The Fall - an excerpt
The weather was good for the Snowdon area. The rain had held off
all day and there was enough of a breeze to keep the rock dry. Damp
cannot have been a contributory factor. There was even the occasional
shaft of sunlight cutting down through the varied cloud and brightening
up the cwm, but no direct sunlight on the fluted walls and boiler
plate slabs of the crag itself. This is a north face.
Someone shouted: ‘Hey, look!’ It was one of the group
of walkers. Climbers would not have made a noise about it. Someone
shouted and stood up and pointed towards the East Buttress. ‘Hey,
look at him!’
There was a lone figure climbing. He was about twenty feet off the
ground. The man who shouted had been watching for a little while but
at first it had not been clear that the figure was truly alone until
he, the climber, had reached twenty feet up the great, blank central
wall of the East Buttress. The wall is a smooth, slightly curving
sheet of rhyolite, a beaten metallic shield that, to inexpert eyes,
‘Look at ’im. Bloody idiot or what?’
‘Isn’t he doing Great Wall?’
‘No ropes, nothing. He’s bloody soloing.’
The solo climber on the Great Wall moved quite smoothly up the shallow
groove that gives the line of the route. He bridged easily, his feet
braced outwards to make an arrowhead of his body. You could see his
hands going up on the rock above him, imagine his fingers touching
the rock and finding the flakes and nicks that are what pass for holds
on that kind of route. Mere unevenness. What the climbers of the past
would have called rugosities. They all seemed to have the benefit
of a classical education. Not the present breed. ‘Thin,’
the modern climber might say. Not much else.
‘He seems to know what he’s doing,’ the walker called
to his companions.
‘He’s not wearing a helmet,’ one of the others remarked.
The walkers were all watching now, some of them standing, others sitting
on rocks (the grass was still damp) with their heads craned back to
The climber moved up. There was a cat-like grace about his movements,
a certain slickness, a feeling that, perched as he was above nothing
at all and holding nothing at all, he was yet secure in what he did.
He was now fly-like, plastered across the centre of the grey blankness,
laying away on a rib that he had discovered, reaching up for a further
hold, bridging wide and stretching up with his right arm. He was actually
feeling for a piton that had been there for the last thirty-five years,
one of those bits of climbing archaeology that you find in the mountains:
a peg, placed there from an abseil one wet and windy day in the spring
of 1962. The peg is oxidised, but smoothed by the numerous (not too
numerous) hands that have grabbed it thankfully over the years. It
will be there for many years yet, but not forever. Not even the cliff
‘Look!’ A gasp from the watchers, a movement up on the
cliff face as the lone climber made a smooth succession of moves and
reached the peg and made height above it.
‘What happens if he slips?’ one of the walkers, a young
‘He’s dead.’ A man’s voice. It brought a hush
to the party. They had been watching the thing as entertainment; abruptly
it had been presented to them as a matter of life and death.
‘Who is he?’ another of the party asked. There was a clear
sense that this unknown, lone climber, this figure of flesh and bone
and blood and brain, must be someone.
‘A bloody idiot.’
After a pause – resting? Was it possible to be resting on that
vertical and hostile face? – the man had begun to move once
more. The remainder of the wall soared up above him to where safety
was represented by thin diagonal terrace. There was a hint of grass
up there, a faint green moustache to break the monotony of grey. It
was still far above him, but it seemed to represent safety. His body
swayed and moved up, his feet touching rock with something of the
assurance of a dancer, something of the habitual skill, the poise.
You could see that he had blond hair. Small and lithe. Not much else
about him. An anonymous performer on a Welsh crag, sometime after
noon on a dry and blustery day. Who was he?
And then he fell.
There was some argument later whether it was he who shouted. Someone
shouted certainly. It may have been one of the walking party; it may
have been one of the pair on White Slab, looking across from the first
stance right out in space way over to the right on the other buttress.
There were no specific words – just a cry of surprise.
He fell and there was something leaden and inevitable about the fall.
After the grace and agility of the ascent, the dull fact of gravity
and weight. A sudden sharp acceleration. Thirty-two feet per second
per second. About two seconds. And then he hit the broken slope at
the foot of the wall and stopped.
People got to their feet and ran, scrambled, slithered up the slopes.
The pair on White Slab began to fix an abseil rope. One of the girls
in the walking party had begun to weep. Despite the hurry no one really
wanted to get there. Of course they didn’t. But when they did,
quite absurdly they found that he was still alive, unconscious but
alive. And they were surprised to discover that he wasn’t some
reckless youth, the kind that has no respect for the traditions of
the place, the kind that doesn’t care a bugger about doing anything
so bloody stupid as soloing a route as hard as the Great Wall –
he was middle-aged. Lean, tough, weather-beaten complexion (bruised
horrendously, his jaw displaced raggedly to one side), middle-aged.
Bleeding from his mouth and one ear. His limbs were arranged anyhow,
like those of a rag-doll tossed casually out of a window to land on
the grass below.
Someone crouched over him and felt for a pulse in his broken neck.
One of the walkers was on his mobile phone calling the police. Others
just stood by helplessly. The pulse was there for a moment beneath
the middle finger of the would-be rescuer, and then it faded away.
He died as they stood and watched.