Margins of the Mind:A jovial and intense Alastair Lee of Posing Productions had been texting me for a while now. I knew that soon I would have to answer and be proactive to his proposal. It wasn’t that I was apathetic, just knowing of the time, effort and commitment needed to ‘extra’ in his new film ‘On Sight’. Okay, to be honest, perhaps it was more than that. At my most cynical I was the errant, historical guest, holding the life of the young contender, the trad-lad who would succeed, fail or die attached to me via knots and colours of choice. But I guess there’s more than that. As the first ascensionist, I had been there, in a four-hour negotiation with the rock, virtually on-sight after a quick clean and the curious placing of a sawn-off peg. My musings were not at all a physical response to my experience, my torn fingers told that pain, hell no, but more esoteric and a passionate rage against sport as a betrayal of all I consider to be of sanctity in the landscape. However, Margins was not ‘trad’ or any other label to me but an ingredient of doubt that opened doors to more abundant life and informed my work as an image maker. Hit or miss. Al Hinks guest appeared on his own journey via Pinnacle Arete and took the photo in Welsh Rock, “getting a bit dark youth”.
The concept ‘on sight’ was, in essence, to be applauded in this world of colour coordinated workouts in synthetic prisons, but the reality would surely be a prosaic, commercial enterprise no different to any other that sells style and designer fashion and brave ‘extreme’ sporty stuff to consumers. The deeper, more visionary, alternative consciousness stands by and distills in a much darker place. Beware, it is in danger. It must never be lost to the Oscars! However, I knew of Al’s unequivocal talents, behind, within and beyond the camera, and in a moment of my own, nebulous, daily routine of ‘blackening’ canvas, acquiesce with the man’s movie chi.
It had been twenty-four years ago since my ascent of Margins of the Mind. I had forgotten the moves but my psyche still remembered the reverie of the green world - the bilberry and fern beneath me, breathing with the slimes of grubs, worms and entities unknown and the very real prospect of joining them as a tapestry of skin, vein and bones, torn apart and leaching unguents over the horned-bed-rock that mocked my questioning.
Pause. A soliloquy –
‘I couldn’t find the tiny slot that I remembered from the abseil. It evaded my frantic searching. Surely to the right, shoulder height? Had I passed it? The sawn-off was well below my feet – in fact I couldn’t even see that. What is it with these routes that drift you into unexpected germinations? Is the elusive RP1 placement symbolic of some other, more major loss? It often seems that way, that, in situations like this, there is indeed more to the moment than there appears to be. An allegorical door opens…and the vital vision is not one of RP1 placements…it is of two ropes as two accusing lines, tempting me off onto the gully rocks. Why does the gully beckon? Surely the finishing holds are better placed to aspire to! But no, the moment waits to linger…the gully, its green world just ‘so’, just there…just so…alien to all this…this that I have invented…this warped struggle’. …and one for the crow
Neil Dickson was to attempt an on-sight and I was to hold his ropes. In all those years the route had only seen a top-roped, practiced ascent by cool adventurer Nick Dixon. He thought it ‘nails’. Fine effort but bad move. A route not top-roped on the first ascent should never suffer the defeat of practice. The modern, politic, egalitarian ethics of sports climbing, the physicality of movement on rock and the search for beta and a move to be made is addictive and infectious. I think it exhausts a raw vitality and at most warps our bond with the planet. Welcome to mass-culture, adventure, Red Bull, trophies and souvenirs? Practice makes perfect eh, is my glib response in a perfect world? The Olympics are popular… Hell, accept it. Errrr no.
The day before my ascent of Margins I climbed the second ascent of Master’s Wall (funny enough Jerry, meandering right well below my errant bolt hole) in the new sticky boots without stopping. Dave did the same. Not so in pre-sticky, non-top-rope 1980 on a different project, in a different lifetime, The Tormented Ejaculation.
Neil Dickson...footloose and fancy free on 'Margins'.
…the mental preparation was becoming harder and harder. The so-called psyching-up, a pain beyond reason. Out of the acquaintance grew more and more fear. Gone the initial naiveté that had sparked off this now terrifying enterprise. I knew the score and was unnerved by it… I was sliding from the very start in ‘Canyon boots’. Friction was minimal. I felt insecure. The rubbed-in resin was wearing off. I placed an RP1 whilst dangerously pumped. I clipped in and was about to place a No 2 when I was off. The RP ripped and I fell a long way down the wall (Cartwheeling 70 feet by all accounts). A tiny stopper held! Keith was momentarily stunned then calmly stated, “Oh, you’re still alive… well, you’d better climb back up.” His amazing insouciance was contagious. I climbed back up…’ …and one for the crow
I had never envied anyone holding ropes. I preferred the sharp deal…thrusting the weapon in the right direction, and closing the gap…to an unknown dialogue of doubt, knowing how absurd is the effort of order and routine. Focus was never my strong point but the sharp deal enforced it.
I met Neil, a smiling, nonchalant, gangly youth and an enthusiastic Al in the sulphurous-hell of Snowdon Mountain Railway station in ‘Beris. Neil looked like a normal lad in his final year of a degree in economics, or a scout leader applying for his first mortgage… and I accepted that the looks and demeanour of a respected, ‘top trad climber’ of the day may be deceiving to me. I caught myself thinking, here is a nice lad, why is that so odd? Why shouldn’t he be? Indeed, something had shifted. Al is psyched like a hungry vulture for his new outdoor extremextravaganzadventure.
The wild and the innocent
“Will we fuck take the tourist train”, was my regrettable exclamation as we burdened ourselves upwards with Al’s trade tools. Twenty-four years ago, as I desperately clung on in search of an RP1 placement, Neil had not yet been born. As if from a surreal sketch I asked him where he had been born. Llandudno he answered. I rambled on about what a great scene Llandudno had been in the eighties, how Williams and Pollitt et al had unleashed a pagan sexuality toll upon the Marine Drive toll and the Parisella ice cream family in particular nailed hard, and how bars and pubs and bouldering caves became sites of Dionysian worship.
“Yeah”, he surprisingly remarked, “My Mum, Anne, used to hang around The Bearded Clam bar in Llandudno.”
“Anne?” I said. “I briefly went out with an Anne and regularly went into Pigeon Hole Cave with her at low tide, looking for holes in pebbles that would become indented into her buttocks like a mold”.
Al gasped, “fucking hell JR, too much info man.”
I asked if she had blond hair and had been about twenty-five? We all stopped on the track, sweating under heavy loads like donkey’s awaiting a good kicking.
“Fuck, yeah”, he exclaimed!
“Fuck, Neil, I could be your Dad”! At this point, Al dropped his baggage and collapsed on all fours in hysterics, “What the fuck, fuck the film, I’ve forgotten the bit on the way up where we stopped and took acid! Low fucking tide dudes!” I gave Neil a knowing Fatherly look, checked out his eyes and embraced him, “I am your father and will hold your ropes.”
“Not too sure I can do this”, sighed Neil smiling.
Hello again old friend. This time tied-in, wrapped tight-close to the fecund energies with which I had dialogue with on my ascent… like bowing before the trap, that which questioned what the hell I was doing there.
“…I am angry, green fucks, I need to know”
“You know that beauty would take your ribs for nest material, and these raw granite hills would take your eye sockets to sprout future growth…”
“I am here because there is no place left”
“Dying must your species be” …and one for the crow
Neil was a stranger to me but the two-stranded umbilical bond of cobalt and vermilion that connected us across the span of granite, the mythical Final Judgement Wall, was as ancient as the love between Paleolithic hunters, spanning eras, closing the gap on the prey. The climb is serious immediately and Neil was slow and methodical in approach. He worked his way up strongly to a psychological impasse, climbing up and down to his own meaningful dialogue. He almost came unstuck with a snappy, but like a cat bouncing off an invisible wall, found himself back on the rock. I offered helpful advice like, ‘yeah, just keep going up, don’t look down, somewhere there’s a reach then keep going to the belay’. After about four hours his fingers were bleeding and enough was enough. The wall, as the great stone tool, was laid down to rest. I was relieved to be back with slack ropes, playing with the colours like Jackson Pollock, but without being filmed. Belaying on this terrain was intense. Every inch, in and out of the sticht-plate was crucial. The slack, the tension, the breathing between bodies, the colour coordination, the reading and timing of moves and the preparedness for a slip, all in sync to Neil’s specific character of movement. It’s a rap for the day.
I was persuaded to return after a month. Al wanted his film. Neil wanted his on-sight. I wanted to paint - from the sounds I had recorded at Montsegur, the last stronghold of the Cathari, the heretics, who were persecuted by the Catholics during the Albigensian crusade; where the last remaining initiates walked silently into the flames…letting go of their ‘book of love’ into a book of lore…
Neil succeeded after another four hours of negotiation. Al succeeded in producing his film. I succeeded in holding my ‘seed’. (sic)
Six years later, again on-sight, the extremely bold and reticent Caff, thrusting his own weapon, met with the same shapes, in the same place and was lucky not to fall, as the wall, again, laid down its great, stone tool. He returned in trainers to check it out but his prey had been wounded. Only Caff himself knows what his subsequent ascent means…with the earth, the stones, his breath. For certain, these super-technical ‘heads’ have more to battle with than just the rock. Their focus and commitment is incomprehensible to me. In the anti-institutional spirit of Edward Abbey, I feel like indulging in a graffiti campaign, just to push some dirt back into the outdoor environment.
For me, adventure starts in a dark seedy studio… surely having a laugh!
John Redhead: 2019
Photos: Alastair Lee
St Laurent de Cerdans, Catalunya Nord.