Ashes. Now there are only ashes. Scattered on the wind. Falling far and free.
Who was he? When I first met him, he was struggling to stand in a sling on the bolt of Darius. He’d never made an aid move before. What a place to begin! His face, normally pale and thin, was red and beefy with effort. There was far more slack in the rope than I’d have liked. He seemed indifferent.
We met again soon afterwards on the wall in Endcliffe Park. His gentle ribbing of my own risqué tactics at High Tor showed an unexpected sensitivity in one so young. He had a slight, almost girlish frame. His face was ingenuous to the point of pity.
He came sailing along the low-level traverse, only to skid wildly off the crux. Muddy boots he explained, abashed, then confided he’d soloed Great Slab earlier that afternoon. “Hope your boots weren’t muddy then,” I jested, inwardly appalled.
After that, he was everywhere. For a time, he seemed inseparable from Jerry. And yet he never struck me as sorcerer’s apprentice, Jerry’s clone. They were both fuelled with energy, eager to get out on the rock and make it happen. Shared dreams; different realities.
Other times he would be out on his own, soloing. Rumour had it that, come ten to eight each morning, he’d be at the bus stop at Hunter’s Bar, punctual as any commuter, never mind the weather. He’d be out in the Peak all day every day. Dedication he had. Naturally, inevitably, 5b became 6b.
I always thought him an odd, quixotic figure. Even in an impoverished existence, respectability clung to him like rags. This was no child of the streets. Somewhere there was a loving family, the warmth of acceptance. And, somewhere else, rebellion, a necessary battle for identity. We all struggle with our demons. Perhaps his struggle was harder than most.
So many come into climbing, young and foolish, to pay dearly for their maturity. Only perhaps in combat is experience so hardly earned. Through the long, long litany of faces I have known, his was the most fragile, the most innocent, the most vulnerable. In life, it earned him the cruel nickname which he bore with pride.
Once, in Stoney caff, I remember him sitting with Kim and Ron and Gill. Company indeed. And making some ill-favoured remark about lazy Aussie climbers. Kim’s acid riposte – “Well, I wouldn’t exactly term all those mega-routes at Arapiles the products of indolence…” He blushed furiously, nodded spasmodically.
If, by his own admission, he lacked talent at climbing, it was elsewhere in abundance. Absence of guile came from a mind which was too open, too questioning, where other, lesser ones were narrow, closed. All the while he was learning the bitter lesson that possession of intellect is more apt to be curse than blessing.
We’d meet out on grit or lime, exchange banter, solo together. I liked his company. Mutual reticence precluded a deeper understanding. This I now regret.
What he did when he wasn’t climbing, I never know. He once said that you could have real fun in the Poly television room. I wondered at that. What kind of life was it where you could have real fun in the Poly television room?
The last time we climbed together was at Stoney. Unfit from exams, I’d gone there to do Kingdom Come, only to discover that the crucial protection bolt was missing.
He offered to clip the peg above the crux. In momentary weakness, I acquiesced. My relief ebbed, then abruptly died as he started to forcefully undercut creaking, unprotected flakes out to the right of the normal route and harder. Suddenly losing the sequence. Twitching and gibbering above the void.
Instinctively I grabbed the ropes to belay him, then realised there was no belay, he’d simply take me with him. As quickly, I let go, before shamefacedly wrapping the ropes around me again. Some things you can’t do.
Above his juddering body lunged, dark against brutal overhangs. Taut fingers scrabbled at the crucial layaway. The harsh click of metal against metal as he clipped the peg. Against all odds, we were still alive.
We finished the route, then drifted down to Rheinstor, in deference to my unfitness, played around on easier routes all afternoon. I never saw him again.
The first accident happened that summer, in Pembroke. A hold broke. He fell, from high up, and hit the ground. They said it wasn’t his fault, it was the sort of accident that could have happened to anyone. Except that it happened to him.
At first he was in a coma. He left hospital with brain damage. An ironic, bitter handicap to such a mind. The childlike prettiness of his face disfigured.
I meant to see him but didn’t, maybe couldn’t. Soon he was climbing again, not well but strong. Four hundred pull-ups a day. Not lazy at all, you see, he was never lazy. But life… what was life? He wanted, they said, to die in the hills.
He did. He died on the Wastad, soloing a pokey, nasty little route that anybody could have failed on. A terrible, searing, bloody landing. No more.
Gail told me, in a back-street pub in Sheffield. One more death in a litany of deaths. But this one, I knew instantly, was the one from which I would never recover. For his face was the most fragile, the most innocent, the most vulnerable. Gently she led me, uncontrollable with grief, out of the pub, past the sniggers and the uncomprehending stares.
His funeral; I’d missed it. But at least others came. For an awful moment, I feared there would have been next to no-one.
They scattered his ashes at Stoney, which truly had been his home. Even now, years later, as I drive along the dale, I glance up, quickly, instinctively, half-expecting to see him bouldering above Windy Ledge. No more.
When they scattered his ashes, a certain notable was bouldering in the bays. Some of the ashes swirled past on the wind, drifted onto a crucial hold. Our notable thus bounced up his problem, ironically commenting, “I always knew the little bugger would be good for something, after all.”
Some people can inspire hatred. This was one such.
So, even after death, ignominy continued. A magazine article blatantly disparaged when there was no need. What further misery may his mother have endured?
But now he is gone. Long gone. The ignominy and the loneliness far behind him. And the soloing… a harsh medium indeed in which to decipher one’s troubled image.
Talent there was in plenty. But talent bloodily uprooted before ever it had a chance to nurture, to bear testimony.
Ashes. Now there are only ashes.
Noddy (Neil Molnar) was a member of the early 1980s Stoney coterie. He was a friend of Jerry Moffatt and is mentioned in Jerry’s autobiography, ‘Revelations’. Although it’s more than 30 years since he died, he’s still remembered.
Micheal Ward: 2016