Mike stands back as I knot the end of the rope and hurl it into the void. It falls cleanly into space, the coils whipping over the edge until it snaps tight, the end hidden by a thick blanket of fog. It's Saturday morning but we're alone at the crag; even the twitchers have stayed at home today. A thick mist surrounds us, leaving little for the eye, the still silence pierced only by an occasional bleating from the lighthouse.
We've come to Gogarth on another marginal forecast, gripped by a thirst for adventure. Stood here now in the fog, nervous about the forthcoming endeavours, I silently wish that I'd stayed at home. We're here now though, and I push such thoughts to the back of my mind. It's easy to be weak in these situations, the greatest cause of failure generally being a lack of will. I have the will though, and if I want to climb this route, there's no room to seriously entertain such fantasies.
I clip the rope into my belay device, look up at Mike for a ﬁnal conﬁrmation that we're going to drop in, and descend. Abseiling into the steepness, memories come ﬂooding back; memories of sandy rock, loose rock, solid rock sometimes, too. No matter the quality, it's always overhung. For the uninitiated, the tilted staircase of the Yellow Walls world is a daunting place, but route by route the student of sand can learn to survive there. Each route has a character and a lesson of its own. The Sind teaches trust, Dogs of War teaches boldness, The Moon teaches faith, and the Cow teaches power. Climbing these routes has been my Yellow walls apprenticeship scheme, and today, come what may, is graduation day.
Mike joins me at the base and we shake off any doubt caused by the apparent dampness of the ﬁrst pitch. We can climb the ﬁrst two and escape up The Moon either way, so we might as well try. I get us to the ﬁrst belay quick, and it isn't long before Mike is moving up ﬂakes caked in mud, ﬂakes that might be easy on an easier day but we came here for a ﬁght and we sure as hell ain't giving up without one. As he makes careful progress I hang in the mist, alone truly and totally. My only sense of company comes from the slowly moving ropes, and the bleating which sounds at this moment less like a foghorn and more like a whale or seal or sea monster, or all three joined together in some gruesome chorus, calling me out and making me doubt the whole affair in an intensely visceral way. Soon though safety is announced and I can relax for a while as I climb safely through the mud, relax in the certainty that the top pitch will be wet, forcing an easy escape to the cafe and comfort.
It isn't though, of course, and with a clatter of mixed emotions I clamber out left to peer upwards into the mist. I move up for a look, and as though by some intelligent all seeing force of nature, predetermined to enhance the loneliness of our situation, the corner I enter cuts Mike off from view. I stand perched on the edge of a slab, the tilted staircase hanging above, nothing but swirling white below. Countless times I climb to the roof, my hands groping at the lip, searching for something that might hold my weight. The only edges I ﬁnd crumble beneath my ﬁngers. What am I doing here?
I could be at home, in the warm, safe. I could be anywhere. What I'd do to be anywhere but here.
Shush brain. Relax.
Down, rest, breathe, up, grope. Down, rest, breathe, up, grope. Repeatedly I brush sand from tiny crunching ﬂakes, unwilling to commit. The mist feels heavy, like an ocean on my shoulders, pulling me down to the swell below. Between groans from the lighthouse the South Stack gods cackle at my vanity. To my imagination they take the form of sirens dancing on the rocks below, laying a bed of kelp, a tomb of rotting seaweed. I can feel their taunting, both egging me on and heckling my every move. They tell me I'm weak, heavy, useless. I believe them. Descending to the slab for a ﬁnal time I ponder my situation. I don't bother looking for more gear, I've got it all and I'm willing to fall on none of it.
Alone in the fog I search the depths of my soul for a meaningful reason to continue, but the only voices I hear are screaming retreat. And there I see it, in that reﬂection of my life, there is my motivation. Within a few moments, doubt is transformed into purpose, and this time as my ﬁngers grope they latch onto something I can use. Blindly I pull, allowing an absolute minimum of weight to hang from the holds, and although the world is silent those moments spent passing the lip feel like some of my loudest, until at last I'm stood above with blood pumping and lighthouse bleating, holding back a tear for the top because although the worst is done the whole isn't over. But I know now for certain that I can do it and will, because frightened as I might be my purpose is self evident in this moment, jewel of all moments.
At long last my ﬁngers clasp heather at the top, and my throat lets out noises of relief rather than joy, the latter of which won't be felt for a few days, suddenly, in its deepest form; the mark of a truly meaningful experience. After all it isn't over for me, sat comfy at the top, for Mike falls victim to breaking holds not once, but four times at the crux. Each slip makes me retch with residual sickness. He claims to have made the holds bigger, but I'll never know, as I'll never be going back into that particular groove of fog and fear.
- Ben Silvestre