The Real Fall
events that inspired one aspect of the novel...
I fell. Literally, not metaphorically. Probably, like everyone else, I have also fallen metaphorically – mankind is the product of the Fall, after all; but this was a real fall. It was a blustery day of January, a quarter of a century ago and I had just completed the difficult section of an ice climb on the North-East Face of Ben Nevis, in Scotland. After a struggle with an iced-up chimney, it now looked as though the worst was over. Above there were just steep slopes of snow-ice, rising up to where clouds hid the summit plateau. I teetered on the points of ice axes and crampons, and turned to look down onto the top of my partner’s helmet some seventy feet below. I opened my mouth to call out. “We’ve cracked it, Les!” That’s what I was going to say.
Hubris. As I turned to call to him, the avalanche began. At first it was a mere rivulet of ice crystals hushing down the snow field and sweeping round me. We’d be climbing through this kind of thing all morning and I clung on, waiting for it to pass. But then the whole world went dark, and looking up I saw a great cloud of snow coming down on me. I remember praying. I think I actually prayed to the avalanche itself. Please don’t knock me off, I pleaded. But the avalanche didn’t listen. First it plucked one ice axe out of the ice, and then the other; then it flung me backwards.
Like Lucifer, I fell. I remember the vivid sense of release. All fear was gone. I went back over the ice chimney, down a short snow slope that we had climbed, and finally back over the main ice fall below. And then I stopped. Quite suddenly, I was hanging upside down on the rope, one hundred and fifty feet below my partner. In the space of a few seconds triumph had become disaster. Lucifer had become the Hanging Man.
If a book can be said to have a starting point, then I suppose that incident was the beginning of The Fall. Much was to happen and many years were to pass before writing started. I abandoned climbing (the most direct result of the avalanche), I escaped Britain for the Mediterranean, where powder snow is unknown; I got married. In Italy I began to do seriously what I had always done before in a fragmentary fashion: I began to write. My themes were fate and faith, memory and recall, the past and its often malign influence on the present. I wrote of Italy and Malta and Israel/Palestine. I wrote of the tyranny of genetics and the freedom of the self, and at the back of my mind was always the possibility, probability even, that I would one day write about climbing. So it was that, some time in the first year of the new millennium, I took the road to North Wales, where my family had come from and where Robert Dewar and Jamie Matthewson had started out on their own lives. And The Fall began…