This weekend we must go West,' said Roger 'We need to find the subtle knife while this weather lasts.'
'I wish I knew why,' said Lora. 'Lord Asriel said nothing of what we should do with it when we find it. He just disappeared on his expedition to the for North. 'It's in the wet West," was all he said.
They were sitting under the digital weather screen at Jordan Climbing College on a Thursday evening where the senior scholars met each week to plan their research trips to what used to called 'the cold North', or 'the wet West' in the days when little was known of the potential effects of the esoteric boulders below the Edges. In BCC these brief and regular journeys into altered states of body and mind used to be dismissed as 'leisure'. But After Climate Change climbing had become recognised as 'experimental theology'. In ACC climbing research had become so urgent a need for the human species that the New United Nations had set up research centres throughout the world like Jordan College in Sheffield. All scientists in all fields were now climbers trying to discover a way to see what was happening to the earth and its atmosphere The profound disturbance in the earth's magnetic field clearly required adjustments in the human state of mind for the human species to be able to survive in ACC. But the climbing experiments of the scientists were slow in producing major breakthroughs. Personal competition in the peer review process kept distorting their results.
Lora's uncle, Lord Asriel, was at the cutting edge of this research and visited Jordan College from time to time to make his enigmatic presentations to the scholars there from his expeditions to the mountains of the Arctic circle. The younger ones, who were working on the boulders, tended to dismiss his evidence with derisive parodies: 'Listening to the mountain!' 'Feeling the mountain was ready for me and I for her'... 'Seeing sudden brightness in flowers when walking down"
Lora and Roger, regarded as merely the teenage children of servants at the college, were tolerated and largely ignored But Lord Asriel seemed to recognise their alertness. Nothing was said, but he seemed to know that they had learned something on Dandle Buttress last weekend. Before he left for the North he passed Lora in a corridor of the college
'It might help if you could find the subtle knife It's in the wet West,' he said, and was gone through the doorway with a turn of his backbag and his agile plastic boots.
So it was that on another unseasonally warm Saturday March morning Lora and Roger were sitting in the sun discussing the climb of the day over cups of powerjiuce.
'In the old wet West,' mused Lora. 'Do you remember the old story of the sword that rose from the lake? 'Did you notice in the archives back there the way climbers wrote in BCC about the Atlantic Slabs' They often wrote things like "Good value' or "Great solo" in shaky inkwriting. I think in those days such words hinted at altered states'
She nodded back towards the doorway of The Helyg Museum Hut. They were sitting on the transparent wrapping of the historic Trevor Jones Memorial Bench, a curious artefact, preserved for visitors to try for comfort in this interactive museum site
'I wonder if we might just find our subtle knife rising out of the waves up there.' Roger consulted his palmbook for the twentieth century names and pale pictures obscured by white lines
'Well, there's rather a lot of water up there" he joked.
After the mysterious words 'F-stop Fitzgerald' he found in larger letters the words 'Carnedd y Filiast (Cairn of the Greyhound Bitch) OS Ref. 623 627'
'There are nine lines on the old photogram and none of them has the name that they all mentioned in the archive's 'logbook' - Left Edge. Ah, and here's the name further on, with two little stars beside it. '600 feet. Very Difficult. 1921," it says here
'Well, I think that's where should start searching,' said Lora. 'Perhaps we'll even find out why it's subtle and what it's for.'
Dominic Appleby on the magnificent 1000' scramble..The Ridge
The lark was on a rising song of delight as they stepped up the steep turf left of an ancient wall. The lark was tara's daemon. In children they are not yet fixed. Lora's daemon liked to take the form of a lark in a place like this, on a morning like this. Roger's took the form of a ring ouzel, excited to be newly returned to this habitat at this time of year. Last weekend Lord Asriel's raven on Dandle Buttress had taught them to be more attentive to the daemons of place that might also be the daemons of people. Now they gave a new attention to the ferns, mosses and heathers that they trod among under the already searing sun.
Pausing to wipe away sweat from their eyes, they turned to look down on the river running through its water meadows, bounded by two roads on either side of the valley Under them was the original road up the Nant Francon, still maintained by the National Park Church, and on the opposite side was the new highway for approved solar cars.
Across the meadows a solar tractor was spreading, with its wide arms, the latest generation of fertilizer. This, Lora knew from what she'd overheard, was why Lord Asriel thought that the results of experimental theology were so urgently needed
After an hour's walking, smelling, listening and meditating, all slightly removed from their forms in the valley, Lora and Roger paused by the ancient stone wall under the lower part of waves of slabs that fell from the mountain in long ripples of overlaps. They were mostly grey, but had sections of orange and white and black To the right, the slabs merged into the heather of the hillside But just before they did, a last edge that dropped away to its left with a narrow and then a wider rippled slab, caught their eyes
'It's the left edge of the last scrap of slab" cried Lora 'That's it! The gleaming subtle knife"
'Let's go up and take a look,' said Roger, not entirely convinced
At the very foot of the arete was a flat belvedere in the slightly worn turf where others had sat and engaged their harnesses. From here, looking up, was a brilliant blade of hard white quartz.
'Do you remember,' Roger suddenly said, 'in the archive, that old hairy hero, Rab Carrington, is recorded as saying, 'Left Edge'. I think Martin and I soloed it in winter. We thought it was ice.' From below, in the winters of those days, it must have challenged even the limited perceptions of those 'leisure' climbers.'
As plastic boots, the lite lunch and the poles were packed in the backbags each would carry, Roger spotted another pair of people breasting the rim of their high cwm. Were these scientists who were also seeking knowledge of the subtle knife? Did they already know what it could do and how to use it?
He turned his back on them and grasped the edges of the quartz teeth on the blade's long upward sweep
At first it struck him as quite unsubtle- Chunky and easy angled, it invited a rushed approach. But as he rose, the space grew beyond his left hand and foot, always placed on the sharp edge of the blade. At the full length of his rope he belayed, resting his back on the blade. Its elegant purity was what was utterly mesmerising. He looked out from a place he'd never let into his head before and it produced a mood he'd not quite had before. There was no rush. This was a place to absorb, to be attentive, to learn from.
Smiling, Lara led through, already showing signs of beginning to be changed herself. Only twice did they step into a crack on the right, when the edge offered no holds. But quickly they were drawn back to the blade edge and its effect.
At the second belay they paused to take in the even undulations of the Wave Slab below that seemed vast and beyond them. It really was a tilted sea of stone, rippling from sky to earth
From the third belay, shoes off, sitting in a big bucket of rock, Roger couldn't stop talking to Lora, as she approached, about the qualities of the knife. She too, kept resting to savour the next moves up the blade
When, finally they sat down together they realised that the heather had, for some time, been encroaching from the right and was now within reach. True, the knife appeared to make another final thrust skywards. But to reach it meant stepping through heather.
'Look,' pointed Lora. 'All the time we've been concentrating on the knife edge on this last pitch, the heather has been only a metre away to the right.'
They had discovered the subtlety of the knife that had kept their minds so focussed on its edge that now they sat here smiling, calm, definitely in a theological state they'd not visited before. They knew that, somehow, they cared about this place, although quite how to do so they'd not begun to think. If put to the test, they would defend it even if it meant never encroaching upon it again. The knife had cut for them a window into another world that was also in the same world.
They had passed through a doorway Now everything had its aura clearly visible. 'Look. Dust,' whispered Lora, pointing to stones, heather, the far horizon and the blade itself.
The ring ouzel below them appeared to have found a mate. The skylark seemed to sing a little louder, although actually its singing was unchanged.
John Appleby on The Subtle Knife of Carnedd y Filiast..Left Edge.
First published in the Climbers Club Journal. Thanks to Terry for permission to republish this article and the CC for their cooperation.
A potted biography of the author can be found in the October archives 'Ronnie's last long climb'