The Fall - an excerpt

Chapter One

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, appears unclimbable.
‘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 see.
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 is forever.
‘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 girl, asked.
‘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.

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Simon Mawer 2008 - 2015. This website is written and maintained by the author.