Climbing Through Life: Trails, Trials and Tribulations

When I submitted a proposal to the Nottingham Festival of Words last summer, I had wanted to present a selection of pieces from my anthology ‘While Giants Sleep’ but in a different format from its previous excursions. At the Wirksworth Festival last September and at other outings, I had acknowledged the ragged and diverse nature of the collection and read a sample that reflected the range of styles and subject matter. 

Here’s the gist of my Nottingham presentation with the rather ponderous title above which I tried to organise around a set of questions:    
·        Is there a link between demanding physical activities like climbing and walking and the process of writing?

·        Do both of these help us develop a sense of well-being and do we use metaphors drawn from climbing more frequently than we recognise to help us get through life’s difficulties?

·        Finally, is ‘wilderness’ more of a psychological concept than a geographical one?
I had also wanted to refer to other writing to help illustrate why I thought these were interesting questions to ask and to point towards some possible answers.

So, my hour’s talk ended up looking something like this: 

·        A new piece of writing, not included in ‘Giants’, about my first ever rock climbing experiences back in 1965 as part of a church youth club in my home town of Weymouth. In this piece, ‘One Step Beyond’, I tried to convey the ‘hook’ that climbing buried in me, the sense of the wider world it opened and the escape it offered from a seemingly pre-ordained and rather dull path through life.

·        I then read some extracts from Lakoff and Johnson’s 1980 book ‘Metaphors We Live By’ and focused particularly on the extent to which, in our culture, the ‘orientational metaphor’ of Up – Down is so deeply associated with health, control, wealth, virtue and happiness (Up) as opposed to sickness, death, lack of control, poverty, depravity and sadness (Down). If we accept this pervasive metaphor, then it isn’t hard to see why the act of climbing up can acquire such a range of positive associations.

·        Next I read my poem ‘Northumberland, August 1996’ and turned to a discussion of the concept of ‘wilderness’. The four day walk that inspired the poem had felt delightfully remote despite passing through and spending the night in little villages. When I revisited by car a few years later, I was really surprised by the fact that there was a road running all along the far side of the sand dunes and that I had been little more than a quarter of a mile from this for most of my walk. In one sense, I had always known this from the map but the act of walking, the tiring and glorious process of keeping going, had allowed me to experience a strong and satisfying sense of wilderness nevertheless.

·        I referred at this stage to Robert McFarlane’s book ‘The Wild Places’ and particularly the passage in which he describes swimming off Chesil Beach out into West Bay. It is a place I know well (the beach not the actual watery wastes of the bay) and I found it really interesting to think of this as a form of wilderness. It wasn’t that far from busy caravan parks as the crow or the albatross flies, but it was stunningly inaccessible and any visit such as McFarlane’s depended on courage and considerable physical exertion.

·        This discussion was followed by my prose poem ‘Whistling Down To Jomson’, an account of walking through the wild lands of the Khali Gadanka valley on the circuit of the Annapurna massif in Nepal.

·        Then we briefly explored the concepts of wellbeing and resilience, the latter being defined as the ability to cope well in the face of adversity and the maintenance a positive sense of self.

·        Next, I read a section from my piece ‘Men and Women and the Rock’ which attempts to demonstrate the resilience-building effects that rock climbing can have. In this particular section, I described an ascent of the Bastille Crack in Eldorado Canyon, Colorado at the time of a relationship break up in mid-life.

·        The final injection of ‘theory’ was taken from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi‘s 1990 book ‘Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience’. ‘… The mystique of rock climbing is climbing: you get to the top of the rock glad it’s over but really wish it could go on forever. The justification of climbing is climbing, like the justification of poetry is writing; you don’t conquer anything except things in yourself…’ (I had been worried that I wouldn’t be able to pronounce the author’s name correctly but, no worries, a fluent Hungarian speaker popped up completely unexpectedly from the audience, as they do, and put me right).   

·        My final selection was ‘A Taste of Life’, a piece written after the deaths of two friends in a mountaineering accident in 1989. In the context of this tragedy, I was attempting to illustrate an aspect of climbing that motivates enthusiasts, that of the pure concentration developed and refined to an almost ecstatic degree during the ‘hard move’ on a climb – pure Flow.

It was a busy hour but there was still some time for audience participation and it was during an early discussion that somebody pointed out that, although the ‘Down’ pole of the ‘Up – Down’ metaphor had such frequently negative connotations in our culture (e.g. falling from grace, falling into depression, economic decline, etc. etc.) we do also nonetheless treasure greatly our human capacity to fall in love!               

2 thoughts on “Climbing Through Life: Trails, Trials and Tribulations

  1. Great post Andy.
    I was really disappointed to have been working on that day. Your talk sounds fascinating.

    It’s funny you equate stages in life to climbing because when I find something especially difficult, I say ‘it’s like climbing the Eiger, barefoot!’ I also agree that falling in love sounds so much better than climbing in love!!

    See you soon, Ange

  2. Thanks Ange. Onwards and upwards!

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