The following is an extract from Paul Pritchard's The Mountain Path.
All things are ready, if our minds be so.
William Shakespeare, Henry V Act IV, Scene 3
You now prepare to climb.
You slip off your hiking shoes and socks. You squeeze each bare foot, in turn, into rock shoes that resemble ballet slippers. You lace them up slowly, making sure the laces threading through the second and fifth eyelets are slightly looser than the first and third, to gives your toes and your arch more freedom. You do not need them so very tight as you expect the climb to be well within your ability. You scrunch your toes three times to bed them in: neat as peas in a peapod.
You sit back against the rock face and reach for your harness. You squint up at the granite buttress that appears as a giant’s headboard to the bed of the valley. Then you slip each leg carefully through the loops, taking care not to tangle them and firmly buckle up the waist, feeding its tongue back on itself through the buckle for extra security. You click the plastic clasp of your chalk bag around your waist. The sound has a satisfying finality about it. I uncoil the rope, dropping loop after loop carefully on the mat. You look up, your face warmed by the mid-morning sun and read the rock face. A sacred text. The rock caught by oblique light like an upturned beach at sunrise. The tide is low and each ripple diffracts the light as a lens would. The barrelled buttress disappears on both the left and right. I pass you the end of a blue rope, your end, at the top of the pile, and it snakes through my fingers to yours. You look at me in silence and place the loose end on the mat. You won’t tie in just yet.
You choose the hardware for the pitch. You decide on each nut and cam by judging the size of the placements in cracks discernible from the ground. This requires a level of knowledge about the cliff or the mountain that not everyone is party to. You realise how fortunate you are. An intricate crack stops and starts and varies between the diameter of a pencil and the thickness of a paperback. You study the crack until it eventually reaches its vanishing point.
You are re-familiarising yourself with your environment and learning more of this cliff. You have been here a handful of times before and can appreciate the importance of developing a sense of place. Knowing the landscape to such a depth that you know precisely what size a crack is on a remote cliff down to a millimetre is a very specific situation to be in. It’s an important ritual you are undertaking here. The ritual of preparation.
You clip ten quick-draws to your gear loops with the karabiners’ gates all facing out, so you can easily retrieve them from your harness, even in moments of extremis. You choose a double set of wires and six small to medium cams. There is no wide crack on the first pitch so you can forget the big cams. You loop three slings bandolier style across your chest. You twist your end of the rope into an exact ‘8’ leaving plenty of tail to work with. You run the end up through your leg loops and then through your waist-belt and mindfully re-weave the ‘8’. You then squeeze the knot in your fist and pull the tail tight to complete the satisfying knar. Finally, you tie a single fisherman’s knot to tidy up the lengthy tail.
All is done with the solemnity of a religious devotee. This is as any other ritual: a sacrament, giving thanks before a meal, making your bed in the morning. Reciting a mantra or turning the prayer wheel. Om mani padme hum. All this is done to express the many dimensions of the human condition. Without even recognising it, for it is approaching the unfathomable, we are expressing an urgent need for purification from all this hatred and aggression. Our souls are crying out for a release from a possessiveness we cannot seem to shake off. We are desperate to rid ourselves of all-devouring prejudice.
Equally, this ritual is performed, and in all probability unbeknownst to each of us, as an aid in the realisation of the twin virtues of tolerance and generosity. And to assist us in gathering up those other strange bedfellows: perseverance and patience. In other words, to help us maintain the course of our moral compasses. To slowly acquire, by degree, wisdom. To achieve a state of grace. Though we are wholly unaware of all this, and simply think we are doing what we have always done below a cliff.
However, there are two kinds of ritual behaviours. The above are canon rituals: the canon of rock climbing. These include checking the weather forecast, avalanche conditions, inspecting your knot, glancing at your second’s belay device, touching your helmet, boots and harness, to see all are snug.
All these are undertaken in the interest of safety, to lessen the risk of injury or death. Dirty boots will result in a slip of the foot and a plummet, choosing the wrong size protection will lead to long run-outs and similarly dangerous outcomes. Just like the bottle placing and touching routine of Rafael Nadal before a serve, these rituals, however curious they may be, are success driven. Nadal describes it as a way of ordering his surroundings, ‘to match the order I seek in my head.’ It is of ultimate importance in a game such as rock climbing to be thoroughly present; to be calm and place yourself in the zone of non-judgmental awareness required to succeed. To stay alive.
The other form of ritual is more difficult to get to unpack. This kind has meaning beyond its appearance. Before climbing in the Himalaya mountaineers often hold a puja, a prayer ceremony where climbers place flowers, fruit and incense at the foot of the mountain or in a shrine. In Gangotri before attempting Meru Shark’s Fin, Johnny Dawes, Philip Lloyd and I washed the lingam stone (a representation of Lord Shiva’s penis) and garlanded it with orange flowers. In the Nepal village of Gokyo we invoked the mountain gods to ask forgiveness for any damage we might do to the mountain, and to ask for the safety of the climbers.
Many mountaineers pray to all sorts of gods to keep them safe before they climb, but, as we have seen, rituals of the mountains do not have to be religious in nature. More examples of the non-religious type may be Eric Shipton smoking a pipe before he set off on his mountains. Or the legendary Polish mountaineer Wanda Rutkiewicz who, before each expedition, would receive a blessing from her mother in the form of a crucifix drawn on her forehead with her finger.
To mark out our intention is an important aspect of personal rituals. This prompts us to do our best, dispelling anxieties and subduing fears; to take back control by diminishing negative feelings and overcoming our tendency to procrastinate.
Ritual also moves us. We bracket important life events: marriages, deaths and births. We mark crucial transitions, like coming of age. Through ritual we can express ourselves in the joy of a life, and the sorrow of a death. But, most importantly, through our seemingly arcane rituals we fashion and perpetuate ourselves – our self. Our identity.
Humanity’s forgotten ancestors created sacred rituals to firm the bonds of kinship that were essential to stay alive in a perilous world. Now, these bonds also signify allegiance to a particular group. Just as the Eucharist, the partaking of the body and the blood of Christ, signifies a profound connection to God, this ritual also signifies a connection to all Christians. In a similar way, having a craic with your mates at the base of the cliff or, of course, the pub ritual at the end of a day’s climbing is not just about social cohesion but a vital connection to nature, to reality, to truth. To The Mountain.
Personal rituals can underline one’s point, a pinprick of light among the great constellations of the universe. Engaging in these rituals means we are actively participating in our own lives. This return of personal responsibility allows us to be our best when we need to stay present in a harsh environment. When we need to act under pressure. Through this we create a sense of equilibrium in our lives. The ritual you follow at the base of the cliff proves you are responsible for how you live. You get to choose who you share your experience with on this grand voyage. You get to define yourself on this rocky promontory you inhabit.
There can be a touch of superstition in all this, but it works so why not? Just as Dumbo cannot fly without his white feather, and Jimmy Grimble cannot play football without his magic boots, many climbers cannot soar without a ritual talisman. Big wall climber John Middendorf carried a Baja shark tooth as his lucky charm, all the way up The Grand Voyage on Great Trango Tower, a gigantic and difficult climb in Pakistan’s Karakoram. Kevin Jorgeson wore a t-shirt designed by his dead friend every day on the famed Dawn Wall of El Capitan. And Lydia Bradey, the first woman to reach the summit of Mount Everest without supplementary oxygen, always takes a piece of turquoise to her summits.
When Celia Bull and I climbed the first ascent of The Cornwall on the North Tower of Paine, in Patagonia, I had to leave my trusty MOAC nut on one of the rappel stations. This piece of protection was the first I’d bought at age sixteen, so it was a sad moment. I remember watching it disappear into swirling cloud as I descended the ropes. I had always carried it on my harness, never felt safe on a climb without it, and now it was gone. I bought another but it wasn’t the same. But that original MOAC had served its purpose and kept me safe.
At the foot of the climb you position a beer towel and stand on it. You bend down and put your fingers in the snow to wet them. You feel its refreshing coldness. You stand on one leg as if saluting the sun and rub the black sole of one rock slipper. You rub it vigorously, generating heat that evaporates any moisture. The hue of the sole changes from a dirty grey to a satisfying deep black. The other one now. Charcoal-black crumbs of rubber fall to the snow as you listen for the tell-tale squeak of a perfectly clean sole, which, like your very own starting gun, means you can begin.
You stand erect. Reaching out with your left hand you touch the rock. This allows you to reacquaint yourself with its grainy texture; close up it has wavelets in the surface that remind you of the growth rings of a great tree. The rock is cold to the touch. Still, you have the feeling that you are about to climb onto the back of a great living beast.
You gently close your eyes. You reach around behind and whiten your hands with magnesium carbonate from the bag. You take a single deep breath, inhale and exhale, and open them again. You rub your hands together to make sure they have an even coating of the chalk.
You are balanced on the liminal point, the threshold between not simply the horizontal and the vertical but between earth and heaven, outer and inner, between thought and reality, between mere exercise and transcendence, the frontier of life and death. You stand amazed, about to climb, poised between the ordinary and the extraordinary.
You give me a nod.
‘I’ve got you,’ I say.
About the Author
Paul was a cutting-edge rock climber and mountaineer hailing from the UK. His adventures took him from Wales to the Himalayas, the Karakoram to Patagonia, Baffin Island to the Pamirs and the European Alps.
When he won the Boardman/Tasker Award for mountain literature in 1997, with his book Deep Play, he spent the prize money on a world climbing tour that found him in Tasmania climbing a slender sea stack known as The Totem Pole. It was here that all he had known before was turned on its head.
On Friday the 13th of February 1998 a TV-sized boulder falling from 25 meters inflicted such terrible head injuries that doctors thought he might never walk or even speak again.
Being in hospital for a year gave Paul the impetus to write his second book: The Totem Pole in 2000. This narrative about his personal journey through hemiplegia also won the Boardman/Tasker prize and the Banff Mountain Book Festival Grand Prize and was translated into four languages. Nominated for the Banff Prize, The Longest Climb followed in 2005. Find out more on Pauls' website, www.paulpritchard.com.au.