First Ascent

Posted on: June 1, 2007

[Topo] Jeremy Collins

Where to begin?

Between sea and sky, a white sheet. Two tiny figures on a cliff edge, we're staring across at a huge slab soaring like a headstone out of the zawn, a hidden nave in the seacliffs of Holy Island, North Wales. It's 1968: our first new route.

"Shall we rap?"

Below: screams. A hundred and fifty feet down, the sea is boiling.

"Absolutely," grins Dave. Foam flings in our faces, depth charged. The ground shakes. All around the wind gets up; whip-cracked waves bow, pouring forward, blue-black, exploding against the cliffs.

What on earth are we doing here on a day like this? Waiting for a ship?

We are about to be baptized.

A single crack splits the great slab. We hold on to each other; the wind's so strong I have to raise my voice: "I think it might just be possible to traverse in—Jesus Christ!" A wave, crashing, rising—whitening—covers my face in a wing-beat downpour, drowning out that idea.

By circling the hillside behind the zawn, an hour later we're there, wedged together behind a massive flake. I hear breathing, rhythmic, stentorian, just around the corner. "Your lead," he confirms. My stomach sinks; I step out, creep down a short groove, treading on air, the tail of the rope trailing between my legs.

The sea is not a pretty sight.

Soon, from thin quartz ledges I drive in two chrome-moly pegs, contraband from a recent pilgrimage to El Capitan. Dave descends, clips in, grins.

"I'll just have a look."

Groping mist gives me the shivers. He sees me, on tiptoes and fingertips, about fifteen feet out, peering.

"How is it?"

"It looks...." I'm shrinking into thin air, panting, banging in a peg—a baby angle—up to the eye. I calm down, blowing on my hands in a little, hot cloud, and look around.

There's an arch a yacht might nudge beneath, a needle's eye through which the sea is not sewing but smashing. And there's that cave, where, I've heard, on warm summer days seals sometimes rise from the deep blue sleep, blinking their eyes, I imagine, at the flightless bipeds overhead with their strange calls.

"Dave? Watch me."

The slab soars like a sail, streaked with spray. Overhead herds of clouds migrate, silent, white-rain deer, sheeted ghosts. Paused in a gust, my mind floats... fingering the dips and bumps left by the milling winds and rains, while unknown to me, or Dave, the mother of all waves is having an avalanche: welling, swallowing. In its roar of joy, I can't hear, see—my eyes screwed shut—it's sucking, dragging me off... almost.

Helmet streaming like a bowl of water turned upside down, I emerge spluttering, a prince of slapstick. Dave is pissing himself, the gulls are applauding and the sea is booming like a cannon as the wave dies.

"I'm soaked—slack!"

For twenty feet things are iffy, scrupulous, mute... until I'm able to sprawl a stem and reach into the deep cleavage of the central crack. Where, after consulting with several long slings, I arrange them into a rather spare designer bra and hang out from a couple of ample, pointy jugs. The sea slurps and farts.

"Climb when you're ready."

He's off! A patter, quick foot-switch, hop, skip, sway; weigh-up; high side-step—step—an arse-splitting stretch; feeling for the jugs....

"You flew across! Wow!"

"Not too bad," he said accurately. "Nice lead," while all the time sorting out the gear for the next pitch. Which: "Oh"—relieved, and miffed—I hand him the nuts and pegs. I am clearly not going to be leading.


Ed Drummond and Dave Pearce on the first ascent of A Dream of White Horses, Wen Zawn, Gogarth, Wales, August 1968. [Photo] Leo Dickinson

In his face the leftward forking crack is a smile. He beams, intimately, conspiratorially; as now, forty years later I believe he must have done often, as any good man can, in foreplay with the beloved obstacle and substance of his dreams... until his luck ran out on the same abrupt land's end just a few hundred yards up the coast, thirty years later when a boulder rolled. Dave was a star to many, including me, even after—to my utter astonishment—years later, he jumped his new route, The Cow, over my old one, The Moon.

The sun begins to die down. It dawns on us for the first time that all day is ultimately crematorial light. As the clouds part, rising eagerly to whatever difficulty the crack hands him, popping the occasional nut in its largely open mouth, he leaves it, stemming left into a shallow niche, stopping before the long maze of overhangs—poised like a wave—that may lead us, perhaps, to a great end.

"That's me."

And there I must leave it: at the start of the last pitch. Which is where—if, late in the day you find yourself, staring in disbelief—for me there hung a question. My personal nightmare, falling forever through the cold blue dark deep, which I answer in good faith, threading through the labyrinth, changing again from beast to man, feeling my way into Edens of simple, innocent pleasure to which the climbing life has brought us: millions of wild white horses running toward us in the golden reins of the setting sun, with darkness at their heels.

A Dream of White Horses

Palomino in the morning,

as the sun rose higher they dashed,

manes on fire, pounding their hooves on the rocks.

And smashed—we were climbing—

sank, broken, foaming.... The wind lashed

them back, combing their matted hair,

swollen green sea mares twenty hands high,

surrounded by herds of nervous

blue stallions, snorting and champing,

trampling us under, given the chance.

We stood by—a pitch apart—watching the rein

of our rope that led between the last gray overhang,

redden like a vein in the sinking sun. And breathed again.

Their fire gone, the black horses were drinking,

and we were thinking of a name. Nothing

had been forced. Then the tide turned, they

surged, rearing—manes smoking white—wild horses

running, running in the night toward us.

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