the delicacy of step and the holding of breath, but it’s not over and this is nowhere to rest, arms draining and hands having to pull on ‘rickety tusks’, and all the sensations of flight and euphoria to be slammed back under control.
Great stern sharp father words of rebuke inside the head put the body back into a tight discipline. I uttered a quiet obscenity and it caught on the cold air. And all the poise rushed back again for the next big move.
And as I stood with him on the top I realised that I had shared with Bob and Andy many times this switchback of experience, the sheer assertive sense of being, loose and raucous and able to fill a whole mountain landscape with its energy, and then in one flick of the senses change to a racing metabolism, speed frozen down into the frames of a field mouse, stretching the instantaneous into the accurate and precise.
Our arms and our grins hung with the weight of the climb as we shook hands on the top, two people who barely knew each other. The air was keen like sheet metal and we hurried to coil the ropes and get moving. The cold grey understatement of a late December afternoon was absorbing the shoulders of Helvellyn.
Bob and Andy were all around me on the hillside as the light went down on the last day of the decade.
And they’ll be coming home a little later than the rest of us.